The best smart home products on the market for 2019 / 2020

ZIGBEE (PHILIPS HUE AND SAMSUNG SMARTTHINGS COMPATIBLE EQUIPMENT)

The cheapest Zigbee enabled bulbs you can get are from Ikea, they do work directly with Philips Hue and Smartthings and of course their own hub, so they’re totally open and as cheap as you’ll probably find.

  
Aside from the terrible software the hardware itself is amazing for the price.  They also do zigbee plug sockets which will work with Philips Hue and Smartthings hubs.  They do various sensors and remotes too, but I think they only work with Ikea’s own hub and bulbs.


Ikea bulb

Ikea bulb and remote 

Ikea hub (if you don’t already have Philips Hue or Smartthings)

CHEAP SMART HOME OPTIONS (Broadlink RM Pro)

I recommend a Broadlink RM pro with “GLS Touch” RF switches.  This video will walk you through how that works, though the switch in the review I’m using is a Zemismart switch.  The only reason I am recommending GLS touch instead of Zemismart is they do double switches and Zemismart don’t to my knowledge.  If you don’t need a double switch then the Zemismart is my current favourite.


The RM pro will also control cheap RF plug sockets too, but they’re a bit ugly as they stick out of the wall, you also have to be careful that you don’t get 2 packs of the same socket as a lot of them code the sockets up with the same frequencies meaning that you’ll get 2 sockets that both go on or off with each command, if that makes sense.  Best to buy packs of 4 or 5 from different manufacturers.


Broadlink’s advantages other than price is that all RF devices come with a remote so if all else fails you’ve still got the ability to switch stuff on and off manually.  RF devices are super cheap and you aren’t reliant on one provider.  It will also control Infrared devices like your TV and set top box, this video explains that… so there is a fairly good reason to buy one of these things anyway!

SLIGHTLY MORE EXPENSIVE SMART HOME OPTIONS:Energenie Mi-Home.

They do light switches which you can buy here and plug sockets which you can buy here.  You need their gateway to control them but that comes with the light switch I’ve linked you to.  They’re quite plain looking, but they’re fully smart which means you can do things like dim the light by percentage with Alexa (which the RM pro can’t do).  Their starter kit comes with a standard remote for controlling sockets and switches too.

 
Some people might prefer this option over the RM pro as they want the built in plug sockets and mains light switches that are made by a reputable firm.  Most RF switches that are controllable via Broadlink are cheap Chinese stuff, which in my opinion is perfectly secure, but I know some people are heavily concerned about the media’s coverage of privacy and security when dealing with servers abroad.  Energenie are a reasonably reliable option but do suffer the occasional outage.  You can see my review here

VERY EXPENSIVE SMART HOME OPTIONS:Lightwave RF. 

It’s sooooo expensive, but it’s utterly beautiful, you can buy it here, it’s only real advantage over Energenie is that their switches can be used as a trigger for IFTTT which for me is a big deal as it means I can switch my mains lights on and also have my TV power up via the Broadlink RM pro, or have the kettle boil, or get it to text my missus, or basically anything you can think of.

Check out my review and demo of all of that stuff happening here
Lightwave RF’s main advantage is its reliability, it’s look and it’s functionality.  It does a little more than the Energenie, and it’s an everything under one roof solution. 

Those guys will also come to your house and advise you before you purchase too!  The only thing it doesn’t do is send Infrared which is where the RM pro or Harmony hub would come into play.


For built in plug sockets, light wave RF do that too, but it will get real expensive depending how many sockets you wanted to replace!  You might be better off with some Wifi sockets like these which I’ve been really impressed with.

A WORD OF WARNING

Lightwave RF and Energenie both do Gen1 and Gen2 products, and both are still being sold!  If you buy a Gen1 hub you can’t control Gen2 products and vice versa so you need to be REALLY careful that you’re buying compatible equipment.


ALL IN ONE SOLUTIONS

These things never quite manage it all, but profess to be able to control Philips Hue products without a Hue hub, among other things.  


I have reviewed Homey recently and it is horribly expensive and due to a bunch of weird development decisions hasn’t successfully managed to replace any of my hubs.  It has helped unite them under one interface, but that’s about it.  It’s nice having just one piece of software to manage my smart home but there are other ways of achieving this for a lot less money.  Check out my review here


I have also reviewed the hubitat.  It’s claims are less lofty, and it only professes to control Zigbee and Zwave stuff natively (and it does a better job of it for the most part), but can also unite all the other hubs under one interface in just the same way as Homey does but for a lot less money.  It’s far more customisable but a lot more nerdy and awkward for beginners.  You can see that review here


IN SUMMARY

If I was starting over tomorrow and on a budget I would probably buy a hubitat for controlling Zigbee and Zwave stuff, and an Android set top box (probably the Nvidia shield as I like to do a bit of gaming) to act as a bridge to the RM pro which I would use to control RF and Infrared devices. 

