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The 4 best smart hubs: Get smart about home control

What is the best smart home hub? The Aeotec Smart Home Hub is ZDNet's top choice because it's come to replace the SmartThings hub and it leads the charge in both compatibility and user interface.
maria-diaz
Written by Maria Diaz, Staff Writer on
Reviewed by Elyse Betters Picaro

A hub is where all your devices meet: It talks to all the compatible smart devices and lets you easily control them from an app. When choosing a hub, some people value voice control over all things, while others value higher compatibility or privacy. The good thing is that there's a smart home hub out there for almost everyone; it's all about choosing the right one. 

Many smart home products on the market need a hub to connect and work with each other. This is because they are manufactured with low-power wireless technologies, like Zigbee or Z-wave, that require a separate hub to connect to the internet. Others that are Wi-Fi- or Bluetooth-enabled can typically be wirelessly controlled through an app. 

Getting the most out of all your smart devices shouldn't be hard, especially considering it's your hard earned money you're putting towards them, so choosing the right one is important as it can become your home assistant for the next few years.

Must read:

Aeotec Smart Home Hub
Amazon

The tech:

  • Hub for: SmartThings
  • Connectivity: Bluetooth, Wifi, Zigbee, Z-Wave
  • Voice control: Alexa, Google & Bixby

If you're just getting into home automation, you may not have heard of Aeotec… yet. But let me introduce you to your new best friend. The SmartThings hub is now manufactured by Aeotec, so if you were a fan of the Samsung SmartThings hub and want to upgrade to the newer version, the hardware and firmware are identical. 

Control on the app

There is a SmartThings app that comes with your galaxy phone already, but it's also available on Google Play Store and the App Store for Apple devices. A big plus for SmartThings is that navigating the app is easy and straightforward: you can easily see and control all the connected devices as soon as you open the app and can set up automation, scenes, add members, view history,  and sort devices by room.

Adding a device is effortless, you can manually add one on the app or simply scan a QR code if the device has one, and it'll be ready to use right away.

SmartThings offers a wide range of scenes and automations and the app walks you through each one of them without complicating the process. It's really the easiest platform to use when making a smart home ecosystem.

Compatibility

The app's user friendly platform makes SmartThings a pretty attractive option, but the extensive range in compatibility is probably what makes it stand out from the pack. It works with Wi-Fi and both Zigbee and Z-wave, making it readily compatible with over 5000 devices already on the market.

Voice control

This hub is also readily compatible with virtual assistants, so you can enable Google Assistant on the Google Home app or Alexa on the Alexa App to work with SmartThings for voice control over all your smart devices.

Pros

  • Higher compatibility across brands than most
  • Great UI on the app
  • Direct replacement for Samsung SmartThings V3

Cons

  • When you're upgrading to this hub from another, you have to individually delete devices and automations and add them again 
Amazon Echo
Amazon

The tech:

  • Hub for: Amazon Alexa
  • Connectivity: Bluetooth, Wifi, Zigbee
  • Voice control: Alexa

The Amazon Echo adds Alexa to your home and works as the hub for all things smart with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, plus Zigbee for even more compatibility. However, the Echo Dot only supports Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, which isn't a big deal with many smart devices coming with Wi-Fi connectivity nowadays.

Why it's great

This is a great hub for anyone that isn't looking to devote a ton of time to their home automation process. Adding new devices is very easy, especially considering all the smart gadgets that are readily compatible with Alexa available both in stores and online. Plus, if you're a fan of Amazon devices, the Echo has complete compatibility with all their smart products, which offer a wide range in affordability.

The Amazon Alexa app runs on mobile devices and lets you set automations and scenes in your home that you can control with your voice. And with many Echo devices that also work as a home hub, you can have 

Echo or Echo Dot

The Echo is the full size hub that doubles as a speaker, and though the sound is pretty good, it's not as good as other speakers on the market if you want to use it as one. The Echo Dot is the compact version of the Echo, and it works separately or jointly. You can purchase an Echo Dot instead of the larger Echo if it fits your smart home needs. And if you have several Echos at home, you can tell Alexa to make announcements or connect them to play synchronized music. 

Pros:

  • High compatibility
  • Easily available
  • Affordable

Cons: 

  • Audio isn't as great as other speakers on market
Apple HomePod Mini
Apple

The tech:

  • Hub for: HomeKit
  • Connectivity: Bluetooth, wifi
  • Voice control: Siri

This is my favorite of all the home hubs out there. This isn't the best overall because it's not what is best for most people, but it is for us in our home. The HomePod mini itself is actually a pretty great speaker compared to other devices and other speakers out there, so if you're looking for a great compact speaker for your living room, this might be it. We're fans of the value Apple puts on its users' privacy, so we took a chance and decided to create an Apple smart home ecosystem.

