Creating a smart home might seem like a smart idea. But if you’re unsure about how to make all your devices work together, it can make you feel…dumb.

If you’re exploring the world of connected homes or considering buying smart devices, you’ve likely encountered the terms smart hub, gateway and bridge. These hardware pieces sound similar and are sometimes used interchangeably, yet they serve distinct purposes. Some may aid in establishing your smart home, while others could be superfluous for your setup. So, which one suits you best?

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?

Common brands: Amazon Echo, Google Home, Apple HomePods, Samsung ​​SmartThings, Aeotec Smart Home Hub, Hubitat, Homey

A smart home hub is basically what it sounds like: the command station or organizing point of your smart home. Think of it as the Wi-Fi 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 to allow you to control and communicate with them. “Smart hubs use utility software to control different devices in many ways. For example, if you are watching a movie, you can create a scene that dims your lights using a Philips Hue hub,” explains certified network engineer Nizel Adams, CEO of his own Chicago-based IT consulting firm.

Odds are you’ve most likely run into smart home hubs (and even own one) without fully realizing it. Smart speakers like Amazon Echo, Google Home 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 by just saying the words.

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Hubs are hardware. They house the software that powers virtual assistants like Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant. So for example, with Amazon gear, Echo is the physical device; Alexa the AI system inside it.

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 smart gateway?

Common brands: Arris, Netgear, Motorola, Asus, TP-Link

“A gateway is a combination of a modem and router. In a typical home network, a modem establishes your connection from your Internet service provider while a separate router directs network traffic, assigns Internet protocol addresses and provides wireless capabilities. But with a gateway, all of this is combined into a single device,” Adams says. 

The advantages of a gateway include robust security as a single access point and universal control. “The main drawback of gateways is that they are jacks of all trades yet masters of none, so they are not as feature-rich as a full-on router nor work as well,” cautions Adams.

In a smart home, gateways serve an additional purpose — they act as a translator among all the devices and systems. Different smart devices connect via different technologies, such as ZigBee, Z-Wave, infrared, Bluetooth and of course Wi-Fi networks. A gateway takes your devices that are using these different methods — speaking different languages, basically — and converts their messages to a universal language that allows them to communicate with one another.

In contrast, smart hubs only connect devices of the same type on the same network or wireless protocol. At least, that used to be the case. Many smart home hubs nowadays, such as Homey and Hubitat, are also gateways. That is, they can connect and communicate through several different popular wireless protocols — which means you likely will not need to purchase a gateway if you already have a smart hub. 

But if your smart hub isn’t a universal or smart 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 smart bridge?

Common brands: Homebridge, HOOBS, IFTTT

If the gateway serves to get all of your smart devices speaking the same language, the bridge is what allows you to talk to them. While some smart home devices and appliances can connect directly to your home’s Wi-Fi network, 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 bridge essentially facilitates communication between two different networks or protocols. It bridges the transfer of data between devices that might not otherwise communicate and streamlines device integrations,” Jones explains.

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-Fi, so the bridge converts that information into the wireless protocol that your device speaks to and sends the command to it.

A bridge often comes into play when you buy a particular type of IoT 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.

Smart hub vs bridge vs gateway: 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 can 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.

When do you need a smart hub?

Adams says a smart hub comes into play once you start connecting individual IoT devices, whether that be a Ring security system, Samsung washer/dryer or Philips lighting equipment.

“Typically, these brands have their own dedicated hubs to use with their devices, although there are plenty of generic hubs or high-end smart hubs like Hubitat or Homey that are compatible with a wealth of devices,” he adds.

When do you need a smart gateway?

Unless you are running a local area network (LAN) where devices are connected directly or via a switch, hub or router, your home network will definitely need either a gateway or dedicated modem to establish a connection to an Internet service provider. In other words, you’re not going to get or be able to use the Internet without one. 

When do you need a smart bridge?

A smart bridge may only be needed if you plan to connect multiple physical devices or if the brand/product requires the use of a specific included or compatible bridge.

“A bridge is ideal for those with devices from a singular ecosystem needing interconnectivity,” says Jones.

In other words, particular individual devices often require their own bridge. One example is the bridge used by August to connect and control a Yale smart lock on your home’s doors. The smart lock can be programmed and controlled by the app itself, but the bridge allows you to conveniently control and set the lock remotely from your phone.

Best practices 

When setting up your smart home, it’s often best to start with the hub – assuming you already have a modem and router in place (which is necessary for an internet connection). Pick the hub 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. If you own Google Nest products, consider a Nest home hub smart display.

When buying the hub, check if it’s also a universal gateway — that is, if it works with other wireless protocols, which ones, and how many. Homey, for example, features Z-Wave Plus, Zigbee, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Infrared, and is compatible with Siri, Alexa and Google Home.

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 the device 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 a specific model will work with your hub — there can be differences even among the same manufacturer’s products.

Still, some new products (like automated window treatments) require proprietary technology to connect everything. In that case, you’ll need to buy the manufacturer’s bridge, even if you already have a smart hub and/or a gateway. And of course, you’d need to buy it or a gateway if you don’t have a smart hub.