I would buy RF plug sockets and light switches as they are the cheapest option and use the hubitat to tell the droid to tell the RM pro to switch those on and off, and buy some cheap zigbee sensors (door sensors, motion sensors, and buttons) from China to connect to the the hubitat to trigger scenes.  Zigbee LED strips can be bought cheaply from China too and be controlled via the Hubitat. 

I would be tempted to fit the Cheap Wifi plug sockets in places where they were on display
I would probably go for Alexa over Google Home as the Broadlink skill for changing TV channels works properly and doesn’t work so well on Google Home.  I’m a big fan of music and the echo dot has a nice sound for a kitchen speaker, for a living room though I would buy an echo dot but output it to a proper sound system.


All links to these products are in the descriptions for each video and if you you purchase through my links then I will get a cut of the money through Amazon’s affiliate platform at no additional cost to you. 🙂

A Beginners Guide To The Smart Home

Zigbee versus Zwave Versus Wif Versus RF versus Infrared (IR)
There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to which protocol to go for.  Zigbee, Zwave, Wifi or RF.  It really depends on what you consider to be most important, and inevitably you’ll find yourself buying more than one hub to fill a gap left by the other:  

‘Protocols’ are all just wireless communication methods to allow two or more devices to talk to each other.  It’s kind of like how you can tune a radio to different frequencies to listen to different radio stations, and just like a radio has AM and FM there are wireless protocols on different frequency bands.  The main protocols are as follows:


1. Wifi: This protocol is the same one that your mobile phone uses to talk to your router.  It’s great for home automation as devices can communicate with each other fully e.g. a switch can turn a bulb on, and the bulb can tell the switch it was successful, you could query the bulb to ask what brightness level it is at, or ask your Wifi camera if it is recording.


Advantages: No hub required as your router does all the work, easiest solution to implement, and is a good all rounder for cheapness and reliability


Disadvantages: Too many devices will eventually cause a standard Wifi router to struggle to cope with the amount of traffic and you may need to upgrade your router if you buy A LOT of devices.  Because there’s no hub it is reliant on a working Internet connection and a server on the Internet (usually in China) to operate.  People worry about their Internet going down, or the Chinese company going bust rendering all their Smart Home equipment useless.  Some people worry about privacy and security, but their concerns are largely theoretical and mostly unfounded.

Wifi devices don’t require a hub, but rely on a server on the Internet


2. RF:  Operates on 433Mhz or 315Mhz depending on what country you are in and communication is one way (The switch can turn the bulb off but the bulb isn’t intelligent enough to reply to say it was successful)  The Broadlink RM pro is probably the best hub in this category as it supports almost any RF device, whereas much of it’s competition will only control certain RF devices.

Advantages: RF devices tend to be one of the cheapest options because of the 1 way communication and it is fairly reliable as long as your devices aren’t too far away from the hub.  

Disadvantages:  1 way communication only; This can cause issues if you want  for example a touch screen panel that will tell you what is and isn’t turned on as there’s no way to ask the devices.  Similarly if you turn a light off in another room but the frequency didn’t reach then there is no way to know if it worked without going to the room to check.  Similar to Wifi most of these solutions (but not all) will rely on an Internet connection and a server in China; for example Broadlink requires a server in China, but LightwaveRF works locally without an Internet connection.  That said the Broadlink RM Pro can be controlled without an Internet connection if you have a permanently powered Android device to act as a bridge.

The Broadlink RM pro is still the king of RF control


3. Zigbee: Is just like RF but on a different frequency band but has the advantage that just like Wifi the communication is 2 way, so the bulbs and other devices can reply to say “I’m on” or “I’m off”, or even “I am at 50% brightness”.  Ikea is a really good option for Zigbee because it’s insanely cheap (at least as cheap as Zigbee gets), once you get past the poor setup process it’s a great product and easy to use.

Advantages: Reliable and works without Internet, it is renowned as being secure and private and so it tends to be the protocol of choice for enthusiasts.  My personal opinion is that it’s great, but overrated.  

