Technically speaking, there’s no wrong way to set up a smart home. But some smart home advocates insist that “proper smart homes need a hub.” I disagree entirely. Your smart home doesn’t need a hub. In fact, you’re better off without one.
I’ve been in the smart home game for years. I surfed the wild ride that was Wink when it was good, Wink when it was faltering, and Wink when it went so far off the rails the proper answer was to throw it in the trash. Over time I’ve dealt with the worst things about owning a smart home, and I’ve used other hubs like SmartThings, Hubitat, and Home Assistant. And for a while, every smart home device in my home communicated over Z-Wave and ZigBee.
But since then, I’ve ditched all the “true hubs” in my home. The only hubs left are the ones that are forced on me to control a few devices, like the Philips Hue bridge and the Ikea TRÅDFRI Gateway. If I could, I’d dump those hubs too. Now when I look for smart home devices, I try to stick to anything that connects to Wi-Fi and compatible with Google Assistant and Alexa.
The Empty Promise of Smart Home Hubs
Listen, I get why people want to like smart home hubs. They make lofty promises, promises I’ve even bought into in the past.
- “Get the right smart home hub, and you can skip the cloud.”
- “With a smart home hub, you can create powerful automations.”
- “Smart home hubs are faster than Wi-Fi.”
- “A smart home hub will let you set up and control your smart home with just one app.”
But after years of smart home hubs and the shifting landscape of smart homes in general, I found most (if not all) of those promises to be empty. And it’s not entirely the fault of hubs, either. Smart home tech, like most tech, is rapidly changing and evolving. And many of those changes made those promises impossible to keep.
You Can’t Skip the Cloud
In the past few years, smart home device manufacturers have overwhelmingly embraced Wi-Fi as a “standard” and eschewed Z-Wave and ZigBee. Attend a CES event, and you’ll mostly see smart devices touting compatibility with Google and Alexa—not a smart hub. Those devices have come down in price, while ZigBee and Z-wave devices haven’t—when you can even find them. And that’s to say nothing of a few smart home companies that insist on creating single-use hubs for specific devices like Philps Hue, Ikea, and Lutron.
Unless you go to extreme lengths to avoid any Wi-Fi devices or any device that uses a specific hub like Philips Hue, you can’t skip the cloud entirely either. And do you want voice controls? Then you need the cloud because, for better or worse, there is no mainstream voice assistant for smart homes that doesn’t rely on cloud servers.
Hub Automations are Expensive and Overrated
Do you want powerful automations? You’ll need smart home sensors. But the most affordable and best smart home sensors either use the cloud or Wi-Fi—or both. Years ago, I bought a Hubitat hub and worked towards converting everything to it with the full intention of automating my entire home. But when I realized that Z-wave or ZigBee motion sensors from known brands cost $60 or more each, I gave up on that plan. I can’t justify spending $600 or more on sensors to outfit my home with automation.
I can, however, pay $15 for a Wyze motion sensor. Even if you factor in the $80 starter kit that comes with two contact sensors and a motion sensor, I’ll end up ahead. And for most of my automation needs, the routines Alexa provides are more than enough. I have routines to turn on, raise, and lower my blinds at the start and end of the workday. Other routines turn on and off lights as I move from room to room. And another automation controls the plug to my basement dehumidifier so that it only runs for a half-hour every few hours.
It doesn’t matter how powerful those automations are if I can’t afford them. Or they’re too complicated to set up, another issue I ran into with Hubitat. I watched a dozen videos and read through novel-length helpfiles only to find myself confused at times on how to set up a basic routine. I got through it, but it didn’t feel worth the effort and learning involved. And I’m tech-savvy! Easy may not always be “best,” but complicated isn’t always better.
Smart Hubs Aren’t Faster than Wi-Fi Anymore
Once upon a time, smart home hubs were nearly guaranteed to be faster than Wi-Fi devices. That’s because many (not all) skipped the cloud. And by staying local only, the process of triggering a command sped up. But that’s not true anymore for plenty of reasons.
For one, not every smart home hub skips the cloud. SmartThings CAN control SOME things locally but prefers the cloud, for instance. And again, if you want to use voice commands, you’re still heading to the cloud, so you haven’t avoided it at all. And let’s be honest, most people rely on controlling their smart home with voice commands over digging out a phone and tapping through an app.
But beyond that, companies like Google, Amazon, LIFEX, Nanoleaf, and more have worked together to speed up cloud processing. As long as you have decent internet speeds, the wait is minimal now—often less than a second. Even the Shelly Wi-Fi motion sensor turns on my lights so fast I never feel the need to reach for the light switch. Smart home hubs may have an edge, but it’s imperceptible. The kind of thing that you wouldn’t notice unless you test side by side. In fact, the automations in my Wi-Fi-centric home work so quickly, my family asked me to dial them back!
One App to Rule Them All—Hub or No
Another common promise of hubs is complete control of your devices in one app. And not just control, but setup too! You won’t need to download “yet another app” every time you purchase a new device. And as long as you can stick to just Z-Wave or ZigBee devices, that’s true.
But as we’ve already established, you probably can’t, not without spending a lot of money on more expensive devices and searching far and wide for an option from a brand you trust. Chances are you’ll buy a Wi-Fi device sooner or later, so you’ll end up downloading other apps anyway and THEN connecting them to your hub for control.
But you can already get that same experience. If you want one app to rule them all, just use Alexa or Google Assistant. All you need the manufacturer’s app for is the setup process. After that, stick it in an app folder and forget about it. Do everything else through your chosen voice assistant app
You can take of routines and basic functions with Google or Alexa. Or better yet, use voice commands. That last bit might be necessary for Google Home users. Unlike Alexa, Google doesn’t have an official smart lock API to integrate smart locks into the Google Home app. So most smart locks only offer Google Assistant voice control. You can control Yale locks (owned by Google) from the Google Home app, however.
