The iHome iSP5 SmartPlug has an ace up its sleeve. On its own, it doesn't do anything extraordinary. Plug it into a wall socket, plug one of your ordinary electronic devices into it -- such as a lamp -- and connect the iHome Plug to your Wi-Fi network, and you'll be able to control the socket remotely and smarten up an otherwise dumb device. It's a cool idea and an easy way to try out smart-home technology at a reasonable price, but it's an idea shared by more than a dozen other connected devices.
Most of those competing smart plugs do more than iHome's version. The Belkin WeMo Insight Switch monitors energy usage and lets you program your plug with online automation service IFTTT. Other plugs offer surge protection , or antennas for Bluetooth or ZigBee , making it so they can act as bridges for other smart devices.
The iHome plug does one thing only, and there can be setup glitches. Once it's up and running, it does its task quickly and consistently. Despite that, iHome would be largely forgettable except that it works with HomeKit, Apple's proprietary smart-home software. That software allows you to control the iSP5 with your voice, and iHome's iOS app makes it easy to organize your smart home with HomeKit. Soon, iHome could get lost among the competition once more well-rounded HomeKit plugs hit the market. For now, the iHome SmartPlug does just enough to be worth a look as an inexpensive way to start a Siri smart home.
You can purchase the iHome iSP5 SmartPlug now from the company's site and Amazon for $39.99. It's compatible with iOS and Android via the free iHome Control app. The iSP5 is not currently available overseas.
Made by iHome, an electronics company best known for its speakers, the plug looks simple and unassuming, with a white front and back nicely accented by a gray top and sides. It's small, as it should be, and designed to extend horizontally so as to only take up one outlet when in place.
Plug it in, then plug in the device you want to control. Lamps and fans are obvious choices, but the iHome SmartPlug will work with anything as long as it doesn't use more than 1,800 watts of power.
A button in the top right corner allows you to turn the switch on and off manually -- a nice touch. Press it and you'll hear the familiar, pleasing click of turning on a lamp. When the switch is on, the company logo in the bottom left corner shines white. In the upper right, a small green LED lets you know you have a Wi-Fi signal.
That LED could prove problematic for some, as it's always lit when the plug is connected, so it could be bothersome in a dark room such as a bedroom.
In order to make the iSP5 useful, you'll need to sync it with your home Wi-Fi Network. The app will guide you through the steps of the process, which can be as easy as holding the button on the SmartPlug to reset it, then adding a new device to your iHome Control app and picking the right network.
The process can be that simple, but on numerous occasions, particularly on Android, we found that it wasn't. (There turned out to be a simple solution to our problems, which I'll explain below.) After you reset the plug, you'll press a button in the app to add a new device. You'll identify the device with an eight-digit PIN you'll find on a sticker on the bottom of the plug or on the quick-start guide included with the package.
The plug then connects to your Android phone, and uses your phone to search for and connect to your Wi-Fi router. Except, on numerous occasions, as my phone switched from my Wi-Fi signal to the plug's for the sake of that direct connection, I saw an error message, "Start session timeout," and had to start over.
After a couple of tries, my phone made it past this step, and I was able to identify the correct Wi-Fi signal and input my password. iHome connected the plug and started "Finishing Wi-Fi setup" and then stopped. The app spun in place for a while, then told me no device was found and took me back to the add-device screen.
After this setup glitch, the plug looked like it had found my network. Its LED blinks green after a reset while it's searching for a signal, and turns solid green once it finds one. The Android setup resulted in a solid green signal, but the plug was nowhere to be found in the app, and since it wasn't blinking green anymore, I had to reset the plug again to get the app to register a nearby new device so I could try setting it up again.
This happened numerous times on my Samsung Galaxy S5 . A coworker's S5 ran into the same problem a couple of times, but eventually made it through the setup. Another Android phone, the Nexus 6, ran into the same hurdle that my phone did, and was also unable to make it through the process.
Eventually, after talking to representatives from iHome, we found a fix to the issue. With certain versions of Android Lollipop, you have to turn off your mobile data to prevent it from interfering with the plug's signal during setup. Sure enough, once I did that, I finally got the setup to finish.
On iOS, the process was seamless, or at least it was the first time I set up the plug. The iHome app is obviously much more in tune with Apple hardware than Android, and it connects the plug to your Wi-Fi network much more quickly. You'll still need to enter the PIN for the device, and your Wi-Fi password if you have one. Otherwise, getting connected to your Wi-Fi network is quick and painless.
