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A Prairie HomeKit Companion: Two Smart Outlets

The Centers clan is in the midst of a move. We outgrew the old prairie home — my current office often looked like an outtake from the show “Hoarders” — so we’re moving on to greener pastures. But the hustle, bustle, and boxes (so many boxes) make it difficult to review HomeKit accessories properly until we get resettled.

That’s why I’d like to talk about one of the simplest types of home automation accessory you can buy: the humble smart outlet. Smart outlets are an excellent way to get started with HomeKit because they’re cheap, simple, and easy to reposition. Just plug a smart outlet into an ordinary wall outlet, plug an appliance into the smart outlet, do a little software setup, and you’re done.

Before you invest in a smart outlet, be aware of their limitations. All they do is toggle power on and off to any connected appliances. They won’t dim your lights or adjust the output of your heater. They work best with devices that activate when plugged in, especially those with “hard” switches like electric heaters, fans, lamps, and window air conditioning units.

Unsure if a particular appliance will work with a smart switch? Plug it into a power strip and turn on the device. Then turn the power strip off and back on. If your appliance kicks back on, you know that it will work well with a smart outlet.

Which smart outlet should you buy? I’ll discuss two that I own: the Elgato Eve Energy and the iHome iSP5. The kind folks at Tin Drum PR provided me with the Eve Energy — it retails for about $50 — while I purchased the iHome iSP5 from Walmart for about $40. iHome also offers the fancier iSP8, which includes a physical remote control, for about $50.

The Eve Energy and the iHome iSP5 are similar devices, but if you see them side by side, you immediately notice the size difference. The face of the Eve Energy is square — about 2.5 inches (6.35 cm) wide and long — and 1.125 inches (2.86 cm) thick. The iSP5 is about 2.75 inches (6.98 cm) wide, 1.375 inches (3.49 cm) tall, and 1.4375 inches (3.65 cm) thick. In other words, the iHome is about half as tall but a little thicker than the Eve Energy. Depending on your particular situation, one may fit better than the other. Even though the Eve Energy is larger overall, its thinner profile makes a better option in tight spaces such as behind bookcases.

Both smart outlets feature a manual power button. The iSP5’s button, which you press to turn the outlet on and off, is tucked away in the upper-right corner. The Eve Energy’s button is right on the front, but you must hold the button down for a few seconds to turn it on and off.

As far as setup and operation goes, both set up quickly in Apple’s Home app, which I covered in “A Prairie HomeKit Companion: Setting Up Accessories and Rooms” (16 January 2017). Both smart outlets also offer their own apps, but I usually don’t like to fool with them. They seldom provide any important advantage over Apple’s Home app and generally make things more complicated. The entire point of HomeKit is that you have a central interface for all of your home automation items, regardless of vendor. As far as using the smart outlets in Home, it’s a simple as tapping the icon to turn them on or off. Of course, you can also use them in Scenes and Automations.

However, Apple’s Home app lacks one nice feature available from both Elgato’s Eve Energy app and the iHome Control app: power consumption monitoring. iHome’s app requires an online account, but Elgato’s doesn’t, so if you’re interested in that feature, I recommend the Eve Energy. In fact, iHome Control won’t even record those statistics until you create an account, but Eve Energy will quietly gather them in the background with no intervention necessary. I also find Eve Energy much better than iHome Control overall because it’s a full-service HomeKit controller. In contrast, iHome Control seems to work with only a few of my HomeKit devices.

The main functional difference between these two smart outlets is that the iHome iSP5 relies on Wi-Fi, whereas the Eve Energy communicates via Bluetooth. The iSP5 is the winner here because Wi-Fi has much better range and responsiveness than Bluetooth. Elgato announced the Eve Extend Bluetooth range extender at CES 2017, but it has yet to materialize.

Overall, I recommend the slightly cheaper iHome iSP5 over the Elgato Eve Energy unless Bluetooth is preferable to Wi-Fi in your environment, you’re particularly interested in power consumption monitoring, or the iSP5 is too thick for a tight space.

If you’re curious about HomeKit automation, you can’t go wrong with a smart outlet like the iHome iSP5. It’s cheap, easy to set up, simple to uninstall, and a breeze to operate. Not only that, but these outlets are versatile, working with many different plug-in appliances. They may not be as much fun as the Philips Hue lights, but they’re easier on the bank account (see “Getting Started with the Philips Hue Smart Light Bulbs,” 1 August 2016).

