Do you know just how many options you have when it comes to home automation? You have your lights, doors, various smart appliances, and your home security system. You may also use a smart home controller for each one, but choosing to use so many different apps may eventually overwhelm you.
You can make things easy for yourself by using a smart home hub to connect all your smart devices to a single interface center. You won’t need dozens of apps. Instead, you get a single home automation controller to control smart appliance or device in your home.
All you need to is to connect your devices to the hub, and you have a single app or interface that lets you monitor and control all your devices. This controller can be a separate remote control unit, it can be connected to your desktop PC, or you can use your smartphone.
How to Choose a Hub
So now we have to choose which hub and control for home automation is best for your circumstances. You’ll have to decide this yourself, as you know best what kind of smart devices you have and you also have your own preferences. But there are some factors which you’ll want to focus on more closely:
1. Support for your device protocols. These protocols include Zigbee, Z-Wave, and Insteon along with the old standbys like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. These are like the languages used by the devices to connect to one another.
Now what you need is a hub with a wireless home controller that supports all the protocols used by your devices. This can be a tricky procedure, which is why some people opt to get devices that only use the same protocols. That makes picking a hub much easier.
As an example, when all your devices use the Insteon protocol then getting the Insteon hub is the next logical step. On the other hand, the Samsung SmartThings hub is compatible with numerous protocols, including Zigbee, Z-wave, Nest, Amazon Echo, IFTTT, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi.
2. Support for the types of devices you want. Now if you only have a simple setup, you don’t have to get a very versatile hub. Plenty of good options are available if you only need a single controller for lighting, thermostats, security cameras, door locks, and even environmental sensors.
But then not all the hubs available can also accommodate other types of devices such as your home entertainment system and your garage door openers. You may still be able to connect these types of devices, but you may have to use 3rd-party support.
This is why sometimes people will choose to get several hubs. It may defeat the purpose of getting a hub in the first place, but at least choosing from 3 controllers (or apps) is better than having to pick the right controller among dozens of apps.
So if you’re getting a hub and you plan on using several types of devices, make sure that your hub supports the type of devices you will use.
3. Seamless connectivity. Now if you’re thinking that each device can be plugged in to a hub without any difficulty, let’s get you disabused of that notion fast. That may be true when the manufacturer of the smart device is the same manufacturer of the hub itself. But it’s a different story when you have different manufacturers.
It’s true that sometimes the setup can be very simple, but in some cases it can involve a lot of confusion and hassle. And in some cases, the connectivity can be convoluted every time because of the design of the hub. Connectivity can be wired or wireless, and each has its own set of pros and cons. Wired connections are more reliable, although it can leave you with a tangled mess of wires.
With wireless connections, you have to pay special attention that your devices are within range of the hub. Some protocols, like Bluetooth, may require devices to stay within just 30 feet of the hub.
4. Ease of use. With a hub, you now have a single app to control everything. But just how easy is it to use so that you can automate your devices and they’ll work just the way you want? That often depends on the hub.
The hub may supposedly allow you to use hundreds of different devices. The interface should be intuitive, and everything should be laid out clearly. The app should let you monitor your devices and allow you to control settings and actions based on different conditions.
Let’s take lights for an example. With smart lights, you should be able to schedule them to turn on and off at specific times, so they can turn on at 6 PM and turn off at 6 AM. You can use light sensors to turn on your lights. When it turns dark at night the lights turn on and when dawn breaks it turns off.
You can then connect the lights with your security system, so it can illuminate a specific spot on your property when your security cam motion detector is activated. You can also use randomized settings for your lights so burglars casing your home won’t know you’re away. If you want, you should even be able to set the lights to turn on automatically once you enter a room.
But that’s just the lights, mind you. You also need to automate your door locks, security cameras, and home entertainment settings. You may also have smart kitchen appliances. When you have IFTTT, you can really take customization to a higher level. You’ll have to set them all up with your customized settings. But that doesn’t mean you can use them all without difficulty.
5. Controls. Now you need to figure out just what type of controller setting you want. Many opt for the smartphone option. It’s easy to use, you can control your devices from far away by using the Internet, and you always have your smartphone with you anyway.
But some may also want additional controls. This can be a separate unit at home with a touch screen, or you may even get to use voice activation.
