The Best Smart Home Hubs and Why You Need One

Perhaps the single most frequently asked question that hits our inbox here at Smart Home is this…

“Do I really need a smart home hub?”

The answer is “Probably, but certainly not always.”

Don’t mistake this for an evasive response.

Every single aspect of building out a smart home should be entirely personal. We don’t give one-size-fits-all solutions because you’re unlikely to get what you really want and need if you expect a boilerplate answer. You’re smarter than that and so will your home be if you take the time and trouble to build out a connected home that fully meshes with your requirements.

So today, while we’ll recommend a few approaches to home hubs and gateways, we’re certainly not here to push you toward any particular product. Also, if you’re already pretty knowledgeable about smart home hubs, we’ll save your time and suggest you check out some of our other informative content instead.

If you’re still fumbling in the dark, though, we’ll kick off with a basic definition then explore some different approaches to constructing the connected home of your dreams…

What Is a Smart Home Hub?

Smart home devices come packing various communication protocols. From Bluetooth and Z-Wave to Zigbee and WeMo, these devices are much like people at a conference talking different languages. A translator is required.

So in the simplest sense, a home hub can get your smart devices and appliances to work together and understand each other.

Hubs also help you to automate devices and also give you that all-important remote access.

By streamlining everything into one app, you can think of a smart home hub as a universal remote and the heart of your home.

The thing is, manufacturers have an obvious vested interest in selling you on the idea of a home hub at all costs whether you need one or not. We don’t. We’ll look at why you might need one first, though…

Why Is a Home Hub Necessary At All?

Investing in a hub provides you with that centralized method of controlling disparate devices as well as helping you to automate them.

If you want to return home and ensure your lights snap into action as you open your smart lock and, at the same time, the thermostat regulates the temperature to suit, you’ll need a hub to make this happen.

Think about the type of devices you have in place or plan to buy in the future. Do they use Z-Wave and Zigbee? Bluetooth? WeMo? If so, a hub will give you remote access from your cellphone.

As an aside, if you have devices using WiFi for connectivity – think August’s Smart Lock or Philips Hue lights – a home hub is not necessary at all.

How about Apple’s hard-hitting HomeKit? If you’re intending to deck out your home with this stable of smart equipment, you can certainly get started in-app. Home is responsive and intuitive for sure. But what it doesn’t do is deliver remote access. You’ll need a smart home hub for that. In this instance, the hub can take the form of a trusty iPad, a HomePod or even Apple TV. Hubs don’t always need to be uninspiring slabs of plastic with no other purpose. In fact, investing in a standard third-party hub might not always be the answer to your prayers that you were promised…

Drawbacks of Regular Third-Party Hubs

As we stated from the get-go, we’re not here to push you toward a hub but rather to give you a complete picture from which you can make your own decision.

Whether you opt for Samsung’s enduringly popular SmartThings Home Hub, Wink’s competing gateway or any of the shower of third-party hubs glutting the market, you might believe you’ve got that single centerpiece that will prevent the need for any further purchase.

This is by no means always the case.

You might have noticed already that some ecosystems will only function properly with their own hub installed. Depending on how brand-loyal you are and whether or not you buy with any fixed plan in place or pick up devices on a whim, you might very well discover you need more than one hub which will complicate things.

And then there’s the fact that there’s been a new kid on the block for some time now in the form of smart speakers and the digital assistants that come with them so what role do they play in the whole hub issue?

Smart Speakers and Voice Assistants: The New Order

Unless you’ve been hiding off-grid somewhere, you’ll be fully aware of the rise of digital assistants through Amazon’s stellar Echo range of smart speakers or via Google Home.

With Alexa or Assistant, you can create Routines. These are pre-programmed events that unfold at a designated time or when you bark out a command to trigger them.

While smart speakers are not officially categorized as hubs, they can serve as de facto gateways. Indeed, Echo Plus serves as a Zigbee hub, albeit with reduced functionality if you choose to use Philips Hue lights without the recommended bridge, for example.

