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

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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.

7.0 Overall
  • Features 8.5
  • Usability 6
  • Design 8
  • Performance 5

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.

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.

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.

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.

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