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The 6 best home automation systems: Put your home on auto-pilot

What is the best home automation system? SmartThings is ZDNet's top choice because it seamlessly combines an intuitive user interface with reliable automation power. But it's not the only one; other home automation systems from Apple, Google, IFTTT, Home Assistant, and Amazon are all vying for the top spot.
maria-diaz
Written by Maria Diaz, Staff Writer on
Reviewed by Elyse Betters Picaro

So we're not living the Jetsons life yet, but we're slowly getting there. With many home automation systems available and many brands selling smart home devices, it can feel a bit overwhelming when you're creating a smart home ecosystem. 

A home automation system is the motor for your smart home, it's the software your hub runs to connect all of your devices and that lets you interact with them, letting you set automations, scenes, routines, schedules and have control over them.

The home automation system you choose could determine what your smart home looks like and how it runs, down to the brand of lightbulbs you'll be able to buy. And with relevant differences in user interface and capabilities, it's important to choose the right one for your needs.

Must read:

SmartThings
SmartThings

The thing with home automation systems is that it's important to find one that suits your needs, that is user-friendly to your abilities, and that has good compatibility with the brands or devices you want to stick with. SmartThings has all of that.

User interface

SmartThings is the best home automation system because, aside from high support among brands, it features very easy and straightforward navigation through the app. 

The navigation on the SmartThings mobile application is highly intuitive: Any favorite devices, scenes and automations appear as cards right on the app's home screen, with options to add more devices just a tap of a finger away. Editing, adding and removing automations is also readily available from a menu at the bottom of the screen.

The SmartThings application comes with all Galaxy phones, but is also available on the Google Play store and the App Store for Apple users. 

Compatibility

SmartThings is probably the platform that offers the most support for smart devices on the market. With Wi-Fi, Zigbee, and Z-Wave protocols built into the Aeotec hub, you'll have hundreds of brands and over 5,000 smart devices already on the market to choose from. 

Created by Samsung, you can also add smart Samsung devices to your smart home through SmartThings, to let you see how long you have to go on your washer and dryer or dishwasher right from your mobile device. 

There's home automation systems out there that let you add devices and enjoy some capabilities right from their app, but SmartThings makes it simpler to use these devices to their full potential. Where some systems may offer an on/off switch on the app when you add a smart light, SmartThings lets users control brightness, light color, and white temperature, for example. 

You can also add voice control with SmartThings, with the ability to add Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa right on the app.

Pros:

  • Most support across brands
  • Intuitive user interaction on app 

Cons:

  • Not compatible with Siri
Home Assistant
Home Assistant & Amazon

Home Assistant is an open-source system that lets users control their smart home in a very intuitive manner. The biggest highlight for Home Assistant is that you don't need to buy a hub to use it. You can run Home Assistant on Windows, MacOS, Linux, ODROID, the ASUS Tinkerboard, or a Raspberry Pi. That last one being the most common option due to its low energy consumption.

HA runs locally, only pulling data from the cloud when there is no other choice, making it snappier, more responsive, and secure than other systems.

Setup

Home Assistant has a reputation of needing a lot of tinkering to work, thus it was mostly used by the tech-savvy crowd. But they've simplified their UI and have made it easier for the average smart home enthusiast to come on board. Figuring out how you're going to run Home Assistant and what device you're going to use for it is the hardest part. 

After you download it on your computer, you just need to set it up, which is the fun part. Setup involves adding your location, choosing an administrator, and your preferences. HA will then discover the devices and services on your network and let you add them to your configuration

Then all that is left is becoming familiar with the web interface. Home Assistant is actually one of the fastest and most responsive home automation systems on the market with high automation power and compatibility. 

Compatibility

Home Assistant integrates with over 1000 different APIs; it'll work locally, over the cloud, via Zigbee and Z-Wave, via Bluetooth, and, coming soon, with Matter.

As far as support for voice control, you can add Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant to command your smart home. And though Home Assistant runs on a local server, you can also download a mobile app as a companion and to control your devices and get alerts.

