Three of the biggest names in the smarthome hub world are SmartThings, Wink, and Insteon, all of which offer a consumer-friendly hub that allows users to connect all sorts of smarthome devices together and manage them in one place. But which one should you buy? Here are some things to know about the two hubs and which one might be best for you.
What’s All The Hubbub About Hubs?
Before we get into the nitty gritty, let’s explain what the purpose of smarthome hubs are and why you might want one in the first place.
Smarthome hubs connect to your router (thus giving it access to your network and the internet) and act as a central device that your various other smarthome devices can connect to—like sensors, smart bulbs, smart outlets, and smart light switches.
Many of these smaller devices communicate using the Z-Wave and ZigBee wireless protocols, which is why a special smarthome hub is necessary in the first place—your router doesn’t support either protocol, so your phone has to communicate with something that sends out Z-Wave or ZigBee signals to all your devices.
There are many smarthome hubs on the market, but SmartThings and Wink are two of the most popular consumer-friendly options that support all kinds of Z-Wave and ZigBee devices. Insteon works similarly, though it uses its own proprietary protocol—so it only works with other Insteon devices and X10 products, if you have an old X10 system.
So which hub should you buy? Let’s talk details.
You Can Probably Skip Insteon (Unless You Use X10)
Let’s get the simplest recommendation out of the way: you can probably skip Insteon. Its app isn’t very good, its Amazon Echo integration is complicated for some devices, and it doesn’t support user-friendly automation services like IFTTT. Plus, it uses a proprietary protocol that only works with devices Insteon sells (with a few exceptions, like Nest, Logitech, and Sonos). In short, it doesn’t really compete with Wink and SmartThings—it’s more of a closed home automation system.
There are one or two exceptions to this rule, though. If you have an X10 system in your house, Insteon can work with it, bridging the gap between older, complex smarthome setups and a new generation of devices. In this kind of a setup, it can be very powerful—but very expensive and complex. Most users just getting into smarthome will not want the hassle of X10, and thus Insteon doesn’t really offer a lot of advantages over other options.
In addition, if Insteon is the only company that makes the device you want (they’re one of the only companies that make smart ceiling fan receivers, for example), and you absolutely have to have that device, then it may be for you. Otherwise, we’d recommend skipping it and looking at Wink or SmartThings, which we’ll be focusing on for most of this article.
Wink Has a Much Better User Interface
Stuff like this always seems subjective, but from my experience, I feel like Wink has the better user interface, both on a performance level and how it looks. Look at the screenshots above: Wink’s app is on the left, SmartThings is on the right. (Insteon is not shown.)
First, the SmartThings app just isn’t that appealing to the eye. Everything is blocky and not really all that organized. Overall, it feels like an app that was released to the masses but then never was updated over the years.
Insteon is similar—its interface puts your devices on multiple screens, allowing you to create a list of favorites or organize them into “rooms”. But at the end of the day, it just ends up feeling clunky, with your devices duplicated across multiple screens that don’t really use space well.
The Wink app, on the other hand, feels much more modern and has design elements that make it feel very up to date, like the pull-out side menu. Furthermore, it’s a lot quicker and easier to create automation tasks in Wink, whereas menus and new screens take a second or two to load every time you tap on one in the SmartThings app. Plus, many automation tasks that you can enable in SmartThings have to be accessed from a different section, called SmartApps, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and would likely cause confusion for those new to SmartThings and home automation in general.
SmartThings and Insteon Have Their Own Line of Sensors and Devices
SmartThings and Insteon both have their own line of sensors and devices, while Wink only makes a hub designed to be used with third-party products. Insteon’s hub only really works with its own devices, while SmartThings’ hub works with its own devices and third-party ones.
This isn’t really a pro or a con. If you’re just getting started, having SmartThings’ catalog is nice, since shoppers can find a SmartThings-branded open/close sensor and instantly know that it will work with their SmartThings hub. There are no Wink-branded sensors and devices, though, so users may have to do a bit of research to see if something will work with the Wink hub with every device they come across. But if you know what you want, that isn’t really a downside.
All Three Have an Extensive List of Devices They Support
Despite the above notes, none of the hubs lack options. Both SmartThings and Wink have an extensive list of third-party sensors and devices they support, and Insteon’s catalog is pretty decent (you won’t get as much choice between devices of the same type, but they sell many different types of sensors and devices).
The nice thing about SmartThings and Wink, though, is that their third-party support is so extensive that you won’t really come across a situation where a given ZigBee or Z-Wave device doesn’t work with one of the hubs. Even if a sensor that you find doesn’t work with one hub or the other, you can usually find a similar sensor from a different brand that works great.
Furthermore, you can connect pretty much any of the big standalone smarthome products to either hub, including the Nest thermostat, Ecobee3, Philips Hue lights, and more. And, since Wink and SmartThings both support IFTTT, you can set up all kinds of advanced interaction between your devices. (One strange omission: Wink does not support Belkin’s WeMo platform currently.)
All Three Can Be Unreliable at Times
We’ve played around with these hubs for a few months, and overall they’re both about 90% reliable. This doesn’t really sound too bad, but that 10% can be really annoying.
With SmartThings, all of the sensors seemed to work pretty well most of the time, but when I hooked up an alarm to one of the door sensors, the dang thing wouldn’t shut off when I went to test it. It said it was turned off in the SmartThings app, but my ears said otherwise.
With Wink, every now and then a door sensor will say that the door is open when it’s actually closed. And sometimes a sensor will go completely offline. This has only happened a couple of times, and it’s actually been a while since I’ve last had a problem with Wink, but I’m going to continue to knock on wood.
With Insteon, setting up devices would sometimes fail for seemingly no reason, and occasionally devices wouldn’t respond. Once I got everything set up, things seemed to work a little better, but occasionally a device won’t respond and I’ll have to wait a bit and try again before it does.
Of course, it’s pretty much impossible to have anything be 100% reliable, but if you rely on any of these systems to provide your house with security and peace of mind, it needs to be as reliable as humanly possible. Right now, they aren’t.
SmartThings Puts More Focus on Security
Speaking of security, if you want a smarthome hub that puts a bit more focus on home security rather than just home automation convenience, SmartThings puts a lot more focus on this than the others do.
I personally wouldn’t use any of these systems as your end-all be-all sole security system (I have a standalone video surveillance system for that), but it can be nice to have as a supplement in order to see if your house might have been broken into while you were away from home.
With that said, SmartThings puts a lot of focus on home security with its Smart Home Monitor feature, where you can easily arm and disarm your entire system. SmartThings can even integrate with Scout, which is a home security service that can alert you and call the police if intrusion was detected.
Wink and Insteon don’t have features like this, but they can still be used as a security system of sorts. You can still connect alarms and sirens to the Wink hub and have it alert you to any motion. However, it can’t call the police for you. Wink and Insteon mostly focuses on home automation and making things more convenient around the house…which is probably better anyway, given the reliability of all three systems.