Smart home guide for beginners: Make your home more convenient to live in without spending lots of time or money

One way to build out a smart home is to buy lots of components—sensors, smart bulbs, security cameras, speakers, and whatnot—and connect them all to a hub that helps them communicate with each other and with you, via your smartphone. But let’s be real: That can involve spending a lot of money and investing a lot of time. And for some people, it’s just overkill. If your wants and needs are simpler, just a few relatively inexpensive products will deliver most of the conveniences a high-end smart home can deliver, and on a much more modest budget.

And if you make sure those smart home products are compatible with each other, you’ll build a solid foundation that you can expand over time. The key is knowing which smart home products don’t depend on a smart home hub to operate. While hubs offer advantages—the most important of which is having a single user interface to control everything—they’re not always essential. One thing you must have, however, is a good wireless router—ideally one that can reach all corners of your home.

Here some a few common ways you can build a hub-free smart home system.

Updated December 23, 2020 to change several recommendations.

Smart lighting

For most people interested in living in a smart home, lighting is the entry point. Many smart lighting systems work perfectly well without a central hub and are still capable of interacting with other smart home elements. Bulbs from Cree, LIFX, and TP-Link, for example, communicate over Wi-Fi, while some others—including the newest Philips Hue bulbs—communicate via the Bluetooth radio in your smartphone.

philips hue bluetooth Signify

The latest generation of Philips Hue smart bulbs can be controlled via Bluetooth, eliminating the need for a Philips Hue Bridge.

Some other smart bulbs rely on Zigbee radios and therefore depend on a Zigbee-to-Wi-Fi bridge connected to your router. You can control any of these smart bulbs with an app on your smartphone or tablet, which you can also use to program lighting scenes and schedules.

If most of your home’s lighting is in the ceiling and controlled by a switch on the wall, you might be better served by replacing those dumb switches with smart switches and dimmers, instead. That’s because a smart bulb becomes dumb the instant you turn off the switch controlling it. Leviton, Lutron, TP-Link, Ecobee, and other manufacturers make smart light switches that operate on your Wi-Fi network and don’t require a central hub. Check out Noon Home’s system for a super sophisticated, but relatively expensive, lighting control system.

If you use lamps for most of your lighting, a smart plug such as the Lutron Caséta or Wemo Mini will enable you to turn the lamp on and off—and dim its dumb light bulb—with a smartphone app and according to a schedule.