Pros:

  • No need to buy hub
  • Fast response time
  • More secure than the cloud

Cons: 

  • Not as user-friendly as others
Apple HomeKit
Apple

HomeKit is Apple's option for smart home automation systems. A HomePod mini or an Apple TV 4K both double as a hub for HomeKit, which is pretty nifty considering you're getting two uses from one device. 

The HomeKit mobile application is reminiscent of the SmartThings app in its visual outline but I'd say with a simpler design to make it more user-friendly. Devices appear on the application as cards, with your favorite accessories and a preview of your favorite camera feed accessible from the app's home. 

Shortcuts appear at the top of the page, with buttons to access your security system, see what devices are running, and any accessories that aren't responding.

I've had a pretty good experience overall with Apple's Home app, though I do find some bugs now and then and some things that could be streamlined, like an easier way to see all rooms in one page. Though the app can leave a user wanting at times, Apple did announce some major updates to the Home app coming this fall.

Automation power

HomeKit has improved its automation power in recent years. Automations are easily added in the Home app, which walks you through how to customize them. You can have different triggers for automations, like when someone leaves or arrives, a time of day, an accessory is controlled or a sensor detects something. 

A drawback with this system's available automations is that HomeKit won't run automations that involve unlocking a door when you arrive home, for example, without first confirming it on your phone. This is part of Apple's safeguarding of its users' security, but it means that if you want to unlock your smart lock when you get home automatically, you'll have to open the app each time you arrive to confirm this action and then it'll run. Kind of takes the auto out of automation.

There are some unofficial workarounds though. 

Compatibility and support

Because Apple is more strict in their data security and consumer privacy policies, there aren't as many smart devices that can cross the compatibility threshold to HomeKit as there are for other systems.

HomeKit is limited to devices that are certified to work with HomeKit, so just because an item is labeled as smart, it won't necessarily be compatible with it. It's important to always look for that label in a device you'd like to buy for your Apple smart home ecosystem. 

With HomeKit, you'll be able to control your smart home from your iPhone, iPad, or even your Apple Watch, making this the absolute best home automation system for Apple users.

Pros:

  • User-friendly app

Cons:

  • Low support
  • No geofencing to unlock doors automatically

Related: Best smart home hubs of 2022

Alexa
Amazon

So voice control is a huge deal in home automation. You want to feel like a high baller when you walk in and have a robot assistant waiting on you 24/7, right? Well, 2022 isn't there yet so the current smart assistants on the market are the next best thing. 

Having tried Google, Alexa, and Siri, I can tell you that for voice control fans, the right voice assistant can make or break your smart home. Personally, I find Alexa to be the most accurate in her responses and understanding my commands, Google is probably middle of the road, and Siri still plays Sweet Caroline when I ask her to turn on the downstairs lights.

Now, Alexa isn't perfect, we know that. But she is a favorite for smart homes and going the Amazon Alexa route ensures vast compatibility, as it's the most popular voice assistant out there.

Setting up the Amazon Alexa app is pretty easy, the platform is built around Alexa, and you can easily add devices and customize your home. And with Amazon's Frustration-Free Setup, setting up new devices will become even easier with fewer steps. 

I do wish that some things like routines and your devices were more easily accessible on the Alexa App. Though they are both available on the app's home, I find myself getting distracted by all of Alexa's suggestions. And, to be honest, the app just isn't the easiest to navigate in the beginning. You get used to it, however, and learn to easily make your way around it, but it shouldn't have to take as long as it does to reach that point.

Connectivity and automations

Alexa is available on multiple Amazon devices, like the Echo speakers and Fire TV devices. It works through Wifi, Bluetooth, Zigbee (on Echo 4th Gen, Echo Show except 1st Gen, and Echo Studio) and, more recently, Matter.

The Alexa app has some pretty good automation power. Amazon is set on making America's voice assistant out of Alexa, so they've put quite a lot of effort in making sure she helps optimize productivity, routines, shopping, your access to information and current events, and how you cook and enjoy your music. 

An Echo device, either a speaker or display, will give you access to thousands of skills and dozens of available routines to make the most of all your smart devices. You can set your Echo to detect a barking dog and have Alexa either play soothing music or let you drop in to soothe them. Alexa can even turn off a light when it hears snoring in the room, how creepy is that? Cool, I meant cool.

