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Koubachi Wi-Fi Plant Sensor review: It's hard to justify the cost of Koubachi's garden adviser

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The Swiss company Koubachi AG hopes to use its scientific prowess to craft new innovation for the smart home. It began by targeting plants and developing a free application to help you care for your household garden. Now, they have a connected plant sensor to go along with the app. You can purchase the Koubachi Wi-Fi Plant Sensor as either an indoor unit or a hardier outdoor version for $99 or $129 (£80/AU$150), respectively. Other than the price tag and some added rain resistance, both models are exactly the same. They measure moisture, light, and temperature from the soil near your plant, and use that information along with the compiled knowledge of their Plant Care Engine to tell you exactly how to make your garden flourish.

The $99 Koubachi Wi-Fi plant monitor pokes into the soil and uploads environmental data to the company, which then sends plant-care alerts customized for each species.
6.4

Koubachi Wi-Fi Plant Sensor

The Good

The Koubachi Wi-Fi Plant Sensor gives specific advice for plant care across a variety of criteria. Its long signal range and helpful database make it a great, hands-off, garden guardian.

The Bad

The recommendations are slow to populate and aren't that much more helpful than those given by its free application. The long-term data it collects isn't specific.

The Bottom Line

The Koubachi Wi-Fi Plant Sensor makes comprehensive garden care as easy as possible, but for those willing to be more hands-on, it's not worth the cost.

Given that the Koubachi Wi-Fi Plant Sensor measures almost as many categories of data as the Parrot Flower Power and boasts a range similar to Oso Technologies' PlantLink , I had high hopes that it would be the perfect plant guardian. It even has the most helpful database of the three, and since it's the most expensive, the high expectations felt warranted. Unfortunately, lack of specificity when it comes to data, extremely slow recommendations, and a smaller upgrade from its free app than the price point should warrant keep the Koubachi Wi-Fi Plant Sensor from reaching its full potential. Patient gardeners looking for the most hands-off care on the market should consider the Koubachi. However, there are plenty of cheaper options that require just a little more effort. For instance, the PlantLink offers comparable monitoring for only $79, and Koubachi's own app, with just a little more time invested at setup, will freely offer care recommendations that are just as helpful as those you'd get by paying for the sensor.

The Koubachi Wi-Fi Plant Sensor gives sage advice for your garden (pictures)

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Design

The Koubachi Wi-Fi Plant Sensor requires no separate hub hardware to connect to your Wi-Fi network. Both the indoor and the outdoor versions have a sleek, white head wrapped in a black stripe with a long gray tail. A single black button dots the top of its dome. Stick the tail in the soil by your plant and hold the button down to start the configuration. A light above the button glows orange, signaling that it's ready, after which you can use Koubachi's iOS app or any Internet-enabled device to sync your sensor with any Wi-Fi router in range. Koubachi has an Android app as well, but it can't help you configure your sensor yet.

You can purchase either version of the Koubachi Wi-Fi Plant Sensor on Amazon or on Koubachi's website. For an extra $30, the outdoor version buffs up its rain resistance, but both can stand a splash or two as you water your plants.

The online capabilities that go along with the physical device are quite user-friendly. Koubachi uses pictures and step-by-step instructions to guide you through the initial process of getting your sensor to talk with your router. The directions are simple and Koubachi makes them easy to follow. The Koubachi database will even sense an error should something go wrong, and will walk you through troubleshooting automatically. All told, to remove the sensor from the box, insert the two included AA batteries (which Koubachi claims will last for more than a year), and sync it with my Wi-Fi, I needed about 5 minutes.

Of course, you'll also need to tell Koubachi about the plant you're monitoring. You can search Koubachi's database for a match in a number of ways. On iOS apps, it has introduced a beta program called Plant Finder. This fantastic guide walks you through identifying your plant one question at a time. If you have no idea what kind of plant you're dealing with, this is the most user-friendly plant identification software I've come across. Plant Finder will offer options about the shape of the leaves, the position of the stem, even the location of purchase, and you can pick from the provided pictures whenever you see a match or skip the question when you're stumped. The database will use any responses you give it to make a guess at your plant type, and will show you pictures to help you decide if it has the right one. If not, you can keep right on going through the questions.

