An in-depth look at Nest and home automation

What if all the devices in your life could connect to the Internet? Not just computers and smartphones, but everything: Clocks, garage doors, speakers, appliances, you name it. And what if they could all communicate and take your commands? It's not science fiction, it's the "Internet of Things" (IoT), and it's becoming a key pillar of home automation.

Home automation is just what it sounds like: Automating the ability to control items around the house – from window shades to pet feeders – with a simple push of a button (or a voice command). Some things, like setting up a lamp to turn on and off at your command, are simple and relatively inexpensive, but others, like surveillance cameras, may require a more serious investment of time and money.

Still, imagine monitoring your home using an interface on your computer, tablet, or smartphone, or even panels mounted around the house.

Think home automation is just for the über geeky? It's going seriously mainstream. Just this week, Google made a big investment in it, spending $3.2 billion (£1.9 billion) to buy Nest Labs, the company behind some of the highest profile home automation/IoT products now available.

At CES, meanwhile, Samsung announced its Smart Home initiative, which will give you control over TVs and appliances from your Galaxy smartphone. Archos is also getting in on the act, making a Connected Home system with an option to buy a 7in home gateway tablet to control it all.

Of course, hubs that control everything around the house, which you access via your always-present phone or tablet, are readily available for the tech-savvy homeowner. Just about every utility and security company has had a finger in the home automation pie for a while, but with big moves like this from Google and Samsung, you can expect experts in super-simple technology – we're looking at you, Apple – to join the fray or get left behind. Get in on the ground floor and become the home automation expert.

Home automation technologies

Before you think about buying a bunch of home automation products, you should understand the technologies involved in setting up and using them. There are many different types of communication protocols that products use to talk to each other and their controllers. Some are wired, some are wireless, and some are a combination. Try to stick with one protocol when buying products; you'll be better off.

X10: This granddaddy of home automation protocols dates back to the 1970s and has gone from power line-based to wireless. X10 is not known for robust speed or great communication between units on the home automation network.

ZigBee: That's a name for a wireless 802 standard from the IEEE, which is to say, a bunch of gearheads came up with it before an outside group (the ZigBee Alliance) consisting of vendors made products to work with it. One of the key elements in IEEE 802.15.4 (its real name) is that it makes a mesh network so that most of the devices communicate equally. It's also very low power.

Z-Wave: Another wireless home automation protocol, Z-Wave is owned by one company, Sigma Designs, which makes all the chips for other vendors to make Z-Wave-capable products.

Insteon: This may be the best of all protocols because it combines wired power line-based protocol with wireless. Both work as a mesh; all nodes on an Insteon home automation network are peers that can communicate when in proximity. If one fails, the other mesh can take over. You can buy Insteon devices at Smarthome.com – which we mention below – a site which is run by SmartLabs, the developers of Insteon. It's compatible with X10.

Wi-Fi: This is the networking protocol we're all used to for sharing an Internet connection among laptops, game consoles, and so much more. It's super-fast and ubiquitous, so of course it's inevitable that some vendors would make home automation products to take advantage of that. The other protocols use less power and bandwidth but Wi-Fi's reach can't be understated, even if it is overkill to use it to turn a lamp on and off.

Do-it-yourself installations

Just as there are many home automation protocols, there are many lines of home automation products. Here's a quick rundown of some of the options on the market right now.

Nest Learning Thermostat

The Nest Learning Thermostat is like a piece of digital art that controls your temperature. It was, after all, designed by the guys who created the iPod. It has Wi-Fi built in so you can remotely control the temperature from a phone, tablet, or PC. At $250 (£150), it's not cheap, but Nest will look right at home in any smart house. It also now has an open API for third parties to get access. Hopefully that will continue now Google has taken over the company.

Nest Protect Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detector

Nest's second product premiered late last year: A modern take on the smoke and carbon monoxide detector. Whether hard wired or battery powered, the $129 (£80) Protect units are networked across the house to communicate if something goes wrong. They're controlled by the Nest software on your phone, and best of all, change the way you get alerted to danger. Rather than a shrill alarm that will scare the bejeezus out of you, Protect tells you in a calm voice that you better get out of the house.

Revolv Smart Home Automation Solution

We told you about a lot of home automation protocols and even recommended you stick with just one. But Revolv is calling us liars already by providing a $299 (£180) hub that talks to multiple protocols (Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, and Insteon for now, with more to come). You can access and control devices across the spectrum using the Revolv app on your iPhone (with Android coming soon) – including the Nest thermostat, Sonos speakers, Philips Hue lightbulbs, and more.

Belkin WeMo

Belkin has released several products in its WeMo line that use Wi-Fi to talk to your home router and then to the Internet. The line consists of a $50 (£30) WeMo Home Light Switch, an £80 Motion Sensor that allows motion to activate devices plugged into WeMo switches anywhere in the house, a £40 outlet control switch, and an £80 baby monitor. All can be controlled with Belkin's mobile apps for iOS and Android. Belkin has other products on the WeMo roadmap, including kitchen appliances, door locks, and garage door openers.

Smarthome Brand

Smarthome is two things: It’s a line of products using the Insteon tech, and a catalogue/ecommerce site that resells those products (and a lot of other home automation devices from companies like Leviton, Bose, Lutron, X10, Sony, Belkin, and others). It's a subsidiary of SmartLabs, which as we’ve already mentioned developed the dual-mesh Insteon tech. Whether you decide to back the Insteon horse or go for something else, Smarthome.com is the definite first stop for the do-it-yourself home automation lover. (HomeControls.com is another good shopping spot, and both of these sites ship internationally, although not necessarily with all products – and of course bear in mind additional customs charges).

Iris from Lowes

Developed with AlertMe from the UK, Iris was the first serious attempt to mainstream home automation made by a big box store in the United States. A starter kit with sensors for doors, windows, and motion is $179 (£110); as is the energy kit with a plug, smart thermostat, and hub. Combine the kits for $299 (£180), or get just the hub alone for $99 (£60). There's even a wireless indoor video camera for $129 (£80), and outdoor cam for $149 (£90), and host of third-party devices to use, such as a Schlage door lever, Kwikset deadbolt, GE wall switch, and First Alert smoke detectors. All devices talk to the hub-supporting Z-Wave and ZigBee, which in turn connects to the router via Wi-Fi so you can get home control over the Internet via your smartphone or PC – there are even voice controls for the iPhone. You can do a lot for free, or you can pay $9.99 (£6) a month to get automated messages and control it all from your smartphone or laptop.

Professional installations

ADT Pulse

We've all seen ADT security signs; they're a big name in home security. Now the company is not just monitoring, but providing control. Pulse includes the usual 24-hour security, but also remote video, remote alarm arming/disarming, thermostat control, flood and CO2 monitoring, and more. The system is Z-Wave based and controlled on mounted touchscreens, phones, tablets, and laptops. Pro install means it costs more, of course, but the peace of mind may be worth it.

TaHomA by Somfy

Z-Wave controlling a whole home shouldn't be too much to ask for. TaHomA is a system that offers just that, all controlled by mobile and web apps. This is more than just energy management and security; it can do all the cool stuff you see in movies, like lower projection screens or retract awnings and shutters. However, TaHomA is strictly for the richie-rich. It has to be installed by an authorised dealer, and a basic install runs about $2,500 (£1,500) to control 11 devices.

Savant SmartSystems

Savant Systems claims it was the first to put you in charge of your home using Apple iOS-based products (the host controller for the system in a home is a Mac mini), plus it also offers a menu that works on HDTVs. The cost will be substantial, but the services cover all the home automation monitoring and control possibilities.