Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Smart speaker not useful? Give it more smart things to control!

Your smart speaker can control LOTS of stuff!


This article is meant to help you get the most out of your smart speaker and begin setting up your smart home. It's a deep dive into what I've learned first-hand by setting up and managing our own smart home devices. The main sections include: 
  • Is your smart speaker simply a brain without a body? 
  • Real Life Examples: A Typical Day in Our Smart Home
  • Summary of Our Smart Home Components
  • Getting Started with Your First Smart Room
  • Types of Devices That Seem to Work Well & Some That Don't 
  • The Smart Home Brands We Use and Recommend
  • Conclusion

Is your smart speaker simply a brain without a body? 

Anybody who's seen Star Trek knows that a star ship's crew lives in a kind of sentient cocoon, surrounded by smart devices that are coordinated by a central brain that's always ready to assist. Merely speak the wake word "Computer..." then make a request and that request is fulfilled.

Contrast this with that solitary smart speaker that your Uncle Billy bought, plopped in the corner of his living room and ignores except to ask it for the weather and set timers. He says he's not sure why he bought it and would certainly not waste money on another one. 

Here's the thing. Uncle Billy is simply not thinking big enough! The omnipresent "Computer" on that starship is connected to a navigation system, lighting and heating controls and all manner of devices which can deliver everything from "Tea ... Earl Grey, hot" to a multimedia, multi-sensory experience on the holodeck. Without these linked devices, that computer is just a disembodied voice. It might be an amusing conversation partner, but not truly useful in getting things done in the physical world.

And so it is with that smart home speaker. It needs a family of linked devices to live up to its full potential. And that family of devices can be easily matched to Uncle Billy's unique needs. Smart plugs, smart bulbs, smart cameras and media gear are all out there waiting to be brought home and connected. And they don't cost that much! 

Real Life Examples: A Typical Day in Our Smart Home 

I really like our smart home! It may not be the most sophisticated, but it just works. It consists of Google Home/Nest speakers, a bunch of smart electric plugs that switch ordinary "dumb" devices on/off, some smart light bulbs, a few security cameras and some smart media equipment. 

Note: We own a couple of Amazon Echo devices but have found them to be much less useful and dependable than our Google devices. So the interactions described here all take place within our Google Home/Nest ecosystem. All eight of these are strategically positioned so we can talk to them anywhere we happen to be in our house, garage, patio or back yard.

So what does all this stuff do for us? Here's a typical day in our relatively "smart" home. 

Starting the Day

I say upon waking, "OK, Google: Neighborhood weather."
  • "Neighborhood weather" is a custom routine I set up in the Google Home app. 
  • My Google Assistant (bedroom speaker) responds by reporting the current 1) temperature, 2) wind speed & direction, 3) humidity & 4) "feels like" temperature in our specific micro climate so I can dress appropriately.
In the bathroom I say, "OK, Google: Play my news." 
  • "Play my news" triggers playback of the latest episodes from my list of pre-selected news podcasts.
  • If I don't finish listening to these in the bathroom, I simply say "pause" and Google Podcasts will
    Google Home Mini
    Smart Speaker
     continue where I left off by playing them later on my phone earbuds, Android Auto or in another room with a different Google Home speaker.
In the kitchen I say, "OK, Google: Set kitchen lights to 100% brightness & daylight color."
  • The strings of LED smart lights encircling the kitchen, above the cabinets, act as instructed. 
  • We make our coffee, breakfast, etc. in a nice bright kitchen.
On the way to our office/exercise area, I say, "OK, Google: Turn on office heater" and "Turn on office lights."
  • When I get to the office/exercise area the "dumb" little space heater (attached to a smart plug) is chugging away, warming up the room from the overnight chill while the smart lights brighten the room so I don't trip over any exercise equipment.
  • While stretching and warming up, I play podcasts on the room's smart speaker. These will be continued during my outdoor exercise walk on my phone via the Google Podcast app.

