A few weeks ago, a couple friends and I were about to watch a surprisingly bad scifi movie in my crowded apartment. One of them asked if we could dim the lights, and started to head to the switch. "No, no, I've got it," I said, reaching into my pocket. "He's reaching for his phone!" said the friend. This was the moment I'd been waiting for. Time to show off my smart home.
I'd spent the last six months making my home more intelligent with Wink components. That meant six months of programming lightbulbs and installing sensors and adjusting shades and updating hubs. All my effort to connect my appliances added up to this one very public test. My friends didn't need to walk ten feet to the light switch, when I could manage everything with a couple taps. My friends would be so impressed. I'd talked up my pet project plenty, and now they could watch the future unfold before their very eyes.
I unlocked my phone. I found the right home screen. I opened the Wink app. I navigated to the Lights section. I toggled over to the sets of light bulbs that I'd painstakingly grouped and labeled. I tapped "Living Room"—this was it—and the icon went from bright to dark. (Okay, so that was like six taps.)
I tapped "Living Room." The icon—not the lights—went from dark to bright. I tapped "Living Room," and the icon went from bright to dark. The lights seemed brighter than ever.
"How many gadget bloggers does it take to turn off a light?" said the friend, smirking. "I thought this was supposed to be a smart home."
I threw my phone at him, got up, walked ten feet to the switch. One tap, and the lights were off.
The Impossible Dream of an Affordable Smart Home
It wasn't supposed to be like this. Last summer, when I stepped into an expensive-looking SoHo loft where Quirky was unveiling its new Wink system, I had high hopes. The plug-and-play platform was designed to turn any house with Wi-Fi and a couple connected devices into a smart home. Quirky set up Wink as a separate company and partnered with Home Depot so Americans could easily buy all their Wink-related products in one convenient place. Even Quirky's longtime partner GE was buying into the platform and making some of its products Wink-compatible. It all sounded so ambitious, so appealing, and so impossible. Kind of like communism.
As Wink's executives showed me around the demo smart home, I couldn't help but think how this whole system was designed to be the people's smart home. In my experience, connected home products were kind of like luxury goods. On their own, things like the Nest thermostat and the Philips Hue lighting system were pricey but impressive—a glimpse at a future where your gadgets at home responded to your behavior and adapted to your wants. Fully integrated smart home systems like those offered by security companies, however, were even more expensive up front and cost monthly subscription fees. In other words, smart homes had historically been the domains of the tech-hungry rich.
The blue light means the Wink Hub is working.
But this Wink smart home was something different. In the Soho demo home, my host pointed out a GE Link connected LED light bulb that cost as little as $15 that could be controlled from your smartphone by connecting to a $50 Wink hub. So for less than $100, you could have a smart home of sorts. It would be a very basic smart home with no more than three lightbulbs, sure. But you could still impress your friends by dimming the lights without getting off the couch. (And Wink now offers the hubs for free if you buy $100 worth of Wink devices.)
This promise of a simple, affordable smart home sounded too good to be true. After a little bit of glad-handing with the folks from Home Depot, the Wink team agreed to set me up with a smart home of my own. Because I live in an old apartment building with a less-than-friendly landlord, I'd be somewhat limited in the products I could test. (No smart garage door opener for me.) But I'd more or less get the same experience as the average Wink customer.
Lights came first, followed by an air conditioner, some automatic shades, some door and window sensors, as well as various switches and outlets. Here's a list of the products I tried:
- Wink Hub ($50)
- Wink Relay touchscreen controller ($300)
- GE Link light bulbs ($15)
- Cree Connected LED bulbs ($15)
- Lutron Serena RC shades ($350 - $1,250 per shade)
- Quirky+GE Tripper sensors ($50 for two)
- Quirky+GE Pivot Power Genius ($60)
- Quirky+GE Aros air conditioner ($300)
- Leviton plug-in lamp module ($55)
When it all finally arrived, I was excited. My smart home dream was becoming a reality!
