How to Choose a Smart Hub

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How to Choose a Smart Hub

Drowning in smart devices? There's a hub for that. Network hubs help your smart devices communicate with each other, let you use one app to access them, and can streamline automation. We dived into the world of smart hubs and resurfaced with the best, easiest ones to use.

NOTE: When evaluating these hubs, make sure they support the smart devices you own and/or wish to use in your home. Learn more about why this is important at the bottom of this article.

01

Best Smart Hub for Most People

Best Smart Hub for Most People

If your home automation is straightforward and you can't imagine using a hub without Bluetooth, the Wink 2 is a great network hub. The app and setting up devices is a far more user-friendly experience than that of our advanced pick, SmartThings.

If you don't need deep routine customization or a battery backup, we recommend the Wink 2 for its ease of use and cross-compatibility.

Connectivity

This hub connects via WiFi or ethernet and supports Bluetooth Low Energy, WiFi, Kidde, Lutron Clear Connect, Z-Wave, ZigBee, and Thread (Nest) devices. It also supports Amazon Alexa, Google Home, IFTTT, and Sonos speakers. It officially supports dozens of popular products, but can support many others that use the networks listed above.

What Works

  • Setup is a breeze. The Wink app (Android and iOS) is easy on the eyes and loaded with visualizations that guide you through pairing devices.
  • Wink can support WiFi and Bluetooth devices. Its major competitor is Samsung's SmartThings which currently can't support either.
  • You can connect up to 530 devices to this hub and you can add additional Wink hubs to your network.
  • This hub works on ethernet or WiFi. If you have strong WiFi, this gives you more freedom of placement, but you can also use the more reliable ethernet connection.

What Could Be Better

  • This hub doesn't have a battery backup, so if you lose power, your routines and smart security devices won't function.
  • You won't have complex control over your smart devices. Wink's app functions as a controller (putting all your devices in one app) or uses logic-based (if this, then that) automation. This style of automation provides limited access to devices' full functionality and as a result limited command customization.

Warranty & Customer Support

This hub is covered under a one-year warranty and Wink offers responsive, helpful customer support.

02

Best Hub for Advanced Smart Homes

Best Hub for Advanced Smart Homes

Even though pairing devices can be complicated at times, this is a powerful hub. Plus, devices will work even if you lose your internet connection or power, partially thanks to a 10-hour backup battery.

We recommend the Samsung SmartThings V2 Hub because it offers great automation customization, it's straightforward to use, and its the best hub out there with a backup battery.

Connectivity

"Most WiFi smart products won't connect to the hub."

This hub connects via ethernet and supports Z-Wave, ZigBee, IFTTT, Google Smart Assistant, and Amazon Alexa. There's a "future-proof" Bluetooth chip inside the hub, but it hasn't been activated it yet.

The SmartThings team is meticulous about testing so we can understand why Bluetooth connectivity isn't available and they, conservatively, officially support 168 smart devices. Since it can "speak" the languages of Z-Wave and ZigBee, that number is actually much larger, but those products might not connect as easily.

Unless explicitly stated by the Internet of Things (IoT) device company, WiFi smart products won't connect to the hub. The approved devices connect via specific internet protocols (IPs). This also doesn't connect to Sonos, despite previous support for the popular speakers.

What Works

  • This hub can communicate with Zigbee and Z-Wave smart devices, giving you more flexibility in what products you can buy.
  • "The SmartThings Community is a major asset for troubleshooting and unofficial apps. "
  • The app (iOS, Android, and Windows) is pretty intuitive and offers significant command customization via numerous submenus, multi-device inclusion, and time delays. As a result, paired devices have full or nearly full functionality within the SmartThings app while its main competitor Wink has more limited options.
  • The SmartThings Community is a major asset when it comes to troubleshooting and easy-to-use unofficial SmartApps for devices. No other smart hub has a comparable engaged community of DIY users.
  • There's a 10-hour battery backup to keep your routines running even when the power runs out. This is especially reassuring for security devices like smart locks.

What Could Be Better

  • SmartThings doesn't officially work with Nest or Sonos. There's a great community workaround that allows you to add your Nest products, but no Sonos support is available.
  • This hub can't control WiFi devices, with a few exceptions (these exceptions transmit specific internet protocols or IPs). If many of your smart devices use WiFi, we recommend the Wink Hub 2  or using your hub with a smart speaker instead.
  • You cannot currently connect Bluetooth devices to this hub, but there is a Bluetooth chip inside of it. We know, we want it to be activated too.

