​Smart home hubs buying guide – how to make the right choice

We demystify hubs and find the best way to control your home

What's the deal with smart home hubs

If you’re creating your ultimate smart home, the chances are you’ll need a smart home hub. When you’re blending devices from a bunch of different manufacturers, you’ll quickly want to get them all working together, and preferably all controllable within one app.

Anyone who’s got fed up of delving into separate apps to control their home will appreciate the benefits smart home hubs have to offer. However, the reality is a little less clear – and a lot of companies aren’t giving you the whole story. In fact, hubs can take many forms; you may already own a smart home hub, and in a dramatic end of season twist, you may not need to buy anything at all.

Read on get clued up about all things hub.

What does a smart home hub do?

Smart home hubs help get your tech working together. If you’ve got smart bulbs from three different manufacturers and want them all working in the same room, controlled as one, you’re going to have to use a hub of some kind.

In addition to that, remote access is a problem that hubs can solve. If you want to turn your heating on from the office before you return home, or schedule your lighting when you’re on holiday, you’re going to need something to offer remote and secure access to your stuff… essentially something that has a Wi-Fi connection so it can communicate with your smartphone.

Push it: The best smart buttons

A great example of this is Apple HomeKit. HomeKit devices can plug into your Apple Home app no problem, regardless of needing a hub of not. But Apple requires an always-on hardware hub to offer remote access, and leverages iPad, Apple TV or HomePod to do this.

When people think of smart home hubs, their minds tend to gravitate to the host of third-party hubs out there. These guys have been kicking around for a few years now, and were doing a sterling job of helping people control their smart homes in the early days of the connected home.

Smart home hubs guide – what’s the deal?

Dedicated smart home hubs

High profile examples include Samsung SmartThings, Wink and Harmony – you might have seen them advertised, or in stores.

These are – supposedly – equipped with all the protocols and software required to suck up all your devices, and enable you to control them from one app. And they would have been an essential part of any smart home.

As you may have noticed, most mini-ecosystems (Hive, Philips Hue, LightwaveRF to name but a few) already come with their own – that's because they run on protocols such as Zigbee or Z-Wave that require an extra device to sort everything else. That doesn't apply to all devices, because for better or worse, many use Wi-Fi to communicate, so no hub is necessary – Lifx is one such example.

But there are a couple of problems. Just because you’ve gone out and invested in a Samsung SmartThings doesn’t necessarily mean you now have one hub to rule them all. Many ecosystems will only work with their own hub in place, and if you can get rid of it, functionality can be severely reduced. So in many ways it’s just amassing another plastic box to control all the other plastic boxes.

Secondly, companies like Amazon and Google have left these types of hub in their dust with the rise of voice assistants. Voice has become the de-facto standard when it comes to controlling your smart home, and none of these dedicated hubs do that natively. You can pair up a voice assistant, but here’s the secret – these smart speakers have all but replaced the third-party hub.

Smart home hubs guide – what’s the deal?

Smart speakers – the new smart home hub

While not technically classed as hubs, the likes of Amazon Echo and Google Home have become smart home hubs in their own right. Yes, eagle-eyed readers will know that the new Amazon Echo Plus actually works as a Zigbee hub – but the Works with Alexa and Works with the Google Assistant programs enable most smart speakers to work as hubs.

Take Amazon Echo, for example. Once a device is working in your home, you download an Alexa skill, which pairs the two, enabling voice control of that device. While a true smart home hub would communicate with those devices using Zigbee, Z-Wave or whatever protocol is relevant, software skills offer much the same control and most users wouldn’t know the difference.

The issue here is the same with dedicated hubs. Smart speakers can only communicate directly with devices that use Wi-Fi – if your bulbs, thermostats, cameras or whatever have a hub, then your Echo or Google Home will need that to remain in place. As we mentioned, the Echo Plus has its own Zigbee hub – that’s great, and means that it will find Philips Hue devices plugged in without the Hue Bridge, but functionality is reduced to basic on/off and brightness.

Once devices are under the spell of Alexa, you can start taking control of them via voice, as well as Groups and Scenes. That means you can group and control devices from a host of companies quickly and easily, and do it with your voice. And manufacturers are falling over themselves to support Alexa and Google Assistant, which are now at the front of the queue.

Smart home hubs guide – what’s the deal?

Software hubs

You don’t always have to buy a new piece of hardware for your home – there are some apps out there that do the job too. This will cover the job of unifying different devices on your smartphone, reducing the need to delve into multiple apps to control elements of your home.

Examples include Yonomi, Wink (which is pretty useful without the hardware), Stringify and Elgato EVE, all of which have the power to control a heap of devices. You don’t need any hardware, just a bit of patience to get the app set up properly. They’re pretty powerful too.


So – what hub is right for you?

Hopefully all the different types of hubs are clearer now, but here’s a quick recap:

  • Most smart home devices come with their own hubs, but you need something to unify all these to offer a singular point of control.
  • While there are dedicated smart home hubs on the market, these don’t guarantee you can throw out all the other hubs you’ve amassed – however, they’re pretty good.
  • Smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home can act as hubs, but they can’t replace the white boxes that come with your existing tech.

