Home automation chatter has picked up over the past few months, especially now that Apple and Google are throwing their respective kits into the mix. There’s a plethora of approaches to introduce automation into our homes. Whether it’s Z-Wave to disengage your door lock or Zigbee to turn on your lights, the primary method to link up all the various protocols and centralize control is via a hub that rides your home network. And that’s what we’re looking at, three sub-$100 hubs – full of promise to tie together these protocols so that all our current and future home gadgetry play nicely together.
After spending a few weeks with the Staples Connect, SmartThings, and Wink hubs, I’ve come to realize that no one hub does it all… yet. Depending on your app interface taste (UI), technical know-how, determination, and patience, you’ll experience a different reaction from each of these hubs. Like the story of the 3 bears and porridge – based on your breakfast preferences, there is one that may be just right.
To give you an idea of my “just right” hub, I prefer to have a straightforward and simple UI. It shouldn’t be flashy and confusing, but basically do three things well: easily add your connected devices, show the status of those connected devices, and have the ability to automate those device functions via rules. Seems simple enough, right? So, as you read the following sections, keep in mind my preferences.
As for wireless compatibility, all three of these hubs support Z-Wave. The Staples Connect and Wink hub add Lutron’s Clear Connect wireless standard for lighting (and shades). Wink and SmartThings also support Zigbee. And, lastly, Wink adds Bluetooth 4.0 to the mix.
Let’s start with the least cooked, Wink. To be upfront, Wink should not have launched in the beginning of July and should have held off for a couple months, at least until the release of the GE Link LED lights. This would have given them time to update some annoyances with the Hub and provide a better out of box experience for users (especially the more technically daring ones). They also would have had momentum with a fairly cheap and easy product to integrate for your first home automation experience. Instead, the Wink hub ended up being a Jekyll and Hyde type of system. One minute working perfectly, the other a screaming mess of device status.
The Hub itself is a plain white square that sits up. Using Wifi, you’re able to place the Wink Hub wherever you want in your home, as long as it’s in range of your network. This is convenient if you want to try to centrally locate your hub for better coverage.
Setting up the Hub was easy enough. Using Bluetooth, the Hub can identify your controlling device (in this case my iPhone 5s), and share network information during the initial configuration. When I first setup my Wink account and connected the Hub, there was a notification that the Hub needed a firmware update. I started that process…then again, and again, and again. It seems that there was a bug in the initial release that made it seem as if the Hub needed an update when it did not. This was fixed in a subsequent update, but not a good feeling out of the box.
For devices, Wink tries to remove some of the complexity of connecting things to the hub by labeling them “Wink Compatible” or “Wink App Ready”. This means that when you go to add a device to your hub, you can easily find it in a predefined list. The Wink app (iOS / Google Play) even has a barcode scanner to easily find products. When using the Wink app, I visually find it simple and pleasing. Everything has it’s own category on the left side navigation (lights, sensors, cameras, etc.) and Wink even supports 3rd party services such as Dropcam, Philips Hue, and TCP Lighting. If you were paying attention to press release pictures, you would have also seen garage door integration with Chamberlain MyQ. This did not make it at launch and is slated for this fall. I was actually disappointed in this as the press release pictures definitely showed this integration.
Although adding devices within this list proved to be a challenge at times, I was able to successfully pair a Lutron in-wall dimmer, Lutron plug-in dimmer, a Leviton in-wall dimmer and a Kidde smoke detector. You can visit Wink’s site to see other devices that are compatible.
And that’s where the “fun” begins. Within each device category, you have the ability to set up shortcuts and/or robots for your devices. As a robot example, you can say when the Kidde smoke alarm detects smoke, turn on all lights. You are also able to setup shortcut buttons, as in “turn off all lights”. Timing ability is also available so you can also have devices change state at scheduled times. The creation of these is easy and straightforward, but I did run into issues regarding robots and shortcuts getting deleted. Multiple times I had to reboot the Wink Hub and by doing this, it seemed to delete/reset a lot of the devices and actions.
