Zuli is marketing its new Smartplug as much more than a connected outlet. "Connect your lights and appliances to Zuli Smartplugs," says Zuli's webpage. "And enable them to adapt to your presence." Sure there's an app, but everyone has an app. What distinguishes the Zuli is its ability to sense your presence and react.
Zuli is also the only major smart outlet on the list of gadgets that work with Nest, which means it's shouldering a lot of responsibility for a sizable group of consumers. Luckily, the Zuli Smartplug really comes through, wringing surprising results from its Bluetooth technology, and scoring points for a great app interface. Although it's only iOS compatible at the moment, CEO Taylor Umphreys says Android compatibility isn't far off. So if you've got a Nest Learning Thermostat, or are interested in the future of Google's smart home integration system, keep the Zuli Smartplug on your radar. And though its price a little steep right now, selling for $60 per plug (roughly, that's £40 and AU$80), Zuli is worth the money.
Setting up the Zuli Smartplug is simple. No instructional booklet is included, because the app walks you through the process. Each screen gives you a single instruction, lets you follow it, then swipes aside for the next screen.
I set up and re-set up three different Zuli Smartplugs three times each, and every time the process was seamless, taking only two or three minutes. Once you get the Smartplugs synced to your phone, you can use their base functionality, but to use their "Presence" feature, you'll have to take an extra step. This:
Yes, I looked ridiculous walking around waving my phone and in a room for 60 seconds, but it was actually kind of fun, to be honest. And while I traced the edges of my room and moving around inside it, the plug calibrated, so in the future it could sense when I walked into or out of the room.
Overall, the setup is clear and straightforward. And the Zuli app interface draws the whole product together. Scheduling is easy, integration with Nest is a breeze, and working with multiple switches at once never bogs down the usability.
When it comes to design, Zuli adheres to the philosophy, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The body of the switch is compact, and glossy white face is fashionable, though it definitely doesn't redefine fashion. In lieu of the bold and customizable LED stripe on the iDevices Switch, the Zuli displays its hexagonal logo with a simple white LED backlight.
I like small body of the Smartplug, and I like the button used for manually toggling the switch on and off, but the whole thing doesn't do anything new. I'm still waiting for a smart plug to feature two outlets, and it looks like I'll be waiting awhile.
The Zuli really shines when it comes to app features, though. You can do all the usual stuff: turn electronics on and off from your phone and schedule commands. But you can also use the SmartPlug as a dimmer, monitor energy usage with it, and use its Presence feature to integrate with Nest. All that, and it relies entirely on Bluetooth.
If you're following smart-home tech, you're likely aware of all the integration systems out there. What distinguishes them from each other is their method of communication between gadgets and users. Apple's HomeKit uses Wi-Fi to communicate; Nest's Weave will use a unique radio frequency for its communication protocol. Not to mention all the other companies using alternative protocols like Z-Wave and Zigbee. Of course, different protocols require a hub or gateway (usually an extra $150) to translate them into a language your phone or laptop can access.
Bluetooth, however, is its own animal. Your smartphone can almost certainly communicate with it, but waking up the Bluetooth connection between your phone and other devices can be slow -- especially when it comes to technology we expect to work efficiently, like lights. Plus, Bluetooth's range isn't as wide as Wi-Fi's, so many gadgets suffer from inconsistent connectivity when trying to issue commands from a distance. So when I see devices like Zuli's Smartplug that rely primarily on Bluetooth, I'm always a little wary.
But it turns out Zuli's coolest feature is Presence -- its calibrated Bluetooth location tracking, which the Smartplug uses to track where you are in your home. On a basic level, Presence integrates well with the Nest Learning Thermostat, so your Nest won't think you've left home if you're just holed up in the office for a few hours working on bills. But for users who want to seriously up their smart home experience, Presence offers something no other smart outlet has done (well) before.
When you calibrate the Zuli Smartplug, tracing the room's edges and walking around inside it, you're helping the plug gauge when you're in the room or not. That way, you can program Presence settings that switch the plug on when you enter, and switch it off after you leave. Of course, you can set response latency, too, so the lights don't switch off immediately if you run to pull something out of the oven.
This is the first time I've seen an outlet pull off such automated, presence-dependent commands well. The Nyrius Smart Outlet, for example, tried a similar function, but failed due to its less finely tuned Bluetooth technology. The Kwikset Kevo Lock benefited from more precise Bluetooth calibration, but its use was much smaller scale.
The one shortcoming with Presence is that only one person can use the Presence feature. This week, though, Zuli plans to release a free software update that allows user sharing, so different people with different devices can use the feature. Personalized settings among users won't come for a few more months, though.
The most notable absence in Zuli's feature list is remote access. Right now, you can't control the switches when you're outside of Bluetooth range. That means if you're away from home, no dice. And I've confirmed with Zuli that there's no Wi-Fi shift built into the Smartplug to be activated later. That means it will probably be some time before remote access is possible -- although I wouldn't rule it out altogether. Part of the appeal of Nest's Weave system is that it will have diverse products as part of the system that could perhaps act as bridges, even translating cloud communication into Bluetooth protocols. Zuli CEO Taylor Umphreys says this feature might be available in the next year or so, but expect it in the third or fourth quarter at the earliest.
Bottom line, the Zuli Smartplug genuinely impressed me. Somehow, Zuli squeezed every drop of potential out of its Bluetooth technology. The range was solid. I only lost connection with a plug when I was standing two floors away and at the opposite corner of the CNET Smart Home. And Zuli plans to mitigate even this problem by taking advantage of the mesh potential of the Nest system. Basically, the mesh should help by establishing a sort of communication line of products between an out-of-range Smartplug and a user's phone.
What impressed me most about Zuli was its Presence feature. To test the precision of the Presence feature, I did a little experiment: I plugged in a Smartplug in a large room at the office, then traced various shapes when I calibrated it. I was thorough with my calibration, but since I mimed out these rooms in an open space, no walls caused interference like in actual rooms. I was expecting imprecise readings by the switch, but in fact, the Smartplug recognized when my phone crossed any of the borders I'd traced with only 8 to 16 inches of error. This exercise might seem superfluous, but it means you can use these Smartplugs in open areas of the house, and they will still know with relative precision when you are entering or leaving areas.
Full transparency: I don't love Bluetooth. But Zuli opened up possibilities for its use I hadn't seen used well before. The shortcomings -- most importantly no remote access -- are still annoying, but the potential is high. I'm still looking forward to a more sharable-yet-autonomous user experience, and it will take a few updates to get there.
But overall, I feel much better about the Zuli Smartplug as an investment than other smart plugs on the market. I wish it were a little cheaper, since $60 (about £40 and AU$80) each seems a little steep. And the minimum three required to use all the Presence features cost $160 (about £105 and AU$220). But if Works with Nest technology is in your future, the Zuli should definitely be on your radar, if not already factored into your budget.