Setting Up A Cutting Edge Smart Home in 2019

Living a digital life

We will be starting a new section here at Wearesuperiormen.com called Living a Digital Life. Our goal here is to demonstrate some of the many benefits and the many downfalls of our modern digital world. The topic I chose to start it all off with is the smart home. There are so many benefits to a smart home, but with serious privacy concerns, you need a plan to get it done right.

I’m all about efficiency, maintaining productivity, and some new fun gadgets. I usually am an early adopter of new technology, and I love new toys. I’ll outline some of my favorites below and maybe drop a word or two of wisdom along the way.

Environment/Hub

I have the most controversial and divisive topic right up front, and it’s something you need to decide right off the bat because it will determine which products you purchase down the road. 

What I’m talking about here is Google vs. Amazon vs. Apple.

Let the showdown begin. 

In my book, there are two main contenders here and they are Google and Amazon. Personally, I started with Amazon products (the Echo and the Echo Tap). As I said earlier I’m an early adopter of new technologies and the Echo was the first one to hit the market. From the beginning, my wife and Alexa (Amazon’s assistant name) didn’t get along. Alexa couldn’t understand my wife very well so my wife just gave up, in fact, the only thing Alexa could understand was when my wife yelled or cursed.  I personally found the “skills” very limiting, and you have to speak unnaturally in order for things to work correctly. That being said I still have the Tap device but my only use for it is a reader for my audible books, and for that I love it.

Where I recommend people starting out is in the Google environment. Their smart speakers such as the Google Home Mini and the Google Home, as well as their smart display, the Nest Hub. Talking to the google assistant embedded in these devices is natural and allows you control of a multitude of other devices in your house with just your voice.

Privacy concerns: 

These devices, second only to video cameras, have very serious privacy concerns. Both Amazon and Google have an easy toggle switch to turn the microphone off, but doing so will eliminate the ease in which the device operates. For this reason, I have my Amazon Tap set to manual activation, and my google devices set to automatic. This way I only have to manage my recording in one location. If you want to see what Google has recorded of you, check it out here. If you’d like to delete it, Delete your google history here.

Security

Before you even think about getting additional smart home technology, you NEED to be sure you have your passwords in order. The general rule for passwords is to make them complex enough, and don’t reuse them across multiple sites. Easier said than done for sure. But as I see it there are really only two good options, either come up with a formula for creating a unique password at each site/service or use a password manager service such as LastPass or 1Password. Let’s dive into each option:

Manual Password Creation

This method, as suggested by some IT nerd friends of mine, involves finding a formula and applying it to every site, even though each password will be different. Say the formula is a favorite song lyric, or something else non-specific to you. The song lyric you like is part of Parkway Drive – Boneyards.

Take all the sentiments

Of a cold blooded cynic

So believe me when I say,

I would love nothing more.

Grab a random 8 or so words and use the first letter of each word.

TatsOacbc

Not bad, but for most places we need a number and a special character, for example, I’ll put a 4$

TatsOacbc4$

Pretty strong password right there, but now we need to identify the website it belongs to

Let’s say your formula uses the first two letters of the site “Gm”, and the “.c” part of the “.com” 

For Gmail.com we use “Gm.c” and the password would look something like this:

TatsOacbc4$Gm.c

Now that is a super strong password and one that you could remember even though it is quite long. You can check out the strength of your passwords here.

Password Management Service

I personally am very biased here, because its a pain in the ass to keep up with all of your passwords. I use LastPass and I am very happy with them, although I know many people who use 1Password and are equally happy. The Idea is you come up with just one long super-complicated password. And you use that to unlock your vault where all of your other passwords are located. There are also browser extensions and smartphone apps that fill in the password for you. They can also generate a random complex password for you to use on sites. I’m in the process of going through each of my sites and changing the username and password to each, which is a long task. Overall I suggest trying them out.

2 Factor Authentication (2FA)

I use this wherever I can, on any site that offers it. What 2FA is, is a second layer after the password. There are methods such as a USB key you enter into the computer, or my favorite, the google authenticator app. This app generates a 6 digit code that changes every 30 seconds. It’s fantastic and a little bit of a pain in the ass, but it absolutely helps prevent unwanted intruders.

Updates

This is the last security bit I’ll talk about. Keep all of your devices updated by the manufacturers. When possible turn on automatic updates. Most vulnerabilities come from old software and unpatched holes. Seriously dude, update your shit.

