Hub-Based Smart Bulbs Are Better And This Is Why

Updated on 5th Dec 2020 23:22 in General, Smart

Smart bulbs come in all shapes and sizes, with one of those being with a hub or without. The distinction is a bit more particular here when compared to any other smart device since many manufacturers use a proprietary protocol. That means that anyone looking to use their smart bulbs will need to continue buying products from the same vendor. Despite that, there are many advantages to using a smart bulb hub, and we will quickly see why they can be superior to their hubless counterparts.

Smart bulb hubs

What is a smart bulb hub?

Most will be familiar with what a smart bulb is, but perhaps less so with a hub specifically for bulbs. You may be wondering why bulbs would need their own hub if each bulb is already smart and the reason is usually related to protocol compatibility. Take, for example, Philips Hue, which uses Zigbee for communication across the platform. A smartphone won't be able to communicate with the bulbs without some external help, since phones don't have Zigbee antennas built-in. You also won't get any remote access as there is no internet access on a Zigbee network by default. All of this is why there are hubs specifically for these bulbs.

For Hue, it's called the Smart Bridge, but most other product lines will have something similar. The bridge is then used to facilitate communication between the bulbs which use Zigbee and your smart home controller or phone. Think of it as a translator, taking messages coming from the internet and converting them into messages on the Zigbee network. Hold on, if the bulbs are using Zigbee, can't you just use a regular Zigbee hub and be done with it? In theory, yes. The problem with Zigbee is that it doesn't specify a set standard, which means there is no guarantee that two Zigbee devices will know how to communicate with each other, despite them both using the same wireless standard. As a result, you'll typically need to buy a bridge device.

Why do some bulbs work without a hub?

Some bulbs (often cheaper ones) will be advertised as not needing a hub. Are the ones that make you buy a hub simply doing so to increase the cost of their ecosystem? The answer is that it's complicated. Bulbs that work on their own almost always make use of a WiFi connection to perform their smart functions. They will then connect to a server over the internet that will act as a controller, telling it what to do every step of the way. That server will then accept commands from an app running on your phone or on a voice assistant, sending your commands to the bulb in a bit of a round-about way. 

With that picture painted, we can see that these bulbs do have a hub, just not one located in your home. There are a few reasons this approach is less than ideal, with the first being the reliance on an internet connection. To be able to operate your lights, the remote server must be reachable, as otherwise there is no way for you to control it. Imagine the connection goes out, and as a result, you can't turn the lights on or off. That would be an awful situation if all of your lights were affected! In another scenario, the company's servers could go down, leaving your devices with no way to talk to their controller. 

In terms of the WiFi aspect, it too has some issues that are less severe but still worth mentioning. The biggest problem is that WiFi is a centralized protocol, meaning every connected device will be talking to the same access point, at least within a given area. This can overload a basic network setup such as the one provided by most ISPs rather quickly, resulting in serious stability problems. A home that uses exclusively WiFi should be prepared to install some serious networking equipment, especially multiple access points to place around the house. All that is to say that most bulbs that don't require a hub are often going to cause more problems than they are worth.

A datacenter with many servers
The "Cloud" is just a data centre somewhere.

Should you use bulbs with a hub?

So far, the case for smart bulbs without a hub looks fairly grim, with quite a few issues when using them at scale. That's not to say there aren't any problems with ecosystems that need bridges or hubs though. For one, they are often a lot more expensive - just look at Philips Hue! Installing these everywhere is sure to become expensive really quick. Another issue is often that you are locked to the ecosystem with little room to expand. As the bulbs talk to each other in a proprietary protocol, you will need to purchase compatible devices which are usually only sold by one vendor. This is made worse by the fact that many of these devices are purposely incompatible with most other brands.

Despite these disadvantages, the power of mesh networking can not be understated. You can easily use Zigbee bulbs all around the house since each one will repeat the signal to nearby neighbours. The system is also already isolated from your WiFi network, meaning you don't need to worry about interference. Couple that with the fact that most of these systems operate entirely locally, which helps ensure your purchases won't become obsolete in a few years, and you have a recipe for greatness. If you run the hub in your house, the manufacturer won't be able to force you to upgrade by shutting down the service (which does sadly happen). All of this points to the fact that hub bulbs are typically a better investment in the long run, especially on a large scale.

Final recommendations

The recommendation is simple: if you are playing around with smart home gadgets, go ahead and use the cheaper and easier to use WiFi bulbs. On the other hand, if you plan on kitting your entire house with smart bulbs, you will be doing yourself a favour by getting a system with a hub. The same goes for anyone who thinks they might want to expand to a larger scale, as the mesh network will make life a lot easier when dealing with large quantities of bulbs. Hubless bulbs just don't scale well when you have them in every room. The WiFi might not reach, the access point could become overloaded, the internet might be offline, or the company could shut down the cloud service. These are all reasons not to trust hubless for a full-house install.

Type Advantages Disadvantages Recommended For
Hub Great for large scale installation
Low response time
Mesh network
Can be expensive
More complicated to setup
Finalized installations

Hubless Great for quick testing
Easy to install
Works out of the box
Requires the internet to work
Could be discontinued in the future
Prone to overload network
Testing or small setups

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