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Why not just use products like Belkin’s Wemo line? The networking giant’s suite of simple home automation gadgets powers up humdrum devices like power plugs and light switches by adding Wi-Fi capability. Programming Wemo products is as simple as fiddling with an app on your phone. String a few of them together and you can give your home an automated, internet-of-things upgrade for relatively little cost or hassle.
The latest product in the line is the Wemo Mini. Plug this $35 smart plug into a regular wall socket, and anything you plug into the Wemo Mini can be switched on or off from the app, or programmed to switch on or off at particular times. Belkin offers a couple of older Wemo switches, but they’re bulkier. The new Mini takes up only as much vertical space as the socket you plug it into, letting you can easily stack one Mini on top of another.
Wemo stuff—whether a smart light bulb or a night vision camera—all works essentially the same way. First you’ll need the app (for iOS or Android). Then you plug in your device, switch it on, and connect to its own private Wi-Fi network. After that, give it your home network’s name and password. Once you’ve got it running, you can pop into the app to set schedules, or use If This Then That (IFTTT) to set up more detailed configurations triggered by external events. (Toggle the lights when I tweet or, yes, brew coffee when the sun comes up.) If you’ve got an Amazon Echo or Google Home, you can configure the Mini to respond to your voice. Got a Nest thermostat? It can switch your Mini on and off when you leave or come home. Each of these add-ons offers another layer of convenience in exchange for a little additional front-end work.
Smart Me Up
The first device I connected to my growing smart home system was a tea kettle. I wanted to make sure I could have hot water waiting for me when I got home. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, unfortunately my usual kettle is already smartish. It boils at several different temps and comes with some other basic settings—all of which I must choose when I turn it on. All the WeMo did was kick up the LEDs on my kettle’s screen.
I dug out an older kettle that merely turns on when you plug it in, then connected that and a heating blanket to an extension cord that hooked into my Wemo Mini. Now, I live in the frozen wastes of Minnesota, so I loved coming home to a pre-heated blanket and some tea, but I gave up precise temperature control in exchange.
The Mini works best as an add-on for dumb machines. A common use for products like these is turning the lights on and off remotely—like a more novel, higher-tech Clapper. If anything you’re plugging into the Mini is even slightly modern-ish, you’ll be left wanting. It’s a sobering reminder that while IoT products are cheaper and easier to use than ever, we’re still in the industry’s infancy. It’ll be a while before we can have all have our Jetsons-inspired dream home.
And that’s the core issue with Belkin’s Wemo system—it can be a delightful addition to your home, but it’s not a universal solution. Even the comparatively cheap Wemo Mini is too expensive to install one in every socket in your house. So, unless you’re in the market for a machine that will let you operate your 10-year-old space heater from your phone without getting out of bed, you might have to dig into your imagination to find truly useful applications.