Light your tree with your phone

Learn how to use an Internet-connected power strip to manage your holiday lights using any smartphone.

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I will admit right at the top here that the following how-to is more fun than practical. You should try it anyway.

There's never been a high-tech distraction this inexplicably amusing to me since the invention of kittens and laser pointers (they really should come bundled).

This year, instead of plugging your holiday lights into your old, reliable socket timer, why not drop $80 on an Internet-connected power strip that you can control with your phone? That's what I did, and the novelty has yet to wear off. In fact, I'm going to take a break right now to turn on my Christmas tree from 15 miles away.

I can't explain it, but it feels like the future. So, if you want to add the same nerdy thrill to your holidays, here's what to do.

First, you'll need to invest in a power socket adapter that can hop on your home Wi-Fi. Belkin makes one called the WeMo Switch , which can be had for around $50, adapts a single socket, and can be managed using a smartphone app. Feeling the full weight of my CNET expense account, I opted for the latest competitor, the Quirky Pivot Power Genius .

Photo of Quirky Pivot Power Genius.
The Quirky Pivot Power Genius. Colin West McDonald/CNET

I don't know about your holiday lights, but I need more than one socket to get it all done. The Pivot comes with four, laid out on a flexible power strip that can be twisted around to accommodate all manner of wall warts. Granted, only two out of the four sockets can be switched remotely using their iOS/Android-compatible Wink app, but they can both be managed and scheduled independently, which is nice.

After plugging in the power strip, the next step is to download the free Wink app. Open it up, and you'll be prompted to create an account, with some basic information. Next, it will ask you to confirm the name of your home Wi-Fi router, and enter in your Wi-Fi password.

Now, it's not that the app has any use for your Wi-Fi info. It's asking, because in the next step your phone will literally flash that info over to the Pivot Power Genius, requiring you to hold your phone over a sensor located at the top of the power strip while it blinks the screen on and off. It's like having your gadgets talk to each other in Morse code. After a few seconds, your phone will give a little buzz to signal that it's all done. If all goes well, the next screen you'll see should look like this.

Wink app scheduler.
Screenshot by Donald Bell/CNET

From here, straight away you can get to remotely toggling the power to your sockets. The switching response isn't immediate. I found that even when both my phone and the Pivot were on the same network, it took around 3-5 seconds for the switch command to trickle over. What's cool, though, is that even when I was miles away and just using a cellular connection, the switch response time was about the same as sending a text message -- let's say around 10 seconds. And if all else fails, the people at Quirky were smart enough to include physical toggle buttons on the side of the strip.

Without a doubt, manual control is the real thrill of this device. But you can also easily set each of the two controllable sockets on their own schedule, using the same Wink app.

Wink app scheduler.
Screenshot by Donald Bell/CNET

A click on the clock icon next to either of the two switch controls takes you to a screen where you can set any number of scheduled on or off commands. It's as simple as tapping the Schedule New Event button, selecting whether the event is to turn the switch on or off, and then dialing in a time. It's dead simple, however, as we noted in CNET's review of the Pivot Power Genius, some added control over scheduling weekday and weekend modes would make the product better.

So there you have it, a fun and easy (though not exactly inexpensive) way to manage your holiday lights from your phone. Be sure to check out my video walkthrough as well.

About the author

Donald Bell has spent more than five years as a CNET senior editor, reviewing everything from MP3 players to the first three generations of the Apple iPad. He currently devotes his time to producing How To content for CNET, as well as weekly episodes of CNET's Top 5 video series.

 

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