There's little doubt that the popularity of "smart home" products is surging. Connected devices both large and small were everywhere at CES this year, and with Google buying Nest recently, it's clear that the titans of tech are paying attention.
But with all of these new devices comes a Babel-esque smattering of networking protocols -- the "languages" they use to receive and transmit data. Some speak to your router over Wi-Fi, others speak to your tablet over Bluetooth. Kwikset, Yale and Schlage make smart deadbolts that relay information using Z-Wave, while Philips Hue bulbs are fluent in ZigBee. There's Insteon's network, the Clear Connect protocol spoken by Lutron products, and countless other proprietary languages to keep track of. Try using multiple devices from different manufacturers and it'll become clear: a smart house divided cannot stand.
Enter Staples Connect, a system that promises to unite your devices behind a single hub and a single app capable of controlling all of them. With fluency in multiple protocols and partnerships with some of the most popular connected-device manufacturers, the smart-home singularity that Staples is offering seems enticing -- especially given that its $99 hub is $200 cheaper than the Revolv, a rival hub that offers exactly the same thing.
So, does Staples Connect deliver? The answer is yes -- to an extent. The system is simple enough to set up and use, and it works reliably. Plus, with key product partners like Honeywell, Philips, and GE, along with a hardware partnership with Linksys, Staples Connect is well positioned for future growth. We saw as much at CES, when Staples and Zonoff, its platform provider, announced new partnerships with Goji, Koubachi, and Radio Thermostat, along with upcoming support for Insteon, Bluetooth, and ZigBee.
However, the functionality that the Staples Connect ecosystem offers for each compatible device isn't always deep enough to justify replacing the existing app outright. What's more, with certain products, you'll still need to plug a separate control device into your router. The dream is total unification -- one hub, one app -- and the software in Staples Connect isn't deep enough to bring us there.
Of course, these are issues that every would-be master hub is currently facing, and as such, it might be best to wait before committing to anything. That said, if you need something now, Staples Connect is robust enough -- and affordable enough -- to justify the purchase.
Design and features
The Staples Connect hub isn't much to look at. Its boring, plain-white plastic body doesn't have any of the fun, futuristic design touches that you'll see in a product like the Revolv, and it lacks some of the Revolv's functional touches, too. For instance, while you can place the Revolv wherever you like, the Staples Connect Hub will need to remain plugged into your router at all times, and it can't pair with your phone simply by flashing a light at it, either.
Still, the Staples Connect hub is a successfully simple device. After plugging it in, you'll never need to mess with it again -- just download the free app to your Android or iOS device or pull up the Web interface to get started. In terms of design, Staples' app again falls a bit short of Revolv's, which offers a more stylish user interface as well as useful built-in features like geofencing -- but it still gets the job done.
The Staples app will walk you through the the initial setup process in just a few minutes. After everything's plugged in, you'll need to wait for a few lights to turn blue, then enter the hub's serial number into the app. That's it. From there, it's simply a matter of connecting your devices, which is equally pain-free. Through the app's device manager, you'll tell the system which specific device you're adding, then follow simple pairing instructions specific to that device. For my tests, I added Philips Hue bulbs, a Yale smart lock, a GE appliance control module, and Lutron light dimmers. I didn't have difficulty with any of them.
This is where those product partnerships come into play. Staples is forgoing the more open approach to third-party devices that we're seeing with Revolv as well as with systems like SmartThings, and choosing instead to focus only on integrating products made by manufacturers with whom it's able to form strong business partnerships. The upside to this approach is that using these products within the Staples ecosystem is a piece of cake. The downside is that you won't have much luck trying to integrate devices that aren't partnered with Staples, even if they use a protocol that Staples supports.