At the center of many smart homes is the smart home hub, a piece of equipment that connects all of your smart devices — lightbulbs, locks, thermostats and more — to each other. A smart home hub allows you to control your devices from a central location, like a smartphone app or voice assistant, which can make it easier to set up and use routines that involve more than one product.
SKIP AHEAD: Top-rated smart hubs
But with so many big-name brands, like Amazon, Google and Apple — and a couple smaller names, like Aeotec — it can seem like an overwhelming decision to make when you’re shopping for a hub for your own smart home.
We talked to experts on smart home technology to learn about the top-rated smart home hubs widely available on the market and what to consider when you’re buying one for yourself or your family.
How to select a smart home hub
Selecting a smart home system is largely a question of “which company you feel comfortable with, because you are inviting that company into your home,” said Jonathan Collins, smart home research director at ABI Research, a tech research and strategy firm that advises on topics like 5G telecommunications technology, artificial intelligence and the growing network of interconnected data-driven devices.
There are a few questions to ask as you get started:
- What smart devices do you have already? If you have a smart speaker like an Amazon Echo or Google Nest or smart home products under a certain brand, you may choose to stick with that platform.
- What kind of smartphone do you use? Again, if you’re accustomed to a specific user experience, it may be simplest to go with that platform: Apple HomeKit for iPhone users, for example or Google Nest for those on Android.
- Which smart home products do you want to add? The list of devices compatible with smart home ecosystems is long, so you’re likely to find most of what you need no matter which platform you anchor with. However, if you’re looking for something specific, make sure your hub supports it. And if your devices operate primarily via Z-Wave or Zigbee (more on those communication protocols below), you’ll need a compatible hub.
- Do you have or plan to buy a smart TV? Smart home hubs, like Samsung SmartThings, are already being integrated into TVs, cutting out the separate hardware entirely.
It seems like there’s a long list of devices to choose from, but Sumi Helal, professor of computer and information science and engineering at the University of Florida and director of the Gator-Tech Smart House, said that almost any smart home hub will do.
“Get started with anything, preferably of the same species of your smartphone or TV,” he said. “There’s no position of advantage of picking one [hub] over the other other than the lineup or listing of devices that can be brought in.”
Top-rated smart hubs
If you want a hub, you may want to consider one of the following options, which are highly rated and meet the recommendations of our experts, including ease of setup and integration with familiar smart home ecosystems, interoperability with an extensive selection of smart home devices, and compatibility with smartphone operating systems and apps.
Those who want their smart home hub to double as a speaker, as well as anyone who relies on Alexa’s voice assistant capabilities, may want to consider the fourth-generation Amazon Echo. This versatile hub is compatible with the huge selection of smart home devices that use Zigbee, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, according to Amazon, and it has all the benefits of a smart speaker: voice-activated music and entertainment through Spotify, Audible, Amazon and Apple Music, more than 130,000 Alexa skills and routines, and hands-free calling, among other features. Plus, it offers built-in smart home functionality with Alexa Guard — Amazon says the speaker itself listens for smoke alarms and breaking glass, potentially eliminating the need for additional sensors. The Amazon Echo smart hub has an average 4.7-star rating from nearly 105,000 reviews on Amazon.
The second-generation Google Nest Hub doesn’t work with any mesh protocols, but it does integrate with Wi-Fi-enabled smart home devices as well as Google Nest products like cameras and doorbells. According to Google, there are more than 50,000 devices that are compatible with its Google Assistant-enabled speakers and hubs. A huge perk of the Nest Hub is the touchscreen, which allows you to tap and swipe through your controls as well as view feeds from your security cameras and even watch content from Netflix, YouTube and more, Google says. The hub does triple duty as a smart light for morning and evening routines, as a sleep tracker and as a smart sensor for glass breaks and smoke alarms via Nest Aware, according to the company. The second-gen Nest Hub has an average 4.7-star rating from more than 1,300 reviews on Best Buy.
If you’re in the Apple ecosystem, the Apple TV 4K may be a top choice for easily integrating your smart home via HomeKit: All you have to do is log into your iCloud account on your TV and launch the Apple Home app, according to Apple. Apple’s iPads and HomePod speakers can also be used to control HomeKit scenes and automations, but with the Apple TV 4K you get the visual, on-screen experience and, unlike the iPad, the device doubles as an entertainment and streaming hub, according to the company. Note that it does not support any other protocols, like Z-Wave or Zigbee. And though HomeKit’s device is compatible with fewer devices than other platforms, Apple, which has long marketed itself as having more privacy protections than its rivals, is generally considered a safer bet for the privacy-conscious than some other companies. The Apple TV 4K has an average 4.8-star rating from more than 1,500 reviews on Best Buy.
If you’re looking for a true smart home hub that integrates more than 5,000 devices across protocols and smart home assistants, the Aoetec may be worth a long look. It’s compatible with Z-Wave, Zigbee and Wi-Fi, and can be voice controlled with Alexa, Google Assistant and Bixby, according to the company. Major brands that work with the Aeotec Smart Home Hub include Nest, Sonos, Samsung, Philips Hue, Ring and Yale, to name a few, Aeotec says. It replaces Samsung’s now-discontinued SmartThings hub. The Aeotec Smart Home Hub has an average 4.3-star rating from nearly 500 reviews on Amazon.
What is a smart home hub?
Before you buy one, it helps to understand what a smart home hub actually does — and to do that, you need to know how your smart home devices work together.
One type of smart home connectivity is a mesh network, which essentially allows your devices to communicate with each other directly rather than through your home Wi-Fi. Common protocols for this include Z-Wave and Zigbee. Thread is another small but growing mesh network option. Mesh networks require less power from your devices and don’t affect your Wi-Fi performance. There are thousands of smart home products that play nice with these protocols, which rely on a central smart hub, but they’re not always compatible with each other.
Other smart home products communicate over your home Wi-Fi network. These devices are easy to set up, connect together and control from your phone or smart speaker, which acts like a hub. However, adding dozens of devices can slow down your network, and constant communication with Wi-Fi tends to drain device batteries more quickly.
Finally, some smart home devices can communicate directly with a mobile app on your smartphone over Bluetooth — but they require you to be nearby.
Do I need a smart home hub?
One advantage of a smart home hub is the ability to link all of your devices into automated routines — for example, if you want your Phillips Hue light bulbs to dim, August door locks to close and Nest thermostat to turn down when you’re ready for bed. With hubs that support voice assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant or Siri, a simple “It’s bedtime” command could trigger a cascade of actions. Plus, instead of having to open multiple apps to set up or edit your routines, you can do so through the dashboard of your hub’s mobile app.
A hub is also necessary for smart home devices that rely on Zigbee, Z-Wave or another home automation protocol besides Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.
You probably don’t need a smart home hub if you only have one or two connected devices that don’t need to talk to each other, or you don’t mind controlling them in separate apps. Devices that require a specific hub or bridge to connect with your Wi-Fi network may come with one, though this won’t allow you to string several products together. Single devices, like smart plugs that work over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, may simply require you to have the right smartphone app. You also don’t necessarily need a hub if your smart home devices are If This Then That (or IFTTT) enabled.
One product with a lot of potential to ease any decision about smart home devices is Matter, an open-source platform announced at CES 2022 (formerly the Consumer Electronics Show) and launching later this year. It’s expected to integrate smart home devices across brands, including Apple, Google, Amazon, LG and Samsung. With Matter, you wouldn’t have to choose just one platform, and devices that previously weren’t compatible would be able to talk to one another, according to the company.
“A lot of effort around Matter is around getting rid of complexity,” Collins said.