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Most of us have found our lives rapidly infiltrated by new electronic devices over the last decade. First came MP3 players, then smartphones, then tablets, and now wearable devices are coming into their own. Computers remain, too, and home appliances like light bulbs and thermostats are now available with wireless connectivity.

While each individual piece of this technological puzzle promises to make life easier the disjointed collection of devices can become confusing in a different way. The solution is a “smart hub” What Is A Smart Home? What Is A Smart Home? We recently launched a Smart Home category at MakeUseOf, but what is a smart home? Read More  – a master device that can connect with everything else in your house. It’s a great idea, but also in its infancy. What’s available now – and what might be available tomorrow?

Basic Smart Hubs

When smart hubs first arrived several years ago they were fairly limited in what they could do. Most were able to connect only to a limited number of devices and allowed control via a mobile app. Timers and alarms could be set, but the dream of having a home that responds to you when you wake or detects when you’re home (or not) wasn’t yet obtainable.

Some hubs are still stuck in this era, but that might not be so bad if you have basic needs. Office superstore Staples offer its Connect home hub, which works with a wide variety of devices and can be controlled through a simple (albeit rather ugly) smartphone app, which runs on iOS and Android. While its feature set is rudimentary, reviewers have praised the Staples Connect for its easy setup and affordable pricing.

staplesconnect

Of course, Staples isn’t the only one in this game. Everyone wants to offer a home hub these days. Lowe’s Iris is simple and offers both battery and cellular data backups, which means it works if your home loses power and Internet service. Home Depot is promoting the Wink, a bargain hub priced at just $49.99. And smart lighting maker Insteon sells the predictably named Insteon Hub for $129.

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These hubs are a good solution for people who want to achieve a specific end, such as rigging a home with smart lighting or setting up an easy home security system. Users interested in expanding their systems in the future, however, may not be happy. While manufacturers might update these systems to be more sophisticated in the future they are, for now, a step behind the cutting edge.

Conditional Smart Hubs

The basic smart hubs really aren’t smart at all. They simply serve as a smartphone compatible interface layer between you and your devices. For real “smart” behavior you need a hub that supports conditional behavior.

What is conditional behavior? It’s the ability to change how devices work based on specific events (i.e. conditions) that the system itself detects. This marks the difference between a hub that simply turns on your heater automatically at 6PM each night, and one that only turns on your heater when it detects you’ve walked through the front door.

Nest, which is now owned by Google, is probably the most well-known conditional hub currently available. Originally a smart thermostat, Nest has expanded with a smoke alarm Nest Protect Review and Giveaway Nest Protect Review and Giveaway Read More and now offers compatibility with a variety of other devices. It also works with If This Then That, a service which allows users create conditional “recipes” that spans a huge range of apps and products from Google Drive to Philips Hue bulbs Light Your Home the Smart Way With Philips Hue Light Your Home the Smart Way With Philips Hue If you can afford the initial expenditure, you won't find a better-supported and more user-friendly smart lighting system on the market. Read More . Nest is a thermostat that’s also a smart hub, though – and it’s quite pricey at $249. It’s not a good choice for people in apartments (who often can’t change their thermostat) or enthusiasts on a budget.

A most affordable and simpler alternative is SmartThings, a crowd funding success story that’s become a big name in home automation (and is now owned by Samsung). The company offers a $99 hub and supports control of numerous devices through its smartphone app. What really makes this option notable, though, is how it was built for conditional events from the very start. The phone app for the hub supports conditional events and users can also connect with services via IFTTT. Owners can expand the system’s capabilities through various first-party sensors that quickly and easily connect to the hub. You can buy a door sensor, for example, that uses an accelerometer to determine when you’ve arrived home.

The newest entry in this field is Logitech’s Harmony Home Hub, a $99 device that’s a part of the company’s larger Harmony home entertainment system Logitech Harmony Ultimate Review and Giveaway Logitech Harmony Ultimate Review and Giveaway Your living room is chaos - admit it. You're forgiven for wondering which remote controls which device. What with the TV, amplifier, TiVO, BluRay player, maybe even the lighting - switching activities becomes a long... Read More . Logitech wants to marry their existing expertise in home theatre (an area where Nest and SmartThings are weak) with home automation – to create to create the ultimate home hub. The Home Hub works with a smartphone app and has IFTTT support, but is weakened by lack of support for ZigBee and Z-Wave, a pair of connection standards. Device support is a bit limited as a result. Reviews indicate Logitech’s approach works very well if you have a fancy home theater to pair with it.

Conditional hubs are complex and tend to be expensive. Even IFTTT can be difficult for new users to understand despite its intuitive interface. Owners must buy and place sensors, which means spending more time and money. If you want a smart hub that can be expanded in the future, however, a conditional hub is the way to go.

What Will The Future Bring?