Disadvantages: It’s far more expensive to buy the bulbs and other devices than Wifi or RF, and it always requires a hub such as Philip’s Hue or Samsung Smartthings.  Probably it’s worst failing in my opinion though is that you have to move the devices very close to the hub to pair them which can be a pain if the hub is in the living room and you’re trying to pair a curtain rail in the bedroom. I once had to put my Philips Hue hub on an extension reel, and a VERY long Ethernet cable and dangle it out of my upstairs window in order to pair it with my outside LED strip!!

Zigbee is a growing market and focuses on Privacy and security, but comes at a price

4. Z-Wave: Basically identical to Zigbee; they are rivals similar to Betamax and VHS.  There are less Zwave hubs around compared to Zigbee so the choices are more limited, but smartthings does both Zigbee and Zwave which makes it a really good choice if you’re thinking of going down the enthusiast route.  There are also more complicated enthusiast products that do both in the form of Hubitat’s elevation product and Athom’s Homey product.

Advantages: Same as Zigbee

Disadvantages: Same as Zigbee

Hubitat and Homey aim to control both Zwave and Zigbee protocols under one roof


5. Infrared: This is the protocol your old school TV remote uses to talk to your TV. 

Advantages: Very cheap and has been used in most TV’s and set top boxes for years.  Having an Infrared sending device in your home automation setup allows you to control TV’s and Set top boxes, and old LED strips.  The Broadlink RM pro will actually give you BOTH Infrared and RF control, so well worth considering even if you chose Zigbee as your main hub.

Disadvantages: It is only ‘one way’ the same as RF is and relies on line of sight (if you cover your TV’s infrared receiver your remote can no longer control the TV)  Infrared smart home devices are the same and are therefore the very cheapest option.

Broadlink’s Blackbean and RM pro can both control Infrared devices such as your TV and Set top boxes and for very little money!

Which Smart Home Hub should I get?:
Most devices and hubs come with an antenna capable of only 1 or 2 of the above lines of communication, though device manufacturers are starting to capitalise on this gap in the market by producing hubs with both Zigbee and Zwave antennas in them, and some really expensive hubs are finally being released that contain 3 or 4 different antennas to control almost any product.  Homey is one such product that does Zigbee, Zwave, RF, and Infrared to varying degrees of success.

The problem with buying from different suppliers:
The problem is if you buy a few wifi devices, a zigbee hub and a Broadlink RM pro to control RF then you will have 3 separate apps to control it all.  Smartthings does a very good job of controlling a lot of 3rd party equipment via their app so some of that can be worked around, but sadly not Tuya Wifi (The most popular Wifi Smart Home device manufacturer), and I think it’s also really awkward to get Broadlink to work via Smartthings app too.

  
IFTTT will help with both Broadlink and Tuya as all three companies have IFTTT support which will tie them together over the Internet.  IFTTT is a 3rd party company that allows manufacturers to connect their products to it to allow different suppliers products to talk to one another.  It is an awesome way to plug gaps in your smart home, but does of course rely on the Internet connection to work.  Ultimately there’s no perfect solution, but I did come up with one idea to get all smart home solutions on one touch screen and that is this

Conclusion
It is inevitable that you will buy from more than one company, because there isn’t one company that will solve all of your problems.  As nice as it is to have everything in one place it also means you have all your eggs in one basket.  I personally have Zigbee solutions, Wifi solutions, RF solutions and more than one Infrared controller and all from various companies.  They’re tied together for Voice by Alexa and Google Home, and for a touch panel I recommend either the above linked method, or a Homey hub for beginners or a Hubitat for more seasoned automaters.


If you want to have lights come on when doors are opened or motion is detected, or have your fish tank regulate itself then Smartthings, Homey and Hubitat will all listen to a number of Zigbee sensors and act accordingly.  If you’re looking for a cheaper less complex way to achieve things then Tuya based Wifi devices and sensors are the way forwards, you just have to remember they are reliant on a constant Internet connection and a server in China.

A complete guide to connecting the Broadlink RM pro and Broadlink Blackbean to Alexa

This is a fairly complete guide to connecting the RM pro to Alexa and Google Home.

 

To understand this complicated mess you’ll need some History:

Broadlink took so long to create an official skill that a 3rd party developer created their own trick to make it work by using an Android device to advertise the devices to Alexa.  The software that makes this work is called the RM plugin and it still works today if you have an older version of the RM pro (RM2+ and backwards).  In my opinion this is still the most versatile way to control the RM pro as it opens up other opportunities for automation.

