If you only have a few devices in your smart home setup then you probably aren’t even considering a smart home hub at all. And that is okay. But once you start adding more and more deviced to your setup you may want to ask yourself: “Do I need a smart home hub?”
The short answer: It depends. But for those who are getting serious about building an integrated smart home, the answer is yes. Yes, you do need a smart home hub.
This can get a bit confusing. What is a smart home hub? Why do I need it? Can I accomplish everything that a smart home hub does with something else? What is the best smart home hub? We’ll try to answer all of the questions for you.
What is a smart home hub?
Basically a smart home hub is a device that ties all of your smart home gear together in one integrated system. You see, smart home gadgets come in different shapes and sizes and also use different protocols to talk to one another and to your home network. For many of the most popular ones they just connect directly to your home network via wifi. For example, you can just buy a LIFX light bulb, take it home and slap it on your network and you’ll be up and running in minutes. But there are other devices that are a bit more complicated.
What is zigbee and z-wave?
Enter zigbee and z-wave. These are two excellent smart home protocols that help low power devices talk to one another and your network. However, network routers don’t actually communicate in these languages. They tend to just stick with wifi. So that means that you need a “middle man” device to translate zigbee and z-wave to your smart home network.
Zigbee is a cool protocol because it can be used in low power devices that connect to one another to form a mesh network. The more devices you add, the stronger the signal is. Philips Hue actually uses zigbee in their smart home light bulbs. And their Hue Bridge acts as the go-between smart home hub for the lights. Z-Wave (or the newer Z-Wave Plus) is a very similar idea. It is used in very low power devices that are intended to be connected to a z-wave compatible hub. There tend to be more z-wave devices available nowadays but both protocols are excellent to build a smart home on.
The beauty of both zigbee and z-wave is it gets devices off of the “crowded” wifi frequencies in your home and neighborhood. You see, the more wifi devices you add to your network, the more likelihood that you are going to cause the equivalent of a data “traffic jam” on your network. The frequencies that wifi operates on are often very crowded with your devices and the ones from neighbors. What a smart home hub can do is add devices on totally different frequencies (zigbee and z-wave) so your network is a lot less burdened with hundreds of competing wifi devices.
What counts as a hub?
There is a lot of confusion around what exactly constitutes a smart home hub. Many will actually tell you that an Amazon Echo Alexa device is a smart home hub. Or that Google Home is a smart home hub. But this isn’t really correct. Sure, they can both link devices together for control using your voice, but they are both still limited by the fact that they only operate on wifi and bluetooth. No zigbee or z-wave here at all.
Furthermore, you have devices like the Philips Hue Bridge that come with their lights. This is technically a device that allows you to use Philips Hue zigbee-powered bulbs, but is really only useful for these lights. It is not able to connect to the wide-array of zigbee and z-wave devices out there as a true hub.
The Harmony Hub is another candidate that is also a “not quite hub.” This is basically a universal remote device that allows you to control any IR device in your home theatre with the Harmony remote over radio waves and wifi. Again, it doesn’t extend your smart home into the zigbee and z-wave frequencies.
So that’s how we define a smart home hub: It connects your home network with smart home protocols such as zigbee and z-wave.
What are the best smart home hubs?
Okay, so now we know what they are, but what are the best smart home hubs worth my time? There are quite a few available, but we definitely have our favorites. We put all of the best smart home hubs through the ringer to figure out the king of smart home hubs and one really cam out on top: Samsung SmartThings.
Samsung SmartThings makes an excellent smart home hub that connects to both zigbee and z-wave devices and also can do some pretty intricate automation work for your smart home. With the release of their version 3 smart home hub, SmartThings is poised to really be the one to beat in smart home hubs for while. Check out the details of why we chose SmartThings as our favorite.
Pros of Samsung SmartThings
Wide range of supported devices
An excellent interface design
A very active development community lead by users
Excellent value for money
What are some other great smart home hubs?
But that doesn’t mean that Samsung SmartThings is the only game in town. Far from it actually. Wink is probably their closest competitor. Where they excel is in interface design. Their interface is the best in the business and it gives the whole experience of controlling your smart home a level of polish that isn’t even available on SmartThings.
