Home Android How to turn your old Android phone or tablet into a remote control for your smart home

How to turn your old Android phone or tablet into a remote control for your smart home

How to turn your old Android phone or tablet into a remote control for your smart home

Making your home smarter is probably on more people’s minds than ever right now, but it can become a seriously dizzying project just remembering all the various voice commands and apps involved, to the point that you might even want a dedicated piece of hardware for controlling it all. Kind of like a universal TV remote, but for light bulbs, cameras, and smart thermostats. And using an old smartphone, you basically can, just as long as it isn’t too old.

One of Android’s real perks is that, while many phones do stop getting updated eventually, Google supports them for a tremendously long time via Play Store and Play Services updates so that their popular apps continue to work even on seemingly ancient hardware. Even a phone running Android KitKat, a version of the OS released six years ago, should basically work with most apps (though there will be exceptions). Chances are, though, you have something at least a little newer than that, and anything with Android 5.0 or above is still essentially a fully-functioning product for the purpose of local smart home control. And if you have something that really is ancient, you might want to consider whether it has support for a custom ROM like Lineage OS to bring it (relatively) up to date.

Once you’ve got a piece of hardware in mind, here are the software tools you should consider next.

Google has turned its Home app into a smart control hub since October 2018, letting you operate various devices directly without having to use any other software. What’s particularly convenient is that all of the devices you use with Assistant will automatically appear within the app without the need for extra configuration. For instance, all of my lights, smart plugs, speakers, thermostats, and even my vacuum cleaner appear in the app, with the ability to control them.

Unfortunately, the Google Home app has some limitations. First, some devices can’t be operated with it. For instance, I can’t use it to turn off the TV, even though I can ask Assistant to do so. Similarly, although smart locks, window blinds, and air fresheners are shown in the app, there’s no option to control them. What’s particularly surprising is that devices like smart locks and TVs can be controlled from a Smart Display, so it makes no sense Google hasn’t added that option in its Home app.

One way to solve this limitation is by using Routines, depending on what you want to achieve. In my case, I created one that lets me turn off the TV without having to use Assistant, and although it’s far from being the most convenient way — you have to create it manually, and triggering it basically takes you to Assistant — it works. You could do the same to lock your door or open the blinds, but that still means you have to create these individually.

Lastly, Routines can also help you automate various things at home, such as turning all lights off when you’re leaving, but these are relatively limited as they can’t include any conditions, unlike some of the other services we’ll talk about later.

Google Home is the app that will work for most people. Sure, it can’t do everything, and you’ll probably need to explore other apps if you’d like to perform more complex actions, but it doesn’t require heavy configuration and is intuitive to use. It’s unfortunate there’s no way to customize the layout in the app and that there’s no widget, as these would have made it even more convenient.

Google Home
Google Home

Olisto is not a control panel per se, but rather a way to automate most of your smart home devices and appliances and have them communicate with each other. It allows you to create “triggs” that can be conditioned based on various elements, such as the time, location, day of the week etc, to perform various actions. For instance, you can ask it to turn on the lights, lock the doors, and open the blinds every weekday at 9:00 AM. You can also automate various actions based on triggers from devices you already have at home, such as your smart camera, fitness tracker, and much more. Thank to Olisto’s integration with an extensive range of services, you can imagine crazy “triggs” like locking the kitchen’s door when you haven’t exercised enough before 7:00 PM, for example.

What’s particularly powerful, though, is its ability to create “now” buttons to perform “triggs.” For example, you can press a single virtual button when you get home to open the blinds, turn on the lights, and start playing music on your speakers. The downside is that you have to manually create a button for every feature in every product, which can be particularly time-consuming to set up, but very convenient when used daily.

Olisto is probably not for everyone, especially if you’re not looking at spending too much time on configuration. On the other hand, if you like to fiddle with technology and create some pretty neat home automations that are triggered at the touch of a virtual button, you should definitely give this app a try. It lets you create more complex routines than IFTTT, but supports fewer services, and tends to focus mostly on European platforms. Lastly, although there is no widget, there’s an option to have a persistent notification, which can add a level of handiness, even though I personally hate these.

