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The smart home and the internet of things have been hot topics this year. But for now, the separate devices that make up the connected home can only reach their full potential if you have a smart hub serving as some sort of mission control — letting you manage a bunch of devices in one app and glossing over the complexity of the multiple radio protocols in use today.
We’ve seen the launch of three different products trying to bridge the myriad radio protocols that connected devices inside the home can use, while a fourth, the Lowe’s Iris system, was expanded significantly. But this is a young market and consumers trying to figure out how to build an internet connected security system or control their lights will have to do a lot of work on their own to get these systems up and running.
There’s also considerable angst as well, if you’re worried about choosing the right radios and devices to stand the test of time (or at least five to ten years). That’s why I think you shouldn’t buy one of these home hubs as a gift for someone unless they have asked for one. But if you’re in the market for some home automation, then read on, because I put four systems to the test over the last few weeks and can share the pros and cons of each.
A few basics
First off, no one should run more than one hub in their home at the same time. Because of the peculiarities of some networks (particularly, Z-wave or ZigBee) once a device is paired to one hub, it won’t pair or work on another hub. The best of these products take this into account and offer you the ability to remove a device from an existing pairing before you install — either at your behest (Staples Connect) or as part of the device install process (Revolv). Others just don’t see a previously connected device. SmartThings also has a deeply buried setting for a manual remove.
To test the hubs I ran all of them by themselves, attached a variety of connected products to them and set up a few “scenes” or “recipes.” Since all of the hubs supported a triplet of Z-wave outlets that I have used to plug in my Christmas lights, I used that as the single test across all four platforms. I installed the outlets and then set a rule so the three would all turn on at the same time. The rest of the review effort was focused on the ease of adding/removing devices, the types of devices supported and how easy it is to create a few conditional rules to automate things like lights turning off and on at a set time of day or when an action is triggered.
Every home is different and every user will likely have different goals in mind when installing one of these, so I tried to lay out the strengths of each system based on the use case for which it’s probably best suited. In short, I can’t tell you the one hub you should buy, but I tried to explain which type of buyer would be best suited for each hub. I also expect to see one or two more launches in this space at CES in January, so stay tuned.
Let’s dive in!
At $299 this is by far the most expensive device on the list, but it’s also the easiest one to use (see my full review). There’s no ethernet connection; you just plug the hub into the wall in a central area of your home and open up the app. The process of tying the hub to the home network and app is a quick one that requires you to type in your Wi-Fi network password and then lay your phone or iPad on top of the hub. A few flashes from your camera relay info to the hub via the pulses of light and you’re done.
Adding devices happens automatically, at least for certain products like the Philips Hue lights and Sonos gear. It can take a few minutes, so be patient. If you aren’t patient, and you also have other devices you want to try to add, you can also manually add them. To do that, you click on the add a device tile and then follow the instructions provided by the device manufacturer to connect it to a network. Usually this requires pressing a button. Locks must be manually added for security reasons.
A nice thing about Revolv is that when adding devices to the hub, it requires you to press a button on the device twice to confirm you want to add it to the hub. On products like the Z-wave outlets for my Christmas lights, that double confirmation involves actually removing the device from any other hub first and then linking it to Revolv. A downside is that so far Revolv doesn’t have a forced removal option, so if you want to clear the hub for some reason you may have trouble getting your devices to connect later on to other products.
Setting rules on Revolv is super simple although I had to create two rules in order to toggle my Christmas lights — one for turning the group on and a second for turning the group off. Also, the interfaces for controlling devices like the Sonos system are pretty bare bones. This isn’t going to let you do more than play, pause skip and adjust the volume of whatever the current playlist is.
That might improve with time, although too much functionality would also quickly overwhelm the system. The radios supported by Revolv are the widest in the industry so far with Wi-Fi stuff able to hop on, ZigBee, Z-wave and Insteon products all supported. If you are like Kevin Tofel and already have Insteon in your home, this is pricey but an easy way to start tying some things together to operate backed on time of day, location or something like your door unlocking.
Revolv only has an iOS app for now, but plans to add an Android app in the first or second quarter of next year. It also ties to a user’s geolocation (if you’re running the app on a device with GPS) which lets you toggle actions based on proximity to home. If you already have some of the supported devices and are more interested in home automation than you are concerned about security, then I’d pay the money and pick Revolv.