Later on Broadlink decided to have their own go at Alexa control and created an official skill, but they only released it in America.  They also made it so it could only control Infrared devices such as TV’s and set top boxes, it can’t control RF.

 

I was told of a way of tricking Amazon into thinking I was in America so I could use the official skill, and from there I came up with a way of tricking the Broadlink into controlling RF devices (Light switches, plug sockets etc)

 

There is now even more confusion because Broadlink recently came up with a way to stop my trick and as of today the official skill can only control Infrared again.  Their block only works on the more recent RM pros though so now everyone is trying to find an old one and everyone is super confused about what works and what doesn’t.

 

Thanks Broadlink!

To make it even MORE confusing the latest RM pros do not work with the original Android method either because the RM plugin software can’t detect the new devices.

 

If you’re in the UK and your RM pro is a recent model then your only real option is to wait for them to release the official skill in your country (February 2018 they reckon) and hope that they’ve included RF support (no date specified yet)

 

How to tell what version of the RM pro you have
The RM plugin is the only reliable way of knowing what version of the RM pro you have, if it can’t detect it at all then you probably have the RM pro+ and you’re stuck waiting for Broadlink.  If it can detect it then it will tell you what model you have and you may have a way forward with the original method at least, though it may require a firmware change on the RM pro to enable the RM plugin to control it.  A simple procedure, but choose the wrong firmware and you will brick the device!  Check the FAQ section of the RM plugin and it will advise what firmware to install and how to install it.

 

What about Google Home?
If you have Google home then the official Broadlink service for Google home can control RF but not IR, so it has the opposite problem to Alexa!  There is a way to trick it to control IR however, so Google home is actually the best way to control the RM pro at present!
 
See the links below for guides on each aspect of this sordid mess:

 

How to control the RM pro using an Android device (RM pro 2+ and ealier only): youtu.be/DJIhEyMQ0TI

 

How to trick Amazon into thinking you live in the US (Not suitable if you use Amazon music or Kindle as it breaks them, but is reversible and causes no lasting damage): youtu.be/dO5rExW-7I8

 

How to use the official skill to control RF if you’re in the US (or at least pretending) (RM pro 2+ and earlier only): youtu.be/Lg4HQhN5KXo

 

How Broadlink broke everything on purposeyoutu.be/FWRrQ-_uwEs

 

How to control RF with Google homeyoutu.be/RoJHFzh971U

 

Which models are affected and how are they affected?:
MODELS ARE AFFECTED AS FOLLOWS:
RM2 : Unaffected
RM2+ : Does not work with the ‘official skill work around’ but does work with RM plugin method (requires firmware change)
RM03 : does not work with either method
RM PRO+ : does not work with either method
Drawbacks of each method:
Official skill

 

  • If you convince Alexa you live in the states then Amazon music and the Kindle book store won’t work.  They are the only two drawbacks and can easily be reversed by simply undoing the trick.
  • The official skill will allow you to control TV’s and that’s about it.  In order to control RF devices like plug sockets and light switches you can trick the Broadlink skill by using this video: youtu.be/Lg4HQhN5KXo
Android method
  • It requires an always on Android device
Benefits of each method:
Official skill
  • Doesn’t require an Android device
Android method
  • Less of a hack, Amazon music and Kindle still work
  • Allows you to do more with the android device as a remote for people who don’t want to use Alexa: youtu.be/GxpG8G21was
  • Allows for more automation such as tasker and IFTTT control

Once you’ve chosen and implemented a method, and started having some fun with it you will want to look at creating custom commands so you can say more than just “on” and “off”, i.e. “Alexa, it’s time to go to sleep” might trigger all the lights off at once.  This video will show you how to do that: youtu.be/yaxIaPPRXt

Current bugs and the fixes! :
  • When trying to enable the Philips Hue skill in the Alexa app you may be asked to press the button on  the bridge before it will enable! If you don’t have a bridge you can’t, but never fear just login with my details below instead and the skill will skip the button press 😉
Password: testbed1

 

Where can I buy an older model?

You can’t 🙁  You can never be certain that the seller won’t assume you want the latest model.  The safest thing you can do is wait for all this to blow over.  If you want to try anyway then I suggest you ask the seller directly and explain your motivations.  Ask if he has any old stock he’s looking to get rid of.