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Screenshot by Andrew Gebhart/CNET

Plant Finder is awesome. Unfortunately, it's not yet available for the Android app. You'll have to search this version of the app for the common or scientific name of your plant. The website provides a little more guidance, as you have stem and leaf criteria to help you narrow the options if you want to scroll through pictures.

All versions of the database, even Android's, best the competition when it comes to how helpful they are at finding your plant. However, Koubachi's number of plants to pick from comes in dead last by a wide margin compared with the databases of Parrot and Oso Technologies. Koubachi has around 800 plants to pick from, whereas Parrot and Oso have thousands.

With Plant Finder, Koubachi almost makes identifying your plant fun. I felt like a detective, using questions and pictures as clues as I drew closer and closer to finding my suspect. But if your plant is at all unusual, the database won't have it, and you'll be stuck with the letdown of an unsolved mystery.

Given Koubachi AG's pedigree, this lack of depth puzzles me. It has been developing the Plant Care Engine at the heart of its database since it launched its app more than three years ago. The information it uses comes from the prestigious Swiss university, ETH Zurich. Perhaps the amount of detail it gathers for each plant it adds slows its progress, but Parrot's database is just as detailed and much deeper.

If you don't find your plant, Koubachi will offer alternatives to pick from that have similar criteria, but you'll want to use an outside resource to make sure the care advice you're getting for this alternate plant is similar to what your actual plant needs. Koubachi's price point is high, but its database is free, so your best bet is to check if it has your plant before you make your purchase.

To ease the cost, you can scale Koubachi's system by using the same sensor on multiple plants, but if you want live monitoring in multiple places, Koubachi lacks a way to cheaply add units. The PlantLink, by Oso Technologies, makes scaling your system with additional Links easy. Initially, at $79, it costs almost as much as Koubachi's $99 indoor version, since you have to purchase a Basestation to connect your Links. However, you can purchase additional Links for $35 and add them to the same system. Here, Koubachi's standalone nature works against it. Thus, if you want to monitor a variety of plants simultaneously, Koubachi's price necessitates that you look elsewhere.

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Colin West McDonald/CNET

The appearance of the device also sticks out more than the competitors. Parrot's aesthetic is the most appealing. Its branchlike shape can fit into almost any garden decor. PlantLink's small, white sensor is easy to hide. The Koubachi Wi-Fi Plant Sensor looks like a one-eyed robot. It's distracting, and because it needs to be placed outside of the shade of the branches of your plant so it can accurately judge light conditions, the Koubachi sensor is impossible to hide. Make sure you take a close look at the pictures before you make your purchase. If you decide on the Koubachi, every time you look at your plant, you'll see this cyclops of a sensor looking back.

Usability

Once the Koubachi Wi-Fi Plant Sensor is keeping its watchful eye on your garden, it will begin gathering information on soil moisture, ambient temperature, and ambient light. It sends that information to the cloud, where Koubachi's Plant Care Engine interprets the readings and gives you advice to best care for your specific plant.

The recommendations are specific without being precise. After Koubachi's cloud processes the readings from your sensor, you'll be told you need to water your plant, or that your plant has enough water. You might be told to find a sunnier spot or a warmer spot for it. The Plant Care Engine will even give you advice about fertilizer and misting, simply based on its knowledge of your plant.

Koubachi will also tell you exactly how to water, in great detail. For my plant, I needed to use room temperature water and add enough so that it dripped through to the saucer. After 15 minutes, I removed the excess from the saucer. I found Koubachi's recommendations to be the easiest to follow of the smart sensors I've tested.

However, the sensor doesn't provide precise data. It won't tell you how much sunlight or water your plant needs. That said, nothing on the market will, and Koubachi gives you enough information so that you can easily figure it out. The watering recommendations give a fairly good idea of how much to water and when to stop.

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A clear diagnosis, but the graph doesn't indicate how much sunlight my plant likes. Screenshot by Andrew Gebhart/CNET

For sunlight and temperature, you can compare the advice to the information on your plant in Koubachi's database. The sensor told me my cactus had too much shade. I could see on the graph that over the course of the week, my cactus only had partial shade during the sunniest times of the day. Unfortunately, the graph itself won't show the ideal range by comparison, but at least it uses the same language as the database. Since the database revealed that my cactus preferred full sunlight, I was able to figure out exactly what "a sunnier spot" meant for my plant. Knowing your plant's preferences as far as temperature range and sunlight makes it easy to use the recommendations and the collected information to figure out exactly what you need to do to care for your plant.