The Lowe’s Iris product has been out since July 2012 and is the most different one of the lot. For starters the hub is $99, but you would probably start with a $179 or a $299 package that includes the hub and a few connected sensors and devices. However, in order to turn on the conditional rule setting that the other hubs offer, you’d have to subscribe to a $9.99 per month plan.
I wasn’t a fan of the subscription fee, and I also didn’t like the rule-setting options. They were very limited in terms of which devices could talk to other devices and the options were preset. However, if you want to build a home security system using sensors, the Lowe’s system came with a connected keypad, a motion detector and two multisensors that could tell you if something was open or closed. If you don’t pay for the rule-setting service you could get a text or email when something triggered an alarm with the free service.
The hub itself was really powerful, emitting a beep when devices paired (a nice effect, given that sometimes other apps would freeze or wait to let you know a pairing was successful). It also has a battery so if the power goes out the hub emails and starts talking to you in a relatively loud voice, letting you know the power is off.
Of course, when the power goes out your broadband will die too unless you have a cellular backup. Through a partnership with Verizon, Lowe’s offers a cellular modem you can plug in, which makes this the most robust of all of the DIY systems I checked out. If you want the reliability of a security system that won’t go offline when your power is out or your broadband flickers, then this is the hub for you.
Lowe’s also has some cool devices in its system associated with energy usage. The connected outlet, for example, can show you how much power is drawn through it. Kevin Meagher, Lowe’s vice president and general manager Smart Home, explained that Lowe’s is continuing to add more supported products with an emphasis on products that enhance safety and energy management.
However, Lowe’s isn’t rushing to support all the hot new gadgets hitting the market like the other players are. It has an array of home automation products (and a connected pet door) but things like Hue lights or Belkin’s WeMo aren’t a focus for now. So if trying out new gadgets is your thing, skip this one. But if you want a no frills, reliable home security system with some automation and don’t mind paying a subscription fee this could work; however, you could also just sign up for an Alarm.com or alternative service from your ISP for between $20-$50 a month.
Like Lowe’s, office supplies giant Staples has decided to get into the connected device game with a hub as well. The Staples Connect hub costs $99.99 and works with a set of devices that is showcased prominently in select Staples stores. I like the education that the displays offer consumers as well as Staples’ attempts to support older models of home automation products like Lutron lighting combined with new stuff like Philips Hue. It also will soon offer voice control for its app via the Ivee voice assistant, but I didn’t test that since the Ivee product isn’t out yet.
Based on the tests, I like this hub. It offers the ability to manually remove devices from a network (good for unpairing Z-wave products before trying to add them) and adding stuff is simple. Creating a recipe is simple, although much like the Revolv I had to create a toggle-on command for my Christmas lights and a separate one to toggle them off.
My review kit came with some Lutron lighting gear, which I have really enjoyed playing with, mostly because they came with a remote. The result of this is I can tie my connected switches in the wall to my Hue lamps or other activities and can toggle things with a button. Since I find the process of opening an app and waiting for it to “find” the current status of the network takes too long, when I am used to just walking across the room and flipping a switch, the remote is pretty awesome.
Zonoff, the company handling the integration and app behind this product, has done a good job with the app on the iPad, but my one complaint is that all buttons seemed to lead to the Staples web site to offer you more products to buy. I kept clicking the See More button hoping to get more information on a topic only to find myself back at the Staples shopping page.
Of all the systems this one seems to offer the most choices of support for popular, fun, connected products and sensors. It lets users create activities based on time of day, pushing a button or other devices being triggered. It’s probably closest to the Revolv hub in terms of its vision and support for devices, although it is cheaper. It doesn’t offer the GPS-geolocation support and if you already have Insteon products, then this isn’t for you. But if you already invested in Lutron, or are looking for a fairly easy and complete device ecosystem, Staples Connect is a good choice.
Finally, we get to the $99 SmartThings hub, which has one primary difference from all of the others at this time. It not only offers you control of connected devices, but it also can tie those to web services via its integration with If This Then That (IFTTT). I love making my lights blink when my sports team scores a point and testing out how I could tie the Jawbone UP24 to my TV. How cool would it be to set it so if you don’t get your step count by a certain time, the outlet your TV plugs into turns off?
