Editors' note: This review has been updated to include more information for those who already own Somfy Motorized Shades, and are primarily interested in the MyLink hub.
You know that scene from "Iron Man" when the alarm goes off in Tony Stark's room, the opaque windows miraculously turn transparent, and suddenly revealed is a cliffside view of the Pacific Ocean? Who wouldn't want to get out of bed with a routine like that? That level of "cool" is what I hoped Somfy's smart window shades would achieve. But I was disappointed.
After getting the Somfy Motorized Shades set up, and the Somfy MyLink hub, which enables iOS or Android app control, I spent a few days testing out what they could do. Using a remote, you can command the shades to go up or down, or somewhere in between, and you can use your phone to schedule their behavior and create more complex scenes. But that's it. They don't integrate with many smart-home gadgets, they don't monitor or respond to sun location -- these blinds just don't feel that smart. And I wouldn't feel very smart either, paying between $300 and $400 per window shade, plus $200 for the MyLink hub.
For customers who already have Somfy Motorized Shades, though, the MyLink could be a decent purchase. Somfy allows many other shade and blind designers to incorporate the proprietary motors into their designs. So if you already have a few Somfy motors around the house, $200 isn't too steep a price to pay for app control. The problem is, for anyone trying to decide which smart shade company to buy into for the future, Somfy just isn't showing enough potential right now to justify the price.
I spent a day installing Somfy's Motorized Blinds, pairing them with channels on the remote, and setting up the MyLink hub, and didn't run into too many problems. Of course, as with any blinds, there's the process of removing the previous installations and positioning the new ones -- all the while fumbling with measuring tape, a hammer, a power drill, a level and dozens of tiny screws. But that's par for the course.
The only difficulty beyond the usual woes of home installation was finding room for the newly necessary battery tube (a wired version is also available). The battery tube, which houses eight AA batteries, connects with a short wire to the Somfy motor and powers it. If you are installing the shades in a recessed window, the inside casing is usually deep enough to install the shade. But at the Smart Home there wasn't room for the battery tube's moorings without screwing into the window sash.
I ended up using double-sided tape, which worked well. But I was disappointed in the need for a separate battery device rather than a slot for batteries in the shade itself.
Once I installed the shades themselves, I had to program the Telis RTS (Radio Technology Somfy) Remote to communicate with the shades properly. Though this should've been relatively simple, it actually ended up feeling like a complicated math problem.
The remote features five channels, each of which can connect to a single shade or group of shades. The shade(s) on a given channel can then be told to go "Up," "Down" or to a personalized "My" location. The problem is, when you're setting up the channels, you can only copy and paste the content of one channel to another. If channel 1 connects to two shades, for instance, you can only copy both shades to channel 2 at the same time. The only way to copy and paste individual shades is by unplugging all the other shades while performing the task, and then going back and individually clearing the original channels (unplugging more shades).
If you had a hard time following all that, then you're starting to understand the mental exercise setting up the channels turned out to be. While Somfy recommends professional installation (which would bypass some of these frustrations), many shade and blind companies will not offer such services fee-free. It would be nice to see a setup process that's a little more accessible for customers who elect to install their window dressings themselves.
The good news is, when you finally connect the MyLink hub to your phone, and in turn connect your phone to the Somfy shades, the process is a breeze by comparison. Using the Somfy system ends up feeling easy and intuitive.
Somfy's biggest selling point isn't the remote control, but the ability to set and schedule scenes. And in that regard, the Somfy MyLink hub is pretty effective. The app interface is simple and intuitive, and setting up timing and commands is as easy the first time as it is the hundredth. You can even make your blinds open or close based on when the sun rises or sets. Although the RTS Remote occasionally failed to connect for a few seconds, I had no problems with my phone, and the schedules ran whether I was connected to the home Wi-Fi at the time or not.
Clever design only partly explains the app's simplicity: the features are just sparse. Sure, you can set the shades to open each morning at sunrise, but there's no sun monitoring and blind-adjusting to account for the angle of sunlight. There's no temperature sensing and blind-angling to account for, say, heat loss during a cold evening. There's very little smarts to actually speak of, other than the basic scheduling. In fact, the MyLink app doesn't even include triggers of any sort.
That brings me to the other disappointment of Somfy's technology: the lack of integration. Only if you pay an extra $100 you can get an RTS to Z-Wave Bridge -- a device that translates the proprietary communication protocol of Somfy into a radio frequency understood by many other smart-home gadgets. Then the shades are compatible with systems like Lowe's Iris, Wink, Crestron, Control4 and Savant. But without Wi-Fi or Bluetooth functionality built into the shades or the MyLink hub, casual users who don't want to invest in additional hubs or smart tech won't get any integration benefits.
Right now, Somfy is one of a small few companies investing in motorized blinds. Many other window shade companies offer them, but they often are attaching their own fabrics to Somfy's motors. That said, a few developers have begun to offer competition. Lutron's Serena Motorized Shades are Homekit compatible, but they cost at least as much per shade as Somfy's. Smart windows -- like the ones in "Iron Man" that change from opaque to transparent -- are still in development, though a few companies like InvisiShade are beginning to package them for consumers.
Customers looking for more affordable alternatives have turned to places like Indiegogo for solutions. Smart Shades and Teptron Move are both cool ideas that could be feasible for a larger base of customers, but with their lower prices come some limitations to functionality.
If you want the kind of morning routine that Iron Man has, it seems like you're going to have to wait. Although smart window shades are on the minds of developers and consumers, the prices right now are just too high. To outfit the ground floor of the CNET Smart Home (20+ windows) with the particular shades we used, plus the MyLink hub, would cost upward of $7,000.
And really, that seems like the pattern for Somfy's technology: the basics are solid, but each new feature requires a new expensive device. A basic Somfy motor costs on average $270. Depending on the shade or blinds your attach, the price will jump another $25-$300. If you want to set scheduled scenes with your phone, you'll have to dish out another $200 for the MyLink hub. Want Z-Wave integration? You'll have to drop $100 for another bridging hub. And so on, with plenty of other remotes and switches that each offer one or two clever upgrades at high prices.
Ultimately, smart blinds would be one of the coolest home gadgets to have, but until Somfy adds more smarts to their system or drops the price, I can't recommend the MyLink unless you already happen to have Somfy blinds.