The Mr. Coffee Smart Optimal Brew boasts some connected-home smarts but not quite enough.
Meet the Mr. Coffee Smart Optimal Brew, the Mr. Coffee machine for the smart-home era. A coffeemaker with premium brewing aspirations in its own right, the $150 gadget also flaunts some slick smart home skills including integration with Belkin's WeMo-connected intelligent device platform. That means you can command the machine to brew from anywhere you have access to the WeMo mobile app and live Internet connection. The Optimal Brew also supports a fully customizable 7-day programmable schedule and is easy to handle and clean. There are drawbacks to the ambitious appliance, however; it brews weak coffee and can't talk to other Belkin WeMo sensors and switches. All this adds up to an interesting product for tech addicts but not for demanding coffee geeks who'd be better served splurging on a Bunn Velocity Brew BT or Bonavita BV1900TS.
I bet when most people picture a Mr. Coffee appliance they recall one of the numerous cheap plastic gadgets clogging department store aisles. Boasting reflective faux-chrome and stainless-steel highlights set in a sober black plastic frame, the Mr. Coffee Smart Optimal Brew is a different animal altogether. If you remove the fancy Belkin WeMo smart technology (and bright-green logo) from this machine, what's left would be a spitting image of Mr. Coffee's premium 10-cup drip brewer, the Optimal Brew Thermal.
Standing 14.3 inches high, the Smart Optimal Brew is a tall kitchen appliance. Even so, at 8.8 inches wide and 7.1 inches deep, the coffeemaker is relatively slim and shallow. While not as compact as the pint-size Bonavita BV1900TS , the Mr. Coffee takes up less countertop space than serious coffeemaker giants such as the Breville YouBrew and Cuisinart Burr Grind and Brew. That makes it pretty easy to squeeze into tight spots around the kitchen.
Another attribute I really like about the Smart Optimal Brew is its highly modular design. For example, the rectangular water reservoir handily slides out from the top of the machine. It's a cinch to fill, either when sitting flat on a table or held over a faucet. And as someone who actually weighs out water for each test brewing, I appreciate how the tank moves from scale to coffee maker without any drama or high chance of spillage.
Similarly the filter basket is really a small drawer you pull out from the appliance's right-hand side. The upside here is the entire assembly is simple to remove and clean by dropping its spent grounds plus flat-bottomed paper filter into the trash. Just remember to pop the disc-shaped water filter off (it sits on top) and flip open the basket lid first. Here, too, is a bright-red plastic indicator which Mr. Coffee provides to help track of when you should replace the circular water filter (monthly).
As a basic coffeemaker, the Smart Optimal Brew is very simple to operate. There's just one square "brew now" button on the machine's front face, above and to the right of its drip brewer. To conventionally brew up a fresh pot of joe just fill the water tank with the volume of coffee you'd like to end up with, the reservoir holds a maximum of 10 cups. Then add the appropriate amount of coffee grounds to the brew basket's filter which can accept either flat-bottomed paper filters or permanent gold filters (sold by Mr. Coffee for $12). With these steps done, just hit the brew button, then wait for piping-hot java to trickle forth.
Sitting front and center is a large cradle and flat base that houses the Optimal Brew's thermal carafe (Mr. Coffee calls it a decanter). Its steel frame is both sturdy and easy to pour from thanks to a lid that swivels on and locks up nice and tight. There's also a big thumb button on the container's handle that you must press for coffee to flow out of the spout, a welcome feature for klutzes like myself.
What sets the Mr. Coffee Smart Optimal Brew apart from ordinary programmable drip machines is its support for Belkin WeMo technology. Essentially WeMo is tech-accessory maker Belkin's foray into the burgeoning smart-home market. Smart-home gadgets are designed to communicate with each other over wireless computer networks and collaborate to create a more intelligent and automated household.
To this end the Smart Optimal Brew uses Wi-Fi wireless networking to talk to Belkin's WeMo mobile app on either iOS or Android phones and tablets. This gives the coffeemaker some novel capabilities such as full 7-day weekly programmable brewing schedule. So if you want to have the device automatically brew coffee at 7 a.m. Monday through Friday but perhaps 9 a .m. on Saturday and maybe 11 a.m. on Sunday, no sweat.
The WeMo app also provides a much more intuitive way to interact with the appliance than using the glorified VCR control pads common on basic programmable coffeemakers. You just tap the Mr. Coffee icon within the app then touch the green arrow under its name to tweak its brewing schedule. The appliance and WeMo app will also push notifications for when the water tank needs a refill or if the water filter is due for a replacement.