You can also see live data by pressing the button on the sensor. This handy feature lets you see immediate readings for moisture, sunlight, and temperature. Thus, the Koubachi Wi-Fi Plant Sensor does take exact measurements, so I'm not sure why it doesn't let you see them on the long-term charts as well.

If you're studying the conditions of your garden over time, you'll want to look elsewhere. Koubachi's storage is only temporary, you can't see exact points on the collected data graphs, they don't show up on the apps, and there's no way to download them and collect the data yourself.

Koubachi has promised this increased precision in its upcoming "pro" version. Given that the Parrot Flower Power already tracks and stores data well, Koubachi has some catching up to do, and no price info is available yet for this upgraded model.

Features

Though it's not the device for dataphiles or citizen scientists, Koubachi's easy-to-understand recommendations across all important plant care categories make it a great all-in-one garden guardian for those who need help keeping their plants alive long-term.

Again, it tracks moisture, sunlight, and temperature, and makes recommendations for each of those as well as fertilizer and misting. Additionally, a single sensor can give advice for multiple plants. Leave it with a plant long enough, and it will learn the moisture cycle and continue giving you advice after you've moved your sensor to another spot. In this way, it is possible to cheaply scale the Koubachi system, but it takes a while.

In fact, just about everything with Koubachi takes a while; even the live readings are slow to react to spikes. For instance, when I watered my plant or put it in the fridge to shift the temperature, the sensor would take hours to fully update to the new conditions.

The recommendations, though thorough and helpful, take even longer. You'll have to wait a day for watering recommendations, three days for temperature recommendations, and seven for lighting recommendations. This pace might be deliberate, but it still requires patience to operate. That said, by the time it bestows its advice, it understands the cycles of your plant's environment better than any other plant sensor out there.

Therefore, if you want the Koubachi to help you plan the watering cycle of several household plants, plan for it to take weeks for each one. It needs to process a full watering cycle before it'll remember enough to give you advice about when to water in the future. Thus, the Koubachi Wi-Fi Plant Sensor functions more like a wise old sage than a nimble and reactive protector.

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Screenshot by Andrew Gebhart/CNET

Once it knows, though, it can send you fully customizable reminders and alerts. I let one of my plants dry out, and sure enough, the email came through, reminding me that I needed to water the bamboo I affectionately named "Planty." The emails are cut and dried, but they serve the purpose, and as I continued to let the pot dry out, they kept coming. They arrived daily until I watered Planty, counting up with each passing day to politely add a level of urgency to the task as the number grew.

The slowness of the readings meant I still received a reminder email a few hours after I watered my plant, so you'll need to be careful with communication if you have multiple people responsible for taking care of your garden. The sensor's lack of responsiveness will make it easy to get wires crossed, but you can help avoid confusion by simply telling the system after you've given your plant water.

Of course, once you've placed the sensor elsewhere, you'll need to tell the database when you've watered the plants not currently being monitored so it can stay up to date on the moisture cycle, and as long as you do that, you'll keep getting accurate reminder emails from unmonitored plants as well.

In fact, with just a little extra effort, you can get moisture, fertilizer, and misting recommendations without the sensor at all. The fertilizer and misting recommendations are automatic. To add moisture recommendations for an unmonitored plant, you'll go through the same process of telling the application about your plant, naming it, and telling it the location. Then, you'll water it, and follow the system's instructions for checking on the soil moisture daily. Each day during this initial calibration, you'll report back on whether the soil has dried out yet. Once it does, Koubachi will remember that time frame and will send you reminders to help keep that unmonitored plant alive as well.

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Screenshot by Andrew Gebhart/CNET

Koubachi's ability to help with unmonitored plants puts the usefulness of its app well ahead of the competition. The information it keeps on the plants in its database is specific and helpful. It's easy to understand which plants will survive best in the conditions of your home just from looking through the available choices and what helps them flourish. You can view all of your plants, monitored or not, from a single, aesthetically pleasing screen, where you can check on the recommendations for each.

The Koubachi system takes awhile to get up and running, but once it does, this day to day functionality is fantastic. The Plant Care Engine and the app it runs is so good, actually, that it calls into question the need for the device at all.

