The Best Smart Hub

A smart hub is the centerpiece of any smart home. It channels signals from all your devices so you can control everything from a single app — that way, you don’t have to juggle five, 10, sometimes 20 different apps to get the most of your technology. A great smart hub will support all the equipment you want in your home; whether that means full-fledged automation and home security, or just a few cool gadgets for entertaining guests. But which one does it best?

The truth is, there isn’t a single “best smart hub.” Smart devices are still a relatively new market, which means companies are finding their footing and defining the identities of these hubs — a gold standard hasn’t been agreed upon yet. As a result, the market is saturated with options: plain hubs, hubs with voice assistants, hubs with routers, competing wireless protocols, different product integrations — you get the idea.

If you’re on track to build a 100 percent smart home, then you’ll want the Samsung SmartThings Hub. It’s compatible with all the major wireless protocols, smart brands, and home security tech, so your device options won’t be limited. It’s also ultra-easy to set up and automate, and discreet enough to tuck away in any corner of your home.

For those looking to go the voice control route, we recommend the Amazon Echo Plus. Amazon’s Alexa remains one of the most versatile voice assistants, with a wider range of capabilities than Google or Siri. The Plus also takes its ‘smart’ component more seriously than earlier Echos, with a built-in ZigBee hub for easier device connection (although it doesn’t yet match the SmartThings Hub for pairing ability).

For the audiophiles lovers out there, we stand by the Google Home Max. Its $400 price tag is sticker-shock-inducing, we know. But you get unparalleled sound and TV-streaming capabilities as well as Google’s voice assistant and smart home control features. It’s your best bet if you want maximum AV with minimal device purchasing.

Our Picks for the Best Smart Hub

Best Dedicated Smart Hub
Samsung SmartThings Hub
Samsung
A capable, versatile smart hub that will get all your smart devices working together in no time, though it lacks the voice assistant features of other hubs.

If all you need is a basic, get-the-job-done smart hub, then your search is over. The Samsung SmartThings Hub is the best standard smart hub on the market. It connects to a wide range of devices and wireless protocols, and is super easy to set up and program.

That "ease of use" factor is what really sets Samsung’s SmartThings apart from the competition. It starts with setup: After plugging your SmartThings Hub into ethernet and power sources, it’ll tell you to wait five to 30 minutes for configuration (ours only took 10). From there, syncing devices is a breeze. Unlike the Wink Hub or Amazon Echo, which make you log into individual accounts for each device, Samsung’s technology automatically detects and adds nearby smart things; it had our devices up and running faster than any other hub.

It also gives you thoughtful prompts along the way, explaining things like indicator lights and programming automation features. We found the guidance helpful, and appreciated that it didn’t go overboard like Wink’s — which walked us through setup for every new device.

SmartThings-app-for-Smart-Hub

The SmartThings app has truly helpful setup prompts that kept us in the loop about what was going on, how long it would take, and what to do next.

That same thoughtfulness carries over to Samsung’s automation. Its app suggests sequences like “Good Morning” or “Good Night,” and has a custom option, making it easy to set programs that fit your daily routine. You could, for instance, create a morning sequence that flips on the bedroom lights, turns the thermostat up a notch, and starts the radio playing automatically at 8am; all that’s left to you is actually getting out of bed. Most of the smart hubs we tested offer some version of this service, but not all of them were as useful or intuitive as Samsung’s. Lowe’s Iris Hub, for one, only let us choose from a list of pre-set sequences — which made it much less flexible.

SmartThings-Rooms-for-Smart-Hub

Samsung’s “Rooms” come in handy once you start adding more devices.
You won’t have to memorize whether “Philips Hue 1” is in the bedroom or the living room.

Let’s return to connectivity for a moment. The reason we like Samsung best for an all-out smart home is that it’ll connect seamlessly to more devices than either Amazon Echo or Google Home. Why? It’s specifically built to support smart home-focused wireless protocols including ZigBee, Z-Wave, Cloud-to-Cloud, and LAN. Devices that run on these networks will connect directly to the SmartThings Hub, whereas the other two may require an external bridge or an additional hub. Samsung cuts those intermediaries out, making it simpler (and less equipment-heavy) to keep all your devices in sync.

SmartThings for Smart Hub

The SmartThings hub is powerful enough to unite all your smart home devices, yet discreet enough that it’ll never be an eyesore in the house.

That said, the SmartThings Hub doesn’t come with the same built-in perks as the Amazon Echo or Google Home. There’s no speaker included, and you’ll have to purchase a second device if you want to use voice control. The SmartThings hub will get everything in your home connected, but doesn’t go above and beyond the call of duty. If you’re in the smart home world to impress your friends with hands-free pizza ordering, this may not be the ideal hub for you.

