This was going to be a post about the smart home options to buy after you ditch the Wink hub that has been down for the last few weeks, but it has since turned into a realization that there are no smart home hubs available on the market from established and reliable vendors. What the heck is going on? Has COVID caused disruptions in the supply chain? Many of them have been unavailable for the last few weeks, so I suspect that’s the case, but it’s hard out there for a home automation lover who needs Z-wave radios and decent software.
I’ve had some sort of smart home hub in my life since 2013 when I received one of the first Kickstarter-backed SmartThings hubs. After that, I ended up with a first-generation Wink hub and a device from Staples that was later discontinued. Up until last week, when I wanted to control my Z-wave or ZigBee sensors I used a second-generation Wink hub, paying $4.99 a month for the privilege.
However, after moving in 2019 from Austin, renting for a year, and then dealing with the pressures of the pandemic, I stopped using the Wink hub because I only had a single lock, and a few Z-wave outdoor outlets left. So after the weeklong Wink outage, I finally was able to say goodbye to my Wink hub without feeling a sense of loss. I may even decide I no longer need my beloved Z-wave outdoor outlets since the Wi-Fi options available have gotten so good.
But for those of y’all who still have Z-wave or ZigBee gear on hand, and who are frustrated with Wink’s downtime and general unreliability (it was out for a few days during the summer) I have some hub options that offer a compelling switch. We’ll rank them in terms of the most user-friendly to the most complicated. But the easiest options aren’t actually available, so if you want to switch today, you’re going to have to build your own. This admittedly sucks for most people.
SmartThings: This is the granddaddy of the generation of DIY home hubs that added a user-friendly mobile app, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth radios to the established home automation companies that included Vera, Insteon, and others. But last year SmartThings made significant changes to its platform that limited the customization that some of its users had cherished. The company also started pulling back from manufacturing its own hardware, which means that the current SmartThings hub can be tough to find. For those wanting a ZigBee and Z-wave hub that works well with SmartThings, look for a SmartThings WASH (Work as a SmartThings Hub) option such as this one from Aeotec. Update: It’s not available now, but a SmartThings representative emailed to say it should be available in a few weeks.
Ezlo: Ezlo is the combination of three smart home brands including the older Vera platform. At CES the company announced two new smart home hubs that will ship later this month. There’s a $69.95 option for casual users that includes the necessary Z-Wave and ZigBee radios and a fancier $199.95 Ezlo Secure hub that includes backup LTE connectivity. That cellular feature could be really important for those who want to use their home automation hub as a security system. I haven’t tried the Ezlo software, but it offers the basic radios as well as integrations with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. If you want to control devices that aren’t on Ezlo’s list, you’ll have to do it using the smart speaker integrations. I plan to test it when the products ship.
Hubitat Elevation: Hubitat bridges the divide between some of the more hardcore maker-type platforms and those with easier user interface and established integrations. Hubitat’s claim to fame is that you can keep a lot of your devices communicating on your local network thanks to the internal radios and computing power on the $129.95 box. Obviously, if you have a cloud camera or want to use Google or Alexa the cloud will have to come into play. Kevin tried a Hubitat device two years ago and found it good for home automations that you can set and forget, but bad for folks who want a simple app interface to manually tweak things in their home. However, Hubitat is constantly updating the software, adding new devices, and fixing issues, so I expect a richer feature set now. For example, the latest hub supports Lutron if you have a Lutron hub already and it has an integration with Life360 software so it can tell where occupants of the home are. The bad news is that for U.S. and North American users, the Hubitat device is currently sold out.
Home Assistant and Home Assistant Blue: Now we’re getting to a class of automation software that you can download on your own computing device and tweak to your heart’s content. But if you want to add Z-wave and Zigbee compatibility you’re going to have to buy additional dongles or HATs for a Raspberry Pi. Home Assistant is probably the most popular of these products. It’s open-source home automation software that has a huge variety of supported drivers for popular (and random) devices. There’s also a Home Assistant device that comes with the software pre-loaded, but you’ll need to add your radios.
HomeBridge and or (HOOBs): Homebridge is open-source software that consumers can run on their own server to tie their non-HomeKit devices into their HomeKit system. It’s especially popular with folks who have Ring doorbells and HomeKit homes. You can download the Homebridge software yourself or you can buy a device called HOOBS, which stands for Homebridge out of the box. The device has all the software you need pre-loaded and ready to go. Kevin tested HOOBs recently and found that although expensive, it works well with supported non-HomeKit devices. However, you should see if your devices are actually supported before making the purchase.
OpenHAB: I tried OpenHAB years ago and felt that it was incredibly difficult to load onto my board (part of that was because I was being difficult and chose a Pine 64 board and a Z-wave dongle as opposed to a Raspberry Pi, which has a lot more documentation). However, once the hardware was working and I had my devices loaded, the power of this platform was unbelievable. I could have spent weeks calibrating and fine-tuning my home. But I didn’t have time for that, so I felt a little miffed at being lured down a rabbit hole when I just wanted to create some basic routines and flick my lights on and off with a button. OpenHAB is still working and version 3.0 just came out in December, but I do think the community around it is smaller than the Home Assistant or Homebridge world.
These are the primary platforms that support both Z-Wave and ZigBee, which are relevant for those who want to deploy a lot of sensors in their smart homes. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Amazon also includes a ZigBee radio in its Echo Plus and fourth-generation Echo devices. If you have some ZigBee sensors, locks, or bulbs lying around they may work with the Echo devices (there’s a list of compatible devices here), and creating automations involves using the routines function in the Alexa app. I hate the Alexa app with an unholy passion because mine is so unresponsive, but for those who don’t have this issue, it can be a nice entry-level platform.
You can also find some Wi-Fi routers with built-in automation options, but I felt like we should stick with the main options here.