A Wi-Fi kettle. Try that again in your best Peter Kay voice. “Wi-Fi? Kettle?” Yes folks, welcome to 2017, the year in which you can buy a kettle that connects to your home network so you can boil water from any room in your house, rather than having actually to be in the kitchen like some kind of bloody caveman.
While this sounds mildly preposterous – the kettle will, after all, have to have been pre-filled which involves you being physically proximate, and you’ll have to trudge to the kitchen to make the tea like said bloody caveman once the thing has boiled – this is nevertheless the moment when the long yearned-for utopian vision of the smart home is finally sputtering fitfully to life.
But how easy is it to give your home some smarts? What kinds of things can you do? And, ultimately, does any of this stuff bring genuine benefits or are we just drawn to the idea of adding a CPU and IP address to everything because we geeks just like tech?
A smart home doesn’t have to be controlled by your voice, but once you’ve used your voice to do things like turn on the heating or change the lighting, you’re going to want to do it with everything. At the moment, you have two main choices for controlling a smart home via your voice: Amazon Echo, with its Alexa assistant and Google Home, with the Google Assistant. Alexa has been around for longer and has a more mature set of ways of controlling smart home devices. Google Home is newer, arguably better looking, and has the advantage of having Google’s Assistant built-in, which makes searching for information much easier.
Echo works with a wide range of devices, including smart lighting from TP-Link, Hive and Phillips; power switches from Belkin, Wemo, and Hive; and thermostats from Nest, Hive, Netamo and many others. Google Home supports many of the same brands, including Nest, SmartThings, Phillips, and TP-Link. Usefully, it also supports Google’s own Chromecast, which, while not a smart device in itself, will be able to display information from smart devices in the future.
Which voice controller is right for you? At the moment, there’s little to choose between them. Echo has the advantage of being cheaper, if you opt for the smaller (and less loud) Echo Dot (which is available from Amazon in both white and black for the fashion-conscious). Google Home has the advantage of supporting Chromecast, so you can do things like asking it to “Play my vaporwave playlist on the Living Room TV” — but as a smart home controller, it’s a little behind Echo at the moment.
Something that’s worth noting is that as Google Home is so new, there are some offers to be had about it. PC World recently ran an offer which gave you a free Chromecast with one, while Maplins is currently offering both a Chromecast and three months of Google Music – so it pays to shop around.
One final consideration for iPhone users is compatibility with Apple’s Siri voice assistant. Although Apple doesn’t have a standalone smart speaker at present – you can instead talk to Siri and control things via your phone – it’s rumoured to be releasing one in the future. And Apple has a well-developed ecosystem of third-party smart devices compatible with its HomeKit system.