With an improved design and some thoughtful new features, Staples Connect is looking strong in 2015.
Smart-home devices have plenty of connected tricks up their collective sleeve, but thanks to a glut of walled-off wireless protocols they aren't always great at communicating with one another. That's where control devices like the Staples Connect hub come into play. Acting like a router for your gadgets, the hub uses a variety of built-in wireless radios to communicate with your stuff and ensure that everything plays well together within a singular user experience.
That's the same pitch as you'll hear from Wink and SmartThings , with hubs that cost $50 and $100, respectively. The new and improved D-Link version of the Staples Connect Hub sits right in the middle at $80. Aside from new support for Bluetooth and ZigBee, the D-Link hub boasts a better-looking build than the original Linksys version , as well as a design that lets you untether it from your router and stash it wherever you like.
The Staples Connect platform has seen a few key improvements since I last tested it, too. Along with sprucing up its controls a bit and adding a very helpful "Modes" feature, Zonoff (the Staples Connect platform provider) has announced support for new devices -- most recently, high-end smart televisions and Bose speakers.
However, you still won't find support for popular gadgets from Nest and Belkin WeMo (Zonoff tells us Nest support is coming in the next version of the app, due at the end of March), and camera support is limited to subpar options from D-Link only. If those are limitations you can live with, Staples Connect has a lot to offer, but if you're looking to start your smart home from scratch, consider waiting to see what happens with Apple HomeKit and SmartThings 2.0 before buying in.
The new Staples Connect Hub reinvents its build, eschewing the white, modem-esque design of the original in favor of a more modern black cylinder. It's bulkier than version 1.0, and it won't fit cleanly onto most router shelves, but you won't need to keep it plugged into your router if you don't want to -- a nice flexibility improvement over the original.
There's new hardware inside the thing, too -- namely, new radios for Bluetooth 4.0 and ZigBee. The latter is the more important one right now, as more and more connected lighting options seem to be coalescing around that protocol, but Bluetooth is playing a growing role in the smart home, too. Add the two of them in with the existing Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, and Lutron radios, and you're looking at a broader scale of compatibility than SmartThings (Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, and ZigBee) or Wink (the same, plus Bluetooth).
Staples can also claim greater compatibility on the software side of things, with native apps for Android and Windows 8 along with distinct iPhone and iPad apps for iOS users. There's also a full-featured Web-interface, something both Wink and SmartThings currently lack.
All of that adds up to a fairly rich ecosystem of products and features, but it isn't a perfect one. You still won't find any Belkin WeMo products integrated with Staples Connect (SmartThings supports them, and even just added direct compatibility with WeMo LEDs), nor will you find support for products in the Nest family, including the Nest Protect smoke detector and the Nest-acquired Dropcam Pro .
That last omission is the most notable. Staples Connect offers reasonable Nest alternatives in the thermostat and smoke detector categories, but the camera section is sorely underdeveloped, with native support for D-Link cameras only. Given the growing number of well-reviewed options in the connected camera space, Staples Connect seems to sit behind the curve.
Staples Connect is one of the easier smart home systems to get started with. Just plug the hub in, connect it with your router via Ethernet, then enter your Wi-Fi password into the app. After that, you can unplug it and move it somewhere else -- as soon as you plug it back in, it'll boot right back up.
Those are the same basic steps that you'll need to follow to set up a Wink Hub, but we've had hit-and-miss results with that system. Of the two, Staples Connect seems like the smoother experience to me.
Staples Connect also seems a lot better at pairing with devices. For my tests, I took the system home to my apartment and paired it with a Philips Hue LED, an Ecolink open/closed sensor, a Pico remote control from Lutron, a D-Link camera, and a variety of ZigBee light bulbs that we had on hand. With the exception of the D-Link camera, which required me to fiddle around with a separate D-Link app first, all of them paired quickly and easily.
Once everything is paired, you can begin setting up your system as you see fit. You can monitor and control your devices directly through the app, though not through the home screen, which is cluttered with grayed-out device categories you aren't even using, a quibble of mine that carries over from my review of Staples Connect 1.0.
