There is a lot of tech jargon tossed around when it comes to smart home products these days. You may wonder, “what is a smart home controller?” for instance. Well, you’ll come to find out that many of these terms are somewhat synonymous. You’ll also see that some of these products combine the capabilities of several devices.
It wasn’t long ago that we were watching sci-fi movies in wonder at the fact that characters could talk to thin air and get things to start working around them. Fast forward a few short years and Sci-Fi is our new reality. Being baffled by the inner workings of these AI characters that exist hidden in the walls of billionaire’s homes in movies and TV shows is now a thing of the past. This is made possible with smart home controllers.
What is a Smart Home Controller?
A smart home controller, smart home hub, or home automation controller can be thought of as the brain behind your smart home. It is the device that controls all your smart appliances and devices.
These can range anywhere from lightbulbs to music systems, electronic blinds, TVs, doorbells, thermostats, security systems and so much more. The point of converting a home into a smart home is convenience. Technology is meant to make our lives easier, and the tech used to create smart homes aims to do just that.
These smart controllers are the epitome of convenience; you just need this single device to be able to control everything from turning the temperature in the room down to arming your home’s security system. You may use your phone, tablet, computer, or oftentimes your voice to interact with your smart home controller.
The easiest example of this is an Amazon Echo (Alexa), or a Google Home device.
It seems that many articles don’t include “smart speakers” (i.e. Alexa and Google Home devices) in their list of smart home controllers. They may be listing only direct control devices like the Samsung SmartThings Controller.
Controllers like this can communicate directly with a device (such as a smart light bulb), while Alexa and Google Home communicate with your router to access the bulb via WiFi.
However, since these smart speakers can be programmed to control smart devices and appliances fitted with the tech, they do fall under the umbrella of smart home controllers.
The most common protocols for these other controllers are Z-Wave and Zigbee. Both of these protocols use a local network to connect to multiple points in the home using low-frequency radio waves rather than WiFi.
If you’re having trouble understanding this, think of how your garage remote works to open your garage door. Or, better yet, Z-Wave and Zigbee are to their smart home controllers what WiFi is to Alexa, or Bluetooth is to your Airpods.
While Samsung SmartThings Hub and Wink are home automation controllers, Amazon’s Echo is the hardware/smart speaker/controller and Alexa is the software installed.
Note: the terms sometimes are mingled when referring to these devices and the accompanying software. For instance, most people call their Echo “Alexa”. I do as well. It isn’t really wrong, but it can just be confusing when deciding to purchase an “Alexa”.
When you are looking into getting a smart home controller/converting your home into a smart home, you might have trouble deciding whether to go for something like Alexa that is powered by WiFi or a Z-Wave or Zigbee powered home. Here are some of the pros and cons of both:
- Relatively easy to set up
- Works well for multiple smart devices
- Easy portable
- Relatively cheap
- Integrate online schedules/requests with smart devices
- Access devices remotely
- If your internet is down, nothing is going to work
- You may need to purchase a better router; the one that comes with your internet service won’t be able to handle the task
- Less secure, because things are easily hacked on the internet
- Data charges can get expensive
Mesh Network Automation
- Powerful system that can handle many devices
- Does not rely on the internet to work
- Very little interference, which means the systems work almost flawlessly
- Quick responses to commands
- Some devices require a professional for installation
- Some systems, depending on the number of devices you have on, can get very expensive
- You will probably still want to purchase a smart speaker like Alexa for voice automation
Smart Home Controller App
A Smart Home Controller App allows you to interface with your smart home automation system. Here are the most common smart home controller apps that you’ll encounter:
Alexa is the most popular AI virtual assistant used as a smart home controller. The accompanied Alexa app includes many settings to customize your smart home and streamline your life.
Most smart devices on the market will be Alexa compatible. You can add things by voice to your built-in shopping list, set alarms and reminders, add things to your calendar, set up groups of devices, set up automatic routines by the time of day, or your location. You can even play games.
You can use this app even if you don’s own an Echo.
Google Home/Google Assistant
The Google Assistant app works as a stand-alone app, and can also be integrated with your Google Home devices. The app on its own is meant to work as a virtual assistant. Just by using the words “Hey Google” or “Ok Google”, you are able to easily manage tasks, make calls, send emails, control music, schedule meetings and a lot more.
After this app is set up with compatible devices, you can use your phone as a smart home controller. Commands can be made to the Google Assistant app on your phone to control things like lighting, entertainment systems, temperature, and much more.