The Reality of an Affordable Smart Home
Pretty much as soon as my Wink hub arrived, the problems started, and it didn't take long for that excitement to turn into frustration. Without going into the mind-numbing details of each individual point of frustration, let me sum up the experience very bluntly: Not a single Wink product worked as advertised right out of the box.
The orange light means that the Wink Hub is not working. There are other colors, too, and they all mean that it's not working.
It's tempting to make a laundry list of the problems, but that's probably not productive. Instead, I'd rather compare my experience to the popular 90s sitcom Home Improvement. In this analogy, I'm like Tim "The Toolman" Taylor, always determined to fix things, often accident prone, and a little bit overconfident—it's an American condition, really. Wink Support is like Wilson, the sage in a fishing cap on the other side of the fence. He's wise and helpful when you need him, but you have to ask for his help. And just like on Home Improvement, I needed to ask Wink Support for help every step of the way.
This isn't necessarily Wink's fault. It also doesn't mean that the products never worked. Some did—but only after hours on time on the phone with my semi-fictional friend Wilson. It didn't help that my first hub ended up being defective, sending ripples of errors throughout the whole system for weeks. However, when I finally received a replacement, I found myself on the phone with support once again, wondering why this one didn't work either. After reconfiguring my home Wi-Fi network, moving the device around the room, and praying to the smart home gods, the hub finally fired up. Many of the same bugs were still crawling around. I also had to set up every single device again. It took an entire day.
That's the utilitarian Cree bulb on the left and the alien death ray that is the GE Wink on the right. They're great bulbs, regardless of whether you use the connectivity features.
The GE Link light bulbs were the worst part, in part because Wink's app is so poorly designed. Though it's small, my apartment requires 17 lightbulbs. And because I'd switched hubs, each of the bulbs needed to be reset, a process that involves a specific and particularly well timed flipping of the light switch. After that each bulb needed to be set up while there were no other new bulbs on the circuit, meaning I had to take all of the bulbs out and set them up one-by-one. Once I finally set them all up, I was sad to see that they were still terribly slow and often didn't register commands from the app. The GE Link is one the cheapest connected bulbs out there, and I don't think Wink's buggy app did them any favors.
Nobody said setting up a smart home would be easy. Scratch that. Wink said setting up a smart home would be easy. The company's tagline is: "A simpler way to a smarter home." From an average consumer's point of view, the only simple part of the whole process is shelling out the money for the products.
The Lutron shades were the most dependable (and most expensive) component of my smart home. I do this trick when friends come over, in part, because it's the only Wink trick that doesn't fail half the time.
The Definition of a Smart Home
I'm afraid I've gotten ahead of myself. That's because from the time I saw the magical, professionally installed Wink smart home in Soho until I sat on my kitchen floor grimacing and nursing electrical burns, I lost track of what I was trying to do. All I wanted was to experience life after light switches.
I wanted to walk in my front door and marvel as half a dozen LED lights magically turned on. I wanted to watch my shades go up as I walked into my bedroom, where my AC unit had already cooled the air to the optimal temperature and even saved me money on energy costs in the process. I wanted to get a push notification on my phone when my roommate opened her window so that I could remember to close it before leaving. I wanted a touchscreen panel to tell me what the weather was like outside and serve as a dashboard for the smart home I'd built. I wanted so many simple, futuristic things.
It sounds wonderfully futuristic to have a small computer on your wall. It's pretty useless, when that computer doesn't work very well.
In short, I wanted a little bit of home automation and a little bit of home awareness. Wink promises these things are simple. With the Wink app, you can build so-called Robots to automate smart home processes in the classic if-then format. For instance, you can set up a geofence around your home. When you cross a certain GPS coordinate threshold, the Wink knows you're coming home. Then the Robot kicks in, turning on the lights, raising the shades, and turning on the AC. Sounds futuristic! And it is—when it works. Wink's geolocation features just aren't consistently dependable, though.
