An increasing number of households have embraced smart home technology. Sales of Nest thermostats and Philips Hue lightbulbs have soared, as the concept itself increasingly moves into the mainstream. There’s just one last hurdle for smart home tech to overcome – how can consumers manage the dozens of devices they use?
The answer? Hubs.
These are physical boxes which plug into your network, and discover any compatible connected smart home device. The user can then control and combine all their smart home products from one environment, rather than through a crushing plethora of smartphone apps. So, which ones are on the market right now, and are they worth buying?
The Smart Hub Market
There are a number of smart hubs on the market, each with their own inherent advantages, disadvantages, and quirks. Working out the right hub for you is a complicated business, as each hub supports a different set of protocols, meaning the devices supported by each hub vary wildly.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of the best smart hubs comes from Samsung. The South Korean giant has carved a significant swathe of the market by embracing a strategy that has seen it release its own peripherals, as well as a smart hub that is compatible with literally hundreds of devices.
The Samsung SmartThings hub supports Samsung’s own range of smart home devices, as well as those that use the Z-Wave and Zigbee protocols. It can also interact with IFTTT, Nest, and Amazon Echo. As far as connectivity goes, it packs an Ethernet port, two USB ports, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi. It also includes a battery backup, which is helpful if you live in an area prone to power cuts.
The SmartThings hub can work with an incredible number of smart home products. As many as 227 Z-Wave devices can be connected, as well as literally thousands of Zigbee devices. However, users need to be wary of the fact that as the number of connected devices increases, network performance and reliability will sharply drop.
You can pick up the latest (at the time of writing, 2nd generation) hub through Samsung’s website for $99.00. On Amazon, it’s slightly cheaper at $79.99. Samsung also sells their devices through other third parties, like Currys in the UK.
Then there’s the VeraEdge. At $99.95 through their official website and on Amazon, this roughly matches the Samsung SmartThings in price. It mainly supports the Z-Wave protocol, which is the most promising effort to create an open standard for smart home technology. The devices that support Z-Wave are too numerous to mention, but include offerings from Yale, Logitech, and HoneyWell.
Interestingly, both Lowes and Staples have their own smart home hubs. The Staples Connect Hub (which is branded as the D-Link Connect Hub in the UK) retails for around $50 (£59.99 in the UK), and supports the Z-Wave protocol.
Lowes has the Iris, which supports the Z-Wave and Zigbee protocols, has a built-in battery backup, and can be bought directly from Lowes for just $50. The Iris has two major downsides, which ultimately make it less compelling than other offerings. Firstly, to unlock the advanced features of the hardware that you’ve paid for, you must also pay for a monthly subscription. This costs $10. Secondly, while the previous devices we’ve discussed are available internationally, the Iris Connect is only sold in the United States.
Google Giveth, and Google Taketh Away
One thing that consumers need to be aware of – especially if they purchase a smart home hub that is dependent on a subscription or cloud service, like the Iris Connect – is the potential for it to be discontinued. This happened recently, when the Google-owned Nest discontinued the Revolv hub, which it had acquired in 2014.
Like the devices we’ve discussed here, the Revolv Hub connected disparate smart home devices, and allowed users to access them through a smartphone app. The user didn’t even have to be home, thanks to Revolv’s cloud portal. Revolv was also unique in having perhaps one of the worst tech promotional videos of all time.
Earlier this year, Nest discontinued the Revolv platform. It had never intended to maintain the platform. Nest just wanted to acquire the team of engineers and developers who had built it. Users were furious, as the hubs which they had bought for $300 turned into what one irate user described as “a container of hummus”.
Companies regularly readjust their priorities. They aren’t obligated to service discontinued products, which have long-ceased to make them money. Recently, Microsoft discontinued support for Windows XP and, more recently, Windows 8. In 2013, Google Reader was shut down. Despite that, Nest quickly had to enter damage-control mode, and it offered affected users a refund.
Ultimately, the affair was a sobering reminder of how risky it is to depend on a cloud service, especially when paired with an expensive physical device.
Controlling Your Smart Home Devices? There’s an App for That
Probably the biggest raison d’etre for having a smart home hub is that you don’t need to install an application for each device in your smart home. You can just attach a single piece of hardware to your network, and control it through that.
But that’s not to say that there aren’t any compelling software-based solutions.
Take Yonomi, for example. This free application (available for iOS and Android) is completely hardware-free, and allows you to control a broad range of smart home devices, including those produced by Belkin, Nest, Jawbone, and the Amazon Echo.
Similarly, ThingTon (available exclusively for iOS), acts as a virtual hub for devices made by four manufacturers – Phillips Hue, Belkin WeMo, Automatic, and Netamo. While it lacks the flexibility offered by Yonomi, it makes up for it by allowing users to set up “guest lists”, where you can give your visitors limited control over your devices.
Finally, there’s also Apple’s HomeKit. This was the star feature of iOS 8, and is rapidly gaining traction, with Philips, Elgato, and GE having all signed up.
Should You Get a Hub?
This is the million-dollar question. As the number of smart home devices increase, and the costs continue to plummet, users are increasingly looking for a solution that empowers them to better control their equipment. While a hub offers a much cleaner experience than dealing with dozens of applications, I’m inclined to encourage people to hold off. Here’s why.
I think a huge part of my skepticism is derived from the fact that smart home tech is really young. There’s no obvious winner yet – not even between tech titans like Google and Apple – and it’s hard to gauge whether the current incumbents will be here in five years’ time. You might purchase some hardware from a manufacturer, only for them to be acquired and the product to be discontinued, as happened with Revolv.
Alternatively, they might decide to leave the smart home field entirely, in order to focus their efforts and resources in other fields. Personally speaking, I could easily see Lowes exit the market, as its US-centric offering has experienced relatively low customer enthusiasm, poor reviews, and isn’t really representative of Lowe’s core business, which is DIY retail.
Secondly, the smart home world suffers from a lack of standardization. There are multiple competing protocols, like Z-Wave and Zigbee, with no obvious winner. Worse, some manufacturers (like Amazon) have chosen to create their own communication protocols. This means that whatever you purchase, there’s a very real possibility that it could be rendered obsolete by the release of a new, incompatible smart home product, or a new interoperability standard.
If you don’t have that many smart home gadgets, you don’t really need a hub. If you have a medium-to-large sized smart home, you might want to lean on software-based services HomeKit and YoNoMi, and wait for the market to mature.
Do you have a hub? What kind is it? Or do you prefer to stick with the manufacturer-released apps? Whatever you do, I want to hear about it in the comments below.
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