Compatibility

The problem with an Apple smart home is that there aren't as many compatible devices out there, so the use of a bridge to get them there is sometimes necessary. If you stick to those devices that are readily compatible with HomeKit, though, you'll be fine. Plus, Apple announced at WWDC 2022 many updates to the app coming this fall, including the reiteration of the use of Matter, a smart home connectivity standard that increases compatibility across different platforms. So you can trust that more compatible devices will come in the future. 

The Home app

The Home app is very responsive, snappy, and has many useful automations that are easy to set up. It's very user-friendly, reminiscent of the SmartThings app, and has the option of adding Home buttons to your iPhone's control center, accessible from the home screen or any app. We haven't encountered many issues aside from Siri not being as responsive or as helpful as other assistants, but that's a separate thing.

However, because Apple can be a stickler for privacy, you do have some limitations in the app. An example is that you can't directly set up geofencing to automatically unlock a door lock due to potential security concerns, which is something you can do with other apps. But, as with everything, there are ways around it, so it's not a big deal to us.

The Home app will see some updates in the fall as well: faster load times, widgets, new icons and tile styling, and a new feature to view up to four cameras at once in a single tile. Apple may be noticing there's money to be made in the smart home market and are ready to compete more earnestly with other vendors.

Alternatively, if you don't want to get the HomePod mini, you can also use an Apple TV 4K as a smart home hub and use the HomeKit app. 

Pros:

  • Fantastic audio for small speaker
  • Apple puts value on privacy

Cons:

  • Not a lot of compatibility
  • Siri (need I say more?)
Google Nest Hub Max
Google

The tech:

  • Hub for: Google Home
  • Connectivity: Bluetooth, wifi, Thread
  • Voice control: Google Assistant

The Google Nest Hub Max is a smart home hub complete with Google Voice Assistant. If you're a fan of Google's smart home products like the Nest thermostat, Nest x Yale lock, or Chromecast, this hub integrates all the Nest products into one smart assistant. 

More than a speaker

You have your choice of the Nest Hub or the Nest Hub Max for Nest hubs with a built-in screen. These are two displays that you can use as your home central, where you'll have all your devices ready to be controlled in one place. They also double as an entertainment station with apps like YouTube Music, Spotify, Netflix, Disney+, and Hulu, just to name a few. The built-in camera lets you add gestures so you can control what it does with just a wave of the hand, use it as a security camera, and make video calls through Google Duo on the Max model. 

Google versatility

A definite plus is that many people like using Google services for things like calendars, photo storage, email, directions with Google maps, and more. But it lacks in compatibility since it uses Thread, a smart home protocol from Google. However, it has to be said that Google is working harder on bridging the gap in compatibility and always adding new products to work with the Google Home app.

Pros:

  • Good sound from speaker
  • Google Voice Assistant
  • Extra security camera on Nest Hub

Cons:

  • Limited compatibility

What is the best smart home hub?

The best smart home hub overall is the Aeotec Smart Home Hub which features SmartThings, due to its higher compatibility across brands, speed, ease of use and installation.

Smart home hubAeotecEchoApple HomePodGoogle Nest
ZDNet's takeBest overallBest for voice controlBest hub and speaker comboBest hub with display
Voice assistant
Zigbee

Z-Wave


Speaker included
Best compatibility

Which smart home hub is right for you?

A good way to figure out which smart home hub will work for your home is by exploring which smart home products and brands you're most interested in. If you're thinking of taking advantage of all the different brands of smart products out there with little restriction, the Aeotec is probably the best option. But if you have a Google ecosystem already in the works, then a Nest Hub Max or Nest Mini is a better choice.

Also, consider how much time and money you want to spend. Making a home smart should be fun, not feel like a heavy burden. So if you want to stick to a more affordable and uncomplicated option, starting with an Echo could be the right choice. 

Think about what matters to you and how you will use your hub every day. Is a voice assistant important? Alexa, Siri, and Google can certainly be convenient for everyone in the home to be able to control things around them. But some people prefer a more pared down version of a smart home: where they can control things easily from one place, like their phones or tablets, and not have to worry about too many bells and whistles or their privacy being endangered.

Choose this smart hub...
If you need...
AeotecComplete control over your smart home with vast compatibility
Amazon EchoAn affordable option complete with a reliable voice assistant
Apple HomePod MiniA great speaker plus unmatched privacy and security features
Google Nest Hub MaxA home central for organization and smart home control to round out your Google ecosystem

How did we choose these smart home hubs?

