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Todd anglin in Gadgets 34 minutes

Choosing a smart home controller

If you really want to make your entire home “smart,” you’ll eventually need a smart home “hub” or “controller.” These hubs act as the brain of your smart home, helping connect your various smart home devices and then sending the commands that make them work together. Hue Lights and Nest Thermostats are fun, but without a hub, they are islands of functionality that will struggle to scale as your smart home matures.

Okay. So, it’s clear. You need a hub. How do you choose?

There are many options on the market today, at a wide range of price points and capabilities. Before making a specific recommendation, it’s important to understand the key characteristics of smart home hubs.

Key characteristics of smart home hubs

All smart home hubs are meant to solve the same problem: connect smart home devices, monitor their status and control them with scenes, triggers and commands. There are some important differences in the way different controllers attempt to perform this task, though:

  1. Supported Wireless Standards
  2. Broad vs Limited Device Support
  3. Embedded vs Installed Software
  4. Cloud vs Local Processing

Supported Wireless Standards

For years, smart homes required hard wired connections that could only be added at the time of construction. Legacy solutions, like X10, tried to overcome this by communicating over power lines, but these solutions were notoriously difficult to setup and maintain.

New, modern wireless protocols have changed the game, though, finally make wireless home automation (reasonably) reliable and easy to setup. The most popular of these modern protocols are:

  • ZWave
  • ZigBee
  • Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)
  • Wifi

Of these protocols, ZWave and ZigBee are tailored to the smart home task. Both are mesh networking technologies, meaning every new device you add to your smart home expands the reach and strength of the wireless network. This is a big advantage over Wifi’s “hub and spoke” network model, where everything must talk to the wifi access point. ZWave and ZigBee are also low-power protocols, making them ideal for battery-powered devices.

Bluetooth may become a more popular choice in the future when if the nascent Bluetooth mesh networking protocol is widely adopted. For now, Bluetooth’s limited range makes it impractical for large smart home setups.

Between ZWave and ZigBee, ZWave offers better compatibility between hubs and devices thanks to its proprietary nature. ZigBee is an open standard, but has struggled to maintain compatibility between manufacturers. If I had to spend money on devices today, I’d buy ZWave for maximum compatibility assurance.

There are other protocols, of course.

Insteon is an evolution of the old X10 protocol, traveling both over powerlines and wirelessly. Ideal primarily in homes where a lot of X10 hardware already exists.

Lutron, popular provider of light switches and window coverings (both “traditional” and “smart’), has their own RF protocols that some hubs support.

Nest created the Thread protocol in 2014, but so far there is very limited support outside of the Nest products.

Bottom line: Make sure you pick a hub that supports the standards you need. And if you have a choice, choose ZWave and then ZigBee.

Broad vs Limited Device Support

“What? My hub supports ZWave. I thought I could use any ZWave device, no problem.”

If only it were so simple. Supported wireless protocols ensure your devices and hub can talk to eachother, but the hub must still know what to do with those signals for specific devices. Just like Windows needs device drivers to know how to use a USB device, a smart home hub needs (effectively) a “driver” that supports your connected device before it can make proper use of it.

“Okay. Cool. Well, I’m guessing all hubs try to offer pretty broad support, right?”

If only it were so, again. While many hubs do try to offer maximum device support, especially for common smart home devices, some hubs choose to limit support to “approved” devices. In theory, these hubs are trying to incubate a more “controlled,” walled garden setup, but in reality they are severely limiting your ability to expand your smart home.

Lowe’s Iris and GE’s Wink are two culprits often criticized for weak device support and limited APIs that prohibit the hobbyist community to expand support independently.

Insteon hubs offer limited support, too, by predominantly focusing on their own wireless protocols instead of embracing the large community of ZWave and ZigBee devices.

Bottom line: If you want the freedom to pick-and-choose your smart home devices, make sure your hub offers broad device support and features an open API that enables others to freely extend the built-in support.

