Updated for 2018
“All generalizations are false, including this one.” – Mark Twain
Whether you call these devices controllers, smart home hubs, bridges, or gateways, user requirements are unique, and with the possible exception of tube socks, there is no single one-size fits all product for everyone.
This article examines a wide variety of features and provides recommendations for the best home automation hub for those not willing to spend the often large amount of money required for professionally installed and monitored home automation controllers and systems.
The systems discussed here require some basic technical knowledge to implement and maintain, but unlike many of the open source do-it-yourself systems, the ability to write code and scripts, while helpful in many cases, is not absolutely required.
Home Automation Hub Feature Comparison Table
The information provided here is based on my research and/or testing and reader feedback. There may be discrepancies with the actual products.
This table will continue to receive updates as data becomes available and new products are released.
Suggestions on additional products or comparison features are always appreciated. Please let me know of any errors or omissions.
touch/hold to scroll right side of table on mobile display
|Insteon / X10|
|Windows Phone App|
|Apple Watch App|
|Mobile Device Alerts|
|SMS Text Alert|
|Amazon Echo Compatible|
|Built-In Display Panel/Control|
|–||? (future)||?||–||?||? (future)||–||–|
|–||–||–||$60 PLM||–||–||–||$80 PLM|
|1x USB 2.0||2 (future)||–||1||1||2||–||4|
|Free||Free||Free||Free with app purch.||Free||$9.99/mo|
|Securifi Almond 3||Samsung SmartThings||Flex Wink||Univ. Dev. ISY994iZ||VeraPlus||Lowes Iris||Nexia BR100NX||Home Troller Zee S2|
|?||some triggers||lights & switches||?||?||–||–||?|
|–||?||–||$25 (HA Pro)||?||–||?||–|
|–||?||?||$$ addition (MobileLinc)||?||–||–||–|
|Securifi Almond 3||Samsung SmartThings||Flex Wink||Univ. Dev. ISY994iZ||Vera Control VeraPlus||Lowes Iris||Nexia BR100NX||Home Seer Zee S2|
|–||via IFTTT||via IFTTT||?||?||?||?||?|
|–||? 10 hours||–||–||–||?||?||–|
1. Even if your controller or hub includes a battery backup, you may still want to consider a UPS as part of your system
Home Automation Hub Rankings
Criteria for a top rated home automation controller during this epic battle of standards includes: 1) multiple network support, including Z-Wave and Zigbee, 2) ability to operate basic automations standalone without an internet connection 3) IFTT (if this then that) support 4) no monthly fees, and 5) an available and well-documented developer API.
The reasonable price of the SmartThings Hub, multiple protocol support, IFTTT integration, Amazon Echo support, and increasing level of local control capabilities keep this near the top of the list of the best home automation hubs for novice and experienced users alike. Protocol support for Z-Wave, Zigbee, and Bluetooth LE (future) decrease the likelihood of this controller becoming obsolete the day after you purchase it. The backup battery, and Apple Watch, support are a nice bonus. See why you may still want to consider a UPS as part of your system even if your controller includes a battery backup.
Many of the SmartThing Hub’s automation triggers are still able to operate if your internet connection is lost, however, you will not be able to directly control your devices from your mobile device without an internet connection, even if you are connected directly to your home network.
SmartThings offers an innovative and flexible custom code development capability via it’s Groovy language interface. Even if you are not inclined to develop code yourself for the platform, some of the most useful capabilities for the SmartThings hub come from user-developed and third party content. It is not uncommon for a SmartThings community member to have a device handler available in less than a week after a new Z-Wave or Zigbee device hits the market – well before the device is made compatible with most other controllers.
The 3rd party developed SmartThings ActionTiles web client, is simple to install and provides a clean home dashboard interface. The user-developed WebCoRE provides what I consider to be the best and most innovative and sophisticated generic rule engine capability available for any of the home automation hubs on the market. Unfortunately, since Samsung does not currently allow this user developed rule capability to execute on the hub itself, it comes with a cloud execution latency price that can sometimes approach several seconds.
The limited local control capability, and occasional operations glitch are the primary drawbacks of the SmartThings Hub. The aggressive approach of supporting and encouraging user developed content ends up being a risk/reward decision for both SmartThings and its user base. Personally, I’m willing to pay the price of potential near-term system stability for the impressive flexibility and user community support that the SmartThings platform offers.