The Smart Home

Router

Think of the router as the backbone of your network. It’s where all of your devices connect, and it also provides the signal to reach across your property. You probably received a very generic router from your Internet Service Provider(ISP). Odds are this is a wireless router and most of you are using them at your house. The problem is, they usually suck. Even in my modest home, I had many dead spots where I could get no signal. Sure, you can use a wifi extender, but without getting into all of the technical details, it makes your network much slower. So what’s the best solution?

So to solve the potential security and coverage issues, incomes mesh network routers. These work by providing the wifi for your house and plug in directly to your existing router. For this task, I chose the “Google Wifi” product. You can have between 1 and 5 hubs throughout the house so your coverage is great. Additionally, the interface is through an app on the phone and works seamlessly. There are other mesh network routers out there made by TP-Link and Netgear. All of them seem to have a similar price point, so I’d get the one based on the brand you prefer.

Privacy concerns: 

The router is the main digital port of entry int your house. You want to make sure your router is as robust as it can be. Also, take my advice on a complicated password as I mentioned above. Yea its a pain in the ass but it might just save it too.

Smart Thermostat

The smart thermostat was one of the biggest no brainer smart home add-ons for me. Living in southern California where energy costs are at a premium, being able to set and change your thermostat from your phone and have auto-learning schedules is a must. Additionally, many utilities offer rebates when you purchase and install a smart thermostat. For my local utilities, I got almost 75% of the purchase price back.

I stayed within the Google Ecosystem for my thermostat, purchasing the Nest Thermostat. Overall it has been fantastic, and it is my wife’s favorite smart gadget. It has clean lines and is easy to use, easy to see the settings at a glance. There are others made by Ecobee, Honeywell, and others. For me, it made sense to stay within the Google system because of the integration within their products. If you go with Amazon environment you might want to lean toward the Honeywell.

Privacy concerns: 

No significant privacy concerns with the thermostat.

Smart doorway

I am a huge fan of smart doorbells, and this is probably my favorite smart home gadget. The first doorbell I tried was the 1st generation Ring Doorbell, and since then I’ve moved onto the Nest Hello Doorbell due to its integration with the Google Hubs that I use. Since Amazon purchased Ring last year, those products integrate with the Amazon ecosystem much better. One of the main reasons I purchased the Nest doorbell is that whenever anyone rings the doorbell all of my Google Home devices announce the ring, and my video screens display who’s there. This is very helpful when I’m working in my office and can’t (or don’t want to) come to the door.

The other component of the doorway is a Smart Lock. I purchased the “Nest X Yale Lock”. Horrible name, great product. I can unlock the door via my Nest App or via a number combination. Another great use is that you can let anyone you choose have a combination and then you control what days/times they have access. Or since it’s through the same app as the doorbell I can click unlock right when I answer the door. Of course, assuming I want to let them in. And last, if I forget to lock the door, it will automatically lock when I leave my house.

Privacy concerns: 

Can be significant due to having access to your house. However, the fail-safes in the product don’t allow you to inadvertently unlock it. Make sure to buy a reputable brand and one that knows how to make good locks.

Home Alarm systems

You might say home alarms aren’t part of a smart home, and I’d agree if you are thinking of the alarms of a decade ago. Today’s alarms are cheaper, don’t require maintenance contracts, and give you a much better piece of mind. The alarm system is one of the 2 places I moved away from the Google ecosystem’s Nest alarm here, and I bought the Ring alarm. The biggest reason was the price tag. Ring Alarm was less than half the purchase price and about half the cost for monthly monitoring. However, there are some very cool features on the Nest that aren’t available in the Ring system, such as a key fob, automatic arming, etc. At some point, I may move to the Nest system, but the cost has gotta come way down first. I have also heard really good things about SimpliSafe, I just haven’t tried them out yet.

Privacy concerns:

Buy a reputable alarm, from someone you trust. That’s the biggest takeaway here. An alarm has a very simple purpose, to notify the good guys when the bad guys come in.

Television

If you have a smart tv you are already ahead of the game. But what if you don’t have a smart tv, or you don’t like the smart tv interface? In comes some fun gadgets for your tv. I personally own several Chromecasts and a Roku. They, however, are not very similar, which is why I have both the Roku and the Chromecast attached to the TV. Think of the Chromecast as your way to cast things from your phone to the tv, such as pictures or movies, etc. You can also use your smart speaker to play things on your TV. The Roku is basically a Cable box where you don’t have to interact with your phone at all. You can access your streaming services such as Netflix, or HBO NOW or whatever. The Amazon Fire Stick works much the same way as a Roku. Also what should be included here is the Apple TV. Since I’m not in the Apple Ecosystem at all, this one is easy for me to avoid, combine that with its very high price tag and I think you’ll agree, a Roku or an Amazon Fire Stick will do just fine.