You'll encounter a couple of extra steps beyond connecting to your router with the iOS app, but these relate to organizing your home into HomeKit's buckets. To review, HomeKit runs in the background of iOS 8 , and enables compatible third-party devices to talk to each other via a standard set of rules, allowing you to organize devices from various companies and control them by voice via Siri.
You'll be prompted to name your home, HomeKit's biggest bucket, as soon as you open the iOS app and create your iHome account. Then, you'll connect your plug and provide it with a name, and you can even assign it to a room and that room to a zone if you want to take advantage of all of HomeKit's organizational structure. There's no need to set up zones unless you have several HomeKit devices, but iHome deserves credit for making it easy to do in the app.
To share control of the device, select "user management" under the settings tab of the app. You can even share a device from an iOS to an Android device, though it doesn't work the other way around.
You can invite multiple family members to share control of your device. Specifically, you share access to all devices within a home. You can't specify control beyond HomeKit's biggest bucket, but at there's at least some separation of what you're sharing. So, for example, your partner can manipulate anything you set up at your place without gaining control of the devices you have at your office.
You'll need to give additional users a PIN if you want them to be able to control your devices remotely, and I like the extra security step. It's one thing to let a friend play with your smart devices while they're visiting and using your Wi-Fi, it's another to grant them control at any time, from anywhere. Even with the PIN, additional users will never be able to rename or alter the settings of your devices.
That PIN setting, though smart in theory, ended up contributing to a few glitches I discovered while trying to reset the plug. Fortunately, you won't need to do this if you're just moving it around within your home. Unplugging it and replugging it doesn't reset the settings. Give it a moment after you plug it back in, and it'll hop right back onto the established network.
You will need to reset the plug if you move it from your home to your office and want to set it up on a different network. When you do that, you won't be able to use the same name for the plug you used before, which was a shame for me, as I'd wanted to keep using the name "Bat Signal."
You can get your used names back if you really want to, but you'll have to reset all of your HomeKit buckets in your device settings to do so.
The minor annoyance of picking a new name aside, setting up the plug a second time revealed a few flaws in the iOS app. On a couple of occasions, the app couldn't find the plug for the second setup. I had to reset the plug again, and restart my iPad to get it to work. On another occasion, I couldn't change the name for the plug I set up. The app was convinced I wasn't the creator of the home, and thus, locked me out of this feature, even though I was using the same device with the same log-in as when I initially set it up.
On yet another occasion, after I reset the plug, I added a new device, took it through the setup process and then got an error message telling me the device was reset, taking me back to step 1, even though I'd completed the process of getting it connected. I was stuck in that loop for a while. I'd reset the plug to allow the app to find it, go through the setup process, name the plug, then get the error message and have to start over.
Old plugs tend to linger next to dead buttons on your app and new ones can take a long time to populate on the apps of additional users. It'll get there eventually for your family members, but if you want to use a different Apple device yourself, it might never happen. Using the same iCloud account and the same iHome log-in on an iPhone that I used on my iPad, I couldn't see the homes or devices I'd set up, no matter what I tried. I'm not sure if that issue is on Apple or iHome, but I found it majorly annoying.
The setup issues I encountered with the iOS app were mostly minor, but they show that the software of the iHome SmartPlug still needs polishing.
Once it was up and running, I enjoyed using the iHome iSP5 SmartPlug on iOS. It's responsive. The app has a tab for your devices, with a button just to the left of their names, letting you switch them on and off, and they react almost instantaneously.
The app has tab for your home where you can you organize your devices into the various HomeKit buckets, and it also has a tab for rules. Thanks to online rule maker IFTTT, I've come to expect a lot of rule systems with smart devices. Via IFTTT, you can train your devices to work together in lots of useful and interesting ways. When your phone senses you're home, you can have your lights turn on, your doors unlock and your garage door open. When it's time for bed, you can have your place lock itself down and adjust the thermostat accordingly.
With iHome's plug, the rule system is just a timer, meaning you can set times when you want your various devices to turn on or off. The timer is smart enough that if you've set it to turn off at 10 p.m. and it's already off, it won't switch it back on, but it's still a pretty simple system.
Supposedly, more advanced rule functionality is coming to HomeKit with iOS 9 . At that point, this plug could come closer to reaching its potential as an interconnected device if it can respond to input from other HomeKit sensors.
You can tell Siri to flip your device on or off, too, and I quite enjoyed trying out the many possible voice commands.
