The Best Z-Wave Hub: 2022 Buyer’s Guide
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If you’re looking to get into Z-Wave devices for your smart home you’ll need a certified Z-wave hub (officially called a Z-Wave Controller). This device is required to form the heart of your Z-Wave network and allow for connection to your normal home network so your smart phone or computer can talk to your devices.
I’ve spent weeks researching every smart home hub on the market that supports Z-Wave and have found the Athom Homey to knock it out of the park on features and device support, but at a price.
I’ve had many years of professional experience working with complex networks and control systems, and I’ve applied this to dig into the capabilities of all these hubs, and the companies behind them to narrow this field down. The variation in capability, ease of use, and price is significant, which makes choosing one for your situation a bit of a minefield.
To try and make sense of this I’ve focused on what I consider to be the most important factors in choosing a hub. This includes things like the breadth of supported devices, the user experience, reliability, the availability of support, and ultimately value for money.
While the Athom Homey is my choice for best overall smart hub, there are cheaper alternatives depending on what your priorities are. You’ll want to consider ease of use, how hands on you want to be with getting devices working, how much flexibility you want going forward, and whether you want to include other smart home protocols in the one solution, which I always recommend for greater versatility down the road.
We’ll take a look at several options that cover each of these bases beyond the best overall, including more enthusiast focused offerings.
Best Z-Wave Hub Overall
What I like
European company Athom has come up with arguably the holy grail of smart home hubs. The Homey is an attractive modern device that can sit comfortably out in the open, which is handy as it has the more practical benefit of enabling flexible placement for optimal signal strength and voice recognition.
More than that, though, is the inclusion of internal radios for every significant home device protocol and even infra red for those less smart devices. This makes it a perfect candidate for being the all-in-one hub for any smart home by allowing the use of a huge range of devices. I think this is an important consideration because you don’t want your options limited when looking for smart devices to add to your smart home system.
What is also important for me is support for all three major voice assistants and their associated platforms, also for reasons of flexibility and choice. If you don’t have need of a third party voice assistant, Homey includes it’s own, which also allows you to have it give spoken messages as part of automated actions, something that I’ve often wished I could do with some other smart home systems.
I’ve also ranked it highly for it’s huge number of supported smart devices. This is thanks to Homey’s modular device support and extensive developer community.
Taking an approach similar to Amazon’s Alexa, Athom has created an open developer interface allowing third parties to easily add support for new devices and services, both local and cloud connected devices, which can all be installed by end users directly through the app.
On top of this is a class leading rules engine they call Flow, which not only allows conditional rules with multiple and/or conditions, but the ability to easily create branching rules as well with condition driven if/then/else behavior. Even if you aren’t thinking about complex automations now, as you build out your smart home you’ll start exploring smarter behaviors and having the capabilities in the hub will ensure you don’t run into limitations.
Finally, I like the very slick mobile and desktop apps with clear, easy to use dashboards, notifications, and deep analytics driven by up to 10 years of sensor data in local data storage from your devices. The user experience is important for something you’re going to be using a lot, and Homey is simply way out in front of many other brands on this point.
The biggest issue here is that it’s available in all regions except North America right now. Athom announced the US version at CES, but the pandemic has slowed things down (maybe this is to do with US regulatory certification, but Athom hasn’t been specific). I’ve reached out and they tell me the US version is still coming and should have hit in Q1 2021. As of this update, however, it still hasn’t shown up.
If you’re not concerned about local control though, and are willing to pay a small subscription fee, you can get the new Homey Bridge which works in all regions and provides the same features, just in the cloud.
Aside from availability, The Homey is the most expensive option I’ve picked for this list. That’s simply because it packs so much in, with it’s own voice control, and the hardware to support so many different smart device types. If you don’t need all that, or you can’t get one yet, then keep reading.