Amazon recently announced Echo – a voice-controlled home assistant – and surprised critics with what it doesn’t do as much as with what it does. The small cylindrical device can respond to voice questions, keep track of calendar events and update shopping lists (on Amazon, of course), but it apparently doesn’t connect with smart home systems.

Echo could be expanded to do that, however, and it’s not the only device with that capability. Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s PlayStation 4 both have the ability to detect voice commands and could in theory be expanded into the smart hub field with a software update. Media hubs like the Google Nexus Player also hold this potential.

Apple is another key player that many expect will jump into this segment. Its strong position in the smartphone and tablet markets, along with its upcoming Watch and its dated but still available Apple TV, give the company all the connections necessary to dive in. When that might happen is anyone’s guess.

Still, it’s clear that smart hubs have already moved past the start-up stage. Nest was purchased by Google; SmartThings was purchased by Samsung; and even the simplest hubs are backed by strong companies with interest in other areas. There’s a war brewing over control of your home, but don’t worry – the fight’s victor will bring you greater convenience.

Do you have a home hub? Tell us about your experiences in the comments!

Image credit: Shutterstock/Chesky

  1. Mike
    April 23, 2015 at 4:35 pm

    I recently purchased a "Link" Hub (which I believe to be the Wink hub's little brother) and two LED smart bulbs in a kit from Home Depot for $25 (for that price I couldn't walk away from it). It's very basic, and the app definitely needs work. That said, however, what really bothers me is that it appears that this solution requires not only the internet, but an account on Wink/Link's servers. Basically, your app communicates with the servers at Wink/Link HQ, which then sends the commands to the Wink/Link hub in your home. So, my solution is dependent upon the availability of a server in some data center somewhere, which can have undesirable results (such as the Wink outage of a few days ago).

    What I'm really interested in is an app/hub combo that can directly connect to each other through the internet, thereby removing the man in the middle and the dependency that that solution creates.

    Is there such a product available now that operates in such a manner?

    • dschimka
      June 12, 2015 at 12:36 pm

      Yes, ISY "hub" paired with Insteon or other home automation devices. Buyer beware on any electronic device that requires a connection back to it's mother ship at the vendor. Eventually the product will become outdated and the vendor will stop supporting your version forcing you to upgrade even if everything is still working fine. Worse yet, your vendor might lose the product battle, land the mother ship and send it to China for recycling; in other words, shut down the service and leave you with a fancy door stop. The Insteon Hub is another of these devices dependent upon vendor services.
      You might have a firewall at home but for every device that is making a connection to a 3rd party on the Internet, you have one more avenue for a vendor or hacker to invade your home. I find it rather disturbing with devices like Nest where the vendor is collecting information about your life from the sanctity of your own home. Forget about Big Brother, his siblings have already found their way into your home on your smart phones and other gadgets.
      Get smart (no pun intended) and go with a device that is not dependent upon the vendor for operation. The hubs that require the vendor might make it easier to access your home network but you run the risk of your investment suddenly becoming useless. Features might not work at all if your Internet is offline. Your "app" on a mobile device might not communicate with the "hub" at all if your Internet is offline or if the mobile device doesn't have service. Who knows what access might be available into your devices by the vendor.
      Reject "hubs" that require communications relay through the vendor.

      • Jay Le
        June 26, 2015 at 7:55 am

        Hi dschimka,

        I share the same view with you, not much for the security and privacy but rather for the availability of the service. I would want to let the hub to do all the thinking and control the other devices for me, rather than some other server elsewhere. The best scenario is all control commands, automation rules, conditions are processed by the hub. Connection with your phone should be done via WIFI (at home) or by port-forwarding through your router (on the go).

        But then, without the cloud, the other good things like IFTTT may not be possible or become very difficult to implement. Please correct me if I am wrong. And this is like a trade-off that these companies does not want to make.

        Anyway, please advise some other hubs that does not requires the vendor's server to operate. I would like to choose one for my coming new home.

      • Jay Le
        June 26, 2015 at 9:19 am

        Btw, SmartThings has announced the next generation will support "offline" operation and only a few functionalities will remain being handled by the cloud. That next generation was delayed until Q3 though.

        The main question now is the price... If it's below $200 then the new SmartThings generation would probably become the best of its kind.

  2. MAT
    February 10, 2015 at 10:47 pm

    Great article, Matt. It'd be interesting to hear of a snapshot of market share for the major players, # units shipped or estimates on flame-outs/returned units.

  3. Matthew R.
    December 5, 2014 at 11:57 pm

    I've been researching RoomieRemote as an alternative to Logitech Harmony Hub for home automation and home theatre automation via macros. roomieremote.com

    The iOS version of their app is rated well and seems more capable than the equivalent app for Logitech's hub. The hub automation hub is a combination of two components: the app and various "Blasters". The blasters convert Wi-Fi to IR or commands for IP controllable devices or serial controlled devices. You can connect different triggerable macros that fire based on an alarm, a button press or an app.

