The smart switch is the perfect example of a smart-home device meant to fade into the background, to become invisible until you need it, when its only evidence is efficiency. But this simple effect requires a delicate balance -- one many developers have struggled to strike.
GE is one of the major companies in pursuit of quiet excellence, but unlike competitors' products like the iDevices Outdoor Switch, GE's Z-Wave Plug-In Outdoor Smart Switch requires that you already own a Z-Wave gateway. I chose to look at the Switch's performance with two we already had: Piper and SmartThings.
When you look at the smart switch market, the GE Outdoor Smart Switch, now available online and at most home improvement retailers for $40, is a steal -- if you already own a Z-Wave gateway. That means if you're just looking for a smart switch that won't force you to take the home integration plunge, this isn't the product for you. The Switch's functions work well for the most part: you can control it while you're off the Wi-Fi network, and schedules work as expected. So if you have SmartThings, Piper or another Z-Wave gateway, and you use outdoor electronics like regularly, pick up this Switch.
When I unpacked the GE Outdoor Smart Switch, a compactly folded direction sheet was the first thing I saw. The instructions on the sheet were a little intimidating, what with all its panels of directions and tiny print, but it turns out the Switch is really easy to set up and synchronize with your Z-Wave gateway: just plug it in, tell your Piper or hub to search for a new product, and press the button on the Switch. That's it.
Of course, from setup to daily use, the Switch is almost completely dependent upon your home integration system, and chances are, if you like your Piper, SmartThings hub, or other Z-Wave gateway, then you'll like how it handles this Switch. For instance, I found the Piper app a little stiff and not very intuitive at first, but once I figured out the interface, I could do what I wanted on it. The SmartThings app, by contrast, was painfully convoluted, and it took me much longer to navigate to the Switch, let alone to the scheduling interface.
The GE Outdoor Smart Switch won't win any awards for design. A black plastic shell encases the internal electronics, giving the Switch a medium body with no distinguishing characteristics. A simple touch, like a light or even a subtle use of color, could have made this Switch stand out, but right now it looks strictly utilitarian.
The button on the front is small and difficult to completely press, so much of the time I had to wiggle my finger around the button to find the right angle to push. If your fingers are very small, you might not have a problem with this, but it seems like an odd design decision. Another awkward design flaw is the rubber block that covers the outlet while nothing is plugged in. When you do plug something into the GE Smart Switch, this rubber block simply dangles from a thin rubber strap -- a surprisingly delicate connector for an outdoor switch. The bulky rubber block also looks out of place, hanging off the Switch when something is plugged in.
Of course, looking ugly isn't the end of the world for an Outdoor Smart Switch. The question is whether this thing can stand up to the elements. And the answer is right there in the user manual: don't put it in the rain. I was a little baffled when I read it for the first time, because the Switch looks pretty solid. But sure enough, despite being mostly moisture resistant, the button isn't watertight.
Overall, in terms of design, the GE Z-Wave Plug-In Outdoor Smart Switch is about as clunky as its name.
The GE Outdoor Smart Switch is a capable device. It works well with most Z-Wave gateways, and its features are what you'd expect. You can turn things on and off, remotely or on the property, and you can schedule activation times for the Switch.
Although this Switch doesn't include power usage monitoring hardware, like iDevices or Belkin products, it does include remote control of the Switch that has a surprisingly low latency time. When I was using the Piper NV live-feed camera, I could see the Switch activate within a second of toggling it, even when I was 20 or 30 miles from the CNET Smart Home.
For its price, the GE Outdoor Smart Switch offers fair features, even if it doesn't bring much new to the table.
The GE Switch's performance stood up to scrutiny, but really its performance is contingent upon the app you're using. Again, using the Piper app stunned me, because the Switch responded in only a second or two from miles away. But the SmartThings app had connectivity problems and buttons that sometimes just didn't do what they were supposed to.
One small touch I appreciated was the way scheduled functions worked. With other connected outlets, like the iDevices Switches, a scheduled command would be sent at the moment the clock hit the given time, and if that first command didn't reach the device, then too bad -- your scheduled command didn't work. But using the Piper app with the GE Outdoor Smart Switch, unreceived commands would resend during the first minute of a scheduled action until the Switch responded.
Touches like the scheduling functions and minimal-delay remote control made this Outdoor Switch's performance impressive, despite its basic features.
Overall, the GE Z-Wave Plug-In Outdoor Smart Switch is a good product -- if you already have a Z-Wave gateway. So anyone using Piper or SmartThings can get a deal on the type of product that will cost 50 bucks or more from other developers. For those without a Z-Wave hub, though, this plug is not a good entry point into connected home living.
The biggest problem with this Smart Switch is its physical design. Its baffling lack of a fully rainproof casing is a serious problem. For anyone in a relatively dry climate, the button's unsealed edges will probably not pose much of a problem, but for people who live in rainy areas, this Switch just isn't a reliable option.
I'd recommend this Switch to anyone already using Z-Wave home integration -- it really is a steal for such customers. For others, look elsewhere for standalone smart plugs.