Home Automation Hubs and How to Pick One
As far as home automation hubs go, the sky is the limit… as far as cost anyway. There’s a pretty large range in what they can do and it all depends on what you want to do and how technical you are as well.
If all you want to do is control a few items and don’t mind having to open different apps then you are probably good to go just buying those items and possibly even a Google Home or Amazon Echo in order to control them via your voice. Neither of those are true hubs as some web sites claim but for simplicity I’ll include them in the list as well.
Since I brought it up, lets start with Amazon’s offerings first. They range in cost from the original Amazon Echo priced at 179.99, the portable Amazon Tap for $129.99 down to the Echo Dot for $49.99. Each of them has it’s own slightly different characteristics but they all allow you to play music from Amazon Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio and TuneIn (sadly Google Play Music is not included.) They can answer questions (using Bing), read audiobooks, give you the news and weather and for our purposes here, control smart devices including devices from Wemo, Phillips Hue, Nest and Ecobee and allow you to connect to hubs such as SmartThings, HomeSeer, Wink and more.
The service also allows you to access “skills”, over 10,000 at last count, most of which are useless junk but there are a few gems there.
I don’t want to fail to mention that if you own a FireTV or FireTV stick you can also access Alexa that way as well with one of Amazon’s voice remotes.
Next up is Google Home. Like Alexa, Home is not an actual hub but does allow you to control home automation hubs as well as individual devices. Currently the list of compatible items is shorter than Alexa but Amazon had a two year head start in the area and is currently firmly entrenched in the market. I’m a pretty big Google fanboy and have a Google Home sitting in my kitchen but thus far the Echo and it’s usefulness blows away Home for my family.
Home allows you to play music on Spotify, YouTube Music, Pandora and more. Not Amazon Music of course lol.
While Alexa uses Bing for it’s search engine, Home naturally uses Google. While there are some strange things you can find using Google search I have found that it’s more accurate and inclusive than Bing (fake news aside…)
Home allows you to connect to the Honeywell and Nest thermostats, Wemo, Phillips Hue and Samsung SmartThings. Using IFTTT (Alexa also supports IFTTT as well) you can control ANY other hub or software that has IF support as well. That’s how I have my Home set up to connect to HomeSeer currently.
If you are a Chromecast fan Home will also allow you to control those as well.
Next up is the Samsung SmartThings Hub for about $99. A true HA hub, SmartThings is compatible with Alexa voice control as well as Google Home, Leviton Z-Wave switches and modules (as well as those from other manufacturers), Phillips Hue devices, Sylvania smart bulbs, Netgear Arlo and Ring Doorbell, Schlage and Yale smartlocks, thermostats from Honeywell and Ecobee, Bose soundsystems, Keen Home Smart Vents and a ton of other connected Samsung appliances and devices just to mention a few.
There is a dedicated mobile app to access SmartThings as well. I can’t say how well it works as SmartThings is one item I haven’t tested yet.
You can set rules for what you want your devices to do based on time, other device activity (such as motion sensors, etc) and can monitor cameras and other security items.
The SmartThings Hub contains ZigBee and Z-Wave radios and also allows you to control IP based devices. There is also a pretty active community of SmartThings users as well.
I wouldn’t mind hearing from satisfied SmartThings users as to what all it can do as the only ones I know have ditched the platform looking for more robustness in HomeSeer.
A hub I am familiar with is the Wink Hub and Wink Hub 2. I own the original Wink Hub and while I had a lot of problems with it early on I think that had more to do with my Wifi network than anything. Since I upgraded to Google mesh networking my hub has been rock solid. While I do use HomeSeer as my main software, it’s mobile interface is crap. I have Wink set up as a secondary Z-Wave controller and use the Wink mobile interface to operate my lights. The app is very simple and elegant and just what the family needs. While setting up a complicated home automation network can be confusingly intertwined it should be simple to operate for it’s main users. If it’s faster to just get up off the couch and do something, why bother to automate it?
The original Wink hub is compatible with devices from GoControl, Nest, Quirky (now defunct), Kidde, Honeywell, Cree, GE, Dropcam, Kwikset, Lutron, Rachio, Philips, TCP, Schlage, Chamberlain and Leviton as well as more.
Wink Hub can control devices that use protocols such as Z-wave, ZigBee, Lutron ClearConnect, Bluetooth Low Energy, Wifi and Kidde.
Currently my Wink Hub is controlling most of my Z-Wave devices, some GE Link lightbulbs and a Pivot Power Genius power strip.
Wink and the Wink Hub 2 are also Alexa and IFTTT compatible as well. I use both to make sure that HomeSeer and Wink are in sync with each other. The original Wink Hub can be found on Amazon for about $60 (you can find it at Home Depot for $50 or less occasionally although they may have run through their stock by now) and the Wink Hub 2 is $96.
The Wink Hub 2 has a faster processor and more memory (512 mb vs 64 mb) so will run faster. The Wifi radio is apparently more powerful as well. A couple of things it has that the original hub does not is auto-discovery of devices and an Ethernet port.
Out of the few hubs I have tested I have to say that I am very pleased with Wink’s products. While it does not offer quite the level of control and automation I am used to, for an entry level system (and about 95% of the users out there) I would definitely recommend Wink.