That’s all from the Prairie HomeKit Companion for now. I’ll check in again soon once I’ve had a chance to experiment with an entirely new house layout.


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Comments about A Prairie HomeKit Companion: Two Smart Outlets
(Comments are closed.)

$50 ≠ cheap. But home automation seems to have many hurdles to overcome beyond price. How many apps and hubs does one need to make anything sensible? And there will almost always be the need to be able turn lights on and off without phones and apps—wives, kids, guests, etc. I am still intrigued though, geek that I am. But if my wife or a guest cannot walk into a room and turn on a light without detailed instructions it's not going to happen.

Added to that is that iHome comes up with a warning about not working with future versions of iOS. So we set up rules using an app and then the app no longer functions. That'a winner!
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2017-05-02 09:14
I was skeptical of home automation, too, which is part of my motivation for writing this series. How many apps and hubs do you need? In my setup, I only really need the Hue app and the Hue hub; I can do everything else with the built-in Home app. Lights can still be turned on and off with a simple switch — the smart outlets I discuss here act as secondary switches, so if they're on, the light functions as normal. There are also smart switches now on the market, which I hope to cover in the near future. The iHome smart outlet should work as long as Apple supports HomeKit, whether the iHome app works or not.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2017-05-02 09:25
Also, $50 is cheap in the home automation world.
Anton Rang  2017-05-02 00:33
I have a few of the iDevices switches (Wi-Fi, ≈$50). They generally work pretty well for me, and monitor energy usage without the need for an online account. The side plug is a bit unusual, but helps in situations where there’s not much room to add depth behind furniture, and allows the built-in light to be much larger.

While I don’t really use it as a nightlight, I’ve set up scenes which switch the light color so that I can easily see at a glance whether the switch is on or not. That comes in handy with my home audio/video center, since the TV, DVD, etc. can be turned “off” but still drawing power if the switch was left on.

Occasionally Siri won’t see the devices on the first try, particularly if I’m waking the phone up and immediately requesting a scene change. I’m not sure if that’s an issue with these devices or related to the phone not waiting long enough to detect them on the network.
Jean-Pierre SMITH  2017-05-02 03:18
This would be useful to me if I could command the smart outlet from the mac automation (when it says "ON" or "OFF"). I currently use Task Till Dawn for mac automation (for my night backups) and the outlets I use in conjunction with it to power "ON" and "OFF" my clones are just timers.
wieland hartwig  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2017-05-02 06:25
I'm not sure about home automation. It is so primitive!

I can do all of it in a jiffy by just flicking a switch. I don't need to use a computer or a phone to do that. Also, I generally know what the wattage of the appliance is that I use. I use my seniour brain to keep track of power usage.

I don't get it.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2017-05-02 09:25
I didn't get it either until I started using it. I thought, "Why would I spend all this money on these fancy Hue bulbs when I can just get up and flick a switch?" But a switch can't turn on your lights at a given time of day. A wall switch won't let you adjust your lights from your couch. Unless your house is wired for it, you can't flick a switch before entering a dark room.

And I can't wait to have a smart thermostat so I can adjust the temperature of my house without leaving my bed. Our temperatures fluctuate wildly here in Tennessee, so you can go to bed warm and wake up at 2 AM shivering. That's going to be even more important in the new house since my thermostat will be downstairs and my bedroom upstairs.
I have an iDevices switch in my kitchen with an electric kettle plugged into it. That way, whether from bed in the morning upon waking up, the couch in the evening watching Tv, or driving home from work and a few minutes away from home, I can just say, « Hey Siri, it's Teatime » and, voilà, hot water for tea is awaiting me upon getting up or arriving home.

Sometimes, it's the little things that start to make the automation appealing and worthwhile. :)
David Chew  2017-05-02 17:10
Ah, the thermostat. My 92 yr old father-in-law moved in with us after he fell at night adjusting the thermostat. Our HVAC broke the next spring and when we replaced it, we installed a NEST. He would call me when I was at work and I would adjust the thermostat from my iPhone. A bit later I upgraded him from his flip phone to an iPhone and now he is able to adjust the thermostat by himself. Vital to him, since he broke a hip and a leg since he moved in and is no longer able to stand by himself.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2017-05-02 17:39
Wow, that's amazing!