Bringing it All Together: Hubs and Voice Control
The Wink Hub
The choice of which hub to go with can lead to arguments as heated as whether Ford or Chevy makes the best pickup truck. But in the end, we're going to be frank with you: either pickup truck will probably get the job done, and the same goes for the hub you choose. Yes, there are differences, and yes, on the margin this may lead individual consumers to choose one or the other, but at their core, they're just a collection of antennas and radios, relaying information from within your house to a cloud server, and back to an app on your smartphone. Sure, that's enough for the ecosystem you choose to matter a bit, but not a whole lot.
There are three main competitors in the hub market, Wink, Samsung SmartThings, and Insteon. To a certain extent, products you buy to work with one will work with others, but that's not always true. That means you can be locked into one ecosystem for certain products and even entire product categories (for example, Wink is great for lights but not as good for sensors). And yes, we could have a Ford vs. Chevy debate about all of this, but we'll leave that to you all! In the end, we chose Wink because it's the cheapest (originally $50, now $70), offers a friendly interface, and works with many of the best Smart Home products on the market. Wink is also great about getting its name on third-party products, in part because that's how it's monetizing its brand. At $50, every Wink hub was a loss for its original parent company, which eventually went bankrupt, and now under new ownership, we bet $70 only allows it to break even. Third-party partners pay to put the big, bold Wink label on their product packages and marketing, and this is a huge benefit to consumers. You know right away if the product will work Wink. Wink also keeps a comprehensive registry of all products certified to work with Wink.
You can see the Wink smartphone app in the screenshot shown here (click on it for a bigger view!). It's welcoming and user-friendly, providing step-by-step instructions for all partner products, including detailed photos, all from within the app. The only thing we think Wink needs to consider as it moves forward with its app development is better integration of whole home automation. As you can see, the app is segmented by product category; want to set a schedule for multiple device categories to trigger simultaneously? You have to program each category independently.
Another thing to keep in mind about Wink is that it simply can't replicate all of the controls present in the first-party apps. That's all the more true the more complicated a device is, for example a thermostat, which is far more than an on/off device like a lightbulb. For some controls, you'll likely need the product manufacturer's app loaded on your smartphone as well.
We should note that the use of a smartphone as a trigger for your Smart Home hub in theory allows selected devices to activate when you approach your home (as in a thermostat and lights). This concept is called "geo-fencing", and it's based on the smartphone's location services. We've found it to be pretty spotty at best, with the location-based "robot" sometimes not triggering by the time we arrived home, or sometimes triggering while we were sitting still in our home. We think more needs to be done, potentially by smartphone manufacturers, before this is truly a compelling Smart Home feature.
Finally, we come to the product that takes the Smart Home to the next level. We've been testing the Echo for about a month in preparation for this article, and in our opinion, Amazon stumbled upon the holy grail when it comes to the connected home. No, it's not truly a Smart Home device, nor is it a home automation device, as it doesn't make decisions for you or even follow a program you've set. But when it comes to ease of access to all (or potentially all) of your Smart Home devices, Echo is the one. Given that Amazon is consistently showing at least a 2-3 week backorder on the Echo, many months after its introduction, we think that the word got out. And we can guarantee you people aren't lining up to buy an Echo so they can order Pampers with just their voice. It's so much more than that.
And what exactly is the big deal, you ask? Well, being able to walk into a room and set all lights to 50%, or 100%, or anything you want, really, is quite a useful feature. Can you do that with a wall switch? Well, sort of, but linking many disparate lights together (track lighting, a hanging lamp, multiple floor lamps, and various indirect lighting) all into one command is what's so unique. And how about when you're sitting down to watch a movie and you want to shut off all lights within line of sight of your couch? That's pretty hard to do without a connected home device, because those lights might be in three or four different rooms, and maybe outside your house as well. And most importantly, it's something everyone can use; Echo takes control of the Smart Home away from one user's smartphone, buried in a pocket or desk drawer, and puts it right in front of everyone. That's Smart Home, the Next Generation, from our point of view, and it's why Amazon has truly revolutionized the Smart Home, perhaps without knowing what a big innovation it had on its hands.
Now, there are some limitations on what Echo (or Alexa, if you're on a first-name basis with her) can do. So far only a few thermostats work with it (Nest, Ecobee, and Emerson's Sensi), and even then you'll have very limited controls (like setting a certain temperature, rather than programming it outright). No locks that we know of work with Echo at all, and we don't envision they ever will, due to the potential for a burglar to call through the open window asking Alexa to unlock the house. Ah well, perhaps it's more polite to actually greet your guests at the door anyway!
The other issue with Echo is that once you have it in one room (for example, a kitchen), you'll want it everywhere, as yelling across the house to ask for lights to turn on isn't exactly what most people probably have in mind when it comes to the "connected home"! Amazon figured that out, though, recently releasing the Echo Dot, an Echo mini-me, available initially in very limited quantities and at a rather inflated price. It's basically an Echo extender, and the idea is that you'd put one in every room. Amazon's going to have to cut the price by at least 50% for that to make sense, but the issue with this and all Smart Home devices is why? It's very hard to make money off of Smart Home technology, so why would Amazon sell Dot at a bargain price? Well, we can always hope that Amazon's feeling charitable about bringing voice control to all! [Update: Amazon has done the unthinkable and actually re-released the Echo Dot at $50... it must have read this article!]
Hopefully we've given you a sense of what's possible in the Smart Home arena, and that it's enough to get you interested in trying out the Smart Home waters for yourself. The market still has some maturing to do, as manufacturers figure out what people want and how they can market them to work with competitors' products while still making a profit. It's a bit trickier than it sounds, but heck, way back when, lightbulb manufacturers figured out how to do it, so we think Smart Home product vendors can too!
Want more information? Well, we've got it! We'll be rolling out individual product reviews over the coming months, which you can see in our Smart Home Product Reviews section, and we've also put together a Buyer's Guide to Smart Lighting, which is updated on a quarterly basis to provide the latest insights into the best products for every user. As other Smart Home product areas get more competitive (i.e., there's more than one or two vendors for each product category), we'll be publishing quarterly buyer's guides for those products as well. And by the way, setting up a Smart Home definitely requires a robust home wireless network. If you haven't updated your router in a while, you owe yourself a visit to our Wireless Networking Buyer's Guide to get some tips on the best options at every price point.
Testing out all this gear over the past year or so has been a lot of fun (and only occasionally frustrating), and based on our experience, we truly believe this is the "Next Big Thing" when it comes to consumer technology. But it will take more time to develop than other markets, like MP3 players, smartphones, and tablets, all of which Apple could push forward through sheer force of (Steve Jobs') will. The home is bigger than any one product, but that also makes it much more exciting than anything that's come before it. Stay tuned... things are only going to get more exciting from here on out!