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WHICH: How to buy the best smart home hub

WHICH: How to buy the best smart home hub -  by Martin Pratt

Fancy using your smartphone to turn up the heating? Or switch on the lights with your voice? You can do all this with a smart hub.

As more of our household gadgets become internet-connected, from thermostats to light bulbs, it can be hard to keep track of which app controls what device. This is where a smart hub comes in, providing a central hub to manage and monitor your smart home.

The best smart hubs enable you to control multiple smart devices through a single interface. You can turn gadgets on and off with a swipe of your finger, or, in some cases, with your voice.

And with the best smart hubs, you can sync gadgets together by setting intelligent rules, such as, 'if my wireless camera detects movement then turn the radio on'.

Amazon Echo, Samsung SmartThings and more are fully tested in our smart home hub reviews.

Is a smart hub right for you?

Smart hubs are designed for people who already have, or are considering buying, multiple connected gadgets. If all you want is a wireless security camera in your kitchen, having a smart hub designed to control lots of devices is probably not necessary. If you're only planning to have one or two smart devices, a hub may not be necessary. However, if you want proximity sensors on a window or door, a wireless camera keeping an eye on the place and sockets you can switch on and off with your smartphone, a smart home hub will funnel all those devices into a single interface.

Smart hubs come in a variety of different packages. You can usually buy just the hub and add your preferred gadgets, or purchase starter kits with various sensors and extras included. Prices can range from less than £100 to more than £500 depending on what set-up you want.

What makes a good smart hub?  

Connectivity: Many hubs connect to your internet router using a physical Ethernet cable. That should give a steady internet connection, but also requires the hub to be close to your router. Some use Wi-Fi, which has the advantage of enabling more freedom in where you place the hub. However, if you have a large house with multiple floors or thick walls, range can be a factor. If you've ever experienced problems getting your Wi-Fi signal to reach the far corners of your home it's possible your Wi-Fi smart hub will have the same trouble.

Compatibility: If your smart hub doesn’t work with the devices you want to use, it could end up as an expensive ornament. Some manufacturers' hubs will only work with their own smart devices, whereas others can incorporate devices from a range of brands. Always check the devices you own, or are considering buying, are compatible with the hub before you buy. We list the device compatibility for every hub we test in the technical specs.

App or interface: The best smart hubs have an app or user interface that makes it a breeze to link up your smart home set-up. If an app is the main user interface, make sure it's compatible with your Android, iOS or Windows phone or tablet. Alongside everyday functions, it should be simple to sync your devices together in set scenarios. For example, when you walk through your front door, your proximity sensor will signal your lights to turn on and set the thermostat to your preferred temperature.

What else should I look out for?

Voice control: Some smart hubs enable you to control your devices with your voice. This can be a great feature as you don’t have to fiddle with menus and interfaces. However, only a few smart hub systems support voice control, such as the Amazon Echo, Google Home and new Apple HomePod, and there are often limits to what you can actually do with just your voice.

If this then that (IFTTT): Alongside setting scenarios directly from the app or user interface as covered above, some hubs support IFTTT principles. You sign up on the IFTTT website or download the iOS or Android app, and then follow the instructions to set your preferred scenarios or routines. Do bear in mind, however, that not all hubs support IFTTT and, even if they do, its uses can be limited.

Privacy and security: As with any internet-connected gadget, there are some privacy and security concerns to consider with a smart hub. This could be security loopholes that a hacker could exploit, or companies not properly looking after your personal data. We run extensive privacy and security tests on all smart hubs that we test to reveal the ones that take privacy and security seriously.

How much should you pay for a smart hub?

The price of a smart hub varies depending on what devices come with it. Typically, individual hubs cost around the £100 mark, but add devices and the price can more than double. Manufacturers will often advertise their hubs with a string of first-party accessories, but most will also sell the hub separately, so don't feel you need to buy one with devices you don't need or already have.

Voice-controlled hubs, such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home, tend to cost a little more due to the fact they have speakers built in. If you want something more conventional and you don't need a wireless speaker you could save money and go for a hub you control from a smartphone app.

There are even free apps that act as a smart hub. Apple HomeKit for iOS devices won't cost you a penny. You can see if it's as good as a dedicated hub in our Apple HomeKit review.


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