There are an awful lot of terms that get thrown around to describe home automation hardware and software. At first, you may be confused by them all, but then you start to learn a little and it begins to sound like those six doodads over there all do the same thing. Eventually, you learn that the device that one company calls a thingamabob is the same as that other company’s doohickey.
It really is quite a learning curve if you tackle it from the bottom up and try to jump into buying security systems, entertainment and lighting controllers all at once. Sometimes it really is just a difference of product names between companies. But because we’re dealing with technology made up of both hardware and software in our smart home systems, a lot of times there really is a difference you need to understand.
Setting the scene
The difference between a smart hub, a Smart House Manager and a home controller is one of those cases. While it may sound like they all perform the same job – telling other devices in your system what to do and when – they really do operate quite differently and handle different parts of that communication.
Perhaps the easiest way to describe the differences is to walk through a typical smart home scenario. Let’s take your morning routine for our example.
First, there’s that thing that tells your thermostat to turn up the heat an hour before your alarm is set to go off in the morning so it’s nice and toasty when you wake up. Then something needs to tell your coffee pot to start brewing five minutes before the alarm goes off. Next, as soon as your feet hit the floor, you tell Alexa or Google to turn on the bathroom lights and your day has officially begun.
Only one of the three actions in your simple “wake-up” scene was driven in the moment by you. Yet ultimately, you are the master of all of your home automation. You are the Smart House Manager not just because you issue the voice commands to be carried out at that moment. You are the Manager because you planned, purchased and set up all the devices in this scene. Then you set up all the actions your smart devices will take on your behalf.
You issued a voice command to your home controller, either Alexa or Google Home most likely. Depending on the brand of smart home lights you’ve added to your network, your controller may or may not have been able to actually reach out to that light and switch it on without help. Most likely your controller used the Internet to send a message to your smart hub to turn on the light.
Alexa and Google Assistant are not the only controllers out there, but they are the reason interest in home automation is exploding right now. Being able to speak commands as well as ask questions has shown people that it is possible to enjoy the benefits of a smart home without a computer programming degree.
Even more common than a voice controller though is a simple cell phone app. Smartphones are the original controllers and they still send more commands to more devices than anything else.
Accepting signals from your smartphone or voice controller over the Internet and passing them to the desired device in your home network is the main job of a smart hub.
Sometimes your home automation hub can act without a direct order from the cloud. In our example, it held the preset recipe to your scene and automatically executed your preset orders to warm up the house and start the coffee.
The lines between hubs and controllers are blurring. There are some things that Alexa and Google Assistant can now do directly, but the smart hub will still be the center of most of your smart home actions indefinitely.
It’s also important to know that not all hubs will work with all controllers. Each of them will support a certain set of protocols that allow one device to talk to another. You need to buy devices, including hubs and controllers that all speak the same language for them to work together.
Scenes and Robots and Modes
You say potato, I say Potatoe. Our little wake-up scenario describes one of those cases where different companies are going to call the same action something different. The terms we see most often are “scenes,” “modes” and “robots.”
What all three of these describe is a situation where a certain set of actions is grouped together for easier control. Once you have done the initial setup of each device rule (turn on coffeepot, turn off bathroom light), you can group them all together under one name. “Wake-up” or “Good morning” can then be accessed through your controller with one tap or one voice command.
You could consider it the speed dialing of home automation. But when you stop and think of it, it’s more like the driving force behind a smart home. It’s not really that hard to turn on separate lights as you move through your house in the morning. Nor is it hard to make coffee, turn up the thermostat or do any of the other small things that make up your morning routine.
And, once you’ve gotten your routine so set that it becomes an automatic gesture, it’s also not hard to forget to turn the coffeepot off when you leave, or to turn the thermostat back down for the day. A smart home system will take all those little things off your mind and todo list so you can concentrate on being a good Manager. Then you can spend your time on more important matters – like remembering where you left your car keys.