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Wink Relay review: Wink's Relay smart control pad gets ahead of itself

The potential is there for Wink's Relay smart-home control panel, but with too little user control and too many unrealized features it's hard to stomach the high price.

Rich Brown Former Senior Editorial Director - Home and Wellness
Rich was the editorial lead for CNET's Home and Wellness sections, based in Louisville, Kentucky. Before moving to Louisville in 2013, Rich ran CNET's desktop computer review section for 10 years in New York City. He has worked as a tech journalist since 1994, covering everything from 3D printing to Z-Wave smart locks.
Expertise Smart home | Windows PCs | Cooking (sometimes) | Woodworking tools (getting there...)
Rich Brown
7 min read

For a not-insignificant $300, the Wink Relay will bring controls for all your Wink network-compatible smart home products to a single, hard-wired touchscreen mounted on your wall. This isn't novel to home automation, even old systems from the 1980s had in-wall control screens. The Wink Relay is just one of the first for this new era of the off-the-shelf, generally mobile device-dependent, smart home.

The Good

The Wink Relay brings control over all of your smart home products onto an easy-to-use, wall-mounted touchscreen.

The Bad

The built-in speaker and microphone don't do anything right now, and both the Wink app and the Relay's own control options are overly simplistic.

The Bottom Line

A wall-mounted touchscreen seems like an obvious addition to any smart home, but the Wink Relay suffers from high cost and underutliized potential.

That mobile device-dependency is one of the issues the Relay wants to address. It also wants to be more than just a glorified on/off switch. Built-in sensors can give you information about temperature, and humidity in the Relay's immediate surroundings. A built-in speaker and microphone will eventually let you use multiple Relays as an intercom system. The microphone also offers the promise of future voice control support.

One problem with Relay is that by putting controls in one place, anyone in your home can interact with the smart devices you have installed. If you don't want to expose everything? Tough luck. A lack of customization options means you don't get enough say over what appears on the Relay's screen.

It also doesn't live up to its full potential out of the box. Interactions with certain devices are, for various reasons, limited. It's also hard to stomach the $300 asking price when the microphone and speaker don't do much yet.

In-wall control screens seem like an obvious, inevitable component in the smart home, and the Relay may mature into a worthwhile investment. I just can't recommend that you buy one right now, given its price and the fact that it has some growing up to do.

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Installing the Relay is easy enough if you know your way around a gangbox. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Wiring in

You can consider the Relay an advanced smart home product, since installing it requires removing a light switch and then wiring-in the Relay in its place. You can mount the Relay in a single or double switch box, and two mechanical buttons on the Relay panel can act as replacements for the light switches you're taking out. The also provide the added bonus of bringing the lights connected to those switches online.

If you're comfortable flipping a circuit breaker and can follow a wiring diagram, you should be able to install the Relay yourself. Wink provides some basic instruction in its small paper manual, but what it doesn't spell out explicitly is that wiring must include a neutral wire in addition to the line and load wires. The manual instead instructs you to call Wink's help line if you don't have a neutral wire, which seems to leave open the possibility of a workaround. Talking with a Wink support tech revealed only that the neutral wire is indeed required.

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You can call, but you'll still need that neutral wire. Rich Brown/CNET

With the Relay's wired panel in place, you'll see a small green LED come on once you restore power to the switch box. You can then test the power to each mechanical switch via a pair of buttons. Finally, you snap on the touchscreen portion of the Relay, along with a filler plate on the back to provide further support against any open socket behind it. An electrical contact transfers power between the wired piece and the touchscreen plate.

If you did it all right, the Relay's screen should power on automatically. Getting the Relay online, your next step, is as simple as selecting your WiFi network and entering any password you have via the onscreen keyboard. It worked for me on my home network on the first try.

A lack of control

Here's where the name "Relay" makes sense. You don't actually set anything else up via the Relay directly. Instead, the Relay will simply mirror whatever devices you've tied to your Wink mobile app or to your Wink Hub . They show up as large icons on the Relay in the same way they appear on your phone. If you want to add any new devices to your network, you'll need to add them to the app, not to Relay directly. There's also no way to customize which devices show up on the Relay and which don't.