Cloud vs Local Processing

In an effort to provide more powerful computing power at a lower price, some smart home hubs offload their processing to servers in the cloud. The hub in these cases acts as a “dumb” proxy, relaying commands between smart devices in your house and the cloud.

While a powerful option when it works, this approach has the distinct drawback of tying the availability of your smart home to your internet connection. And unless you’re hardwired to 100% reliable internet, that means you can look forward to motion sensors not turning on lights when the internet goes out.

The first version of the Samsung SmartThings and Lowes Iris hubs worked this way. The current second generation hubs operate in a hybrid model, doing some processing in the cloud and some on the hub.

Cloud processing also tends to bring monthly subscription fees with your hub, so be prepared to pay to keep it working. To recap, with cloud processing:

  • The reliability of your smart home is tied to the reliability of your internet 😳
  • If the cloud backing your hub does down, so does your house
  • If you stop paying the subscription fees, your smart home stops working

Bottom line: For a reliable smart home, prefer local processing.

Embedded vs Installed Software

Many smart home hubs come as a packaged unit: the software and hardware are sold together and there is no way to run the software on different hardware.

There are smart home systems, though, that provide the software and let you BYOH. These systems usually install on Windows, Linux or macOS machines, and then you use USB dongles to add the requisite radios for talking to ZWave, ZigBee or whatever devices you want. The advantage of this approach is that you can create a smart home hub that is as powerful as your installation demands, or even reuse an existing always-on computer in your home to power your system.

Embedded systems are certainly more plug-and-play, and typically they are simpler to manage. Think of it as console gaming vs PC gaming. The downside is that these tiny smart home hubs cannot be easily upgrade, and under the covers are usually relatively modest computing capabilities.

Bottom line: If you plan to have a large smart home installation (say, more than 75 to 100 devices), you may prefer the ability to throw more RAM at your smart home hub to keep it running fast as it processes a higher volume of messages, triggers and scenes. In those cases, consider a server-based, installable smart home system.

The Hub Options

Now that you thoroughly understand some of the key characteristics that make smart home hubs different, let’s see how the options available on the market today compare on these criteria:

  SmartThings (Gen2) Vera Plus Iris (v2) Wink Hub (v2) HomeKit HomeSeer Lutron Caseta Indigo Zipato Fibaro
Supported Protocols:                    
ZWave X X X X   X   X X X
ZigBee X X X X   X     X  
WiFi X X X X X X X   X X
BLE X X   X X X        
Insteon           X   X    
Lutron       X   X X      
Extensible/Open API X X     X X   X X  
Local processing Some X   Some X X X X X X
Cloud processing X   X X            
Requires monthly fee     X              
Embedded X X X X X   X   X X
Upgradable hardware           X   Runs on Mac Limited  
Pricing $99 $149 $59 $99 $149 $199+ $59 $300+ $199+ $300+

Clearly, there is lots of choice in today’s market, and though many of these controllers look the same in a simple comparison like this, the devil is in the details. In my experience, the size and vibrancy of the community around a smart home hub is as important as what comes in the box. Smart homes are constantly evolving machines, and active communities help ensure your hub doesn’t fall behind the curve as new devices arrive.

Which hub should you buy

That’s hard to say. There is no definitive right or wrong choice, but if I were to offer “Editor’s Picks,” I’d suggest the following:

For best balance of power and ease of use: Go Vera

For the best out-of-the-box experience: Go SmartThings v2 or Wink v2

For the most control over hardware: Go HomeSeer

What about high-end systems like Savant and Control4

There are a myriad of high-end smart home systems not covered here that are only available via professional installers. These systems are usually put in high-end homes and businesses, and are typically part of new construction (or major remodeling). As a result, costs are typically much higher, too. The focus of this post (and site in general) is more squarely on systems anyone can buy and install.

But yes, there are other high-end options, including Savant, Control4, Elan, and Creston.