What you don’t need: a fully tricked-out futuristic house that can sense and fulfill your needs before you feel them. But if you want to make your life just a little bit easier, run a little bit more smoothly, here’s the tech that’s up to the task.
The pandemic saw us spending a lot of time in our homes. Whether we were scrolling or reading or binge-watching HGTV, our couch cushions got very little time to decompress. Our fridges and stoves got more action than ever before as we cooked every. Single. Meal. We worked out of guest bedrooms, cooled off in new wading pools, and bought allll the bread makers. We set up our laptops at kitchen tables and grabbed the cheapest ergonomic chairs we could find on Amazon. At some point, we decided that every work call needed to take place on Zoom.
It was a lot. Luckily, it was also an opportunity to reassess our living spaces. Where anything was lacking, we could rethink and optimize. That often meant painting walls, changing up light fixtures (or finally switching to LED bulbs), and investing in landscaping, real patio furniture, and a firepit. And a lot of us started making our homes “smarter.” Use of digital assistants like Alexa and Google Home spiked during quarantine: According to a homes.com survey, 68 percent of consumers added a smart product to their home during the pandemic. Those who had them reported using them multiple times daily.
The idea of the “smart home”—where your lights can be controlled by your voice, or your fridge can text you when you’re running low on milk—has been around for more than a decade. At first it was just out-there ideas for early adopters, more about cool points than functionality. The latest generation of smart-home products aren’t that. The technology’s had time to mature, so there are better ideas, fewer bugs, fewer fancy functions you don’t need, and a solid track record of security (these things are linked to the internet, remember!). And they’ve gotten easier to use. If you can download an app on your phone, you can handle most smart tech.
To help you decide which products might be a worthwhile upgrade, we’ve gone room by room, identifying the best thermostats, toasters, showerheads, mattresses, and more. Don’t worry: None of them will push you toward a sterile futuristic Jetsons reality. You just want to ease your load a bit, and we have 17 ways to get you there.
Both the Brava smart oven (starting at $1,095) and the Tovala smart oven ($99, with meals starting at $11.99 each) answer the dreaded “What’s for dinner tonight?” quicker than you can order a pizza. The Brava cooks with infrared heat and can handle three different foods at a time—even if they require different temperatures! Just put in a main and two sides and hit a few buttons, and your space-age oven senses the types of foods inside and cooks them, serving dinner for up to four people. The Tovala uses similar tech but it’s based on a meal-subscription service. Each dish comes with a QR code, so you don’t have to hit buttons: Just scan the code, put the food inside, and relax till dinner’s ready.
Composting is a few obvious things: It’s good for the environment because it reduces waste, and it’s good for your garden because it makes the best fertilizer there is. What it’s not: fast. But with the new Pela Lomi ($499 plus $39 every 3 months for filters and additives), you can turn everything from banana peels to chicken bones to biodegradable plastic into nutrient-rich compost in only 24 hours. It’s so good that it’s back-ordered, but reserve yours now for shipment in the next couple of months.
If there were such a thing as a good “dumb” toaster—one that could consistently make non-burnt toast or heat up a frozen bagel without charring the outside and leaving the inside ice cold—we wouldn’t need the Revolution R180 high-speed smart toaster ($350). But there isn’t, and we do. The R180 uses infrared heat to give everything from bread to waffles to Pop-Tarts a crunchy outside and a perfectly warm inside. It uses a simple touch screen, so all you have to do is find the picture of what you want to toast and push it. And when you want to go beyond bread, there’s an available panini press insert (that makes quesadillas) and a warming rack above the toaster for muffins, croissants, and other large baked goods.
After more than a year of washing our hands every time we touched anything, anywhere, the prospect of a touchless soap pump is very appealing. The Simplehuman rechargeable sensor pump ($70) is sleekly designed, with an adjustable output and USB-chargeable battery that lasts for months.
Another thing we could deal with never touching again is a messy trash bag. The 4-gallon Townew T1 trash can ($120) uses a sensor to automatically raise the lid when you bring garbage close. But what makes it truly unique is that, once full, the T1 will bag and seal the garbage for you. Hit a button, and after a whirring noises and the slight scent of warm plastic, the lid pops open to reveal a sealed trash bag—with no dental floss, old bandages, or, yes, diapers trying to escape.
