In-wall control screens are a common feature of expensive, dealer-installed home automation systems, but we haven't seen a comparable DIY consumer version until today, with Wink's announcement of its Wink Relay control center. To enhance the appeal of this device, Wink is also announcing support for a handful of additional smart home device partners, with Nest Labs foremost among them.
Available in the US only for now, the Wink Relay costs $300, which converts to around £180 or AU$340.
If you're keeping up with the blossoming smart home market, you'll know that Wink is a spin-off of crowd-sourced product development shop Quirky. Wink debuted as its own smart home platform back in June, with support for an assortment of connected first and third-party devices. In addition to announcing new support for the Nest Learning Thermostat and Protect smoke detector today, Wink is also bringing Gilmour outdoor products (think automated sprinkler systems), and Linear security/home automation products into the fold.
The entire Wink family of devices breaks down into two categories: those that require a Wink Hub networking device to get online, officially branded "Wink app compatible"; and those that can get online on their own, aka "Wink app ready." The Relay switch is essentially a mirror of the Wink App, so it will work with "app ready" devices out of the box. To control "app compatible" devices with the Relay, you will also need the standalone Wink Hub.
Why might you want an in-wall switch to control your network of smart home devices? Centralization. In a household with multiple users, it's easy to step on each other's settings if each person is trying to drive the various connected locks and thermostats from their own mobile device. Just as bad, all it takes is a flick of a standard rocker light switch to disable your smart light programming.
A single point of control, visible to all, will hopefully minimize that confusion. It also looks cool, and makes it easy to hit a macro button (termed "robot") that puts all of the devices in the house in a particular mode, such as "bedtime" or "away."
The Relay is essentially comprised of two parts, a 4.3-inch Android-based multitouch screen, and a set of programmable mechanical switches. Wink says you can install the device in any single or double-sized switch box that's not also wired to an AC outlet, and it connects to your home network via Wi-Fi. You can use the switches as standard lighting controls, or program them via the touchscreen to send commands to any smart device on the network.
Beyond those basics, Wink has baked a proximity sensor into the Relay, along with temperature and humidity sensors. The former lets it act as a remote sensor for a connected thermostat, which helps solve a problem common (at least to the Nest Learning Thermostat) -- if you don't move around your house enough during the day, it might think you're gone and go into away mode while you're still at home. A remote sensor that sends information about your whereabouts back to the thermostat can help prevent that issue.
The Relay also has a speaker and a microphone built into it. Although the audio hardware won't be enabled at launch, Wink VP and general manager Brett Worthington stated that they did indeed have voice control in mind for the future.
That might soon be hugely important to the smart home. Anticipation is building around Apple's HomeKit smart home API for iOS 8, particularly because of its tie-in with Apple's Siri voice recognition system. Worthington was cagey when I asked whether the Relay's Android-based design would leave Wink customers using the iOS version of the app feeling left out. "It's going to be an exciting fourth quarter," is all he would say.
I'm personally optimistic for the Relay. It looks easy to use, and I like the idea of centralizing a smart home control scheme. My reservations come from the fact that too many Quirky/Wink products have shown up for review lacking software polish. The issues have ranged in seriousness from an unresponsive geofencing feature in the Quirky Aros air conditioner, to pairing issues with the Wink Hub, to the (since improved) Spotter multipurpose sensor, which barely worked when it first shipped. If I'm going to go to the trouble of hardwiring the $300 Relay into my wall, it has to be near-flawless.
If it works well, the Relay has the makings of a killer smart home product. We'll find out when it ships next month.