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The 5 Best Smart Home Hubs

by Walter Jules

Every smart home needs a brain—a single unit that can tie all the smart devices together and provide a single source of control. Choosing a smart home hub can be difficult. Whatever you choose opens up some possibilities, and closes others. Knowing what kind of smart home features you need will help narrow down your choices. Here are five great options.

What to Look For in a Smart Home Hub

The main benefit of a smart home hub is centralization. With a hub, you can buy smart devices from several different manufacturers and link them all into one cohesive whole. Of course, you may not even need a true smart home hub—Google and Alexa have done more to unify smart home devices than most hubs have in the past few years.

But hubs may also provide additional benefits like advanced automation, local processing without the cloud, and in some cases, less congestion for your network. However, smart home hubs are often more challenging to learn and use than a voice assistant’s app.

If those benefits sound worth the extra effort, then you’ll want to keep in mind a few things when purchasing a smart hub:

  • Connection Type: Some smart home hubs only allow wired connections, some only allow Wi-Fi connections, and some offer both. You’ll want to pay attention to which the hub you’re looking at supports. Wired connections are faster, but you’ll need space and an open spot on your router to connect your hub.
  • Protocol Support: Most smart home gadgets support a small number of protocols: typically Z-Wave, Zigbee, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. If your smart hub only supports ZigBee, then you can’t use Z-Wave gadgets. Keep that in mind as you choose a path. Other hubs only support a proprietary protocol, which means you’re limited to devices that specifically support that hub.
  • Local or Cloud Processing: Some hubs are barely more than a basic circuit board with no real intelligence at all. Instead, the hub offloads all the work to the cloud. But that’s slower, and if your internet goes down, so does the hub. Some hubs handle everything locally, but they typically have a higher learning curve.
  • App or Dashboard Support: You’ll need some way to interact with your smart home. Most hubs provide an app you can use on your phone or tablet. Others support a dashboard concept you can access through a web browser. And a few offer both. Pick what’s more comfortable for you.

Recently, Amazon, Google, and ZigBee announced a new working group called Project Connected Home over IP, with the goal of simplifying some of the choices above. The idea is to create a unifying standard that manufacturers can rely on to make smart devices work nearly anywhere and with any hub (that support the standard).

But right now, it’s a concept and promise at best, and if they do pull it off, the companies say your existing smart stuff will continue to work as-is. You shouldn’t worry too much about the changes that may or may not come because of this, but it’s still something worth considering when looking at smart home hubs.

There’s something for nearly every preference below. Your hub pick will inform your smart gadget options heavily, so pick the one that suits your needs and supports the devices you want the most.

Best Overall: Samsung SmartThings

Samsung’s SmartThings platform is a good entry point for anyone new to smart homes. It has an approachable interface, apps for both Android and iOS, and supports relatively complex routines for automation. It’s a cloud-based smart hub, with some support for local controls.

You can connect the hub over Wi-Fi or through ethernet, which is helpful for flexible placement options. The hub supports Z-Wave, ZigBee, and several third-party solutions like Philips Hue and Schlage, Alexa, and Google Assistant.

Advanced Automations: Hubitat Elevation

If you’re willing to put in a little more time and effort into the learning process, the Hubitat smart hub is a rewarding choice. While not as approachable as SmartThings, Hubitat’s automation is much more advanced and capable. You can specify scenarios like “Because you walked into the bedroom, and it’s after 9 pm, and it’s cold tonight, and the heat isn’t on, the lights should be activated and dimmed, and the electric blanket should be turned on.”

If you prefer to skip the cloud, the Hubitat is also a good choice, as it’s locally controlled. It supports ZigBee, Z-Wave, Lutron, and even defunct Iris devices. You can create dashboards that then show up in the Hubitat app available for iOS and Android or on a local web page. You are limited to ethernet connections, though, so keep that in mind before purchasing.

Smart And Security: Abode iota

Sometimes it’s nice to cover two things at once and have less to connect and set up. That’s where Abode iota comes in—it’s a smart hub, a security hub, and a camera all in one package.

Abode’s iota supports several security products from door sensors to motions sensors and is compatible with ZigBee, Z-Wave, and Homekit. You need to set it up over ethernet, but once you do, you can move anywhere and connect over Wi-Fi.

For DIY: HomeSeer HomeTroller

Do you want total control of your smart home? Then you’ll want to build your hub from scratch. Or at least very nearly. With HomeSeer, you could whip up your own Raspberry Pi, case, and go through the effort of licensing and installing the software (and if you have a Raspberry Pi already, it might be cheaper), or you could buy this kit with that bit of the hard work already done.

HomeSeer supports Z-wave and ethernet connections and features a rules engine that’s easier to learn than some other DIY options. You won’t need to know how to code to get going, and everything runs locally for faster response times. It offers a HomeSeer app for iOS and Android and custom dashboard support.

HomeSeer HomeTroller Zee S2 Home Controller

If you’d rather take total control and build your smart home from nearly scratch, the HomeSeer Hometroller is for you. It’s a cloudless, Ethernet-connected solution for quick response times, yet still offers apps for easy controls.

One Simple System: Insteon

Most of the smart hubs on this list support Z-Wave, ZigBee, or both. But Insteon is different: it runs off a proprietary protocol instead. It’s easy to think of that as a downside or limiting, but it comes with the distinct advantage of easy choices. Instead of trying to delve through half a dozen Z-Wave and ZigBee smart switches, you’ll pick the Insteon switch. Since that device is geared specifically for your Insteon hub, set up is generally easier as well. The Insteon selection is more limited than Z-Wave or ZigBee, though. You’ll find switches, fan controls, and a thermostat, but not light bulbs, for instance. Insteon does support third-party integrations like Alexa, Google Assistant, and Yonomi, though, which can help expand that compatibility.

Insteon uses a dual-mesh system over wireless and wired connections to increase uptime and provides both app and void control. Both the dual-mesh system and the nature of the proprietary wireless protocol generally lead to faster response times than Z-Wave products.

Professionally Installed: Control4

Most of the smart home realm is of a DIY nature. You choose the hub and then pick what smart locks, lights, sensors, and more to buy. Then you have to install them one by one and integrate them into your system. If your hub supports a dashboard, you create it.

Control4, on the other hand, is just the opposite: professional dealers work with you to figure out the best devices to suit your home. Then they install it, set up the gadgets, and pull together the dashboard. Control4 goes beyond the smart home, too, as it can control entertainment systems, intercoms, and more.

Control4’s CA-1 hub works with ZigBee, Wi-Fi, and you can add an optional Z-Wave module. But you won’t need to worry about that; someone else will do the worrying. Just expect to pay a premium for all the help.

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