Best Value Z-Wave Hub
What I like
I’ve chosen SmartThings as the best value option as it requires substantially less up-front cost, and still offers a lot of power and ease of use that would appeal to a broad range of users. This Aeotec Smart Home Hub is currently the go-to smart hub to get into that platform.
SmartThings has been a popular enthusiast home automation platform for sometime, and offers the ability to get down in the weeds to do all sorts of cool stuff beyond what the apps expose. There has been some recent speculation that SmartThings is in trouble, but the reality is that they are simply offloading their hardware manufacturing to partners.
I’ve noted the importance of device compatibility above, and SmartThings does offer the next best range devices with official support. Major Z-Wave device brands are fairly well supported and any Z-Wave device can be used through the generic device handler, but in those cases some device specific functionality may not be recognized unless you are able to find a third party handler or write your own. These handlers are kind of like custom device drivers for a PC.
I’ve found the developer community is very active, and you’ll be able to find all sorts of help including custom device support, rule engines and third party apps. While the official app is pretty good now, and has recently improved conditional rule creation, the more advanced options will need you to get more technical.
The SmartThings app provides a slick interface for your smart home, and offers control options for iOS, Android, Apple Watch, and even Samsung TVs. All the expected things are there with nice monitoring dashboards, analytics for sensor data, and rule creation features.
The first party Samsung SmartThings Hub is now hard to find, although you can still get the Samsung Mesh router which includes the hub functions as well. The main Samsung SmartThings hub is now being produced by Z-Wave company Aeotec, but is only available for the North America and European regions. For other parts of the world, you may need to go with the mesh router option.
SmartThing’s biggest failing has been it’s very cloud-centric architecture. I’m not a huge fan of this model as it has very clear disadvantages to reliability, performance, and security. Samsung clearly agrees and has been undertaking a multi-year transformation effort to provide more local control and better access to third party device handlers. This is now coming to fruition with the announcement of SmartThings Edge which will provide a much better experience, albeit still somewhat limited for now.
If you’re prepared to accept the risk of occasional outages and loss of control to your smart stuff, SmartThings provides a good blend between modern easy app access and control, and deep technical flexibility.
Best Z-Wave Hub for Power Users
What I like
If you’re someone who wants more control over what devices you can add to your smart home, and values local control as much as I do, then the Hubitat Elevation is a cost effective solution.
The Hubitat Elevation smart home hub is relatively new on the home automation scene, with maker Hubitat (pronounced Hub-It-At) positioning themselves as a direct contrast to SmartThings. With a similar number of supported devices and a blended user-friendly/deep technical approach there are distinct overarching similarities. The contrast is in a strong focus on privacy and local control as opposed to the cloud-first design of SmartThings.
The smart hub uses an extensible design with different ‘apps’ used for different tasks in the web based interface. While powerful, this does make things a bit messy as you can have automation actions in lots of different places, and with different ways of doing things. There are plenty of good tutorial videos though to help new users get to grips with things.
I like the strong community and developer support that’s present here, even if you don’t find the device your looking for in the supported list there will probably a way to make it work. The same with advanced automation rules.
The biggest catch with Hubitat is that they are still maturing as a platform. While they now have mobile apps to allow for out-of-home control and geolocation based rules, much of the configuration and control of your smart home is done through a web interface to the hub. This interface is mobile friendly, so you can still use it from a smartphone.
This is not for the new comer to smart homes though, and some technical knowledge will be required. Even using the powerful Rule Machine app to build automation rules can take some figuring out as many things are not as intuitive as they could be.
Still, if you value privacy and want the reliability and response time of local control, would like the flexibility to create complex automations, and don’t mind getting your hands dirty, then this is a powerful option.
Best Z-Wave Hub for HomeKit
What I Like
Z-Wave has been a big missing piece for HomeKit users for some time, with few options to integrate these connected devices into the smart home system. European company Thinka has moved to solve this with the first Apple certified Z-Wave bridge.