Warranty

The V2 hub is covered by a one-year warranty and 30-day refund period. SmartThings is notorious for their excellent customer support.

03

Best Smart Hub for Home Entertainment

Best Smart Hub for Home Entertainment

If you need your living room, home theater, or gaming room ready in an instant, we recommend the Logitech Harmony Elite Hub. This premium entertainment hub comes with a touchscreen universal remote and doesn't need significant smart home knowledge to set up.

We recommend the elite hub for its ease of use, reliability, and its impressive universal remote. For the more budget conscious, we recommend the Harmony Home Hub which transforms your smartphone into a remote. If you just want a smart universal remote, we also like the (even more expensive) Caavo which is beautifully designed, inside and out.

Connectivity

The Logitech Harmony Elite Hub connects via Wi-Fi and supports Bluetooth and WiFi smart devices. You can get Zigbee and Z-Wave support with the hub extender.

"This premium entertainment hub comes with a touchscreen universal remote and doesn't need significant smart home knowledge to set up."

The hub and remote generally communicate with your media electronics, like your set-top box or Xbox One via infrared (IR) blasters. Playstations 3 and 4 can connect via Bluetooth, but need to be manually turned on and off due to Sony's third-party remote restrictions.

You can also use the Elite Hub with Amazon Alexa, Google Home, IFTTT, Nest and Sonos products. This hub can also act as a bridge and be added to a SmartThings Hub.

What Works

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  • You can control media devices like TVs, gaming consoles, and IR-ready projectors as well as smart lights, shades, and other IoT devices.
  • The Elite comes with a universal remote with a touchscreen at the top. The remote is backlit and the touchscreen gives you easy access to all of your connected devices.
  • You can control up to 15 devices and, via the remote, you can access and save up to 50 favorite channels.
  • You can use your phone to control your devices using the app (iOS and Android). The app experience is generally good. You can set up, program, and use the hub using the included Logitech software on your computer (Mac and Windows).

What Could Be Better

  • This is an expensive hub, but it aims to do a specific thing and succeeds.
  • Since the hub can't connect to the internet via ethernet, you need reliable WiFi in order to get the most out of this hub. Spotty WiFi will affect the performance of your commands and triggers.

Warranty

The Logitech Harmony Elite Hub is covered under a one-year warranty, and Logitech's customer support is reasonably fast and helpful. 

04

Best Alexa Upgrade for Basic Automation

Best Alexa Upgrade for Basic Automation

To be perfectly clear, the Echo Plus is an incredible Echo, but just an okay hub. If you don't need bells and whistles like Z-Wave support or complex automation settings, the Plus is a great way to upgrade your Echo and get a little more functionality.

We recommend the Echo Plus for people already familiar with Amazon Echo products who want more smart device options. Its Zigbee integration and Alexa interface make the Echo Plus a easy way to directly control more than just WiFi and Bluetooth devices.

Connectivity

The Amazon Echo Plus connects to the internet via WiFi and supports WiFi, Bluetooth, and Zigbee devices. It also works with Nest and Sonos products, and it can follow IFTTT triggers.

What Works

  • The Echo Plus directly implements commands for your smart devices. In other Echo products, Alexa can do this with certain devices, but for most, it needs a bridge, hub, or app to serve as the middleman/translator.
  • You get the voice-activated Alexa built-in. Instead of having a separate hub and another Echo product, this one device can perform your smart home automation.
  • The app is easy to navigate and use. We wish "Routines" were in the "Smart Home" section, but they're right next to each other in the menu and both have great interfaces.
  • You can set up voice-profiles for different people in your home. This allows you to set scenes and receive information specific to you, like calendar reminders.

What Could Be Better

  • The new "Routines" section in the app can only trigger smart home devices and provide news, traffic, and weather updates. This means you need to specifically ask Alexa to start streaming music or perform skills, they can't be bundled into a routine.
  • Amazon still hasn't figured out how to provide great sound quality in their Echo products. Luckily, there is a 3 mm auxiliary jack in the back of the Echo Plus for a hardwired connection to a better speaker.
  • For certain slightly complex automations, like picking a specific color for your smart lights or setting intricate schedules, you'll need to use your smart devices' apps and/or bridge (e.g. Philips Hue Smart Bridge). This is unfortunate for the more tech savvy user, but we know this can be remedied with software and firmware updates.