You’ll notice I didn’t say delete the manufacturer app. And for good reason. Occasionally you’ll need the app to do some sort of maintenance if your smart home device isn’t responding. And as mentioned above, there’s a small possibility your device might only support voice controls—not full app control from Google Home or Alexa. But more importantly, here’s a hard truth about diving deep into smart homes. Eventually, the “one app to control it all” dream becomes a “painfully long list of devices to scroll through” reality. In my Alexa app, I currently have 130 devices in my “all devices” list. If I need to open the garage, it takes forever to get to it on that list.
One solution is to use groups and rooms, but as you can imagine, I have quite a few of those. So frequently, when I want to control my garage door without voice, I use the other solution—open the dedicated garage door app. It has one item it is so it’s easy to find. The same thing goes for my IKEA Smart blinds. I have four of those in the home, so it’s faster to open the IKEA app than scroll through my Alexa or Google Home app.
That problem will exist whether you use a smart home hub app or a voice assistant app. If you manage to buy solely Z-Wave or ZigBee devices, you don’t even have manufacturer apps as a fallback. Frankly, the whole thing is moot anyway—the best smart homes rely on automations (or routines) and voice commands. Most of the time, you shouldn’t need an app to control your stuff, so how many apps you have doesn’t matter.
The Main Downside of Wi-Fi is Solvable
Ok, so let’s address the elephant in the room. When people advocate for hubs, they’ll often point out that more Wi-Fi devices in your home mean more congestion. And that leads to a slower network: an unacceptable outcome in the day of age of “work from home.”
And that would be a fair point if it were wholly accurate or impossible to avoid. But the truth is, that complaint is inaccurate. And easy to avoid, but we’ll get to that in a moment. Congestion happens when numerous devices send data simultaneously and overwhelm your network. In the “highway analogy,” it’s like having too many cars for the two-lane highway. This is especially true on the 2.4 GHz band, which many smart home devices use, where there are fewer channels or “lanes.”
And therein lies the first problem with this argument. ZigBee communicates over the same 2.4 GHz band, and so would contribute to the same congestion problems. If you want a smart home hub to avoid congestion, you have to stick with Z-Wave devices, which means no Philips Hue or IKEA devices for you, to name a couple of major players. Smart hubs don’t avoid the issue unless you severely limit your options. But more importantly, congestion isn’t an issue in the first place.
Did you notice that the theoretical problem occurs when too much data passes through your network at once? Well, that’s not how most smart home devices work. When it comes to smart lights, plugs, locks, and other similar gadgets, they spend most of the time “at rest.” They don’t transmit data. Instead, they listen for it—the tiny signal that tells it to turn on or off, lock or unlock.
After that, they transmit a quick burst to confirm the command succeeded. That’s it. Your gaming console and smart TV running Netflix cause far more “congestion” than most smart home devices. The rare exception here is security cameras and video doorbells.
So congestion of data isn’t the real problem; it’s the number of devices you’ll connect to your router. The Wi-Fi 5 standard didn’t account for smart homes, and likewise, most manufacturers didn’t design Wi-Fi 5 routers to handle smart homes. In many cases, they can’t handle more than a few dozen devices, which is no surprise. Until recently, most homes connected a few tablets, phones, and a computer or two.
Switching to a hub to handle some of those devices would help, it’s true. But that won’t solve any of your other network congestion issues you might be facing. So instead, your smart home needs a Wi-Fi 6 router. Wi-Fi 6 routers can handle hundreds of devices, and the Wi-Fi 6 standard does a better job of preventing congestion on the 2.4 GHz spectrum.
It’s a two-for-one solution that will improve all of your home’s network needs, not just your smart home. In my home, I have 150 active devices connected to my network, and my network was struggling with our frequent need for three simultaneous video calls for myself, my wife, and my son’s school at the same time. The moment I switched to a NetGear Orbi WiFi 6 mesh system my problems disappeared. Everyone is happier, and that’s really all that matters.
Dedicated Smart Home Hubs Are a Dying Breed Anyway
But above all else, there’s one final reason you shouldn’t spend all your time and money investing in a smart home with a dedicated hub for its brains. They don’t have a long shelf life in the smart home world. I don’t mean that if you buy a smart home hub today, it will die tomorrow. I mean, you probably won’t be able to buy one in the near future, and the one buy today may not be supported in the not too distant future.
Smart hub companies are dropping like flies. Lowes and Staples got out of the game. After multiple buyouts, Wink is a total dumpster fire. Revolv shut down and bricked all of its hubs. Samsung doesn’t make its own SmartThings hubs anymore; you have to buy a third-party option. Oh, and first-generation SmartThings hubs will lose support soon.
Frankly, Google and Amazon killed the traditional smart home hub and replaced it with something better and easier to use. And soon, it will get even easier as Matter (formerly Project ChiP) takes off. It’s a smart home standard that primarily connects over Wi-Fi and will work with Apple, Amazon, and Google devices. Philips Hue, Ikea, and Nanoleaf will also support Matter. And if you buy a Matter-certified device, it will just work in your Matter smart home, with no need to relearn how to set it up—kind of like the original promise of smart home hubs.
You don’t need a smart home hub. Google Assistant, Alexa, or even Apple’s Homepod will do. So if you’re worried whether you have a “proper smart home” now with your smart plugs and bulbs and total lack of hub: stop. You have a smart home. And if anything, you’ve invested in the future of smart homes.