What Is a Smart Home Hub?
Z-Wave vs. ZigBee vs. Bluetooth
Z-Wave vs. ZigBee vs. Bluetooth
A smart home hub lets your internet of things (IoT) devices know about each other and communicate. Without a hub, they’re unaware of one another’s existence and perform in isolation. Fortunately, a hub enables your thermostats, lights, security cameras, sprinklers, and sensors to interact. A hub is also more streamlined than going into five, 10, or even 15 smartphone apps every day.
You set triggers based on a voice command, the time of day, your location and/or what another device does. For example, the presence of your smartphone as you arrive home from work can trigger the garage door to open. In turn, the lights inside your home switch on to 50%, gradually increasing to 100%. Meanwhile, the window blinds rise.
Hubs come in useful for security, too. Suppose you’re on vacation. Turning the lights, music, and sprinklers on and off gives the appearance that you’re home. You can even set them for different times so it appears random. Likewise, sensors help alert you to the sound of glass shattering if someone breaks in. You can be notified within seconds if there’s a potential problem with a burglar or with fire, carbon monoxide, or water.
Thousands of IoT devices exist, but they can’t all work through the same hub. A major reason: These IoT devices use different protocols to communicate. Z-Wave is one of the protocols and is arguably the best. More than 3,000 IoT devices have it, and up to 232 devices can be on a single network.1 ZigBee is another protocol, and more than 2,500 devices use it.
This guide discusses standalone and hybrid hubs, details the top hub products and answers frequently asked questions. It also covers common pros and cons of Z-Wave, ZigBee, and Bluetooth.
Table of Contents
Do You Need a Standalone Hub?
For many people, a standalone (dedicated) hub such as the Samsung SmartThings v3 is not necessary. That’s partly because a multifunction (hybrid) gadget such as the Amazon Echo Dot or the Apple HomePod offers hub capabilities.
For instance, the Echo Dot lets you set routines. A morning routine might include the gradual turning on of lights in your bedroom, the playing of music, and the starting of the coffeemaker. Likewise, a DIY home security system such as Abode functions as a hub but isn’t marketed as such.
Further, more and more smart devices are compatible with one another, even if they don’t communicate using the same protocols. Wirecutter explains:2
Many devices use their Internet connection in the cloud as a place to connect to other authorized devices, which circumvents the need for them to talk directly to each other in your home. Some smart devices, especially smart bulbs and light switches, come with a gateway or ‘bridge’ device that hooks to your home router to connect the device to your home network and the Internet, so you can control the device through a smartphone locally and remotely (Philips Hue, Lutron Caséta, and August locks are all popular products that use bridge devices).
This type of control is convenient but isn’t always reliable (Wi-Fi interference and cloud downtime, anyone?).
The reality is that plenty of people want peace of mind with their home automations—that they’ll work as they should and when they should. Many folks also need compatibility with a wide mix of IoT products. To that end, the Samsung SmartThings Hub v3 is a great option. While some of its automations are stored in the cloud, the majority of its Z-Wave and ZigBee devices can run locally (not in the cloud).3 Planning ahead ensures that most or all of your automations still work when the internet goes kaput.
Another hub, the Hubitat Elevation, offers even more room for customization and works even if your internet connection goes down.
Overview of Top Hub Products
Samsung SmartThings Hub v3
Fulfills most hub mandates. Great for people needing extensive automation to fit different routines and scenarios, and who have many devices to connect (as long as they’re not Nest devices)
- Compatible with hundreds of IoT gadgets, thanks to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, and Z-Wave protocols, among others
- Voice control available with Alexa and Google Assistant
- SmartThings app facilitates many routines and scenarios
- Can connect to your router via Wi-Fi
- At $70, a bit more expensive than some hubs but worth the price
- No Nest integration
- Upgrade is a pain if you have many IoT devices. Don’t switch if you’re satisfied with v2
Automation is one area where the Samsung SmartThings Hub v3 shines, and simultaneous automations are possible. Lock your door, play music, adjust the thermostat and turn on your lights all at the same time. Ditto if you want your smart speaker to make a certain sound if your water sensor gets wet and a different sound if a security camera detects motion.
