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As your smart home begins to grow, you may find there are limitations with relying on your voice assistant to manage everything for you. Certain devices will not be compatible, and you can be limited in the complexity of the routines you can setup. In this case, do you need a smart home hub?
A smart home hub is not needed for a smart home to function, however, it can be beneficial if you have lots of devices and routines to manage. For someone just getting started, using a smart speaker with a built-in voice assistant will be fine to use.
I did some research into various smart home hubs to find out whether they are worth using and how they add value to your smart home hub. The fact that some are compatible with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, and Z-Wave may make them something worth looking into for your smart home.
What Is a Smart Home Hub?
A smart home hub is a device that is used as a central hub and connects all of your smart home devices together.
They will connect either locally or to the cloud and are used to connect IoT devices (Internet of Things) with each other, regardless of whether they use Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, or Z-Wave protocols.
These protocols can be considered as the “language” that a device speaks. If two devices are using two different protocols, they may not be able to communicate with each other.
This is where a smart home hub comes into play; it translates the protocol communications so different devices can communicate with each other, even if they are speaking different languages.
As an example, your smartphone will only work using Wi-Fi or Bluetooth; it doesn’t work with Zigbee or Z-Wave protocols.
If you have a smart lock that only uses Zigbee, your phone won’t be able to understand the communications coming from the lock, so the hub is needed to do the translating.
Smart home hubs are considered to be the core of a smart home, bringing together all of the devices, systems and automations to a centralized platform.
Not only does this make managing a smart home considerably easier, but it also means you have just the one smart home app to control everything rather than several different apps to control your different devices.
Should you want to set up a routine or automation, no matter how simple or complicated it is, setting it up in the hub’s app is easier and more time-efficient.
In addition to proving a central platform for your smart home, a hub can also be used to help manage Wi-Fi and Bluetooth traffic, easing congestion across your home network and improving network connectivity across all of your devices.
Many people consider Alexa or Google Assistant to be hubs. It’s easy to see why they may think this as they allow different devices to be connected and they can be controlled through the app.
They aren’t really a hub, though; they are more smart speakers with a voice assistant built-in. The likes of SmartThings and Hubitat are actual smart home hubs, which we will take a closer look at later in the article.
How Does a Smart Home Hub Work?
Understanding how a smart home hub works is made easier when you consider it to be a network device rather than a smart home device.
They essentially receive data from one or more devices and then forward it out to other devices. Again, this is due to devices not necessarily being able to communicate with each other directly as these use different protocols.
Hubs will usually have a built-in switch which is responsible for keeping the information that determines where and how the data is forwarded on.
The app that comes with your hub can be considered as a universal remote that controls all your smart home devices as well as allowing you to set up schedules, automations, routines, and other tasks.
The number of different devices that be controlled using a smart home hub is massive.
Be it smart locks, energy monitors, garage door openers, security cameras, smoke detectors, smart plugs, videos doorbells, smart light bulbs, thermostats, or sensors; a hub can control them all.
That really is just scratching the surface when it comes to the devices that are compatible with a smart home hub; there are many, many more.
Some smart home devices will come with their own hub, like Philips Hue, however, these often are not allowed to communicate with other devices or hubs; they are their own self-contained ecosystem.
If you had Philips Hue lightbulbs as well as others from a different manufacturer, you could well end up with two different hubs and two different apps to use. A single smart home hub allows the two different hubs to work together.
That’s not to say the individual hubs are no longer needed when you have a smart home hub; it doesn’t replace the proprietary hub, but simply connects them together and allows them both to be managed from a centralized location.
You could find that removing the proprietary hub actually reduces the amount of functionality they provide or even stop the individual devices that communicate with it from working entirely.
Smart Home Hub Buyer’s Guide
Before going out and buying your first smart home hub, consider the following.
Some hubs allow more integrations with smart home devices than others, and you could find that certain hubs don’t support certain protocols either.
Make sure to check the production description and specification of the hub you are considering and make sure it has the capacity for the number of devices you plan on having in the future and that it supports Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, and Z-Wave wherever possible.
Although most hubs will work with both iOS and Android devices, it is definitely still worth checking before hitting that buy button. Some hubs will not work on Windows phones, so keep this in mind if you do use one of these devices.
Most, if not all, smart home hubs will have an accompanying app that you can install on your smartphone or tablet, but some also have the added option of an application that you can install on your Windows PC or Mac.
This may not be a great benefit to some people as accessing everything through your portable device is simply more convenient, but it is still nice to know the option is there in some cases.
Smart home hubs tend to not feature voice controls out of the box as they don’t have a built-in speaker. If you want to be able to control the devices connected through your hub using your voice, make sure that the hub itself can integrate with your smart speaker.
Don’t worry too much about this as most will, but it is still worth a check.
