Smart Home Hubs: Which Home Automation System Is Right For You?

Smart home hubs: which one is right for you?
A father and son enjoying smart home automation.

Everyone considering a smart home hub typically wants one thing: a single tool for managing all of their smart home devices. And a smart home hub, outfitted with a convenient mobile app that acts as a sort of universal remote control, provides this capability. While many smart home hubs connect with a wide range of devices, it's best to confirm that the hub you are thinking of using works well with the specific devices you have in your home – as well as any smart home devices you may bring on board in the future – before proceeding with a purchase. That way, you have the best chance of making sure that all of your various components will play well with one another.

The Difference Between Smart Home Hubs and Virtual Assistants

A smart home hub is not the same thing as a virtual assistant, although smart home technology is increasingly integrating with smart speakers and the virtual assistants they house. Rather, a smart home hub automates smart home device activity in your home based on set routines that your household tends to follow. From lighting to locks to heating, music, and coffee, nearly everything in your home can – in theory, and increasingly in practice – be automated at the touch of a button.

Smart speakers and the virtual assistants that inhabit them are encroaching on smart home hub territory, but there are still many cases in which a smart home hub will be a perfectly good choice – particularly for people who don't like the idea of a virtual assistant listening in on the comings and goings within their home or emitting creepy sounds while they're trying to relax. That being said, for folks who are already happily using smart speakers, there are many smart home hubs that work well with them and support their voice-activated commands.

When you're deciding on which hub is right for you, it's a good idea to know what you want to get out of it, whether that's an easy setup process and a comfortable user experience, extensive compatibility with a wide range of smart home devices, or an affordable price. With that in mind, here's a look at four of the top smart home hubs today, their strong suits and weak points, and who will benefit the most from using them.

Wink Smart Home Hub
Wink Hub 2.

Wink Hub 2

Considered a direct competitor to Samsung's SmartThings hub, the Wink Hub 2 is a good fit for DIY smart home hub enthusiasts. It claims to work with more smart home protocols than any other hub on the market, including Bluetooth LE, ZigBee, Z-Wave, Kidde, and Lutron Clear Connect. Wink 2 offers wired Ethernet and dual-band Wi-Fi support. It also includes a Thread radio, embracing the emerging Google standard that will allow smart home devices to securely communicate with one another in the future. As a result, Wink 2 might be a good candidate for smart home aficionados who plan to use a broad range of smart home devices from a variety of manufacturers.

Setting up a Wink 2 smart home hub can usually be completed in a matter of minutes using the free Wink app for iPhone or Android. From there, you can pair each of your components with the hub and monitor your connected devices using the app. It may not give you as much granular control over those devices as their own native apps, but it should cover the basic settings that most smart home users care about. Thanks to Wink 2's 512MB of memory, a significant upgrade from the 64MB its predecessor offered, this smart home hub is able to manage more complex automations on its own without relying on the cloud – resulting in a smoother, more responsive experience.

You can configure a Wink 2 to take multiple actions at once using what it calls "robots" – for example, automatically locking the door and turning off the lights when you leave. Although these robots don't provide quite the granular level of control that their SmartThings counterparts do, they should be sufficient for the average smart home user. You can also configure Shortcuts for one-touch commands, automatically shutting the lights off at night or setting the thermostat to a comfortable temperature. In addition, the Wink 2 accepts Alexa voice commands and IFTTT recipes.

What we like

  • Compatibility with Sonos products is a nice bonus for Sonos users and audiophiles.
  • An LED indicator light alerts you at a glance to changes in the Wink 2's status.

What we don't like

  • The Wink 2 does not have a battery backup or any USB ports.

This hub is best for

DIY smart home hub enthusiasts who plan on connecting a wide range of devices.

SmartThings smart home hub
Samsung's SmartThings Hub.

Samsung's SmartThings Hub

Billing itself as the "brain" for your smart home, SmartThings aims not only to connect and synchronize the various smart devices within your home but to intelligently understand basic information about your daily routine – such as when you are sleeping, awake, present, and absent – and leverage that knowledge to make your everyday experience a little smoother.

Many smart home hub users want exactly this kind of convenience, having the lights turn on and their favorite music begin playing when they get home from work, for example. SmartThings allows you to do this, setting routines for the start and the end of the day as well as configuring more detailed actions you would like a device to take at a specific time of day. Routines can be triggered in one of two ways – automatically via sensors or from the manual tap of a button. What's more, SmartThings can send you a timely push or text notification if it detects anomalous activity, even capturing video if it senses unexpected movement within your home.

