A smart hub is the center of the smart home. It is the glue that holds everything together, the brains that make things smart, and the translator that helps different devices work together. A hub is not necessary for a smart home to function but it really does take it to the next level.
Types of Smart Hubs
There are lots of different types of hubs. We break them up into four categories: virtual, basic, hobbyist, and professional. Each type fits a different need and we think that most people will likely use some combination of a virtual hub and either a basic or hobbyist hub. There are no industry standards that break hubs into these categories. This is how we think of these hubs and while it isn’t easy to draw clear lines to define one category from the next, it’s helpful to understand some of the defining characteristics of each category. Keep in mind as you are reading this that these categories are based on our opinions and you may not agree with our placement of the examples. We accept that – it’s simply one way to group the types of hubs based on our experience.
Virtual (Cloud) Hubs
The virtual or cloud hubs are also known as Smart Home Automation Applications and they are so cool we have done an entire Stuff We love article for them on their own. The virtual hubs are the most basic and do not have dedicated hardware. There are several great reasons to use a virtual hub:
- They are often free or low cost
- They are usually very easy to setup
- They have preconfigured rules created and maintained by community members that make setting up new services as simple as pointing and clicking. The virtual hubs are simple brokers that collect information from one location and use it to trigger actions somewhere else.
There are also some drawbacks to using virtual hubs:
- They depend on an internet connection
- They can be unreliable
- Their functionality is limited compared to more advanced hubs
- They may be trickier to troubleshoot if you have problems
Taking all of the pros and cons into account these ‘hubs’ are still a great way to add functionality. Whether you have a physical hub or not you should take advantage of adding a virtual hub to you smart home. However, if you plan to go beyond basic functionality or are adding mission critical pieces to your smart home like home security or safety systems, a physical hub should also be added to your home.
Basic hubs are the entry point into a real, physical hub. These hubs are either consumer focused and do their best to simplify installation and configuration or are narrowly focused on supporting one protocol or ecosystem of products. Hubs that we classify as falling into this category include the Wink, Iris, and Insteon Hubs. We also include other devices such as smart speakers with automation control like the Amazon Echo/Dot (Alexa), Google Home (Google Assistant) and Apple HomePod (Siri) as basic hubs.
Advantages of using basic hubs are:
- They frequently use a smartphone or tablet for setup and control and often have applications that will walk you through any changes you want to make.
- The simple interfaces tend to be slick and easy to use with good, if basic, functionality.
The downsides to these hubs are:
- They do not offer many options to expand their functionality. You need to make sure they will control the devices you want them to, in the way you want to control them before you buy the hub.
- Once you have selected a basic hub you should check before buying new devices to ensure they are supported in the ecosystem (unless you are willing to control them outside of that device). These are the ‘walled garden’ type hubs that make things easy at the expense of advanced features, flexibility, and the ability to fine tune detailed settings or add fringe or niche products.
Hobbyist hubs are for people who are not afraid to go out on a bit of a limb. These hubs have nice interfaces but they tend to be more cluttered and crowded with options and flexible settings that can make them daunting to people who are not comfortable with technology. These hubs tend to have a wider range of radios, features and options for expansion. They are the high end for the amateur home automation enthusiast and include systems like Vera (MiOS) and Home Troller (HomeSeer) as well as (Spoiler!) our current favourite: Samsung SmartThings.
Pro hubs are amazing pieces of technology. It takes a LOT of complicated hardware and software to make control seem so simple in so many ways from so many locations. These devices from companies like Crestron, Extron, and Control4 are what the professionals use when they want bullet proof systems that can scale and handle any type of complicated automation. These systems allow engineers to get into the guts and program interactions and design custom electronic solutions that can handle a huge matrix of variables. These systems are expensive and often proprietary, they can take weeks, months or even years to learn to design and configure solutions. If you are looking for this caliber of home automation, you probably have an engineering degree or the phone number of a professional installer on speed dial.
If you are interested in this level of hub and want to do it yourself, we recommend that you seriously consider a high end hobbyist hub instead and look into Maker gear like Arduino and Raspberry Pi. There is almost no limit to what you can do with a combination of Hobbyist and Maker gear and the cost and complexity are an order of magnitude more manageable than buying a professional hub.
What We Love:
Samsung SmartThings. Rather than choose a hub from each of the four categories listed above, we are recommending the SmartThings hub as the best all around hub. The functionality of this Hobbyist hub can be expanded with the use of a virtual hub such as IFTTT or Stringify.
Why We Love it:
SmartThings is relatively new to the home automation game and as a result they don’t have a lot of baggage they need to work around. The folks at SmartThings built a good product and were bought by Samsung in 2014. Since then, they have proven that they are able to do what many small startups that are acquired fail to do: continue to innovate and think like a smaller company while leveraging the synergies and influences of the larger parent company.
The SmartThings hub falls closer to the basic hub camp than some of the other Hobbyist hubs. It has a slick interface and lots of consumer friendly features. It is relatively simple to setup and has a large connected ecosystem with loads of partner devices. The hub and branded devices lower the barriers to entry and make setup easy and configuration less painful. There is a SmartThings app that provides a nice, slick interface for controlling the hub and devices.
Despite the fact that they keep things friendly, SmartThings also allows you to go wide and deep into a range of different home automation technologies and ecosystems. Although devices that are not branded to work with SmartThings don’t always work perfectly, they tend to work as well or better than many other hubs. Samsung has leveraged its position as a leader in a range of home technology products to build relationships and connect with other ecosystems. Where solutions and connections exist or standards have been set, the devices usually work the way you would expect them to – unlike many other systems that may say they integrate and connect but do not have full or reliable functionality.
