Editor's Note (May 2, 2016): Due to ongoing issues with performance and reliability, we are suspending our recommendation for the SmartThings Hub 2.0. Read this post for more details.
The smart home market is a crowded space. There are so many brands showcasing their DIY "product of the day" that it's hard to keep track of what's what. That's where products like Samsung's $99/£100 (converting to about AU$140) second-generation SmartThings Hub come into play.
This Z-Wave- and ZigBee-enabled gizmo connects to your Wi-Fi router and it, along with the SmartThings' related Android, iOS or Windows app, act as filters for all of the connected stuff in your house. The goal is to eliminate, or at least reduce the need to switch between multiple apps or plug tons of different single-protocol hubs into your router.
It doesn't hurt that SmartThings integrates with a particularly impressive number of products both directly and indirectly, through its IFTTT channel and its developer community. And its performance speaks for itself, it works very well. Unfortunately, its app interface (I used the iOS version) is confusing and adds frustration to a system specifically designed to simplify your smart home setup. It also has a built-in Bluetooth radio, but SmartThings hasn't activated it yet (SmartThings has plans for various updates in the coming months, though, so we'll be sure to update this review accordingly).
While the second-gen SmartThings isn't perfect today, it still outperforms hub equivalents from, , , and the . I can comfortably recommend it to anyone interested in diving head-first into the wide world of third-party smart home integrations.
New features, same hunk o' white plastic
I get it. Smart home hubs need to blend in with all sorts of different design aesthetics to avoid alienating potential buyers. But, I am pretty tired of the bland plastic cube-hub look.
I can't blame SmartThings entirely for my frustration, because it's the default for a ton of brands (with the exception of the now-defunct, which was bright red, teardrop-shaped and delightfully different). But, SmartThings definitely didn't take any innovative design detours with its second-gen hub.
Still there's a ton of useful tech tucked inside the thing, so as long as I can shove it in a cabinet next to my router, I guess its utilitarian-ness doesn't offend all that much.
Speaking of useful tech, Samsung's SmartThings brand added a Bluetooth radio to its existing ZigBee and Z-Wave protocol lineup andwith various , and more. Unfortunately, the Bluetooth radio isn't active yet. SmartThings' CEO Alex Hawkinson told me that it should be active within the next six months or so, and that the team is waiting for protocol improvements including mesh networking designed to extend the existing Bluetooth range.
SmartThings also boasts a very active developer community, where anyone with the programming chops can tackle integrations between the hub and third-party stuff that isn't yet an official brand partner. A quick look at the website shows that individuals are regularly sharing details on ongoing projects as well as discussing new and innovative ways to integrate various devices with SmartThings. That level of inclusivity is pretty unique in this industry, and helps to boost SmartThings' overall appeal.
Factor all of the ZigBee-enabled SmartThings sensors (I connected a proximity "Arrival" sensor, a door/window "Multipurpose" sensor, a Motion sensor, a Water Leak sensor and a smart Outlet to the hub), both officially and unofficially-supported third party devices and itschannel into the equation and SmartThings has the lock on sheer number of potential product integrations and rule customizations.
Also new to the SmartThings Hub: battery backup with four included AA batteries and local storage of select home automations. The idea here is that certain triggers should still work even if you lose your Wi-Fi connection or your power altogether. This backup feature will only work for products that SmartThings specifically marks to work locally. Right now, it only supports smart lighting integrations, but SmartThings says it will be expanding support to its entire Smart Home Monitor section of the app in the future (that's where you can arm and disarm your system and create custom security-based alert rules).
For instance, your siren should go off if a door/window sensor or motion sensor detects activity (even if the hub is offline due to spotty Wi-Fi or a power outage). Of course, you won't receive any alerts on your phone (except for an initial warning that your SmartThings Hub went offline), but it's still nice to know that you'll have backup when you need it. SmartThings also has plans to add bundled kits to its product lineup in early October.
SmartThings' setup isn't all that smart
Samsung's SmartThings can do a lot, but the companion Android, iOS and Windows app is the single point of access between you and your system -- and that's a problem. I wish I could say that setup and overall app usability was seamless, but it was full of complications. This is mainly because the software is darn-near impossible to navigate in any intuitive way.
From setting up the hub to configuring the last SmartThings sensor, and even adding third-party devices like Philips' Hue LEDs into the mix, I was shocked by how hard it was to find whatever setting or configuration I was looking for.
And even when I did manage to find it, I still regularly struggled to understand the steps I needed to take to make the changes I had originally wanted. On more than one occasion I gave up, frustrated, only to return to it later to try again.
Given that most systems provide step-by-step tutorials that walk you through the installation, initial configuration and more advanced customizations, I'd have to say that the SmartThings app is among the most confusing I've ever encountered. That's partly because it can do so much -- you can add SmartThings sensors, third-party devices, in-app rules and, new for this version, even organize your various products by room -- but finding what you want and actually managing to configure it correctly was a true challenge.
Not convinced by my impassioned rant? See for yourself. Take a look at the screenshot of the app homepage to the right and try to make sense of it.
Remember those bundled kits I mentioned briefly earlier, though? According to SmartThings, they are supposed to walk you through the app configuration process from start to finish. That wouldn't help anyone who bought the SmartThings Hub as a standalone device, but it might make it easier for some folks to interact with the app. We'll be sure to update this review when we get our hands on a kit.
How does SmartThings perform?
Moving beyond my distaste for the odd app layout, SmartThings' performance was great.
I could view at-a-glance status updates of the various sensors and devices I had set up around the house and received prompt, reliable messages that alerted me to motion, an open or closed door, water leaks and more.