If your home automation or security needs are mission critical, you are concerned about a cloud dependency for your home automation system, or you are the type of person that gets terribly annoyed with the occasional cloud glitch, the SmartThings Hub may not be for you.
For more details, see the DarwinsDen.com Samsung SmartThings Hub V2 Review
HomeSeer provides home automation software capable of running on Windows, Linux, and Macintosh computers. In order to provide this Zee S2 all-one-one lower-cost hardware and software solution, HomeSeer has packaged their software running under Linux on a very capable Raspberry-Pi2 with a GPIO Z-Wave daughter card.
In addition to its included Z-Wave interface, the Zee S2 can control Insteon and X10 devices with an optional $80 Insteon Power Lync Module. The Zee S2 includes an Ethernet port and requires hardwired connectivity by default, however if a WiFi interface is important for your system, for a mere $10, you can pick up an optional USB Wifi Adapter – although it is somewhat limited in range.
The HomeSeer local interface can be extended for remote internet control by enabling port forwarding on your router, and HomeSeer also offers a free cloud option as well as free IOS and Android mobile apps with the unit. In addition to its cloud-based service, HomeSeer now offers free Amazon Echo and IFTTT integration, which are unique and powerful offerings for a system with such strong local control based capabilities. Lastly, for full system customization, the HomeSeer software supports a powerful scripting and device control API and an optional interface Designer application.
The Zee S2’s three main drawbacks are its slightly higher price than the other offerings discussed here, overall complexity, and lack of a Zigbee interface option. Although the Zee S2 didn’t get my top ranking, it may be exactly what you are looking for in a home controller if you are an engineer type hobbyist and tinkerer, you prefer secure, fast local control without of a cloud dependency, and you don’t need to try the latest peripheral devices the week after they are released.
I really like this controller and the HomeSeer software’s very functional, albeit somewhat engineering-geek oriented event management system. It’s a very different beast than the SmartThings Hub, and I use and appreciate them both. When I have a need for near mission critical control, complex interactions, secure local operation, or near real-time response with well established Z-Wave devices, I choose to use the Zee S2. For those cases where I need to connect both SmartThings and HomeSeer devices or actions together, IFTTT makes it feasible, if not relatively painless when simple two-state changes need to be communicated.
Not personally tested. The ISY994i Controller is a relatively expensive, but mature controller. The ISY994iZ model includes a Z-Wave interface on the device expansion slot. The Isy994i can alternatively support a Zigbee interface, however, only the Smart Energy Profile (SEP) is supported, and not the home automation HA standard protocal typically used for many Zigbee home automation devices. For an additional $60, an Insteon powerLinc module is a must-have option for those with existing Insteon devices.
The ISY994i sports a robust local interface that can be extended for remote internet control by enabling port forwarding on your router. Mobile device apps are available for purchase from third-party developers. Although the need to purchase 3rd party mobile apps is not as ideal as downloading the free apps that are available for many of other controllers, it is a small price to pay compared to a costly subscription service. The lack of Zigbee HA 1.2 support is the primary drawback of this controller. A mature UREST API is available for those who want to fully customize their set-up.
Not personally tested. The VeraPlus Home Controller boasts a mature interface supporting local processing of Z-Wave and Zigbee devices, as well as Apple IOS, Android, and Windows mobile device control via the MiOS Secure Cloud. The VeraEdge provides a flexible rule and notification set, and robust developer API
On paper, the VeraPlus commendably hits all the right bullet points. It is, however somewhat hard for me to pin down its user-base sweet-spot in today’s market. The VeraPlus may be worth considering if you are technically savvy, desire local, non cloud-based control, and want to use or experiment with a large complement of Z-Wave and Zigbee devices.
Vera competitors however offer compelling alternatives for users at the more extreme ends of the technical ability spectrum. For the less technically inclined for example, the SmartThings and Wink Hubs offer cleaner, more polished, and simpler to use interfaces. For the more technical user that wants a responsive/locally controlled, and (possibly boring) set-and-forget system using mature Z-Wave components, HomeSeer offers an extremely stable and mature option with its Zee S2.