An important factor to consider is how the hub connects to your router as most will require a direct connection and will not work when plugged into a network switch.
The number of ports available on a router itself is often very limited and you likely already have other devices connected and in use.
Make sure you have an Ethernet port free to connect the hub or find a hub that has a wireless card and will allow you to connect using Wi-Fi.
Some hubs can be quite large in size, so keep this in mind when you are positioning it near your router and potentially other proprietary hubs and other network equipment.
Most tend to feature a flatter design that takes up more floor space, for the lack of a better term, yet others are taller and narrow so it can be better for space-saving.
Most hubs will support IFTTT (If This Then That) along with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, and Z-wave.
This is a simple scripting system that lets you connect devices that normally wouldn’t be able to work with each other, similar to the other protocols.
One example use would be to have all of your lights flash blue if your hub is told by your smart sensor that a water leak has been detected.
When the power goes out, you will likely find that a lot of your devices connected to your smart home hub can’t be used as they rely on a hub that is always on and available.
Thankfully, many hubs will have a battery backup.
Even when you lose power for just a few seconds, there can be a significant delay while the hub powered back on and reconnects, so having the hub automatically switch to using batteries can prevent downtime.
The batteries used are typically either rechargeable cells or standard AS.
If a particular hub ticks all of your boxes but doesn’t have a battery backup, you may want to consider getting a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) to connect the hub to if losing power is a concern.
If you have a particularly large home, keep in mind the range that the hub’s sensors can support.
Although may hubs will support Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee and Z-Wave, they all have very different ranges.
Just like with your wireless router, a smart home hub can be affected by interference from other devices on the network and the positioning of them throughout your home.
It’s worth taking the time to do some research into the hub you are considering to make sure it will fit in well with your home and all of your other devices.
This is a consideration primarily for the accompanying app as, at the end of the day, this is what you will be used to manage your entire smart home.
Some hubs are designed primarily for everyday users so it will be easier to navigate yet lack some more advanced controls, whereas others will offer every feature available under the sun and allow you to customize everything exactly as you want, but could have a steep learning curve that could overwhelm a beginner.
Make sure that the hub you are thinking of purchasing is one that you will be happy using, or at least be prepared to invest some time into learning how to make the most use out of it.
Which Are the Best Smart Home Hubs?
There are a number of different smart home hubs available, and it can be difficult to know which is the best for you. These are the three best smart home hubs I think are well suited
Amazon Echo Show – Best For Most People
If you are looking for something that sits in between a basic smart speaker and a fully-fledged hub, I would recommend the Amazon Echo Show.
It has got to a point where Amazon’s Echo devices are more than capable of running an entire smart home; the Echo Show which features a 10.1” display will be perfect for most people.
There are very few smart home devices that don’t have an associated an Alexa skill, so you’ll struggle to find anything that is not compatible. It’s also incredibly easy to ask Alexa to go ahead and search for any connected devices; she will just go ahead and connect them up for you and make them ready to control.
What makes the Echo Show different from all the other models in the Echo line up as that it has Zigbee support built-in.
Just a note that only the Echo Show with a 10.1” display supports Zigbee; the smaller 5” and 8” models don’t so keep this in mind if you are adding one to your basket.
Having the screen in addition to just the speakers is really handy.
Being a touch screen, you can control the Echo Show through the device itself rather than always having to use the app or your voice. Another useful feature is being able to see a live feed from your security camera or video doorbell, so you don’t have to scrabble around to open the app.
Don’t get me wrong, Alexa is fantastic and will fit the needs of the majority of people perfectly, but it is by no means perfect.
It doesn’t support Z-Wave as some other smart home hubs do, and even then, you are limited to how much control you have over your devices, be them communicating using Wi-Fi or Zigbee.
I have an Echo Show, albeit the smaller 5” model in my bedroom, and have found it perfect for controlling my entire smart home. Having a screen comes in really handy and the fact that I can’t use Zigbee or Z-Wave really hasn’t bothered me yet.
Perhaps as I add more devices, I’ll find it is worth getting a dedicated smart home hub, but for now, the Echo Show is doing just nicely.
Samsung SmartThings – Most Versatile
SmartThings is one of the most popular smart home hubs you can currently buy, and for good reasons.
It supports a huge range of different devices thanks to it being compatible with both Zigbee and Z-Wave protocols. In fact, you could argue that it is the most versatile of all the hubs. Samsung, who bought SmartThings back in August of 2014, actually produce some of their own smart home devices like sensors and plugs, so you’ll know that these will work seamlessly.
Another major benefit to using SmartThings as your hub of choice is that the new Connect Home box, which is essentially the SmartThings Hub, is actually a mesh router and smart home hub in a single device. Not only does this mean one less thing cluttering up the area of your home where you keep your networking equipment, but it also integrates just that little bit better.
