Smart Devices- A Guide for Students Who Are Renting


The world of technology moves at something close to warp speed.

Every week there is a new “must have” gadget that will make our lives better and easier.

Only a few years ago all of the hype was on the next big thing in smart phones and tablets.

But now, it is all about the smart home- it is not just your phone that needs to be smart but your TV, coffee machine and lights do to.

This is the world of home automation…

And what does it all mean to you as a college student- living away from home in a dormitory or in private rented accommodation?

Should you be interested in making your home life smarter and more automated?

Is is possible to have a smart home, when you only rent?

In this in- depth guide, I will lead you through the “Home Automation Haze”.

I will separate the important from the irrelevant so that you can decide what’s important for you.

To make it easier, I have split my article into nine “easy to read” chapters.

These are listed below. Click on the chapter that you want to visit next.

Let’s go!

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Chapter 1: Definitions

A smart device (also called a smart appliance, connected device, or smart home device) “is an electronic device that can connect wirelessly to other devices and networks” (Wikipedia.)

But what are the defining features of a smart device?

  1. One of the most attractive features from a buyer perspective is that any smart device can be controlled remotely. Remote control means that the device can be controlled without physically touching it. And this means that you could be in the same room as the gadget or on the other side of the world.

This facility is usually provided via a free app (provided by the manufacturer of the smart device) that is installed on your smartphone (iPhone or Android.)

2. Another feature of a smart device is that it is compatible (it works with) other smart devices. What this means in practice, depends on the type of device. Multiple “actions” can take place from one “trigger.”

One scenario, is as follows.

As a student returns home on a winter’s evening and unlocks their smart lock (the trigger), the following actions occur automatically.

[a] Smart lights inside the front door turn on

[b] The smart kettle begins to boil and

[c] Some music starts to play via a smart speaker.

And so a smart home, apartment, room or dormitory is “a space” in which there is one or more smart devices.

But just how popular is this technology?

Chapter 2: Facts & Stats

The sales of smart home devices are rocketing.

In 2014, Americans spent $3.24 billion on smart devices and in 2017 this is set to almost triple to $9.4 billion.

In terms of numbers of devices in US home and businesses, that will be an estimated 30 billion gadgets!

This market will continue to grow at 21% per year until at least 2021.

Although, it is not known how much college students spend on smart home devices, it is thought that people under the age of 34 account for 40% of the market.

There is also a strong link between people who own and use smartphones frequently and those who buy smart home devices.

In a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, it was found that 100% of 18- 29 year olds in the U.S. owned a cell phone and that 92% of those were smartphones.

College Students As Renters

Now at this point you might be asking what renting has to do with smart home devices?!

Put simply, there are some smart home devices, that as a tenant, you will not be able to install because of limitations in your tenancy agreement.

But, more of that in a bit.

It is thought that approximately 80% of college students are in rented accommodation either in dormitories on campus or in private housing off campus.

In the US, there is a big difference between public and private colleges.

In public colleges, about 40% of students live in dorms and 40% live in off campus housing.

The remaining 20% live at home with their parents.

However, in private colleges 64% of students live in dorms and 19% live in off campus housing.

The remaining 17% of students live at home.

In 2016, it was estimated that just over 20 million students would be attending American Colleges.

Looking at our numbers from above, 18 million college will be living in rented accommodation of some sort or another.

One of the promises that the latest wave of smart devices make is that they will make our lives safer.

In Chapter 5 “Types of Devices”, one of the types of gadgets that I discuss are smart cameras, which will do just that.

But how safe and secure are you as a college student in the US?

A staggering 40% of students leave their dormitory doors unlocked at all times.

Every year, there are 14,851 on campus burglaries in the US.

Colleges in Vermont had the most burglaries on average, whereas colleges in Idaho had the least.

The two worst colleges for burglary are Cheyney (University of Pennsylvania) and Shaw University (North Carolina.)

Chapter 3: Smart Systems 101

This is quite a long chapter, so take a deep breath.

To make it easier for you, I have split it into sections.

If you want to more about a section, click on “Read More“.

A Quick History of Wi-Fi

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Earlier I defined a smart device as an electronic device that can connect wirelessly to other devices or networks and a smart home as containing more than one smart device.

Here it gets complicated because there are so many different and unknown systems of wireless connection and the most important ones need to be explained.

Even before there was such a thing as a smart home, many everyday devices were connecting to each other wirelessly.

In the first instance is “Wi-Fi”- the system that we use to connect our devices to the Internet.

Then came Bluetooth, which was a system that connected devices to each other.

