Ecobee Switch Plus review: Ecobee's smart switch adds in Alexa, plus a few shortcomings
Ecobee has long been a mainstay of the smart thermostat space (and a chief rival of Nest). But this year, it's mixing things up with the Ecobee Switch Plus, a Wi-Fi-connected light switch packed with smarts of its own. Along with sensors for motion, ambient light and temperature, the Switch Plus also includes a microphone, a speaker and the software that powers Amazon's virtual assistant, Alexa. Talk to this smart switch, and it'll talk back.
This integration makes the Switch Plus Ecobee's second gadget with built-in Alexa voice controls. Couple that with the fact that Amazon's Alexa fund just contributed to a $61 million funding round for Ecobee, and it's pretty clear who the primary platform partner is here. That said, like other Ecobee products, the Switch also works with Google and Apple HomeKit for voice controls via the Google Assistant and Siri, respectively. You can also connect it with SmartThings, or automate it on the free online platform IFTTT.
The cost for all of that is $100, which is pretty high as far as smart light switches are concerned. You can get Lutron's Caseta Switches and Belkin's WeMo Dimmer, which both received good reviews here on CNET, for less. Each of those will also dim the lights -- Ecobee's Switch won't. It also doesn't work in three-way setups where your light is connected to more than one switch.
Both of those are disappointing omissions, and you also won't be able to use the built-in temperature sensor to pair the switch with Ecobee's thermostats until a firmware update arrives this summer. That sours the deal on an already expensive smart switch, but it worked as promised in my tests and offers some unique features you won't find elsewhere. It's a splurge, but a justifiable one, especially if you're an existing Ecobee user who's looking to smarten up some lights and expand Alexa's footprint in your home in one fell swoop.
The Ecobee Switch Plus is an attractive little push-button light switch. To install it, you'll need to shut the power off and remove your existing switch, then connect Ecobee's line, load, ground and neutral wires. Once the Switch is in place and the power is back on, you'll just need to open up the Ecobee app to finish pairing everything with your home network and your Alexa account, along with your HomeKit account if you're planning on controlling the light using Siri commands.
The app makes all of that easy, and it looks good doing it. All of the Switch's features are plainly described and well-illustrated -- as a result, automating it is a cinch, even if you're a smart-home newbie. And, if you have any trouble identifying which wires you need to connect, the app does a good job of walking you through the install, too.
Those automations make use of the Switch's built-in sensors. For instance, you can set it to turn the lights on automatically when it detects someone entering the room and to turn them off automatically once the room is empty. If you're automating an outdoor light, you can set the switch to turn on automatically at sunset. You can also set a little nightlight at the bottom of the switch to start glowing whenever the room is dark. All of it worked perfectly when I tested the switch out at the CNET Smart Home.
One small qualm, though: Ecobee's app currently doesn't offer a mechanism for scheduling lighting changes beyond that sunset mode. For instance, you can't program the lights to turn on automatically at, say, noon. It's nearly a moot point since you can easily schedule automations like that using IFTTT, which costs nothing. But still, it's a smart lighting basic that would have been nice to have in the Ecobee app itself.
Eventually, the Switch Plus will use its built-in temperature sensor to sync up with Ecobee thermostats. Those external temperature readings are one of Ecobee's best features, as they make it a lot easier to heat or cool your home according to the temperature in the rooms you actually care about as opposed to the ambient temperature surrounding your thermostat.
Using the Switch to serve that purpose was a great idea -- but you won't be able to do it until this summer, when Ecobee plans to push the feature out via software update. Why it wasn't ready at launch after plenty of lead time is beyond me, especially considering that the temperature integration is one of the only things separating Ecobee's Switch from the upcoming iDevices Instinct Switch. That product will offer the same built-in Alexa controls and a similar set of sensors as Ecobee's Switch, but unlike Ecobee, it'll also dim the lights and work in three-way setups.
Speaking of Alexa, the Ecobee Switch Plus works just like an Echo device. You'll say "Alexa" to wake it up, it'll light up blue to show you that it's listening, and then you'll say your question or command (you can also wake Alexa up by pressing a button on the top of the switch, and you can mute the mic to stop her from listening for the wake word by pressing another button right next to it). Once awake, you can ask Alexa for a joke or for the latest headlines, you can ask her to control your other smart home devices, and you can ask her to run any of Alexa's tens of thousands of "skills" (voice apps, essentially).
You can even ask Alexa to stream tunes from Amazon Music (Spotify support is supposedly coming soon). I was admittedly skeptical about music playback from a light switch, but the sound quality was honestly much better than I expected -- roughly on par with the Echo Dot, and good enough for casual listening in smallish, quiet rooms. With the current proliferation of voice devices throughout our homes, there's a lot of work going into designing micro-size speakers right now -- the Ecobee Switch Plus might indicate that it's paying off.
The Switch also comes equipped with Amazon's ESP feature, which stands for "Echo Spatial Perception." ESP makes it so that only the Alexa device closest to you will respond if more than one of them hear your question or command. It's basically a must-have if you plan on putting multiple Alexa devices under your roof, so I'm glad to see it in the mix here.
About the only Alexa trick that doesn't work with the Switch is Alexa's calling and messaging feature, along with the "Drop-In" feature that turns Alexa devices into intercoms. That would have been a nice get for Ecobee here, but alas, it still seems to be exclusive to Amazon's first-party Echo gadgets.
Ecobee's Switch Plus is a likable smart home gadget that's easy to use, and it's an especially good fit if you're already a committed user of Alexa products or any of Ecobee's thermostats. If you use both, it's pretty much a no-brainer.
That said, the lack of dimming controls or three-way switch support will likely serve as a deal-breaker to some. The iDevices Instinct Switch will almost undoubtedly cost more than Ecobee's Switch when it arrives later this year, but it'll be hard to argue against paying a bit more for an equally full-featured switch that can actually dim the lights. As much as I like Ecobee's talkative light switch, I think most shoppers would be wise to hold off on buying one until we see iDevices enter the fight.