The Internet of Things (IoT) that connects smart home devices such as doorbells, lights, locks, security cameras, and thermostats has made it easy for everyone to install and use these gadgets in their homes, but you still need some sort of mechanism to control them. In some cases, just a phone will do the trick, but if you use multiple different products or services, you might want a home automation hub to control everything and have the devices interact with each other. The problem is, there is no single hub available that can control all of the different smart home devices out there. Read on to find out what kind of hubs are available and if you need one to smarten up your home.
Any discussion around home automation hubs should begin with a basic primer on protocols, or the method of communication used to control your devices. There are multiple wired and wireless protocols in use today that link smart home devices to each other and to a hub, including X10, Universal Powerline Bus (UPB), Insteon, Z-Wave, and Zigbee. We'll touch on each in this section.
One of the oldest protocols, X10, has been around since the mid-1970s. It uses your existing home electrical wiring to send signals to each device and is mostly used to control connected lighting systems and motion detectors.
The UPB protocol is loosely based on X10 and also uses your home's electrical lines to transmit signals between devices, but it offers faster transmission rates and is generally considered more reliable. Oddly, X10 and UPB devices are not compatible and require a controller (hub) that supports both protocols to make them work together.
Devices based on the Insteon protocol utilize your home's electrical wiring and radio frequency (RF) wireless technology to communicate. Insteon is known for its easy push-button pairing, speedy response times, and extended wireless range. There are more than 200 Insteon home automation devices available including cameras, dimmers, keypads, light switches, and thermostats.
With an impressive roster of more than 3,000 smart home devices available, the Z-Wave protocol is one of the more widely used options in today's home automation and home security markets due to its superior range. Z-Wave is completely wireless and operates at a low radio frequency, which means it will not interfere with Wi-Fi signals, portable phones, and microwave ovens. Z-Wave creates a mesh network that allows signals to hop from one device to another, and each network can support up to 232 devices. These include smart plugs, door and window sensors, door locks, garage door openers, thermostats, and more.Wink Hub 2
Like Z-Wave, Zigbee is a wireless protocol that creates a mesh network where devices can transmit signals to each other, but it doesn't offer the extended range that you get with Z-Wave. It operates at a higher frequency, and as such is susceptible to interference from 2.4GHz Wi-Fi and other household devices, but it is typically faster than Z-Wave and can support thousands of devices on a single network. There are currently more than 2,500 Zigbee devices available, including lights, motion sensors, plugs, and sprinkler controllers.
Many smart devices contain Wi-Fi radios that allow them to connect to your home network. They are controlled using a mobile app and will usually interact with other Wi-Fi devices, either through a platform like Apple's HomeKit or via the IFTTT (If This Then That) internet-based service that links compatible devices and allows them to work with one another. Wi-Fi is ubiquitous and Wi-Fi smart devices are usually very easy to install, but they draw more power than Z-Wave and Zigbee devices and are known to drain batteries quickly. Moreover, installing too many Wi-Fi devices can impede network performance. Many security cameras and doorbells use Wi-Fi, and any hub worth its salt will contain a Wi-Fi radio so you can connect to your home network and control your smart devices from anywhere.
Bluetooth wireless technology is popular in devices that will be controlled locally using a mobile app, such as door locks and lighting systems. It's more energy efficient than Wi-Fi, but its limited range means you can't control these devices remotely (out of Bluetooth range) without the use of a hub. That said, Bluetooth devices are easy to install, and like Wi-Fi, the technology can be found in nearly all mobile devices.
Thread, an IoT platform developed by several companies including Nest, Qualcomm, Samsung, and Silicon Labs, is a newer option. It's a low-power technology based on the Internet Protocol (IPv6) that allows secure connectivity between hundreds of devices. There aren't too many Thread-certified products out there yet, but the list includes a couple of Google Nest devices.
A hub serves as the nerve center of your home automation system and ties all of your devices together. Now, most smart home devices, regardless of the protocol they use, are controllable with their own app—and if they need a bridge or hub, they will typically come with one. The benefit of a separate, multi-purpose hub is so that you can control everything in a single app. So it's more of a luxury than a necessity.
Whether you need one or not depends on the type of components you're using and how many devices you want to control. For example, if you've decided to use Insteon devices, you'll need an Insteon hub to control them and have them work together. Insteon makes its own hubs: The Insteon Hub controls all Insteon devices and plays nice with Logitech Harmony remotes, Tesla vehicles, Sonos music systems, and Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant voice commands.
