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Quirky Spotter Multipurpose Sensor review: Performance quirks spoil this sensor's potential

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Editors' note: This review has been updated to reflect app and firmware upgrades, as well as the addition of a dedicated Spotter channel on IFTTT.

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7.0

Quirky Spotter Multipurpose Sensor

The Good

The Quirky Spotter Multipurpose Sensor is a great idea with scores of potential household uses. The free Wink app that you'll use to control it features an intelligent, elegant design, and we love that it's now compatible with IFTTT.

The Bad

The Spotter's performance is too inconsistent for us to feel comfortable relying upon for anything important. The lack of real-time status updates or an event history log within the app remains a major oversight.

The Bottom Line

Despite this gadget's clear potential, there are still too many performance kinks for us to recommend it outright.

The Spotter is a small, puck-shaped device that's a result of the Quirky + GE partnership and jam-packed with tantalizing tech. There's an accelerometer for motion detection, as well as sensors for light, sound, temperature, and humidity. With the free Wink app downloaded to your iOS or Android device, you'll be able to set up alerts for all of it. Want to know if the front door opens while you're at work, or if the wine cellar is getting a few degrees too warm? Want an alert when the dryer stops spinning, or if the baby starts crying? For a retail price of just $50 -- comparable to competing sensors that track just one thing -- the Spotter promises to let you know.

Spotlight on the Spotter (pictures)

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After testing and reviewing the Spotter late last year, I came away disappointed with its spotty performance. As an environmental trigger capable of working with other Quirky products, like the Pivot Power Genius and the recently released Aros Smart Air Conditioner, it showed a lot of promise, but I still wondered if had perhaps been prematurely rushed to retail in order to catch the holiday shopping season.

Since then, however, the Spotter has seen a number of upgrades to its app and firmware, along with the exciting addition of a dedicated channel on the popular online automation service IFTTT. I called the Spotter a work in progress back in November -- now, in May, is it any closer to its full potential?

The short answer is yes, but it's still not quite as good as it needs to be. Overall sensor and alert accuracy is noticeably better than it was six months ago, but it's still too inconsistent, especially when it comes to detecting light. IFTTT integration is a great addition, allowing you to sync the Spotter up with products like Belkin WeMo Switches and Philips Hue LEDs, but your trigger options are too limited. With its relatively low price, interested consumers can likely afford to go ahead and pick the Spotter up and give it a try. Still, I wouldn't recommend relying on it for anything as important as monitoring a baby until the engineers at Quirky finally work out the rest of the Spotter's less endearing quirks.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Design and features

The Spotter sports an efficient and thoughtful build. Aside from relying on the built-in magnet, you can also attach it to your wall or door with a pair of mounting screws, or with a sticky tab (as little as the Spotter weighs, you could probably get away with a loop of duct tape, too). At 3 inches in diameter and 1 inch thick, it's a compact, unobtrusive device -- and simple, too. You won't find a single button anywhere on it. This gives the Spotter a true sense of plug-and-play minimalism. Once you place it where you want it and plug the thing in, you'll be done fiddling with it.

This also means that the Wink app used to control the Spotter is hugely important, and fortunately, Quirky did an admirable job of putting it together. Unlike many of the other home automation control apps that we've come across, Wink has an elegant, well-designed user interface. It walks you through the initial setup process with step-by-step illustrations, and in our experience, helped us connect the Spotter to our Wi-Fi network in less than a minute.

The Wink app makes the setup process quick and painless. Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

To do so, you'll enter your local network information into the app, and then hold your phone's screen over the top of the Spotter. The app will count down from three, followed by a rapid series of bright flashes. The photocell built into the Spotter's light will "read" these flashes, and in a matter of seconds, your Spotter will be online. It's a pretty nifty way of connecting a device, and in our tests, it worked perfectly well each time (the Revolv Hub uses a similar trick that also tested well).

Once your Spotter is connected, you'll be able to use the Wink app to set alerts for each of the device's sensors. If your Spotter is plugged in, you'll be able to put all five sensors to work; in battery mode, it'll only track light and motion. Setting these alerts is easy. Just tap the icon for the sensor you want to track, define your trigger, and select the corresponding action.

Customizing alerts on the Wink app is easy, too. Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

For instance, if you select the light sensor, you can choose either a light trigger or a darkness trigger, then tell the Spotter to alert you when that happens via smart phone notification, or to send you an e-mail. If you also own a Quirky Pivot Power Genius, you'll have the option of setting the Spotter to toggle one of your smart outlets on or off, too.

There's really nothing in the app that I can find major fault with -- everything that's there is intuitive and easy to use. However, there are a few key features still missing from the Wink app six months after the Spotter's release. One example: you still won't find any sort of timeline of past notifications, a helpful feature that we've seen in a lot of other sensor-based apps, like the SmartThings app.

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It sometimes took more than fifteen minutes for the Wink app to refresh with current information. Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

Here's an even greater omission: you still can't check the status of the Spotter's sensors in real time. Quirky has added in a status indicator for each sensor, but it only tells you what the Spotter sensed the last time it communicated with the app. You can't pull to refresh, or force the indicator to re-check. You're forced to wait until it updates on its own, and in my tests, this was often quite a long time. I found myself fully aware of what the temperature was fifteen minutes before, but unable to see what it was at that moment.

Another feature still missing from the Wink app is the ability to customize the sensitivity of each sensor. You can have the sound sensor alert you when it detects a loud noise, but you don't have the option of defining "loud." In some situations, you might want a supersensitive trigger, and in other situations, you might not, but right now, that isn't something that you can adjust.

