Home automation control on the go – EDN.com (blog)

I recently tore down a Belkin WeMo Wi-Fi-connected outlet switch for EDN, which I thankfully (and rarely) was able to reassemble afterward in a functionally and cosmetically intact state. I’d initially purchased two switches, actually; I later supplemented my stable with a third unit. My primary acquisition-and-usage motivation was to see how robustly I could control the switches using only my voice, via an Amazon Echo virtual assistant (which I also recently tore down for EDN; I’ll share more of my hands-on experiences with it in a near future post). More generally, however, as someone with existing extensive experience using INSTEON equipment, I was curious to see how well a competitive (and more modern) alternative home automation technology might work out for me.

The first two switches I acquired were advertised as being brand new, but this ended up not being the case; I needed to do a factory reset on them before I could connect them to the 2.4 GHz band of my 802.11n network. As with other gear that I’ve recently discussed, such as Google’s Chromecast and Amazon’s own Dash Button, the WeMo Switch doesn’t embed a wired Ethernet port (for example) that would provide an alternative means of initially getting wireless network configuration data to it. Instead, it initially broadcasts its own unique SSID, to which you connect your smartphone or tablet in order to provide the switch with the necessary LAN credentials.

On that note, here’s one oddity that quickly became apparent to me. With INSTEON, for example, I control the various switches via a centralized Universal Devices hub, whose integrated Web server is accessible via any browser. Belkin’s approach with WeMo, conversely, solely involves the use of dedicated Android and iOS apps. In the screenshots that follow, I’ve intentionally showcased a variety of platforms: a 2013-version Google Nexus 7, an iPhone 4S, and an iPad 3 (running the iPhone version of the app; an iPad-tailored version is not available as I write this).

Another important note: WeMo is fundamentally a cloud-based scheme. If your Internet connection goes down, you can’t even control switches on your same LAN, since everything communicates with each other via a Belkin server intermediary. This approach also means that if Belkin were to ever decide to “pull the plug” on the WeMo service, existing hardware would no longer work. Third-party WeMo servers and associated client apps do exist, but they’re Belkin-unsanctioned, having been developed via protocol reverse engineering. They also can’t handle initial device setup, which seems to still require Belkin server interaction.

Android by default enables a setting for mixed cellular-plus-Wi-Fi devices like my tablet that automatically switches to cellular data coverage in the absence of a known-and-strong 802.11 connection (a similar feature recently added to iOS is causing all sorts of user headaches). Belkin’s WeMo utility for Android neatly warns you in advance to shut this feature off, so that the smartphone or tablet handoff from the WeMo Switch-generated hotspot back to the normal LAN Wi-Fi connection will be glitch-free:

Here’s a cool feature: after the switches are successfully connected to the Internet, and every time you launch the app thereafter, it automatically checks for available firmware updates and prompts you to upgrade if it finds them. After the app initially kicks off the upgrade, the switches handle the majority of the process by themselves, enabling you to “play some Angry Birds” or do something else with your smartphone or tablet instead:

Regular checks for firmware upgrades are highly recommended; they’ve squashed at least one notable security vulnerability to date.

One upside to a cloud-based system is that once you’ve initially associated your devices with the app, you can control them even over a WAN connection. Note, in the following screenshot, that Wi-Fi is disconnected and I’m instead accessing the WeMo Switches over an AT&T cellular data link:

As you can also see, I’ve used the app to rename the WeMo Switches, both for ease of voice control via the Amazon Echo and so that their locations and functions are more self-explanatory. Every time I add a WeMo Switch or change its name, by the way, I need to do a re-scan via the Amazon Echo; after the brief search is complete on one Amazon Echo, however, the updated settings are accessible by any of them (yes, I now own two Echos). And in addition to direct WeMo Switch control via the Amazon Echo, broader control via IFTTT (If This Then That)-aware devices and software services is also possible:

The switches are a bit pricey, at ~$40 each. And they don’t have advanced features that “power users” might yearn for. But their ease of use is certainly appealing to the masses … the simple fact that I didn’t need to bother creating a firewall “hole” in order to access them from the WAN is indicative of this attractiveness. With that all said, I’m probably not going to buy any more, just because Amazon more recently announced INSTEON support in Echo, thereby enabling me to once again use the hardware I’ve already acquired. But if your home automation needs are modest and simplicity is key, WeMo is worth a try. Let me know in the comments what your impressions of WeMo are, if you decide to follow my lead.

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