A smart home seems like a smart idea, but if you’re not sure what you need to make all of your systems and devices communicate with one another, it can make you feel…well, less than smart.
If you’ve started looking into creating a connected home, or buying a specific smart appliance, you’ve probably come across the terms smart hub, gateway, and bridge. These pieces of hardware all sound pretty similar, and sometimes they are even used interchangeably. But they do have distinct purposes — ones that may help you set up your smart home, and ones that may feel superfluous for your setup.
Which one is right for you? Here’s a succinct guide to understanding the difference between hubs, bridges and gateways.
What’s a smart hub?
A smart home hub is basically what it sounds like: The central, organizing point of your Wi-Fi network. Think of it as the home network’s HQ. You have all these devices that are connected to the internet, but they need to get their commands from somewhere. Your smart home hub gets them sending and receiving the same messages, and allows you to control them simultaneously — typically via a smartphone or tablet app.
Hubs unify all of your smart home devices and systems allow you to control and communicate with them. Odds are you’ve most likely run into smart home hubs (and even own one) without fully realizing it. Smart speakers like Amazon Echo devices, Google Home devices and Apple HomePods are all smart hubs. They allow you to connect and control your household devices and systems from a central location. They also have the added benefit of voice controls, which lets you do things like turn on and off lights by just saying the words. (Reminder: Hubs are the hardware that house the AI software that powers virtual assistants like Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant).
There are also hubs like the Samsung SmartThings or the Aeotec Smart Home Hub that are dedicated to the connectivity task, rather than having another purpose like serving as a speaker. While they aren’t routers — the hub itself will have to connect to your home’s Wi-Fi — they act similarly to one designed specifically for smart home devices.
What’s a gateway?
Hubs are great for devices that already speak the same language and simply need to be on the same page. But not all smart home devices do speak the same language. Smart home devices communicate via wireless protocols, and there are a number of different ones that these internet-connected products and appliances can use. Along with various Wi-Fi networks, some common ones are Z-Wave and Zigbee.
A gateway is your translator. It takes these devices that are speaking different languages and converts those messages to a universal language that allows them to communicate with one another.
In other words, hubs connect devices of the same type on the same network. Gateways connect devices of different species that operate on different networks.
The good news is that many smart home hubs nowadays are also gateways. They are able to connect and communicate through a number of different popular wireless protocols, which means you likely will not need to purchase another device.
But if your smart hub isn’t a more universal gateway — or you don’t have a smart hub at all — you might need one when you get a new Internet of Things (IoT) toy, depending on what wireless language it speaks.
What’s a bridge?
If the gateway is to get all of your smart devices speaking the same language, the bridge is what allows you to talk to it. While some smart home devices can connect directly to your home’s Wi-Fi networks, some cannot because they use a low-power wireless communication protocol. If you want to communicate with them via your home network, you need a bridge to make that connection.
A sandwich-size device, a bridge typically connects either to your gateway or your Wi-Fi router. From there, it helps you communicate with your smart appliances. Your smartphone communicates via Wi-iFi, so the bridge converts that information into the wireless protocol that your device speaks and sends the command to it.
A bridge often comes into play when you buy a particular type of Internet of Things item, like smart window blinds or shades. To be able to program them, you need to use the manufacturer’s proprietary software; and you may need a bridge for it to communicate with your Wi-Fi network. Some devices or systems come with their own branded bridges.
Which device do I need when?
While the smart home is still relatively new, the technology has advanced quickly. Smart appliance and device makers have largely coalesced around just a couple of wireless protocols, and most new smart hubs are able to do the work of a bridge and a gateway all in one.
For their part, manufacturers have recognized that most people buy different products from different brands and it’s best to make sure they all can communicate with one another — and be set up smoothly. Many smart home devices and appliances are compatible with most of the major smart home hub brands, like Amazon, Apple and Google.
So, when setting up your smart home, start with the hub. Pick the brand that you are most comfortable or familiar with. If you already have a bunch of Apple products, an Apple HomePod might fit best. If you’re using Alexa smart speakers, then you may want to make Amazon’s Echo your hub.
Bear in mind though, that nothing is one size fits all. Older systems and devices especially might have trouble playing with a new hub. In that case, you may need to consider both a bridge and a gateway — if you want control of it to be centralized.
When shopping for a new item — be it a security system or a smart oven — check to see what hub brands, if any, it’s compatible with. You’ll want to double-check that specific model will work with your hub — there can be differences even among the same manufacturer’s products.
Still, there are some new products that require proprietary technology in order to connect everything. So you’ll need to buy the manufacturer’s bridge. And of course, you’d need to buy it or a gateway if you don’t already have a smart hub installed in your home.