The Wink Hub 2 is a reasonably priced device supporting an impressive protocol collection of Z-Wave, ZigBee, Lutron ClearConnect, Bluetooth LE, and Kidde. The Wink’s local control capabilities worked well for me in my testing, and it was comforting to know that my schedules and automations would continue to operate even if my internet connection or the Wink cloud was unavailable. I recommend the Wink 2 Hub for those who favor ease of use, reliability, and local control over device and integration flexibility.
After using the Wink Hub 2 in my home for several weeks, I was pleased with its intuitive and stable operation. When connected directly to my router using the included ethernet cable, my hub was 100% reliable with all of my sunrise and sunset lighting rules and simple Robot/automations executing flawlessly.
The relatively arduous process for adding devices, limited selection of fully compatible devices, limited rules and mode capabilities, and limited community and developer support were the Wink Hub’s chief negatives for me. For a detailed review of the Wink Hub 2 see the DarwinsDen.com Wink Hub 2 Home Automation Controller Review.
The Almond + was a Kickstarter project and is different from the other controllers reviewed here, in that it is primarily a powerful b/g/n/ac (AC1750) wireless router/extender that also includes Z-Wave and Zigbee interfaces. The Almond+ boasts very capable hardware, an intuitive user interface, snappy rule execution, and responsive manual device operations that execute locally on the device. Securifi’s free cloud service provides remote device and router controls.
I was impressed with the convenience of the built-in display control panel – and liked the idea of having a single device serving both your router and home automation needs. I really wanted to be able to recommend this device. The router capabilities worked well for us, and this device may work well for you if the idea of a consolidated simple router with rudimentary home automation capabilities appeals to you. Securifi is actively expanding its software feature set, but unfortunately, the current lack of automation interface features such as email, SMS text messaging, limited developer API, and limited IFTTT capabilities make this device difficult to recommend for the more serious home automation enthusiast. Ours came with a free Zigbee Peanut switch, which was a nice complementary addition.
For more details, see Darwin’s Den’s Securifi Almond+ Review.
Not personally tested. As with the Securifi Almond+, the Almond 3 is also a combination wireless router and home automation controller. The Almond 3 one-ups the Almond+ with a 100dB siren alarm, but unlike the Almond+, the Almond 3 only provides a Zigbee interface and requires a dongle to add Z-Wave capabilities.
As with the Almond+, this device may work well for you if the idea of a consolidated simple router with rudimentary home automation capabilities appeals to you. The current lack of automation interface features such as email, SMS text messaging, limited developer API, and limited IFTTT capabilities however, make this device difficult to recommend for the more serious home automation enthusiast.
Not personally tested. The Nexia BR100NX bridge is a Z-Wave only device that includes built-in battery back-up and provides an extensive alert and notification capability. Nexia‘s robust and mature interface, developer API, and integration with a variety of industrial devices have made this a popular option for years. Unfortunately, a subscription service is required with the bridge, and I am the type of person that immediately begins adding up costs for these services over typical 3-5 year periods. The BR100NX’s costly monthly service fee and Z-Wave only interface keep this device off of the top recommended list.
Not personally tested. From a hardware perspective, the newly revamped Lowes Iris Smart Hub has most everything you could ask for, including Z-Wave, Zigbee, and Bluetooth interfaces as well as battery back-up.
The low price of the Iris makes it a tempting option on first blush, however the costly $9.99/mo service for the most basic rule capability can make this a very expensive choice for many users. The ultimate power in these controllers is achieved by defining the rules that execute automatically to make your life easier and safer, such as turning the lights on at sunset or when motion is detected. Without paying the monthly service fee, you can still receive device notifications, but you will not be able to program automated functions beyond simple schedules.
If the security aspects are important to you, Lowes offers professional monitoring and cellular backup services at additional cost.
Reference these related DarwinsDen.com Feature Comparison Tables:
Home Automation Feature Terms and Glossary
The following Home Automation Glossary describes relevant features when evaluating and comparing smart-home controllers and systems. Several controllers support multiple protocols, decreasing the likelihood that they will soon become a casualty of the Home Automation standards battle.
A proprietary wireless communication specification developed in 2004 for secure low-power and low-latency device communication. The Z-Wave protocol employs a mesh network supporting up to 4 hops, allowing devices to relay communication to each other and extend the range of the network, while minimizing power consumption. Z-Wave networks are limited to a maximum of 232 devices.