Looking for a smart home hub needs to be done thoughtfully seeing as a hub can become your right-hand-man for the foreseeable future. If used to its potential, it can be your go-to for anything from setting routines and automations to maintaining your calendar, getting you an Uber, and giving you recipes. 

So we chose these smart hubs by testing for best reliability, fast response times and load times when you open the app or make a command, user interface, how easy setup and adding devices is, among other things. 

Compatibility across brands

Whether you're a fan of Apple or Alexa, compatibility across brands is certain to be something you're looking for in a hub. When you make a run to the hardware store and decide to buy a smart bulb, you don't want to worry about the fact that there's only two overpriced models compatible with your home automation system and wonder what the quality is like. This is why the best hubs are the ones that have the widest range of compatibility across brands on the market. 

User application and speed

Whichever hub you choose to buy will determine what application you'll download and use on your smartphone to control your home. So while we chose the best smart home hub, which is the device itself that you use to set up your smart home and kept it separate from a home automation system, which is the platform itself where you control your smart home, the user interface is a pretty big part in our decision.

The speed with which your smart devices respond to the app on your smartphone is a big part of everyday use. There's no use having motion alerts on your security camera just to have it take a whole minute or two just to load the video feed on the app. 

We chose the home hubs with the best user experience on the market.

Cost

When choosing these smart home hubs, cost was also a determining factor, both in the short and long term. Startup cost is obviously important, and most home hubs available retail for less than $150 nowadays, but you also want to consider what devices are compatible with it and what the cost of those devices are. This is why Echos are a pretty affordable option, since Amazon has low cost smart home devices like Blink, for example, with the option for higher-end ones like Ring. 

Built to last, figuratively speaking

In doing home automation, we've seen the birth of smart home hubs and the death of them as well. So we decided on the smart home hubs that are still relevant, meaning many users are still active and compatible devices are still being actively manufactured for them. No one wants to invest hundreds of dollars in a technology that will be obsolete in a year's time.

What is the difference between scenes and automations?

When you start getting into home automation, you may hear a lot about scenes, routines and automations. 

Scenes will let you control multiple devices at once with voice control, the tap of a button, or an automation. An automation controls one or more devices automatically without your involvement in the moment. 

As an example, you could have a morning routine scene that automatically turns on your coffeemaker, the kitchen light, opens the smart blinds, and turns on the TV just by entering the kitchen and saying "Alexa, good morning". An automation would be to set this morning routine scene to run every weekday at 7am, for example.

With automations, you can set your devices to react to when you come home, for example, and automatically turn on the entryway light or unlock your smart lock. Automations can be triggered by schedule, a change in a device status, someone's location, or even the weather.

And you can make automations as simple or as intricate as you'd like: you can have the smart lock unlock when you get home, for example, but you can also have a chain reaction of events: have the living room fan come on when the entryway light turns on, which turns on when the smart lock is unlocked, which unlocks when you arrive home.

What is the difference between voice assistant and smart hub?

voice assistant is software within a device and lets you perform tasks like setting an alarm or looking up a recipe via voice commands. Most smartphones now come equipped with voice assistants. Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri are the most popular voice assistants. 

Smart hubs connect compatible devices to a physical device that then connects them to one home automation system and the internet, letting you control these smart home devices through a single app on a mobile device. Smart hubs can include a voice assistant, but don't have to.

Do I need a hub?

While a home hub may feel like something you need to set up a smart home, you do have virtual options that may offer some flexibility if that's what you're looking for that you can run on a device like a smartphone or computer.

IFTTT, short for "if this, then that", is a home automation platform that integrates almost 700 services and devices across the market, from security systems to thermostats. It also goes beyond home automation with automations in your mobile device like backing up photos you're tagged in on Facebook to an iOS photo album, as an example. Some options do require a subscription. 

Home Assistant is another no-hub-required option to integrate your smart home devices but it is more for the tech-savvy crowd and it can take up a lot of your time to set it up just right. It's an open source platform that can operates locally and can take virtually any automation you can think of. Most people that use Home Assistant have it on a Raspberry Pi because of its low energy consumption.

Will the smart hub work without power or internet?

Most smart hubs need constant power to stay on. There are some wireless and battery-powered hubs, as well as wired hubs that have a battery backup. In addition to power, your smart hub needs to remain connected to the internet to stay functional However, for many smart hubs -- including our top picks -- you're able to connect to the speaker via Bluetooth.

Are there alternatives worth considering?

All the products mentioned above have alternatives worth considering to suit different needs. You can buy a Nest Mini as a hub and a speaker instead of the Google Nest Hub Max, for example, or the Apple TV 4K to double as your media streaming device. Here are the best alternatives on the market:



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