Many of the latest home automation hubs support multiple protocols, which means you don't have to settle on just one. The Wink Hub 2 is one of the more versatile hubs out there. In addition to Zigbee, Z-Wave, and dual-band Wi-Fi, it supports Bluetooth Low Energy, Lutron Clear Connect (lighting), and Kidde (smoke and CO alarm) wireless protocols. It also supports Alexa voice commands and IFTTT applets, and will control smart devices from numerous manufacturers including Chamberlain, Ecobee, GE, Honeywell, Nest, Philips Hue, Ring, and Yale. Just keep in mind that Wink switched to a subscription pricing model and now charges a $4.99 monthly fee for the same services it previously offered for free. The Wink platform has also recently experienced prolonged connectivity issues.
The Samsung SmartThings Hub is another multi-protocol controller: It contains Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, and Zigbee radios and will control many of the most widely used smart devices from companies like Ecobee, Honeywell, Kwikset, Philips Hue, Ring, Schlage, and Yale. Of course, it also works directly with many Samsung products. It can be controlled using Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant voice commands.
If you're looking for a system that does more than just control smart devices, consider a hybrid approach such as the TP-Link Deco M9 Plus. The M9 Plus is primarily a mesh Wi-Fi system that uses attractive nodes to eliminate Wi-Fi dead spots while providing a single network for seamless roaming throughout your home. It also contains Bluetooth and Zigbee antennas and can control numerous smart devices including door locks, door sensors, lighting systems, motion sensors, and smart plugs. Samsung's SmartThings Wifi is another hybrid model that combines a mesh Wi-Fi router with a home automation hub.
Home automation is also finding its way into some of the latest smart security systems. The Abode Home Security Starter Kit is a DIY home security system that offers a choice of self or professional monitoring and contains numerous radios including Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, and Zigbee. It also has a cellular radio for connecting to the internet in the event that your Wi-Fi goes down, and it supports IFTTT applets and Alexa and Google Assistant voice commands. Similarly, the Vivint Smart Home System lets you control things like door locks, lights, and thermostats, using your phone.
As mentioned, if you want to control your smart devices with your voice, Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, and Google Assistant will let you do it, and in some cases can take the place of a dedicated hub. All three voice assistant platforms let you control numerous Wi-Fi connected devices using your voice, but in most cases, you don't get the same level of control that you do with a dedicated app or hub.Amazon Echo Studio
The latest Amazon Echo and Echo Studio go a step beyond this. While they support Amazon Alexa voice commands for compatible devices, these smart speakers also feature built-in Zigbee connectivity. The same goes for Amazon's largest smart display, the Echo Show 10.
If you prefer Google Assistant to Alexa, Google's Nest Audio and Nest Mini speakers double as voice hubs for thousands of smart home devices, just like its Nest Hub and Nest Hub Max smart displays.
Apple doesn't sell a dedicated hub for its HomeKit platform, but you can use certain Apple products, such as the HomePod and HomePod mini speakers, as well as the Apple TV or iPad, as a hub. Devices that support HomeKit can be controlled using Scenes and Automations. Scenes let you control numerous devices all at once. For example, you can create a Good Morning scene that sets the thermostat to a certain temperature, turns on a light, and starts the coffee pot. With Automations you can trigger a scene or turn on a device based on your location, the time of day, or when a sensor is triggered.
A growing number of home automation systems don't require a hub and can simply be controlled directly using a mobile app. The Nest ecosystem includes cameras, doorbells, locks, smoke alarms, and thermostats, and works directly with your phone, as well as a number of third-party devices.
You can also use IFTTT applets to have smart devices work with each other without the need for a hub. IFTTT applets are like mini-programs that you create to have compatible devices behave a certain way. For example, you can create an applet to have your smart lights turn red when your favorite football team wins, or you can have a smart plug turn on when a motion sensor is triggered. As long as your devices are connected to the internet via Wi-Fi and are IFTTT-enabled, you can have them respond to things like changes in the weather, Facebook posts, and more.
Ultimately, the answer to whether or not you need a hub comes down to the devices you have, the ones you plan to buy, and how you want to control them. Keep in mind that the smart home space, while rapidly maturing, is still relatively new. Our guess is that dedicated hubs will ultimately fade out over time, something we've already seen happening over the last couple of years. For now, though, you might want to consider one in order to take full control over your smart home.
And for more on smartening up your home, check our beginner's guide to getting started.
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