Privacy concerns: 

Be careful with some of the Smart Tv sets, especially the cheaper ones. In order to offset their costs they are selling your viewing habits to advertisers and marketers. Your TV might just be watching you.

Lights

Smart lights are one of the most fun things in the house. I enjoy automation in my life as much as possible, and smart lights allow that. I have installed in my house Hue lights. They definitely are not cheap, however, they allow a lot of flexibility. I have the ability to modify all the lights by room, time of day schedule, or anytime via my app. I also have some fun integrations with the lights that make parenting so much easier, buts that’s another article for another day. In conjunction with smart lights, I also use smart plugs from Wemo. In a very similar way, you can schedule or on demand change them via the app. There are also other smart light brands such as Lifx+, Xiaomi, and Wyze. Each with their own pluses and minuses. 

Privacy concerns: 

Very few privacy or security concerns with smart lights. Even if someone had access and compromised your password, they would only be able to control your lights, or possibly view your current lights status/history.

Cameras

This one is a double-edged sword for sure. This is also where I have not stayed into one ecosystem. I first purchased the Ring Floodlight Cam, and it’s absolutely fantastic. In fact, I plan on purchasing at least 2 more. It looks just like a regular motion sensor light, and operates that way as well, except it also has a camera. If it wasn’t for the floodlight cam, I would have switched to Nest completely. As I stated above I have the Nest Hello Doorbell, but this functions as an always-on camera for my entryway as well. Last, I have Wyze Cameras inside of my house. I enjoy having these because they allow for local recording via an SD card. I can also have events uploaded to the AWS cloud and held for 2 weeks if I wish. All for free.

Privacy concerns: 

Potentially very significant privacy concerns with cameras. As is evident with the recent Ring video data breach. If you don’t have control of the data, you are not completely sure who has access. I’m ok with this tradeoff on cameras outside of my house, but not inside.

Actions

The Actions I’m referring to here are usually connected to the Hubs discussed above. There are two main players here, Google’s assistant devices and Amazon’s Alexa devices. Both Google and Amazon have assistants you can use on your smartphone. Both have screens that you can view information on. Both have smart speakers with their assistants built in.  Both don’t get along with each other.

No matter which mobile phone you have, the biggest decision will be to decide which environment you want to be in, Apple or Google. With only one exception, I’m fully in the Google environment and all my products interact well with each other. 

Since I’m in the Google ecosystem, when someone rings my doorbell, my google home devices across the house announce that someone is at the door. My home devices with screens display the image, and finally, my phone pushes a notification that someone is there. With any of the devices, I can answer the door, as well as unlock it, and turn the lights on. The only peice I’m personally missing is to turn the alarm off staying in the same app. Since I have the Ring alarm, I need to open another app first if I want to allow anyone inside.

Privacy concerns: 

Both Google and Amazon store your recordings when you ask their assistants to do something. As stated above, you should regularly go through and delete these recordings.

Outside

This is a small section, as this is an emerging part of the smart home market. Since I live in Southern California, water is at a premium. Having a smart irrigation system is the way to go. I tell the app my zip code, it downloads very detailed weather and it’s ready to go. You can dial in advanced features such as the type of sprinklers and size of the zones, etc. But if there is rain, it limits or eliminates the watering, if it is an extra hot day, it will do extra watering. For this, I chose the Rain Machine brand. There are several out there including Rachio and Orbit.

If your water bill costs more than your gasoline bill, you should absolutely invest in one of these.

Privacy concerns: 

I don’t see any potential privacy concerns for watering your lawn.

Misc

IFTTT

The last section I have dedicated to a wonderful app called IFTTT (If This Then That). It allows for logic statements to be built using  “triggers” and “actions”. The actions and triggers can be some of your smart gadgets in your home. For example, Every evening at 730, all the lights in my house blink so the children know it is their bedtime. This was a game changer in parenting. Training you kids like Pavlov’s dog. I have a few dozen connections with IFTTT and allow me to streamline my life in general.

Privacy concerns: 

I see The privacy concern with IFTTT also very low. My account is secured with a strong password as well as 2FA, and the integration information that is shared is very minimal.

Overall

Smart home gadgets can be very fun, a great time saver, and automation maker in your life. If done right, you will greatly enjoy them. If done wrong it will be miserable. Is there something I missed? Contact me at [email protected]

Thank’s for reading, and as always

Stay Superior!


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Matt
Matt is a husband, a father, an avid motorcycle rider, and an all around awesome guy.

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