The smart home market is rapidly changing and along with it is the market for smart home controllers and protocols. While many have expected the market to consolidate, in many ways the opposite has occurred.
There are myriad options to consider. Some are better, some are worse. They are all different.
The following is a step-by-step guide to navigating the smart home controller (otherwise known as “hub) market.
Contents (Jump to)
Comparison Table – Bottom Line Up Front
To get right to the point, here’s a key roundup of the best options on the market. I go through the criteria for evaluating what constitutes a good smart hub below the table.
|Model||Price||Protocol||Reliability||Max Devices||Ease of Implementation|
|SmartThings Hub 2||Check Here for Latest||Z-Wave, ZigBee, WiFI, Alexa||High||250||Moderate|
|Wink Hub 2||Check Here for Latest||Z-Wave, Zigbee, Bluetooth, Kidde, Clear Connect, WiFI, Alexa||Above Average||530||Easy|
|VeraEdge||Check Here for Latest||Z-Wave, X-10||Above Average||220||Somewhat Difficult|
|Iris Hub||Check Here for Latest||Z-Wave, ZigBee, WiFi||Above Average||70||Moderate|
|Insteon Hub||Check Here for Latest||Insteon, Alexa, HomeKit, X-10||Average||75||Moderate|
|Lutron Smart Bridge||Check Here for Latest||Caseta, Alexa, HomeKit||Average||50||Moderate|
|Nexia Home Bridge||Check Here for Latest||Z-Wave, Alexa||Average||200||Somewhat difficult|
|HomeSeer S2||Check Here for Latest||Z-Wave, Insteon, Alexa, X-10, UPB||Above Average||232 (but can control multiple networks)||Difficult|
What Constitutes a Smart Home System?
First things first, let’s define what exactly we are talking about…
The “smart home” is a phrase that’s tossed about frequently, but it’s not always clear what it entails. In order to understand which smart hub is best for you, it’s important to understand the various applications and smart components.
- Smart Thermostats: One of the earliest “smart” devices was the smart thermostat. While there are a variety of players in this market, the main players are Google’s Nest (review here), The Ecobee (full review), and the Honeywell Lyric (review). However, this market is changing quickly. Most of these smart thermostats operate on their own, independent of a smart home protocol (usually just over WiFi). The key question for prospective smart hub owners, is “how well do they integrate with smart hubs”. It defeats the purpose of having a smart hub, if your most important smart device can’t “talk” to the hub effectively or efficiently.
- Smart Lighting: Smart lighting has recently taken off, driven primarily by “mood” lighting. Prime examples are the Hue and LIFX (see comparison here). While you can run a few lights off of your smartphone app, once you start integrating switches throughout your home, you will definitely want to link them together with a good smart hub controller.
- Smart Security Cams: In the old days, ADT handled your home security and you were stuck footing the monthly service charge. Not any more. Smart security is here. You don’t even need to be a technical wizard to take advantage it. Many of the popular smart security devices are easily implemented. You can read my review of the Scout system here and the Canary here, as examples. The key concern – like with smart thermostats – is how well they integrate with smart hubs. Every protocol has a halfway decent security system, but some of the big security players don’t always like to play well with others. This is quickly becoming the exception, however, as hubs are becoming more adept and IFTTT is helping to bridge the divide.
- Smart Sensors: Smart sensors can fulfill a variety of needs. They are the “unsung heros” of the smart home. Generally, they monitor your core systems (think HVAC, Water, electric) and deliver data on usage, but most critically, alert you to problems. Imagine getting a push notification to your phone that your pipes burst? Or your HVAC system is on the fritz? A good hub will integrate these sensors.
- Smart Doorbells: Another new development is WiFi video doorbells. Top options include the SkyBell (see review here) and the Ring (full review), but you can also see my write up of the top smart doorbells overall here. Much like smart thermostats, doorbells are not necessarily built with smart hubs in mind. They often have their own user friendly apps, but a good smart hub offers integrations with these popular devices.
- Smart Sprinklers: Irrigation is the next frontier for smart devices. The ability to control watering via real time weather data offers promising cost and resource savings. Popular new devices include the Blossom, Rachio, and Skydrop.
