How to choose a smart home hub

by Rory Milne on December 01, 2020

What is a smart home hub?

You would have noticed that many many products now have the word "Smart" included somewhere in their name or description. Some products are legitimately clever and some are rather dim witted. What they have in common is that they are "connected", enabling new kinds of monitoring and/or control. This ability to connect, and remotely control, is where the hub comes in. The hub is a central point in the home that communicates directly with all the connected devices, enabling control with a single point of access for us, the users.

Example: If you want to turn on all your outside smart lights, your hub should recognise which lights are allocated to the "outside" group, then with a single command, your hub would turn on all outside lights accordingly.


The hub also stores necessary information about your smart devices, like; what kind of device it is, where it is located & what state is it in. With this type of information, appropriate groupings can be setup, scenes can be activated and advanced automations can be triggered.

Is a hub a bridge?

These two terms are often used interchangeably, however they are distinctly different.

A bridge is a device that connects different types of communication technologies.

Not all smart devices use wifi to communicate, there is Zigbee, Z-Wave, Bluetooth and others. Yet your home is covered by wifi, and your hub connects to that wifi network. The bridge enables the Zigbee information to be passed over wifi to the hub. You would typically connect to that hub via your phone on the same wifi network.

Some hubs do have built in bridges, enabling them to communicate with a broader range of smart devices.

 Hub  Bridge
 Onboard Processing  Yes  Sometimes
 Converts various communication protocols  Sometimes  Yes
 Manages automations  Yes  No
Stores connected device info  Yes  No
Philips Hue

The Philips Hue system is traditionally a lighting system but does have some integrations with other sensors and devices.

Their device is an example of a combined Hub and Bridge. The Philips Hue devices communicate using Zigbee, and the hub stores the settings locally.  Although a high quality platform, the price and limited functionality make it less than ideal, especially for the South African market.

R1400 for a hub and R1400 for a smart bulb. Maybe ok if your home only has one light….

https://smarthomeafrica.co.za/product/philips-hue-personal-wireless-lighting-home-automation-bridge-2-0-apple-home-kit-enabled/

https://smarthomeafrica.co.za/product/philips-hue-led-light-bulb-10-w-bulb-a60-e27-dimmable-16-million-colours-app-controlled/

Hubitat

The Hubitat is a well rounded option, also combining hub and bridge technology. This device allows for connection and control of various devices.

Pricing again makes this offering a less than desirable solution for South Africa. Delivered at USD210 (R3300) before dealing with any international import taxes. Which will likely push the total to around R3750. The platform also promotes product sales from within their own app, so who knows where the spending ends…

https://hubitat.com/

How do smart homes work without a hub?

Some smart devices are advertised as hub free.

But how can this be? How can all these services and features work together if there is no hub to connect them?

This is the mastery of cloud technology! Smart device manufacturers create powerful remote hubs on cloud servers. These smart devices connect directly to the internet and make themselves known to the cloud hub.

In this instance your smart services are relying on an internet connection. If your internet connection drops, so do your smart services, even if you are at home! A local hub solves this by providing services locally without relying on a server located who-knows where.

eWeLink

eWeLink is an example of a cloud based hub platform. Many eWeLink products are available in South Africa now. 

https://www.ewelink.cc/en/

Is my home secure if I use a smart home hub?

Home internet security is a larger conversation than just your smart devices, but let’s discuss the implications of connected devices within your home.

If your devices are going to connect to cloud servers you should have a good understanding of what information is being shared, where the information is going, and what the policies are of the company handling your information. If this information it not readily available, that should be a red flag.

Consider this…

Scenario 1:
Your weather sensor and light switch information pass through a remote cloud server to be analysed, providing you with automations and notifications in return.


Scenario 2:
Your home cameras and motion sensors information pass through a remote cloud server to be analysed, providing you with automations and notifications in return.


Scenario 1 doesn’t sound too worrisome, but do you like the idea of Scenario 2? 

A local smart home hub can offer you services as well as privacy. Provided that the devices connecting are integrated directly with your hub, and not via an online API.

Home Assistant

Home Assistant is an open source platform and free, with more than 3000 developers contributing to its ongoing improvement.

It can be installed multiple systems including a spare home computer, a server or a Raspberry Pi.

It’s by far the most flexible smart home system and can be tailored to meet any level of required security and automation requirements.

It also integrates with thousands of products already .

https://www.home-assistant.io/

Why dont we all just use open source options?

The open source option means you need to install the system and set it up your self. The process can be quite daunting when setting out and this does not appeal to all people keen on a smart home. Most people want their system to work out of the box, hence the rise of the cloud hub.

But with ease of setup comes compromise. So be sure about what your smart home objectives are and what information you are willing to share with the cloud.

Home Assistant is our platform of preference, we are very open about that. Our goal is to try and bridge the gap between difficult setups and user needs.

Our ambition is to provide EPIC products. Enriching lives, while Protecting people, using Intelligent systems, in a Cost Effective way.

Check out our site to see how we can help you be EPIC!

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