The hub lets you create routines and set device responses according to the location of a family member, the time of day, and the status/behavior of another device. As the SmartThings website explains, “you can set connected lights to turn on and off at the touch of a button, at the same time each day, when you open doors and windows, when motion is detected in your home, or when you say ‘Turn on the kitchen lights.' “4
The SmartThings website lists all the products that work with version 3; as of mid-August 2020, 392 are available. Voice control is possible too, through Alexa and Google Assistant. Your SmartThings, ZigBee, and Z-Wave devices can be connected from as far as 50 feet to 130 feet away. Some act as wireless repeaters to “hop” signals to devices farther away.
This hub is definitely one to consider. It’s versatile and allows for a wide range of scenarios. However, skip it if you have Nest devices since there isn’t compatibility. Also, upgrading from older versions is a hassle. If you’re happy with version two, stay with it.
Alternatives to SmartThings
Samsung Connect Home Pro
One alternative is the Samsung Connect Home Pro that also functions as a mesh router. As the Samsung website explains, the Pro “is designed for heavy usage Wi-Fi homes that stream on multiple devices all at the same time.”5
The Connect Home Pro features easy setup along with Wi-Fi, ZigBee, Z-Wave, and SmartThings compatibility. You can establish smart home conditions for your devices based on time of day, location, device status and Scenes.
It is a bit pricey at about $280, but one Pro should work for 1,500 square feet. If you have more house to cover, look into Connect Home mesh units. All in all, you can obtain coverage for up to 7,500 square feet. Any device you connect (such as a security camera or garage door opener) must be within 20 feet of the Pro or an extension to work.
Samsung Connect Home
A second alternative is the Samsung Connect Home (no Pro). It works well for small apartments and homes where the residents don’t intensively use the internet.
A third option is the Hubitat Elevation. It costs about $100 and is great for tech lovers who desire intricate control of their automations—more than the SmartThings hub offers. Plus, as mentioned earlier, the Elevation works even if your internet connection is out.
Some reviews online may scare you (steep learning curve, no mobile app, etc.). However, these reviews were published before the Hubitat Elevation got its companion app, so the learning curve is easier and the hub is more accessible. However, you must plug the Elevation into your home router (the SmartThings connects via Wi-Fi, so finding a central location is easier).
The Hubitat Elevation works with ZigBee, Z-Wave, IFTTT, Lutron, LAN, cloud-connected and Wi-Fi devices, along with Alexa and Google Home. Consider it if you might benefit from complex scenarios along the lines of this one posed on Tom’s Guide:6
If a motion detector senses someone's presence, you can have it [the Hubitat Elevation] turn on the lights, but only if the time is between sunset and sunrise, the temperature in one room is 5 degrees warmer than another room, and your Sonos One is playing music. That's a ridiculous scenario, but it shows that you're limited only by the number of smart home devices you have.
Many people don’t need to set up deeply complicated scenarios, so let’s move on to a popular hub, the Amazon Echo Dot.
Amazon Echo Dot (third generation)
Great for folks on a budget, a good beginner or standard hub
- Has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth compatibility
- Can create routines
- Includes Alexa, smart speaker, and voice compatibility
- Alexa Guard helps protect your home when you’re away
- Affordable price of about $50 for one Echo Dot
- No ZigBee or Z-Wave
- You may need more than one Echo device
Amazon sells several devices that can function as hubs, for example, the Echo Dot, the Echo Plus, and the Echo Show. The best of the three (as far as features + price) is the Echo Plus, but the Echo Dot is more affordable—and still gets a lot done.
