7 must-have devices for your smart home office

From audio-augmenting ear buds to automated coffee machines, here are the seven most effective devices for working at home.

A home office has the potential to cut out an expensive time-consuming commute, provide a more relaxed working environment, and allow more control over the working conditions that suit you. Your workstation is no longer restricted to a single desk; audio is free to roam the air, meaning conference calls aren't confined to a solitary room; and the use of technology now actually augments collaboration with your colleagues rather than hampers it.

Among the things to consider are how best to optimise your environment to reduce clutter and unwanted distractions. Internet of Things (IoT) devices can help you do this. The market is full of IoT devices for the home, some useful, some not so useful, and others really rather pointless. So here are eight that can actually help reduce distractions whilst making a positive impact on your work environment at home.

Smart speaker

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A smart speaker is the nucleus of your smart home office operations.

(Image: Google)

A cornerstone of any smart home and the nucleus of your operations is the smart speaker. In your smart home office, this simultaneously acts as your digital PA, an extension of your phone, and a hub to control your other smart devices, which are increasingly picking up smart speaker integration. It could also just help your productivity to be able to use your voice for work-related research or a quick query as opposed to picking up your tablet or opening another window on your PC.

There's a bevy of smart speakers to choose from and the number of choices are ever increasing.

Google's offering, Google Home, which features the Google Assistant, is now available on more than 5,000 smart home devices -- including General Electric bulbs, Logitech connected cameras, and LG home appliances.

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Google Home is a good option to sync with the many integrated Google services such as Google Calendar and Google Keep. Once you've set up your voice profile with the Google Assistant, it creates a to-do list, adds and remind you of events, and streams music or white noise through Spotify or Google Play.

For hands-free phone calls, Google Home users in the US or Canada can also call any number stored in your Google Contacts. Say "Hey Google, call ..." followed by a specific phone number for outbound calls over Wi-Fi.

Amazon Echo, meanwhile, lets you create a task list, manage calendar, reorder supplies, listen to music or podcasts, or set timers to remind you to switch to another task or take a break. Alexa supports phone calls to other Echo devices or the Alexa smartphone app.

Echo Show, part of Amazon's Echo line, is basically Alexa with a screen attached, allowing face-to-face calls. Echo also supports text messages for Android devices; just say "Alexa, send a message" to send a text through SMS or Alexa's messaging platform. Amazon's Echo Connect hooks up your Echo device to your home phone and allows your Echo to act as a speakerphone.

If you've gone with Apple's HomePod and Siri for your smart home hub, you can get better quality conference calls and still type hands-free while you're taking them. You can also keep calls on hold and switch between them with just a tap. If you need to send a colleague a message, activate Siri and she'll do that for you.

Smart ear buds

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Bragi Dash Pro connects with your smartphone for hands-free calls.

(Image: Bragi)

Noise has been found to be a major barrier to productivity, and for people with families or housemates, working from home comes with all sorts of distractions. Smart ear buds both block out surrounding noise and augment it for when you want to hear it. They're also one of the more mobile smart home devices and let you talk hands-free.

The Bragi Dash Pro, for example, has a signal of 15 metres to connect with your smartphone for calls. Beyond that, it has 4GB of build-in storage and tracks your activity for when you're out for a lunchtime run. As well as being a professional headset for calls, Dash Pro sets itself out with its iTranslate integration, "passive noise isolation", ambient sounds, and audio streaming from Bluetooth devices.

Nuheara IQbuds allow the user to better balance the volume of real world noise with the noise coming out of your headphones depending on what setting you're in. That means blocking out a noisy home environment and also augmenting surrounding sound when you need to without having to turn your music off. Siri or Google can also be activated via the tap touch controls.

Sony's Xperia Ear is meant as a non-intrusive manner of interacting with a smartphone. It features "intuitive gesture sensitivity" -- meaning you can nod your head or make hand gesture to give commands. It functions as a personal assistant companion to an Android smartphone, and can schedule events, give you news and weather updates, and keep you in contact with up to four other Xperia Ear users at once. Owners can also use voice commands to initiate a call, search the web, dictate a message, or get directions.

Air quality control

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Elgato's Eve Room is one of the few air-quality monitors that also supports HomeKit.

(Image: Elgato)

Poor quality air can be an issue in the home due to a lack of ventilation and humidity control, dust mite allergens and moulds, cleaning equipment, and even office equipment, such as photocopiers and laser printers, which can emit nanoparticles of paper fibres and inorganic gases. In the home, air quality is further compromised if you share your house with pets or smokers.

The good news is there is now a selection of compact smart air purifiers on the market to improve your health. Dyson sticks its cyclonic separation method in just about everything these days, including its Pure Cool air purifier. This uses the company's trademarked Air Multiplier technology, pumping out clean air while at the same time claiming to capture 99.97 percent of particle pollutants as small as 0.3 microns.

On the front of the Pure Cool is an LCD display that detects and displays pollutants in real time. The accompanying Dyson Link app has a record of detected pollution levels and lets you set a schedule for purification. It's also compatible with your Amazon Alexa, letting you control your air quality with your voice.

Other humidity control devices monitor the air quality of indoor spaces and advise when to open a window. The open-source Airboxlab Foobot, for example, monitors humidity, carbon monoxide and dioxide, but also detects volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that come from cleaning equipment or cooking.

Airboxlab also monitors particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers that can penetrate the lungs and cause health problems. It has a set of warning lights that give a general indication of air quality and tells you when to open the windows.

The fairly simple battery-powered Elgato Eve Wireless Room Sensor, meanwhile, monitors VOCs, indoor pollution, temperature, and humidity, and is tightly integrated with Siri. The Eve app also gives you control over your other smart devices around the home.

