Staples Connect review: One small step toward the smart-home singularity

This is where those product partnerships come into play. Staples is forgoing the more open approach to third-party devices that we're seeing with Revolv as well as with systems like SmartThings, and choosing instead to focus only on integrating products made by manufacturers with whom it's able to form strong business partnerships. The upside to this approach is that using these products within the Staples ecosystem is a piece of cake. The downside is that you won't have much luck trying to integrate devices that aren't partnered with Staples, even if they use a protocol that Staples supports.

A good example of this is the Belkin WeMo line of products, which use Wi-Fi. The Staples Connect hub is perfectly capable of receiving Wi-Fi signals, so you might expect that it would be able to control WeMo devices. It can't, because Belkin isn't currently one of Staples Connect's partners. Belkin doesn't support formal integration with any platform provider, but that didn't stop Revolv from back-ending WeMo integration into its system all the same. Staples Connect could do the same thing if Staples wanted it to -- but it doesn't.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Performance and usability
As said before, getting up and running with Staples Connect is a breeze. Once you've got everything hooked up, you'll be all set to start automating. Staples calls its automations "activities," and with a system capable of controlling hundreds of devices at once, you'll have room for plenty of them.

You'll choose between timed activities that occur -- you guessed it -- at a specific time of day, or triggered activities that happen on your command, or when certain conditions are met. I started my tests with a triggered activity labeled "School Pride." At the tap of a button on my smartphone app, the Philips Hue bulbs in our office would change to my alma mater's school colors. The hub would need to receive the signal from my smartphone over Wi-Fi, then send a Wi-Fi signal to the Philips bridge, telling it to send a ZigBee signal out to the bulbs, changing their color (yep, you still need the Philips bridge to use Hue bulbs with Staples Connect, at least for now). The activity worked like a charm each time, and never with any noticeable lag.

Next, I moved on to something a little more difficult: an activity involving two distinct protocols. After adding a Yale smart deadbolt to my system, I programmed the Hue bulbs to turn green whenever I unlocked the deadbolt and red whenever I locked it. Again, the activity worked perfectly, the lights changing almost instantly each time. I tried out some timed activities as well, with equally satisfying results.

For now, iPhone and Android users will have to log on to the Staples Connect Web site in order to create new automation activities. Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

One gripe, though: as of this writing, you can only create new activities from the iPad version of the app. iPhone and Android users can trigger existing activities, but will have to log on to the Web interface to add new ones. Zonoff tells me that an update to the iPhone app that includes support for activity creation is coming "in the next week or two," and that users of all devices should expect updates on "a pretty regular basis."

Beyond the activities, you'll also have remote control of your devices within the app. If you want to unlock the deadbolt or change the color of the Hue bulbs, you're just a few taps away. My only complaint with these controls is that they're often a bit basic and not quite as extensive as you'd find in the device's native app or software. You won't be able to send your Hue bulbs into a preprogrammed party mode, for instance, and you won't be able to automate your deadbolt based on the specific user code that's being entered. For times like this, when you need more than a basic level of control, you'll probably find yourself back in the Philips Hue app, or punching settings directly into your lock. Consumers who expect a master hub to offer near-total control over their devices might find this a little bit disappointing.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Conclusion
Is Staples Connect the one device to rule them all? It could be at some point, but it isn't yet -- and neither is anything else. No system has locked down compatibility with enough products to claim a stranglehold on the market, and none of them offer anything near full, across-the-board functionality for everything in your system.

But Staples is off to a very solid start, with a strong variety of products, an easy-to-use app, and enough basic controls to merit early adoption. Its hardware partnership with Linksys is worth remembering, too, as we might be nearing a point where devices like these don't just plug into routers but replace them altogether. Most important is the price, which for most consumers will clearly be an easier sell than the $299 Revolv. Guessing exactly where the market is headed would be a gamble, but at $99, it's an affordable one.

What you'll pay

Pricing is currently unavailable.

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Where to Buy

Staples Connect Hub

Part Number: HA1000

MSRP: $99.00

See manufacturer website for availability.