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

If you don't want everyone in your home to see your DropCam feed or to have the ability to control your thermostat settings, right now the only way to remove those things from the Relay is to remove them from your Wink network entirely.

You can still interact with those devices remotely via their own apps, but it makes the Relay feel too much like a dumb screen that you don't get more granular control over it. You also can't adjust simple things on the screen like brightness, or the order in which the various control icons appear. The only real setting you can change on the Relay itself is whether it comes on based on your proximity, or via a tap on the screen.

The list of devices that will work with your Relay is limited to those that work with the Wink network. Some will work with the Relay directly, some, for now, require that you also have a Wink Hub. Fortunately, compatible device list is pretty decent. Notables include the Nest Learning Thermostat and Protect smoke/CO detector , smart light bulbs from GE and the Philips Hue line, as well as the DropCam Pro , the Honeywell WiFi Smart Thermostat, and the Chamberlain MyQ Garage opener. You'll also find an assortment of smart locks, outlet adapters, wall switches and sensors, as well as a whole array of Wink-made accessories as well, some of which won't be on the market until later this year.

To Wink's credit, it has clearly made an effort to incorporate some of the more popular smart home accessories, but when you start playing around with their settings in the Wink app (and thus put them on Relay) you'll find that interactions with some of them are very limited.

Philips Hue lights won't let you put multiple lights in a group on Wink right now. That means, annoyingly, you have to control any Hue lights on your Relay or in the Wink app individually. You can't set your MyQ Garage to open and close based on your location, although you can use location to trigger behavior in other devices. Your DropCam will only send an image to the Relay once every 15 seconds, rather than showing you a real-time feed like you get on the DropCam app.

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Wink says all of these limitations are mandated by the device makers. Those limits could change over time, and Wink also says similar devices from its own product line and those from other manufacturers will have expanded capabilities. Still, the fact remains that if you buy Relay (or use the free Wink app), you won't be able to control some smart home devices with it as well as you might expect or want.

The Relay, and the Wink network in general is hardly the first tech product with that kind of a problem, of course. Wink also isn't necessarily to blame for any of those partner-imposed issues, and in the grand scheme of things it's better to have some kind of interaction with those devices than none at all.

Why won't you listen?

In addition to controlling devices around your house individually, the Relay will also import any grouped actions you've set up in the Wink App, called short cuts. You could call a short cut "Night mode" for example, and tell your lights to turn off, your garage door to close, and your DropCam to come on. The interactions again err towards simple here, arguably to a fault depending on how much automation you're after. You can't alter specific settings via shortcut on most devices, like putting the DropCam into night vision mode.

The last piece that hurts the Wink's value proposition right now is that it ships with a microphone and a speaker that don't currently do anything. Wink says eventually they'll let you use multiple Relays as an intercom system in your house. You can also imagine sound-based triggers coming into play, as well as voice commands.

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The Relay essentially mirrors the Wink app on your phone. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Wink is not a certified partner for Apple HomeKit or a member of Nest Labs' Works with Nest program, so any voice control system would require Wink to either establish those relationships, sync up with another voice-based input system, or make its own in-house. It's anyone's guess which way Wink will go. And the bottom line right now is you still need to pay $300 for a device that doesn't live up to the potential of its hardware right now.

Why risk it?

It's hard not to feel like Wink and its parent company Quirky pushed the Relay out to market to hit a pre-Holiday 2014 release date. I don't want to condemn it too harshly. The potential is there for the Relay to become a robust smart home control center. But with the pending launch of HomeKit-compatible hardware later this quarter, as well as the generally fast pace of the smart home market at-large, paying this much up-front for an underachieving product is a needless risk. The likelihood of something better coming along in the next six months is simply too great.

You could arguably say that about any smart home product right now, but we've seen plenty of devices that either work so well or offer so much out-of-the-box--the DropCam Pro, the Nest Learning Thermostat, the MyQ Garage, Icontrol's new Piper NV , that it's easy to imagine living with them with minimal buyer's remorse. I don't get the same feeling about the Relay in its current state, although I will gladly revisit this review if Wink updates the Relay meaningfully over the next few months.


Wink Relay

Score Breakdown

Features 6Usability 6Design 7Performance 7