Lastly, Ecobee 4 reads temperature and room occupancy and can be linked with multiple room sensors to get readings throughout your house. It also comes with built-in Amazon Alexa support and sends out free energy reports to see how much you're consuming. Coupled with a smart plug in each room, this means more balanced temperature control throughout your whole home and less energy wasted.

Ecobee and its sensors also work with Apple HomeKit, Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana, and Samsung SmartThings.

Smart plug

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D-Link smart plug creates on and off schedules, records energy use statistics, and prevents appliances from overheating.

(Image: D-Link)

A smart plug basically gives you remote control over any standard appliance that's plugged into the mains. That means even if your office environment is full of heaters, lamps, and dehumidifiers that aren't internet connected, you've got control over them through your smartphone without having to leave your workstation.

Most allow you to schedule the appliances to turn on and off when needed, giving you a way to control your smart devices remotely, and accompanying apps let you keep track of the amount of energy you're expending and the resulting costs. If that bulky printer is expending a lot of energy, turn it on and off with the tap of a finger from your desk. If your old heater is making too much noise, likewise. If you're on a budget, smart plugs are a solid option as they don't mean a complete overhaul of your existing home appliances.

Many of those on the market are pretty cheap, with D-Link smart plug and Tp-link models retailing for less than $50. Both are compatible with Amazon Echo and Google Home, while iHome smart plugs are compatible with Apple HomeKit and Siri.

(Microwavable) smart notepad and pen

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Give your notebook a spin in the microwave when you need some fresh writing space.

(Image: Adam Glanzman for Rocketbook)

A notepad is handy to have on your desk when your computer freezes and you have to get an idea scribbled down as soon as possible. Some users will always go for pen and paper, as jotting down anything on a note-taking app on an iPad can be fiddly and consist endlessly of toggling the keyboard up and down. A smart notebook and pen really suits someone who wants the ease and familiarity of writing with a pen and paper but needs to get the results in the cloud as soon as possible. Some of them, such as the Rocketbook Everlast and microwavable Rocketbook Wave, do not require charging.

With Everlast, the Pilot FriXon pen, and the accompanying app, there is reusable and never-ending notebook space. Once you've made your note and are ready to send it to the cloud, scan multiple pages in seconds with your smartphone as it clocks each page's QR code. Icons at the bottom of each page can be highlighted to refer to which cloud or email service you want them sent to in a clearer resolution. Wiping the pages clean just requires a wet cloth, while alternatively, the Rocketbook Wave needs a spell in the microwave to freshen up the page -- you read right, a microwave oven -- but is erasable and reusable up to only five times. Wacom's Bamboo Slate similarly shares notes to the cloud but with the touch of a button.

The Livescribe Echo smart pen meanwhile, has a microphone and a miniature camera at its tip. It records audio and syncs your notes with audio, meaning you can tap on a particular word or symbol that you scribbled down and have the audio jump to what you were hearing when you made that note. The accompanying Livescribe Dot Paper notebook also features pause and record symbols for starting and stopping recording with a tap.

What's really cool about Echo is that once uploaded to Echo Desktop, your notes appear to rewrite themselves on the paper UI as you play back parts of the audio. Echo's brother, the Livescribe 3, is optimised for iOS and Android and features an infared camera, flash memory, and Bluetooth Smart chipset. Users can also print their own Livescribe notebooks. The Livescribe family is a good option for when you need to listen back to conference calls and work out what the hell your hastily scribbled notes were supposed to mean.

Smart time keeper

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This Bluetooth-equipped, eight-sided device aims to save you time by more efficiently tracking your time.

(Image: Timeular)

Working autonomously from home means your boss might need an accurate measurement of what you've been doing all day and how much time you've been spending per task. Timeular's ZEI time keeper is a small die that eliminates the task of filling out a timesheet by hand each week.

Employees or freelancers can assign each of the eight sides of the die to different office tasks -- such as emails, phonecalls, and meetings -- by marking a symbol that refers to each one. Users then flip the die to that side when they're performing that task and the timekeeper starts the clock.

ZEI's app then takes care of filing the timesheets, and hours are tracked for a clearer picture of how people spend their time. The resulting data can help identify ways to increase productivity or just provide a more accurate reading of freelancers' hours.

Smart coffee machine

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Smarter Coffee can connect to both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.

(Image: Smarter)

These may sound like a luxury smart item for the home office, but some are surprisingly cheap. And when you can order a coffee from your phone and have it made to your liking, why not? Besides, caffeine is the fuel to productivity, and you don't want to have to interrupt your precious schedule, which is now being timed by a die that sends its data back to your employer. There's also something pretty great about ordering your coffee from bed and having it ready for drink by the time you're ready to start work.

Most have the same standard set of features: scheduling so you get a cup of coffee ready for you at the same time every morning, reminders to stock up on water or coffee beans, automatic shut-down when there's no water to prevent overheating.

The high-end option, Nespresso Expert Espresso Machine, features four coffee cup sizes -- Americano, Espresso, Lungo, and Ristretto -- a choice of three temperatures, and an integrated "aeroccino milk frother". The app lets you manage recipes and schedules, personalise your coffee, and keep ahead of capsule supplies with an easy-order feature.

If you don't mind filter coffee, Smarter Coffee lets you set an alarm time and starts the brewing from that time. With the dial on the app, select how many cups of coffee you want in the pot from your bed or even away from home. The app also shows you how much water you have left in your machine before you need to replenish. And if this isn't enough, it can connect to both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, turning your smart speaker into your own personal barista.

If you don't want to go over the $100-mark, BrewGenie has an eight-cup capacity, sends you smart reminders, and automatically brews on-demand or at the same time each morning, although its range is 150 feet, or shorter with walls in between. It does get your smartphone to play music for you when it's brewing your first coffee of the day though. Nice touch.

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