Look for “Works with Alexa” devices (more than 400 and counting as of mid-August 2020). After you purchase, install and link these ioT gadgets, the Echo Dot helps you execute various smart home tasks such as turning off the bedroom lights, setting the temperature, locking the doors, opening the garage door, switching the fan on, and telling the Roomba to start cleaning. ZigBee and Z-Wave devices don’t work with the Echo Dot.
To create routines, go into the Alexa app. Choose “When This Happens” to set triggers and add the action you want to occur. A “getting home” routine might look like this:
- Turn on lights
- Set thermostat to pre-selected temperature
- Get your favorite tunes going
- Let everyone in the house know you’re home (especially nice with a bigger house or multiple floors, but extra Echo devices may be necessary)
Do you have children? You can set a routine for Echo speakers to let the kids know when it’s time to get ready for sports practice and how to dress (via the weather report).
It’s also possible to set “Wait” conditions. Suppose you do not want the bedroom lights to come on right away in the morning. So, you could set the Echo Dot to play music at a specific time, and five minutes later, slowly turn the lights on. No rude awakenings!
Alexa Guard, for when you’re away, can integrate with Ring or ADT security systems. Your Echo Dot (and other Echo devices) listen for smoke alarms, carbon monoxide alarms, and glass breaking, and alerts you when necessary. It can also turn smart lights on or off to give the impression that someone is home.
Important: Amazon recommends one Echo device per room or space. Compatible gadgets include Echo, Echo Dot, Echo Plus, Echo Show, Echo Spot, and Echo Input. However, you may want to take that suggestion with a grain of salt. As Jon Chase writes in Wirecutter, “I can speak an Alexa command and my second-generation Dot sitting 35 feet away will pick it up, like it or not.”7
As for whether Guard is a sufficient security system, Chase says it provides peace of mind at a low cost. However, it isn’t a security system all by itself. (Do remember that it can integrate with Ring or ADT systems. Plus, many homes don’t have security systems in the first place, so Guard is better than nothing.)
Alternatives to Amazon Echo Dot
Amazon Echo Show
The Amazon Echo Show costs as much as $230 but uses ZigBee, Nest, Philips Hue, SmartThings, IFTTT, WeMo, and Honeywell communication protocols. Compared with the Echo Dot, there’s more potential for routines and IoT devices, especially sensors (sensors mean more options for home security).
The Echo Show works well as a smart home hub, but the price is too high unless you want to emphasize home security and/or its other features excite you (touchscreen, video calling, streaming TV, seeing who is at the door, playing music, etc.).
Amazon Echo Plus
This hybrid hub, at $150, costs less than the Echo Show and “speaks” ZigBee while the Echo Dot does not. The Amazon Echo Plus is the best voice-assisted hub and is a great middle-ground between the Echo Dot and Echo Show.
Google Nest Hub Max
The Google Nest Hub Max starts from $229 and is great for folks who prefer Google Assistant to Amazon Alexa.
Similar to the Amazon Echo Show, the Google Nest Hub Max features a screen and can be used for streaming media and making video calls, among other things. It works with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Thread protocols. (Thread is a protocol Google has been trying to popularize for low-power devices, but not many gadgets use it.) There’s no ZigBee, unlike with the Echo Show. The Nest Hub Max works fine as a smart home hub but does come at a high price.
Apple TV 4K
Great for folks who use HomeKit (Apple) home automation devices
- HomeKit compatibility
- Custom home automations available
- Siri voice control
- Great home screen
- Lots of TV streaming services
- High price but cheaper than iPad and HomePod
- Setup is a bit clumsy
- Subpar remote control
An iPad or HomePod can serve as the hub for your HomeKit protocol devices. However, the Apple TV 4K costs $180, while the HomePod runs about $300. An iPad costs $300 or even more. Bottom line, the Apple TV 4K is the cheapest of the three and works very well as a smart home hub. (If you already have an iPad, take note of these words from Apple: “The device that you set up as a home hub must remain in your home, connected to your home Wi-Fi network, and powered on.”)
