The most important first decision you will make when choosing your smart home solution explained.
Want a smart home? If you’ve finally decided to start dipping your toe in the water of setting up a smart home or adding some Home Automation features to your house then this guide will help you make the right decisions which will ensure your future-proofed.
Where do you start? What devices do you need? What is a hub and do you need one?
To get started in creating a Smart Home solution it helps to choose how you will run it first.
What I mean by that is related to how your smart home will connect things together. You can have things that communicate between themselves, things that communicate directly to the internet, and things that just communicate via Bluetooth.
Smart Home Devices & Solutions
There are 3 main choices (or technologies) to choose between when making the decision for the foundation of your Smart Home solution.
As I mentioned above this the first decision you make and it will affect a lot things in the future.
If you need help choosing, drop a comment below and I’ll be more than happy to help you decide on the best solution for your needs.
The choice you will make will decide:
- How many smart devices you can connect to your smart home
- How the devices will communicate with each other
- How you will control the devices – switches, voice, phones, remotes.
- How secure those devices might be considered
While I will make this post easy to understand and easy to digest, this foundational decision needs a little understanding. There isn’t necessarily a bad decision here but it can make life a lot easier if you understand the foundational first choice.
The three solutions we are going to cover here include:
- Wifi – connects directly to external sources to trigger devices and events
- Smart Home Hub – normally uses Z-Wave or Zigbee
- Bluetooth Hub / Connections
I think it’s important to state here (for you power users) that these are generalisations around each of these technologies. The point of this post is not for advanced users but for people learning the basics about setting up their own smart home solution.
1: WiFi Smart Home
A WiFi Smart Home device is typically managed by connecting your devices directly to the internet. From there the device connects to a cloud service which sends a signal to and from your devices.
e.g A smart blub, like the LIFX bulb range, connects to the web.
1: You download an app to your smartphone which helps you connect the Smart Blub to the internet through a simple set up process.
2: When you open the device’s app on your phone you can turn the bulb on (or off, or change it’s colour etc).
3: It then connects to the LIFX servers in the cloud and the servers then send a signal to the bulbs.
This is the same setup and process to most WiFi Smart devices, see our list below of WiFI Devices.
Do WiFi smart devices work with Smart Assistants?
Yes, WiFi devices generally work with Amazon Alexa, Google Home but not always Apple Home (HomeKit).
Pros and Cons of WiFi Smart Home Solutions
- Usually more affordable
- Don’t need a special home hub or gateway device to connect to in the house
- Works well with external services like IFTTT
- Can be controlled from anywhere in the world
- Limited range of device types – lots of bulbs, not a lot of switches etc.
- Updates are OTA (over-the-air), if they are available.
- If the WiFi drops out, you can’t control your device
- Some might argue there are security risks having your home constantly connected to the internet via WiFi
- Set up can be a little annoying
- This is a 1-to-1 connection. The devices will not communicate with others on the network without connecting a third-party service like IFTTT.
Examples of WiFi Smart Home Devices
- LIFX Smart Bulbs
- August Smart Lock
- Ring Doorbell
- Nest Cameras
- Tailwind Smart Garage Door (see our full review of the Tailwind Garage Door)
2: Smart Home Hub
A smart home hub is a device, normally about the size of a small Pizza, that acts as a hub, or central control device that manages all the other devices. While most of these units do need connectivity to the internet to operate with full features operating, some can operate without needing to be connected to the internet, usually with some limited features.
This means if there is no WiFi, your smart home might still operate no problem.
Smart Home Hubs tend to have their own way of communicating with each other. While some use a closed WiFi network (one that doesn’t require internet connectivity) a great number of them use one of two other technologies.
One is called Z-Wave and one is called Zigbee. These are similar technologies that are called ‘mesh networks’. This means that each device in the home acts as a repeater – to and from the Smart Home Home Hub.
How Smart Home Hubs Work
Essentially each device connected in the network acts as a repeater to connect to the next nearest device.
e.g. Let’s say you have a Smart Light Blub in your lounge and you want to turn it on. You ask Alexa to turn it on. Alexa, turn on the lounge light. Alexa tells your Smart Home Hub to turn on the lounge light.
Your lounge light is a long way from your Smart Home Hub so your Hub tells a Smart Switch that you have in your hallway to connect to the Lounge Light.
A bit like this: Alexa, turn on the lounge light > Alexa tells Hub > Hub tells Smart Switch > Smart Switch tells Lounge Light. [Lounge Light Turns ON]. Lounge Light tells Smart Switch that it’s turned on > Smart Switch tells Hub > Hub tells Alexa > Alexa says ‘OK’.
It’s important to note here that Smart Home Hubs that operate using Z-Wave or Zigbee have access to a lot more devices that WiFi or Bluetooth. These include devices like:
- Water leak devices
- Humidity Sensors
- Motion Senors / Occupancy Sensors
- Energy Consumption devices
- Door and Window sensors
Build or Buy a Smart Home Hub?
There are two main ways to get into a smart home hub.
1: The first is to buy a commercial ready to go system which we are covering in this post.
2: The second is to build your own using some of the open-source technology like Home Assistant and openHAB, combined with a Rasberry Pi unit or similar.
If you’re new to smart home solutions then the best advice I can offer is start with a commercial hub. They are affordable and it’s the best choice. You can play with building one after you really get to grips with what they can do.
I haven’t had the best time with Home Assistant but if you love to tinker and love to learn, it’s a good choice.
Z-Wave is becoming more common, and a more popular, type of smart home hub technology. We’ve done a separate review for the best Z-Wave Hubs.