Z-Wave devices operate around the 900 MHz frequency range which theoretically allows greater operating range for a given power consumption with unobstructed sensors compared to higher frequency protocols such as Zigbee. In practice however, Zigbee devices can have a greater range in highly obstructed home environments. Z-Wave devices generally have less compatibility issues among various controllers, due to several factors, including Sigma Design’s licensing restrictions.
In February 2016, UL approved the latest Z-Wave mesh protocol for UL 1023 burglar-alarm system compliance. UL 1023 approved products are not expected to be released until fall of 2016, however existing Z-Wave products that employ the newer 500-Series Sigma chip-set may be firmware-upgradeable for UL compliance.
An open wireless communication specification standard, established as IEEE 802.15.4 in 2003 for secure low-power and low-latency device communication. As with Z-Wave, the Zigee protocol employs a mesh network. Zigbee however supports a higher hop limit than Z-Wave, which can greatly extend the range of the network. Zigbee networks also can support a much higher number of devices than Z-Wave, with industrial systems sometimes having thousands of connected devices.
Zigbee devices operate in the 2.4 GHz frequency range and theoretically have a shorter operating range for a given power consumption with unobstructed sensors compared to Z-Wave. In practice, however, Zigbee devices can have greater range in highly obstructed home environments. Since the protocol is open, Zigbee device developers do not need to ensure compatibility with other manufacturers products, and Zigbee devices generally have more device compatibility issues than Z-Wave products.
Since Zigbee and WiFi channels both operate in the 2.4 GHz band, Home WiFi routers and Zigbee home automation systems can sometimes interfere with eachother under certain conditions, often with the Zigbee network taking the brunt of the issues.
Bluetooth Low Energy, also called Bluetooth LE, BLE, and Bluetooth Smart, is a proprietary wireless communication specification developed in 2006 for secure low-power and low-latency device communication. Unlike Z-Wave and Zigee protocols, Bluetooth Low Energy devices do not currently support a mesh network topology. Bluetooth range extenders however are available, and Bluetooth mesh capability is currently in development.
Bluetooth Low energy operates at 2.4 GHz frequency range, and due to its very low power consumption, generally has an operating range less than both Zigbee and Z-Wave. Bluetooth LE is incompatible with standard Bluetooth, although integrated circuits supporting both standards are available.
A proprietary communication specification developed in 2005 that supports both secure wireless communication and communication over power lines. As with Z-Wave and Zigee, Insteon employs a mesh network, allowing devices to relay communication to each other and greatly extend the range of the network.
As with Z-Wave, Insteon devices operate at around the 900 MHz frequency range. Insteon is also X10 compatible.
An older device communication protocol developed in the 1970’s that supports communication over power lines as well as wireless communication. X10 devices generally cost less than their modern protocol counterparts.
The X10 protocol is slower, less secure and is generally considered less reliable than newer device protocols.
Many home automation controllers require an internet connection and a cloud service to operate. A controller that supports Local Control allows execution of your sensor rules and manual control of your sensors even if the cloud service or your internet service is unavailable.
The local control user interface can be implemented with a local web browser, mobile or desktop application, or a panel UI device.
Apple HomeKit is a holistic approach to solving the smart home quandry, and includes a device database, hierarchical taxonomy, protocols, strong encryption, and MFi device certification. Currently WiFi or Bluetooth LE is required for HomeKit interoperability, although gateways to other protocols are allowed.
A powerful capability when coupled with a home automation controller that allows you to integrate with the growing number of IFTTT capable devices and systems using straightforward “If This Then That” statements. For example if your controller supports IFTTT (pronounced “ift”), you can integrate an IFTTT weather service to add rules (referred to as “recipes”) that turn off garden watering if it’s raining.
While I highly recommend using controllers that are also capable of operating without an internet connection, cloud based IFTTT capabilities may be able to significantly enhance your system for non-critical, non-safety related operations.
Application Programming Interface / Software Development Kit / Integrated Development Environment. A well-developed API, SDK, or IDE for your controller allows you to fully customize your set-up and develop and integrate with bleeding edge technologies. Correspondingly, throughout the software development process, carrying out api testing is strongly recommended. Ultimately, building a solid automated API testing strategy ensures that your applications work consistently. Above all, API testing allows you to build a reliable framework for identifying defects at several layers of your application. Typically, this involves a high level programming or scripting language.
Originally Published: 29 February 2016