Regular Echos also do the trick. When you download a Skill for your smart device, the pairing and voice control work to enable communication on a software level that does the job of a hub.

From voice control through Routines, Groups and Scenes, smart speakers make communication between devices straightforward. There’s also one less piece of tech to worry about if you’re not more interested in making your life easier than coming to terms with the bewildering tech that underpins smart homes.

How About Software Home Hubs?

If you really are resistant to picking up more hardware, it’s possible to pick up apps that will stop you needing to use more apps!

With Wink, for instance, you can take charge of multiple devices while sidestepping the extra hardware completely.

A Few Pointers When Considering a Smart Home Hub

You should now have a reasonably clear idea if you need a smart home hub at all. Don’t fall for the hype and feel pressured into buying one if it doesn’t make sense for you.

Before we give you a few specific pointers, we’ll mention a few general factors you should take into account…

  • Communication Protocols: Not all smart home hubs are created equal. And by no means all of them will be capable of handling all communication protocols. Here, the old saying comes fully to the fore: Fail to plan, and plan to fail. Make sure you take the time and trouble of considering which devices you already have and which you plan to invest in. Seek out a hub – if you need one, of course – that will comfortably deal with these devices and that’s half the battle won.
  • Versatility: Hubs can be very singular in functionality, doing little more than enabling you to manage multiple devices in a basic manner. Others allow you to control your music, switch on home theater components and much, much more. It’s all about intended usage here. Be honest about what you want and make absolutely certain the hub you have in mind will deliver this.
  • Operating System: It’s pretty much assumed that all smart home hubs will be compatible with both Android and iOS phones. If you’re in either camp, you’re in safe hands. If you have a Windows phone, though, it pays to check up on compatibility before committing to purchase.
  • Connectivity: Another area to check up on is whether the hub you’re looking into piggybacks your WiFi connection or needs an Ethernet connection directly into your modem.
  • Voice Control: If you want to control your devices using nothing but voice commands, choose a hub that makes this possible. The last thing you want is to rush into buying a hub then discover you need to take charge in-app rather than by voice command.

A Few Smart Home Hub Suggestions

We won’t be delving into any full product reviews today, but it seems wrong to wrap up without giving you some specific ideas about which home hubs are worth further investigation if you choose to buy one…

Samsung’s SmartThings Home Hub is now into its third generation and offers pretty robust performance at a keen price-point. This makes a particularly strong choice for homes stuffed with Internet of Things devices. For an even more functional offering, Samsung’s Smart WiFi System comes with the SmartThings Hub along with complete WiFi coverage for your connected home with the 3 units providing a reliable mesh network.

Wink offer the Connected Home Hub now uprated and into its second iteration. You can use this nimble to connect to a wide spread of devices and it works with Zigbee, Z-Wave, both Alexa and Google Home among others. You’ll now get 5GHz WiFi and an Ethernet port making this a versatile yet user-friendly option. It’s better suited to beginners than advanced smart home enthusiasts which is why we’re giving it a mention today.

For smart speaker fans, choose from one of Amazon’s many Echo devices, Google Home or Apple HomePod, and you can get all the advantages a little speaker brings along with hub functionality.

Check here for a showcase of a range of other smart home hubs to see if any in particular mesh with your needs.

To reiterate, we’ve deliberately refrained from making too many pointed suggestions since you should double down on exactly what you need and the purpose of today was to serve up a basic guide for anyone just starting out or unsure of what a hub really does.

Final Word

So, we very much hope this brief exploration of smart home hubs has cleared a few things up for you. If you’ve got any questions at all, just drop us a line and we’ll do our very best to help out.

You should now be clear on whether you need a hub and, if so, which type would work best. Remember, it’s all about specific smart home and if you keep that firmly in mind, every element should fall neatly into place.

Come back to our home automation blog for more handy hints and advice. We’re in a giving mood for the holiday season!