If I had a dollar for every time my wife asked me “what is that new….. tech box for?” I’d be a very rich man. “Tech box” is her generic for all of the hubs, gateways, bridges, access points, and — more recently — smart speakers I’ve installed at home through the years. Her nomenclature may be off, but she’s spot on with all of the smart things in the house: They really cause a lot of clutter.
Ever since I suggested that Google should make a smart home hub, I’ve been thinking about all of this clutter. Why aren’t there more combination devices for the smart home that incorporate some of these features? An easy place to start would be putting some extra radios and smarts in new mesh router systems so they can act as hubs too.
To be fair, you can buy a router or two that doubles as a smart home hub. Almond has been selling them for a few years now. And in 2017, we saw the debut of Samsung Connect, a mesh network system available in several configurations.
In addition to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, the main router in the Samsung setups has Zigbee and Z-Wave radios, plus Samsung SmartThings software, so they’re hubs as well. A single Samsung Connect AC1300 Wi-Fi unit has a suggested price $130 while the same unit with two mesh extenders has an MSRP of $300. If you need more bandwidth, Samsung sells an $200 AC2600 unit for double the wireless throughput.
Other than those, however, it’s slim pickin’s, although TP-Link just announced a tri-band mesh network system with some limited smart home functionality. I’m back to using a Wink hub these days after testing the Samsung SmartThinks Link USB stick in my Nvidia Shield TV box. That means I have to have a separate router and the Wink hub.
Luckily, the Wink Hub 2 works over Wi-Fi so it doesn’t need a hardwired connection to my home router. That’s great because it frees up an ethernet port on the router but it’s bad in a way too: With a hub wirelessly connecting to a router two floors away and then back to devices throughout the house, that hop from voice assistant or smartphone app adds latency. If I could reduce that latency even a little, the lights might turn on a smidge faster, for example.
But there isn’t a router with Wink hub functionality built in. Or with support for Fibaro, WeMo, Nest or even HomeKit, for that matter. And if you’re going all in on a smart home, you probably want a hub: That’s where the automation smarts happen. Well, in the cloud too, but some people don’t like that idea, which is why “cloudless” hubs like Hubitat exist.
Frankly, I’d like to see Wink and the other companies I mentioned partner with router makers to integrate their hub technologies directly into routers. Obviously, this would mitigate some of the “clutter” problem and keep my wife happy. But it also provides an opportunity for additional revenues from the hub makers; they could license their home hub software to the router companies, for example. And there might be other benefits too: That latency reduction I mentioned, for one, and potentially new network security models to keep hackers away from our smart home devices.
It’s time: Let’s get more routers on the market that double as home hubs.