Hive smart home review: Good-value devices with useful connections

Connecting Hive's smart home products together makes the resulting services more useful and engaging.

Hive is an interesting smart home contender because it comes from a different background to high-tech rivals like Google, Amazon and Apple; Hive emerged from British Gas, which is part of utilities giant Centrica.

While it's probably best known for its Hive Active Heating smart thermostat, the company also offers a range of smart home devices, including sensors, plugs and most recently a camera.

Testing the thermostat in the middle of the British 'summer' wouldn't make much sense, so we chose to evaluate the Hive Window/Door Sensor, the Hive Active Plug, Hive Motion Sensor and the Hive Active Light.

The various sensors can either be bought separately or as part of a service package offered by Hive, which also offers some added functionality. The design of the Hive products is unobtrusive, if a little dull: lots of white plastic will likely mean they'll blend into the background in most homes.

That's understandable for a utilitarian mass-market product like this, although a little bit more elegance in the individual devices would be welcome.

Hive Hub

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Hive Hub

Image: Hive

The Hive Hub is the controller for the other devices; it's a square box that connects into your wi-fi router and doesn't do a lot more than that -- after installation you can pretty much forget about it, unless you're adding a new device.

Setting up the sensors for the system is simple, if slightly tedious; each new device has to be switched on and discovered by the £80 Hive Hub, a process you manage through the Hive app.

Fortunately it only took the hub a few seconds to find each of the devices as I added them.

Hive sensors

Each device does one job competently; for example, the £29 Motion Sensor watches for movement and can either be placed on a shelf or attached to a wall. It's easy to set up; you pair it with the Hub and it starts working immediately. During our tests it worked well and picked up most motion at a range of three metres within a claimed 94-degree field of view.

The £29 Window/Door Sensor is made up of two parts: one attaches to the door while the smaller piece connects to the frame, after which it will send an alert if the door opens or closes. Sticky strips hold the two pieces in place, making it easy to install -- although your door frame will need to be wide enough to hold the unit. I found it hard to use with the mouldings on internal doors; it seems to fit better on exterior doors.

However, once in place and paired with the Hub it worked perfectly well, accurately reporting when the door was open and for how long. Just once or twice, a heavy gust of wind in stormy weather rocked the door enough to register a false positive.

The £39 Active Plug simply plugs into a wall socket, whereupon you can plug another device into it -- perhaps a lamp or coffee machine -- and the smart plug can turn it on or off. The £19 smart bulb plugs into a normal socket (bayonet or screw fitting) like any other light and can then be turned on or off or dimmed via the app.

The various devices are controlled though the Hive app, which I found straightforward to navigate after some slight initial difficulty in registering.

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Hive Active Plug

Image: Hive

The Hive Home tab provides a clear overview of the status of each of the sensors and logs so that you can see when the door was last opened or the last time the motion sensor saw activity, or whether devices are on or off.

The Actions tab can allow you set up various alerts, allowing you, for example to be notified by text or email if the door opens. These have a decent level of granularity so that alerts are sent during particular times and not others; when I first set up the system I got 40 alerts from the motion sensor because I had alerts switched on permanently over a busy weekend. As you mostly only want to know about is happening in your house when you aren't there, having those alerts sent during the periods when the home is empty makes more sense.

What makes the devices more interesting is the ability to build what Hive calls 'Actions'. These allow you to build simple sets of commands based on the sensors-- for example turning on a light if the motion detector spots movement, or turning on the coffee machine when the front door opens. These make the various devices much more useful and personal to you.

Echo chamber

Taking this a step further you can also connect up the Hive devices to Amazon's Echo and then control them with your voice. The Hive system made most sense to me with this connection in place.

To do this you have to add the Hive skill to the Alexa app (if you're using the thermostat you may have to add two skills). After this you link the Alexa and Hive accounts and let Alexa discover the Hive devices it can then control -- something that can be done either by saying 'Alexa discover devices' or by using the smartphone app. After this you can control some of the devices like the smart plug and the smart lightbulb with your voice.

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Hive Window/Door Sensor

Image: Hive

This makes them much more useful. While it's entirely possible to connect the smart plug to your coffee machine and make a brew by using the smartphone app, that's nowhere near as satisfying as asking Alexa to do it and then wandering downstairs to find a pot of coffee freshly brewed (Hive also works with Google Assistant, and the company says that Apple Homekit is "definitely on our radar".)

Similarly, fishing out your smartphone, putting in a password, opening up an app and finding the right control, just to turn on the lights, is pretty much a non-starter except for the most dedicated geek.

But saying 'Alexa turn on the lights' is a) fun and b) actually marginally faster than hitting a light switch.

Hive has also built a set of additional subscription services to boost the hardware's utility. For example, Hive Live gives you access to a 'Mimic mode' that turns lights on and off in a staggered and varying pattern to make it look like the house is occupied when you're out or on holiday. This may appeal to some users rather than having to set it up yourself.

Hive has just launched a camera (which requires a separate app) and is promising further additions to its device offerings later in the year, including a Leak Sensor for your plumbing and an updated Hub that can listen for sounds like a smoke alarm going off.

Conclusions

Hive's smart home kit is straightforward, reasonably priced, unobtrusive, easy to use and quick to set up. The ability to connect to devices together into chains of actions is also useful and quite fun, as well as providing some useful home monitoring capabilities. Oddly, the recently launched camera requires a separate app and does not integrate with the rest of the Hive products. Hive would also be more useful if it could easily integrate products from other vendors, although you can use IFTTT services for heating and lighting. As Hive adds to its device portfolio this may become less of an issue, but it does makes for a more closed system than some might like.

Indeed, I only really warmed to Hive's system when it was part of a bigger configuration, connected into an Amazon Echo. While the basic home monitoring system doesn't need voice interaction, without voice control I don't think I would regularly use the smart lights or plugs. As such, Hive may play a useful role as an element of a broader smart home setup, but may not be its core.

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