It’s important to understand that Z-Wave has different frequencies around the world. This means you can’t buy a Z-Wave device in North America, say USA or Canada, and expect it will work in Australia or New Zealand. Zigbee is different in that it is the same globally.
Z-Wave comes in two formats currently. Z-Wave, the first widely adopted format, and now it’s Z-Wave Plus.
Z-Wave Plus is just the latest version of Z-Wave which includes faster response times, greater reach (between devices) and more compatibility with third-party devices, like Smart Switches, Smart Bulbs, Sensors etc.
Zigbee, as mentioned previously, works globally. It is very similar to Z-Wave in most ways except that distinction. Personally, I really like Zigbee. My Philips Hue bulbs and Yale Smart Lock use Zigbee and they work great.
There seem to be more Z-Wave products being created for Smart Home Automation setups but sometimes you will be able to find devices that have both.
Both Zigbee and Z-Wave are considered more secure as they are closed networks that don’t require any connectivity with the outside world i.e via WiFi or Ethernet.
Do Smart Home Hubs work with Smart Assistants?
Most do; any worth considering. This does require access to the internet, this is because the Smart Home assistant needs to connect to the internet to process your request, and this then sends a request to your Smart Home Hub.
If the internet is down, your Smart Home Hub will most likely work but your smart Assistant won’t.
It’s probably worth saying at this point, that it’s rare these days your WiFi fails, but it might, and does still sometimes happen. So if it’s important for you to control your home, without WiFi, a Smart Home Hub might be a good choice.
Pros and Cons of Smart Home Hubs (Zigbee / Z-Wave)
- More secure – can operate without internet connectivity
- Faster, as requests are actioned locally, within your house.
- Loads of interoperable devices
- Devices you won’t get through WiFI or Bluetooth
- Can create linked actions e.g. If the light in the room drops below a certain Lux, then turn on the light (without needing IFTTT).
- Can be more expensive, but actually cheaper, in the long run, the more devices you add on.
- Depending on the hub – it can be more fiddly connecting them
Examples of Smart Home Hubs
- Samsung SmartThings – has Bluetooth, Zigbee, Z-Wave & WiFi. Probably the Top Pick for starting up a Smart Home Solution.
- Echo Plus – has Zigbee built-in + WiFi options
- Google Home – really just WiFi on this one
- Abode Security System – also acts as a Smart Home hub with Z-Wave, Zigbee & WiFi. Also works with IFTTT, Alexa and Google Home. HomeKit is said to be coming still. See our full review of the Abode system here.
- Apple TV – this isn’t recommended. It only has Apple HomeKit, there are few devices to match and it’s a pain to work with.
- Hubitat – following behind SmartThings and filling in all the gaps as quickly as possible. Still not quite as many devices as SmartThings but a real contender and not a bad choice at all.
3: Bluetooth Smart Home set up
Bluetooth hubs and smart devices are usually hybrid. By this I mean they connect via Bluetooth and WiFi.
An example of this is a Smart Lock. You install an app on your phone, then connect to the Lock to set it up.
Once it’s set up you can unlock (and lock) your door Lock as you approach. It detects your phone and then the Lock unlocks for you.
There are other devices you can action via Bluetooth (without your phone) also if the device is within range of a Bluetooth Hub.
Bluetooth Hubs are not common. The Samsung SmartThings Hub includes it, the Apple TV has it but it’s not well developed and in our opinion, should probably be skipped over.
There are some Bluetooth devices that work well with proximity sensing, like smart locks, but these are the best example we could give.
Pros and Cons of Bluetooth Home Hubs
- Secure (if not connected to WiFi, which they usually are for Air bnb hosts etc)
- Effective at short distances
- Has to be close enough for the Bluetooth to reach (usually about 20-30 feet)
- Doesn’t act as repeaters – limited reach
- Limited range of products available
Best Recommendation for Smart Home Hub
For all-round smart home goodness, you should for something that has
- loads of devices that integrate
- a massive user base
- years of being tested
For any fun at all, it needs to have the ability to run advanced routines like ‘If the Sun goes down THEN turn on the Lounge Light but ONLY if I am home”. For this, we’d recommend the Samsung SmartThings Hub.
If you want what the Samsung SmartThings hub offers but with a foundation of Home Security, then the Abode Security System – either then Gen 2 model or the iota – would be our strong recommendation. If you just want to run a couple of light bulbs in the house then the Alexa Echo Plus is a perfect and simple choice.
Abode Security System – Gen 2
In summary again:
- Just a smart home? choose Samsung Smart Things
- Security system first, and a Smart Home hub? – choose Abode Security System.
The Samsung SmartThings hub has more devices that integrate with it. The Abode has plenty but if it’s ONLY for making your home smart, the SmartThings takes it
Hopefully, we’ve helped you to understand the importance of that first decision for your smart home solution. Wifi devices or Smart Hub or Bluetooth.
If you’re asking us, as previously mentioned, we’d definitely recommend choosing a Smart Home Hub as the foundation for your smart home solution. It will offer you infinitely more choices over time and so many more devices to connect with.
Ideally, the Hub you choose will have:
- Loads of hardware that can integrate
- Something that supports Z-Wave and Zigbee
- Has been around a while and is well tested
- Integrates with Smart Home assistants like Alexa, Google Home (and maybe Apple)
- Has an easy to use interface
- Includes the ability to create simple and advanced routines (or schedules)
Hope that helps, ask any questions below.
This post was last updated on 2021-04-23 / Some images from Amazon Product API & some links may be affiliate links which may earn us a commission from purchases.