Once you have got everything set up and working, SmartThings is great as a central smart home hub. It just takes a bit of time and effort in the first place.
The app itself allows you to do everything you need to but could do with a bit of polishing and made a bit easier to use.
There are actually two apps available: the original SmartThings app and Samsung’s new Connect app. Despite the original app still being updated, it isn’t going to be around forever as Samsung is starting to get everyone moved over to using the Connect app instead.
At the moment, many people favor using SmartThings over Connect as the Connect app has been everything that bit more complicated than it needs to be. Samsung seems to have forgotten the well-known phrase “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it”.
It seems that they have tried to fix a problem that never existed in the first place.
The Connect app is also considerably less reliable on non-Samsung phones for obvious reasons, but this is still not very helpful for those us using iOS or a different Android-based phone altogether.
SmartThings is definitely more for those of you that have a bit of experience with managing a smart home or don’t mind a bit of learning and trial and error to get everything set up as you want.
If this isn’t a concern for you, you would seriously struggle to find an alternative hub to SmartThings that has the power and capability to match.
Hubitat Elevation – Best For Power Users
If you thought SmartThings was complicated to set up, prepare yourself as the Hubitat Elevation has an even steeper learning curve.
With that comes incredibly comprehensive controls that allow you to do pretty much whatever you can think of with your smart home.
Hubitat should be reserved for power users that need much more than just setting up a few basic routines or being able to control your devices with your voice.
Through Hubitat’s web interface, the level of detail that you can go to when setting up your routines is truly incredible. It allows you to create very specific rules for when your smart home devices will react and perform certain functions.
Whereas the likes of Alexa are quite limited when it comes to setting up routines, Hubitat is light years ahead.
Another benefit of the Hubitat Elevation is actually its design. It is a very small, square-shaped device that still manages to fit in antennas for both Zigbee and Z-Wave signals.
One thing to keep in mind, though, is that it doesn’t have Wi-Fi built-in, so you have no choice but to plug it directly into your router. Make sure you do have a free Ethernet port on your router before going out and getting yourself a Hubitat.
Although it wasn’t available at its inception and you had to use the web interface, there is now a smartphone app on both iOS and Android for Hubitat so you can control your entire smart home and all of your routines whilst on the go.
Many people prefer to use Hubitat over other hubs that rely on connectivity to the Cloud, like SmartThings, as everything gets stored locally on the device itself. Not only does this make your smart home more secure, but it also means your devices and routines will continue to work even if your Internet connection goes down.
If you have just a few smart home devices dotted around, the Hubitat Elevation isn’t the hub for you. It is more for those of you with lots of devices who want to use them in innovative ways and setup complex routines and automations.
If you want to get the absolute most out of your smart home and don’t mind the steep learning curve that comes with it, the Hubitat Elevation is a fantastic choice for a smart home hub.
Do You Need a Smart Home Hub?
The answer to this question really comes down to what you want to get out of your smart home and the devices you plan on using.
Not everyone will need a smart home hub. In fact, I think that the majority of people can get away with not having one.
Smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home are now almost fully-fledged hubs as what they are capable of has grown over time. For most, they sit in place of a dedicated hub and be at the heart of your smart home.
I personally do not have a dedicated hub; I have found that Alexa does everything I need it to.
The app is intuitive and lets me set up the routines I want, and it is just so easy to control all of my smart home devices and automations using my voice.
That’s actually something to keep in mind; the dedicated hubs don’t offer voice control options out of the box, but there are ways you can achieve this with a couple of integrations.
The biggest influencing factor on whether or not you need a smart home hub comes down to the devices you use and the protocols they use to communicate with each other.
If you have a basic smart home where all of the connected devices use Wi-Fi, you won’t get much benefit from using a hub.
This is where the smart speakers fall down, however; they are not fully compatible with all of the standards and protocols that a dedicated hub is.
Some smart speakers may work with the likes of Zigbee, but not Z-Wave. If you have a device that only uses Z-Wave, that is going to be a problem.
It’s also worth remembering that even with a dedicated hub, the proprietary hubs need to stay in place if you want to make the most out of their functionality.
Take the proprietary hub away and you may find the devices that used it will still work, but only to a certain degree.
The take-home message here is that you shouldn’t go and get a smart home hub in hope that you will be away to get rid of all your other proprietary hubs and use the one hub to rule them all.
You will find yourself just needing to add yet another hub which you may not get much use out of.
So, do you need a smart home hub?
I would suggest that most people, especially beginners just getting into the smart home game, can get away with not using a dedicated hub and rely on their smart speaker as their command speaker.
If you have lots of devices that all use different protocols, you probably want to consider getting a hub just to make managing things easier as it will all be done through a central place.