First Alert OneLink Wi-Fi Smoke and CO Alarm review:

Siri can't save First Alert's surprisingly dumb connected smoke alarm

  • How is my CO detector?
  • How is my smoke detector?
  • Do I have a smoke detector?
  • Is the smoke alarm tripped?
  • Is the CO alarm tripped?
  • How is the carbon monoxide detector?
  • Change the brightness on my smoke detector to [x] percent.

Other than the small convenience of being able to alter the brightness of the night light with your voice, I'm not sure how any of these commands are useful. Why would you ever ask your phone if your smoke alarm sensed something? It's the job of the smoke alarm to be proactive. If it senses something, it needs to let you know. If you need to ask if something's up, something went wrong in the communication process.

Hey Siri, how's my home doing? Is it on fire?

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The Siri functionality on this OneLink Alarm is a feature for the sake of having a feature. And for now, this meaningless add-on is the only perk the OneLink alarm gets from HomeKit. Ideally, if the alarm sounds, it should be able to seamlessly interact with other HomeKit products to flash your Philips Hue bulbs red and unlock your Schlage deadbolt so you can get out of the house more quickly. The triggers for the OneLink Alarm that would allow this aren't ready yet, so you can't do any of this.

Eventual push notifications

Unfortunately, the useless HomeKit integration is just one of the troubles this device has with smarts. If the push notifications and the app were at least reliably responsive, the OneLink alarm could have still been a viable product for HomeKit fans while waiting for the interoperability to develop. They aren't.

Once the alarm sounds, it consistently takes 90 seconds or more for the push notification to come through. Perhaps I'm spoiled a bit by the digital age, but 90 seconds is an eternity. And since this is a safety device, this isn't 90 seconds waiting for an Internet video to load. This is 90 seconds while your home is burning.

You will get push alerts, at some point.

Screenshot by Megan Wollerton/CNET

And that 90 seconds is the time quoted to me by a customer service specialist at First Alert. After our first couple of smoke candle tests produced no push notifications at all, I reached out because I thought I had a faulty product. As it turns out, we just weren't running long enough tests. Once we blew smoke at the alarm for 90 seconds straight or more, we finally began receiving push alerts and the alarm history in the app would update. Anything less, and the app wouldn't know anything happened.

For perspective, the Insurance Services Organization, or ISO, regulates the distribution of fire stations within a community with a goal of being able to reach all protected homes within 3.2 minutes. It takes First Alert half that time to send a message to your phone.

The sluggishness of the alerts make this OneLink Smoke Alarm a failure as a smart safety device. The Nest Protect's alerts weren't consistently instantaneous either, but they mostly came through within a few seconds. The alerts from the Roost Smart Battery consistently arrived within 1 to 10 seconds.

A long road to peace and quiet

Not only are the push notifications slow, the app itself also seemingly takes forever to update to alarm status, so forget about using the silencing feature. You'll generally wait 30 to 90 seconds for the app to pick up on the fact that the alarm is sounding.

Then, you'll need to hold down the button to silence the alarm, then have to wait for another slow sync up before the alarm finally shuts down. Sometimes, the app will decide there's too much smoke to shut off, and will keep sounding despite your request for silence. I understand the reasoning for that override, but it proved quite annoying in practice.

Silencing the alarm takes way too long, and the surprisingly limited Bluetooth range doesn't help.

Screenshots by Andrew Gebhart/CNET

All told, if you want to use the app to silence your alarm, expect to spend two to three minutes listening to it blare first, by which point you could have easily toweled away the smoke or gotten fed up enough to smash the thing into pieces with a hammer.

The app will catalog the history of your alarms -- a feature that didn't work at all on the second-gen Protect -- but again, only if the alarm is sounding for at least 90 seconds.

Failure to communicate

First Alert told me that the reason for the delay is the alarm prioritizes sending a signal to the other alarms in your house first. That seems a reasonable order of operations, as it's the people in the home whose lives are potentially in danger, and we indeed found that a second OneLink by First Alert Alarm would start sounding almost immediately after the first. The second alarm even spoke the correct room. So if I blew smoke at my connected "Living Room" alarm, the alarm I had set up for the "Kitchen" would still tell me that smoke was detected in the living room.

The hard-wired version of First Alert's smart alarm is also supposed to communicate with certain hard-wired dumb alarms. I loved the idea of this feature. Ideally, when my smart First Alert Alarm sounded, all other interconnected alarms would sound as well. And more importantly, when my dumb alarms sounded, I wanted my First Alert alarm to know, start it's own alarm, and send me a push notification. Unfortunately, as was the case with the rest of this alarm's smart features, the reality fell well short of the ideal.

We hard-wired a First Alert 9120 alarm next to the OneLink by First Alert Wi-Fi Smoke and CO Alarm, with enough distance apart that we could direct smoke at one or the other without blowing it on both. Oddly, every time the smart OneLink Alarm sounded, the 9120 alarm would whir into action shortly after. This happened reliably, and always within a matter of seconds.

First Alert's alarm isn't a great communicator.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Going the other way -- sending the signal from the dumb alarm to the smart one -- wasn't nearly as reliable. It tended to take anywhere from 90 seconds to two full minutes of either blowing smoke at the dumb alarm or holding down the test button before the OneLink Wi-Fi Alarm would do anything. At that point, it would ring a couple of times, begin its vocal warning, then stop part way through its voice message, despite the fact that the dumb alarm was still ringing.

To be fair, we didn't expect the OneLink Alarm to know the correct room for the dumb alarm, but the fact that it stops sounding all together is problematic, and we never once got a push alert from the OneLink Alarm when prompting it via its dumb counterpart. The whole appeal of the feature -- adding smarts throughout your home with a single connected unit -- doesn't work.

Obviously, some signal is making it between the two alarms, but the OneLink Alarm doesn't know what to do with the signal it gets from a nonconnected unit. And this half-baked interconnectedness certainly isn't polished enough to excuse the extreme delays in push notifications.

Aside from the major gaps in functionality, the app itself is also shallow and lacks customization. You can't see or control any other HomeKit devices with it, as you can with a few HomeKit apps, and you can't even access any in depth options for the OneLink Alarm, such as scheduling when the nightlight should turn on. The app doesn't get the basics right since push notifications and silencing is so slow, and it doesn't have any advanced features. It's not completely broken, but that's as much as I can say about it.

The verdict

Smarts on your smoke detector can help you in two ways. The connected functionality can increase your safety by letting you know something's wrong when you're away, allowing you to take action. It can also add convenience to your life by letting you silence an annoying false alarm more quickly, without having to wave a towel around or grab a broomstick to hit the silence button. Because of the poor response time of the app, the OneLink by First Alert Wi-Fi Smoke and CO Alarm doesn't work in either sense.

The $100 second Gen Nest Protect does both well enough. I recommend that if you want a wholesale replacement, or the $35 Roost Smart Battery makes for an appealing retrofit option. It packs smarts into a familiar 9V battery and was quite responsive in our tests.

The nonconnected aspects of the OneLink by First Alert Wi-Fi Smoke and CO Alarm work fine, and that alone makes it worth more than simple $20 smoke detectors. But combination smoke and CO alarms with voiced warnings can be had for $40 to $50, and OneLink's $110 to $120 HomeKit alarm doesn't add any useful functionality on top of those.

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