04 Mar The best smart home devices for 2021
If you’re already connecting your lightbulbs, speakers, doorbells and more to the internet — perhaps you’ve paid more attention to smart home gadgets now that many of us are spending more time at home — you’ll know the process can be complicated. You might just need one device to address a particular issue, like a smart plug to put a lamp on a schedule. Or you may be thinking about how to build on what you already own, like an Amazon Alexa– or Google Assistant-powered smart speaker, or even Siri and Apple’s HomeKit smart home service.
We tend to think of the voice assistants as the starting point for building a do-it-yourself smart home. They offer a convenient way for family members or roommates to interact with the various devices without having to manage basic access within each app. Many, but not all, of the products on our list of the best smart home products will work with multiple voice assistants.
Before you dive into our picks for the best smart home devices, keep in mind that Amazon, Google and Apple have each released a new set of smart home speakers this year. Our reviews of Apple’s new HomePod Mini, Google’s Nest Audio and Amazon’s fourth-gen Echo speaker and the fourth-generation Echo Dot are live.
Now that you have more choice than ever before for your smart home hardware, here are the best of the best in smart home devices you can buy today.
Our list focuses narrowly on the best product in each smart home subcategory. If you want to know the best smart thermostat or the best smart lighting kit, regardless of which voice platforms support them, we have you covered. What this list is not is a road map for a single, coherent smart home installation (you won’t get far trying to pair an Amazon smart speaker with a Google smart display). For that, please refer to our platform-based lists linked below:
In each subcategory section, I’ve also added a link to the best list for that particular product type. If you’re looking for more options for lighting or locks, you’ll find a list of our favorite products if you’d like to see a broader selection. We regularly update this list as we review new products.
Amazon’s fourth-gen Echo is brand new and fairly impressive for its $100 price tag. Between its new spherelike profile, powerful sound output and a few forward-looking features, the Echo is still king of the countertop.
Google’s Nest Audio speaker, which also launched in 2020, is a solid competitor with the new Echo, and Apple’s new HomePod Mini plays well in the Apple sandbox, but Amazon wins out in two key categories: Its speaker is far more powerful — the bass is particularly impressive, and it features a built-in Zigbee receiver and Amazon Sidewalk Hub that make connecting devices like lightbulbs and locks to Wi-Fi much more seamless and reliable.
Meanwhile, Alexa and Google Assistant are pretty much at parity right now. While Amazon boasts about more skills and support for more third-party devices for its voice assistant, the numbers for Google Assistant also land in the tens of thousands, meaning you really don’t miss out on anything significant either way.
Read more: The best smart speakers of 2020
Google Assistant does a better job at mimicking natural conversation flow, but the difference isn’t really that noticeable in your day-to-day interaction with each speaker. Most of the time you’ll ask a smart speaker for the weather, to set a timer and maybe have it play a song or two. Both devices are good at all of that.
Google has another card to play, which you can read below.
Google’s Nest Mini smart speaker isn’t as powerful as the new Echo, obviously, but it’s a great budget-friendly option for Google-users.
The audio quality in the Nest Mini is respectable, given its price and profile. It also has a wall-mounting notch on the underside, if that’s what you’re into. An interesting presence detection method that uses the speaker and microphone to determine your proximity to the Nest Mini helps it trigger LED indicators that help you make better sense of the otherwise obscured physical volume controls.
That’s all fine, but the thing that puts the Nest Mini over the edge is the machine learning chip embedded inside the tiny speaker. With that chip, Google says the Nest Mini can learn what commands you give to it most often, and it will then begin to process those commands locally, rather than on Google’s servers.
Anything that helps to keep control of your smart home inside your home is worthwhile. Letting you continue to issue certain voice commands even if the internet goes out, and improved response times are great, too. While the Nest Mini doesn’t have the audio output jack that allows you to connect Echo Dots to better-quality speakers, it’s still one of our favorite devices — particularly for people who already use Google services like Gmail and Calendar with any regularity.
Amazon may have introduced the smart display with the Echo Show, but Google refined the concept with the Nest Hub (formerly the Home Hub) both in terms of its design, and in the way it leverages its voice assistant.
You get the same Google Assistant features in the Nest Hub that you get with the Google Home speaker line, along with a screen interface that gives you just the right amount of visual feedback. It will show you your spoken commands so you know Google heard you correctly, it can deftly walk you through a recipe from popular cooking websites, and it works seamlessly with Google-supported smart home cameras and video doorbells to display their camera feeds on screen.
Read more: The best smart displays of 2020
Google prudently opted out of including a video camera on the Hub itself, getting ahead of some privacy concerns, and likely prompting Amazon to include a manual video shutter on its new, smaller Echo Show 5 display. If you really want a Google-based smart display that allows for video chatting, a few third-party options can make that happen. Even without it, the Nest Hub is the best, most affordable marriage of a voice assistant and a display interface on the market.