They haven’t held back, going with the latest 700 series chipset, and including support for Alexa and Google as well, providing a broad range of smart devices that can be added.
Connecting the bridge to your network via ethernet cable, using HomeKit and Z-Wave technology together retains the reliability and security of true local control, and provides HomeKit users access to a more robust, low power network for those hard to reach places. HomeKit then provides secure remote access to your Z-Wave devices via iCloud, as with other HomeKit supported smart devices.
The biggest thing holding back the Thinka for Z-Wave bridge is that it only comes in European versions right now. That means it uses a Z-Wave frequencies approved for Europe only, which will be different for other regions. Thinka do have plans to release a version for North America, but there’s no timeline on that.
The second thing that poses a problem is the price tag. It’s one of the most expensive devices on this list, which is perhaps no surprise to HomeKit users. Going for the Homey may be a better choice given how much more you get for the money.
Best Z-Wave Hub for Beginners
What I like
The Ezlo Plughub is the lower end model in new Ezlo hub lineup. I’ve included it as a good option for those looking to explore Z-Wave home automation, or looking to add Z-Wave to an existing smart home setup.
Vera Control is a dedicated Z-Wave device maker and has been around for some time, and Ezlo is their new range of smart home devices. These are relatively new products, so how well they work in the real world is still to be determined. However, it’s hard to go past the price and simplicity of this unit if you’re just dipping your toes in the water.
While offering true local control, there is a requirement to create an account on Vera’s system in order to register the device for automatic firmware updates, and to allow for out-of-home control. Beyond that no internet connection is required for normal operation.
The Plughub is controlled through the Vera smartphone app, and there is a range of third party app options that work with Vera systems as well. I don’t find the interface as polished as some of the other brands on the market, but the layout is reasonably clear and usable for less technical folks.
Vera controllers use a system of ‘apps’ and ‘plugins’ which allow additional functionality to be added to the system. This can be both new device support or additional functionality for the controller, and advanced users can create their own using the tools and guides provided. There is an active support community that can provide or help with these things as well.
Automation rules, which Vera calls ‘Scenes’, can be created within the interface and most of what you’ll need can be done there. If you need to go a bit further, you can get under the hood and tinker with code and tie that into your scenes through the interface.
Alternatively you can just use the Ezlo Plughub as a controller for Z-Wave devices, and leave automation rules to another platform of your choice. I think this is a key use case as it’s a way to add Z-Wave support to Alexa and Google Home, and you can also add it to Google Assistant and HomeKit using the additional Automation Bridge from Skaro.
The biggest limitation here is that it’s Z-Wave only. I wouldn’t choose this as the basis of a new smart home project as you’ll not have the flexibility to choose any of the huge range of devices that use other technologies, and this model is also limited in the number of devices it can realistically support (Vera says 30). It’s just not that powerful.
As an add-on to another platform to provide Z-Wave support, or to experiment with Z-Wave, then it’s a good option, but otherwise you’d be better off with one of the hubs above.
Best Z-Wave Hub for DIY projects
What I like
I’ve included this as no discussion of Z-Wave control is complete without pointing out that you don’t need to use a dedicated home automation hub to control your smart home. There are a variety of DIY software solutions out there, both commercial and open source, and for the hobbyist that wants complete control of their setup, this could be the way to go.
Aeotec is a major Z-Wave device brand (they also make the SmartThings hub above), and this controller offering is targeted at this DIY market. The Z-Sitck is a cheap, reliable dongle that plugs into a USB port and allows you to add Z-Wave connectivity to any computer. It supports Windows, Mac and Linux, and importantly can also run on a cheap Raspberry Pi device.
By setting up such a system as a home server you gain the maximum level of control and privacy on offer. Supported software include the open source options OpenHab, Home Assistant, and Domoticz, and the commercial offerings from HomeSeer, Axial, and Indigo Domotics.
