1. Good Wi-Fi Is Your Backbone
All of the devices mentioned here require a solid Wi-Fi network to work. That means you’ll need – at the very least – an 802.11N Wireless Router that covers your entire home. For a bigger home, you’ll want extenders or bridges.
Apple’s Airport Extreme ($199) is super easy to set up and very reliable, and if you already have Apple products, this is a no-brainer as it works flawlessly with things like AirPlay (audio and video transmission), file sharing, and more.
Linksys routers are fan favorites and run a lot less. They’re time tested, there are tons of options for main units, bridges, and extenders, and there’s a huge community of users who will help you get things set up properly.
2. Control Everything: Logitech Harmony Ultimate
If Wi-Fi is your backbone, this is your brain. This Wi-Fi and Infrared universal remote ($299,) is an essential hub that ties a lot of these products together. It controls your entertainment devices (TV, receiver, SONOS, DVR, cable box, etc.) as well as other Wi-Fi-enabled gear like a Nest thermostat and Hue lights. Think of it as your central control station. Plus, its accompanying app for smartphones and tablets means you can control your gear from anywhere as long as you’re connected.
The Harmony Ultimate Hub includes an IR-blaster that sends IR signals to all your entertainment devices (receivers, cable boxes, etc.). That means you can control virtually everything in your house via Wi-Fi and Apps since the Harmony is converting all those signals to IR for the devices that need it. In short, virtually everything that can take commands from a remote will be controllable. (Bonus: You no longer need to point the remote at devices!)
3. Macro Madness
On top of that, the Harmony makes it easy to set up activities that include as many settings and devices as you need. Want to watch a movie? Create an activity that dims the lights (read about Hue below), turns on the TV, turns on your Blu-Ray player, puts your receiver in surround mode, and even lower the temperature of the room to theater-like settings.
I set up macros (multi-device setting collections, or “activities” as Harmony calls them) to watch movies (blue lighting, cool temps), play games on the PS4 (lights on low, receiver in game mode, TV on bright settings), and have dinner (bright lights and receiver on an internet jazz station). The possibilities are endless, and you’ll find yourself coming up with new activity settings as you integrate this setup into your daily life.
4. Nest Learning Thermostat
Ever wish you could change the temperature from bed when you realize the summer night is just a bit balmier than you thought? Ever want to track your energy usage? Or maybe you want a different setting for when you’re home and when you’re away and not have to bother with manual adjustments every time you head out.
The Nest Learning Thermostat ($249) enables all these things and more. What’s more, it looks really sharp: a simple circular dial with a bright color LED screen that only turns on when it senses you’re near.
Since Nest gets on your Wi-Fi network, it can also be controlled by the Harmony (or from its own app). This means that when I sit down to watch the game, I can also change the temperature of the room. Or, better yet, I can just tell my system to lower the temperature any time I’m watching a movie.
Getting your environmental controls into your network is not only useful, it makes a lot of sense from an energy usage standpoint. Nest learns from the way you change temperatures and will automatically change things throughout the day. You won’t even notice the AC isn’t on at times, and by the time you do, you’ve already saved. At the end of each month, you’ll get an energy-usage report from the device. In our two months of experimenting with the device, I’ve already saved about 15 percent in energy costs.
5. Philips Hue Lighting
Lighting technology has changed a lot in the past few years. Incandescent went the way of compact fluorescent, but now LED lighting is quickly becoming the way of the future. LED combines the best of both worlds: Incandescent’s brightness and controllability with CFL’s efficiency and long life.
The Philips Hue system ($169) consists of lights (duh) and a hub (they call it a “bridge”) that gets on your network and allows for control via Wi-Fi. You can have 50 lights per bridge, each one assigned a name (say, “Bedroom” and “Kitchen 1, 2, 3”). Each light can be turned on or off individually or in groups, adjusted for brightness, and in the case of the newer lights, color.
In my condo, I set up three lights in the kitchen, one for flooding a corner, another in a bedroom and a light strip for ambience in a dining area. Setup was easy, and I easily created scenes that could then be added to activities on the Harmony or simply selected from the Hue app. I also set up Hue to know that I was coming home – it turns on my kitchen lights once I am within 200 yards. This makes walking in welcoming and safe.
Creating custom scenes is fun: you can choose from a full color spectrum or upload a picture and have the lights mimic those colors. My favorite turned out to be a picture of our cat Sparky with natural tones of Norwegian Forest Cat spread throughout the living room. It’s like sitting on a giant cat. In a good way.
Switching over to Wi-Fi-controlled lighting means you’ll need to train yourself to forgo normal switches. In short, light switches remain in the “on” position and anything beyond that is controlled via app. Or, as I did, you can pick up the Hue Tap Remote ($59), which allows you to preset three scenes plus an “all-off” setting. I wall mounted the Tap near the old-school switches and never think twice about it. What’s more, the Tap is easily removed from its wall plate to be used throughout the house.
6. Sonos Wireless Hi-Fi System
Wires are so 20th Century. With Sonos, you can stream music from virtually any device to Sonos Wi-Fi speakers, add speakers as you choose, set them up as a surround system, or just add them as zones in various rooms of your house. In short, there’s very little you can’t do with Sonos. Even better, everything is controllable via Wi-Fi and, yes, via the Harmony Ultimate.
In my condo, I use a Sonos Playbar ($699) as a central unit in front of a TV. It handles that TVs sound and plays music just fine, but I also added a Play:1 ($199) speaker to a bathroom. With this setup, I have TV and movie sound in the home theater along with an extension in the bedroom when I have to step out but still want to hear what was happening on TV (say during a baseball game when pausing was a bit of overkill).
Even better, I can send music from my smartphone to the system in whatever configuration I want: mirrored in the bathroom, music in one room and TV in the other, or even an Internet radio station in one room and music from my library in another. In short, Sonos gives you the remote-controllability you’re looking for with the flexibility to stream whatever it is you want to hear. It’s like every speaker in your house is connected to everything. My favorite “scene” is part of the “Dinner at home” macro that includes some nice low Hue lighting and jazz from Pandora on the Sonos that follows me to the bathroom. Beat that, ’50s guy!