When I first got into smarthome stuff, I shared that same thought. I bought a couple of light switches and lamps that worked via wifi, no extra equipment needed. Over time, my smart-is H home has grown into a full-fledged smart home. That’s where hubs really excel.
Two Ways to Build a Smart Home
Before we go any further, let’s talk about the two sides of this coin. There are two different types of smart home devices. There are devices that only need a Wi-Fi connection and an app on your phone, nothing else. And then there are the devices that connect to a physical hub.
Over time, the lines between these two have faded a bit. Back in the day, the Wi-Fi devices each used their own apps, which got a bit messy when you had multiple brands under one roof. Today, more and more of these devices can also sync with Google Assistant and Alexa, giving them a more unified experience.
Meanwhile, that has always been the big selling point of hubs. You set up a physical hub once and from that moment on, every new device you bring home connects to that hub and its app. As long as you get a device that’s compatible with your hub, they’ll all work in the same app.
The appeal of Wi-Fi-only devices
You might be thinking, “Well, why should I get a hub then?” Now if these WiFi-only devices can be added to one unified app, what’s the point of the hub? That’s a fair argument.
Wi-Fi devices remove one of the major barriers to entry when it comes to smart home technology. You don’t have to worry so much about brands, platforms and hubs. As long as you see that “Works with Alexa” sticker, you know you’re good to go. And setting it up is as easy as entering a Wi-Fi password.
Apps like Google Home have also gotten a lot better over the years. You can now set up routines and other automations that used to require hubs. Wi-Fi-only smart home devices are a good option for many people, but if you want to get serious, there are some drawbacks.
RELATED: Set up and use Home and Away Routines with Google Assistant
Easy isn’t always best
The biggest problem with Wi-Fi only devices is in the name: “Wi-Fi”. Each of these devices is on your Wi-Fi network. While they don’t use much bandwidth individually, they don’t take long to strain your network.
You start with a few lights in each room, then you add some switches, then you get light strips, now you buy a doohickey that starts your coffee pot, and before you know it, there are 50 little gadgets talking to your router.
The installation process can also get tricky. For WiFi-only devices, the installation almost always has to be done through the brand’s own application. Mixing different brands, which many people do, can get messy. The setup process usually requires you to disconnect your phone from Wi-Fi and enter the Wi-Fi password. That’s getting old.
How is a hub better?
The general idea behind a smart home hub is that it is the centralized connection point for all your smart home devices. You set up the hub and install the app for the hub, and that’s where all the subsequent devices go.
For example, I use the SmartThings Hub in my house. When I buy a new smart home device, I look for the ones that are compatible with SmartThings. Setting it up is as easy as plugging in and detecting a new device in the SmartThings app. I don’t download 3rd party apps or enter wifi credentials every time.
While it’s possible to connect some Wi-Fi-only devices to hubs, most smarthome devices built to work with hubs don’t use Wi-Fi. They usually connect via Z-Wave or ZigBee radio networks. In other words, they are not on your Wi-Fi network.
In general, you will also find that hubs allow for more powerful automation. Anything you connect to the hub can be configured to work with other things connected to the hub. Assistant devices, such as the Google Nest and Alexa speakers, can also be included in the equation, giving you even more to do.
If you plan on having a fully fledged smart home with tons of appliances and automations, a hub is really the way to go. You just need to pick a platform that suits you which is not an easy choice but it can pay off in the long run.
RELATED: What are “ZigBee” and “Z-Wave” Smarthome Products?
Disadvantages of the hub
All that glitters is not gold when it comes to smart home hubs. They can be frustrating at times, as people who use them will often tell you. As with WiFi-only devices, you’re at the mercy of your WiFi network. If the Wi-Fi goes down, the hub turns off, meaning it can’t receive commands from the app on your phone or from the smart speaker to control the devices.
In addition to WiFi interference, the hub itself can also experience interference. For example, SmartThings is known to go down from time to time. So your Wi-Fi may be fine, but the hub and connected devices won’t work until it’s fixed. You also have the occasional Z-Wave or ZigBee device that needs a reboot.
Get started, then get serious
For most people, a smart home does not need to have a hub. A few Wi-Fi-only light bulbs and switches here and there is a great place to start. Add an Alexa or a Google Assistant speaker and you’ve got a pretty nice setup.
However, if you find yourself wanting more automation or easier extensibility, a hub can make your smart home even smarter. A project like my “Artificial Natural Light Window” was possible with the community of people who made software for the SmartThings platform. That doesn’t happen all that often for WiFi-only devices.
At the end of the day, a hub isn’t necessary for a smart home, but when you’re ready to get serious, settle in and commit.
RELATED: How to build your own artificial daylight window