Throughout the Day

Throughout the day as we move around our property we give our Google Home devices instructions like these:
  •  "Add blueberries to the Shopping List." -- The item is added to our shared Google Keep shopping list for synchronized reference from our phones. I also have lists called "Ideas" and "Chores" that I instruct Google to add items to as needed.
  • "Turn on fountain." -- Google turns on a small backyard fountain, powered by a smart plug, adding some waterfall ambiance. 
  • Google Home
    Smart Speaker
    "Turn on hot water."  -- Google turns on a circulating pump attached to our tankless hot water heater. This way we use the gas/electric only as needed for showering, laundry, dishes, etc.
  • All day long we issue voice commands to turn on and off various lights and switches, play music, stream news and do all sorts of other useful stuff.
  • While doing chores like laundry, dishes, yard work, etc. we give verbal commands to activate podcasts & music, adjusting with voice commands as needed.
  • Because they're powered by Google's world-class Search engine, we get answers anytime to any question that comes to mind by just asking one of our smart speakers.
  • We can also set timers, run a stopwatch, set alarms, set/check Google Calendar appointments and even get recipes, followed by verbal, step-by-step coaching from the kitchen smart speaker to help prepare the recipe.
  • When we need to make a road trip or run errands, we ask for traffic conditions en route to a particular destination before we go. Google then recommends a route and sends this info to one of our phones where we use Google Maps and Android Auto to guide our trip. (This Google Maps guidance also works well for bus or train trips, including Live View walking instructions to the final destination.)
  • During dinner, prep & clean up, we often direct our smart speakers to stream stand-up comedy or music from Pandora in our kitchen and dining areas.
Because our smart speakers are activated by voice commands, we never have to pick up a phone or tablet to accomplish any of the above. We can simply continue using our hands, doing whatever chores we're doing while a nearby Google Assistant acts as instructed. 

In the Evening

In the evening, while streaming video entertainment, there's another collection of voice commands we invoke:
  • Google Nest Audio
    "Set video lighting" -- Google turns on a smart LED string light attached to the back of the TV and turns on two other smart lights in the room. It sets all lights to candle light color temperature and about 40% brightness. This enhances our video viewing.
  • "Set kitchen to night light" -- Google changes the color of our kitchen lights to a warm, reddish hue and drops the brightness to around 35%.
  • "Mute/Unmute TV" -- Google mutes or unmutes our Android TV during commercials, etc.
  • "Set volume 40 [or whatever]" or "Increase/decrease volume" -- Google adjusts volume on our Sony Bravia Android TV as needed.
  • We also use various voice commands on our Roku Ultra remote or Android TV remote as needed.
Sometimes while streaming, we might hear a strange noise outside and decide to use one of these commands: 
  • Nest Doorbell
    "Show front door camera [or patio camera, etc.] on TV" -- Google streams the requested camera to our Sony Bravia Android TV screen for analysis.
  • "Intruder alert" -- Google turns on a noisy a.m. radio and light hidden in the front yard to startle a potential intruder. It also turns on the porch light and streams the front-facing doorbell camera to our Android TV so we can see and hear what's going on.
  • "Turn on porch light" -- Google quietly turns on the porch light so we can go out and investigate.

At Bedtime

When it's time for bed we instruct Google to: 
  • "Turn on bedroom lights" -- Google turns on the appropriate lights and adjusts color temps and brightness levels to help us get sleepy.)
  • Make necessary adjustments to hot water, security cameras and lights, etc.
  • Play the restful sounds of a babbling brook, complete with sleep timer shutoff, to help us fall asleep.  

Summary of Our Smart Home Components

Our smart home system is based on eight Google Home/Nest speakers, strategically located throughout the property so one of them is always within range of a voice command and can easily be heard when it replies to a request, makes an announcement or plays music. Empowering these smart speakers is an ever-changing collection of smart electric plugs that switch ordinary "dumb" devices on/off, many smart light bulbs and LED strings that are WiFi enabled to dim/change colors, a few security cameras and some smart media playback devices.  

All these things have been set up and are managed fairly easily from a smart phone or tablet using the Google Home app. The app allows us to assign devices to rooms, cluster devices together for joint operations and create automated routines (simple, user-generated mini-programs) like those mentioned above. (On our wish list, but not yet acquired: smart wall switches for ceiling lights/fans, a smart garage door opener, and a couple of updated security cameras.)

Getting Started with Your First Smart Room

The simplest (and least intimidating!) first step toward a smart home is to set up a single smart room. The good news is you can do this for as little as $100! 

The examples below assume that you'll be using Google Home devices, since I think you'll ultimately find them to be more useful than Amazon's Echo devices. However, if you decide to use Amazon devices most of this will still apply. Here's how to get started:

1. Choose a room where you will be spending a lot of time, such as a living room, den, office or home theater.

Consider the devices you might want to control with voice commands in this space. Will you want to control smart light bulbs? ... "dumb" devices such as a porch light, lamps or a space heater? ... a smart sound system? ... a smart TV?) 