Amazon’s midtier smart display is the best one in its line. For $130, the Echo Show 8 has great audio quality, a highly visible screen and a convincing nod to privacy with a physical shutter you can slide over its camera. We still like the interface better on the Google Nest Hub and Nest Hub Max. Those Google Assistant displays also have the edge in useful video due to the voice-activated YouTube integration, which Amazon’s lineup lacks. Regardless, for those of you who are committed to an Alexa-only ecosystem, the Echo Show 8 is the best smart display.
Wi-Fi is everything — particularly once you start spreading things like smart speakers, smart lights, smart plugs and smart all else from room to room. After all, those connected doodads won’t do you much good if they can’t, you know, connect.
That’s why a mesh router that’s built to spread a strong, speedy signal throughout your house might make for a particularly smart upgrade — especially if you’re living in a big home. Of the ones we’ve tested, we think the Nest Wifi is the smartest pick. At $269, the two-piece starter kit was able to fill the 5,800-square-foot CNET Smart Home with decent signal strength, and it never once dropped our connection as we moved around conducting speed test after speed test. On top of that, the range extender doubles as a smart speaker, so as you spread a reliable connection from room to room, you’ll be spreading Google Assistant’s footprint in your home with it.
Read more: The best Wi-Fi routers in 2020
The Nest Wifi doesn’t support the newest, fastest version of Wi-Fi, called Wi-Fi 6, but you really won’t notice the difference Wi-Fi 6 makes unless you’re already paying for super-fast internet speeds of 500 Mbps or more. Our upgrade pick, the Eero Pro 6, is the best choice if you want to serve up that kind of speed. What you will notice with the Nest Wifi is the ease of installation, the simple network controls that sit right alongside your smart home controls in the Google Home app, and advanced Wi-Fi features like device prioritization, WPA3 security, and 4×4 MU-MIMO support, which lets the Nest Wifi boost speeds to devices that use multiple Wi-Fi antennas, like the MacBook Pro.
The Nest Wifi is obviously best for Google smart homes, so Alexa users will likely want to stick with the Eero or Netgear Orbi. But if you just want solid Wi-Fi that you and your growing number of internet-connected gadgets can rely upon, put the Nest Wifi right at the top of your list.
We often point to smart plugs as the entry point for anyone interested in trying out a connected home device. They’re cheap, they’re simple to install and they perform a function that’s pretty easy to grasp, toggling power on and off remotely.
Read more: The best smart plugs of 2020
You can find a lot of smart plugs out there. TP-Link’s Kasa Mini is our favorite. It includes a single outlet that connects to your network via Wi-Fi. The app is well-designed and lets you program the plug to turn on or off on a schedule or even based on your location. It works with Google Assistant and Alexa, and it doesn’t cover up the adjacent outlet on a standard two-outlet wall fixture.
Philips Hue smart light bulbs have been our top pick for years, and with good reason. The company’s range of products is the broadest in the category, encompassing standard A19 bulbs, flood lights, light strips, fixtures and most recently an entire range of outdoor lighting options. That kind of variety makes it easy to bring the lighting scheme for your entire home onto the Hue service. It also helps that Philips supports Amazon, Google, and Apple’s voice assistants.
Read more: The best smart lights of 2020
The Hue line came to prominence with its color-changing bulbs, but the best way for most people to get started is with its standard white light bulbs. For $70, you can get a set of two bulbs and the Hue hub to get them online. Already own an Alexa or Google Assistant device? $30 will get you the new Bluetooth version of the bulbs, no extra hub needed.
Honorable mention: Wyze Bulb. This $9 smart bulb works with Alexa and Google Assistant, and it doesn’t require a hub. It’s not quite as fully featured as Philips Hue (it only comes as a standard A19 bulb, no HomeKit support), but it’s the best deal in this category.
Like its competitors, the Nest Thermostat chief among them, the Ecobee SmartThermostat is a Wi-Fi-based thermostat that lets you control your home heating and air conditioning system with an app or using your voice. A few features help it stand out.
Ecobee set itself apart with its earlier products by including a remote temperature sensor in the box with the thermostat. The thermostat itself can read the ambient temperature of whatever room it’s in and adjust accordingly. If you want it to adjust the temp based on the conditions in another room, just switch it over to the remote sensor. This is a useful accessory if your thermostat install point isn’t in a central location, or if you want to make sure a nursery or your home office is the focal point for the Ecobee’s temperature readings, rather than a far-flung hallway.
Read more: The best smart thermostats of 2020
You can buy the same accessory for older Nest thermostats, but Ecobee includes one in the box. Ecobee is also more agnostic about working with voice assistants than its Google-owned competitor. Where Nest will work with Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa (maintained perhaps as a legacy function from before Google purchased Nest), Ecobee supports Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri.