Warranty & Customer Support

The Echo Plus comes with a one-year warranty, but up to three additional years can be added onto your purchase. Amazon's support team is highly responsive and efficient at dealing with issues.

Networks and Hubs

Ideally, your smart devices can should be able to "talk" to each other. If you haven't fully embarked on your smart home journey, that probably means you're using WiFi or Bluetooth connected devices. That means one device uses your WiFi or Bluetooth to receive commands from an app, smart assistant, or IFTTT.  Some of these commands might allow that device to interact with or even trigger other devices, but not nearly as much as it would if it operated on a network tailored to smart devices.

While it might seem like a good idea to exclusively use WiFi or Bluetooth IoT products, these networks aren't energy efficient and, in some instances, can't communicate with popular network hubs. As your smart home's I.Q. increases, you're going to want your products to be able to do that.

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There are over a dozen prominent wireless network protocols, but the ones you've probably seen around are ZigBee, Z-Wave, and Thread (used in most Nest products). These technologies use less power than WiFi and create mesh networks.

"In relation to native English speakers, think of ZigBee as Spain, Z-Wave as France, and Thread as Italy."

In a mesh network, each device has a transmitter and a receiver, allowing every device that speaks that network's language to send/relay commands. Hundreds, even thousands, of devices can use these networks and adding more devices makes the network stronger.

In relation to native English speakers, think of ZigBee as Spain, Z-Wave as France, and Thread as Italy. ZigBee and Thread share a few language similarities so they can occasionally understand each other, but far more devices "speak" ZigBee's language. Z-Wave devices all understand each other with ease, but some ZigBee devices might have strong dialectal differences (Castellano vs. Catalan vs. Basque). Z-Wave and ZigBee devices have similar encryption processes, but the two networks can't communicate with each other at all.

To get your devices to talk to each other, you need hubs and bridges. For example, Philips Hue, which runs on Zigbee, has a bridge that connects all the Hue lights and switches in its lighting system. If you want your Hue lights to work with your Nest thermostat, you'll need a hub that can translate and help them work together.

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Some hubs only speak one of these network's languages, like Amazon's Echo Plus (ZigBee), which is fine if you prefer one over the other. Think of open hubs like Samsung SmartThings and Wink like the European Union, helping these different networks work together and efficiently trade information. It's not always perfect, but you can achieve cool automation scenarios and access all your different devices from one app.

Other Things to Consider in a Smart Hub

Ease of Use: Ideally, a hub makes your smart home easier to manage. That means the hub's app should be intuitive to use and easy to navigate.

Number of Devices: Since hubs generally have a maximum on paired devices, so how many smart devices you currently have and how many you envision buying over time can impact your hub choice.

Monthly Fee: Some companies charge monthly fees for security options or other premium features, adding to a hub's overall cost. None of our chosen picks have mandatory monthly fees.

Battery Backup: Surprisingly not an industry standard, battery backups are a great bonus if you're particularly interested in smart security devices. Battery backups help protect your home and keep routines intact should the power go out.

Smart Speaker Integration: Smart speakers like Amazon Echo or Google Home products add the functionality of voice-activation to your smart home, so it's good to know if your hub supports your preferred speaker.

Close, But No Cigar

Apple Home Kit has only recently started to prove itself as a contender in the smart home ring, but there are still some gaps in its reliability. As a result, we didn't consider the Home Pod or Apple TV. As HomeKit improves, we'll update this guide.

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Hogar Controls released Milo, a smart speaker and hub, earlier this year, but it's unclear how to acquire one. Milo uses Google Smart Assistant and supports WiFi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, and Z-Wave devices. Once it's fully on the market, we'll assess its quality and update this guide accordingly.

How We Chose

We cross-referenced expert reviews from PC Mag, Wirecutter, TechHive, Digital Trends, and Tom's Guide to narrow down the field of smart hubs. Then, we referenced user reviews from Best Buy and Amazon to parse down which hubs resonated with the average person over time.  We chose these hubs based on their ease of use, connection reliability, price, and network protocol compatibility.

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The Guide Team