2. Set up your first Google Home or Nest smart speaker. 
Google Home (left)
Nest Audio (right)

Start with a single Google Home or Nest smart speaker. Note that to execute your commands and control other smart devices, it doesn't matter what size speaker you choose because they are all equally capable. However, if your budget is tight and you'll be relying on this lone smart speaker for quite a while, you might get one of the larger models (the soup-can sized Google Home* or larger Nest Audio). This way your streaming music will sound a little better, giving you more bang for those first bucks spent!

This is also a good time to set up your Google Home app and poke around in its settings and controls to get a feel for it. At this point the app will most likely show only your home WiFi devices and that first smart speaker. But it's worth exploring early, before you get too many devices going.

3. Next, add smart plugs and smart lights. 

Smart plugs and smart lighting devices (bulbs, strip lights, lighting panels, etc.) are inexpensive and easy to set up and use. (I'll recommend specific brands later in this article.) By hooking that "dumb" lamp, space heater or radio to a WiFi enabled smart plug, you will be able to have Google Assistant turn it on or off. Alternately, by replacing a regular light bulb with a WiFi enabled smart bulb you can transform your old lamp into one that can change colors, brightness and turn off or on by giving your Google Assistant voice commands. Finally, strips of WiFi enabled LEDs can be mounted just about anywhere to create different colored illumination with varying brightness levels to match your mood.

Smart plugs and smart lights are typically set up using a unique app provided by the device's manufacturer. But using this specialized app is a one-time thing. After set up, you will probably not use it again until you buy more smart things from the same company. After initial set up, and after giving the Google Home app permission to interact with each manufacturer's particular products, you can use the Google Home app as your dashboard to control all your smart home devices. In fact, we use our Google Home app to control devices from five different manufacturers! This single user interface makes it easier to make adjustments. 

4. Add more sophisticated devices, such as a camera or smart TV.

After you've spent some time using your Google Assistant to control your smart plugs and lighting you may be ready to add other more sophisticated devices. In very broad terms, here's the process: 
  1. Plug in and power up the new smart device. If it's a Chromecast with Google TV, for example, make sure it's tied into your WiFi/ethernet network, hooked into the TV's HDMI jack, etc.
  2. Open the Google Home app and look for the plus symbol ("+"). Click it to find the device and start setup.
  3. Follow the instructions in the Google Home app to add the device to a room, etc. The app will guide you through the unique process specific to setting up each device.
5. Now play around with your "smart room."

At this point you should be ready to explore and experiment with using your Google Assistant to control devices in your newly-equipped smart room. So kick back, put your feet up and issue commands! You'll soon see what works well for you and how you might want to tweak your setup. And don't forget to play around with the Google Home phone/tablet app and see how it can silently control things by tapping buttons and sliding dials. This is particularly useful when some members of your household are asleep and don't want to hear you talking aloud to your Google Assistant!

Types of Devices That Seem to Work Well & Some That Don't 

After several years working with our smart home devices, we've found that some things are easier to set up and more dependable than others. Specifically: 

Smart plugs and smart bulbs work best with really "dumb" devices. In particular, if you can turn the device on and off by simply plugging it in and unplugging it, then it's likely a good match for a smart switch. And if a lamp accepts ordinary light bulbs and has a switch that can be left in the "on" position, so it returns to the "on" state after you have a power failure, then it's likely a good match for a smart bulb. It's really great to be able to give that old "dumb" device a new life as a smart citizen on your home network!

Smart plugs and smart bulbs don't work well with things that go into a "stand by" or "power saving" state when they lose power (via brown out or power failure) or that require the use of a device-specific remote. For example, we have a small space heater which requires that its own remote control be used to activate it every time it "wakes up" after being turned off. The same is true of one of our media sound bars and a couple of our remote controlled fans. When these devices are turned on with a smart switch, they don't fully wake up. Instead they enter a "stand by" state requiring them to receive commands from their own special remote controls to get up and running properly. Our old, super-simple fans, lamps and space heaters work great, however, with smart plugs and lights.

The bottom line: If you're buying new space heaters or sound bars or any other device that claims to be usable with your smart home, be sure to check if it is compatible with Google Home or Amazon Echo voice commands.

The Smart Home Brands We Use and Recommend

Some smart home device brands work better than others. Here are the ones that we recommend because they are 1) easy to set up, 2) stay properly (dependably) connected to our network and, 3) play nice with Google Home smart speakers and the Google Home tablet/phone app: 

Feit Smart Plugs, Lights & Bulbs

Feit smart things are easy to set up & dependable.

As I mentioned above, we replaced all our finicky Wemo plugs with Feit smart devices. They're reasonably priced, easy to set up and work flawlessly.  They're available at Costco, Amazon, Walmart, Lowes and lots of other places. Be sure to search for "Feit smart WiFi devices," since they make many other not-so-smart lighting products.

