A Wink and a Nod
Wouldn't it be nice to come home, and have your home react to your arrival by turning on some lights, setting the air temperature to how you like it, and perhaps letting your other family members know you have arrived (even if they are not at home themselves)? Home automation has been the domain of DIY'ers or expensive commercial contractors for decades. That era is rapidly drawing to a close. Today, there are numerous entry level kits that allow just about anyone, whether they have 'techie' skills or not, the ability to jump in. There are so many options now, that it is often difficult to choose among the various brands. The big box home improvement stores are dedicating end-caps to their brand or versions that they are backing.
Among the better known brands:
Lowes Home Improvement stores are putting their weight behind a system called Iris Smart Home Management System. It can be purchased as a kit, or each part or component can be purchased individually. Iris is the Lowes brand of home automation, and it can only be purchased through their stores. Their systems start below $200 for the basics, and can be expanded out to a full blown security system, or as simple as turning lights on and off. Any Iris labeled product is pretty much assured to work with the system.
Home Depot doesn't have it's own private label, but does represent the Wink and Quirky/GE products. This system is built around the Wink app for Android or iOS devices, which can interface with many individual products by itself, or with many more if you also purchase the Wink Hub. This system is less a product line than a series of products that all work together through the apps inter-operability. As with the other automation solutions, it is scaleable from small to pretty much full scale. Wink uses a variety of protocols, and there are many products that are labelled "Wink Compatible", even to the level of detail of whether the hub is required or not.
Insteon is not linked to a big box store, but has a very thorough product set that can start as simple as an app and a device, and work up to a complete comprehensive system. The entry point is a little pricier, but it does have a mature product line that could easily be called complete.
X10 is kind of the grandfather of DIY home automation. It has been around for longer than most, and has a fairly complete set of products. One unique difference of the x10 line is the wide variety of off the shelf remote control devices that are X10 compatible, even those that also have universal remote control features for home audio systems.
Vera positions itself in the market as a competitor to the monthly subscription model of home automation offered by cable or alarm companies. It too, has a robust product set that one would be hard pressed to find incomplete. It is scaleable, affordable, and has been around long enough to assure stability.
After weighing the pros and cons of these systems, I decided to start experimenting with Wink. I liked that it was multi-protocol; it works with Z-wave, ZigBee, Bluetooth, and Wifi. The hub was low cost, available for $50 or less. To me, the main appeal was that it seemed much more open architecture than the others, and with multiple protocols, it was open to a wider set of options. I don't mind getting down into the code or into detailed configuration scripts, in fact, I enjoy it; but I also wanted to see how simple this could be, so this was a factor as well. I purchased my Wink Hub from Amazon, for less than $50, including free second day shipping.
Getting Started With Wink
First off, I wanted to comment on the packaging. These days leading technology companies seem to love outdoing one another on the details of packaging. It is part of the joy of getting a new gadget. You can't wait to open it up, hold it in your hands, and just sort of get the feel of it. Apple products are famous for their economy of packaging, in that the package is barely bigger than the device itself. I was reminded of that as I opened the Wink Hub. It wasn't as snug as an Apple product, but it kind of had that 'feel' to it. The really notable thing was the absence of documentation (the manual). Once the outside cover was removed from the container, the only documentation within was on a lift off cover, and consisted only of three steps:
- Download the Wink app on your mobile device.
- Follow the instructions on the Wink app to connect your HUB
- For more detailed instructions, go to winkapp.com/hub
OK, number 3 really isn't an instruction, but that was all that was listed. There was also a Customer Support number and email address as well.
Once this flap was removed, all that was in the box was the hub itself and a power adapter. The hub is pretty unremarkable. It is light, but not flimsy, It doesn't have the heft of something like a wireless router, or even a mini Ethernet switch. Since it doesn't have any hard cabling going to it, save for the power cable, there really isn't all that much to it physically. I know logically that this doesn't matter; it is not ever really touched once you plug it in, but even a smoke detector feels more substantial.