There are countless ways to take advantage of Alexa's automation power and, with popularity still pretty high, more are turning up every day. 

Pros:

  • Alexa is responsive and smarter than others
  • Everything works with Alexa

Cons:

  • App isn't as user-friendly
Google Home
Google

Many smart home users have adapted the Google ecosystem for their home control. This is no surprise when you consider the Nest Thermostat was a groundbreaking device in the internet of things.

Google grabbed the Nest name and ran with it, making an entire line of smart home gadgets to fulfill customers needs. This makes it easier for Google users with a Nest thermostat to add a Nest x Yale Lock, a Chromecast, and a Nest Hub or Nest Mini to round out their homes.

The Google Home app is actually one of the best ones among home automation systems. It's easy to navigate and highly intuitive, with the application's home giving you a view of everything connected to Google Home, so you can easily go to different categories or favorite rooms.

Creating automations is actually pretty easy through Google Home. You have the starters, which work as the triggers for the automation, and then the actions that happen as a result of the trigger. You can create automations for when you arrive home or with a phrase for a trigger, for example, or my personal favorite, "Hey Google, let's cook" to turn on the kitchen lights, fan, and play the news in the kitchen. 

Support

The Google ecosystem has been relatively exclusive to other brands since its beginnings, however, the amount of available smart devices compatible with Google Home will soon explode with the launch of Matter. Coming in the fall of 2022, Matter is a new connectivity standard over IP that is being developed and is backed by major players in technology: Google, Amazon, Apple, Zigbee Alliance, and more. 

Google is expecting to integrate Matter-supported devices with their current Google Home devices seamlessly. So although there aren't a ton of compatible devices on the market right now, Google will hopefully see a change in that in the coming months.

Pros:

  • Great user interface 
  • Reliable voice assistant
  • Strong automation power

Cons:

  • Not much support with other brands yet
IFTTT
IFTTT

Are you a fan of automations that go beyond your home? IFTTT is based on the "If this, then that" programming axiom and it has become a popular option for many smart home users. 

You don't need a hub to adopt IFTTT in your home, you can simply download it on your Apple or Android phone and register for an account. Pronounced "ift", IFTTT combines services into applets, aka automations, and you can choose from different ones already available in their library. 

Though a popular application is to make your apps and accounts on your mobile device communicate with each other to carry out automations, it's also useful for smart home devices. Admittedly, you can't just buy a smart bulb and connect it to IFTTT, but it is an automation system in the literal sense.

If you have smart home devices in your home and are looking to automate them in more ways than your home allows, IFTTT can help. You can add simple automations like turning on a light at sunset, or add automations that go beyond your smart home staples, like automatically turning on push notifications when you leave home. 

Though you don't need to buy a hub to use IFTTT, nothing is free in life: they offer subscription-based plans to use their applets. Here's how those plans stack up:

  • Free: up to five applets
  • Pro ($2.50/month): Up to 20 applets, faster speeds, multi-action applets
  • Pro+ ($5/month): Unlimited applets, faster speeds, multiple accounts, developer tools

Pros:

  • Add automations beyond smart home
  • Easy to use application

Cons:

  • Subscription required for some options

What is the best home automation system?

SmartThings takes the top spot as the best automation system. It's a complete, highly compatible system that will help you intuitively run your smart home to its full potential. It's a great system for the user that wants to be able to choose their smart devices and appliances with few limitations. 

Automation sytemZDNet's takeHub required?Voice controlZigbeeZ-WaveEase of useMost reliableBest compatibility
SmartThingsBest overall
Home AssistantBest without hub-w/dongle-
Apple HomeKitBest for Apple users----
Amazon AlexaBest for voice control---
Google HomeBest for Google ecosystem----
IFTTTBest to automate everything----

Which is the right home automation system for you?

Choosing the perfect home automation system will certainly come down to your smart home needs and where you see it in the future. For example, if you consider yourself somewhat tech savvy or have a Raspberry Pi laying around, trying out Home Assistant could be a good way to get started.

Or if you already have an Amazon ecosystem in the works with an Echo Dot here or there, you can continue down that line. Do you mind paying a subscription? Buying a hub? These are all things that affect the choices you make in automation systems.