HomeKit protocol devices include switches, thermostats, cameras, light bulbs, and sprinklers, among others. Some products from brands such as Honeywell and Philips are supported. There aren’t as many HomeKit gadgets available as for, say, a SmartThings hub, but you should be able to find something for just about anything.
Automations are possible according to action, time and location. For instance, you can set the living room lights to come on at 75% when you arrive home. Scenes let you control multiple accessories, like if you want all the lights in your home to turn on and the front door to unlock when you get home.
Alternatives to Apple TV 4K
Perhaps the most obvious alternative is the HomePod smart speaker. Third-party streaming may potentially be available soon, so if you don’t care about TV but prioritize music, consider this instead. Still, it’s a hefty price tag for a music player and hub.
Further, the HomePod hasn’t caught on much and may account for only 6% of the smart speaker market share in the United States.8 Apple could introduce a lower-priced version at some point and is working on third-party streaming.9 Either way, the uncertainty about the HomePod's future is another reason to go for the TV instead.
If your iPad serves as your hub, you’ll have to keep it at home. However, that’s no different from the Amazon Echo Show and Google Nest Hub Max. You can use the iPad similarly to make video calls and stream TV.
Home Security Hubs
Some hubs are marketed as home security systems. For a DIY system, look into the Abode Home Security Starter Kit. It uses Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, and ZigBee, along with cellular radio, IFTTT applets, and Alexa voice control. It’s compatible with Apple HomeKit, too. You can do “non-security” stuff on it—it’s just marketed as a security system.
How Expensive Is a Smart Home Hub and Other FAQs
You have questions. We have answers. Read on to learn more about the cost of hubs, their connection ranges, and other topics.
- How expensive is a smart home hub? A good hub ranges from about $50 (the third-generation Amazon Echo Dot) to about $130 (the Hubitat Elevation, although you sometimes find it for less). The standalone Samsung SmartThings Hub v3 costs about $70.Devices such as the Apple TV 4K ($180) and Amazon Echo Show ($230) also serve as hubs. So do iPads. Due to their higher price tag, buy them only if you’re into their other features.
- What is the connection range of a smart home hub? The range is about 30 feet to 150 feet but can be expanded considerably. For example, multiple Echo devices in one home can work together. Similarly, mesh networking can expand the range of a SmartThings hub, which is otherwise 50 to 130 feet. Amazon advises consumers to, “Install your smart home device within thirty ft (9 m) of your Echo device or another device connected to your Echo smart home hub. Power off any Bluetooth-connected devices.” Amazon also recommends having one Echo gadget for each room or space you want to monitor, but that may be overkill. For perspective on what these numbers mean in practical terms, ranch homes that were built in the late 1940s run about 22 feet wide by 48 feet long (1,108 square feet to just over 1,500 square feet).10 A hub placed in a good central location may be able to cover the whole house without the help of extra devices.
- Where should I put my hub? Aim for a central location. You may still need mesh repeaters or other hub devices, but it’s a good start. Do not put your hub on top of your Wi-Fi router, or you’ll get a lot of interference. Shoot for at least 1 foot of separation. Avoid placing your hub near/on metal, including on shelves and refrigerators. Also, don’t put your hub in the basement of a multi-level home. It’s hard for signals to reach the upper floors.
- Is a smart home hub really necessary? Maybe. Hubs do experience their share of outages, failures, and bugs. They (and the time spent on them) may not be worth the trouble for the average person. That’s especially true since Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant perform functions similar to hubs and are easy to master. However, if you’re even halfway serious about home security and/or home automation, you probably need a hub. A hub helps your IoT devices such as security cameras interact with one another based on your location, the time of day, another device’s behavior, or another trigger. You also need a hub if you have lots of IoT devices and don’t want to spend hours daily in individual apps keeping up with them. A standalone hub might not necessary, but multi-function hubs are available (Amazon Echo Show, Amazon Echo Dot, HomePod, Apple TV 4K, etc.). Otherwise, a dedicated hub such as SmartThings v3 doesn’t break the bank, may offer more uptime, and enables fairly complex routines and scenarios.
