There’s no place like (a smart) home. Here’s our picks of the best gadgets and devices of 2021 that will have your home working smarter, not harder. If you’re already connecting your lightbulbs, speakers, doorbells, security cameras and more to the internet — or perhaps you’ve paid more attention to smart home gadgets since many of us are still working from 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 Alexa- or Google Assistant-powered smart speaker, or even Siri and Apple’s HomeKit smart home service.
Amazon Echo (4th gen)
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.
Google Nest Mini
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.
Google Nest Hub (2nd gen)
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. Now, there’s a second-gen model for 2021 with a lower price and more features.
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 onscreen. Google’s Soli is also onboard for Sleep Sensing and Quick Gestures like pausing media with an air tap in front of the display.
These are some of the best smart home systems of 2021.