Arlo Security Cameras

Arlo Security
We have four Arlo security cameras that we can access easily through our Google Home app, even when we're away from home. They're several years older than our Google Home devices, but they integrated into our smart home system without any problems. Someday soon we may replace these with newer Arlo models with additional features like audio, etc. 

Overall, we're quite pleased with them. They are reasonably priced and available at CostcoAmazonWalmartLowes and other places. Be sure to search for "Arlo Wireless or WiFi compatible" cameras and make sure the model you want is compatible with Google Home or Amazon Echo. 

UPDATE, March 25, 2023: We just replaced 3 of our 4 Arlo cameras with Google Nest Cams (Battery). (Costco sold us a 3-pack for just $329!) They are really great! Unlike the Arlo cameras they are able to distinguish people from animals and from general motion events. So there are no false positives to deal with! And they include the ability to record audio and interactively talk "live" via a built-in microphone and speaker on each camera. They installed seamlessly with the rest of our Google stuff, allowing easy setup/control/playback via the Google Home app. 

Google/Nest Devices: The Core of Our Smart Home

--- Our Google Smart Home Devices ---

As noted earlier, the core of our smart home system is a collection of smart speakers and other stuff from Google. Specifically, we are using: 
  • One Google Nest Audio*  smart speaker -- This is our best-sounding smart speaker. We use it to listen to music, podcasts, comedy, etc. in our living room, as well as enlist its help in executing any of the commands and queries listed above. I'm told these can be paired and calibrated to function as stereo speakers, though we haven't done that yet. I imagine they would sound pretty great, since this lone speaker easily fills the room with a full sonic range. (See footnote* below before buying.)
  • Four Google Home* smart speakers -- In terms of sound quality, these speakers are nearly as high-fidelity as the Nest Audio. We have one in the kitchen, the office, the patio and a bedroom. And, like their larger sibling, they are always on-hand, ready to help execute commands and queries. (See footnote* below before buying.)
  • Three Google Home (Nest) Mini smart speakers -- Given their bargain price, these speakers sound remarkably good! We have the in utility areas, including the garage, bathroom and a bedroom so they are always accessible for executing commands or queries. 
  • Two Google Chromecast Audio devices -- We have two of these. They are not smart speakers. We hook them to two different stereo soundbars (one in the living room and one on the patio) in order to "cast" audio to them from any mobile app that has casting enabled. They work great! Unfortunately, Google no longer sells them but you may be able to find some on e-Bay or an equivalent device from another manufacturer at Amazon.
  • One Chromecast with Google TV -- We have one of these hooked to our older TV to stream beautiful 4K and HD video. It's not a smart speaker, but it works great and the remote uses a built-in microphone to allow some streaming-related voice commands. Click here to learn more.
  • One Nest Video Doorbell -- We have the wired version of this device at our front door. When the doorbell button is pressed by a visitor all of our smart speakers announce that someone's at the door. In addition, if it's a regular visitor that the camera recognizes, the announcement will include that person's name. And, like any security camera, it makes video recordings of all events that are triggered by outside motion, loud noises or ringing the doorbell. And our Google Assistant, activated through a smart speaker voice command, can live stream the doorbell camera to our smart TV so we can see the "big picture" of what's going on outside from the safety of our living room!  Click here to learn more.
  • [Update, 3/25/2023: Three Google Nest Cams -- See full explanation in update note above.]
All of these Google products work well together and are easily adjusted, controlled and used as groups by using the Google Home app


At the beginning of this article I recalled Star Trek's omnipresent "Computer." I've shared all of the above to help you build your own unique smart home that emulates that ubiquitous computer. I've found the process of designing and setting up my smart home to be a fun and gratifying journey. And, with a little patience and effort, I'm sure you will too. 


* Goodbye, Google Home! -- NOTE: We purchased our first Google Home smart speaker shortly after it was introduced in late 2016. It was Google's only smart speaker at the time and cost roughly $130. We liked it so much we bought three more and are still happily using them many times each day. However, Google stopped selling them at the Google Store in mid 2020, though some are still available online at substantial discounts from several retailers, including Walmart.  

The Discontinued Google Home (left) & 
the Google Nest Audio (right) that replaced it

In the meantime, Google has replaced the original Google Home with the Google Nest Audio smart speaker, which currently retails for $99. As I said earlier, the Nest Audio sounds a little better than the discontinued Google Home. If I were in the market today for Google smart speakers I would definitely buy the Google Nest Audio instead of the discontinued Google Home. 

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