These two wireless systems are used in the vast majority of homes and people’s lives and they are well known- many people would feel confident explaining what either “Wi-Fi” or “Bluetooth” are.

So why do we need any more systems?!

To be really successful, the wireless system in a smart home needs two “must have” qualities.

  1. Good coverage or range (so that a device can connect to it from any part of the house.)
  2. Energy efficient- the ability of the device to stay connected to the system must use as little power as possible.

The advantage of Wi-Fi is that it has a very good range but a disadvantage is that any device that connects and stays connected to Wi-Fi uses lots of power.

In contrast, an advantage of Bluetooth is that in order to stay connected a device does not use so much power but a disadvantage is that it has a limited range and in couldn’t easily connect devices at opposite ends of the same house.

And so engineers set about devising new wireless systems and two of the biggest ones are Z- Wave and Zigbee.

Both of these systems or protocols were better at providing a signal that has a good range and doesn’t use a lot of power.

Z- Wave started in 2005 and now boasts over 1700 compatible products.

Zigbee started in 2002 and boasts nearly 1200 compatible devices.




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Amazon Echo is Amazon’s Digital Assistant. The Echo is a 10” tall and 3” wide hands free, Internet connected, voice controlled speaker. The Echo has a smaller and cheaper “relative” called the Echo Dot that is 1.5” tall and 3” round.

It is operated using your voice and because it is connected to the Internet it can answer questions, play music, tell you the weather and take a look at your calendar for you.

Importantly, it’s capabilities are constantly growing and more and more it includes the ability to link with other smart devices in order that they can be controlled by your voice.

Smart products that are compatible with this system have a “works with Amazon Alexa” branding. Alexa is the voice of the digital assistant.

Already the number of smart products that can be controlled with your voice numbers well over a hundred and this number will continue to increase at quite a rate because Amazon sells so many smart products.

It is important to remember that in order to use a smart device that “works with Amazon Alexa” you do need to have or be willing to buy an Echo or Dot!




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Apple Homekit is Apple’s effort to dominate the smart home market.

At the centre of it, is Apple’s digital assistant (Siri.)

Using your iPhone or iPad you can control (again using your voice) a growing list of smart products.

However, the number of devices that are compatible with the Apple Homekit is tiny in comparison to the number of devices that are “Alexa ready.”

To state the obvious the first and most important device that you need to own or be willing to buy in order to use the Homekit system is an iPhone or iPad.





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If the Amazon system is built around a hands free speaker and the Apple system is built around an iOS device, then the Wink home automation system is built around a network controller, or smart hub- which is about the same size as your average Wi-Fi hub.

The latest model is the Wink 2 Hub.

Unlike the Amazon and Apple systems, the Wink system is not voice controlled and devices can only be controlled by manually changing settings within an app with just your finger (oh, how old fashioned!)

However the advantage that Wink has over many of it’s rivals is that the number of devices that can connect to the system is relatively huge.




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Samsung SmartThings is very similar to Wink in that it needs a smart hub in order to work.

The latest hub is the SmartThings (2nd generation.)

To see the huge range of products that are compatible, click here




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IFTTT is a free automation system. It connects different web services (such as Facebook, Gmail, Twitter and many, many more) to each other as well as now connecting smart devices.

These services and devices are connected by triggers (If This) and actions (Then That.) A trigger and an action together make a recipe.

So for instance, if you connected your Twitter account to your Gmail account every time you received a Tweet you would then receive an email.

Or if you have a smart camera, you can connect using IFTTT to your Outlook account so that every time that it detects motion it will send you an email.

Some of the most popular recipes relating to smart products can be found here. They include turning your wi-fi off when you’re not at home and turning on your lights when your video doorbell is activated.




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WeMo is a home automation system that was created by Belkin.

What is fairly unique about WeMo is that it uses Wi-Fi to connect different smart devices to each other.

As time goes by, WeMo is being used less and less by smart devices.

An advantage of this system, as it uses Wi-Fi, is that you do not need to buy a bridge or hub for WeMo products.

The main reason that I have included a description of it in this article is that many smart plugs and coffee makers are compatible with the WeMo system.

And since I have included some smart plugs and smart coffee machines in this article, I thought that I should explain WeMo!


Chapter 4: What Not To Buy

OK, now that we have crunched those numbers, let’s discuss the limitations that your tenancy agreement might place on you.

But to go “off topic” momentarily…

Research shows that people who are in rented accommodation are as interested in buying smart home devices as those who own their own home.

But there are some smart products that people in rented accommodation cannot use because of the limitations in their tenancy agreement.

