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Smart home tech and voice assistants are powerful, helpful, and intriguing, but they've never been particularly cheap. That said, prices are coming down. You can begin to automate your home for under a hundred bucks. In this guide, we'll provide you some money-saving tips and tricks.
While the brains of the modern smart home live in the cloud, one of the best ways to control your smart home is with a voice assistant like the Amazon Echo (Alexa) or Google Home. The full Amazon Echo (and its variations) provide better sound for music listening, but you can get awesome voice assistant capabilities with the $49 Echo Dot or the Google Home Mini.
Money-saving tips: Amazon regularly discounts the Echo Dot. As I'm writing this, it's $39.99. I've seen it as low as $29.99. If you can wait until July, you might be able to get some great Amazon Prime Day deals.
I had been controlling my lights remotely for years using a technology called X-10. It used a very weird control circuit that ran through home electrical wiring, and was fussy and unreliable. As soon as Philips came out with their line of smart Hue bulbs, I switched.
Hue bulbs (and most other smart light bulbs) are controlled over Wi-Fi. In the Hue's case, there's a hub that speaks to your router, and then the hub talks to the bulbs. This does add some cost to the solution, and buying into Hue generally costs at least $99 for a few bulbs and a hub.
If you do have a hub, the white (instead of multi-color) Hue bulbs have come down substantially in price since they were first released. You can get a two-pack of the white bulbs for about $25, or a little over $12 each (but you still need the hub).
Money-saving tips: The least expensive hub-less Alexa-compatible bulb I've found is the $14.98 iView ISB600 smart bulb. Note that this is not Alexa-certified and I haven't tested it, nor am I familiar with the company, but it's cheap.
For a few more bucks (and a little more peace of mind), there's the TP-Link Kasa Smart Wi-Fi bulb for $19.99. I haven't used these bulbs, but I've used many TP-Link produces, including a smart power plug, and they've all been solid products. These bulbs don't require a hub.
Smart plugs allow you to plug almost anything into them, and turn them on or off from your Alexa or Google Home. People use them for normal light bulbs, coffee makers, slow cookers, fans, and so forth. One of the first smart plugs was an earlier incarnation of the Belkin Wemo Mini Smart Plug. This costs $34.97 on Amazon but was in the sixty buck range when its first version came out.
Money-saving tips: A more inexpensive solution is the $13.99 TanTan smart plug. If you're willing to go off-brand with a product that has only a few reviews, you can check out the Fsmart Wifi Outlet, which sells in a 3-pack for $29.99. That's less than ten bucks a socket. Another option is the four pack of Amysen smart plugs for $47.99.
For the following sets, let's assume you're buying the Echo Dot now (while it's on sale for $39.99), or you wait for another sale to come around.
Let there be light: Start with a $39.99 Echo Dot and pick up three $19.99 TP-Link bulbs. That puts you at $99.96.
Plug it in: Once again, start with a $39.99 Echo Dot and go ahead and order the Amysen four-pack of smart plugs. That brings you to $87.98 and you'll be able to control four devices in your house.
A little of everything: Once again, start with a $39.99 Echo Dot. Pick up two iView $14.98 iView bulbs and the $29.99 Fsmart 3-pack of smart plugs. That brings you to $99.94. For under $100, you can control five devices in your home, from lights to plugs (and whatever you plug into your smart plugs).
As you can see, getting started with smart home technology need not be super-expensive (anymore). But if you want to save a few more bucks, be sure to regularly check out ZDNet's Bargain Hunter column, as well as CNET's Cheapskate series. Both columns spotlight great deals that can keep your costs down.
TechRepublic: Amazon Echo: The smart person's guide
What do you think? Have you set up a smart home? What are you controlling and what devices do you like best? Let me know in the TalkBacks below.