Going with the Z-Stick and an open source solution running on Raspberry Pi is going to be the cheapest way to get into Z-Wave, and will give you true local control, no vendor lock in, and guaranteed privacy but, as with any DIY project, it’s not for the faint of heart.
This sort of solution inevitably comes with higher maintenance requirements as you’re running a system that is effectively cobbled together without an overarching company providing any sort of certification that things will work. If you want a hobby project, this is a great way to go, but if you want an actual system to run your house, you’ll need to be prepared for less reliability.
A Smart Home Bridge for Z-Wave Hubs
It’s not always easy to find a smart hub that will work with your smart home platform of choice, and while there’s not much we can do about that in most cases, there is an alternative solution for some Z-Wave controllers that might do the trick.
Australian Company Skaro has developed an automation bridge that is designed to connect different smart home systems together, and this includes some Z-Wave controllers. Once you set it up on your home network, you can install various plugins to provide support for the connected devices you need.
Supported controllers are:
Fibaro Home Center HC2 & HC3
Fibaro Home Center Lite & HC3 Lite
RTI XP Controllers
How to Choose a Z-wave hub
Why do you need a hub for Z-Wave?
Z-Wave is a completely isolated communication system tailored to smart devices, and is built around a dedicated local network just for those that doesn’t require an internet connection. That network is created and managed by a Z-Wave controller (or ‘smart hub’), so without one of these there is no way a Z-Wave device can be used.
There are numerous advantages to using Z-Wave technology. These networks use mesh networking technology which allows individual smart devices on your network to act as repeaters that extend the range of the hub, and uses lower frequency radio waves to help reduce interference and punch through obstructions better.
It’s important to note that Z-Wave only provides the means of communication between smart devices. What you can do with those devices, and the automation rules that you can create, is dependent on the capabilities your Z-Wave hub and it’s software. Check out our guide to Z-Wave to learn more.
Do you only want Z-Wave devices?
While Z-Wave alone opens up a wide range of products for use in your smart home including lights, valves, smart locks, outlets, thermostats, switches and more, it is wise to consider a smart home hub that offers other connection types as well.
This includes other major protocols like WiFi and ZigBee devices, cloud-based services that need to connect to the device makers servers for control, and even older tech like 433MHz radio and Infra-red remote control.
More connectivity options obviously provides more flexibility in building your smart home, and makes it easier to control and link everything together because you’ll be using a single app, but it also gives you some future proofing in the event that particular protocols fall out of favor down the road.
How many Z-Wave devices will you have?
While Z-Wave itself has a hard limit of 232 devices on a single network, it’s also important to consider the software side of things. The software of your hub is what provides the user interface you’ll use to control your smart home, and determines the complexity and type of automation rules you’ll be able to run.
This is separate from Z-Wave itself, which only provides the standards that allow all your Z-Wave devices to talk to each other. Your hub is essentially a computer which runs that software, and it’s fair to say that cheaper models will have less processing power and memory which can become a problem if you have a lot of devices trying to do things at once.
If you’re planning to build a comprehensive smart home, paying more for the extra horsepower and capability is a good up front investment. The only exception here is Z-Wave adapters that plug into a computer, as the computer’s capabilities will determine this rather than the Z-Wave controller.
Are you adding Z-Wave to an existing smart home?
If you are adding a Z-Wave hub to an existing smart home, you’ll want to ensure you can use Z-Wave devices alongside any other device types you may have.
Having an all-in-one smart home hub that supports all the smart devices and protocols you may want is the easiest way to do this, but that may involve re-configuring your existing devices to join the new smart hub. It’s also often the case that a single hub simply doesn’t support everything you might need, in spite of their marketing.
Services like IFTTT can help to bridge that gap, and if your hub supports integration with other platforms likes HomeKit or Alexa these can drive the automation rules for you across multiple device types and brands, even if you have other smart hubs.
Do you want voice assistant integration?