These devices tend to be:

[1] Smart thermostats (that require you to interfere with some important wires as you uninstall the old thermostat and reinstall your new thermostat.)

[2] Light switches- again because installation involves a bit of re-wiring.

[3] Most smart locks (as these require you to change the deadbolt) which might break the terms of your lease.

But, there are a few smart locks that you can install without upsetting your landlord…

It is important to state the obvious here.

Not all college students in the US have the same tenancy agreement and so nothing beats:

[1] Reading your own agreement carefully (so you know what you can and can’t do) and then

[2] Talking to your landlord.

After all, you might be pleasantly surprised.

So yes, as a renter, you will have some limitations, but there are still plenty of exciting options out there!

Chapter 5: Types of Smart Devices

The smart device market as we will discover later is huge and is growing at a phenomenal rate. It will be impossible for me to even provide a quick overall of the main categories of devices as they are just so many and not all of them are appropriate! currently has 23 departments that sell smart devices, whereas on the Apple website there are 17 categories of smart devices.

Some smart products will not be appropriate because they will generally be too expensive while other smart products are not appropriate (as I explained earlier) because to install them you need to own your own home and the majority of college students are renting.

And so, what I will provide, is an overview of the types of smart devices that are relevant to college students. The list that follows is detailed enough!

I have split the chapter into sections and so if you want more details, click on “Read More“.

Smart Coffee Makers

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One of the most well used appliances in a student house is the coffee machine. These are used either as part of that busy social swirl that your college years will bring or as a “study aid” for when you have a deadline looming for lots of assignments, or even as “boost” to get you to first lecture of the morning.

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Alternatively, if you or your friends don’t like coffee you might want to look at buying a smart kettle.


Smart Crock Pot

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Another smart kitchen appliance which I think will be incredibly popular with college students is the crock pot.

Although perhaps you could argue that the whole point of a crock pot is you prepare every in advance and then leave it, I think that the ability to control it remotely will appeal to college students because their schedules can change so quickly, it gives them that level of flexibility.

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Smart light bulbs compared with traditional light bulbs, provide many benefits to college students.

Smart light bulbs, as well as being controllable via an app, can operate at different “brightnesses” as well as glowing in different colors.

Lighting is an important feature of college life because lots of students spend a large amount of time sitting at a desk and so it is important that the lighting in this area is applied correctly.

Another important aspect of lighting is that it can change the look and the mood in a room- which is important when the same space could be used for quiet study, or romantic evenings or for a loud party.

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Smart Cameras

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The next category of smart product that I want to examine are security products.

Smart devices in the security category bring obvious benefits because they enhance our safety and security.

There are three devices in this category that I want to explain in more detail.

Smart cameras come in a huge variety of colours, sizes and of course prices.

But, some basic features that are common to most smart cameras include;

[1] Night vision

[2] Motion Detection

[3] Pan & Zoom Focus

[4] HD quality photos and videos

[5] 2 way audio

[6] Live Streaming

[7] Cloud Storage

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There is another highly specialised smart camera out there, which is a perfect buy for a student and that is a fridge camera.

Why do I think that it is a perfect buy for a college student? It is because in many college dormitories, students share fridges and some students take other people’s fridge food and this camera could put a stop to that.

This camera is not on sale as yet but to preorder it, click on the image below


Smart Locks

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Most smart locks on the market are not appropriate for students in rented accommodation because they require you to change the whole locking mechanism or deadbolt, which would break the terms of the lease.

However, a growing market are smart locks that can be installed with your existing deadbolt. This makes them much easier to install and it means that they can be installed in most rented accommodation because you aren’t replacing the deadbolt.

Some of the common features of these types of lock are;

[1] Opened by smartphone (via Bluetooth).

[2] Battery operated

[3] One tool install (a screwdriver)

[4] Auto lock

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Smart Outlets/ Plugs

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Smart outlets turn any electrical socket into a smart socket and they can turn many “dumb” devices into smart devices.

They are simple to install because they plug into an electrical outlet and then connect to your Wi-Fi. Also, they are so cheap!

Smart outlets are controlled via an app for your phone or your tablet and give you the ability to turn the socket (and therefore the appliance that is plugged into it) on or off and most will also provide dimming capabilities.

Other advanced functions that some smart sockets offer include the ability to act as a Wi-Fi extender.

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Wireless Speakers

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Wireless Speakers connect to other devices such as smart phones or tablets via Bluetooth.

College students play music a lot and a wireless speakers massively improves the sound quality coming out of a smart phone or tablet.