To really put the hub to work, you'll need to start automating things. Staples Connect calls its automations "Activities," and the app does a decent job of streamlining the process of creating them. There are "Manual Activities" that you trigger by tapping a button in the app, and "Automatic Activities" that happen at specific time, or that get triggered by a specific device. Activities can automate several gadgets all at once, and you can set parameters for when they will and will not run.
You can also customize "Modes" to help contextualize data for the hub, and tell your Activities when they should and should not run. For instance, you could create an Activity that turns the lights and alarm on when a window gets opened, then set it to run in "Away" or "Vacation" modes, but not in "Home" mode.
Another nice feature of these Activities is that, in many cases, they'll continue to work even if the Internet goes down. The Staples Connect D-Link Hub keeps a local cache of your settings, so unless your activity requires it to send information to the cloud and back, it can still control devices without an Internet connection.
I tested this out with that Ecolink door sensor and a ZigBee LED. Even after unplugging my router and disabling my Wi-Fi network, I was still able to trigger automated lighting changes by opening or closing my door. That wouldn't have worked with Wink or SmartThings, both of which keep your automations stored in the cloud.
In general, everything I tested worked reliably well. The star of my tests was the Philips Hue LED, which never once lagged or failed to run as expected. This comes in spite of the fact that the hub doesn't communicate directly with the bulb. Instead, it sends commands to the Philips Hue Bridge, which you'll still need to keep plugged into your router.
What's somewhat surprising about that is that performance seemed slower with bulbs that were able to communicate directly with the hub. Specifically, I tested a Staples Connect-approved ZigBee LED from LG, and also two cheaper, more popular options: the GE Link LED and the Cree Connected LED , both of which cost $15 a pop. Though you won't yet find them listed as supported devices in the Staples Connect app, you can still add them manually as generic ZigBee bulbs.
All of the bulbs paired easily with the system, and I was able to control them through the app with minimal latency. Once I started automating them, however, things slowed down. I created a few different Activities that controlled all of my bulbs at once, including input from Lutron's Pico remote and the Ecolink door sensor. In each case, the Hue LED was always quick and snappy, while the rest would often lag behind by at least a few seconds. To rule out some kind of network issue, I moved my setup back to the office and repeated the tests, but saw the same laggy performance.
I spoke with Zonoff's engineers about the issue. They've tested the GE Link LED, and confirmed that it lags a bit when running on the current version of the Staples Connect software (version 7.6). What's more, when it's automated alongside other bulbs, it can slow them down, too. They haven't tested or certified the Cree LED yet, though they say they've received feedback from users that it works quite well.
I returned to my tests, and after removing the GE and Cree LEDs, found that the LG LED's lag was reduced to less than a half second when compared to the Hue LED. I added the Cree LED back into the equation, and it worked fine, too. Finally, I added the GE Link LED -- oddly enough, the lag was still gone, with all four lights turning on more or less simultaneously when triggered with the remote. The bottom line is that your performance may vary once you start adding unsupported devices.
The Zonoff team says they're working on optimizing the Staples Connect software to eliminate the GE Link LED's lag. Once that's done, they plan on adding it as a supported device in version 7.7, the same update that's expected to bring Nest support into the picture. As for the Cree LED, Zonoff tells me it's the next bulb on their list after GE, and that they tentatively expect to add support for it within the next few software updates.
Staples Connect has a lot going for it, and while I wish it supported a greater variety of cameras, the new hub gets a lot of important things right. It's easy to get the thing set up, it's easy to pair products with it, and it's easy to automate them. You don't need to keep it plugged into your router, and if the internet goes down, your automations should still run. It's a clear upgrade from the previous hub, and at $80, it costs less than the original did when it launched.
The connected home is still taking shape, and the arrival of software-based control setups like Apple HomeKit and Thread could potentially add a new wrinkle into the smart hub business model. That said, Staples Connect has been a slow, steady player in the space, and at this point, it's well-developed enough to stick around. It isn't as flashy or SmartThings or Wink, but it's cheaper than the former and more reliable than the latter. If you're looking to buy in now, give it a close look.