- Can I use my Amazon Echo Dot as a smart home hub? Yes. You can even set up security-oriented routines. However, the Echo Dot doesn’t have the ZigBee protocol, which limits the number of sensors it is compatible with (the Echo Show and Echo Plus do have ZigBee). Still, the list of IoT devices compatible with the Echo Dot is long and includes the Ring video doorbell and floodlight motion-activated camera, the Kasa smart light switch, and the iRobot Roomba.
- What’s a good smart hub for home security? You get a high level of sophistication and capabilities from a standalone hub such as the SmartThings v3. Plus, there are quite a few SmartThings sensors to meet your needs (sensors from some other brands work, too).If you envision deeply complex security scenarios with multiple factors and triggers, look into the Hubitat Elevation. If you already have an Amazon Echo Show, it can work well as a security hub. Meanwhile, plenty of companies market smart home hubs as security systems. A good DIY one is Abode. If you want monitoring, check out Vivint Smart Hub.
- What type of smart home hub to buy? Consider what you want the hub for, the types of IoT devices you already have (and want), and how you need them to interact with one another. If you’re a newbie and want a simple learning curve, a good hub to buy is the SmartThings v3. It’s compatible with a lot of IoT gadgets and is especially good if home security is a priority. Otherwise, the Amazon Echo Dot is a good intro hub (no Z-Wave or ZigBee communication, though). Go with the Hubitat Elevation for very complicated scenarios.
- Why can’t my smartphone be my hub? I use my hub app on it a lot. Think of a smart hub as a minicomputer that is home to lots of wireless radio transmitters and receivers. This minicomputer helps your various IoT devices communicate with one another. Your smartphone doesn’t have these communications capabilities, plus a hub stays put inside your house. Your smartphone goes where you go, but luckily, you can use an app to communicate with the hub from afar.
Z-Wave vs. ZigBee vs. Bluetooth
Home automation protocols are “languages” that IoT devices such as thermostats and lightbulbs speak. Three common protocols are Z-Wave, ZigBee, and Bluetooth. A hub such as the Samsung SmartThings v3 that “speaks” these three languages (plus others) is more versatile than a hub that speaks only one or two.
Wi-Fi is critical, as well. As PC Mag explains, “Any hub worth its salt will contain a Wi-Fi radio so you can connect to your home network and control your smart devices from anywhere.”11 (This is how you use your smartphone app to communicate with the hub.)
From a practical standpoint, there isn’t much difference between Z-Wave and ZigBee for the everyday consumer. They’re both open standards, although this is a huge, recent change for Z-Wave amid fears it was getting left behind. With this move, Z-Wave’s existing advantages such as extended range and lower radio frequency become even more attractive.
- More than 3,300 IoT devices
- The more Z-Wave devices on the network, the stronger it becomes
- Low radio frequency means Z-Wave doesn’t interfere with microwave ovens, Wi-Fi signals, and portable phones
- Up to 232 devices on one network, which is more than enough for most situations
- Became an openly licensed standard in second half of 2020; more new IoT products should be compatible with Z-Wave
- Mesh networks help extend range (each device passes signal on to the next device in the network)
- 4 hops (signal passes) allowed from device to device
- Works better than ZigBee for larger homes and buildings
- More reliable than ZigBee
- More than 2,500 devices
- Mesh networks help extend range
- The more ZigBee devices on the network, the stronger it becomes
- Faster than Z-Wave
- Can support 65,000+ devices vs. Z-Wave’s 232 devices (rarely an issue for everyday people)
- Open standard, high level of compatibility
- Range is less extensive than Z-Wave’s
- Higher radio frequency means possible interference from 2.4GHz Wi-Fi devices
- No limit on hops (signal passes)
- Uses just a bit less power than Z-Wave
- Nearly all IoT devices have it
- Easy to install and use
- Superior energy efficiency compared with Wi-Fi
- Limited range at about 30 feet
- Popular use is in devices controlled locally via a mobile/smartphone app
- Runs on the 2.4GHz band along with baby monitors, garage door openers, and many other household devices
A few more words: Wi-Fi is a power drain, and you risk overloading your network if you throw too many Wi-Fi devices on it. So, while it’s fine for the hub itself to have Wi-Fi switched on, the smart devices themselves are better off “speaking” through Bluetooth, ZigBee, or Z-Wave.
