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.
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 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.
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’re still working on reviewing the leading smart home hubs – but in the meantime, here’s some pointers to the best devices for you.
For the person who wants ultimate control…
Wink Hub 2
Wink's smart home platform features an exhaustive array of smart home standards, offering a complete hub experience. It pretty much works with everything, and the company has been committed to making things as open as possible. IFTTT, Z-Wave, Zigbee, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are all supported, and is also supports Nest, Alexa, Google Assistant, Philips Hue and Honeywell. You can hook up voice assistants, and there’s a bustling community of hackers who can help you tinker to your heart’s content.
For the person who wants to keep things simple…
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.
For those who want to keep things cheap…
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.