Olisto - Smart home automation made easy
Olisto - Smart home automation made easy

iHaus is one of the least eye pleasing apps I’ve seen, but it’s actually quite handy. For starters, it doesn’t require any extensive setup and can connect to your smart home devices without the need to log in. Instead, I managed to link my Roomba and Hue lights with the touch of a button, as the app automatically scanned my Wi-Fi network. Sadly, my plugs and cast-enabled speakers weren’t supported, so I couldn’t have all of my devices in the app.

Unlike Olisto, iHaus is more of a control panel for your smart devices, including some speakers, lights, plugs, kitchen appliances, locks, thermostats, and even your Tesla. It’s easier to use than Google Home, in a sense that you can just tap a device’s icon to turn it on or start it. What’s also great is that it can automatically recognize groups, such as Hue rooms, so you can turn on all lights in a room at once, or change their color at the same time. You can also create routines to turn off everything at home with a single virtual button.

iHaus does offer the ability to create scripts with conditional triggers, but I’ve found them to be quite poor based on my usage. Again, this will depend on what you’re trying to achieve, what devices you have, and whether they’re compatible with the app.

All in all, iHaus can be a relevant option if you’re looking for something simple and easy to use, but don’t mind the looks.

iHaus Smart Home
iHaus Smart Home

If you can’t bear the looks of iHaus, SmartThings is by far the nicest looking app covered in this article. Although it’s made by Samsung, it’s not exclusive to the brand’s products and doesn’t necessarily require the hub, as it can actually integrate with a great number of third-party services.

It’s easy to set up and the app lets you split devices by room. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work with my Roomba and required an additional hub to handle my smart plugs, which is a roadblock for me. Besides that, there’s no option to change the color of all lights in a room, so you’ll have to set these individually — unless you want to turn your living room into a club. There are some handy features, though, like the ability to set timers for the lights to turn off automatically after a certain amount of time, or at a specific hour. Another unique feature it offers is the ability to add various locations, so you can separate the devices from your city apartment and your country house, for example. Also, there’s the option to add widgets to your home screen, which makes it even more convenient to use.

The built-in automation features are actually quite powerful, as they can be conditional and control various devices at the same time, which allows for an easy configuration and avoids using a third-party platform like IFTTT.

  • List of supported products and services
SmartThings
SmartThings

Yonomi is relatively similar to Olisto, in a sense that it’s designed to help you automate things at home, but can also act as a remote control for lights and other devices. It’s very easy to set up and can automatically detect what devices are on your Wi-Fi network, just like iHaus. Sadly, it doesn’t support groups, so all your devices appear together, and although you can control them individually, you can’t turn several lights on or off at the same time.

Yonomi can be very useful when setting up routines, though, as these can be conditional. However, I find the number of supported services to be quite low, so you’ll have to see whether it’s relevant for you compared to Olisto or IFTTT.

Yonomi - Smart Home Automation
Yonomi - Smart Home Automation

IFTTT is one of my favorite services around, and what’s great about it is that once you’ve set up everything, you even forget it exists. For instance, I use a few smart plugs at home to control some lights, and I don’t want to use different apps to automatically turn them off based on my location. Thanks to IFTTT, my Hue lights, plugs and other devices can be turned off when I leave, without me having to worry about it. In fact, IFTTT is so transparent that you rarely need to use the app, unless you’re setting up a new applet or checking your activity log.

There also an option for you to control your smart devices directly from your phone, thanks to widgets and “Do buttons.” Just like Olisto, this isn’t a convenient option, as you’ll have to create recipes manually, but they can be handy for a few of features, such as turning lights on or off, but you won’t get to pick the color for instance.

IFTTT can be worth considering if you don’t intend to create too many buttons, as the platform supports a very wide range of services and allows you to create tasks in just a flew clicks. The app also has a widget, which most others don’t, so it might be a relevant option for many.

IFTTT
IFTTT