Important features that wireless speakers have, include;

[1] Good sound quality

[2] Good battery life

[3] Portability

[4] Shockproof

[5] Good Bluetooth Range

[6] Waterproof

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Media Streaming

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Media streaming is a cost effective and easy way to turn a “dumb” TV into a smart TV.

Budget media devices are “stick” shaped HDMI adaptors that plug into an HDMI port in the back of your TV and they “mirror” what is on your laptop or tablet screen onto your TV.

You need to download an app onto your tablet or laptop in order for it to connect to the HDMI adaptor. Most often they don’t come with a remote control.

The disadvantage is that if you are using your laptop to connect to your TV, you cannot use it for other stuff as well- such as looking at Facebook!

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Premium media devices are small boxes are plugged into your TV. They are self contained and so you don’t need a separate laptop or tablet to make them work.

These boxes have thousands of app loaded onto them. These apps give you access to a combination of traditional TV channels such as ABC or NBC but they give access to other media sources, such as YouTube and Netflix.

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Chapter 6: Voice Control

Voice control allows us to perform simple tasks just by talking.

There are two big “players” in this market currently- Amazon and Google. Amazon have two interactive Internet connected speakers- the Echo (which is the original and larger version) and the Dot.

Google’s interactive Internet connected speaker is called “Home”.

It is heavily rumoured that Apple will launch a similar product in the not too distant future as well.

This is an area of “home automation” which is developing rapidly and there are a growing number of smart devices that are compatible with these systems and be controlled using voice commands.

And so, instead of flicking a switch or interacting with an app to turn a light on, you can now just ask for a light to be turned on or off.

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Chapter 7: The “Geek” Approach

If you like the idea of having some of the features of a smart home but you fancy taking a different route, a route that is much cheaper, unique but more labor intensive then you might want to consider buying an Arduino or Raspberry Pi.

These are two tiny computers that can be used to performs a wide variety of tasks some of which relate to home automation.

Let me start with a quick introduction to each of these small “computers”.

Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi is a mini computer made in the UK. It was originally created to support the development of computer science in schools and the “developing world.”

It was launched in 2012 and since then about 6 different versions (or generations) have been built.

As of November 2016, 11 million units have been sold.

However, it quickly became vastly more popular than was originally thought and it was used in many more contexts than just education.

One of these included home automation. There are dozens of ways in which a Rasberry Pi can be used to create a smart home.

Some of the ways include;

[1] Security Camera

[2] Texting Doorbell

[3] Smart Thermostat

[4] Plant Watering System

[5] Entry lights

The Rasberry Pi has a very active and supportive community and one of the best places to start is here.

Arduino Board

The first Arduino board was released for sale in 2005 as a means of giving students cheap access to create “digital projects.”

It is thought that by 2013 700, 000 boards had been sold.

By 2016, there are about 17 different versions or updates to the board.

Like the Raspberry Pi, Home automation is a popular use for the Arduino board and the number of different smart devices that can be created using an Arduino are too numerous to mention.

However, some of the smart devices that can be created, include;

[1] Security Alarm

[2] Security Camera

[3] Plant Watering System

[4] Automatic Pet Feeder

[5] Smart Lights

The Arduino Board has a very active and supportive community and one of the best places to start is here.

Chapter 8: The “Newbie” Approach

If you want to be far more cautious in your approach, then a smart home starter kit might be just what you need.

However, there are a very limited number of starter kits that are available and are appropriate to the needs of a student in rented accommodation.

These smarter kits are tend to contain sensors, cameras and plugs.

Starter kits offer two advantages;

[1] They are great value for money (as the packs are cheaper than if you were to buy the devices separately) and

[2] They are easy to set up and use (because you know that all the products are compatible with each other.)

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Chapter 9: Stop The Hackers!

Smart devices, just like any device that is connected to the Internet, do pose a security risk if they aren’t configured correctly.

And there has been lots of emphasis in the media in recent months about how “smart homes” can be targeted by hackers.

Whereas a few years ago, most homes would only have had a few devices that were connected to the Internet, now many homes have well over a 20 such devices.

Every link to the outside world is a potential threat.

Some of the horror stories include strangers talking to children at night after hacking into baby monitors.

Fortunately, it is fairly easy to keep your devices, house and family safe by taking a few simple precautions.

[1] Make sure that the name of your router (the name that appears on everyone’s list of Internet connections) doesn’t contain your address, telephone number or any personal detail.

[2] Make sure that the passwords that you use are;

[a] Strong (they contain letters numbers and special characters)

[b] Changed from the default

[c] Changed often and

[d] Aren’t used for all your devices

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