A hub for this and a hub for that. When you dive into the smarthome market, you’re inevitably going to end up with a handful of smarthome hubs taking over your house. It’s annoying, but it’s probably not going to get any better.
Don’t get me wrong; these hubs are an important component to any smart home and they have purpose. They make it a lot easier to manage a ton of devices when you end up having a sensor for every door and window, and a smart light switch in every room. But it gets a little ridiculous when so many smarthome products not only require a hub to function, but require their own proprietary hub.
There Are Agreed-Upon Wireless Standards, but It Doesn’t Matter
While some companies do create their own wireless protocol, it’s not a super widespread practice. There are agreed-upon standards already in place. Z-Wave and ZigBee are the two most widely-accepted wireless protocols used in the smarthome world, and a huge chunk of smarthome devices use one or the other (or both). This alone should make you believe that connecting smarthome devices together is pretty straightforward, but that’s far from the truth.
As I mentioned in the past when discussing Z-Wave and ZigBee, many smarthome companies add a bit of their own proprietary nonsense to their products, even if they end up utilizing Z-Wave or ZigBee, which makes it difficult to know if one device will connect to another, even if they use the same exact protocol.
For example, this Z-Wave garage door tilt sensor from Monoprice won’t work with the Wink Hub, even though the hub fully supports Z-Wave devices. Why? Who knows.
Furthermore, the ever-popular Philips Hue lighting system uses ZigBee, which numerous smarthome hubs support. Yet Philips requires its own “Hue Bridge” in order to set up and use the bulbs. On top of that, third-party support for other ZigBee smart bulbs is limited. And the same goes for Belkin’s long-gone WeMo Link hub—it used to work with any ZigBee bulb, but eventually was updated to only work with a very small list of pre-approved bulbs.
I’m sure this is largely due to some of these companies not wanting to put up with any weird inconsistencies when you add third-party devices and mix them in with their own devices, but it’s still pretty frustrating.
Every Company Wants to Corner the Market
So why are we in this chaotic mess? Because by making their products proprietary (even though the protocols in use are open), Smarthome companies can lock you into their ecosystem. You already have their hub, so you’re more likely to buy other products from them that work with that hub.
Several companies are doing a “great job” at just that, including Insteon. They sell their own smarthome hub, but it only works with devices that they make and sell, which use a proprietary wireless protocol that goes by company’s name. So if you decide to go with Insteon and want to add more door sensors in the future, say goodbye to brands like Monoprice, Aeotec, and Ecolink (all of which make solid Z-Wave devices), and get yourself familiar with Insteon-only sensors.
Now, I’m not saying that there’s anything particularly wrong about having a single, proprietary ecosystem in your entire house. It can be more reliable and easier to manage, for sure, and it’s perhaps the best way to keep smarthome hub clutter to a minimum (more on that in the next section). However, the problem is that should Insteon (or whatever proprietary platform you go with) go out of business, you’d have to replace your entire smarthome setup. Whereas if you had (for example) a Wink Hub with a bunch of third-party devices connected to it, you would just need to get a different hub if Wink were to ever go under.
Plus, if you ever want to expand to more devices in the future, you’ll have limited choices on what you can do if you have a proprietary setup. So keep that in mind.
So How Can I Avoid a Smarthome Hub Mess?
If you want to deck out your house in smarthome gear, it’ll be hard to completely streamline the hub situation. The good news is that there are at least some things you can do to keep your smarthome clutter to a minimum.
Namely, it’s a good idea to have one main smarthome hub that you can connect everything to, preferably one that has a huge support list for a large number of devices. But that still means you’ll need to be extra vigilant when you go to buy sensors, light switches, bulbs, and more—you’ll need to make sure that your hub supports them.
With that in mind, be careful with some products that say they work with certain smarthome hubs. That’s true and all, but they still may require their own hub. For example, Lutron Caseta light switches can link to the SmartThings hub, but the switches still require their own hub to function—the SmartThings integration is merely for the benefit of controlling the switches from the SmartThings app.
And that’s another piece of advice to keep in mind. If you want the least number of hubs in your smarthome setup, try to stay away from products that require their own hub no matter what, like Lutron Caseta or Philips Hue. Both of these product lines are fantastic and I personally recommend them, but they require their own hubs. If that’s not your jam, perhaps aim for Z-Wave light switches (like this one from GE), or smart bulbs that don’t need a hub (or that can connect to third-party hubs).
In the end, though, it’s fairly difficult to achieve a perfectly-streamlined smarthome system right now. You can get close, but it does limit your choices.
Image from xkcd