In my previous installment of Cool Stuff, I decided to embark on a journey into the world of gussying up my apartment with a variety of entry-level devices that are compatible with Alexa, Amazon's voice-activated assistant that lives inside their suite of Echo devices. Before dipping my toe in the wild and wonderful world of Alexa-controlled smart gadgets, I first had to assess just how smart I wanted my home to be, and at what cost.
Ambiance is a logical place to start. Considering I'm rarely awake or at home around sunrise and sundown, automated blinds seemed a handy way to make sure my plants got the maximum amount of sunlight available while maintaining privacy remotely. A quick Youtube search, however, yielded a handful of videos with fierce debates in the comments over which 3D-printed parts and handmade motor adapters were optimal for getting the job done, and the mere mention of an Arduino program made me realize I'd be diving off the technological deep end.
Lighting, on the other hand, is easy. It's the first button on the landing page for Amazon's smart home page, which mean options are endless. The first and most familiar result is the Philips Hue, which offers robust color and dimming options at the price of $49.97 for a 4-pack of bulbs. The catch is that the Hue system requires a Hue Bridge—a proprietary brain to control your network of Philips Hue devices—and that purchase will set you back almost $60. Discounted bundle packages with bulbs and the bridge are plentiful, but what do you do if you just want to turn a lamp on and off without setting up Skynet in your living room?
The answer lies in Belkin's line of Wemo devices. The easiest and cheapest member of the Wemo family I found is the Smart Plug Mini, which plugs into a socket and acts as a smart-controlled intermediary between your power supply and whatever you plug into it. The most obvious recipient for smart control is a light source of some sort, but the world is your oyster thanks to the Smart Plug Mini's modular design. Got a disco ball you'd like to turn on and off with Alexa? How about a space heater that's not smart enough to regulate its own temperature? If it has a plug, it's good to go!
Setup is simple thanks to user-friendly instructions that fold out of the package. First plug it in and download the Wemo app on your smartphone. Then, connect to the plug's built-in wifi network (so your app knows it's there), give your switch a name. Within ten minutes, you've got yourself a remote controlled light switch via the Wemo app.
Adding Alexa to the mix is even easier. Just open the Amazon Alexa app, click "Smart Home" under the menu, hit "Add device" and your switch will show up in your device list.
Anyone who remembers the devastation that came along with learning how poorly The Clapper worked will be thrilled to know the union of Alexa and the Smart Plug Mini actually works. You'll need to remember what you named your switch when you first set up the Wemo app, but after that it's a breeze. Just tell Alexa to turn it on or off, and it shall be so.
Another cool feature of the Wemo app is automation. Gone are the days of weird plastic dials from Radio Shack that functioned as timers for your lights. Just click the "rules" button in the app and add a scheduled on/off time, or choose "away mode" for randomization in case you're worried The Wet Bandits have your house staked out this holiday season. If your ability of getting out of bed before the sun comes up to work an early barista shift is abysmal like mine, this feature is absolutely priceless.
One minor grievance shared amongst Wemo users is the endless firmware updates, which pop up every third time the app is opened. It only takes a few moments to do its thing, but it's annoying nonetheless. Regardless, if this and the paltry price of $29.99 for a refurbished plug is the cost of never having to touch another light switch again, the tradeoff is well worth it in the long run.
(Cool Stuff is a new feature at Willamette Week where we feature product reviews, roundups, sales and other commerce and shopping-oriented content. All Cool Stuff reviews are editorially independent, meaning we provide honest reviews and aren't paid by the brands we write about. If you do choose to purchase something after following one of our links, Willamette Week may receive a commission, which helps fund our journalism.)