We’ve tested some of the best hubs around, for which you'll find our verdicts below along with some thoughts on what makes each one unique. Keep checking back to, as we'll be updating this page over time.

For the person who wants ultimate control…

Smart home hubs buying guide – how to make the right choice

Wink Hub 2

The idea of the Wink Hub is that, unlike relying on the cloud for automations from the likes of IFTTT and Yonomi, you keep things in-house with a hub that's plugged into your home network directly, and which talks to your smart home tech internally.

Wink's smart home platform features an exhaustive array of smart home standards, offering an almost complete hub experience. The company (now owned by will.i.am, would you believe?) has been committed to making things as open as possible. IFTTT, Z-Wave, Zigbee, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth LE, Lutron's Clear Connect and Google's Thread interface are all compatible, and it also supports Nest, Sonos, Alexa, Google Assistant, Philips Hue and Honeywell. There are notable absentees, however - Lifx, Belkin, D-Link to name a few - but as you can hook up voice assistants, there's always a workaround - and there’s a bustling community of hackers who can help you tinker to your heart’s content.

The Wink 2 Hub is a slender little thing that could easily be hidden on a bookshelf and, while Ethernet connectivity to your router is recommended, you also have the option of connecting it to your home network over Wi-Fi, with both 2.4GHz and 5GHz supported. Unlike the Samsung SmartThings Hub though, there is no battery back-up option - so you'll have to have it plugged in and powered up at all times for your automations to work.

Wink calls those automations 'Robots' and it's this aspect that's the real selling point of the device. Sure, you can do scheduling and device controls from within the Wink app - but if you're pulling your phone out of your pocket to do that, you may as well just use that device's native app.

The 'Robots' are multi-step, multi-condition automations (think day, time, home/away status and the like) that allow you to team up your compatible tech to work in tandem. For example, you can have some of your Hue bulbs come on if your Nest Cam IQ Outdoor notices some motion or you can have your Sonos speakers start playing music if your Ring Doorbell is pressed but you're not at home. The possibilities are pretty endless and you can keep track of what Robots have been working and why, within an activity stream on the app.

Adding devices to the app is a breeze - somethings, such as Sonos will just show up if they are on the same network, whereas somethings just require you to link your accounts. Wink also has its own range of sensors, bulbs and the like if you want to keep things really simple.

the ambient verdict
Wink Hub 2
The Wink 2 Hub is an ageing beast now and who knows what the future holds with will.i.am running the show. Luckily though, the Hub came out before he got his hands on the company and, as such, it’s a well-oiled machine that makes home automations easy. Sure, you could do a lot of what it does remotely with Yonomi and co. but there’s something calming about having your home controls powered from within your home. The app is easy to use, the standards supported are comprehensive and most of the big name brands are on board.
PROS
  • Sub $100 price
  • Slim-line, slick design
  • Multiple protocol support
CONS
  • Few big name brands missing
  • Wi-Fi pairing can prove tricky
  • Robots is a stupid name for automations


For the person with all the devices...

Smart home hubs buying guide – how to make the right choice

Samsung SmartThings

The Samsung SmartThings platform has come a long way since it crowdfunded its way to life back in 2012. In fact, back then it was just SmartThings - before Samsung bought it. It does still feel like a work in progress in some respects, but it's polished enough now to be worthy of recommendation.

The SmartThings' biggest strength is its versatility: this thing is compatible with a broad range of different devices - largely thanks to both Zigbee and Z-Wave support - making it one of the most compatible hubs out there. And once it's all set up and connected, it works great. It's just a little bit of work to get there.

Technically, there's more than one "hub" here. You can go ahead and buy the SmartThings Hub itself (which has a battery backup and plugs right into the router) or you can pick up the Samsung Connect Home mesh router, which doubles up as the SmartThings hub too. You can buy more Connect Home boxes and scatter them around the house to extend that connection, or pick up the more powerful Connect Home Pro.

Read this: Best Samsung SmartThings compatible devices

Everything then connects to Samsung's cloud service, which makes sure all the separate parts are chatting to one another. There's support for Google Assistant and Alexa here too for voice control, but you won't get HomeKit or Nest integration. But as SmartThings works with IFTTT, this can be used to get around some of these blockades if you know how.

As for the app, things get a little tricky. There are actually two: the original SmartThings app, which has continued to be updated; and Samsung's new Connect app. The plan is to eventually get everyone over to the latter, but in the meantime it makes things unnecessarily complicated, not least because the Connect app is much less reliable on non-Samsung phones.

SmartThings has two drawbacks. First, the app situation. Second, it sometimes feels like a hub for the more tech-savvy. It's certainly usable for the less tech literate, but it's in need of some finessing. The app situation doesn't help that, especially as it doesn't make some of the nuances between Scenes and Routines incredibly clear - yet the broad interoperability may override this issue for many people. Worth noting too that Samsung has its own range of devices that can be tied in, including outlets and various types of sensors.

the ambient verdict
Samsung SmartThings
The Samsung SmartThings hub is incredibly versatile, supporting a broad range of devices thanks to both Zigbee and Z-Wave integration and an open approach. There's work to be done on general usability, and the app situation needs serious finessing, but those who own a lot of kit from different manufacturers may be able to overlook these shortcomings. What's more, the new Connect Home box offers a hub/mesh-router combo that helps bring everything tighter together.
PROS
  • Broad device support
  • Z-wave and Zigbee
  • Connect Home router has SmartThings built-in
CONS
  • App needs work
  • Some usability problems
  • Affordable way into the smart home

For the person who wants a mesh Wi-Fi router too (and customization)...

