FOX11, Los Angeles - A couple years ago, I ventured into the world of home automation because tech is part of what I do for a living. That, and it was the “perfect” time because the barrier to entry was low. Ok, it was on sale. I walked into the Home Depot and picked up a Wink Hub and two LED WiFi lights for what was a steal. And while I was mostly happy with my purchase, which afforded me the opportunity to connect multiple systems in my home and see just how rock solid all of this stuff is, there were definitely some growing pains for the new-ish technology. It appears that many of my issues have been resolved in Wink’s second generation Wink Hub 2.
Wink Hub 2: The Hardware
Unlike the first generation Wink Hub, the Hub 2 now includes an ethernet port and supports the 5GHz band for your WiFi routers. Those two inclusions addressed the majority of my concerns, but we’ll get to that more in detail in a moment. What you get with the Wink Hub 2 is a tall, white box with a glowing LED on the front. That LED changes state based on what is going on with the hub. Blue is its connected state, but it changes colors when you’re connecting new products to it, and flashes green when an event is triggered. Internally, the wifi now supports both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, but you also get an ethernet port if a wired connection is your preference. If you don’t know, the addition of 5GHz support is important because 2.4GHz tends to be a congested frequency which is susceptible to interference from everything from cordless phones (I know some of you still have them!) to microwaves. This product will be the central nervous system of your home automation setup so placing it on the 5GHz band, or utilizing the ethernet port is ideal. In addition to wifi for wireless connections, the Hub 2 currently supports a range of protocols, including: Bluetooth LE, Z-Wave® (Security Enabled Z-Wave Plus Device), ZigBee®, Lutron® Clear Connect®, Thread (future), and Kidde.
In the box, you’ll see three pieces of hardware: the hub itself, the power cord and an ethernet cable. Once you remove everything from the box, and plug it up, you’ll need the Wink app on your smart device to get the party started. The Wink app should discover the hub, then you’ll go about introducing it to your WiFi network. Once that’s done, go ahead and configure it and add the light bulbs, switches, or whatever else you want it to connect to and control. I placed the Wink hub in the center of my home, my son's bedroom.
Wink Hub 2: The Software, User Experience
The app is really good at walking you through the process of setting up your hub, whether this is your first one, or like me, you're upgrading. In this case, I was able to transfer all of my previously configured home automation settings to the new hub. That's great because it meant I didn't have to take the time to reconfigure a bunch of things I'd worked to get just right.
Simple as it may be, the app is also pretty robust and it’s going to be worth your time to take some time to familiarize yourself with it. You can do everything from setup schedules of events you want to take place, to creating shortcuts which trigger events, to creating “robots” which will trigger events based on a conditional occurrence like the sunrise, a change in temperature, or location-based events. With robots, you can set up your lights so that they’ll turn on when you’re a certain distance from home for example. You can even make robots more elaborate so they trigger events based on multiple connected items. If you have a front door lock that is a connected lock, you could have a robot setup to turn on the lights when it detects the front door being unlocked. There is a bit of a learning curve here, but not because anything to be learned is complicated or super nerdy. Quite frankly, it’s because there’s a lot you can control through the Wink app and you can get pretty granular.
Now, I haven’t seen too many in the tech industry actually say this but the component of home automation which really makes it worth your effort is voice interaction. With the first generation Wink hub, I had some cool, but novel triggers set. My hallway lights would turn on at sunset. Dim at 9PM and turn off at 11PM. One of my living room lamps would turn on at 5:45AM for the kids to have some light when they get up and get ready for school. I then set it to turn back off around 7AM because there was enough sunlight at that point. I have a walk-in closet and placed a window/door sensor on its door so that when the door opens, the light turns on and when it is closed the light turns off. My favorite automation, personally. And that really was the extent of the real usefulness of my home automation. No one in the house really used it as much as I did because, for the most part, they still felt it was easier to hit switches than it was to pull up the app on their phones and turn things on and off. And I can’t say that I blame them. I mean, my sons played with it for a brief moment but they were over it pretty quickly.
This is not an indictment of Wink. It worked as advertised, with some caveats. The GE Link light bulbs I was using would become disconnected from the hub more than I cared to have to deal with. With the Wink Hub 2, the connection seems to be more stable. On the other hand, I have a friend who uses the same setup and has not once had his lights disconnect from the first gen hub. One thing I have noticed is that the connection with the Lutron switches I’m using seem to be more reliable than the LED wifi lights from GE. I haven’t tried other brands yet, but I will be installing some Lutron Caseta light switches soon. Still, all of this seemed novel.
Then I bought an Amazon Echo the last time it was on sale- and received a Google Home for Christmas, from my awesome wife. For SCIENCE!!). That’s when everything changed.
While Wink Hub 2 is the brain, the central nervous system of home automation, Alexa/Google Home is the eyes and ears which truly allow you to interact with it in a way that is meaningful and actually delivers on the notion of “the home of the future.” Now everyone in my home interacts with the Wink Hub 2 on a regular basis, they just don’t “know” it. “Alexa, turn on the living room lamp, 50%.” “Alexa, dim Daddy’s Nightstand 80%.” “Alexa, set thermostat to 73 degrees.” Just about everything I can connect to the Wink Hub 2, I can control with voice now and that has made our home automation more than just a novel technology. This also speaks to the flexibility of Wink. It works with so many products on the market that it truly makes home automation a thing that anyone can use. The only shortcoming to this connection is that you can only control your shortcuts which are linked to lighting products. The Alexa app won’t recognize any of the other shortcuts you’ve created outside of that. Some people will look at all of the home automation products and say that the other downside is cost. Upwards of $50 for a light bulb, though the GE Link bulbs I’ve purchased are $15, is definitely more expensive than your standard CFL bulb which will run you approximately $5. But if you consider the average lifespan of an LED bulb which is rated at approximately 22 years, while that CFL bulb is rated for 9 years, then it will pay for itself. Now, you’ll actually have to just use the bulb for the whole 22 years.
This isn’t like the days of old when only the wealthy could afford to automate their homes, or you had to use a service like IFTTT to get most of your interactions to work across products. For $100 Wink has created something that just works, and most importantly, just works with a wide variety of third-party products. The only time I’ve had any issue getting something to work is when I attempted to get a three-year-old Z-Wave product I had laying around to work with the Wink Hub 2. It “saw” it on the network but I never really got it to connect properly. The other issue I’ve run into is that things can act a bit squirrely for a minute after any power outage. I’ve had lights that I’ve had to reset/reconnect to the hub after a power outage. Other than that, the Wink Hub 2, and Wink products overall, have been quite easy to use with very few headaches and more upside than down.
Disclosure: Wink provided me with a demo unit for the purpose of this review.