Adding the App
I downloaded the app from the Google Play store, and it installed without any issues, You do have to set up a user account, giving just your name and email address (including logon credentials). There isn't any subscription necessary, like many other home automation systems use. By itself, the app doesn't really do anything. To even enable even a smidgen of the features of the app, it must first have something to connect to. In this case, it was going to be the Wink Hub. Adding the hub could not be easier. There are two methods to add it, the first is selecting it from a list of categorized devices listed in the app, the second is simply scanning the bar code on the hub's packaging. I chose the second. Pressing the 'SCAN BARCODE' button on the app brought up the internal camera on my smartphone, which I used to scan the barcode. It read it, and automatically started the configuration page for my hub. It basically walks you through the configuration a question at a time, including WiFi credentials and naming of the hub. Once connected and authenticated to the network, a blue light comes on and stays on. This single indicator is the only thing on the exterior of the hub that gives you any feedback. After a few moments, that app asked if I wanted to get the latest firmware for my hub, and I chose to do so.
Upgrading the firmware was the first difficulty I had with the hub. On the app, it just kept giving a message that the download was in progress. The light on the hub went from a 'normal blue' to pink. It stayed that way for hours. I tried restarting the app a few times, but the message stayed the same. At this point, I was a little fearful of attempting some kind of a reset or power cycling of the hub; how many people do you know that have accidentally 'bricked' a device by interrupting the update before it is completed. While waiting, I browsed the FAQ's, and could not find anything similar to my issue. Next, I googled the problem - still no joy. I did find several instances though, where someone had the device lock up or hang while installing a device, so I took a chance and performed a power cycle. It went through the proper sequence of start-up lights, and then turned back to a steady blue. I was back in business. One thing I noticed about the software version was that is now version 00.55. Does this mean the firmware is still not fully baked?
Now that I had a hub installed, the app has more features opened up. There is a user manual, FAQ, and a tutorial all available under the hub configuration page. Here you can also adjust the Z-Wave and WiFi settings if needed. Another feature is that if you would like to add another user to the hub, say a family member, simply add their email address. The coordination works through the Wink Cloud, and whether you are sitting in your living room or out of town, you can still check the state of devices and control them, Logging takes place so that you can see what logged in user turned a light on or off, opened a door, changed the thermostat, or whatever else was controlled by Wink. By the time of writing, the android Wink app has been updated to version 220.127.116.11. This last update had release notes indicating that there was an improved provisioning process; hopefully this takes care of the hang I experienced when I first updated my hub.
Adding devices to control my home will be next. I'm going to save those for the next write-up, To help with the selection and setup of new devices, Wink directs you to follow the labels for compatibility. For Wink certified devices, they recommend looking for seals that indicate whether a Wink hub is needed or not. As an example, GE's 'link | connected led bulb' carries the seal containing the words 'Wink hub required'. It is a ZigBee connected device, which must use the radio in the Wink hub to act as the link between WiFi and the ZigBee protocol/signal. There are dozens of other ZigBee and Zwave devices that in theory could work. Only the ones that Wink certifies show up in the device list in the app. For those unknown devices that use the supported protocols, there is a setup screen, but nothing is guaranteed to work, and it is pretty much up to the user to work it out by trial and error.
I'm looking forward to experimenting with a number of devices. I'll be working with the Wnk app to create robots. Robots are what Wink calls the automation actions you build within the app. This has the effect of writing a small script to detect trigger events and to perform actions. For example, if someone comes home and turns on the lights, the 'robot' senses this change of state on the light, and notifies a user by email that the house is now occupied. You can also chain events or actions among devices. 'Scenes' are also supported with Wink devices. A Scene is a ligting scheme for a room or for your entire house, that can be set with a single button. A commonly used or demonstrated scene is movie night; all the lights can be dimmed to a low level, and the motorized shades can be lowered, all at once.
Thats enough on the hub and app for now - more as I add devices!