Smart home hubs buying guide – how to make the right choice

Almond 3

For many of us, the router is already the hub of our home activity. It's where all our devices connect to access that wonderful old internet. The Almond 3 takes that idea a little literally, and turns it into a full smart hub.

You've got a 802.11ac router that can either act on its own or in a mesh network with two other routers, blanketing your home in 4,000 square feet of Wi-Fi signal (1,500 if you opt for just the single router). In our tests, the speeds were comparable to our Eero system, both bobbing and weaving between 80Mbps download.

It's a solid router packed next to a smart home hub that's got full Zigbee compatibility. You can also add Z-Wave compatibility with a $20 dongle. It's a bummer it's not built in, but at least it's an option. Option is a key word with the Almond 3, because it gives you a lot of those.

A good example of that is the interface. You've got that same signature Almond touchscreen in the center, which is less like modern touchscreens and more like old, pre-iPhone touchscreens. It's a bit fiddly to use, and there's even a pop-out stylus in the router that makes the touchscreen easier to use. You'll have to juggle between using your phone and the companion app and the touchscreen to set things up, which can be frustrating.

Also, we had some trouble linking our app to our Almond 3 via the cloud, and had to keep doing it via a local wireless connection (see, more options!). Once everything is set up and good to go, the Almond 3 is a robust smart home hub.

It's fairly simple to link up Securifi's own smart home products, like door/window sensors, the Peanut smart plug, and motion detectors. There's even a built-in siren to the router, so that it can function as a smart security system. Though the siren is no where near as loud as the one in the Nest Secure, and definitely isn't loud enough to scare away burglars.

Finally, there's also Alexa, Nest and Philips Hue support here. So you can truly plug in a myriad of devices into the Almond 3 and get them to play together. You can even create some routines and scenes, playing off your smart devices together. The app does a good job of walking you through all the functions the first time you use it, but it's still not the easiest app in the world to use. It's easy to see it all becoming a bit overwhelming for an entrant into the world of the smart home.

the ambient verdict
Almond 3
The Almond 3 is filled with options and upgrades that'll give you a true all-in-one smart home hub solution. You get a solid mesh Wi-Fi router with a hub that's compatible with a wide range of devices and services. That affords you to customize your smart home the way you want, but it's also fairly overwhelming and unfriendly to newbies. This is the hub you graduate to, not start with.
PROS
  • Solid mesh Wi-Fi
  • Great compatibility
  • Lots of customization
CONS
  • Convoluted control
  • Buggy software
  • Not easy to use



For the person who wants to keep things simple…

Smart home hubs guide – what’s the deal?

Amazon Echo (range)

Works with Alexa’s incredible reach and array of support makes it the best option for those who just want to get in control of their devices. There are precious few smart home devices that don’t have an Alexa skill. Amazon’s voice assistant will easily hoover up control of your devices, the groups and scenes work like a dream, and you can use the app to control things as well as your voice.

What's more, the Echo Plus, one of Amazon's latest speakers, has Zigbee support built in, allowing it to work a smart home hub too. No longer does it have to go via another hub; it can communicate directly with those devices. However right now, it's not quite as powerful to truly stand alone in the way the Wink Hub 2 or SmartThings can. There's the fact it only supports Zigbee, which is limiting, but even within this the Plus is limited in exactly how much control you can wield over your connected devices. It's all a bit too simple, which is why we can't recommend dispatching your existing hub for the Echo Plus - but maybe on the Echo Plus 2.

Check out our guide to the Amazon Echo range.


For the Apple lovers out there...

Smart home hubs buying guide – how to make the right choice

While not a hub in the sense we've talked about above, there's no getting around the fact that Apple has built up a respectable ecosystem of its own. That is, if you're a card-carrying member of the Apple club. If you are, the Apple TV and HomePod technically work as "hubs" for your HomeKit devices, but only in that they offer a new way to use Siri.

The HomePod has neither Zigbee nor Z-wave, so you're limited to the shallow selection of HomeKit devices on the market, but if you're already using a lot of them, it's worth setting up an efficient HomeKit hub.



For those who want to keep things cheap…

Smart home hubs guide – what’s the deal?

Yonomi

Yonomi is a smart home hub that lives on your smartphone – both iOS and Android versions are available. It enables you to manage your smart home and get things working together. Yonomi works with the big brands – Works with Sonos, Works with Amazon Alexa and Works with the Google Assistant. Add to that Nest, Philips Hue, Ecobee, GE, Honeywell, Lifx, Logitech, Schlage, TP-Link, Belkin We-Mo and August… and breathe.

Download Yonoimi for Android and iOS.

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