Keep in mind that Samsung’s hub is the cheapest of the group. It rings in at an affordable $90 (though we usually see it on sale for $80). By comparison, Amazon’s Echo Plus and the mid-range Google Home both cost around $150. That makes Samsung’s SmartThings a great starter hub for those testing out the smart tech waters. And with an extensive list of compatible devices and automation options, it can grow to suit even the most advanced users.

Our suggestion? Start here if you’re interested in trying out a variety of devices and automation features. If you decide you want voice assistance later, you can always throw an Echo or Google Home into the mix — both of them work with SmartThings.

Best Voice-Assisted Smart Hub
Amazon Echo Plus
Amazon
A sleek, sophisticated hub that brings both smart technology and Alexa’s voice assistance to the table.

If you’re on the fence between a voice assistant and a smart hub, Amazon’s Echo Plus lets you enjoy the best of both worlds. Like the full line of Echo products — Tap, Spot, Show, and Dot — the Plus gives you access to Alexa’s leading-edge voice technology. Unlike other versions of the Echo, it’s purpose-built to be compatible with a wider range of smart home products.

Amazon Echo and Echo Plus for Smart Hub

The Echo Plus is slightly larger and costs $50 more than the Echo, but includes a built-in ZigBee smart hub.

Amazon upped the ante with its smart speakers by integrating a ZigBee hub into the Echo Plus. This makes linking compatible devices as effortless as it is with the Samsung Hub — just plug them in and you’re good to go. Echo Plus users can immediately connect to the full range of ZigBee-enabled products; including Philips Hue lighting, Kwikset locks, ADT home security hubs, and more. By comparison, the original Echo and its offspring make you weed through multiple steps and sign-ins before you can start using any device.

Note that Echo Plus users are not limited to ZigBee-certified products. Many smart devices can still be connected to the hub through WiFi or Bluetooth — but if they use a different proprietary protocol (like Z-Wave), you may have to purchase a separate bridge or hub to translate the signal before it’ll connect to Alexa. The extra hoops you’ll jump through with Amazon’s Echo are why we still recommend the SmartThings Hub if you plan on going for all-out home automation.

That said, Amazon’s hub has a few perks that neither the Samsung SmartThings nor the Google Home can match. Namely: Alexa. Amazon cornered the market for voice control technology early on and remains at its leading edge. As of mid-2018, Alexa has an arsenal of over 30,000 “skills,” from maintaining your grocery list, to tracking packages, to booking a vacation (and most anything in between). While not all of these skills are necessarily worthwhile, Alexa’s list unquestionably trounces Google’s — which is currently resting at just under 2,000 skills.

Alexa-for-Smart-Hub

Along with controlling smart home devices and announcing the weather, Alexa offers advanced home automation features and third-party app integration.

What does that mean for your smart home? Basically, that Alexa is the closest you’ll get to having your very own Starship Enterprise. Automation features similar to Samsung’s allow you to say “Alexa, start my day,” and she’ll run through a customized sequence (turn on lights, announce the weather, check traffic, etc.). In addition — unlike the Google Home — Alexa can integrate with third-party apps. That means you can, for example, ask her to “Request an Uber ride from home to Safeway,” and a car will be on its way to take you to the store.

Alexa has mad skills.The range of things Alexa can do with voice control is stunning. Check out some of her coolest skills here.

It’s worth mentioning that while Alexa has a bigger skill repertoire, Google’s Assistant tops her for voice recognition. Alexa can’t yet pick up on different voices, so she’ll react the same way whether it’s you or your roommate asking her to “put on a chill playlist.” She’s also not as good at taking free-form commands, so you’ll have to stick to the recognized formulas when controlling your devices by voice.

Remember that the Echo Plus (and the rest of the Echo line, for that matter) can be connected to the Samsung SmartThings Hub — so if you’re worried about limited connectivity, that may still be your best bet. But for linking a mid-size collection of smart devices with voice control, it’s an awesome choice. Plus, enabling the bartender skill and having Alexa spit out gourmet cocktail recipes is a pretty neat party trick.

Best Smart Hub Speaker Combo
Google Home Max
Google
A powerful smart speaker with hub capabilities that make it a great center for any media-lover’s smart home.

The Google Home Max is our favorite hub for getting big results with just a small number of devices. With a powerful speaker system built-in, media streaming capabilities, and an intuitive voice assistant, the Google Home conquers more tasks from a single devices than any other hub. Its connectivity is a bit limited compared to the SmartThings Hub or the Echo Plus — but for casual users that want to play with a handful of devices, it’s a great fit.

Google Home and Home Max for Smart Hub

Google’s Max dwarfs the Google Home, but its bigger size comes with much bigger sound.

First, what we love about the Google Home Max: its powerhouse speaker. The Max is built for deep, rich, big sound. It houses two 4.5 inch woofers, two 0.7 inch custom tweeters, and six class D amplifiers. If that sounds like gibberish, think of it in CNet’s terms: “the Google speaker exhibited a huge sound… All of the elements are treated equally, and none of them jut out awkwardly.” To get comparable sound from another smart hub, you’d have to pair it with something like the Sonos Play:5 — which performs similarly, but costs $100 more.

