Smart plugs aren’t exactly new. Belkin has its WeMo platform of connected home devices including its Wi-Fi-enabled ‘Insight Switch’, an iPhone app-controlled outlet, and others have similar competing products. But iHome’s new SmartPlug is one of the first arriving for Apple’s recently launched Siri-controlled HomeKit platform. I’ve been testing out the product in recent weeks to see exactly what HomeKit adds to the experience and to get a real world taste of Apple’s home automation platform in general for the first time with an actual product. Now that it’s officially available for purchase, here’s what you need to know…
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Apple’s HomeKit platform, a new iOS framework that offers home automation products access to Siri-based voice control and integration between products, just officially launched for consumers a couple months back with the announcement of the first supported products available to order. But most of the products are just now starting to ship with early companies out of the gate including Insteon, Lutron, Elgato, Ecobee, and the iHome SmartPlug we’re looking at today.
Download the app, sign-in or create an iHome account, plug in the SmartPlug, tap to start scanning for connected devices in the app, connect to your Wi-Fi network, and finally, enter a pairing code. The setup took 5-10 minutes and everything worked flawlessly the first time apart from a few attempts necessary to get connected to my Wi-Fi network. Once connected initially, I haven’t had any connectivity issues when using the plug and companion app, which hasn’t been my experience for many other competing Wi-Fi enabled home automation platforms that I’ve tested.
Using the SmartPlug:
The SmartPlug’s sole feature is the ability to turn it on and off remotely, allowing you to kill power to anything you might have plugged into the device. It’s a simple function, but if you get creative, I found it came in handy for a number of things around the house. Consider anything you might want to turn on or off quickly. Some of the obvious uses: turning lamps on and off, or products you can’t normally control when out of the house, like switching an air conditioner or slow cooker on or off while you’re on the go (although you’ll need a third-gen or higher Apple TV connected to your network for remote access with Siri). Also think of situations where an outlet or a device’s power switch is just hard to access, like a lamp plugged in behind a couch or your computer speakers in a setup where power switches might be hard to reach or tucked away under your desk or elsewhere.
I tested the SmartPlug in part using lights I have hanging in my house. The outlet the lights are plugged into is behind a large cabinet and getting at the power switch on the cable used to be a pain. I also found the SmartPlug useful for switching off my speakers and other gear in my office/studio. Normally I’d have to switch on each of my speakers and monitors manually, but SmartPlug made it a one tap process via the iOS app. And I found the app to be a well thought out and visually appealing design that made setting up and managing devices as easy as possible.
The company warns not to plug the SmartPlug into a powerbar or extension cord but rather directly into your power outlet, but plugging a power strip into the SmartPlug allowed me to connect several of my devices in my office to a single plug to quickly turn them all on or off at once. Of course if you want to control the devices separately, that would require a separate SmartPlug for each.
You can turn the plug on and off by tapping on it from several locations from within the iHome Control app (and also with a hardware switch on the side of the SmartPlug), but what we’re really interested in is the Siri-control thanks to HomeKit support…
So what does HomeKit bring to the experience? The iHome Control app has full support for setting up rooms, zones and scenes, a feature of HomeKit that allows you to easily group together several devices so you can quickly control all devices at once (as pictured above). Creating a room will let you group together devices that can all be switched on or off with a single tap, while a zone is made up of several rooms allowing you to do the same for several rooms at once (or your whole house, for example). In addition, the Scenes feature offers the ability to set rules for a select group of devices based on an activity. You could kill lights in your living room with a ‘Movie’ scene, for example. or turn all lights on at your house when arriving home (pictured above, right). You can also create several Homes in order to have separate sets of devices with separate Rooms, Zones, and Scenes. The iHome Control app also offers a page to set rules for things like having a plug switch on at a certain time and day (pictured above, middle).
But the fun really starts with the ability to control the lights using Siri, something that non-HomeKit competitors simply can’t offer. There wasn’t any direction in the app or elsewhere on how to control the SmartPlug with Siri, but on my second attempt I nailed the right command: “Turn Office Plug off”.
Siri recognized the command and switched the power outlet off instantly. You’d replace “Office Plug” with whatever name(s) you give your SmartPlug(s) during setup in the companion app. I even had success discovering a few other commands with help from Apple’s list published earlier this year. You can easily turn off rooms or zones by commanding Siri to “turn off Zone 1” for example. Again, you could name “Zone 1” anything you want, such as “my office”, which would make commands a bit easier to remember and devices easier to manage once you have several HomeKit products in your house. The same type of command worked for scenes, although Siri sometimes had trouble finding the “Movies Night” command I setup and instead offered up nearby showtimes or other movie info. Ensuring you say “Set the X scene” in that exact way seems to get Siri on the right path.
And HomeKit is about to get better as Apple continues development on its dedicated HomeKit app for managing scenes, rooms, etc, across devices. It’s possible we’ll see it arrive alongside other HomeKit improvements planned for iOS 9 this fall.
Should you buy it?
It’s going to be a while until all of the products in our home and office are connected and HomeKit compatible, and until then, SmartPlug lets you integrate some of your old home and office gear into the mix. You might not get full control over all features of a product, but you get the main feature that I find HomeKit’s Siri control most useful for: the ability to turn devices on and off. And at $39.99, it’s a cheap enough investment that for me it’s worth adding that functionality to a number of devices in my home. Not to mention it’s one of the first HomeKit products on the market and a nice inexpensive way of seeing what the platform has to offer before investing in pricier products.