Choose this automation system...if you want...
SmartThingsAn easy to set up and use system with high compatibility from smart devices for sale
Home AssistantA little tinkering in exchange for a snappy locally run automation system for most smart devices
Apple HomeKitAn Apple ecosystem with data privacy and security at the forefront
Amazon AlexaTo control your smart home with your voice with one of the best voice assistance
Google HomeA Google ecosystem to control your devices
IFTTTAn automation system that goes beyond your home and can even automate social media and more

How did we choose the best automation system?

We combined our expertise in the Internet of things and experience with smart home devices and automation systems to test these platforms and choose the best ones. 

It's crucial to choose the right smart home system because a smart home is an investment into your every day life. You want that investment to make sense to how you or your family will use it and we want you to make the right choices for you.

Before researching systems, evaluate your goals for home automation. Are there specific rooms, tasks, or features that are most important to you? What is your budget? After determining your specific goals, finding the right system is much easier.

What is the difference between smart home and home automation?

Having a smart home typically means you have set up your devices with a wireless protocol so that they run either with voice control, automatically, with routines or schedules, or with you controlling them remotely with a mobile device or computer. 

Automations are set when your devices react to a trigger without your involvement at the time it happens. This trigger can be an action from you or someone else, or a schedule, temperature or weather changes, motion, or a device status. Automations can be simple or intricate, you can set several devices to work together, like turning on the dehumidifier and a ceiling fan when the humidity reaches 70%, for example. 

So you can have a smart home without automations but it'd be hard to have automations without a smart home.

How much does it cost to install a home automation system?

When considering the costs involved in setting up a home automation system, you can break it down into two main categories: the start-up cost and the additions. When you consider the start-up amount you're willing to put into your smart home, you're really talking about what will get you going and that it will likely determine what smart devices you can add down the line. 

Start-up cost

To start, think of the cost of a hub or server, typically $100-$200, plus what the basics you want to start your home on: if that's a video doorbell, some smart lights, a security system, cameras, you name it. The startup cost will be determined by these variants. 

When I decided to make my home smarter, I went with the HomePod mini from Apple, which was about $100, a security system, video doorbell, smart lock, a couple of smart bulbs, and three cameras. This start-up cost was about $900 total, which isn't cheap but definitely isn't as expensive as what all those items would have cost me just three or four years ago.

Cost of additions

After you determine what your home automation system basics are, you should to picture what you'll probably add down the line, in 1-3 years time, so you can see if the cost of that matches up to your budget. 

Let's say you choose Home Assistant for your home automation system, and you bought a Raspberry Pi to run it on. Choosing HA means you'll have pretty much your pick of the litter in what smart devices you can buy down the line, since you can add anything from Philips Hue to Ecobee to IKEA and Lutron. Being able to choose from expensive or inexpensive devices means your cost of additions down the line won't be as high as with other systems.

On the other end, let's say you chose Apple HomeKit for your home automation system. While Apple has committed to expanding support for other brands in the future, HomeKit is still notoriously tough to work with due to lack of compatibility. This means that you don't get to choose from as many devices to add natively to your home system, unless you also add a bridge for HomeKit.

Is a Raspberry Pi good for home automation?

A Raspberry Pi is a great resource to add to your home automation system if you don't mind a little tinkering. We have one running in our home with Homebridge and Home Assistant and it eliminates the need to buy a separate hub. If you have a Raspberry Pi laying around and decide to try the smart home life, definitely consider playing around with Home Assistant and see how you like it.

How can I do a home automation system myself?

DIYers rejoice: most of the home automation systems are marketed to be installed and set up by consumers themselves. Security systems are no longer something you buy from a door-to-door salesman and have someone come install and charge you hundreds of dollars a month in subscriptions. And smart lights and many other devices are available for sale at major retail stores and online stores.

Simply doing some research to choose what the right home automation system is for your home and needs is all you need to make your home smart. After that, each smart device comes with easy-to-follow instructions to set up and add to your network, maybe some simple work with a screwdriver or drill if you want to mount it. This high level of customization and ability to do it yourself gives you complete control of your smart home. 


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