Thanks to new smart hub technology, controlling your smart home from one app on your phone is now a reality, says Kieran Alger

It’s all well and good having a smart home crammed full of intelligent gadgets like smart lighting, smart thermostats and smart security cameras but controlling all of this technology from different apps can make running your smart home, a hassle.

That’s why smart hubs were created. Right now the smart hubs are a bigger trend in the US than in the UK but that’s set to change as the smart home revolution gathers pace closer to home.

The best smart hubs combine wide spanning hardware connections and software in order to pull everything into one place for simple, intuitive control. It’s a bit like a universal remote, but for your home, and it lives in your smartphone.

So is this the answer for you? This smart hub beginner’s guide will help you weigh up the smart hub pros and cons so you can make a decide if you need one and which smart hub is best for you.

What are smart hubs / home automation hubs?

A smart hub is a piece of hardware that connects to your home’s Wi-Fi connection and can be controlled from a smartphone, from anywhere. Once installed, it then connects to other smart devices in the home, acting as a gateway, letting you control each piece of smart tech you own from one convenient place.

The essence of the smart hub is simplicity. It tackles the issue of needing a different app for every different smart gadget in the home head on. The benefits? Well it not only frees up storage space on your smartphone but it should also help to save time, effort and cut down on complication. No more flicking about the phone to try and find the right app to control the right device.

Smart hubs tend to take two main forms. Some hardware is a simple unit that connects to the internet and then allows additional connections to be made wired or wirelessly. The other popular trend are for smart hub camera units that double as smart security systems, giving you two things in one. These variations mean prices can vary widely.

Each smart hub will come with its own dedicated app that should be able to control other apps all from this one piece of software loaded on your phone. Of course the quality and connectivity of these apps is a big factor to consider when buying a system as they vary too. Some smart hub apps will sacrifice certain features of your other smart gadget’s native app in favour of the convenience of multiple device control. The result: you get everything in one place but sometimes with a paired back set of controls.

What are smart hub pros and cons?

In a word, convenience. The whole idea behind smart home gadgets is to make control of the home simpler and more intuitive. But with multiple platforms, apps and hardware manufacturers it’s ended up becoming rather complicated in some cases. By using a smart hub all those various points of contact can be distilled into one app for instant control.

One of the major issues with the disparate smart offerings out there is the choice to use either Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. The Wi-Fi connected gadgets are directly linked to the home internet connection, meaning they can be app controlled from anywhere in the world, so a smart light can make a good security measure while on holiday.

The Bluetooth kit offers the advantage of low power consumption when it comes to connection and they’re often more affordable too. But the toss-up here is that Bluetooth can only connect to a smartphone or tablet directly, within a few hundred metres tops. That’s where a hub comes into play.

By connecting Bluetooth devices to the smart hub they too can be controlled via the hub’s Wi-Fi connection, meaning you’re able to control absolutely everything from anywhere on the planet – presuming you have an internet connection.

The final complication to setting up any smart home is the fact that some products and platforms have their own way of connecting, like IR devices or dedicated connections like ZigBee or Z-Wave. As with Bluetooth, it’s possible to connect these to some of the central smart hubs that offer a wider selection of connections. If you’re an owner of Sonos speakers, Philips light bulbs and Nest thermostat, for example, this will be the solution for you.

Once everything is connected to the internet, the smart hubs really com into their own. Installing a system like this opens up the possibilities that IFTTT (If This Then That) offers. It makes automation more achievable and more intuitive, leaving you with less to do to create your perfect home environment. For example you could set your heating to come on when you are within ten minutes of reaching home based on your smartphone’s location. Then when your automatic garage door opens your home’s lights could kick in. The possibilities are huge.

You can even use wearables, allowing your smart kettle to brew when your fitness and sleep tracker detects you’re awake after a certain time in the morning, say 6.30am.

How do I upgrade to a smart hub?

This depends on what sort of smart gadgets you already have in the home. Some hubs support more platforms than others.

The major players are Wi-Fi, Bluetooth LE, Z-Wave, ZigBee and Lutron ClearConnect. Some support all, others just a few. So be sure to work out what you have, or are planning to buy, and get a hub that can support those various devices.

Our advice would be to make a list of what you have currently and how the connect, also factoring in what you might be looking to add in the near future. Once it’s written down it’ll be much easier to see what you need your smart hub to do.

Another factor to consider is the smart hub app. Since you’ll be controlling everything from that one place be sure to read up and make certain it’s an app that will work for you on a day-to-day basis. Although you won’t be able to sample all of its features it’s worth downloading the app to get a look before you buy the hub.

