If you’ve ever gone down the rabbit hole of smart home gadgets, you’ve probably run across devices that require a “hub.” You might think, “Why would I buy something that requires additional hardware?” I think you should seriously consider a hub.
When I first got started with smart home stuff, I shared that same thought. I bought a few light switches and bulbs that worked over Wi-Fi, no additional equipment required. Over time, my smart-ish home evolved into a full-fledged smart home. That’s where hubs really shine.
Two Ways to Build a Smart Home
Before we go any further, let’s talk about the two sides of this coin. There are two distinct types of smart home devices. There are the devices that only need a Wi-Fi connection and an app on your phone—nothing else. And then, there are the devices that connect to a physical hub.
Over time, the lines between these two have blurred a bit. It used to be that the Wi-Fi-only devices each used their own apps, which got a bit messy if you had multiple brands under one roof. Nowadays, more and more of these devices can also sync with Google Assistant and Alexa, bringing them into a more unified experience.
Meanwhile, that’s always been the big selling point of hubs. You set up a physical hub once, and from that point forward, every new device that you bring into your home connects to that hub and its app. As long as you get a device compatible with your hub, they’ll all work in the same app.
The Lure of Wi-Fi-Only Devices
You might now be thinking, “Well, why would I get a hub then?” After all, if these Wi-Fi-only devices can now be added to one unified app, what’s the point of the hub? That’s a fair argument.
Wi-Fi-only devices remove one of the big barriers of entry when it comes to smart home tech. You don’t have to worry so much about brands, platforms, and hubs. As long as you see that “Works with Alexa” sticker, you know you’re good to go. And setting them up is as easy as entering a Wi-Fi password.
Apps like Google Home have also gotten a lot better over the years. You can now set up routines and other automations that used to require hubs. Wi-Fi-only smart home devices are a good option for many people, but if you want to get serious, there are some downsides.
Easy Isn’t Always Best
The main problem with Wi-Fi-only devices is right there in the name: “Wi-Fi.” Every single one of these devices is on your Wi-Fi network. While they’re not using a ton of bandwidth individually, it doesn’t take long to load up your network.
You start with a few bulbs in every room, then you add some switches, next you get light strips, now you buy a doohickey that starts your coffee pot, and before you know it, there are 50 little gadgets talking to your router.
The setup process can become a pain as well. Wi-Fi-only devices almost always require setup to be done through the brand’s own application. If you mix different brands, which a lot of people do, this can get messy. The setup process usually requires disconnecting your phone from Wi-Fi and entering the Wi-Fi password. That gets old.
How Is a Hub Better?
The general idea behind a smart home hub is that it’s the centralized connection point for all of your smart home devices. You set up the hub and install the app for the hub, and that is where all subsequent devices will go.
For example, I use the SmartThings Hub in my home. When I buy a new smart home device, I look for ones that are compatible with SmartThings. Setting them up is as easy as plugging them in and detecting a new device in the SmartThings app. I’m not downloading third-party apps or entering Wi-Fi credentials every time.
While it’s possible to connect some Wi-Fi-only devices to hubs, most smart home devices that are built to work with hubs don’t use Wi-Fi. They usually connect over Z-Wave or ZigBee radio networks. In other words, they aren’t sitting on your Wi-Fi network.
In general, you’ll also find that hubs allow for more powerful automation. Everything that you connect to the hub can be configured to work with other things that are connected to the hub. Assistant devices, such as the Google Nest and Alexa speakers, can also be brought into the equation, expanding what you can do even further.
If you plan on having a fully fleshed-out smart home with tons of devices and automations, a hub is really the way to go. You’ll just have to pick a platform to go with—which is no easy choice, but it can pay off in the long run.
All that glitters is not gold when it comes to smart home hubs. They can be frustrating at times, as people who use them will often tell you. Just like with Wi-Fi-only devices, you’re at the mercy of your Wi-Fi network. If the Wi-Fi goes down, the hub goes down, which means that it can’t receive commands from the app on your phone or from the smart speaker to control the devices.
In addition to Wi-Fi-outages, the hub itself can experience outages. SmartThings, for example, has been known to go down from time to time. So, your Wi-Fi might be fine, but the hub and connected devices won’t work until it’s sorted out. You’ll also have the occasional Z-Wave or ZigBee device that needs to be restarted.
Get Started, Then Get Serious
For the majority of people, a smart home doesn’t need to include a hub. A few Wi-Fi-only light bulbs and switches here and there is a great place to start. Add an Alexa or a Google Assistant speaker and you have a pretty nice setup.
However, if you find yourself wanting more automation or easier expandability, a hub can make your smart home feel even smarter. A project like my “Artificial Natural Light Window” was possible with the community of people making software for the SmartThings platform. That doesn’t happen as much for Wi-Fi-only devices.
At the end of the day, a hub isn’t necessary for a smart home, but if you’re ready to get serious, you should settle down and commit.