Why the smart home hub market is largely a two horse race
Recently on the IoT Podcast, we answered a listener question about which smart home hub we’d recommend that works with all of the major radio protocols: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee and Z-Wave. Essentially, Stacey and I came up with two and you won’t likely be surprised to hear that they were the Samsung SmartThings Hub and the Wink Hub 2.
Why does it seem like this market is really a two horse race?
Sure there are several other hubs on the market and the more technically-savvy could build their own using open source software and a small compute board, such as a Raspberry Pi. But most homeowners either don’t have the skills or the time to tinker on their own.
So where does that leave us? Let’s look at the market.
Amazon’s latest Alexa hardware, the Amazon Echo Plus, is a hub but it’s missing Z-Wave, so it didn’t make the cut for us in terms of the recommendation. And the Alexa software doesn’t have nearly the amount of features found in SmartThings and Wink products. Yes, you can create device Groups and Routines, but when it comes to event-based automation — like using a door sensor to control a light bulb, for example — you can’t.
In contrast, Fibaro’s Home Center 2 has fantastic automation support, as well as voice control (with Alexa or Google Assistant) but while it supports Z-Wave, it doesn’t support Zigbee products. The same goes for the NCube Home hub, a fairly recent entry in the smart home hub market that I recently discovered: Z-Wave support is there but Zigbee is not.
That’s a shame because the NCube works offline and doesn’t send or store any data to the cloud, which helps address data privacy concerns. It also has one of the more interesting automation software approaches I’ve seen in a while: Similar to IFTTT but more comprehensive because it supports multiple “if” (and even “or) conditions for trigger events.
Apple’s HomeKit hub is either an Apple TV, an iPad or a HomePod and it’s even more limiting when you look at the radios: Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are the only ones supported, which may be part of the reason there are relatively fewer HomeKit compatible devices. Apple’s security standards are another likely reason. And if you’re an Android phone user, HomeKit is pretty much a non-starter.
Insteon has been around the smart home market for years and I’ve used one of its headless servers as a home hub back in 2010. That took some smarts to use but the company now has a much simpler $ 80 hub on the market. But it’s a bit like HomeKit in that you’re locked in to a brand because Insteon uses their own protocol in addition to X10, which is ancient by modern standards. Put another way: You’ll have to buy Insteon-branded bulbs, sensors and cameras if you go this route.
The Lowe’s Iris hub has all four radios we look for inside, but the selection of compatible devices is limited and to get some advanced features, you need to pay a monthly fee. None of the previously mentioned hubs have any fees. Securify also offers its Almond routers that double as hubs with support for all of the major radios as well, but my guess is that anyone looking to make their home “smart” already has a router. Then again, if you don’t have a mesh Wi-Fi system Almond offers that as well.
Still, where does that leave us? Right back where I started, essentially with either SmartThings or Wink, both of which I have in my own home.
Thanks to having support for both Zigbee and Z-Wave, these hubs have the broadest compatibility with a range of bulbs, locks, cameras, and sensors. And although neither is perfect — they each have software or connectivity quirks from time to time — both support Alexa and Google Assistant voice controls as well as useful automation features you can take advantage of.
I don’t suggest you blindly choose one of these two if you’re in the market for a smart home. You should always buy the best device that meets your personal needs. Just make sure that if you have already invested in some Z-Wave or Zigbee devices, you get a hub that supports them. And if you don’t want to get into automation (here’s what you’re missing though) and you’re fine with Zigbee devices, the Amazon Echo Plus may be the one for you. If you’re an iOS user, then clearly, HomeKit is appealing, even though you can use SmartThings or Wink with iOS.
Still, when it comes to most people who haven’t yet added a smart home hub, they’re likely to be be best served with one of the “big” two for now. At least until Essential’s Ambient OS devices arrive: They’re supposed to bridge all of this technology together so it matters less what smart home device brand you buy.
The key word phrase is “supposed to”, though. Until we see an actual product ship and how it works, it’s too soon to say if we’ll see a third horse in this race.
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