Next in line is the set of Vera Hubs. My experience with the Vera a couple of years ago was less than pleasant. The software was buggy as hell and I had a very hard time pairing Z-Wave devices with it. X-10 support was less than stellar and the tech support was crap. I guess “less than pleasant” was an understatement.
Anyway, it appears that they have upgraded their hubs and you now have three selections to choose from, each going up in cost based on how many devices you want to control. The VeraEdge lets you control up to 75 devices and supports Z-Wave, the VeraPlus 125 and has Z-Wave, ZigBee and Bluetooth support and the VeraSecure up to 200 and supports the same protocols as the others as well as includes a backup battery. If you have more than 200 devices I guess you’re shit out of luck. Including Virtual Devices and Times, etc I currently have 565 devices in my system.
Vera does have a pretty active community and there are quite a few plugin authors as well allowing for supporting more products than those listed above.
Last but not least comes the ones I am much more familiar with… HomeSeer. (yes, that is an affiliate link lol)
HomeSeer started out strictly as software but over the last 20 years has branched into their own line of hubs, switches and sensors. They also sell many other quality products over at their online store. Unlike Samsung and possibly other companies as well, HomeSeer is based in the United States.
Since we are talking about Hubs today let’s take a look at their offerings. As far as all of the hubs I have gone through these are by far the most expensive. You get what you pay for.
The lowest priced hub is the HomeTroller Zee S2. It runs on a Raspberry Pi3 and allows for the use of five plugins, or drivers (Linux based.). technologies it supports includes Z-Wave, Insteon, X10, UPB, PLC-BUS and Modbus. Specifically it support all brands of Z-Wave lighting, Philips Hue and LiFX, Thermostats including all Z-Wave, Ecobee, Nest and HAI Omnistat, all brands of Z-Wave door locks, Audio solutions from Sonos, Russound, Denon, Onkyo , Security systems from DSC, Ademco Vista and Elk M1G, Media from iTunes, Windows Media Player, DirectTV, Kodi, Pool/Spa devices from Goldline, Pentair and Autelis. It has 4 USB ports, Ethernet, wifi, a line out Audio port and HDMI. It runs for $199.
All their controllers offer Alexa and IFTTT support
The HomeTroller-SEL and SEL-PRO range from $399-$699. They are built on Linux and support all Linux plugins including all of those listed above. They offer 2 and 4 times the amount of memory and a 32GB SSD instead of the 8GB SD card that comes with the Zee S2. They also have VGA in addition to the HDMI port.
The two top of the line models that HomeSeer offers are the HomeTroller S6 for $899 and the S6 PRO for $1199. Both of these are Windows embedded systems and in addition to the plugins and controllers listed above also add the ability to control items from Lutron Caseta, Lutron Radio RA2, Marantz, Pioneer, GE Concord 4. They have a mic in (for voice recognition) and line out and instead of a VGA port it includes a DVI port in addition to the HDMI that all of them offer.
A more complete listing of plugins and technologies Homeseer supports can be found here.
Aside from the different technologies available HomeSeer has a very robust events system as well as scripting. Some of my events include:
- if the temp (from my weather station) is less than 46 degrees, turn on the heat lamp in the chicken house
- if the wattage from my washing machine is above 2.5 watts and drops below that it sends us a message and flashes some lights letting us know the cycle is complete. It also tells me via the speaker client running on the PC in my bedroom and in the living room. Once Amazon allows for push notifications that’ll be one of the first things I add to Alexa here.
- If I tell Alexa to turn on FireTV it runs on the television, changes the HDMI input to the correct one (in my bedroom.) If the TV in the living room turns on, the JVC receiver also turns on (or off)
- If there is motion in my yard and it’s after sunset the outside lights come one and then turn off five minutes after no more motion is detected. Which ones come on depend on where the motion was. When I open the door in the morning my foyer light, porch light and driveway lights all turn on for 15 minutes.
- My air conditioner is old and sometimes will kick the breaker during the summer in high usage. If the temperature goes above a certain setting it sends all of us and email and text so we can reset it.
- If the doorbell is run and we are at home, lights flash and the speaker client lets us know someone is there. If we aren’t at home it just kicks on a few lights and sends us a text.
- Overall I have a couple hundred scripts running. Most are pretty simple but some are fairly involved.
One thing I almost failed to mention is the mobile interface. Homeseer does have their HSTouch plugin, included in Pro versions and available for purchase as an addon as well. There are clients for iOS, Android and Windows. There are a lot of people that swear by it. My own experience with HSTouch is less than stellar. I found it buggy, unresponsive and a pain in the ass to use. The designer is also difficult to use and non-intuitive. It all seems like beta software that was never finished and anything you say to the developers falls on deaf ears. I keep hoping that they will eventually move to an HTML5 model and update their mobile apps to be on par with other hubs. Until then I’ll keep using Wink or one of the several 3rd party solutions. That having been said, HS is still the strongest HA software packages I’ve used and mobile access aside it’s still the best.
These are not the only hubs available but they seem to be the most popular. Do you have one that isn’t listed that you prefer? Let me know.