A hub to control your smart home

A hub to control your smart home

A hub to control your smart home

The smart home is full of promise: Coffee makers that turn on when you wake up, garage doors that open when you come home, relaxing music that is controlled remotely and air-conditioners and thermostats that perfectly regulate the home and save you money, too.

Promise is rarely reality, though.

Smart-home automation is a tricky and chaotic corner of tech right now.

Companies are rushing to join the fray, buoyed in part by the success of the Nest Learning Thermostat, and Google’s $3.2 billion acquisition of Nest.

For consumers, putting together a smart home remains mostly a do-it-yourself project.

You choose your components, connect them to your home network and start living your connected life.

Companies like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T offer monitoring systems, but they don’t offer much flexibility.

And installing a complete home automation and security system can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

The trouble is that for anyone pursuing this as a DIY project, the more devices you bring home, the more separate apps you need to control them.

Suddenly, convenience becomes cumbersome.

Imagine trying to set a romantic scene.

You load one app to lower the lights, a second to start playing soft music and a third to lock the door behind you.

And the mood? It dimmed with the lights.

The complexity of managing several apps is an obvious irritation, and multiple companies are trying to solve it by creating a single system - a hub - for controlling various home devices.

Revolv, SmartThings, Icontrol and even the hardware retailer Lowe’s are making innovative smart home hubs.

Apple is getting involved, too. It recently announced HomeKit, a development environment that will encourage device makers to connect to iOS for controlling smart home gadgets.

The idea is that your iOS device would become the control panel for multiple gadgets, and you might even be able to use Siri to issue commands.

For now, though, hubs are the best way to control a house full of connected devices.

In theory, the benefit is twofold. First, you have just one app on your phone or tablet that controls multiple gadgets.

Second, a hub not only talks to hardware like light bulbs, speakers and smart locks, but it can also get those devices to talk to each other.

I tested that theory with two of the more popular hubs - from Revolv and SmartThings - and found them easy to set up.

They also deliver on the promise of connecting a small set of smart devices - as long as you keep things simple.

Connecting different home devices to a single system is not as easy as simply plugging them into the Internet in your house.

That’s because connected devices use a variety of wireless technologies to communicate. These include Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, Z-Wave, Insteon, X10 and more.

Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, Insteon and ZigBee are the most popular, and Revolv ($300 or Rs 17,904) and SmartThings ($100 or Rs 5,968) can speak to most of those, or will be able to soon.

You’ll need to check new gadgets to make sure they’ll work - an annoying extra step. But many popular gadgets will be supported.

Both the Revolv and SmartThings devices were easy to set up - and Revolv in particular.

The Revolv device unfortunately looks like a bright red CD spindle case, but you can hide it anywhere in your house.

It has built-in Wi-Fi, so you just plug it into a power outlet and download the free Revolv app on your iOS phone or tablet.

The app walks you through connecting the hub to your Wi-Fi network and to the app.

Pairing the phone with the Revolv hub is kind of fun: You hold the phone over the hub and your phone’s camera flashes several times until the sensor on the hub recognizes it. Easy, indeed.

I got Revolv running and connected to a Sonos speaker system and three Philips Hue light bulbs. But the app is limited in terms of music controls: I could play, pause, skip or repeat tracks, but I couldn’t change the music source or browse playlists or songs. Revolv said the app creates channels based on recently heard songs, but that’s not the same as browsing existing playlists.

The light controls were more straightforward; I could turn three lights on or off at once, turn them on individually or change the colour of the bulbs, all from my phone.

Revolv also allows you to set up actions based on your location (determined by your phone’s GPS), so it can turn off the lights when you leave home or turn them back on when you arrive.

You can also set up actions by time or have one device control another: A motion sensor could turn on a light, for example.

The SmartThings hub is white and about the size of a portable CD player, but it is less flexible in placement.

It needs to be physically plugged into your wireless router, wherever you have that set up, and then it sends its own wireless signal to various connected devices.

That’s too bad, because systems like Sonos and Hue also have small hubs that plug into your router. Things got pretty messy around my router.

The SmartThings hub, like the Revolv, is set up using a free app that you download onto your phone (iOS or Android).

And like Revolv, SmartThings allows you to set up specific actions. You can program stock actions like “Good Night” to turn off all the lights, lock the door and turn off the stereo, or “Good Morning” to turn on the TV, coffee pot and kitchen light.

You can also create custom rules in SmartThings, which I like. And as with Revolv, you can set up location-based rules that are activated by your phone’s location or external sensors that the company sells.

Speaking of which, SmartThings trumps Revolv by offering handy starter kits for your automated home. Most of the kits are based on security and monitoring - the most popular reason people get into home automation.

I tried out the Know and Control Your Home Kit ($300 or Rs 17,904), which includes the main hub as well as two sensors that can tell when a door or cabinet is opened and also sense vibration and temperature; two sensors that broadcast their location so you can track keys, children or dog walkers; a motion sensor and a smart power outlet for remotely turning on lights or appliances.

Not all the sensors in the kit found a logical home, but I liked the multiuse sensor that told me the temperature in my son’s room. I also liked having a “smart home in a box” for my $300, as opposed to just a hub with Revolv.

Overall, I would say SmartThings gets my vote over Revolv, mainly for the price and bundled devices. I like the flexibility of both, though, and the relatively low price of entry. Devices for the smart home are changing fast, so cheaper is sometimes better when it comes to universal hubs.

And everything could be different, easier and maybe even controlled by Siri by this time next year.

Whatever brand you choose, know that nothing will work exactly as it should.

Expect random errors and mysterious failures. With a little patience, though, tinkering around with a DIY smart home with the help of a hub can be fun and produce great party tricks.