It is the breadth and depth of functionality and the high level of polish and industry sway that made the SmartThings hub our Stuff We Love choice. We believe SmartThings is the hub to beat and will be a major player in the consumer home automation space for years to come.
So we have just finished saying how smooth and easy to use the SmartThings hub is and how great the accompanying app are and here is where we say aaaaactualllllly…. <grin>. There really is no perfect way to mix functionality and simplicity. Compared to other hubs SmartThings is good. Very good even. That said it is not easy or simple to understand. There are plenty of times we still get lost trying to add devices and configure settings. There is a lot of redundancy and inconsistency with menus that change in the background with no warning depending on the page you are on.
Also, finding help can be tricky. There are great community forums and lots of documentation but it isn’t always easy to find what you are looking for.
Pairing and setting up devices can be complicated and you may need to dig into sub-sub-sub menus or you may be able to pair from multiple locations which makes navigation confusing. It takes a long time to become comfortable with the app and there are features that you find that you do not use frequently unless you are constantly changing your equipment so you will need to take time to re-learn them when you need them.
As you might imagine Samsung and Apple ecosystems don’t mix perfectly (given the rivalry in the smartphone space). There is a great iOS app for SmartThings and some HomeKit enabled gear will work with a SmartThings hub but for the best results you will find that staying in the Samsung ecosystem will make everything work more seamlessly and just a little more smoothly.
Works Best With:
Samsung gear! Although the SmartThings roots run deep and cross into different platforms the integration with Samsung is becoming increasingly apparent. Samsung has begun designing its other home appliances including, televisions, fridges, microwaves, ovens, washers and driers etc. to have home automation built-in. It is not surprising to find that Samsung is giving preferential treatment to its own home automation hub and systems. A perfect example of that is the release of the Samsung Galaxy S8 phone. During the launch and immediately after there were Samsung Connect applications and a new mesh wireless router with an embedded SmartThings hub that would only work with the S8 phone. The applications and hardware took advantage of new software and hardware embedded in the phone to provide home automation functionality not available anywhere else. The functionality often eventually becomes broadly available but it can take time and a bit more effort.
Whole home automation. The SmartThing hub is a great way to grow a piecemeal or virtual hub system into a more robust home automation solution. It is also a great solution to use as a foundation for building a modern home automation system that integrates with the current and future market leading home automation technologies.
You Might Also Love:
If you are looking for a more technical solution that may require more tweaking, consider the Vera or HomeSeer hub. These and Insteon devices are where we cut our teeth learning home automation. Both Vera and HomeSeer have long histories and offer a wide range of integrations, expansion options, nice(ish) dedicated apps, as well as less common functionality like: command line access, programming interfaces and scripting languages.
If you decide you want to go with a Vera or HomeSeer hub and are trying to decide between the two here is how we think of them: Vera is like Linux with lots of open source and free community development and sharing (and the associated bugs and community beta testing) while HomeSeer is like Microsoft (even though their control software will run on linux or windows) with loads of controlled development software, integrations and carefully documented partnerships. With HomeSeer everything will cost you a few dollars to tack on but it will work as advertised and if not there is one throat to choke while you are working with them to get it fixed. HomeSeer is what we would use if we were building a system for a rich friend (well, if they were rich they would probably be using pro gear with pro installers but lets just assume they are the wealthy barber – they guy with lots of money but still frugal and prone to tapping his home automation savvy buddies for a ‘friend discount’ on an awesomely automated home) who wanted to buy the best stuff including some crazy things that don’t work with SmartThings and still have some flexibility to hack away. Vera is what we would use if we wanted to hack at something for ourselves and were prepared to deal with a few more conflicts, bugs and errors and nice meaty problems to work through at night when we are bored. There is nothing like the amazing feeling you get when you figure everything out in the wee hours of the morning (or later that week or month <grin>) after hacking away at the problem.
Stuff We Really Like:
The Piper NV camera is an interesting option. We like the camera enough that it is a pick on its own as a camera but it also includes a fully functional Z-Wave hub which would work if you only want to add Z-Wave devices or in conjunction with a virtual hub to support a home automation environment that wasn’t extremely complex.
If you would rather not add another device to your existing home network there are a number of software solutions that will run on servers or in virtual machines. There are a range of open source tools including one of our favourites LinuxMCE. There are also proprietary home automation software packages that will run on Microsoft Windows (we would go with HomeSeer software for this) or MacOS (Indigo Domotics).
There is another viable option: No Hub. If all the hub business sounds like a lot of work and complication you don’t need one to have a fully functional smart home. In many ways you can use your phone or tablet as a central controller. The downsides to this are that you won’t be able to control some devices when you are not at home or if your phone isn’t working. You will also run into more problems when multiple people are using the devices. You will likely need to use multiple applications and possibly external signal generators to allow you to control devices with infrared or other protocols not supported by your phone or tablet. If you decide to go ahead and not use a hub we recommend that you look into universal remote control applications for your smart phone or tablet to simplify the control interface.
What’s Not To Love:
There are really no significant deal breakers for the SmartThings hub. It is not expensive, a second generation hub can be found for around $70 on Amazon, it covers a wide range of requirements, and does what it does well. The reason you would choose another hub instead is if your needs fall so far to the extremes of either needing a very simple and basic setup that can be covered by a virtual hub alone OR you really want to ramp things up and get your hands dirty coding and cobbling together a complex or custom system.
Consider your situation, experience and personal interest levels and pick the hub that best fits – we believe the odds are that you will discover the SmartThings hub will be a good fit for what you need.