Home automation used to be the stuff of mansions, tycoons and futuristic films and cartoons. No more. Now it’s easy and relatively inexpensive to adopt easy home automation features into your house.
What can you do with home automation ?
From controlling your thermostat, door locks, light bulbs, light switches, sockets or plugs and even a power bar, manipulating the devices in your home for security, convenience or money savings has never been more possible.
Testing out Belkin WeMo
Enter the WeMo system by Belkin, just one of several home automation hubs. I recently had a chance to review and test several products in the WeMo line, from lights to plugs.
WeMo was easy to use right out of the box. I started my testing with the Lighting Starter Kit ($99), which comes with two LED light bulbs and a hub or the “Link”. Getting things going was as simple as downloading the WeMo app (for smartphones or tablets), plugging the Link into a wall outlet, and screwing in the bulbs. The Link connects to your homes existing wifi, and uses that signal to control your bulbs. Once the bulbs were installed and turned on, the app found them immediately by doing a scan. Once they’re set up, they’re set up for good, even if you remove them for a time.
The app walks you through the set up, making it foolproof.
One plus of this system for me is the Link hub is tiny compared to other hubs I’ve tested; it fits in the palm of your hand, and easily blends into the wall so you don’t notice it. It’s important to note that while you need the Link hub for the bulbs, other WeMo devices connect on their own, and need no external hub or Link. In fact a WeMo staffer pointed out to me, “most of the existing WeMo product line doesn’t need a hub at all: the WeMo Switch, Insight Switch, Light Switch, Netcam, and Crock Pot connect directly to Wi-Fi.”
So why do the bulbs need one? Simply put, the technology to connect to the wifi takes up space. Some bulbs I’ve tested, like the LIFX system, are much larger and heavier than the average bulb. So while those bulbs do not need an external wifi link, they do not fit in every fixture. The WeMo bulbs do, but the tradeoff is the small Link.
The WeMo bulbs are white light bulbs only. I’ve written before about the fun of colored LED bulbs that you can change, but for now, the WeMo bulbs are traditional. Maybe that will change soon; having a colour option is really fun and allows you to really customize your home.
Setting up the WeMo plugs or outlets was a bit harder. There are essentially two set up screens within the app, and for the first few attempts I was apparently using the wrong one. I kept connecting to “WeMo Set Up Instructions”, but I needed to be using “Add WeMo Link Device”, as seen in the screen grab. It seems like an easy mistake to make, and I figured out the error quickly enough, but I could see this being confusing and frustrating for others too.
Additionally, I found the set up screen getting locked, and having to force-quit the app in order to try again. Then, somehow, mysteriously, the device would be connected and working.
Now, while this was frustrating for me, a person who likes to understand what’s happening each step of the way, it wasn’t a deal-breaker for me. After a few tries, the WeMo system took care of itself and from then on worked just fine. Since then, I’ve had absolutely no trouble to glitches with the system; it works reliably and flawlessly.
There have been rather frequent firmware updates required; not that it’s a problem. In fact, I like companies who are constantly trying to keep software up to date. But it’s good to be aware you may actually need to do the firmware upgrades before the app and devices will work properly.
Easy to Use Timers, Away Function, Auto-On
One of the easiest aspects of the WeMo system is how easy it is to set up what WeMo calls Rules. It allows you to turn your bulbs, plugs or switches on or off at appointed times, which is great if you’re going away, or frequently get up before sunrise or get home before dark.
I’ve made some rules which turn on a light in my living room, softly at 50% brightness at 3am when I get up to go to work. I also have the same lap set to come on at sundown, and turn off later at night. Similar rule and timer functionality is also available on the plugs/outlets. More on that below.
Testing the WeMo Switch
One of the things I like about the WeMo Switch ($49) I tested is that it’s powerful enough for me to plug in a fan or heater. Some wifi-enabled plugs only have enough juice for a lamp, so it’s good to check the packaging or details before you buy and make sure the appliance you want to plug in to the switch (from any company you buy from) is safe to use. During my testing, I plugged a small space heater in, and set a timer rule to turn on about 30 minutes before bed so the room was warm. I also set it to shut off automatically after an hour. Another rule setting turns it on about 15 minutes before I wake up, and off again 30 minutes after that. That’s it; it’s ‘set it and forget it’! I have all these items functioning for me, on the schedule I decide, and the best part is that it’s easy, so very easy to program with the free WeMo app.
The WeMo Insight – It gives you data
I tested another WeMo plug; the Insight ($59). The WeMo Insight Switch will send notifications to your smartphone or tablet showing how much energy your electronics are using. Of course, you also have the ability to turn your electronics on and off and monitor their behaviour via the app.
One of the limits of home automation systems has been that you need to be at home, on your wifi network to control your devices. But now many companies, WeMo included, are adding internet connectivity or Remote Access to the mix, allowing you to access your bulbs and switches online, meaning if you forget to turn off a light, or the heater, you can do it from the office, or from the resort in Mexico.
Other WeMo Products
While I didn’t test these below, it’s worth mentioning some other neat peripherals in the WeMo lineup. The Crock-Pot® Smart Slow Cooker with WeMo™ works with the app to adjust cook settings. WeMo says, “if you’re stuck at work or running late, you don’t have to worry. You can turn it on and off, change the cooking temperature, set timers and watch its status all with the simple, intuitive and free WeMo App for your smartphone or tablet. WeMo works over Wi-Fi and 3G/4G, so you can easily adjust your dinner schedule whenever you like, from wherever you are.”
The Belkin NetCam works with the WeMo collection of products so you can program home automation triggers like turning on your lights when you walk through the door. WeMo is also adding to its home automation arsenal, announcing partnerships with OSRAM, the parent company of OSRAM SYLVANIA, and Jarden Corporation, maker of
Crock-Pot®, Mr. Coffee® and more, to bring home automation to more products.
WeMo also makes a wifi-enabled Light Switch. The company says it ‘allows you to turn lights on and off from anywhere–from across the house, from the backyard, or from the other side of the world. WeMo Light Switch replaces a standard light switch in your home and can be controlled remotely with an Android smartphone or tablet, iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. It works with your existing Wi-Fi® network and anywhere your smartphone or tablet has an Internet connection (3G or 4G LTE). Easy for most Do It Yourselfers.”
The Bottom Line
I thoroughly enjoyed the Belkin WeMo experience and I recommend it to others who may be looking to get started on home automation. The system is easy to use and trouble free once it’s up and running. Make sure to set up via the “Add WeMo Link Device” screen, and not the “WeMo Set Up Instructions”. I’ll be watching to see when WeMo adds coloured light bulbs to its arsenal, as I’ve gotten addicted to those of late. And I’m interested to try the other products in the lineup too to see just how useful they are.
It’s worth noting that the prices I posted for these products above are recommended retail, but at the time of posting this (mid-February), there was a good deal on the devices on the Belkin website that may give you extra incentive to pick some up. In Canada, WeMo is also available from Future Shop.