In addition to a settings tab, letting you add users and edit your account, the last tab in the iHome Control app lets you set scenes. You can pick from the predetermined scenes such as "Dining" or "Party" or you can name your own.
Scenes let you program multiple devices to respond to a single command. As with buckets, it's very much overkill for a single plug, but it'll get much more useful as HomeKit's device lineup fills out. Plus, setting scenes with Siri is awesome.
I programmed my lamp to turn on when I set the dining scene. Then, I simply told Siri to, "Set the dining scene." She responded, "Your wish is my command. And lo, Dining Scene." My light turned on and I laughed at the surprising display of competent smart-home voice controls with personality to boot.
Similarly, you can control your devices by name directly ("Turn on the Bat Signal!") Finally, you can control devices by the name of your buckets as well. So I could tell Siri to turn off all devices in my home, "Gotham," or the zone I specified for my lamp, "Wayne Manor."
HomeKit makes these voice commands possible, but it's iHome's app that makes it easy to organize your devices into HomeKit's buckets and -- once you get through the setup process -- makes using your device with HomeKit fun.
HomeKit isn't perfect. With iOS 9, you'll supposedly be able to control your devices remotely just by linking them to iCloud. For now, to give Siri commands when you're not home, you'll need an Apple TV , and a ton of patience to wade through the confusing and tedious setup process.
The iHome Plug allows you to get around this by just opening the app and controlling your device with buttons when you're not home. Since it connects directly to your Wi-Fi router, it doesn't need HomeKit to enable all remote functionality as the Elgato Eve Room with its Bluetooth-only signal does.
If you do want Siri controls on the go, you'll need to have an iCloud account linked to an iCloud.com email address, then you'll need to turn on the iCloud Keychain in your device settings, then you'll probably need to sign out and sign back into to both your and your device, and possibly even reset your HomeKit buckets on your device to get it to work. It's a pain.
With iOS 9, the setup could be streamlined. iOS 9 will supposedly also enable push notifications and more advanced rules linking devices from different parties. In other words, if you want simple voice controls, HomeKit and the iHome Plug are ready for you now. If you want more than that, you'll need to wait, and that could be a problem for the iHome SmartPlug. Right now, it's one of the few HomeKit-compatible options on the market, which makes its lack of features acceptable. Soon, it'll have lots more competition, and since it only does one thing, it could easily get lost in the crowd.
Coming in October, the iDevices switch will cost only $10 more than the iHome SmartPlug. It'll connect directly to your Wi-Fi router, but will also include a Bluetooth antenna, allowing you to bridge Bluetooth specific peripherals to the cloud. Upcoming HomeKit locks such as the Schlage Sense will take advantage of that feature.
The Grid Connect ConnectSense Smart Outlet ups the price to $80, but includes two smart outlets, a USB port and a ZigBee antenna, again allowing it to double as a bridge.
If you just want to control lights, the Lutron Caseta Wireless Lighting Starter Kit is available now, and permits dimming as well, but you have to purchase the whole kit for $230 to get this functionality.
Insteon has a plug that can work with HomeKit, but it's a $60 model you need to install, and you need to buy the HomeKit-compatible Insteon Hub to make it work. Preorders for that hub shipped this summer, and it'll be widely available soon.
There are many non-HomeKit options, the most notable of which is the $60 Belkin WeMo Insight Switch , which monitors energy usage and allows remote control of your outlet. Belkin's Plug is also compatible with IFTTT, allowing you to connect it to IFTTT's broad library of smart home products.
Because of the many available smart plugs, I'd pass on the iHome version if you have an Android device. Even once you do get past the buggy setup, the app is bare-bones. You don't have any voice control, or organizational systems. You can see your devices listed and set those time-based rules, and that's it.
The iHome iSP5 sits in a precarious position. On the one hand, I have trouble recommending it now, because both the iHome Control app and Apple's HomeKit still need polish. On the other hand, waiting on the iHome SmartPlug probably won't make it look better, as more well-rounded HomeKit devices will hit the market soon.
I'm allowing myself a third hand here, because once you get it set up, the iHome SmartPlug works well enough with your iOS device now that it makes sense for those looking for simple smart control of home items like lamps and fans. At $40, it's also not unreasonably priced. It's just too feature-poor to recommend. You should definitely look elsewhere if you're an Android user. HomeKit helps a little bit if you have iOS, but even that advantage -- the ace up its sleeve -- will disappear soon.