Due to the popularity of hubs such as the Amazon Echo Dot, consumers may have IoT devices that speak Wi-Fi and Bluetooth but not Z-Wave and ZigBee. In many cases, that’s fine. However, there’s no denying that the range with Bluetooth is shorter and more dependent on your internet connection staying up.
Interference can be an issue if you have too many 2.4GHz devices in your home. Meanwhile, Z-Wave devices communicate merrily on their 800-900 MHz frequency range.
Smart Home Hubs
If you’re not too picky about home automation, you’re probably OK going with a hub that uses only Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. However, a hub such as the SmartThings v3 has many communications protocols,
including Z-Wave, ZigBee, and Bluetooth, and is fairly easy for beginners to use. It’s also versatile enough for techies to enjoy. You’ll find a lot of compatible devices with a SmartThings hub.
Z-Wave: FAQs from Silicion Laboratories, the Developer of Z-Wave
Z-Wave State of the Ecosystem Report: Key Stats and Trends in Z-Wave, IoT, and home automation ecosystems
Hubitat Elevation Tutorials: Connecting to Amazon Alexa Devices and More
Amazon Smart Home Forum: See Discussions around Smart Home Family Devices
References and Footnotes
- Delaney, J., and Moscaritolo, A. (2020, July 13). What Is a Smart Home Hub (and Do You Need One)? PC Mag. Retrieved August 14, 2020, from https://www.pcmag.com/news/what-is-a-smart-home-hub-and-do-you-need-one
- Chase, J. (Updated 2019, May 17). Do You Need a Smart-Home Hub? Wirecutter. Retrieved August 14, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/blog/do-you-need-a-smart-home-hub/
- Local Processing. (n.d.). SmartThings. Retrieved August 14, 2020, from https://support.smartthings.com/hc/en-us/articles/209979766-Local-processing
- Frequently Asked Questions. (n.d.). SmartThings. Retrieved August 14, 2020, from https://www.smartthings.com/faq
- Connect Home Pro. (2017, July 26). Samsung. Retrieved August 14, 2020, from https://www.samsung.com/ca/iot/samsung-connect-home-pro/
- Prospero, M. (2019, May 24). Hubitat Elevation Review: A Smart Home Hub for Power Users. Tom’s Guide. Retrieved August 14, 2020, from https://www.tomsguide.com/us/hubitat-elevation,review-6171.html
- Chase, J. (2019, June 27). How Effective Is Alexa Guard as a Security System? Retrieved August 14, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/blog/is-alexa-guard-effective/
- Smart Speaker Market Takes Off in Holiday Quarter. (2019, February 05). Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. Retrieved August 14, 2020, from https://files.constantcontact.com/150f9af2201/5c84cae5-7ff0-403d-acd5-9065db944222.pdf
- Fuscaldo, D. (2020, February 23). Apple Mulls Changes to HomePod that Could Boost Sales. The Motley Fool. Retrieved August 14, 2020, from https://www.fool.com/investing/2020/02/23/apple-mulls-changes-to-homepod-could-boost-sales.aspx
- Brenner, L. (Updated 2018, December 28). The Average Dimensions of a Ranch-Style Home. SFGate. Retrieved August 14, 2020, from https://homeguides.sfgate.com/average-dimensions-ranchstyle-home- 102661.html?