Choose a Smart Home Platform

This is the first step in our How to Build a Smart Home series, which takes a beginner through the process of selecting the right components for their home automation needs. Read this article if you don't yet have a system so you know what to look for.

Selecting a hub or platform seems like a daunting task, especially with all the various options for hardware hubs. There are also a bunch of pseudo-hub systems that are software based, which can also accomplish your goal. Add in all the home assistant devices that let you use voice commands and you've got a lot of choices to make without any good help. That's where theIOTpad comes in.

Keep in mind that you are probably not totally locked in to a single platform or hub (with a few exceptions). Most devices will work with other hubs, but you will have limited selection and you may have to replace a few devices here and there if they aren't compatible with your new selection. That's why you should spend some time choosing the right platform. It should work for you today and you should be able to easily add devices in the future.

First, let's talk about the kinds of platforms that you can choose and discuss the pros and cons for those.

Hardware Based Platforms

Hardware Based Smart Hubs

The most popular and powerful type of hub is a physical hardware unit. They serve as a central communicator that ties all of the various devices together into a single smart home. Each hardware hub has its own app that allows you to control different components from a single application. The hardware hub also maintains a connection to the internet so that you can monitor and adjust your devices while you are away.

Hardware hubs have communication radios in them that communicate with your different devices. Some common protocols include Zigbee, Z-Wave, Bluetooth, and WiFi.

If you are serious about building a smart home then the hardware hub is definitely the way to go. If you are just testing the waters, you should look at software hubs or individual components to get started.

Some well regarded hardware hubs include: Samsung SmartThings, Wink, and Insteon. Amazon has also released their Echo Plus, which includes a Zigbee radio that makes it a full-featured smart home hub.

Recommended Hardware Hubs

If you are in the market for a hardware hubs, we recommend considering the Wink Hub 2 and the SmartThings Hub as our top choices. The Amazon Echo Plus might be a good choice if you are already invested in the Echo/Alexa platform.

Software Based Platforms

Software Based Smart Hubs

One problem with having an array of smart devices without combining them under one platform is that you have to use many different apps. One app will control the lights, one controls the thermostat, and a third app allows you to play music. Software hubs fix this by pulling all of those controls into a single app interface. They put everything into one place.

Software hubs are pretty simple. You install the app on your phone and then connect it to the various other apps on your phone that control devices. Once you have done that, you can operate all of those devices from a single app instead of jumping around.

If all of your preferred devices connect to one of the major software hubs then this is the easiest way to get started with a smart home. You can always upgrade to a hardware hub later if you find that you need more connectivity options. We suggest using software hubs if you are new to home automation since they are free to use and require little commitment. The drawback is they are not quite as flexible as some of the hardware hubs and you may be more limited to the devices you can use.

The biggest player in the software hub space is Yonomi (Apple App Store) (Google Play Store), which is dedicated to home automation. Stringify is also an option (Apple App Store) (Google Play Store), but they are trying to be the single hub for everything in your life, which may be more that you want.

Hybrid Systems

And that brings us to hybrid platforms, which are a strange mix of hardware and software platforms. I'm talking about Apple HomeKit, Google Home, and the original Amazon Alexa (the non-Plus) systems. All of these are essentially software hubs, but they include a piece of hardware that makes people think they are a hardware hub. Like software hubs, these hybrid systems are relatively inexpensive to get started and they add voice control and a home speaker to your system. However, we can't call them hardware hubs since they don't communicate directly to devices via an internal radio. Communications in the systems is WiFi based.

The Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, and Google Home are, at their core, voice assistants. The Home and the Echo are also streaming music speakers. However, voice control is what most people are looking for with these devices. The microphones allow you to talk to your lights and thermostat, while the internal software hub communicates to those devices to perform the necessary adjustments.

Apple HomeKit is a bit different. It is a software framework that allows smart home components to be controlled via the Home app on Apple devices - in that respect it is a software hub. Since Apple takes security and privacy so seriously, all components are tested and must meet Apple's strict standards for encrypted communications. Unfortunately, the Home app can only control devices when you are at home since those devices don't have a way to communicate out to the internet. That is where hardware comes in. An Apple TV, an always-on iPad, or a HomePod are the hardware devices that allow your smart components to connect out to the internet, which communicates to your phone wherever you are.

If you are interested in one of the hybrid hubs, scroll to the Hybrid Hub section of our Best Smart Home Hubs article.

Smart Home Platform Features

The sections below include a number of things you should consider when choosing your platform. We cover all of these in our reviews, but before you click a link above, we should talk about the various things to consider when selecting a platform.