Another issue was that the Hub sometimes could not figure out a status of a device, even though the other two hubs had no issues. If you used the Wink app to turn on/off things, you are fine, but when you started to mix in turning on a light from the switch, the status would never seem to update the Wink Hup/app correctly. You were left guessing as to whether something was truly on or not. Also, there was always a few second delay when changing the status of things. It was not instantaneous as I would have hoped it would be.
This did not bode well for my confidence in any type of safety device (smoke alarms/locks/etc). Having a light be on when it should be off is one thing, but if you are relying on a system to notify you in case of a fire or if you door was locked/unlocked, I was left not feeling very confident that the Hub would actually work when needed. As much as I enjoyed the actual look and easy of use of the software, the reliability is just not there yet. Hopefully within the next few months, Wink works out the launch bugs.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is SmartThings. If the Wink Hub was too cold, the SmartThings Hub was too hot. Unlike, the Wink Hub, you need to have the SmartThings Hub plugged directly into one of your ports on your router. There is no wireless option to place the hub away from the router. This could limit where you might put the hub, but with my testing it had a strong wireless reach even putting it into the corner of the house. The hub itself is a very simplistic white slab that can easily be hidden away. The only indication of it being on is the LED lights from the back of the device.
Once hooked into my network, I downloaded the SmartThings app (iOS / Google Play). Upon opening the app for the first time, the hub indicated there was an available firmware. The update took the first time and I was then ready to start adding devices and services. When you first use the SmartThings app, it has a very simplified dashboard interface. There is a large “+” button on the bottom to add devices which, like the Wink Hub, is divided into different categories on the first screen. SmartThings offers a wide variety of devices that can be added to your hub. Just browse their compatibility list here to get an idea of the number of devices. Go ahead…I’ll be here when you get back.
Along with adding devices from the SmartSetup, you can swipe of the left to bring up other sections such as Alerts and Actions if you already have devices added to your hub. These sections are predefined “apps” that can be installed on the main screen, and that’s where the confusion started to set in when using SmartThings. As beautiful as the interface is, I found myself getting “lost” when trying to navigate the different menus of the app. Sure, adding devices was easy. There is even a section on the screen that tells you what the Hub is doing while you’re trying to add a device. But after adding the device and subsequent SmartApps, it became clear for me that this might “not be the droid I was looking for”.
The SmartThings app does have some very nice additions that the Wink app did not, such as location awareness and SmartThings Labs. With location awareness, you can have your Hub start to do things like turn off all lights and lock doors when everyone is out of the house. This was implemented by using your phone as the locator.
Labs are SmartThings way of letting users try additional services/devices prior to be being officially rolled out to the main categories. For instance, you have the ability to add a Sonos system to control from the app Dashboard. There was also a lab for the Jawbone Up 24. Put your Jawbone into sleep mode…automate your house for bedtime. Wake up in the morning, have your lights turn on before you even get out of bed. To see more about the SmartThings Labs, check out their site here for more information.
As nice as it was to use SmartThings compared to Wink, the issue I found was that having so many device options and so many ways to configure your home, it eventually lead to a type of analysis paralysis. There was just too many choices for me which lead to having a hard time using the application.
Reliability wise, SmartThings was definitely better than Wink. It was more responsive and less prone to showing false status. But when it came time to using the app, or changing configurations within the app, it sometimes became a lesson in frustration to know exactly where I was and what a “Front door smart app” was compared to the actual front door sensor device. SmartThings would be a great home automation option for those looking to have the most device support and most configurations possible.
Just Right (for now)
To my surprise, the Staples Connect provided the best solution for home automation to me compared to the Wink and SmartThings hub. If you were to take the navigational ease of use of Wink, and add the stability and device management of SmartThings, you would have Staples Connect. Now, it might not be the most appealing looking app out of the three, but Staples Connect allows you to to interact with your home via iPhone, iPad, and Google Android devices. There is even a portal to control things via a web browser. Looking back at my three requirements for home automation, Staples Connect nails all of them and turned out to be the most reliable of the three hubs.