Perhaps most uniquely, the Ecobee SmartThermostat is itself an Amazon Echo speaker. You won’t be impressed by its audio output for playing music, but as a basic extender for Alexa around your home, the Ecobee does an admirable job. Maybe you actually want Alexa in that far-flung hallway.
All these features come at a higher price than the new $130 Nest Thermostat — and people looking for budget options may legitimately choose the Nest as a result. But $250 is a great price for all the extra goodies that accompany this Ecobee thermostat.
The Wyze Cam v3 is an excellent, affordable indoor/outdoor home security camera. At just $20, you get a ton of value for your money, especially with Wyze’s free 14-day video clip cloud storage. In addition to the free storage, the Wyze Cam v3 also has a built-in microSD card slot, if you want to opt for local rather than cloud storage (you’ll need to buy your own microSD card, though).
It also has a lot of basic security camera features, including HD live streaming, night vision and two-way talk, as well as support for Alexa and Google Assistant voice control.
Cameras are one thing, but if you’re really concerned about security across your entire home, your best bet is the SimpliSafe 3.0 kit. It starts at $229 for the base station, a keypad, a motion sensor, and an open/close sensor. That’s a start, but one of the things we like most about SimpliSafe is the ability to customize your set up from a selection of eight different sensors, from smoke to glass-break.
Unlike many whole-home security systems, SimpliSafe requires no contract to lock you into its service plan. You can opt into a $15-a-month professional monitoring package, but it’s not required, and you can cancel at any time.
Read more: The best home security systems of 2020
Competing systems from Ring, Nest, ADT and Vivint all offer similar-seeming combinations of hardware and a la carte service, but they all offer either too few features if you don’t opt-in to a service package, or start at significantly higher price points than SimpliSafe without making up the difference in better hardware. The one system we like that comes close is Abode, which has a higher starting price, but deeper integration with other smart home devices. Look into Abode if you don’t mind paying a little more upfront and you want it to work with other products. As a standalone product, SimpliSafe is our top pick.
When you consider that the Nest Hello clocks in at $229, Arlo’s $150 Video Doorbell offers a lot for the price. While many of Arlo’s cameras are expensive, if not overpriced, the Arlo Video Doorbell is much more reasonable.
The Arlo Video Doorbell is priced well, it performs well and the Arlo Smart cloud service is competitively priced, starting at just $3 per month. With Arlo Smart, you get a ton of features, from advanced motion alerts to 30 days of cloud storage and much more.
You’ll get a 180-degree viewing angle and a 1:1 aspect ratio to show packages left at your door. A built-in siren helps it function in part as a security camera, too.
Read more: The best video doorbells of 2021
There isn’t a free cloud storage option, and this is one of the larger doorbells at 5 inches tall. Still, we strongly recommend the Arlo Video Doorbell enough to give it an Editors’ Choice Award and say that it’s our current favorite video doorbell.
Smart locks make people nervous because they insert another point of failure between you and your physical security. With a smart lock, a malicious hacker, or even a plain old technical failure or connectivity issue could all of a sudden compromise the entry point of your home.
There might be some truth to that. A keyless design with no physical failsafe could indeed lock you out but the August Wi-Fi Smart Lock isn’t one of those locks.
Read more: The best smart locks of 2020
The August Wi-Fi Smart Lock is a breeze to install. It fits over the internal thumb latch of most existing deadbolt designs, and you can set it up in 10 minutes. Because it doesn’t replace the lock mechanism itself, you can still use your original, physical key. It’s good looking too, and 45% smaller than older August models.
The lock itself connects to your phone via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, and from the August app, you can assign and revoke timed virtual keys to anyone you like, from your in-laws to your dog sitter, at no extra cost. Many other locks will charge extra for virtual keys.
Because this model has Wi-Fi built in, you won’t need to purchase the August Connect accessory to enable remote access. Simply setup your lock with Wi-Fi in the app, and you can not only control the lock from anywhere, but you can also connect it to Alexa, Google Assistant, or Siri (be sure to make each of them require a PIN to accompany the unlock command) for added convenience.
Another accessory included with the Wi-Fi Smart Lock model is the tiny open-close sensor. This lets the lock tell you if it’s locked or unlocked and lets you know if the door itself is open or closed. It’s the most complete product available on the market for now.
Our favorite all-around security camera maker released a floodlight camera this spring that’s also a best-in-class product. It has all of the things we like about the Arlo camera line in general, long-lasting battery, a sharp HD video feed, mounting hardware that’s both flexible, easy to install and compatible with all three major voice platforms.
Along with all of that, Arlo has added the most powerful array of LED lighting in its category, leaving competing products from Ring and others in the darkness. The 2,000 lumen light (3,000 if you add the optional Outdoor Charging Cable) will light up your entire backyard if you want that kind of power. It’s also dimmable, which is useful if you still want your neighbors to like you.
CNET Smart Home and Appliances
Get smart home reviews and ratings, video reviews, buying guides, prices and comparisons from CNET.