That’s not to say other hubs won’t eventually add this functionality, but the link between my physical and virtual lives is one of the things I find so exciting about exploring this technology. It goes beyond home automation into the real internet of things. That being said, even if you don’t want to tie your lights to Instagram, the SmartThing hub has a lot to offer.
The company is supporting an array of devices and you can also buy a variety of sensors on the web site. It also offers geolocation capabilities tied to your smart phone. The catch with SmartThings is the recipe or scene-building functionality is different from all the others. Instead of offering people a tile or icon that let’s them set rules based on time of day etc, it’s conditional rule setting is inside the dashboard where you choose the type of device and then you can drill down to what you want to do.
I had a hard time finding it but once I did, it’s clear how to do it. The UI is still a bit wonky in that there feels like a lot of screens to get through, and the buttons to advance you to the next spot are in the “wrong” place at the top right corner instead of in the lower right, but that could be preference. SmartThings also lets you click on a device and see pre-written apps associated with it.
But with names like “Darken Behind Me” or “Let There be Light,” it can be hard to figure out exactly what the app might do. I think most consumers will come to home automation thinking that they want their shades to lower at a certain time of day, as opposed to trying to shuffle through a bunch of cutely named apps that may or may not do what they want (although the app options that tie into APIs to turn a light on at sunset are nice). Currently the updated rule setting for SmartThings is only available on IOS devices, but Android compatibility is coming in the first quarter.
|SmartThings||Lowe’s Iris||Revolv||Staples Connect|
|Subscription||no||ranges from $0 to $15 per month||no||no|
|Radios that work with it||Z-wave, Zigbee, Wi-Fi||Z-wave, ZigBee, Wi-Fi||Z-wave, Wi-Fi, Insteon and ZigBee in the first half of 2014||Wi-Fi, Z-wave, Lutron|
|App interfaces||iOS and Android||Web, iOS, Android||iOS only (ideally GPS capable), Android by Q2 2014||web, iOS, Android|
|Some devices that the hub Supports||Hue lights, Dropcam, several Z-wave and ZigBee sensors, Belkin’s WeMo products, Kwikset locks||supports Lowe’s Iris products, select Honeywell thermostats, Schlage locks, Kwikset locks, GE outlets and FirstAlert alarms||Sonos, Hue lights, Yale and Kwikset locks, GE Z-wave switches and outlets, Belkin WeMo products, Nest thermostat, Insteon lights and sensors||Supports Lutron products, Hue lights, GE’s Z-wave switches and outlets, IVEE Wi-Fi Voice-Activated Assistant, D-Link cameras, First Alert alarms, Yale and Schlage locks|
|Quick take||This is the product for the DIY fan who wants to hook up home automation, home security and also play around with ambient information.||This is the best option for someone who wants to build a home security system, although you’d need to buy the subscription to bring it to the level of the other hubs.||Revolv is expensive, but if you already have a bunch of connected devices it has the easiest conditional rules setup and easiest way to gets devices on the network. Most hands-off option.||The device ecosystem is missing names like WeMo and support for ZigBee, but the hub works well and the software for adding and removing devices is easy to use. I love the Lutron lighting controls.|
Buying a SmartThings hub — much like buying the Lowe’s or Staples Connect Hub — won’t help you if you don’t also buy a few connected sensors or devices to control. My advice is to start with a goal or device in mind and pick the hub that works for you.
If you are starting from scratch and have nothing connected, the Staples Connect or SmartThings hub will be a good choice if you’re mostly interested in automation (with the bonus of connecting things to the web if you get a SmartThings hub). The Lowe’s Iris system is probably for those who are super keen on monitoring and security, although I dislike the fees and find the ecosystem limited. If you already have connected devices, especially Insteon, then Revolv is easy to use and has geolocation features that uses GPS on your iPhone (not Android) as opposed to key fobs that other systems use. In a similar vein if you have an installed Lutron system choose Staples Connect.
Classic early-adopter types are probably going to be the only ones interested this market for some time to come. If you know what you want and you see it offered in one of the platforms, go for it. If you’re unsure it’s probably worth waiting, as I’m sure there will be a lot of news and options coming out at CES.
Updated at 8:45 am to add that SmartThings has a geolocation feature and the ability to manually remove a device from other hubs.