Likewise if you've prepped the machine but would like your coffee earlier than its schedule advises, simply hit the virtual brew button within the application. All this works from any location too as long as your mobile device enjoys an Internet connection.
There's one fatal flaw with the Smart Optimal Brew though which potentially applies to all connected coffee makers -- it still needs a human hand to function. No matter how smart or Web-enabled it is, you still must fill the contraption with fresh water and coffee grounds before each brewing cycle. If you could just dump a week's supply of fresh beans into the thing, which it would then grind on its own before brewing and refill its water tank on its own, well that would be something special. Sadly this is not the case with the Smart Optimal Brew.
Another let-down is that like the Crock-Pot Smart Slow Cooker, also WeMo-enabled, the Mr. Coffee Smart Optimal Brew doesn't really integrate with the Belkin WeMo system. You can't have the appliance perform neat tricks like kick-start its brewing day early if a kitchen motion sensor perks up. The same goes (or doesn't go) if you flip on a Belkin smart light bulb within the same parameters, or even some combination of all the above.
And if you expect this smart coffee maker to connect to an IFTTT (If This Then That) channel to play well with a growing ecosystem on Web-connected products and services,you're in for bad news. While a Belkin representative said the company is looking into IFTTT support, there's no word yet on when or if it will become a reality.
Setting the Smart Optimal Brew up properly on the Belkin WeMo app wasn't easy either, an issue our reviewers have found with other WeMo products. With the WeMo software installed on my Samsung Galaxy Note 3 Android handset, I first went through a series of necessary firmware updates before the coffee machine finally settled down. Prior to this fresh influx of code I'd receive repeated error messages asking me to unplug then plug in the coffee device to enjoy a more stable connection.
Perhaps the current owners of the Mr. Coffee brand, Jarden (which bought out Sunbeam, the original owners) are sensitive to its less than stellar consumer mind share. I admit I was surprised when the Smart Optimal Brew cranked out a brew time of under 7 minutes (6 minutes, 48 seconds). This is certainly within the Specialty Coffee Association of America's (SCAA) recommended brewing time of 4 to 8 minutes.
Likewise I was impressed that the scrappy machine was able achieve the coveted 200 degrees Fahrenheit water temperature at about 4 minutes, 30 seconds into the brew cycle and keep it there for the remainder of the procedure. The Smart Optimal Brew moved well beyond this, finally reaching a steamy 204 to 206 degrees within its brew basket on many occasions.
Keep in mind, though, that this doesn't match the SCAA's brewing guidelines which stipulate that the ideal temperature curve should be much more precise. Specifically coffee grounds should hit 197.6 degrees within the first minute of brewing and should not exceed 204.8 degrees. More expensive competitors such as the Bunn Velocity Brew BT, Bonavita BV1900TS and Technivorm Moccamaster KBT 741 turned in much better performances either by heating their water faster, delivering shorter brewing times or both.
Whether it was one of these slight performance failings or a combination, the Smart Optimal Brew consistently whipped up pots of coffee that were drinkable but tasted weak. Thankfully the machine's coffee was not bitter in any way, even when I jacked up the grounds to a high 3 ounces (up from the 2 ounces I typically use) per 45 ounces of water. Refractometer readings I took backed up my taste buds with coffee coming at a low total dissolved solid percentage of 0.68. This translates to a watery extraction percentage of about 14 percent, well under the 22 to 23 percent of truly flavorful brews. For more on how I test coffeemakers, read this deep dive into my test methods.
On the surface the notion of a smart coffee maker sounds like a pretty good one. Instead of a tiny LCD and even smaller physical buttons you find on practically every programmable drip coffee gadget, the idea of commanding things through your big-screen phone or tablet definitely has plenty of appeal. On this note, the $150 Mr.Coffee Smart Optimal Brew certainly gets kudos. I also like the piece of mind you get from knowing you can make sure the coffee maker is off from any location.
Where this modern Mr. Coffee lets me down, though, is its half-hearted support for Belkin's WeMo platform. While I wasn't really surprised by the appliance's weak pots of joe, I expected it to have more fancy WeMo skills. Since it can't communicate with WeMo motion sensors, light switches and smart light bulbs, this machine is essentially a WeMo "mobile app"-enabled product rather than a true WeMo gizmo. That's why I suggest spending less on Mr. Coffee's Optimal Brew 12-Cup Thermal ($130) or Optimal Brew 10-Cup Thermal ($100). If you crave more flavor, the Bunn Velocity Brew BT ($170) and Bonavita BV1900TS ($190) are worth the extra cash.