The key ingredient for any smart home is the network. While more and more devices connect to mobile technologies like 3G, 4G and traditional cellular, the most economical and secure network for your home is still a fixed wired or wireless one. LAN (wired Ethernet) has been around for decades but is still cheap, fast and compatible. If you’re building a new house, renovating or don’t mind DIY, installing CAT6 LAN cables are ideal, and will be fast enough to power your smart home devices probably for the next decade. CAT5e is the minimum cable type that is recommended to ensure reliable data speeds of at least 1 Gigabit over long distances but to truly relax buy CAT6 knowing you can reach speeds of 10 Gigabits up to 100m distances in the future if your devices need it. If you need to route cables externally through doorways or other tight spaces, CAT5e might be better since the cable is thinner, more flexible and can be flatter (if you choose flat cables). But bear in mind your network is the critical backbone of your smart home so investing a little more money and time is best if you plan to live in your home for many years. A 100Mbit LAN can support Blu-ray 1080p content; possibly 4k video, and you can be rest assured that a 1 Gigabit LAN should support your media streaming needs for at least the next 10 years. After all, Gigabit Ethernet can transfer data at more than 100 MB/s, while 1080p Blu-ray streaming requires only around 5% of that.
Every smart home needs a wireless WIFI network too, but it’s much more difficult to reliably distribute digital content about your home using WIFI – you will save countless hours and money by choosing a wired LAN as the backbone of your digital home. If you absolutely must use WIFI, ensure you invest as much as possible in your router and choose one with fantastic antenna performance and range, as well as the latest specification of WIFI available in the market.
Since we are focusing on a budget smart home, “powerline” Ethernet adapters are not recommended due to their relatively high cost versus reliability. But if you are confident in their performance, they can be superior to WIFI.
While technology is becoming more and more “distributed”, a central server is the standard and perfectly future-proof solution for your home. By “server” we mean a system comprising a processor, file storage and networking. The range in servers is huge – you could have a single USB drive connected to the network and call it a server, or a powerful computer with massive storage. For most people, a system with at least one hard drive and a processor less than five years old is adequate. Of course, the server should be wired directly into your network at the fastest possible connection speed. You can purchase a “DLNA” server, “NAS” server (for several hundred US dollars) or high-end system to control your entire house (several thousand or more US dollars). But in fact any personal computer, laptop or even a capable Internet router will suffice. Some internet routers have a USB port that you can connect a USB hard drive to, and the router’s processor can handle the media streaming, provided the router has appropriate software installed, such as a DLNA server. You can install free DLNA or other server software on a Windows or Mac PC in minutes. Basically you can re-use an old computer to act as a home server, or buy/make a new computer specially. Many networking devices run on Linux, so if you see something like a NAS or DLNA server for sale, just remember you can install Linux on an old computer and easily replicate or surpass the supposedly high performance dedicated servers for sale today. When choosing your server, make sure a) It’s networking speed is at least 100Mbits b) It has plentiful storage space c) The processor is at least less than five years old. Normally, providing the network speed is very fast and the processor quite recent, spend as much money as possible on the storage, such as multiple, high-capacity hard disks.
So now you have the high power and superfast data ready for plugging your devices into, the first thing you’ll probably want is some music. Because you’ll need it to keep you energized while you install and setup the rest of your smart home! If your server is already online, or you have a portable storage device like a phone, you will need some kind of music receiver. It could be short-range like Bluetooth, or have longer range like WIFI. But the most important aspect is convenience – with music you want instant playback or listening becomes more stress than enjoyment. Look for a music receiver with always-on connection like Bluetooth, WIFI, or simply a 3.5mm analogue input cable ready to plug into. If all your music is on your server, again convenience reins supreme – choose a music player with fast and easy navigation to find your favorite song or playlist. Then, just add speakers! For TV, video, movies and games you will need some kind of screen – be it a computer screen, TV, projector or portable device like an iPad. But not all screens are created equal – some are smart, some aren’t. If your screen is just a display alone, you will need something with a processor to retrieve and control your content. New “Smart” TV’s have the necessary processor and software to work with most servers – if you have an older TV or just a screen you can buy a “Smart TV box” or “Dongle” that can do the same. Unlike Music, for video content you do need a good processor to display your content reliably, so choose a newer “Smart” TV or media player. Normally speaking, the newer it is, the longer you will be able to use it.
You create information wherever you are; the question is how and where to store it until you need it next. If you have a server, this is the natural place to store it. If not, it’s another reason to invest in a reliable server. Your information is critical – the server should have redundancy, meaning at least one backup of itself that can be restored. Once you’ve got your information to the server (by copying over the network manually or with automated backup software) you can either backup your server’s information manually (which is a rather wasteful endeavor) or choose a server than can do this automatically. For most servers, the minimum requirement here is two hard disks, of which one will be a mirror image of the other (known as RAID 1). If one disk fails and all information is lost, the other retains an exact copy. Given the higher importance of digital information today such as photos, documents, designs and such like, implementing a redundancy system is critical. Aside from storing your important files, web-accessed information such as news can be downloaded via your network and accessed on any smart device such as a tablet or screen. For example a screen in the kitchen to access recipes or check the news at breakfast time.
On a budget, one cannot expect impervious defenses from hackers or casual snoops. But you must spend some time thinking about security. Step one is to change any default device passwords. Step two is to limit access to your private files from people who don’t need it (should as guests). Step three is to install and maintain antivirus software and firewalls on your server and/or other devices in the network. Finally, private information should be securing by encrypting it so only the password holder can open it. Consider encrypting all the secure files on your server such as financial and personal information, digital document scans etc.
On the flip side, your smart home can be a security asset, not just a risk. With your network ready, LAN or WIFI enabled cameras can be plugged in around your home and setup to stream video to the server.
Finally, physically secure your server. It should be kept somewhere safe from damage and thievery.