A smart home hub is essential if you want to get the most out of home automation. It enables you to connect together smart devices from different manufacturers and then create automation rules so that these smart devices will do something in response to an event happening on another smart device. For example, when a smart lock opens the lights turn on. However, all hubs are not created equal and if you don’t pay attention, you might find yourself paying more than necessary for your smart products and have limited automation functionality.
Ecosystem and Support for Other Devices
We are a long way from the promise of when all smart devices can just seamlessly connect up; until that becomes a reality, smart home hub manufacturers have to work with each smart device brand and create their own solution to get each device working with their hub and other devices. If a smart hub supports a fuller range of smart products it gives you more options to shop around for the right device for you, scale your smart home and save money. Go to the website of the smart hub provider and check how it connects with smart devices you may already have or are planning to buy. A good smart hub should not only connect to popular products like the Nest thermostat, Wemo or Philips Hue lights but also have a strong ecosystem of sensors for home security and safety.
It is now also possible to voice activate your smart home through Amazon Alexa. Look for a smart hub that can offer this functionality, and when you do check out the Alexa skills available. Alexa skills determine the functionality that you can control by voice – For example, can you control multiple smart devices or just one at a time? These skills have to be created by the smart hub supplier so don’t assume all the features for the smart hub are available through voice control.
While some smart devices like security cameras use WiFi the majority of smart devices use other protocols to transmit data and communicate. The reason is that sensors and other devices only need to send small amounts of data and also need to use batteries; therefore, WiFi, which is designed to let everyone watch HD video, is too power hungry. If this sounds a little technical, don’t worry: you are already using different data transmission technologies all over your house like Bluetooth and for your TV remote.
These main other standards are Zigbee, Z-Wave and Low Energy Bluetooth with the first two being the more popular. Again, if the smart hub doesn’t support one of these kinds of features then it will limit your choice when buying smart devices.
Home Automation Features
A key part of any hub is a powerful software platform enabling you to create device-to-device automation. This is commonly known by the term – ‘If this then that’ – because you can create rules where an action on one device will cause a specific action on another.
What you need to pay attention to here is whether your home automation engine allows rules with more than one ‘IF’ and more than one ‘Then.’ This is necessary in many usage cases but especially so in home security, where you need to distinguish between when you are at home and when you are away. For example, when you are away from home you want the sensors to trigger the alarm, but when you are home you don’t want your siren going off every time someone opens a window. Similarly, you may well want the alarm to go off after 11pm when you have gone to bed. In this case, you have three [IFs] and you need to set a rule like this:
[If] home, sensor is triggered, and it is after 11pm, [then] sound the alarm.
You might also want to add lights and your thermostat to a rule so that when you come home, and your sensors are triggers, these things come on. In which case, you also need to be able to create an automation with many [Then]s. Not every smart hub can do this so play with the app and make sure it can.
It is possible to add more than device-to-device automation. Time is one, but then so is the weather, allowing you to adjust your thermostat temperature according to the weather for that day. Integration with IFTTT, the popular web services engine, means you can automate your house by hundreds of web services and do many interesting things like linking your lighting to Google Maps so that it comes on when you are a certain distance from your home. This method, rather than linking to time, is more energy efficient if you arrive home at different times each day.
Local versus Cloud Control
Many of the smart home hubs on the market rely on the cloud for their functionality which means that when the Internet is down so is all your automation (Not to mention if the company goes bust then your device is junk). It is actually possible to store all your automation rules and interactions on the device and have devices communicate over your local LAN. Look for a device which offers both.
Smart hubs have been around awhile, so manufacturers should be innovating around the form factor to provide more value.
While smart devices can deliver so much to improve your home, it also means another device to manage in your connected home. Securifi, has a novel approach to this, integrating their smart hub into a WiFi router. This makes sense as WiFi is now an essential service and routers are pretty much as widespread as a TV or washing machine. Not only does it reduce device clutter, the combination of the two offers unique functionality only possible because the device is in control of your WiFi network and smart devices. That control enables you to use your smartphone’s presence on your WiFi network to create automation. For example:
- Disarm your security system without removing your phone from pocket
- Create personalized automation rules for all the members of your family – Because Almond 3 can identify all the different smartphones in your family, it means that you can create different lighting and temperature moods for everyone.
The device mentioned, Almond 3, also has a built-in siren making it even cheaper to set up a DIY security system. With Almond 3 all you need is one sensor to start securing your home.
App Ease-of-use and Functionality
You can download and try the apps for most of the major smart home hubs from your smartphone app store. When you do so think about questions like these: How easy it is to set up a rule? Does the app enable you to see all your devices together? What additional functionality does it offer you to control multiple devices?
A smart hub should have a large ecosystem of smart device partners and a software platform capable of delivering practical and intuitive automation. But, equally as important, it should offer innovations to improve the connected home experience and make creating a smart home more cost-effective.
The connected home includes WiFi as well as smart devices, and as it expands in future, it will mean more devices in your living room; creating clutter and adding expense. Look for a smart hub provider who has a vision to solve these problems.