My video has caused some confusion and people are looking for a red base RM pro.  My red base is simply because my RM pro is ancient and came from a very brief time frame before they changed the design to black and repurposed the red base for the RM home which can’t do RF!  You will not find a red based RM pro!  If you find a red based design it will more likely be the old RM Home, and YOU DO NOT WANT THAT!!!  Do not buy a red base RM pro, you will be disappointed.

Watch me rant like a maniac

Buy me a beer!

Donate to the channel: paypal.me/PaulHibbert
Become a monthly contributor on Patreon: www.patreon.com/paulhibbert

 

Hope that helps.
-P

RM pro versus Harmony hub

Intro

I’ve been asked a few times now by subscribers whether the Harmony hub is really worth it when it comes to voice automation with Alexa, so here’s my two cents.

 

Harmony Hub


Logitech are big players and there’s no denying that there is some security in that.  Your gear is going to be reliable and Amazon are less likely to suddenly put the kybosh on your experience than they might with a little known gadget from China.

The Harmony hub is a nicely packaged product with some beautiful craftsmanship, so the real question is whether or not you can afford the price tag and whether or not you’re happy to live with a device that despite it’s good looks can only really blast Infrared.

Perhaps right now you’re perfectly happy just controlling the TV and your set top box, but if you hang around me for long enough you’ll probably catch the bug and wish you could ask Alexa to trigger “cinema mode” and watch her dim the lights.

RM Pro

So this is where my preferred device comes into play: the RM pro.  

The RM pro can blast both infrared and RF and will currently set you back just £30 on Amazon, which is a 3rd of the price tag of the cheapest Harmony hub.

There is one small snag; the RM pro is not natively controllable via Alexa…  BUT there is a hack that will take just 20 minutes of effort and a spare Android device.  It is an amazingly reliable solution and it’s really satisfying to feel like you cheated Logitech out of £70.  You can see my easy to follow tutorial here

Controlling Infrared and RF in one handy package means you can create scenes such as “Cinema mode” which can dim the lights, draw the curtains, turn your TV to the right source, power up your Blu ray player, turn on your popcorn machine.  There is no limit to what you can control and it will honestly leave you feeling like Harry Potter.

The problem with voice control for your TV

For both devices the commands are limited to “on” or “off” which makes for limited use.  I tend to use “turn BBC one on” amongst some other neat shortcuts, but you can’t browse the TV guide or turn the volume up and down for example.  It’s not like it’s impossible, it’s just seriously ugly.  Who wants to say “turn guide on, turn up on, turn up on, turn select on”?

This brings us to the issue with both devices:  Navigating your TV guide with your voice is the dream right?…

I honestly don’t think that it is.  Having used voice control for my Media Centre for years I can tell you that voice control is great for shortcuts like “play the latest available episode of X”, but you can’t beat a remote or an app on your phone for browsing through movies and shows.

For those of you thinking “Logitech won’t let me down, they will make the skill better in time”, I’ve got an opinion you won’t much like;  I am reasonably confident that Logitech have abandoned their Alexa skill and here’s why:

  1. They can’t know what set top box you have
  2. They don’t know who your TV service provider is
  3. They don’t know what country you are in
  4. They know the end user experience will be a frustrating menagerie of miss-heard commands, repeating yourself and calling Alexa names.

Imagine trying to write code that works one way for a Virgin customer, that works differently for a Sky customer, that dials different numbers for different channels depending on what country you are in,  that knows which channels you are subscribed to, and that knows which IR signal to send to fire up your TV  guide.  The combinations are mind boggling and it is precisely the reason that they leave it to you to program the thing up.  The Alexa control is a nice afterthought that was easy to implement.

The big hurdle Alexa developers all face

The biggest hurdle Logitech face is getting Alexa to remain listening as you navigate but stop listening when you’re done choosing.  and also know that “play”  and “pause”  mean the TV and not your Spotify account and volume up means your TV and not Alexa herself.

Perhaps Amazon will help them out by having Alexa remember she’s watching TV so the commands are applicable during that session, but I can’t see it.  I imagine the discussion has already happened and Amazon have offered a compromise command: “Ask Harmony to XYZ” and Logitech have figured it isn’t worth it.

Final thoughts

If I had all the money in the world I would still buy an RM pro, scratch that, I would buy 3 RM pros for 3 different rooms because it’s a 3rd of the price of the Harmony hub.

In summation the RM pro is cheaper, more capable and more malleable.  In my opinion there is absolutely no contest.

That said if Logitech want to send me a hub for review I won’t say no 😉

Happy automating,

-P