Ease of Operation

User interfaces should be easy to navigate and nice to look at. The big brands work tirelessly to make sure you can use your system easily. However, the user controls can get more complicated as the system grows.

We recommend that you test multiple mobile apps before you select your system. Most are free to download, but you won't get the full experience until you add components. Therefore, you should check out screenshots available around the internet.

We also believe you should be able to control your devices without having to use the app. This comes into play with lighting. Many smart light bulbs can only be controlled with an app so your current wall switches are useless. The operation of your system shouldn't be restricted to the app. In other words, our grandmothers should be able to use our home without having to learn to use a smartphone.

Expansion

The number one most important factor to consider is how advanced you want your system to be. We assume most people want a smart home that they can set and forget. However, you may want to tinker more than some people so you'll want connectivity to Zigbee or Z-Wave. If you'd rather not know what Zigbee or Z-Wave mean, then you should stick to a simple system.

Some systems are very flexible and can accept a huge variety of different components. However, the more connectivity options they provide, the more complicated setup tends to be. Closed systems don't offer as many options, but they are more likely to work easily.

The size of your home is also important. You want a system that offers range extenders if you have a very large home. If you need multiple WiFi hubs then you probably need range extenders for your smart hub.

We cover all of these situations in our reviews so be sure to check them out before you make a purchase.

Compatible Device Offerings

Just a few years ago most of the home automation systems were still very young. They had yet to build up a stable of solid devices to connect to their platform. That is all changing rapidly as companies continue to add compatible add-ons.

All of the systems we recommend have a wide variety of components to help you build out your smart home. At the very least, you should have at least one option for smart lights, WiFi thermostats, security systems, plus a wide range of sensors. Adding an entertainment system or streaming device is nice, but not required.

Security

Automation systems must be connected to the internet at all times so they can provide feedback and control options while you are away from home. In addition, the devices communicate through the manufacturer's servers as an intermediary between the device and your phone. Of course, this creates an opportunity for malicious attacks. Fortunately, security concerns are generally over-hyped and hackers aren't roaming the streets taking control of homes. However, the risk exists and should be monitored.

The platforms we recommend are run by large companies that take security of your home and personal information very seriously. They wouldn't be in business if they didn't. That isn't a guarantee that they will never be hacked so we recommend staying informed. Joining a manufacturer's mailing list is the best way to get immediate notifications for software updates. Manufacturers address security concerns by releasing occasional software patches before the vulnerabilities are made public. Joining their email list ensures that you get immediate notice of any data breaches.

If you are concerned about security, then you should limit your system to the types of devices that can't be used to harm you or your family. Lighting controls are unlikely to cause much damage and thermostats won't accidentally unlock your doors. However, you may choose to stay away from security devices like smart door locks and security cameras if you want to be extremely safe.

Company Stability

We don't recommend using a brand new startup for your home automation needs. A manufacturer should be fairly large since you will rely on software updates and connectivity to their servers. Some components can be complicated so you want access to good customer support, preferably 24/7 support. As we mentioned above, security is important so a manufacturer should have the resources to deal with that. Finally, you want to have a wide variety of available devices to add.

All that said, make sure you select a major player that is unlikely to go out of business. We only recommend manufacturers that have a good footing in the market. We will be sure to make it clear if we recommend a product or company that is very new and may not yet be stable.

Voice Control

Voice control is the new must-have feature for all electronics, and home automation is no different. Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, and Google Assistant claim to make your life easier and more convenient.

Yes, it is nice to ask Alexa to turn on your lights when you have two armfuls of groceries. However, we find it to be a bit gimmicky. We don't think voice control is critical, but if you find it useful then make sure your system supports one of the three big names. Many systems incorporate at least one of the major voice assistants.

Multi-User Support

We think smart homes should be controlled by everyone in the family. At the same time, some functions must be restricted by user. For instance, you probably don't want the kids to change the temperature and increase your heating bill.

Multi-user support allows any family member to have control over the home by using their personal phone. You can even set up visitor access rights in some cases. Unless you live alone, you will probably want to use a system that offers control to multiple people.

Mobile Device Compatibility

Just about every smart home platform works with both Android and iPhone so a majority of people won't have any problems. However, you should be sure to look closely at your options if you are using a Windows Phone or some other mobile operating system. Insteon has a Windows Phone app to control their hub. Vivint has a web app that allows Windows Phone users to control their home. Unfortunately, there just aren't that many options for Windows Phone users.