HomeKit is a software made by Apple to convert Apple devices into smart home controllers. This includes iPhones, iPads, HomePods and newer versions of Apple TV as well. The HomeKit app can control a number of different smart home appliances like smart windows, locks, security systems, temperature controls, lights, sensors, speakers, etc.
This app can be controlled using Apple’s AI, Siri or through the actual application.
As a side note, I wouldn’t really recommend HomeKit currently. Their compatibility is very sparse with third party devices when compared to Google Home and Alexa.
The SmartThings app can connect to many smart home devices in your home. It is also the interface for Samsung’s SmartThings Hub. You DO NOT need to be a Samsung Galaxy user to download this app. It is available for all android and iOS devices.
You will find that Smart Life is one of the most thorough apps for connecting and customizing your smart home automation system. The Smart Life app is the answer to all the different apps needed to control different smart appliances and devices in your home. It is an integrated solution to multiple platforms for different uses to control your smart home. This app helps you create seamless commands across different devices through a single app.
What’s The Best Smart Home Controller?
Ah, well. There is so much that goes into deciding what the “best” smart home controller is, but at the end of the day it all comes down to the devices you have and how you want to control them. In this section, I have included the pros and cons of each of the controllers to help you decide the best one for you.
For me personally, I’m interested in something user friendly, fast and highly versatile. The Echo Show Powered by Alexa is all of that, plus it has a video screen that comes in handy for video chats, viewing recipes in the kitchen, and checking my security cams.
- Beautiful and sleek designs for the devices that integrate well into contemporary and modern homes
- Google assistant is very advanced and is aware of contextual speaking; it can actually have conversations
- Uses the power of Google and all the knowledge within. Google Home will give you the most accurate and superior answers
- It only has the capability to connect with relatively few smart devices
- It cannot hear from far distances
- It has very few control buttons
- It only connects to certain speakers and entertainment systems, like the ones fitted with Chromcast.
- It lacks some basic functionalities like reading emails and sending messages
- Alexa is completely voice activated
- It has great listening range
- Not too expensive
- It works extremely well as an assistant
- It can retain hundreds of commands/programmed settings
- The security of the system is somewhat questionable
- It retains private conversations if the device is woken up
- It needs to be plugged in to use
- It takes multiple days to update the software
- It has great sound quality
- User friendly
- Beautiful and minimal design that can integrate into any home or office space
- Siri can be used to control the system
- The device has no bluetooth capability
- It is only compatible with iOS devices
- It can only connect to one phone/device at a time
- Siri has a lot of trouble interpreting your speech when compared to Alexa and Google Home
Samsung SmartThings Hub
- It is integrated with Z-Wave and Zigbee
- You can create way more custom automation scenarios
- Compatible with most smart home devices
- User friendly and easy to install
- It has frequent and useful updates. These updates include compatibility and functionality
- There are some learning curves while using the device
- The troubleshooting on the app needs some work
- There is no voice assistant (but it is designed to work seamlessly with Alexa and Google Assistant)
Home Automation Systems
Another term thrown around, including in this article, is “home automation systems”. Just to eliminate confusion, this isn’t a single product to purchase. Home automation systems include everything from the smart hub, the software that runs smart home controllers and the smart devices being controlled as well. This term describes anything and everything that it takes to build the entire smart home system.
Remember, the smart hub is your smart home controller. Usually, the first thing in the “chain” of your smart home automation system would be your hub. This could be an Alexa Echo or Google Home device, Samsung SmartThings, etc.
Now, there will be an App for your Smart Home Controller. This software works behind the scenes to connect your smart devices and give you a user interface.
Lastly, there are the actual smart devices and appliances which you intend to control. Smart devices can include things like smart lightbulbs, door locks like the August WiFi Smart Lock, security cameras like Ring Cams, or smart TV converters like the Fire TV Cube.
The fact of the matter is, everyone is quickly leaning toward a smart living lifestyle. Phones are getting smarter, cars are getting smarter and now homes are getting smarter too.
There is no denying; almost anything you pick up these days has a smart tech-infused version! So, it’s just a matter of time before you need a smart home hub of your own to get your home controls in the palm of your hand.
There are so many things to consider when you are choosing the right device for you, but if this is all new for you, I suggest starting out small.
Get something like the Amazon Echo, which is relatively inexpensive, and slowly build up your arsenal of smart devices that you can hook up to it. See how the smart lifestyle suits you before you commit to a home that does everything automatically!
I hope my insights and research help you make the right decision for you.