If you’re a podcast fan or a morning person with pep in her step, the Kohler Moxie ($99) incorporates a Bluetooth speaker into a 1.75-gpm showerhead. The speaker, made in partnership with Harman Kardon (an exceptional audio brand), is held by magnets, so it’s easy to remove to charge—or to bring to the bedroom to keep the music going while you’re getting dressed.
Google Home and Alexa are the best-known smart speakers, offering music playback and voice control over any of your home’s connected devices. But they’re made by tech companies. The Sonos One smart speaker ($219) is made by one of the best audio companies around. It does all the same stuff the other guys can do, with nearly studio-quality sound. Plus, if you have other Sonos speakers, the One will pair with them seamlessly for stereo sound.
Once you start using smart-home products, you may be disappointed by some of the regular ones. A smart plug like the Kasa Mini ($15) lets you turn any device into a smart device. It plugs into a traditional outlet, and anything you plug into it is controllable through an app or your smart speaker. You can set a schedule for any old lamp, or turn it on and off with your voice, right from your couch. And the next time you get hot and don’t want to walk to the fan, Alexa will turn it on for you.
After 18 months of having their owners around all day, pets will be dealing with serious withdrawal once everyone is back at school and work. The Furbo dog camera ($69) lets you check in on Fido any time you have your phone and an internet connection. There’s a bark alert to tell you when your fur baby is stressed, and a talk feature that lets them hear your voice so they can calm down. You can even use the app to dispense treats if Fido’s being so good!
If there’s a gateway smart-home device, it’s the Google Nest Thermostat ($130). Not only does it have a sleek design and low price (and the simplest thermostat setup we’ve seen, smart or dumb), it’ll also help you lower your energy consumption by automatically going into an “eco” mode when it notices no one is home. It can even give you a heads-up when your AC or heater is acting funny and might need a service call.
If you don’t mind giving a little more money to Google, the Google Nest Protect ($119) is a combination smoke-and-CO2 alarm that goes above and beyond. If you’re at the office and someone burns toast at home, the Protect will beep and tell you the degree of danger. Plus, instead of chirping incessantly if the battery is low, the Protect tests its own power and tells you when it’s going to run out. And when you walk under it at night on the way to the bathroom, it’ll turn on a little light, which is nice.
Got sleep issues? Who doesn’t? It may be your body temp: Humans sleep best in cool conditions, and when your body gets too warm at night, you’ll sleep restlessly and wake regularly. Trouble is, the ideal temp is different for everyone. ChiliSleep’s Ooler System (starting at $640) has a science-y solution: a mattress pad with channels that circulate warm and cool water. The app helps you find your perfect sleeping temp and tells the pad when to cool you down and when to let you warm up and wake refreshed, ready to take on the day.
Opening the bedroom shades in the morning is kind of like making the bed: A lot of us don’t bother since we know we’ll just be undoing the effort a few hours later. While it won’t make your bed for you, the Smith & Noble Scott Living (from $163) line offers dozens of options for custom voice-controlled shades. Set up a schedule via an app, or use your smart speaker to command them to do the work for you.
Water damage is one of the biggest dangers to your home—and one of the most expensive issues to diagnose. Instead of hoping to catch a leak in time, put a YoLink sensor ($40 for sensor and hub) in the laundry room, under the water heater, or anywhere you’re worried about. The second it senses water, you get an alert on your phone so you can stop it before the damage is done.
If you’ve ever gotten to the grocery store or left for vacation only to suddenly think you might have left the garage door open, ADT’s garage controllers (starting at $160, as part of the Command and Control security package) can put your mind at ease. Just pull up the app to see if the door is open or shut. You’ll get alerts when it’s left open, and you can open it for the dog walker while you’re away.
The Span Smart Panel ($3,500 before installation) is beyond smart—it’s brilliant. It lets you control every circuit in your home from an app , which is useful if you’re traveling and a fuse blows or the power goes out. But it also future-proofs your home for any electrical or tech innovation, like solar, and it includes a lot of the equipment you need for it, which will net out in savings.
By Ian Beasley | Illustrations by Errata Carmona | All images courtesy of the brands