Quirky Spotter Multipurpose Sensor review: Performance quirks spoil this sensor's potential

I started out with the Spotter's motion detection capabilities. The Spotter uses a built-in accelerometer -- the same as you'll find in the common smartphone -- to track whenever it's in motion. This means that motion detection is a bit of a misnomer. The Spotter will detect a door opening if it's mounted to the door, but if it's mounted to a wall on the other side of the room, it won't be able to "see" that door opening the way that a traditional motion detector would.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing -- accelerometer-based motion detectors have their own unique benefits, like vibration detection. Still, it's something to be aware of as you plan out how you might put your Spotter to use, and something that I wish Quirky was a bit clearer about.

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The Spotter's temperature sensor was fast and accurate outside on a sunny day. Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

The rest of the sensors are more straightforward. The light sensor will detect when lights go on or off. The sound sensor will detect loud noises, or when things suddenly get quiet. The temperature and humidity sensors will alert you if either gets too high or too low (although, again, they'd be much more useful if they consistently let you monitor conditions in real time. A "pull to refresh" option for each sensor seems like the obvious fix).

In my tests, I was able to get each sensor to work at one time or another -- but I was only able to get the temperature and motion sensors to work consistently. Noise detection alerts came through fairly regularly, but didn't seem as reliable as temperature and motion. Light detection was the problem child. I told the Spotter to alert me whenever it suddenly got light or dark, then placed it directly beneath a light bulb in a dark room. After flipping the switch every couple of minutes for about fifteen minutes, I had received exactly one alert. This was an even worse result than when I tested it out last November.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Simply put, the Spotter is still too temperamental. It will work fine for a short while, but then stop working after you move it to a new location, or unplug it and switch over to battery mode, or tweak a notification setting. Whenever performance drops out, your best bet is to power it down and then reboot it like a fussy old computer in order to get it working again.

It's perhaps my biggest complaint about the Spotter's performance: it isn't just inconsistent -- it's inconsistently inconsistent. It'll stop working at different times for seemingly different reasons. Motion detection seems to be the most reliable sensor, but only until it stops working altogether and the Spotter needs to be reset. Sound detection worked, but I could never quite figure out how loud a sound needed to be in order to trigger a notification. Shutting a door from 10 feet away would work, but not a loudly ringing phone just a few inches away.

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The Spotter's performance wasn't so hot when we tossed it into the fridge. Ry Crist/CNET

The temperature sensor had its issues, too. At one point last November, I was able to detect subtle heating changes of a few degrees -- but then I set it to alert me if the temperature dropped below 50 degrees Fahrenheit and walked outside into 35-degree weather with it on an extension cord. Nothing happened.

I wanted to see if this was still an issue, so I took the Spotter outside on a warm, sunny day. It did a great job, reporting the correct temperature within about two minutes. From there, I brought it back inside and tossed the thing into the fridge. Suddenly, the results weren't so hot.

As I kept my eye on the Wink app, the temperature dropped painstakingly slow. Ten minutes later, the app was still telling me that the temperature was over sixty degrees. It took another fifteen minutes for the temperature to fall anywhere close to the correct level of 40 degrees. Clearly, when the temperature drops, so does the Spotter's performance.

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The Spotter's IFTTT channel will only let you use temperature changes as triggers. Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

The final thing I wanted to be sure and test was the Spotter's new IFTTT channel. With access to popular automation products like SmartThings sensors and WeMo Switches, not to mention handy online services like Pushbullet and Google Drive, IFTTT gives any smart-home product an instant IQ boost.

However, that boost was more limited than I'd like. As of now, you can't use changes in light, motion, sound, or humidity to trigger your IFTTT recipes -- you can only use temperature changes. To me, that feels like a waste of the Spotter's hardware. Hopefully, like the Spotter itself, the IFTTT channel gets smarter with time.

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Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

Still, I wanted to try it out, so I plugged my desk fan into a WeMo Switch, then crafted an IFTTT recipe that brought the Spotter into play. If the Spotter detected a temperature above 70, then IFTTT would tell my WeMo Switch to turn the fan on.

To speed the process up, I took the Spotter outside, which I already knew would give me a nice, warm reading in no time flat. Sure enough, the temperature spiked from the 60s up into the 80s, and like clockwork, my fan turned on. I tested this again and again, along with having the fan shut off when things dropped back below 70. Each and every time, it worked as planned.

Ry Crist/CNET

Conclusion

The Spotter's taken some steps in the right direction, particularly with respect to IFTTT integration. Still, there's some work to be done if it ever hopes to become the must-have automation accessory I once thought it might be. At just $50, and with so much functionality, I don't think I'd mind putting up with a few performance quirks here and there. That said, I'd still want to feel like I had an accurate multi-sensor capable of reliably alerting me when needed, and Spotter just isn't quite there yet.

Quirky specializes in crowdsourcing good ideas and bringing them to market, and the Spotter is no exception. It's a good idea, and I'm glad that Quirky brought it to market. I just wish that the execution was better. Even now, six months after its initial release, with improved firmware, a slightly better app, and IFTTT integration to boot, its still too much of an under-performer for me to recommend outright.

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