Belkin WeMo: Making the Switch to a Smart Home

Inside your home you probably have a plethora of electronic devices that each have their own little computing brain inside.  Each device serves its intended function, without concern or awareness for the other devices around your house.  Now imagine if they could all talk to each other, and “make [your] life easier, simpler, better.”  That’s the claim Belkin makes of their WeMo line of home automation devices.

Although the WeMo devices don’t actually talk to your other appliances, they do utilize your existing home network and smart phone in attempts to make your home “smarter” — in this case, through light switches, wall switches, motion detectors, and even a baby monitor.  I’ve used X10 type devices before, but have never found a practical purpose for them in the past.  That was then… but what about now?

Our daughter is over 6-years old so the baby monitor didn’t interest me.  As for motion sensors the only practical application I’ve found is my garage, where I’m already using a standard motion sensor switch like THIS ONE.  I was however able to justify a few places where I could use both the Belkin WeMo Switch (outlet style) as well as the Belkin WeMo Light Switch.

SIDENOTE: Belkin has recently released their new WeMo Insight Switch and from what I can tell this will be the replacement for the older basic WeMo Switch.  You can read about the differences on their website HERE.  Since no retailers locally had the new Insight in stock yet, I’m still testing the more readily available unit.  Results for the new unit should be similar.

THE GOOD

wemo-review-main-screen

As is typical with my reviews, I’m not going to explain each and every last detail about how to setup these devices.  If you want that level of detail check out links to many of those types of reviews HERE.  As usual, I’m going to speak less about the basics, and more about what really matters: the real world experience.

Unboxing is simple and sweet, and setup mimicked that of my Fitbit Aria Wi-Fi Smart Scale.  In less than five minutes my outlet switch was installed, and it was time to install the wall switch.  Having read the installation instructions HERE, I was aware that a neutral wire would need to be present.

As fate would have it our home, built in 1958, lacked the necessary neutral wire at ANY of the wall switches that could potentially have worked.  I did not bother checking switches where the switch would serve no purpose.  And also skipped over any 3-way switches since the WeMo also doesn’t work in those instances.  Disappointed that I had nowhere to use the switch, I returned it to the store and swapped it out for a second outlet-type unit.

wemo-review-fish-tank

Beyond the desire to play with new gadgets we actually have useful purposes for automating.  We often have the lights in or near our living room on from sunset till bedtime, as it is a central location of our home.  And secondly, we have a fish tank whose light needs to come on during the day.  While any normal cheap outlet timer would have worked fine, I couldn’t pass up a chance to play with gadgets!

wemo-review-outlet-view

Prior to the installation of the WeMo we had already been using a splitter since we have three devices at the fish tank (heater, filter, light) so it was imperative that the Belkin unit didn’t block anything.  Being aware that the new Insight model was more streamlined I was a bit worried.  However as you can see here the fitment is tight, but perfect.

Controlling the devices from the button on the unit is fine, but using your phone is far more fun.  And beyond naming your switches you can even add photos of the specific devices you are controlling.  This may be somewhat pointless but I had fun doing it anyhow!  If your end game is just a way to control lamps or devices from your phone, then at face value the WeMo outlet is a bit overpriced.  That is until you add in the Rules features.

wemo-review-rules-2

wemo-review-rules-1

Belkin has made a “Rules” section in the app that allows you to add control based various triggers.  My two outlets only supported time or sunrise/sunset triggers, but the motion switch or the new Insight will allow for motion and power consumption triggers.  For my needs we set the lamp to come on at Sunset and stay on until 10:30 PM.  The fish tank light is on from sunrise to sunset.  You can see in the two images here the rules were created, saved, and even named in such a way to tell them apart.

Recently I signed up for IFTTT’s “Internet of me” website, which is part of what got me on the WeMo kick in the first place.  If automation interests you, their free service is an awesome place to start.  Now that IFTTT supports iOS device locations it would be easy to have lights turn on/off based on your arrival/departure from your home.  Another cool example of what IFTTT can do: when you put your JAWBONE UP24 activity tracker into sleep mode it could turn off the lights in your room!  Given my limited needs I did not test any IFTTT features.

SIDEBAR:  After setting up the WeMo and exploring various IFTTT recipes, I realized that I do have certain lights I turn on when I arrive home, and of course off before I leave the house.  Automating that and many other situations would be really slick!  But once again my house wiring would not comply with WeMo.  The same issue applies to their competitor’s devices too, such as the INSTEON Starter Kit.  However, the UBE Smart Plug is coming soon and they claim it will work with 2-wire type switches.  Can’t wait to try them out!

THE BAD

wemo-review-errorBeyond my inability to use the wall switch, which makes me a Sad Panda, there were two other small issues found with the WeMo devices during my testing.

First is the security, or lack thereof, on these devices.  We have a few iOS devices in the house so after the two outlets were setup I snagged my wife’s iPhone, downloaded the WeMo app, and loaded it up.  Instantly she had access to ALL (both) the outlets in the house, the ability to control them, change the rules, whatever she wanted to do.  This also meant she could control them remotely if she wanted to.  Now granted my wifi is secure (WPA2), but I don’t like the idea that anyone whom I grant wifi access now is able to play with my lights.  Worse yet, it granted remote access by default.  Plus, she had the ability to disable my remote access!

Overall I think that Belkin needs to consider taking this to a cloud portal, similar to my Nest Learning Thermostat and their level of security.  Rumor has it that Belkin is considering making these kinds of changes in the future… guess we’ll see.

Second small issue can be seen in the image above.  While accessing the system remotely (not the local wifi), I tried to edit the name of a device and this warning popped up.  However when I had first installed each of the devices it prompted me to update the firmware.  You’ll see signs of the update completeing in the first image shown on this page.

wemo-review-firmware

As you can see the firmware is current and the same on both outlet switches.  I’m not really sure why that warning was there, but that error did keep me from going into the detailed device settings.  I’ll admit I have no real practical purpose to modify those settings remotely.  I will point out that editing a rule remotely worked just fine, however.  As these are pretty basic devices this was the only real issue that I encountered, and all other functions of the outlets worked as expected.

CONCLUSION

Having these two outlets made my home a smarter home.  But I’d argue not smart enough.  Although it will be nice to never have to change these timers based on the season (sunrise/sunset changes), that is truly the only advantage these devices offer over a normal outlet timer.  And I had a hard time coming up with other practical purposes for the WeMo line of products as they can be configured right now.

Let’s assume you have lights turn on when you arrive home, which IFTTT supports.  What if it was mid-afternoon on a sunny day mid-summer?  Many of my rooms at my home don’t need lights on in those conditions.  In my eyes it isn’t just a matter of “if X than Y” but rather a detailed flow-chart of questions.  I’m assuming IFTTT will eventually allow for that level of recipe building, but right now they are single-trigger only.  And certainly the Belkin WeMo software does not yet support that hierarchy of thinking.

In the future I’m confident that a smart home will be able to adjust lights by knowing which room you are in, perhaps using the Bluetooth accuracy and that smart phone in your pocket.  Your thermostat will pre-heat your house not based on time, but instead using your car’s navigation system which just told it that you’re headed home.  Or your computer will automatically login you in because it could authenticate you being within a few feet.  Some of these features are already being tested in various fashions as I type!

For now, however, the “Internet of me” still has a very long road to travel.  I’m just happy to be on that road .. slow going as it may be for now!

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Published by

Ari Jay Comet

Sharing my life experiences. Interacting with technology. Digital self-expression. Binary is black, white, and many shades of grey.

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