Again, the free app comes with all of Koubachi's Plant Care Engine information. The Koubachi Wi-Fi Plant Sensor costs $129 for the outdoor version and $99 for the less water-resistant indoor version. Since it doesn't track long-term data that well, the sensor is only useful as a plant guardian. Without the sensor, the app will tell you about fertilizer and misting, and you can configure moisture recommendations yourself. The sensor monitors moisture for you, and adds temperature and light readings.

However, you'll need to compare the temperature and light readings to the database anyway to make sure you're correctly following the recommendations, and the database will tell you the temperature range and sunlight preferences of your plant, with or without the sensor. Thus, by calibrating the moisture and checking the sunlight and temperature yourself, you can use Koubachi's free app to figure out all of the recommendations offered by the $129 sensor.

Not to mention, if you're monitoring an outdoor space, you might not be able to control the temperature or ambient light. Meaning, the two primary functions added by the sensor will be giving you recommendations for things beyond your control.

Again, if you want to be hands-off with your plant care and are willing to pay for that privilege, the Koubachi Wi-Fi Plant Sensor is a great garden guardian. However, there are many options out there that can monitor your plants as effectively in exchange for a little extra effort on your part, and one of those options is Koubachi's own Web-based application.

Performance

Fortunately, in our performance tests, Koubachi's sensor proved accurate enough to be helpful. Again, this is not a precise collector of data, and its readings reflect that, but it always stays within a close enough margin of error so it can make viable recommendations to keep your plants alive.

To test the accuracy of the Koubachi Wi-Fi Plant Sensor, we placed it in a pot with a ponytail palm and compared its readings over the course of a month with those of a separate, calibrated meter.

Here are the results:

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Screenshot by Jared Hannah/CNET

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Screenshot by Jared Hannah/CNET

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Screenshot by Jared Hannah/CNET

Across all categories, the Koubachi Wi-Fi Plant Sensor was obviously detecting the same spikes and dips as our calibrated meter. Part of the reason it lacks precision is due to the way it measures. For instance, most moisture meters check the percent of soil moisture with 0 percent indicating dry and 100 percent indicating completely saturated. Koubachi measures on a plant-by-plant scale. 0 percent is still dry, but 100 percent indicates your plant has all of the water it needs. It's a smaller scale, since your plant will inevitably register Koubachi's 100 percent rating sooner than complete saturation. We converted the units for the sake of the comparison, but Koubachi's broad-stroke approach still left it lacking in accuracy. As a result, in tests comparing this measurement to the other plant sensors we've tested, Koubachi performs the worst.

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Screenshot by Jared Hannah/CNET

However, Koubachi does it this way to increase the helpfulness of its recommendations. Instead of looking at an independent percentage, it's showing you exactly how close you are to your plant's sweet spot. Its dedication to being user-friendly does cost its accuracy. The range it's working with is smaller, so it's going to be less precise, but it does stay within a reasonable margin of error for keeping your plant alive. Thus, Koubachi's performance maintains its status as a lousy data collector and a fine garden advisor.

Conclusion

If you're interested in bringing Smart Home connectivity to the garden, Koubachi AG can help you do it. For $129 and $99 for the respective outdoor and indoor varieties, the Koubachi Wi-Fi Plant Sensor is the most expensive and most comprehensive device you can use to give your plant a voice. Though the database this sensor connects to is limited in number of plants, if it has yours, you can expect to be guided through the most thorough and helpful online experience available as well. Whether you want to check on your plants with your computer, your Android device, or your iOS device, Koubachi has you covered.

That said, if you're interested in rescuing a plant or collecting data, the Parrot Flower Power is faster, cheaper, and more precise. If you simply need to monitor moisture levels and want a long range and easily scalable system to help you do that, go with Oso Technologies' PlantLink . Nevertheless, the Koubachi Wi-Fi Plant Sensor has a longer range than Parrot, and advises on everything, unlike PlantLink. Thus, if you want the most hands-off and comprehensive device and are willing to pay for it, consider the Koubachi. To help make your decision, start off with their free application. That'll do most of the work for you anyway, and if you like it, but wish the process was a little more automated, the sensor might be worth your while.

The $99 Koubachi Wi-Fi plant monitor pokes into the soil and uploads environmental data to the company, which then sends plant-care alerts customized for each species.
6.4

Koubachi Wi-Fi Plant Sensor

Score Breakdown

Features 8Usability 7Design 5Performance 5