How Smart Things Communicate – Protocols Explained
- WiFi: WiFi is the most basic (and most common) way for your smart devices to communicate. The advantage is that it’s ubquitous. Most people have WiFi, so most devices that leverage WiFi should work no problem. The main issues (disadvantages) are that 1) WiFi networks can become overburdened with all the various devices and, 2) WiFi is not the most secure protocol (especially how most users have it set up).
- Z-wave: This is among the most widespread protocols (outside of WiFI). There are about 2000+ devices which communicate over Z-Wave. The protocol is relatively simple, meaning that it’s among the first protocol many smart devices extend compatibility to when they are just starting out. It also has a decent range (in general), meaning that larger homes can benefit from it. Z-Wave is particularly popular with smart lighting and switches.
- ZigBee: ZigBee is similar to Z-Wave, but more flexible and customizable. It communicates on the same frequency as WiFi, meaning it can sometimes be subject to interference or load balancing issues. ZigBee is generally more popular for locks and smart system monitoring. The benefit of ZigBee is that it can support thousands of devices (in theory), whereas most other protocols are capped around 200-300.
- Insteon: Insteon is another popular protocol trying to establish market share. Insteon is particularly known for their smart security integrations and is a bit more robust (and secure) than traditional Z-wave. You can read my full comparison of the two protocols here. The downside is that it can be a bit more technical to set up and like Z-Wave, can suffer from high bandwidth issues, depending on the number of devices on the network.
- Thread: Thread arose as a better networking protocol for the IoT (internet of things). It’s a wireless mesh – like other protocols – but is “IP addressable” and able to be configured with cloud access and encryption. This makes it both more secure and quite flexible (able to handle up to 250 smart devices on the same network). It’s an open-source solution, meaning there aren’t really any “turf wars” like with the other protocols. Currently, Google’s Nest is partner, along with some other big players, forming a Thread Alliance. As with each protocol, the battle is to centralize the IoT universe under a primary protocol.
- X10: X-10 isn’t really a smart protocol in that it’s the default system that most buildings already use. It’s relatively simiplistic (can only handle one request at a time), but also happens to be the most common and with the widest body of knowledge on. However, newer protocols like Insteon ARE backwards compatible with X-10 (see my full comparison here), meaning that it’s almsot a no-brainer to go with something more modern.
What Makes a Good Smart Hub
There are a few good core features to keep in mind when evaluating how “good” a smart hub is. They are as follows:
- Ease of Implementation: In short, how easy is it for you to install? There are varying levels of complexity across the board. While it is generally becoming easier to implement across the board, some technical expertise is still required for most implementations (other than simple WiFi). In some cases, you may even need professional help. The main point is: you should be aware of how difficult a particular implementation is going to be prior to spending the money.
- Customization: Can you customize the system for your home? Do you have specific needs that don’t fall within the average home? While not always the case, added customization can also mean added complexity, but this isn’t always the case.
- Compatibility/Flexibility: How many devices and/or protocols does your smart hub work with? This is such an important consideration up front. There is nothing worse than investing heavily in devices for one system, only to learn that it’s not ideal as you scale. Be sure to check what the hub “works with” BEFORE you buy. Think a few steps down the road, as well. What are some devices you might not need right now, but might need in the future?
- Security: This is a huge hot topic these days. While the Internet of Things can do many smart and amazing functions, security is not always at the forefront. Certain hubs and protocols have better inherent advantages than others. Evaluate your personal risk tolerance and make sure you select a hub accordingly.
- Reliability: How well does the hub hold up over time? Sometimes paying a bit more up front will save you headaches down the road. In general, try not to go with a hub that no one has heard of or a very early stage startup. Is there a good support community? Established hubs are more likely to have plenty of FAQs, knowledgeable user communities, and dedicated support staff.
- Price: Of course, price is always something to look at. Most smart hubs are quite affordable these days, but make sure you look at the WHOLE ecosystem. How expensive are the add-on devices? Are there multiple brands in the same categories (price competition)? Or, is it more like a monopoly? Also, think about your unique needs and what your “all in” investment will be.
The Best Smart Controllers
Personally, I would rather go with either the Wink Hub 2 here or SmartThings Hub 2 here, if I am just starting off. Why? because they have the widest compatibility and are current with the latest changes in the industry.
There are specific use cases for some of the other hubs, but MOST users should stick to the most popular/widely supported hubs. For example, if you are a bit more technical, the VeraEdge or even the HomeSeer might be a satisfying option. But for the vast majority of smart home users, Wink and SmartThings are best option.