Another consideration is the hardware, since this box needs to connect to everything in the home it’ll be ideally placed in an open space. That means it’ll be on show so the aesthetic side of the decision may come into play.

Which is the best smart hub? Wink vs Smartthings vs Piper

There are plenty of hubs on the market at the moment, each with its own unique take on what matters most . Some focus more on camera control, while others offer excellent home theatre controls. Taking into consideration price, apps, connectivity and looks these are the best smart hub options out there right now. We’ve included options that are currently only available in the US to show you the kind of next-generation technology you can expect on UK shelves very soon.

Wink smart home hub

Wink Connected Home Hub

For the $89 price the Wink hub is one of the best out there. It has a wide range of connections and looks minimalist and attractive.

Wink is able to connect with – deep breath – Wi-Fi, Bluetooth LE, Lutron ClearConnect, Z-Wave and ZigBee – and breath. So that’s pretty much any smart gadget on the market covered off.

Wink has even worked with other companies to offer a seal on packaging to show which products are compatible with the Wink smart hub. The hub itself is also iOS and Android friendly so should be able to work with most people’s smartphones.

There are downsides though. There’s no 5GHz connectivity, although most gadgets won’t need the extra bandwidth in favour of range. Some devices can be a little confusing to pair and the app can be a little buggy.

That said it’s a good looking, clean and responsive app most of the time. The plus side here is most of the issues are software related which should be fixed with a simple over the web update.

We’re in the process of reviewing the Wink, so will update this article when it’s done towards the end of May.


Icontrol Networks Piper NM

For your £240 you get two devices in one, a smart camera that also doubles as a smart hub.

The camera is an HD device that can be moved, uses night vision, features motions sensors, microphone, speakers and a fast processor. This helps it to double as a Z-wave friendly smart hub.

The downside is you’re pretty limited with only Z-Wave support. But if you’re planning to stick with Piper gadgets there are dimmers, door and windows sensor, range extenders and more available. The plus side is you’ll be able to control everything very easily thanks to it all being built for the same app.

Update: Piper is now IFTTT compatible.


Insteon Hub (HomeKit enabled)

The Insteon Hub with HomeKit support isn’t here to make friends with Android users. It’s an Apple focused device that supports iOS, HomeKit and most Insteon smart gadgets but loves of the Droid can skip forward to the next option right now.

Apple users will appreciate the clean interface that Insteon offers on the $70 hub. For controlling smart lights and appliances this is an easy way to do it all. Just don’t expect any extra connectivity to things like cameras, motion detectors, door or window sensors. But you will be able to control what is connected using your voice thanks to Siri integration.

The alternative is to splash out $150 and go for the Insteon Hub without HomeKit support. This will offer control of more third party gadgets like Nest and Logitech as well as Android support, but won’t help when it comes to HomeKit devices.


Samsung SmartThings Hub

This Kickstarter-born project started out as a relatively small closed system supporting its own hardware. It has since been bought by Samsung and branched out to support wider third-party hardware like Sonos speakers, Philips Hue lights, Honeywell thermostats, Belkin WeMo plugs and more. It’s even IFTTT compatible for even greater automation.

That’s good news as the app is slick and easy to use, plus the unit itself is relatively affordable at $99. It works with both iOS and Android, supports Wi-Fi, Z-Wave and ZigBee, plus is easy to setup.

The downside is range. Some sensors need to be kept within 50 feet of the hub to work effectively. Luckily some sensors, like the motion detector, act as a range extender so they should help overcome this issue in most cases.


Logitech Harmony Elite

The Logitech Harmony Home Elite looks great, like a sleek black pebble and inside that simplistic and minimalist design there’s plenty going on too.

One of the big attractions of this £280 hub, as you’d expect from a speaker specialist, is great home theatre support. Plus it offers remote control support, minus a phone.

It also offers wide device compatibility. The inclusion of an IR-blaster and Bluetooth support means it will connect to most home theatre systems easily including HD TVs, Blu-ray players, and even consoles. So you can set a smart button in the app that’ll turn on your TV, speaker system and console all in one press.

The downside is you’ll need to splash out more cash for an extender that supports Z-Wave and ZigBee, should you need it. While it will connect to big name gadgets like Philips Hue and Honeywell the app isn’t quite as good as the native apps. That said it’ll work well enough and offer everything needed but it won’t offer IFTTT support which is quite a limiting factor.