Of course, a great speaker isn’t all the Google Home Max has going for it. It makes a pretty strong case as a smart hub, too. Like Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant lets you control your smart home devices with voice commands. You can toggle switches on and off, control home security devices, set automated routines, and so on. If your house is set up with Chromecast, Google Home also makes it easy to control what’s streaming on the TV or through connected speakers — making it an attractive media center.

Google-Max-Organize-Devices-for-Smart-Hub

Like our other top picks, the Google Home Max lets you add, organize, and automate your smart home devices for easy home control.

In terms of voice control, the Max has one leg up on the Echo Plus: Google Assistant is able to recognize different voices and tailor its responses accordingly. That means that if you say “Hey Google, let’s go to work,” the Home will check traffic on your commute, read out your calendar, adjust the smart devices you programmed — but if your roommate gives the same command, it will check traffic on their commute, and so on. This makes Google Home uniquely fit for multi-user smart homes, in comparison to our other top picks.

For extended range and voice control, pair the Max with a Google Home
($130) or this Google Home Mini ($50) in additional rooms. (Image: Google)

Like we said, though: There is a tradeoff in connectivity when you choose Google Home over the Samsung Hub or the Echo. With WiFi and Bluetooth capabilities, the Max is compatible with a fair number of smart home gadgets right off the bat. However, Google hasn’t yet added a ZigBee or Z-Wave hub like Amazon did with the Echo Plus — which means connecting devices on these newer protocols will be a bit of a hassle. You may have to purchase additional bridges or even pair the Home Max with another hub (like the Samsung SmartThings) for more options.

Because it doesn’t support these smart protocols, Google Home isn’t a smart hub in the strictest sense of the word. That’s why we don’t recommend it if your goal is to smart-outfit the whole house. But if you only want to control a few devices, then the bit of extra effort it takes to connect them with the Home won’t be overwhelming. And for the audiophiles out there who want smart sound without connecting multiple (pricey) devices, it’s the perfect solution.

Choosing the Best Smart Hub for You

Do You Need a Smart Hub ?

It depends on what devices you plan to use, and how many. A versatile smart hub like the Samsung SmartThings is a must if you plan on getting the whole house connected. Without it, you’ll end up controlling everything from separate apps — which isn’t much “smarter” than just getting up and flipping a switch. For next-level convenience (cut out the app and just talk to your products) the Google Home or Amazon Echo are a great choice.

But there are a few situations where it makes sense to skip the hub entirely. If you only want to automate one component of the house — say, lighting — then you can stick with a single brand like Philips Hue and just use the manufacturer’s app. Some brands even have a full line of products that can communicate with one another. This is often the case with home security systems; Nest, for example, makes cameras, doorbells, locks, and more, that can all be controlled by its central smart thermostat. Professional home monitoring systems, such as ADT and Vivint, come equipped with their own control panels that the company will install for you.

Before making the jump to a smart hub, consider whether your smart tech needs can be met by one of these all-inclusive companies. Keeping everything within one brand

Wireless Protocols

The other thing to think about when choosing a smart hub is whether it uses a unique wireless protocol. Like we said earlier; having a smart hub that’s ZigBee, or Z-Wave, or other smart protocol certified isn’t absolutely necessary. You can accomplish a lot of the same automation using your WiFi router and/ or your smartphone’s bluetooth capabilities. That said, there are some distinct advantages to connecting your smart home through a designated protocol.

The first is that a smart home protocol makes connecting devices much easier. The hub will often detect the devices and add them automatically — like the Samsung SmartThings does — taking out a couple extra steps on your end. It could also help your devices communicate more efficiently. Since smart home protocols operate on separate frequencies from WiFi or Bluetooth, the’ye less subject to interference and often run more smoothly. Z-Wave, in particular, is known for fast response time between devices.

In addition, smart home protocols may be more secure than simply using WiFi to connect your tech. We don’t mean to sound alarmist, but there is a certain amount of risk that comes with a smart home. If someone were to hack your WiFi, it could give them access to devices like smart locks and motion sensors — thus reducing the security of your home. Especially if you’re considering smart home security, it may be a good idea to go with a designated smart protocol. Both ZigBee and Z-Wave use AES-128 encryption to protect all signals transmitted between devices (that’s the same level of encryption used by online banks).

These benefits are part of the reason we recommend choosing a smart protocol-enabled hub, like the Samsung SmartThings or Amazon Echo Plus, for connecting a larger number of devices. For those that only want a few devices, or aren’t including home security in the smart package, a basic WiFi connection like the Google Home will do just fine.

Our Smart Hub Review: Summed-Up

Smart Hub The Best
Samsung SmartThings Hub Dedicated Smart Hub
Amazon Echo Plus Voice-Assisted Smart Hub
Google Home Max Smart Hub Speaker Combo

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