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What is a smart hub?

By Martin Pratt

Many smart home kits come with a smart hub, but what exactly do they do and are they essential to an internet-connected home?

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It’s easy to understand how a smart light bulb or connected speaker works - they do what they always did, except now you can control them from an app on your phone. But what about the smart hub connected to your router? They may not look like much, often little more than a plastic box, but smart hubs are running the show.

To discover which hubs came out on top in our tests head straight to our smart hub reviews.

Do you need a smart hub?

If you’ve already got some smart tech at home you may be wondering what the point of a smart hub is. Or you may be looking at smart home security kits from Panasonic and Samsung that come with a hub as standard and assuming that it's an essential component.

Most smart tech, such as Philips Hue light bulbs, is controlled by an app on your phone or tablet. Some connected gadgets don’t have their own dedicated apps. For example, Panasonic’s range of cameras and sensors need a smart hub to work. In these cases the app is controlling the smart accessories via the hub.

The Panasonic hub is part of a closed system, which only works with other Panasonic smart devices. Samsung’s SmartThings hub on the other hand is designed to work with as many devices as possible, even those not made by Samsung. This is useful because, as the number of smart devices you have grows, so too does the number of apps you need to control them. Smart hubs consolidate these apps and allow you to control your entire smart home from one application.

If you already have smart devices you don’t technically need a smart hub, but if you plan to add more internet-connected tech a smart hub can remove some of the hassle of flicking between numerous apps to control your home. However, that’s not all they offer.

How do smart hubs work?

Whereas most smart home devices are wireless, smart home hubs are wired to your router. From here it can connect with all the compatible smart devices in your home and control them. The hub will have its own app just like each individual smart home device, but rather than just controlling one device, the dedicated app can control any compatible tech.

Some smart hubs allow you to set up routines. You may see the acronym IFTTT, which stands for ‘if this then that’. IFTTT is one or more smart devices reacting to another. This is when smart home devices become automated so, for example, when you trigger the motion sensor on your door your smart bulbs turn on or your kettle boils.

Smart hubs make these routines possible by allowing one smart device to talk to another even if they are made by different companies. Sometimes, though, even with a hub two devices won’t be able to communicate.

A day in the life of a connected home

Smart tech is designed to make your life simpler. Connected devices are now available for just about every room in the house, ranging from smart TVs and wireless speakers - which you may have had for years - to newer gadgets such as wireless security cameras and motion sensors.

The vast number of companies making different smart devices means it can be hard to get them to sync up and achieve the ultimate goal of smart-home automation. A smart hub can tie disparate smart tech together to help achieve it. Below, we show you how a smart hub can help you have a perfect connected day. The routines are good examples of IFTTT.

Morning: 6am to noon

Rather than fumbling for your lamp switch when your alarm rouses you, instead say ‘Alexa, turn on the lights’. Your Amazon Echo, and its built-in voice assistant Alexa, activates your Philips Hue light bulbs and a warm glow fills the room. No need to worry about the heating - your Netatmo thermostat knows when you wake up and has already warmed the house to your ideal temperature.

Setting your Samsung SmartThings hub to ‘armed’ as you leave for work activates your door and motion sensors. Any motion or audio alerts will be sent to your phone and you can keep an eye on everything remotely with your Samsung SmartCam wireless camera.

Pros: You can use a hub to set your morning schedule, including heating and lights; using it to activate motion sensors and cameras will give peace of mind while you're away from home.

Cons: No smart hub we've tested manages all tasks (a recurring drawback); we've found smart security systems probably won't deter a potential burglar.

Browse all our wireless security camera reviews to find the best model for monitoring your home while you're away.

Afternoon: noon to 6pm

At work you get an alert from your SmartThings hub. Thankfully it’s just the presence sensor on your cat’s collar triggering it as it came into the house.

To avoid further distractions you disable the presence sensor - you can always turn it on again later. You also adjust the camera’s view so that it won’t be set off by your moggy. Just in case anyone thinks the property is empty you turn on a smart plug connected to your radio to fool anyone who might be lurking.

Pros: Hubs with an app enable you to remotely control gadgets in your house; you get peace of mind that you can check in at any time.  

Cons: Notifications can get irritating if not properly managed; Amazon's Alexa app (which works with the Echo) is limited to just music, alarms and shopping lists.

Evening 6pm to 11pm

Your Samsung hub recognises your smartphone as you come home and activates your Hue light bulbs. At the same time it deactivates your motion sensors, so you aren’t inundated with alerts all night.

It’s a chilly night, so you ask Alexa to turn your thermostat up to 23 degrees and play your cooking playlist from Spotify while you prepare an evening meal.

Pros: Hubs like the Samsung enable you to set useful scenarios via the app.

Cons: Scenarios can be hard to set due to clunky apps; some hubs don't support scenarios.

These Best Buy smart thermostats keep the house at your ideal temperature and can save you money.

 

Night: 11pm to 6am

As you get into bed you ask Alexa to turn off the lights. You need to be up early for a meeting so you ask Alexa to set your alarm for 5:30 rather than 6:00, too.

For added peace of mind you set your SmartThings hub to armed. Now if anyone triggers the motion sensors the lights will turn on, potentially deterring would-be burglars. You use the SmartThings app to check your door is closed, too, before going to sleep.

Pros: If anyone triggers a motion or door sensor overnight you're instantly alerted via a notification on your phone.

Cons: Missing functionality; the Echo doesn't give notifications or alerts, and Samsung's hub doesn't currently support a smart thermostat.

Are all smart devices compatible with all smart hubs?

The main drawback of smart hubs and wider smarter tech is compatibility. It may seem like wi-fi connects the various gadgets to one another, but in fact smart gadgets use a variety of different connections to talk to each other. ZigBee, Z-Wave, Thread and WeMo are just a few of the frequencies that smart devices use to communicate. Some hubs aren’t compatible with certain frequencies.

A Samsung SmartThings hub is compatible with Z-Wave, Zigbee, wi-fi and FCC. If you bought a WeMo NetCam HD+ you wouldn’t be able to control it from your SmartThings app because it communicates using the WeMo frequency rather than any of the ones Samsung’s hub is compatible with.

Since there isn’t an industry standard for what connection manufacturers should use, and because of the huge amount of start-ups and small-scale companies creating smart devices, it can be a lottery as to whether the device will work with your hub.

It’s important to check that any smart device is compatible with your hub, and vice versa, before you buy it.

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