Smart-home showdown: SmartThings vs. Wink

Your smart home needs a brain, and these two systems are battling for the job.

Smart Home
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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The smart home dominated the conversation at last January's Consumer Electronics Showcase in Las Vegas, with everything from programmable LED light bulbs to Wi-Fi-ready kitchen appliances enjoying a turn in the spotlight. Since then, though, we've seen the ever-expanding universe of connected gadgetry struggle to come together into something both compelling and accessible to mainstream consumers.

At the center of this glut of tech, you'll find the hubs and smart home platforms working to bring order to the chaos. Among these are two standouts: Quirky's Wink platform, and recent Samsung acquisition SmartThings. Both offer the right mix of base product offerings and third-party integrations necessary to build a comprehensive smart home setup, and both offer well-developed apps capable of controlling everything from a single interface.

They've both been busy making headlines, too. Just yesterday, Wink announced seven new bargain-priced smart gadgets, while SmartThings announced full integrations with Samsung's line of smart appliances. Both look like potential frontrunners to anchor the connected home of tomorrow -- but how do they stack up today?

At $99, the SmartThings Hub is the brain of the system. Colin West McDonald/CNET

A tale of two hubs

If sensors and gizmos are the nerves and muscles of a smart home, then the hub is the brain, interpreting the data and issuing out commands accordingly. You'll find hubs at the center of both SmartThings and Wink's product lineup, with a few key differences between the two.

The Wink Hub has the upper hand on wireless standards -- the languages of smart home gadgetry -- by boasting built-in radios fluent in Bluetooth, Zigbee, and Z-Wave, along with proprietary standards from Lutron and Kidde. The SmartThings Hub only speaks Zigbee and Z-Wave, and doesn't have built-in Wi-Fi like the Wink Hub does, which means you'll need to keep it plugged into your router.

At $100, the SmartThings Hub is also the more expensive of the two, costing twice as much as the Wink Hub -- and that's before you factor in Quirky's aggressive and frequent promotions, where a Wink Hub can be had for as little as $0.99 if bundled with the types of smart-home products you're probably interested in buying anyway.

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The Wink Relay is a high-powered, high-end alternative to the more affordable Wink Hub. Wink

For those looking to splurge on a high-end hub alternative, Quirky will also be releasing the $300 Wink Relay by year's end. With programmable smart buttons and built-in touchscreen controls, it's less a hub than a command post for the connected home -- and SmartThings doesn't offer anything of the sort.

Hardware vs. software

A single hub does not a smart home make -- you need gadgets that actually do things, and sensors capable of understanding what's happening around the home on a contextual level. To this end, Wink and SmartThings both offer a slate of proprietary hardware that you'll be able to add to your system.

SmartThings tacks traditional here, with appearances by all of the usual suspects -- motion detection, presence sensing, and the like. Each type of sensor worked well when I tested the system out last year , and many of them serve double duty by detecting room temperature, too.

SmartThings' sensors work well, and many of them perform multiple functions. Colin West McDonald/CNET

Wink is working to catch up, though, with a growing field of base products capable of keeping tabs on what's happening at home. In addition to general devices like open/closed sensors and a leak detector, Quirky offers several gadgets that serve more specific roles in the smart home, like Ascend , the system's new connected garage door opener. You'll also find fringe devices that live up to the Quirky name, including a smart propane tank scale , a connected egg tray , and an app-enabled piggy bank .

Options aside, Quirky's Wink-enabled products haven't always performed up to our expectations. For instance, take the Quirky Spotter Multipurpose Sensor , an intriguing device that promises to monitor motion, light, sound, temperature, and humidity wherever you stick it for just $50. I was excited to test it out, but found its wonky performance to be too unreliable for serious usage.

As of right now, the Spotter is Wink's only proprietary means of detecting motion -- a fairly critical component of almost any smart home setup. That's probably a key reason why Quirky pushed ahead with the soon-to-be-released Spotter Uniq , a modular redesign of the original Spotter, and its first second-gen smart home gadget. We'll see if it works any better than before as soon as we're able to test one out.

Wink's app makes automation easy, and looks good doing it. Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

On the software side of things, both SmartThings and Wink offer fairly robust apps that give you plenty of controls over your smart setup. Both feature dashboards from which you'll be able to monitor each device or add a new one to your system, and both are designed to make it easy to shop for new gadgets.

I give Wink a bit of an edge here, though, as its app sports a slightly more appealing design. Additionally (and probably more importantly), Wink makes it easier to program automations between devices. Wink calls them "Robots" and guides you through each step of the process in a simplified fashion.

SmartThings' app is no less powerful (and quite arguably more so), but you won't find such a neatly linear process for crafting those key automations. Controls are often weirdly segmented into different sections of the app, with sometimes redundant features muddying the process and creating more of a learning curve than you'll find with Wink.

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Third-party integrations

Beyond the base hardware, both SmartThings and Wink aim to work with most all of the popular smart home gadgets on the market today. Both platforms now offer support for Dropcam and the Nest Learning Thermostat , along with Philips Hue LEDs , Schlage touchscreen deadbolts , and a whole host of other third-party devices. One small advantage for SmartThings: you'll be able to integrate Belkin WeMo products, which aren't currently supported by Wink.

Both systems offer support for the popular online automation service IFTTT, with dedicated channels for each of Wink's top products, and a single, multi-functional channel for SmartThings. I actually prefer the SmartThings approach, as it includes functions for product categories not yet represented on IFTTT, such as deadbolts. If you want to lock your door automatically using IFTTT, you can do that with SmartThings -- you can't with Wink.

SmartThings can also claim a greater deal of support for connected appliances like refrigerators and washing machines -- just so long as they're made by Samsung. The most notable large appliance Wink can claim compatibility with is Quirky's own Aros Smart Air Conditioner , which -- like several other Quirky gadgets -- you're able to control through SmartThings, too.

Final considerations

There's a lot to like about both of these platforms, though neither one is a perfect option. With more advanced controls and a thriving community of developers working every day to make the system smarter, SmartThings looks like the better fit for more tech-minded users.

Wink, on the other hand, clearly seems to be geared more towards mainstream smart home novices. The brand has picked up quite a bit of steam this year with its focus on well-priced in-store promotions and clever marketing campaigns featuring the likes of robot butlers and a shirtless Jeff Goldblum. As 2015 nears, Wink looks poised to keep the momentum going with its fresh slate of new gadgets.

Moving forward, the chances are very good that there's room for both platforms in the future of the smart home. The key to growth will be to find the right combination of accessibility and clear-cut functionality. The buzzier Wink platform has definitely grabbed some attention this year -- the challenge now will be to hold it.

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