Getting your Z-Wave hub to work with your preferred voice assistant is not always obvious out of the box. Most hub makers are now on board with this requirement, as it definitely adds a layer of convenience to the smart home that is increasingly expected by consumers.
Even so, this integration is often done outside of the device itself, either by a skill or plugin for the controller software, a third party accessory, or a separate web service to act as a go between. The complexity and reliability of whatever solution is used can vary, but it’s getting better in general.
This feature does require the hub to have an internet connection, but you’ll usually get the secondary benefit of remote access to your smart home as well.
Do you need complex automation rules?
You might answer ‘no’ to this one, but if you’re looking to grow a smart home you’ll inevitably want to start exploring how to make it work for you.
To be fair, many smart home users will get by with fairly simple automation rules based on geolocation, schedules or sensor triggers. You will probably start to find, however, than adding some conditions to those triggers could be very useful and avoid inappropriate actions being taken at the wrong times.
Take a simple motion sensor triggering your lights. It may not make sense to turn them on every time, but only when the ambient light is low enough. A condition tied to a light sensor can make this simple action much smarter, and can be further extended with presence and time of day conditions to trigger different light states.
Essentially, the more options a controller’s rules give you, the better in the long term as you get more familiar with what works best in your home with your connected devices.
How about local control?
For me, local control is a significant consideration for any smart home platform. Not only does it greatly benefit privacy and response time but, most noticeably, reliability.
Once you hitch your wagon to smart devices you need reliability lest you lose control of things you take for granted like the ability to turn your smart lights on, adjust your thermostat, open your smart locks, and ensure your security systems are actually working.
A key benefit of Z-Wave is that your controller knows how to talk to everything on your Z-Wave network without the need for proprietary internet servers to control your stuff. Even so, not all Z-Wave hubs take advantage of this, and still tie you to the hub makers servers to do more than basic things in your home.
This leaves you prone to internet outages, server issues beyond your control, and the risk of losing access to everything because the one company that provides access to it all goes under, or starts charging for the privilege.
How technical are you?
Z-Wave has long been the province of power users, but a new generation of home automation hubs are trying to improve accessibility to the average home user. Z-wave devices are all guaranteed to work together, and many modern hubs make it easy for the average Joe to connect things. Unfortunately, Z-Wave’s much touted interoperability claims still have some way to go.
Variations in implementation of the control messages used by devices mean that not everything works as expected on every hub, and we still have to deal with the idea of ‘supported’ devices on a brand-by-brand basis. Those non-supported devices will still work as all Z-Wave devices must be certified to the basic specification, but a given hub may need some extra work to fully use a particular devices additional capabilities.
If you are comfortable getting under the hood and tweaking config files or scripts, then you won’t have anything to worry about. All these hubs have pretty good community support that can help you with any changes needed.
If you don’t have experience with that sort of thing, or you just want your smart home to work out of the box, then you’ll need to be a bit more discerning with both the range of ‘supported’ devices, and the control provided by the hub’s user interface and mobile app.
Adding Z-Wave to your smart home, or starting out with it, opens up a lots of flexibility and control options. Over time you’ll probably want to use home automation devices from various other protocols as well, and if you want to host them all on the same hub then a more all-in-one approach is now more viable than ever.
Athom has really grabbed my attention with their Homey device, as it offers a massive device list, awesome easy to use automation rules and just about every device integration in use today. While it’s not yet available for the US it is coming soon, and for other countries it’s a great all round smart home hub.
If you want to ensure you’re not wedded to a particular vendor, the Aeotec Z-Stick or Hubitat Elevation offer good solutions depending on how you want to host your controller. Just remember that the Z-Stick is only an adapter and you’ll need to be running compatible software on the host computer.
Finally, if you just want to add Z-Wave to an existing smart home, then the Ezlo Plughub is the best option to do that. It’s a simple, low cost Z-Wave only hub that will allow you to run Z-Wave devices and automation rules, or tie them into your existing platform to combine with your other smart devices.