The one stumbling block for both the Wink 2 Hub and the SmartThings hub is the fact that they heavily rely on the cloud to operate fully. This means that if you get a power outage, some functions may not work fully. This is changing slowly, but some users still prefer a system that can handle their smart home automations locally instead of relying on the internet. For those individuals we highly recommend the Vera and Homeseer smart home hubs. But keep in mind that these hubs are designed for more experienced programmers who have deep experience in smart home automation.
If you are just starting out just stick with SmartThings and Wink.
What are the advantages of smart home hubs?
One of the major reasons for going the route of choosing a smart home hub is because of ease of use. As you add more and more devices to your system, they all come with their own apps, passwords and interfaces. Who wants 50 different apps to control your smart home on your phone? This is where smart home hubs can really help. With Samsung SmartThings, you add “things” or devices to your system and they can all be controlled by a single interface. This means that your lights, locks, plugs and cameras are all centrally controlled in a single app!
So as your smart home gets bigger and more complicated, you will probably hit a point where you need to consider a smart home hub to be the central brains of the operation
The second advantage actually comes down to cost. We love Philips Hue and LIFX, but you probably don’t want to equip your entire house with their relatively expensive bulbs. Instead, consider adding relatively inexpensive z-wave light switches to your system. Then these switches are connected to any old light bulb. This gives you two major advantages: (1) it ends up being a lot less expensive and (2) your system is a lot simpler to use. You see, when you use switches, then you can just walk into a room and hit the switch like an old “dumb home.” But you also get the benefits of using those same switches from your smart phone or through automation routines. It is the best of both worlds and is probably the most scalable way to build a smart home.
Get more choice with a smart home hub
Another major advantage i that you get a heck of a lot more choice in devices when you have a true smart home hub like Samsung SmartThings or Wink. Inexpensive z-wave and zigbee devices are very common on Amazon and are often a fraction of the cost of their wifi competitors. And because z-wave and zigbee are very low energy you also open up a world of very small, battery operted devices that don’t need to be plugged into an outlet. I use very small water leak detectors which have been on their same original batteries for three years!
Can’t I do the same thing with software like IFTTT and Stringify?
Well, sort of. Smart home hubs allow your to create complex automation routines with your connected devices. This means that you can make it so when you say “Alexa, movie mode” that:
- Your home theatre turns on with your Harmony Hub
- Your z-wave lights dim
- You smart plugs turn off
- Your Google Wifi router sets your streaming box to priority
This is all done in the SmartThings interface and is actually a fairly simple automation. You can do much more complicated stuff in there.
But what about services like If This Then That (IFTTT) and Stringify? Don’t they do the same stuff? They do, but sometimes it doesn’t work well. Since both IFTTT and Stringify rely on the web, their automations can be a bit laggy and often unreliable. For short little automations they are fine, but we’d much prefer a proper smart home hub any day for more complicated stuff involving geo-fencing are other time-based automation.
And add the fact that IFTTT and Stringify can’t talk directly to zigbee and z-wave devices and you start to understand how important a good smart home hub is for your smart home system.
Where do smart assistants fit in like Alexa and Google Home?
As we mentioned above, Google Home and Amazon Echo devices are sort of hybrid hubs. They are mostly meant for voice control but can bring many devices under one interface. But they really become more useful when they are used as voice control devices that talk to your proper smart home hub. This way you get all of the benefits of a visual control scheme on your phone as well as full control over zigbee and z-wave devices.
Are smart home hubs expensive?
Surprisingly, no. For example, our favorite smart home hub, Samsung SmartThings is available for under $100! Considering all of the heavy lifting they do for your smart home, this is pretty amazing. More technical systems like Vera can become more expensive, but we still highly recommend the systems from SmartThings and Wink for most people.
Conclusion: Do I need a smart home hub?
As you can see, smart homes are getting more complicated every day. To be able to keep up with that growth you will want a smart home hub to provide a more efficient way to control and automate your system. Keeping those devices off crowded wifi networks is also a huge bonus for smart home hub users. And for those tech geeks among us, you can build some really amazing automation routines that are simply not possible without a smart home hub.
So short answer to the question: Do I need a smart home hub? Yes. Yes you do.
Where to buy our favorite smart home hub: Samsung SmartThings
The Samsung SmartThings 3rd Generation Hub is their newest one but you can also find some great deals on the V2 hub which is almost identical. The v3 can connect via wifi whereas the v2 is limited to a wired ethernet connection. But keep in mind that the v2 has a battery backup which the v3 does not have!