Choosing a Hub

An all-purpose hub is the backbone of any full-featured, automated home. The question that faces most new smart home owners is which one to get. There are many different options out there, each with different capabilities and targeting audiences of different technical abilities. Let’s look at some of the top contenders and what makes them right or wrong for you.

Before looking at the various solutions, let's talk about which criteria matter when choosing your hub. Here is a list of things that I considered before making my choice:


  • Devices: Does it work a wide range of switches, sensors and other components like cameras and thermostats? When a new device hits the market, how quickly will the hub support it? Do devices have to be added by the manufacturer or can anyone contribute code to make them work?
  • Programmability: Does the hub support complex rules and timers to handle any automation scenario that you can dream up?
  • Usability: How difficult is the hub to set up? How difficult is it to control your home? Is there a mobile app? Does the interface look good? Can I control it with my voice from Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa?
  • Local processing: Does the hub rely on the cloud (and thus, your home’s internet connection) to execute your rules or does all processing happen on the hub itself?
  • Stability: Even if your internet connection is perfect, your rules might be affected by company’s server uptime. If their cloud breaks, your rules might not get processed. And taking it up a level, is the company that makes the hub stable or is it likely to go out of business leaving all its users hanging?


At one end of the spectrum is Home Assistant. Home Assistant is open source (which makes it free and community maintained), extremely powerful and flexible, executes automations locally, and supports a huge range of devices. Sounds perfect, right? Not so fast! The one attribute intentionally left off that list was “easy to use”. Home Assistant needs to be installed on a computer (typically a cheap and reliable Raspberry Pi). There are projects out there that make this easier but still require a certain level of comfort with linux and technical hardware that most people do not have. Once installed, configuring and managing your Home Assistant is typically done through editing text files. Also, using a voice assistant like Google Assistant requires a subscription to Home Assistant Cloud or else requires a ridiculously complicated setup process.  Bottom line: unless you’re willing to tinker a lot, don’t go down this route. Flip through their setup documentation if you don’t believe me :). However, if you are willing to experiment and play with the tech, this is the most powerful option out there.

Heading to the other end of the spectrum, we find Wink. Wink is extremely easy to use and has great looking interface and mobile apps. However, in creating that ease of use, they sacrificed programmability for the sake of simplicity. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just means you won’t be able to create complex rules for your automations. What is more worrisome though, is that Wink hasn’t added new devices since 2017 and seems to be out of stock at all major retailers leading the Wink subreddit to speculate that the company might be in financial trouble. Wink has been shuffled from company to company, starting off at Quirky. It was spun off on its own when Quirky failed, then purchased by electronics manufacturer Flex which then sold it to Will.i.am of Black Eyed Peas fame who does not have the best track record when it comes to selling electronics. Because Wink is a cloud-based hub, should the company shut down, these devices would most likely be rendered useless. Bottom line: It’s probably best to avoid Wink (even if you can find a unit!) until their status has been sorted out.

Somewhere in the middle of these extremes lies SmartThings. SmartThings was an up and coming startup that was bought by Samsung in 2014. Samsung is in the middle of a messy transition to move SmartThings users to their shiny new Samsung Connect platform that they built for their connected TVs and appliances but for now, most of the functionality you need to configure and interact with your smart home can be found in the SmartThings Classic app. It’s not beautiful but it does work well. A 3rd party application called ActionTiles provides a great looking dashboard that can run on cheap tablets, such as the Kindle Fire 8HD.

SmartThings supports a large number of devices out of the box and is constantly adding more. One of the best things about SmartThings is the large developer community behind it. If a new device comes out, chances are that there is a member of the SmartThings community working on custom code, (known as a device handler or driver) to make that device work with the platform. The extensibility also applies to applications that control automation. SmartThings provides users with the ability to write custom code (like turning a temperature sensor and smart plug into a thermostat for your wall a/c) that runs in the SmartThings cloud thereby making it an extremely powerful platform. Although SmartThings used to be completely cloud-based, the second version of the hub added local processing for certain types of rules in very specific situations. However, the SmartThings cloud has been known to be glitchy for some causing some users to (loudly) abandon SmartThings for hubs with more local processing.

Which brings us to our next contender, Hubitat. Hubitat is a newer hub and was created by a few former SmartThings community members who felt that all-local processing was the only acceptable way to go. They kept their platform largely compatible with SmartThings, but made sure that all processing is done on the hub itself with no dependence on a cloud service. The downside of this is that there is no convenient app for configuring your devices, everything must be done on your local network. Their community is not quite as big or productive as SmartThings but many of the device handlers or smart apps written for SmartThings will run with little or no modification on Hubitat. However, because everything is running on the hub, certain smart apps that work well in the SmartThings cloud can cause issues on the limited processing power available on the Hubitat hub.

So where does this all leave us? Checkout the matrix below:


Wink
SmartThings
Hubitat
Home Assistant
Devices
Supports many devices
Y
YY
Y
YY
Add new devices
N
Y
Y
Y
Community Support for Devices
N
YY
Y
YY
Programmability
Complex Rules
N
Y
Y
YY
Custom applications
N
Y
Y
Y
Useability
Great Apps
Y
Y
N
N
Easy to use
YY
Y
Y
N
Local Processing
Local Processing
N
Y*
Y
Y
Stability
Stable Cloud
Y
Y
N/A
N/A
Stable Company
N
Y
Y
Y
* local processing for certain devices and automations

There are, of course, other all-purpose hubs out there. There’s Iris, which shut down its operation recently and refunded everyone who had bought a hub (cautionary tale for cloud-based hubs!), Vera, which doesn’t have great reviews, and HomeSeer, which is a solid, powerful and flexible system but very expensive. We’ll talk more about HomeSeer when we look at switches - they make excellent high-end ones. Apple is another player in this space and is gaining popularity with their platform called HomeKit. HomeKit runs on a 3rd Gen AppleTV, iPad or HomePod and only works with specific wifi switches. We’ll cover this in more detail in a later post.

After all was said and done, I chose SmartThings for my home. The knowledge of the community and their willingness to help has been amazing. The help troubleshoot, point out new and useful device handlers and smart apps and seem to be generally nice people. I haven’t had many issues with their cloud’s reliability. There have been times when some automations have been slow to trigger but, for the most part, I am making sure my critical automations are able to run locally. However, I’m starting to look more seriously at Hubitat for its all local processing. The development team at Hubitat promises that a mobile app will soon be available and that its built-in dashboards will be improved to compete with ActionTiles on SmartThings. I’ll be experimenting on Hubitat in a friend’s house and will make sure to post updates as we go along.

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