The Connect hub is a plain white device with the exception of LED status lights on the front. The lights provide a nice way to know if your hub is connected correctly or if there is any type of issues. Setup for the Connect hub was straight forward. You create a Staples Connect account via the Connect app and then input your hub information to connect them together. Once you have your hub connected, you actually have the option to have it wired or wireless. Staples recently provided an update to the hub to allow for wireless mode. Like the Wink hub, this allows you to put the Staples Connect hub in the most convenient part of the house for the best coverage.
To add new devices to the hub, the Connect app has an excellent Device Assistant which walks you through each step. Like Wink, Staples has partnered with many companies to give you an easy way to find the devices you need for your home. The full list can be found here along with corresponding detail and manual links.
When adding a device, the Connect app walks you through the steps of device preparation. Once you are ready, you simply click the Add button which takes you to a nice status page of the hub. You can directly see what the hub is doing (waiting on device, adding device, device found, etc). The SmartThings app also provided this information and it’s invaluable when trying to configure your devices. The Wink app does not display any status like this within the app, but a recent update does turn the LEDs on the hub a different color depending on what is happening.
The main dashboard page for Connect is clear and nicely laid out. You have sections for Activities, rooms and each device type. Clicking on a device category that has not been added yet will bring you to a list of compatible devices to buy. Activities are designated as automatic (i.e. do THAT when THIS happens), or manual (you manually push a button within the app to do something). Automatic activities can also be assigned to the Pico remote so that when you push one of the Pico buttons it will fire off an activity. Adding these activities is easy and you even have the option to be notified via the app or email when an activity occurs. You also have the ability to create new rooms and move devices around to different rooms. Overall, it was a pleasant experience for the initial setup.
One important differentiation for the Connect and Wink hubs is the built in Lutron’s Clear Connect wireless standard. This is currently limited to the Lutron Caseta brand which includes an in-wall or wall-plug dimmer, and Pico remotes. The Wink hub has the ability to also add Lutron devices, but again, the reliability and device status drove me insane. Staples Connect handles the Lutron integration much MUCH better than Wink. I was also able to setup commands of the Pico remote to control other parts of the house (non-Lutron). For instance, one press of the center button of the Pico could turn off the living room lights (Lutron), and then turn on the upstairs lights and fan (Leviton) when needed. Not having to use a specific iPhone or Andorid app to do this proved to be very convenient!
The only downside I see for the Staples Connect app is that there is no way to hide devices categories you don’t own. I appreciate the the links to products when you do click on these categories, but it clutters the main dashboard. Otherwise, it’s cleanly laid out and very easy to use. The Connect hub was the most responsive of the three. It was also quick to turn things on or off at the touch of a button, no delays as with the Wink.
When I first started comparing these three hubs, I wanted Wink to shine. It was a brand new product that looked awesome. Wink has support from a lot of manufactures and even a compatibility stamp on products that work with the system. The downfall for me was the reliability. As easy as it was to add products, the constant disconnect for device status was cause for alarm. Maybe in a few months Wink will have worked out their bugs, but the initial release left a lot to be desired.
Where Wink was a disappointment, SmartThings brought a glimmer of hope with it’s extensive list of device compatibility and extra features such as Labs. Initially it was fun to install different devices and add my Sonos system to the mix. The problem I had was after all the initial configurations, I eventually became lost when trying to update / create new actions. Don’t let my frustration discourage you from trying out SmartThings though. It is a very robust system for home automation, but might be better suited for the technically savvy out there, or those who like to tinker with every little aspect of the hub. SmartThings also has large support site where you can browse around for different topics and ideas.
As for the Staples Connect, I feel that this is the most reliable and customer friendly solution for those looking to enter into the home automation realm. I would love to see additional third party integration. Having a Nest, a Chamberlain MyQ, and a bunch of Belkin Wemo devices around my house, I am itching to hear of an update when they could possibly be integrated. This fall, Staples will release their new version of the hub which adds both Zigbee and Bluetooth radios.
Have any questions or thoughts? Post them in the comments and let’s have a discussion!