The Spotter is magnetic, and also mounts easily using screws, sticky tabs, or even duct tape. Colin West McDonald/CNET

Performance and usability

Quirky's Spotter is clearly a pretty good idea, and the already strong Wink app has room to get even stronger. But the real question is whether or not the Spotter itself performs reliably. After all, it doesn't matter how slick the app is if you can't count on those sensors to deliver accurate and consistent results.

I started out with the Spotter's motion detection capabilities. The Spotter uses a built-in accelerometer -- the same as you'll find in the common smartphone -- to track whenever it's in motion. This means that motion detection is a bit of a misnomer. The Spotter will detect a door opening if it's mounted to the door, but if it's mounted to a wall on the other side of the room, it won't be able to "see" that door opening the way that a traditional motion detector would.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing -- accelerometer-based motion detectors have their own unique benefits, like vibration detection. Still, it's something to be aware of as you plan out how you might put your Spotter to use, and something that I wish Quirky was a bit clearer about.

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The Spotter's temperature sensor was fast and accurate outside on a sunny day. Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

The rest of the sensors are more straightforward. The light sensor will detect when lights go on or off. The sound sensor will detect loud noises, or when things suddenly get quiet. The temperature and humidity sensors will alert you if either gets too high or too low (although, again, they'd be much more useful if they consistently let you monitor conditions in real time. A "pull to refresh" option for each sensor seems like the obvious fix).

In my tests, I was able to get each sensor to work at one time or another -- but I was only able to get the temperature and motion sensors to work consistently. Noise detection alerts came through fairly regularly, but didn't seem as reliable as temperature and motion. Light detection was the problem child. I told the Spotter to alert me whenever it suddenly got light or dark, then placed it directly beneath a light bulb in a dark room. After flipping the switch every couple of minutes for about fifteen minutes, I had received exactly one alert. This was an even worse result than when I tested it out last November.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Simply put, the Spotter is still too temperamental. It will work fine for a short while, but then stop working after you move it to a new location, or unplug it and switch over to battery mode, or tweak a notification setting. Whenever performance drops out, your best bet is to power it down and then reboot it like a fussy old computer in order to get it working again.

It's perhaps my biggest complaint about the Spotter's performance: it isn't just inconsistent -- it's inconsistently inconsistent. It'll stop working at different times for seemingly different reasons. Motion detection seems to be the most reliable sensor, but only until it stops working altogether and the Spotter needs to be reset. Sound detection worked, but I could never quite figure out how loud a sound needed to be in order to trigger a notification. Shutting a door from 10 feet away would work, but not a loudly ringing phone just a few inches away.

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The Spotter's performance wasn't so hot when we tossed it into the fridge. Ry Crist/CNET

The temperature sensor had its issues, too. At one point last November, I was able to detect subtle heating changes of a few degrees -- but then I set it to alert me if the temperature dropped below 50 degrees Fahrenheit and walked outside into 35-degree weather with it on an extension cord. Nothing happened.

I wanted to see if this was still an issue, so I took the Spotter outside on a warm, sunny day. It did a great job, reporting the correct temperature within about two minutes. From there, I brought it back inside and tossed the thing into the fridge. Suddenly, the results weren't so hot.

As I kept my eye on the Wink app, the temperature dropped painstakingly slow. Ten minutes later, the app was still telling me that the temperature was over sixty degrees. It took another fifteen minutes for the temperature to fall anywhere close to the correct level of 40 degrees. Clearly, when the temperature drops, so does the Spotter's performance.

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The Spotter's IFTTT channel will only let you use temperature changes as triggers. Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

The final thing I wanted to be sure and test was the Spotter's new IFTTT channel. With access to popular automation products like SmartThings sensors and WeMo Switches, not to mention handy online services like Pushbullet and Google Drive, IFTTT gives any smart-home product an instant IQ boost.

However, that boost was more limited than I'd like. As of now, you can't use changes in light, motion, sound, or humidity to trigger your IFTTT recipes -- you can only use temperature changes. To me, that feels like a waste of the Spotter's hardware. Hopefully, like the Spotter itself, the IFTTT channel gets smarter with time.

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Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

Still, I wanted to try it out, so I plugged my desk fan into a WeMo Switch, then crafted an IFTTT recipe that brought the Spotter into play. If the Spotter detected a temperature above 70, then IFTTT would tell my WeMo Switch to turn the fan on.

To speed the process up, I took the Spotter outside, which I already knew would give me a nice, warm reading in no time flat. Sure enough, the temperature spiked from the 60s up into the 80s, and like clockwork, my fan turned on. I tested this again and again, along with having the fan shut off when things dropped back below 70. Each and every time, it worked as planned.

Ry Crist/CNET

Conclusion

The Spotter's taken some steps in the right direction, particularly with respect to IFTTT integration. Still, there's some work to be done if it ever hopes to become the must-have automation accessory I once thought it might be. At just $50, and with so much functionality, I don't think I'd mind putting up with a few performance quirks here and there. That said, I'd still want to feel like I had an accurate multi-sensor capable of reliably alerting me when needed, and Spotter just isn't quite there yet.

Quirky specializes in crowdsourcing good ideas and bringing them to market, and the Spotter is no exception. It's a good idea, and I'm glad that Quirky brought it to market. I just wish that the execution was better. Even now, six months after its initial release, with improved firmware, a slightly better app, and IFTTT integration to boot, its still too much of an under-performer for me to recommend outright.

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7.0

Quirky Spotter Multipurpose Sensor

Score Breakdown

Features 8.5Usability 6Design 8Performance 5