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Revolv: Not Quite Your Smart Home’s Best Friend

Dan Tynan
Yahoo Tech

Remember the home of the future? You know, that vision in which you’d control all the devices in a house with just a few taps on some magical handheld gizmo? Sometime in the past year or two, it arrived.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the future is kind of a mess. The stuff that was supposed to make our lives easier has created a fresh new hell of apps and gadgets all clamoring for our attention. Efforts to stitch them together into one seamless interface range from hopelessly complex and costly home automation systems to promising-yet-still-buggy upstarts. Frankly, it’s still easier to just walk over and flip the switch yourself.

The makers of the $300 Revolv wireless hub hope to change all that. The system is billed as a “universal smart home hub and app.” It can communicate with devices that use a variety of home control wireless protocols (like WiFi, INSTEON, and Z-Wave) and enable them to work together to do cool things for you. All you need is an iPhone 4s or later iOS device. (Or an Android device, later this year.)

The 5-inch-wide teardrop-shaped hub is a dead ringer for an old-timey CD holder. (Revolv)

Revolv pitches an appealing notion: It’s one system that can talk to any smart gizmo, and it keeps evolving as you add more of them.

But Revolv isn’t quite ready for prime time. It’s a lot like those universal remotes that promise to declutter your coffee table by giving you one device to control your TV, DVR, and stereo: It will probably do most (not all) of what you want it to do, but only if you’re willing to fiddle with it. It’s not as push-button simple as it should be.

You remember that over-eager bunkmate at summer camp who decided you were instant best friends, even if you weren’t quite so sure about it? That’s Revolv. It starts before you even open the box. This is what it says on the back of the container:

Setup is pretty simple and takes about three minutes if everything goes perfectly. You start by snapping a photo of a QR code that comes on a card inside the box, which directs your phone to a page where you can download the app. Plug in the Revolv device or “hub,” and then hold your phone an inch or two over the hub for about 45 seconds as it flashes instructions to it, displaying cheery messages onscreen like, “Hang in there, Sparky.”

Once you connect the hub to your WiFi network, Revolv starts looking for your smart devices. The app claims it will automatically find “premium devices” like the Sonos wireless music system, Nest Learning Thermostat, Hue connected LED lights, and Belkin switches or motion sensors. In my testing, however, this was totally hit or miss. Some of the devices showed up instantly, others took 15 minutes or longer, and a few eluded Revolv entirely.

You can speed along device discovery by turning gadgets on and off (so that Revolv can detect them), or by searching through a list of gadgets and adding them manually. The app displays a list of three dozen supported devices, from lights and locks to motion sensors and music systems; the Revolv website has a more extensive list of 60 or so. The ultimate plan is to support more than 300 smart devices across 25 product categories, Revolv CEO Mike Soucie says.

What you won’t find on either list, though, are smart TVs, streaming video devices like the Roku and Apple TV, or home surveillance cams like the Piper or Dropcam. Support for at least some of these devices will be coming later this year, Soucie adds.

Not quite total control
Once you’ve added devices, you can start controlling them — well, mostly controlling them. Revolv gives you access to basic features for each gadget, but not much more.

If you’ve got a Nest thermostat, for example, you can use the Revolv app to control the fan, choose between heat and AC, and bump the temperature up or down. You can’t put the fan on a timer, review energy usage, or access other features of the dedicated Nest app. Still, basic environmental controls may be all you want on your phone.

With the Sonos music system, on the other hand, you’ll probably find the lack of controls frustrating. You can turn tunes on or off, control volume, and skip tracks, but your choice of music sources is limited. The Revolv app shows you your 10 “most listened to” channels (though it showed me only two for some reason). If you want to hear something else, you’ve got to use the dedicated Sonos app — defeating the purpose of a universal hub.

Likewise for the Hue lights; you can pick colors for your lamps and control their brightness, but you can’t choose from the many preconfigured light shows available on the Hue app.

Bliss or miss?
Really, though, the “smart” part of a smart home is when devices talk to one another and do things automatically. Revolv gives you two ways to do this. One is to select a device and assign actions to it. For example, you can use a signal from a motion sensor to turn on the hall light. You can set up a trigger from an exterior lock to turn on music and crank the AC when you get home. You can also create actions that happen at a set time, with the push of a button, or when you enter or leave the area around your house (using the “geofence” capability built into your iPhone).

Here, alas, Revolv’s interface is not quite fully baked. After you’ve created the action, for example, there’s no “OK” or “Done” or “Next” button, just a back arrow. Once I created an action and associated it with a device, I was left wondering, “Is that it? Am I done? Will it work?”

Some actions you’ve created show up separately on the Hub home screen, while others are hidden under each device. Worse, when I tried using Revolv, sometimes actions happened immediately, while at other times there was a lag of a minute or more, possibly due to a weak WiFi signal. There are also other small oversights that make the getting started less blissful and awesomated than it should be.

Once you’re past the setup stage, Revolv works relatively well and offers some clever features. You can, for example, set it up so that it auto detects when you’re within a few blocks of your house and prepares it for your arrival (lights, HVAC, and so on). There’s even a “knock knock” security feature where you activate the connected door lock by literally knocking on the screen of your iPhone.

At the moment, Revolv is really viable only for consumers who own enough Revolv-compatible devices to make it worth the setup hassles. Me, I’d wait for Revolv 2.0.

Soucie notes that Revolv is a work in progress, and that improvements are coming soon — including support for more wireless protocols and the devices that run on them, an Android app, and a new interface. As with SmartThings, there’s also an eager community of rabid Revolvers, helping to tweak the device and bring the promised future that much closer to reality. 

Questions, complaints, kudos? Email Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.