After giving up on the undeniably awesome geofence idea, I installed the Tripper sensors to see if switches would work better than satellites for home automation. Much to my delight, the Robot that I built to make the lights go on and the shades go up when I walked in the front door basically worked. The definition of "basically" is a quite relative, though, since there was a solid delay between tripping the switch to the group of lights turning on. And then, the lights didn't turn on all at once, but rather in some random order. Often, one of the lights in the group wouldn't turn on at all.
This is actually an example of Wink's automated home features working pretty well. Notice the random order in which the lights turn on. One of the bulbs didn't turn on at all.
I built another Robot to send a push alert when the door opened, and it definitely worked. The only problem is that these Robots don't know if I'm coming home from work or if my friend is coming over to watch bad sci-fi movies. You can program the Robots so that they only operate during certain hours, but you'd have to have a pretty routine life to make that work.
It's worth pointing out that I absolutely destroyed one of the sensors, after making a mistake in the set up process. It never worked again, even after I took it apart and reset it. I probably should've asked Wilson for help.
Believe it or not, you're supposed to do this if you need to reset the Wink Tripper sensors. It's supposed to work when you put it back together, though. This one did not.
The Charred Agony of Defeat
There is one Wink device I never got working. And I did ask for Wilson's help on this one. It's the Wink Relay.
Back when it was announced, I said that this touchscreen controller belonged in the Jetsons' foyer. Now, I think that it would work better as the punchline in a Home Improvement reunion show. "Look, Tim glued a smartphone to the wall so that we could have a smart home," Jill would tell the kids. "I'll give you $100 if one of you can figure out how to turn the lights on." Cue laugh track.
That's what the Relay is, though. It's basically a small Android-powered tablet built into a panel with two programmable buttons that would replace your light switch. The buttons don't just have to turn on the lights, though. You can apparently program them to make the shades go up while the lights in the kitchen dim. I wouldn't know because I couldn't get the damn thing to work. Wink says that installing the Relay is as simple as installing a new light switch. Let me tell you what: That's not true.
Can you spot the typo on the Relay's home screen? (Clue: Cool amd Bright) The device came like that, and I couldn't figure out how to fix it.
The Relay is the perfect encapsulation of how the Wink system's feigned simplicity and purported dependability isn't just misleading, it's a little bit dangerous. The $300 device comes with comically vague instructions that tell you to dismantle your light switch and connect some colored wires to some other colored wires. That's honestly as detailed as it gets.
Now, I'm no electrician, but I am good with diagrams. Before even pulling the light switch off the wall, I looked up how the wiring should look, which wires went where, and where the Relay connections would go. When I finally got it hooked up, the screen turned on but nothing happened. An hour on the phone with my old friend Wilson lead to the conclusion that I'd received a faulty unit, so I sent it back. The new one arrived with the understanding that if it didn't work, I'd need to call an electrician to fix the wiring. This was Wilson's idea.
I'm going to skip the gory details of my afternoon's worth of attempts to get my dreamy Relay running. Let's just say that there were sparks, explosions, bad smells, and charred electronics involved. Wink says that it's the simpler way to a smarter home. In the end, the experience felt like a complicated way to get burned.
The explosion actually wasn't caused by my wiring the Relay incorrectly. I stupidly used a power driver to attach it to the wall, and the inadvertently nicked a wire, creating a short circuit. (Note: The picture you see is roughly equivalent to the installation instructions that Wink includes with the Relay. It's seriously, like, one picture and a good luck wish.)
The Beautiful Simplicity of a Light Switch
Amidst the myriad complications of the Wink smart home dream, there was a moment of clarity. I'd failed to install the Jetsons-era touchscreen controller and struggled to make any semblance of home automation work. I'd sunk dozens of hours and immeasurable amounts of patience into trying to improve upon my otherwise very basic experience with technology at home. And when I found myself clutching a $300 wall computer in one hand and a $3 light switch in the other, I finally started second-guessing my ambitions.
