How we test smart hubs
By Andrew Laughlin
Smart hubs can help you manage your home more easily and effectively, but our testing reveals there's also plenty that's not so smart about them.
Smart hubs testing in a nutshell
Our reviews answer all the common questions, including:
- How easy is the smart hub to set up and use?
- What can you do with the smart hub?
- What devices does it work with?
- Will it protect my privacy and security?
What is a smart hub?
Smart hubs, which have gone from gimmicky tech to the shelves of your local John Lewis, are designed to help you manage your home.
When you wake up in the morning, the hub can ensure the thermostat is set to a cosily warm temperature. When you head out for the day, it can alert you to any intruders via a motion sensitive camera.
Some smart hubs enable you to sync devices together to set 'scenarios'. So, when you get home in the evening, you can set the lights to automatically come on and the radio to activate, without you doing anything.
How easy is the smart hub to set up and use?
You shouldn’t have to be a tech expert to set up your smart hub. With every smart hub we test, we check whether getting started is simple and straightforward, or an exercise in frustration.
We rate how easy it is to connect any other devices from the same manufacturer, as well as third-party devices from other, third-party manufacturers (if the hub supports them).
Can you connect or sync a device from a distance, or do you need to be in the same room? Does the hub find the devices easily, or force you through a laborious process, such as having to typing in a long code?
What devices does the smart hub work with?
The best smart hubs should seamlessly connect up your home, but we find many don't work with all types of devices, particularly from other companies. Some are completely closed systems, which limits innovation and means you can't shop around for potentially cheaper third-party gadgets.
We assess what the smart hub comes with in terms of extras, such as sensors, smart plugs and even cameras, or whether you can buy the gadgets as optional extras.
We also check whether the hubs are compatible with third-party devices and, if so, how many they can use. If there are notable gaps, such as a thermostat or camera, we make sure you're aware of the limitations.
What can you do with a smart hub?
A smart hub's main function is to make it easier for you to control a wide range of home automation tasks. Although this varies from hub to hub, we focus on five key areas; camera, lighting, heating, home security and music/entertainment.
Every smart hub on test is placed in a constant and controlled environment, and connected to an internet connection at the current UK broadband average (according to telecoms regulator, Ofcom).
Depending on what the hub can do, we test how well it connects and controls a wireless camera, a smart light bulb, a smart thermostat, a smart plug and a wireless speaker.
If the hub has voice control, we test how well it works. But due to there being limited voice-based systems, we place greater emphasis on the app or user interface when evaluating the results.
Can I set scenarios?
A selling point of smart hubs is being able to set automated 'scenarios'. This involves using the hub to sync up your smart gadgets to work together in set routines.
For example, if the hub knows you’re home, then it turns on the lights and switches the heat up to your preferred temperature. Or, if you go out, then it switches your wireless camera to 'active' mode.
We check whether the hub enables to you to directly set up scenarios, and how well they work. Some hubs may not directly enable scenarios, but do support ‘If This Then That (IFTTT)’ principles.
IFTTT is an open-source platform that can be used to create scenarios in smart devices. You download the app or visit the website, and then connect up your device and start programming the scenarios you want. With IFTT, we find that even if hubs do support it, the functionality within that can often be limited.
Will the smart hub protect my privacy?
While internet-connected gadgets, such as smart hubs, can bring huge benefits to our lives, there are some potential downsides, too – notably around privacy and security.
Every smart hub that we review is put through a rigorous set of tests to assess how secure the device and interface is, and how well it protects your privacy and personal data. Does the hub prompt you to set a strong password, including numbers and alphanumeric characters? Can you add extra layers of security such as a Pin or two-factor authentication?
We also run a wide range of technical tests, including assessments of whether the hub can join an unsecured network, how data is stored and transmitted, how secure are the encryption methods are and whether the hub is susceptible to hacks, such as a 'man-in-the-middle' attack (involving a hacker hijacking communication between the hub and other devices).
All this goes into our privacy ratings, and, with any hubs that give us a major cause for concern, we will contact the company and ask them to address the issues.
Should I buy it?
Through our assessments we give each smart hub a total test score to help you decide whether it’s worth buying. The score breaks down as follows:
- 30% performance
- 25% set-up and connectivity
- 20% compatibility
- 20% scenarios
- 5% privacy and security