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How to Make It Easier to Control Smart Home Devices From Your Phone

Illustration for article titled How to Make It Easier to Control Smart Home Devices From Your Phone
Screenshot: iOS

Setting up your smart home and controlling it from your phone is easier than it’s ever been. Both Android 11 and iOS 14 include features to further simplify smart home management.

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Here’s how to set everything up and make sure your smart lights, cameras, thermostats, and other devices can all be operated from a single screen.

Adding new devices

Your central management console for your smart home is Google Home if you’re on Android, the Home app that’s part of iOS if you’re using an iPhone, or Amazon Alexa for Android or iOS if you want to use a third option instead. Alexa offers compatibility with a lot of third-party products, but doesn’t have quite the same tight integration to your phone’s operating system as the apps from Google and Apple.

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You’ll need to set up your smart devices through the manufacturer’s own app first, and once they’re registered on your wifi network, they should be easy for other apps to find (assuming they’re compatible, of course). If your new device works with Apple HomeKit, for example, open the iOS Home app, switch to the Home tab, and then tap + then Add Accessory and follow the instructions.

Illustration for article titled How to Make It Easier to Control Smart Home Devices From Your Phone
Screenshot: Amazon Alexa

Inside the Google Home app, meanwhile, you need to tap the + button (top left on the opening screen) to add a new device—you may see a prompt to install a new device if the app has already recognized it on your network. In the Amazon Alexa app, new gadgets can be added via the + button in the top right-hand corner of the Devices tab.

All three of these apps—from Apple, Google and Amazon—will invite you to name your new device and assign it to a room, which makes managing groups of devices easier. There’s nothing to stop you adding your smart home gear to all of these apps if you want to, as well as keeping the manufacturer’s app installed too (this will usually have a greater variety of options and features to play around with).

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New Android 11 and iOS 14 features

Android 11 has brought the devices installed in Google Home to the power button shortcut screen—if you long press the power button on selected phones (including the Pixels), you’ll see the option to turn off your device, view your Google Pay cards, and tap shortcuts to the smart home gadgets you have set up.

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You don’t get much in the way of control from this screen—it’s basically just a series of toggle switches and sliders—but it does save you from opening up the Google Home app every time you want to turn a smart light on or off. If you long press on any of the tiles you can access more options; to change which tiles show up on screen, tap the three dots to the top right and then Add controls or Edit controls.

Illustration for article titled How to Make It Easier to Control Smart Home Devices From Your Phone
Screenshot: Android
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As for iOS 14, there isn’t quite the same level of reshuffling, but you will find the front screen of the Home app is now more intelligent in how it arranges the shortcuts to your various devices—the top bar of the app will show you smart home gadgets that might need your attention, like lights that are switched on or garage doors that are unlocked.

Various other changes have been made to the Home app in iOS 14 as well: When you add new devices, you’ll see suggested automations pop up immediately (turning lights off when you leave the house, for example). These automations can still be added and modified later on, but having them available during setup is convenient.

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Device grouping and management

The key benefit of importing all your smart home devices into the apps from Apple, Google, and Amazon is that you can manage and access them in one place, irrespective of different models and manufacturers. By putting your devices together in groups, this sort of one-tap management gets even more convenient—you’re then able to turn everything off (or on) in a room with one button push.

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In the Apple Home app on iOS, tap Rooms and then swipe left or right to see the ones that have already been configured—the + button in the top right corner can be used to add new devices. You can also long press on any device, then tap the settings cog in the lower right hand corner to assign it to a room. Shortcuts will then appear at the top of each room to control groups of gadgets together.

Illustration for article titled How to Make It Easier to Control Smart Home Devices From Your Phone
Screenshot: iOS
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In Google Home for Android, you need to tap Settings on the front screen and then Rooms and groups—the next screen lets you see the rooms you’ve got configured and add devices to them. You can also move a device between rooms by tapping on it then tapping the cog icon (top right). Where appropriate—with lights, for example—devices in the same room will be grouped so you can control them together.

If you’re using the Amazon Alexa app to control your smart home, open the Devices tab and then tap the + button to create new groups, which can be rooms or groups within rooms. Your groups appear on the main Devices screen, where you can control them separately or all together. You’ll also notice that all the devices in your smart home are listed at the top, organized by type, which gives you another way of accessing them.

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Voice control and routines

Tapping buttons to operate your smart devices is convenient enough, but voice control might be even easier: The commands you need to say after, “Hey, Siri, “OK, Google, or “Hey, Alexa,” are fairly obvious when it comes to operating your gadgets, and of course these will work through any connected smart speakers as well. You can refer to entire rooms and groups as well as individual devices.

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All three of the apps we’ve mentioned have an extra layer of control and automation. The Apple Home app offers what it calls Scenes, which you can access from the Home tab. These are groups of commands that kick into action together, which can be controlled manually or via Automations, which are on the Automations tab—they can run individual commands or entire Scenes based on your location, on the time of day, or a report from a sensor.

Illustration for article titled How to Make It Easier to Control Smart Home Devices From Your Phone
Screenshot: Amazon Alexa
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Google Home and Amazon Alexa combine these two ideas into what are called Routines. From the front screen of the Google Home app, tap Routines to start building one. It works similarly to Apple’s Scenes: A bunch of actions (turn off the lights, turn up the heat, whatever you like) are bundled into one command that can be triggered with a single phrase, or run based on the time of day or your current location.

The Routines in the Amazon Alexa app work in just about exactly the same way, and can be configured by tapping More and then Routines in the app. Use them to turn all your lights off at night, to turn on certain devices in the morning, or to get news reports or playlists through your smart speakers, among other actions.

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DISCUSSION

ImALeafOnTheWind
ImALeafOnTheWind

About 10 years ago, I set up a bunch of android phones and tablets around the house on docking stations pared down to just full-time displaying a custom smarthome + whole-home audio control panel with weather forecast and time. This was with a smart home hub as the back end that even gave “scenes” capabilities so macro-like commands would trigger multiple events instead of having to issue a bunch of separate commands (what we call “routines” now). 

That was nice, but the game changer really was when the Echo came along and I discovered HA Bridge to augment the voice control . This was superior to Alexa custom “skills” that manufacturers developed because we weren’t forced to say “Alexa, tell (home control subsystem) to turn the lights on” and could go straight to saying “Alexa, turn on/off (voice control shortcut name)”.

So although smartphone control is nice as a supplement to your primary control scheme, it’s still more convenient to be able to control stuff without going to a panel in the room or forcing you to carry around your tablet/smartphone in the house everywhere. This also allows guest control if you don’t have control panels in common areas (when our parents would visit they had a hard time with the smarthome stuff before voice command).