Installation woes and bugs aside, my smart home never seemed handy. I had to tape off the regular switches so that the power would stay on and the bulbs' smart features would work. Even then, I had to pull out a smartphone or a tablet any time I wanted to dim the lights. That was never convenient. I could turn the lights on from my office, but that didn't really make my life better. I could impress my friends with a stray smart home feature here and there, but more often than not, I found myself embarrassed by the glitches of my smart home gone dumb. I'm still getting a hard time for that movie night blooper.
It amazing how much you miss a simple old light switch when you have to pull out your phone, fumble through a poorly designed app, and then wait half a second for the light to turn on.
This isn't to say that smart homes are dumb. The idea of a more efficient apartment that automatically adapts to your wants and needs is genius! But affordable technology like what Wink's peddling isn't quite there. It's a hell of a marketing pitch to say that your products offer a simpler way to a smarter home, but Wink's misleading everyone who thinks that 21st century home improvement is as easy as screwing in a Wi-Fi-enabled light bulb. The products do sort of work sometimes, if you're lucky. But they hardly represent the affordable smart home revolution I'd so fondly hoped for.
Over the course of many frustrating months, I came to a comforting realization. My smart home won't always be dumb. Wink could push a software update next week that squashes some of the most bothersome bugs. However, it seems like this is something Wink should've done before shipping these products and lining the shelves of Home Depot and bragging about how easy they are. These aren't bad products. It just doesn't feel like they're ready at all.
Feature-free as they may be, most conventional home products just work. For instance, there's about a century of development, debugging, and user testing behind truly simple home technology like a cheap old light switch. So when you come home in the dark and turn those lights on, they turn on. It's an old-fashioned solution! But it's also affordable and dependable.
Somebody will figure out how to make smart home technology work as elegantly and dependably. It very well could be Apple. It might be Google. But Wink needs to think harder.
One Quick Footnote:
For the sake of good gadget blogging, I just want to offer a few quick thoughts about each of the products in the lineup. This is the same list from above, but in place of the price, I'll offer a couple of comments about the value:
- Wink Hub (Don't pay money for this. If you really want to try the Wink system, buy a couple of components, and it'll be free. Just beware that if the hub fails—and sometimes it does—the whole system fails.)
- Wink Relay touchscreen controller (Don't even think about it. The Relay is well designed and well intentioned. It is not a dependable substitute for a light switch, though.)
- GE Link light bulbs (Despite the connectivity issues, these are great light bulbs for the price. The light is so natural, my roommate didn't realize I'd changed the bulbs.)
- Cree Connected LED bulbs (Ditto on the Cree bulbs. While they're not as cool-looking as the Link bulbs, they're more durable and seemed slightly more dependable.)
- Lutron Serena RC shades (Boy, are these shades impressive—and expensive! They're super dependable and work with a separate remote if Wink fails. That said, my custom-made, five shade set-up would retail for around $3,500. Set up was a bit bitch, too.)
- Quirky+GE Tripper sensors (As long as you don't destroy them, these pretty little things work well. They'd be even better if they were half the price.)
- Quirky+GE Pivot Power Genius (This is a nice, sturdy, pricey power strip. However, I never quite figured out how to make use of the Wi-Fi capabilities. I mean, I figured out how it works. I just didn't really have a use for it.)
- Quirky+GE Aros air conditioner (As I've said before, I love this thing. It's the best-looking air conditioner on the market, and while it suffers from some connectivity problems like the rest of the Wink system, I still love it.)
- Leviton plug-in lamp module (This bulky thing makes a terrific but expensive paper weight. I got it to work exactly one time. Now, it keeps my mail from blowing away when the door opens. Now if I could only get those lights to turn on all at once…)