The smart plug: a beginner's guide

Considering buying a smart plug (or five) to turn your home into an instantly smart space? Here’s a guide to everything you need to know about the smart plug – from what it can do to whether it’s worth the spend

Smart plug beginner's guide: Lidl coffee pods
(Image credit: Lidl)

Heard the term ‘smart plug’ bandied about and wondered what all the fuss was about? Here, we tell you what smart plugs are, what they do, whether they’re worth the trouble and how they can make your life easier (or not). There’s also a quick list of the best buys.

Find more of the best smart home buys, advice and reviews on The Hub.

WHAT IS A SMART PLUG?

A smart plug can plug into your electrical outlets and sockets. You then plug any device into it and use the smart plug’s corresponding app to control the device via your phone or smart assistant (think: Alexa, Google Hub Max or Apple Siri).

Some smart plugs come with or can be controlled with a separate remote control that can be used around the house. These are called smart buttons, which are Wi-Fi or Bluetooth enabled mini controls that can send commands to other devices. Where to start? Flic and Logitech Pop

Smart plugs are generally sold as singles, but you can buy smart plug power strips, too, into which you can plug multiple devices. 

Find the best smart speakers to host a smart assistant in our guide.

smart plug from amazon

(Image credit: Amazon)

HOW MUCH IS A SMART PLUG?

They needn’t be expensive – good quality buys start from around £25/$30 each for single smart plugs; smart plug strips cost a little more.

WHAT CAN A SMART PLUG DO?

Not all smart plugs are created equal, but good quality ones can manage most of the features below. It’s worth working out what you’d like your smart plugs to do for you before you buy so that you ensure get the service you want from them.

Make dumb appliances smart

A smart plug can turn an appliance that isn’t smart (in other words, smartphone or smart assistant enabled) into one that is, instantly.

Let’s say you’ve plugged a basic lamp or plain old coffee maker into the smart plug. With the smart plug, you can instantly turn them it on and off remotely. So, if you’re away overnight, you can use the app on your phone make your home look occupied by turning lights on and off as if you were at home. Or perhaps you’re on the sofa and want to start a pot of coffee brewing – you can ask your smart assistant to turn on the coffee machine with the simple instruction: ‘Alexa, put the coffee machine on’ – in other words, you don’t even need to remember the number of the smart plug; it’s that simple.

Turn your appliances on and off

Better still, a smart plug can be programmed just like any other smart home gadget or device to create schedules. So, you can instruct your smart plug – via the app – to turn your lamps on and off automatically at set times or to start brewing your coffee at a set time every morning.

Control zones

Some smart plugs will work as a group to create zones. So, you could create a lighting zone with all the table lamps in your living room, for example, and control all of them at once: ‘Google, turn on the living room lighting’ could be your set up instruction – and boom, each living room smart plug connected to a table lamp will switch it on. 

Make it look like you’re home when you’re away

Just like we used to set plug-in timers to make our lights come on and off when we’re away, good quality smart plugs have an ‘away’ mode, too, meaning your smart-plugged-in lamps, for example, will come on and off at intervals while you’re on holiday, just like they would if you were home. But instead of fiddling with the timings manually like on old plug-in timers, you control the schedule for your smart-plugged-in-lamps via your phone or smart assistant (whether you’re home or away already). 

Control outdoor devices, too

Want your garden lights to come on and off when you’re away, too? Or simply want to set a schedule for them for summer or winter? Anything outdoors that’s plugged in via a smart plug designed for exterior use can be controlled in the same way as smart plugs for indoors.

Lower your electricity bills

Of course, if your lights and appliances can be switched off from afar, you can cut your electricity bills. But some smart plugs, such as the WeMo Insight can go further, tracking how much energy a device is using and giving you the cost, too. And this, of course, can encourage you to swap out expensive devices or energy-guzzling lightbulbs for more eco-friendly ones. Handy as we all become more environmentally conscientious. And while we’re on the subject, you can set smart plugs to prevent latent energy use by devices while they’re turned off.

React to other smart devices

If you’re looking to really build up a smart home, it’s important to pick smart plugs that will work with your other smart devices. Let’s say, for example, that your smart doorbell or smart security cameras spot a potential intruder while you’re out or away, some of the cleverer smart plugs can be set up to switch on a lamp indoors, making it look like you’re home. Look out for the acronym IFTTT (If This Then That) on the smart plug’s spec. 

Read more about the ways smart plugs can make your life easier.

How to choose the best smart plug?

There is a lot of choice when it comes to smart plugs. If you already have a smart speaker with a smart assistant on it (let’s say Amazon’s Alexa on an Echo Dot as an example), it makes good sense to buy smart plugs that are compatible so that you can control the plug not just from your phone but with your voice, too. Most plugs are compatible with more than one smart assistant, but always check first. 

Don’t have a smart assistant yet? We’d still recommend that you go for a plug that’s compatible with one of the main brands (Amazon Alexa, Google Home, Apple HomeKit, Samsung SmartThings) because it’s likely this will be your next step into the smart home.

The easiest smart plugs to set up and go can connect to your home’s Wi-Fi. Others connect through a hub, and tend to be cheaper than Wi-Fi enabled ones. However, the reason to opt for the second type of smart plug shouldn’t be price: rather, you’d buy these because they might integrate with another system you have or are planning to buy, such as smart lighting.

WHICH IS THE BEST SMART PLUG?

Which is the best smart plug to buy?

We think the Belkin WeMo Insight Switch is the best smart plug because it ticks all the boxes above. It works with Amazon, Apple and Google services, can slot readily into smart home setups, and can monitor energy usage as well as letting you turn your appliances on and off from your phone. 

If you want a cheaper option or are still experimenting with smart home tech, opt for the Hive Active Plug, which has many of the features of the WeMo: control your sockets from your phone or pre-set schedules. We like basic but competent Amazon Smart Plug, which works with Alexa, too. 

We also like Samsung’s SmartThings plugs which will work with Samsung’s smart hub to control both Samsung and third party devices, such as Philips Hue smart lightbulbs or Yale’s smart locks. 

TP-Link’s smart plugs work with Alexa and, like WeMo’s allow you to rename switches so that you can easily control each device without having to remember the smart plug’s number – in other words, it’s easier to say: ‘Google, turn off the living room light’ than it is to say: ‘Google, turn off plug… er… four, no… five?’.

Are smart plugs safe?

Smart plugs are as safe as any other outlets and many include automatic shut-off features in the event of power surges. Again, as with other plugged devices, it’s important not to overload them. 

Are smart plugs worth the spend?

If you're not planning on replacing any of your traditional appliances, particularly lighting, for smart ones any time soon, a smart plug is a good way to get your foot on the ladder at minimal cost. 

How to set up a smart plug

Each one is slightly different to the other, but all are pretty simple. Here’s what you do with Amazon’s smart plug: 

  • Plug in the smart plug.
  • If your smart assistant says ‘New plug found’, you’re ready to go.
  • Otherwise, tap the smart assistant (let’s say Alexa in this case) app on your phone and click the ‘+’ icon.
  • Instruct your smart assistant to start using the plug: ‘Alexa, add the first plug’. 
  • From there, you can delve deeper!

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