6. Help and support. Though these hubs have been with us for more than a decade now, it doesn’t mean that the technology is now out of its infancy stage. There are a lot of kinks to be ironed out, and as an owner of a hub you’ll need to gauge the kind of support you can get when things go wrong (and they always will, eventually).
So first, check out the user manual and see if you can make heads or tails out of it. And you should go online and check out if you have videos or plenty of articles for FAQs. A vibrant user community forum is always nice, so you can post questions and get answers from helpful forum members.
Company customer support can be problematic, because there’s always a chance that the hub customer support will tell you to contact the device customer support instead. But it you notice plenty of praise for a particular hub’s customer support, take note.
7. Fees. The first thing you’ll need to consider is the initial cost. But then some other hubs can still charge you every month, while others will only do so if you use certain advanced functions. Whatever the cost structure may be, just make sure you understand it perfectly. What you don’t want is to be locked in to a bad hub service for 2 years, so that you’ll have to pay extra to get it replaced.
Popular Hub and Controller Options
Now that you now know what to look for in a hub, you can take a look at some of the more popular hubs today.
1. Samsung SmartThings. This is hands down the most popular and the most highly regarded hub out there today. It generally works with Z-Wave, Zigbee, and Wi-Fi devices, and it’s also compatible with IFTTT for extended customization. It’s very affordable, simple to install, and devices are easy to set up.
Once the setup is complete, you get 3 main views. The “Things” view lets you see the status of each connected device to the hub. This is the view you use to add new devices, configure a device, or just turn things on or off.
Then you have the “Dashboard” view, which gives you status and recent activity of the most widely used devices. Finally, the “Apps” view is where you assign your SmartApps to your devices. These mini-apps control your devices depending on the trigger, which can be the time of day, the presence of sunlight, or when motion is detected. The SmartApps are all reliable and work without any bugs at all.
Its drawbacks include its lack of support for other popular protocols like Insteon or ClearConnect. It also needs a wired Ethernet connection and there’s also no preset support for cameras.
But what sets SmartThings apart is its constant pattern of upgrades and improvements, which is spurred by its very vibrant developer community. This community continuously works to write new apps so that previously unsupported devices are soon able to be accommodated. Samsung does have its own in-house engineers, but it’s the developer community that’s really making things better.
2. Insteon Hub. All your smart devices use Insteon? Then it stands to reason you’ll need this hub, which is precisely designed for such an environment. Connectivity is no problem at all, and your central interface can be a desktop PC or your smartphone.
The reputation of the Insteon hub wasn’t all that good at first, but they’ve improved considerably since then. They can now connect with various Insteon devices like wireless cameras, wall outlets and switches, thermostats, motion detectors, lights, door locks, energy detectors, and even leak sensors.
Essentially, the simplicity of Insteon means you can activate devices manually using your smartphone, or you can turn them on or off according to a schedule. I addition, you can also receive emails and push notification when a certain Insteon device isn’t working properly.
This hub is very affordable, and there are no monthly fees at all. The setup is so easy you can do it yourself without hiring (or becoming) an IT expert. As long as you stick to Insteon devices, you’re good to go. That’s because you have the same manufacturer for all of them.
3. Lutron Smart Bridge. Now if you want to start with basic home automation, you may want to look over the Lutron line of products. The company focuses on lighting and energy devices, so if these are your main concerns as well then you can get them all from Lutron, and that’s also the company that makes the hub.
With this, you can control your lights, your window shades, and your temperature devices (including fans). The setup is incredibly straightforward, which shouldn’t be surprising considering that you’re only dealing with a single manufacturer.
4. Hubs for Home Theater Systems. Now if you really want a versatile hub that can accommodate your home theater system, you have 3 options. First off you have the Control4 hub, which is the standard for all-in-one functionality. You can connect just about any type of device that uses Wi-Fi, Nest, Z-Wave or ZigBee. It is extremely easy to use as well. But the problem is that to set it up you’ll need professional installers, and they’re not available in some areas. And even if they are, you’ll have to call them up every time you wish to connect a new device.
Crestron is another option, but you’ll need 3rd-party support for entry sensors. And like Control4 you’ll also need professional installment. Finally, there’s Savant. Although its apps are all easy to use, it needs professionals for installment and it doesn’t offer direct technical support. Also, it only runs on Mac OS X and iOS platforms. If you’re not an Apple fan, this one’s not for you.
Getting a hub, in fact, is one of the smartest things you can do to make things easy for you. And making things easy for you is the point of getting smart devices in the first place!