Setting up a SmartThings hub is pretty straightforward. All you have to do is connect your SmartThings hub to your home's router using the included Ethernet cable. As the SmartThings hub boots up, you can download the free companion app to your iPhone or Android device. The app checks to make sure the hub's core software is up to date, then walks you through the steps you need to complete in order to discover and connect all of the Internet of Things devices you want to use. Although setup is smooth and simple, power users seeking to access more fine-tuned controls may find that the exact settings they require are buried several layers deep within the app.

SmartThings supports a wide range of devices, making it appealing to novice and experienced smart home users alike. SmartThings also allows you to group devices by room for easier categorization and management – something the Wink 2 doesn't do. People who have smart speakers will be glad to know that SmartThings works with Alexa and Google Home devices.

What we like

  • The backup battery makes it possible for a SmartThings hub to keep running for up to 10 hours in the event of a power outage.
  • Samsung's Connect Home Pro includes a SmartThings hub and a Wi-Fi router, which may appeal to people seeking an all-in-one appliance.

What we don't like

  • Although the SmartThings hub is affordably priced, you could end paying more than you'd like depending on how many smart sensors, plugs, and devices you add.
  • Some configuration settings are tricky to find, making it challenging to implement advanced controls.

This hub is best for

People who want to easily automate a variety of smart home devices without getting too far into the weeds.

Google Home
Google Home.

Google Home

Strictly speaking, Google Home is a smart speaker rather than a smart home hub. Thanks to its slick integration with Google Assistant, you can ask it to call up your favorite Spotify playlist with a simple voice command. Google Home is multilingual too, which might appeal to polyglot households. Like other smart speakers, it can be trained to recognize distinct voices. But Google Home includes plenty of smart home automation capabilities as well, and as of this writing it works with 5,000 smart home devices including Belkin and Lutron light switches, Lifx light bulbs, and the August Smart Lock.

As with the SmartThings hub, you can have Google set specific routines to run at certain times of the day. For example, you can create a routine that raises the temperature, turns on the lights, and begins playing a podcast when you wake up. You can schedule this routine or activate it with a simple voice command. And, thanks to Google Home's integration with Google Assistant, you can augment your smart home routines with bells and whistles most smart home hubs (except Amazon Echo, which we'll get to in a moment) can't provide – such as weather and traffic updates or a recap of your calendar appointments for the day. All of these activities can be coordinated while your smart coffee maker churns out your morning cup of joe.

Of course, since this is a Google product, you can search for anything you want to know about with a simple voice command. Google Home also sends and receives Google Cast signals, enabling it to stream video from your phone and send video to any Google Cast-enabled device as well. Google Home also integrates with some smart TVs. In the case of TVs that have the HDMI-CEC feature, Google Home can even switch your TV to the correct input mode so you don't have to futz around with the remote control yourself.

What we like

  • Google Home blends the core capabilities of a virtual assistant with a smart home system, and its functionality is likely to greatly improve in the near future.

What we don't like

  • Google Home doesn't yet support as many smart home devices as Amazon Echo, its closest rival.
  • The voice recognition isn't quite there yet, sometimes making it hard to successfully issue a voice command.

This hub is best for

People who want to take advantage of smart home automation and a virtual assistant in one devices. Folks who have Android devices or use Chromecast for their streaming media may find it especially useful to keep all their eggs in the Google basket.

Amazon Echo
Amazon Echo.

Amazon Echo and Echo Plus

Amazon Echo is a close competitor to Google Home, and many observers would give it the edge. Its speaker can fill a room with Dolby sound, and the Echo's ability to understand voice commands gets higher marks than Google's virtual assistant. This makes it easier to engage with the smart home hub it houses. You can simply ask Alexa to discover new devices and add them to the hub, and they will show up on the app. Family members and even visiting guests can engage with the smart home devices without needing specialized account access. That's a very elegant and intuitive user experience that most people will appreciate.

That being said, the Echo and Echo Plus don't play well with all the smart home devices out there on the market. Although they connect to many ZigBee and Wi-Fi devices – mainly lights, locks, and thermostats – they can’t interface with any Z-Wave devices at the moment. They can't really meaningfully act on sensor data, which makes it harder to achieve the type of automation you might find in the SmartThings or Wink 2 hub instead. Alexa can create automation routines, however, and it can accept IFTTT recipes as well. You can expect that Amazon is hard at work on upgrades that will extend the Echo line's smart home capabilities even further.

What we like

  • LED lights let you know when Alexa is listening to your commands, a message has come in, or the microphone is deactivated.
  • Alexa allows you to add smart home devices to rooms or groups, even linking a specific Echo device to a room if you would like.

What we don't like

  • Limited number of devices supported so far.

This hub is best for

Avid Alexa users who don't yet need Z-Wave device compatibility and are willing to wait for more robust smart home features.