    Check out http://www.roomieremote.com/device-compatibility/ to see what home automation devices Roomie can interface with. I posted this once before with different wording, but it was pulled for some reason - maybe it didn't sound smart home hubby enough. It seems to function in that capacity unless I'm missing something.

    Does anybody out there use Roomie and one of their Blaster Wi-Fi to IR or IP hubs?

  4. Matthew Rosenberg
    December 5, 2014 at 8:22 pm

    I think Roomie is worth a mention - http://www.roomieremote.com or http://www.roomieremote.com/features/

    I've been thinking about getting one instead of the Logitech Harmony hub. The iOS version of their app is rated 4.5 stars. It seems to support a huge library of IP, IR and Serial devices if you buy the appropriate hardware or subscribe to the right service. One example, the Roomie Blaster is a Wi-fi to IR adapter. There are other home automation capabilities available too.

    Check out http://www.roomieremote.com/device-compatibility/ to see what it interfaces with. I've been told that what isn't on the list, can in many cases be added through a learning function.

  5. Mark
    December 5, 2014 at 4:12 pm

    Don't for get HomeSeer! They've been around for 15 years and support virtually all technologies (Z-Wave, Insteon, X10, UPB, PLCBUS, etc). Like the Vera boxes mentioned above, they are a bit more expensive and don't have all the media buzz of the newbies but they're rated #1 in home automation on toptenreviews and they have a huge following.

  6. Ron R.
    November 22, 2014 at 5:05 am

    what about vera light and vera 3 ??? they are not that much more expensive and are what could pass for 'prosumer' grade !!! just cause they don't get all the media buzz of some funky shape or color of a 'new' hub...

  7. David
    November 22, 2014 at 1:28 am

    Alexa... really, I'd get a bit tired of that..

    I love the idea put forward. I would like to access this mode from multiple rooms. perhaps interface with my cable/internet to give a robust experience without tires to carriers.
    also application for hearing impaired?
    but lets make the name programable...

  8. bben
    November 20, 2014 at 1:22 pm

    New? How about smart hubs have been available for around 30 years but most people just saw them as too geeky. X10 is the grandaddy of home automation, and has been around since the late 1970s. And is still being made. It can be accessed through 3rd party smart phone apps available from the various phone app sites. And X10 has a large base of different gadgets to control nearly anything. I use it for the lighting in the house, to control my hot water heater, to alert me when someone pulls into my driveway, to turn on the lights automatically when someone enters a dark bathroom, (then off when there is no one in there) To schedule on/off times for my Christmas lights. There is a module that can control nearly anything they don't have a specific module for already through a simple relay. Many modules require zero electrical knowledge to use as they just plug into an outlet. But for people who are not afraid to change a light switch, they have those too, including 3 way, 4 way, full dimmable, florescent, CFL, low voltage, and remote stick anywhere switches. They also have several hubs available. From a simple tabletop, to a clock controller to a full on programmable battery backed up hub that plugs in and can be disconnected from your computer after being programmed. I think X10 pioneered the outside motion sensing floodlight and theirs is fully controllable through timers as well. They also have a full X10 compatible burglar alarm and x10 controllable internet cameras. You can start with a simple one device - and keep adding as you decide you want more. All light switch modules also allow using the original wall switch as well as the remote function. Modules are available either in sets or individually. The icing on the cake - it is actually the least expensive as well as most complete full home automation system available.

    One thing they do not have ( yet) is a decent remote controllable thermostat.

    There are a lot of third party add ons as well, such as filters, couplers, extenders, cell phone apps and computer programs. I think the source code is open as there are several sites with add on gadgets. There is 3rd party software available for Windows, MAC and Linux - but you have to dig to find it.

    There are several web forums dedicated to X10 where users can get info, ask questions and get help from other users.

    Up until lately, the X10 website was the worst site on the internet - It looked it was designed by a 13 year old ADHD kid who tried to include every bad design feature he could find into it - but the X10 site was recently acquired by a new owner who has cleaned up the site (Much better now) and is promising newer and better quality gadgets. I have been using their products since the mid 1980s. When the new guys say they plan to add some new gadget or some new functionality - X10 already has it, and has probably had it for years.

    • noderehwon
      November 22, 2014 at 3:04 am

      Meh, not so much X10. Powerline basedwith limitations with phase and distance, it has had it's share of sporadic communications. Insteon is a form of the X10 protocol and is much improved, and wireless. I'd like to use a hub that offers communication to a large number of home control protocols. In home mesh network that is secure would help as well. I wouldn't say that Insteon, Z-Wave, or ZigBee are all that, but they are more reliable than good 'ol X10.

  9. Abdur Rehman
    November 20, 2014 at 7:33 am

    There was a kickstarter campaign called Notion. I think that is also a pretty good home automation tool. The sensors are quite neat. Hopefully it will be in the market early next year. I really liked this system.
    kickstarter.com/projects/1044009888/notion-be-home-even-when-youre-not
    notion.is/

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