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The Wink Hub: Almost Home-Automation Nirvana

David Pogue
Tech Critic
Yahoo Tech

More and more everyday devices are becoming networkable: Smoke alarms, coffee makers, refrigerators, thermostats, door locks, window shades, garage doors, security cameras, lights, air conditioners, and on and on. The industry has somehow settled on what must be the most awkward, imprecise, idiotic name for this trend ever: “the Internet of Things.”

Why is that name so dumb? For starters, the things don’t make an Internet. Many of them can’t even get on the Internet; they’re just networkable within your house or controllable by your phone.

And what’s with the convoluted grammar? “Internet of Things”? These things need Don Draper.

Or today’s equivalent. So I asked my Twitter followers to come up with a better name. They suggested DeviceNet (@ValaAfshar), StuffNet (@rickjoyce), iPpliances (@keskowitz), Remote Hardware (@jackyalcine), gadgenet (@aaronquinlan), and phomote control (@MoreThanATech). Any of those is better than “the Internet of Things.”

(Yes, I know that “DeviceNet” is already a trademark. Tough.)

Anyway. What was my point?

Oh, yeah. All of these things come from different companies and speak different wireless languages — not just WiFi and Bluetooth, but home-automation languages like Z-Wave, Zigbee, and Lutron Clear Connect. You need a different app to control each one. It’s chaos.

There have been several efforts to create universal hubs, with universal apps, that control all of these things: SmartThings, Iris, Insteon, and Revolv, for example. But they’re expensive ($100 and way up) and generally speak only some of the wireless languages.

Which brings us to today’s review: the Wink hub. This hub speaks all of those wireless languages. (Here’s a list of the products it can control. Its phone app is clean and beautiful.

And it’s only $50. Quirky, the company that makes it, would like you to know that Wink is available at Home Depot.

Actually, you don’t even need the hub to control many kinds of gadgets. A bunch of products work with just the app, and without the hub at all, including the Dropcam Pro, the Honeywell Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat, Philips’ Hue LED lightbulbs, the Quirky+GE air conditioner, the Quirky+GE power strip, the MyQ Garage Door Opener, and others. If you have, or want, any of these products, you can download the free Wink app (iOS or Android) and get started being the master of your domain.

For other gear, you do need the hub, which is an unobtrusive white plastic router-looking thing that you can tuck out of the way somewhere in your house.

To introduce your app to a new DeviceNet product, you open the Wink app and choose the category, and then the product itself:

Then comes an actual video that outlines what the installation will entail. People, every product ever made should include a video like this. It sets you up psychologically for what’s to come. 

Then a series of screens walks you through the setup—and this is where things go off the rails.

Let’s face it: Home-automation products come from dozens or hundreds of companies, and Wink seeks to be One App to Rule Them All. Well, no matter how superb Wink’s designers are, no matter how much their design hearts are in the right place, they’re still up against a universe of badly designed hardware.

Setting up some products, like the Kidde smoke alarm, requires using a ballpoint pen to flip dip switches hidden beneath the batteries.

Others, especially those you can control from across the Internet, generally require a name and a password. Electronic door locks require you to fuss with touchpad codes and, of course, hire a locksmith. Light kits, like the Philips Hue and Connected by TCP bulbs, come with hubs of their own that must be plugged into your router.

Frankly, it doesn’t always go well.

The Connected setup screens, for example, halt at the point where you must either log in to your Connected account or sign up for a new one. The Wink app refuses to accept a new signup, and the Connected website offers nowhere to create an account.

Another example: The Quirky+GE Pivot Power power strip is something I didn’t even know existed, but it’s very cool.

This is the same chainlike power strip, except that you can turn the first two outlets on or off with your phone, from anywhere. “Pairing” it with your phone is the coolest thing: You hold the phone’s screen up to a tiny lens on the power strip — and the screen furiously flashes black and white, in a light pattern that the power strip lens interprets. The Quirky+GE air conditioner pairs the same way.

Anyway, I must have done that six times, with no response from the strip or the app. I finally gave up — and found, five minutes later, that it had somehow fixed itself and was now working.

And so on. The point is, setting up your gadgets is nowhere near as sure-fire and seamless as Quirky would like you to believe. (Quirky, by the way, is a company that helps create, market, and sell ordinary people’s invention ideas. Its first big hit was the Pivot power strip, whose hinged structure makes room for several power bricks on the same strip. The Wink app was originally created to operate Quirky’s own products; its role has now been expanded.)

The saving grace is Wink’s help line. One tap in the setup screen, and your phone has called this seven-days-a-week, 24-hour, U.S.-based help crew. And they really are helpful. There wasn’t a single stubborn setup problem that they weren’t able to solve, eventually.

Once my six test products were all set up, I could go to town. I could turn my two living-room lamps on and off. I could operate the two power-strip outlets individually. I could adjust the colors of my three Philips Hue bulbs. I could lock or unlock the Schlage deadbolt on the sample door the company sent me (another one that required special help to get running). 

I could even access the Kidde smoke/carbon monoxide detector on my ceiling, from wherever I happened to be feeling anxious — although all you can do is read the status of your alarm, like the battery level. You can’t actually control the detector, like making it go off in the middle of the night to spice up your kids’ slumber party.

I could also try out the Wink app’s more sophisticated features, like these:

• Schedules. You can make your gadgets turn on or off at specified times on specified days of the week. (Unfortunately, you have to set up two events each time. For example, you have to set up one event to turn the lights on at 9 p.m. each night, and a second one to turn them off each night.)

• Shortcuts. A shortcut is a bunch of commands that are all issued together when you tap a button in your app. For example, a single shortcut could turn on a whole bunch of lights.

• Robots. I love Quirky’s name for its “if/then” macros — robots.

By tapping your way through its setup screens, you build a sentence like: “If the Dropcam security camera sees motion, then turn on all the lights and send me a text.” (Come to think of it, that’s where it’d be handy to be able to make your smoke alarm go off.)

I tried to create one that would turn on the lights when I unlocked the front door; it didn’t work. Quirky found that I’d discovered a bug, and it fixed it. But why am I discovering these bugs now?

The other concern is that although Wink can control gadgets in a whole bunch of different protocols, there are plenty it still can’t connect. It can’t talk to popular DeviceNet gear like Nest thermostats, Sonos music systems, or Belkin WeMo phone-controllable power outlets.

But that’s the thing: The whole point of the Wink app was to save you from those kinds of tech nightmares — to make setup simple and idiotproof. The fine engineers at Quirky have an insanely difficult task ahead of them: simplifying and unifying a huge range of wireless standards, hardware types, and design philosophies into something that feels unified and simple. They’ve made amazing progress, but the task is like herding an infinitude of cats.

It may be that it’s not enough to wrangle all the existing standards. Maybe DeviceNet won’t become a user-friendly reality until Apple, Samsung, or Google starts defining standards. (And, by the way, all three are working on it.)

Still, Wink vaults to the front of the line in compatibility and value (I mean, 50 bucks!). But when you try to set things up, not everything works the first time; Wink doesn’t achieve its goal of allowing non-techies to set up their own smart homes without help.

But if you know that going in, and you accept that working with its 24/7 team of phone helpers is part of the deal, then Wink can make you very happy. It might not get you all the way to home-automation nirvana, but it certainly gives you a ride to the right airport.

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