Selecting a hub for the CNET Smart Home

Wondering how to achieve your large-scale home automation dreams? A hub can help. Here's how we decided which one to stick in the CNET Smart Home.

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Editors' note (April 20, 2016): Due to ongoing issues with performance and reliability, SmartThings' hub no longer controls the CNET Smart Home. Check out this post for more details.

Yep, we bought a house, the "CNET Smart Home" -- our new spot for testing out as many connected gadgets and gizmos as we can get our hands on.

We've already outfitted the house with a top-notch Wi-Fi router and extenders to achieve the best Wi-Fi signal possible. That way, we're ready to review anything from a security camera in the entryway to a plant sensor in a far corner of the yard -- and everything in between.

At the same time, we're also transforming this 5,800 square-foot house into a standalone smart home, separate from the products we happen to be testing at any given time. That means that it's time to start adding actual hardware to it and we're faced with the same challenges as any consumer: which devices would work well for this particular house?

Because we have plans to incorporate so many connected products, we decided that a central hub with a universal app would be a good idea. We'll likely need to install more than one for the purposes of our testing, but for now the second-generation SmartThings Hub makes the most sense for the CNET Smart Home, due to its impressive performance and the large number of devices it works with from other manufacturers.

That said, we aren't totally blown away by any of the options available today and the smart-home category is moving too fast to permanently embrace one hub and ignore what's on the horizon.

Keep reading for a more detailed look at why we decided on a hub and how we chose to start with SmartThings in particular -- it might just help you decide what makes the most sense for your home.

Do you need a hub?

Designing a smart home can be super confusing, particularly if you plan to set up multiple connected devices from a variety of brands. That's because each smart home product only interacts with certain other products, if it interacts with others at all, and they all have their own control apps with different settings and different degrees of customization.

Enter the hub, one device that connects to your router and helps unite third-party products that speak different wireless languages -- like Z-Wave and ZigBee -- under one, universal app. It sounds great, right?

But this utilitarian hunk of tech has drawbacks, too. None of the hubs we've tested supports every smart gizmo out there, so choosing a specific one means that you're limiting your buying options to some extent.

In addition, that whole universal app thing doesn't come close to matching its utopian ideal in practice; it's tough to build an app that accounts for the full functionality of each individual device, especially when those devices are manufactured and sold by competing brands.

Even so, a central hub, either from a DIY brand like SmartThings , Wink , Insteon , Staples or Lowe's or from a professional firm like ADT or AT&T can actually streamline a connected home and make all of those once-disparate devices play well together.

But, there's really no point in starting with a hub if you're not sold on the idea of a complete smart home. In other words, if you're more interested in easing into home automation, I strongly suggest skipping over the hub step entirely. Instead, I'd pick one category that interests you the most -- climate, lighting, security, etc. -- and expand from there as you see fit.

As you know, though, we're kind of committed to this whole smart home thing and linking one main access point to most of the connected stuff in the CNET Smart Home sounds like a win. Picking a hub doesn't mean that we won't be able to test non-hub-compatible stuff at the house, it just means that those devices won't be accessible from the hub's "universal" app.

Why we chose SmartThings

The $99/£100 second-generation SmartThings Hub just launched this month, and it's an improvement over the brand's previous iteration from 2013 -- for the most part.

Version 2.0 retains the Z-Wave and ZigBee communication protocols, the IFTTT channel, the active developer community and the reliable performance of its predecessor, but the next-gen model boasts new integrations with Belkin WeMo products , Amazon Echo and others as well as new features like battery backup and local storage of select automations (so that certain rules will continue to run for up to 10 hours or so even if you lose power).

It also has a built-in Bluetooth radio that hasn't yet been activated, but is supposed to be sent "live" within the next six months, according to SmartThings CEO Alex Hawkinson. That should expand its capabilities and the list of products it works with even further.

The main problem is that the SmartThings app is confusing. It has so many different screens and functions that actually locating the correct screen to perform the function you want is harder than it should be. That puts a serious damper on its overall usability, but SmartThings claims to have updates in the works, along with new bundled kits that should go on sale soon complete with better setup tutorials so that you don't get quite so lost in the app.

The HomeKit-enabled Insteon Hub Pro. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

As frustrating as its interface might be, SmartThings starts to look better and better when you look at the competition.

The $50 Wink Hub costs less than SmartThings, but it didn't always deliver reliable performance. In addition, its parent company, Quirky, announced that it was filing for bankruptcy earlier this week and that it would be selling its Wink smart-home platform. That doesn't bode well for the future of the Wink product family.

Staples Connect and Lowe's Iris are two other hubs we reviewed; Staples Connect worked well, but its universal app wasn't as good as the various third-party devices' original software and Lowe's charges $10 per month for its Iris features (that's pricey considering that none of the other hubs have fees, excluding the $5 optional monthly fee that SmartThings will start charging in 2016 if you have a connected camera and want to store video clips).

Insteon's HomeKit-compatible Hub Pro is an interesting option given that it works with Siri voice commands, but HomeKit has only rolled out some of its features, so it's too limited for use at the CNET Smart Home today.

You might also consider your local custom home automation installer. These service providers are often staffed by technicians certified to install home automation tech from providers like Control4, Crestron, or Vivant. They offer extensive customization options, high-end components, and often integrate with your home entertainment system as well. The benefits are similar to the options from ADT; someone else does the install for you, you might have a service contract included in case something goes wrong, but they can also be even more expensive both in the initial installation and via ongoing fees.

What's next?

As you've probably guessed, picking a hub is really just the beginning for us. We'll be adding all sorts of connected stuff to SmartThings, including lights, thermostats, locks, security cameras and more.

And while we've decided to start building out the CNET Smart Home with SmartThings' second-gen hub, it doesn't mean that this device is perfect or that we won't be trying out other options in the coming months. There's so much potential for voice-control hubs like Insteon's Hub Pro and even professional firms like ADT's Pulse and AT&T's Digital Life to join the conversation so check back soon for updates.

In the meantime, take a look at our new landing page, your digital access point to all things CNET Smart Home.