For a few years now, Belkin’s WeMo line of smart home switches have been a reasonably affordable home automation starting point. Now, at CES 2017, Belkin figured it was time to refresh the lineup.
The main attraction is the new WeMo Mini Wi-Fi Smart Plug, which goes up for pre-sale today at a price of $35 (converts to £30, AU$50). Just like the original WeMo Switch, it’ll let you automate anything you plug in behind it, but like the name suggests, it’s a lot smaller than before. That means it won’t block off adjacent outlets like the old switches will.
Aside from the smaller design, there’s really nothing new here. The WeMo Mini offers all of the same features as the original WeMo Switch, including its integrations with platforms and services like IFTTT, Nest, Google Home, and Amazon’s Alexa. It won’t track energy usage though — for that, you’ll still need to spend a few bucks extra on a WeMo Insight Switch.
The WeMo Mini also uses the same Android and iOS app as existing WeMo devices. I’m holding out hope that Belkin overhauls that app sometime this year. It’s a good-looking app that’s pretty easy to navigate, but it suffers from laggy performance — a quibble that continued as I started testing out the new WeMo Mini.
Of course, if you’re programming the switch to turn something off automatically, or turning it on and off using a device like the Amazon Echo, then you’ll hardly ever need to open the app at all. Still, given that WeMo is angled at smart home newbies, Belkin would be smart to invest in a better app experience.
A competitive outlook
It shouldn’t be lost on anybody that the WeMo Mini looks a lot like two of its top competitors, the iHome Smart Plug and the iDevices Switch. Both of those Belkin challengers went with small-sized designs that don’t block adjacent outlets, making the bulky first-gen WeMo Switch look dated by comparison. Updating the design was a necessary concession for Belkin — and a clear sign that it’s keen on keeping the WeMo Switch competitive on retail shelves.
It’s hard to blame Belkin. After selling millions of units this year, Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot smart speakerswere both predictably hot sellers this holiday season, and that means huge numbers of new potential customers for Belkin’s Alexa-ready WeMo hardware. Throw in the debut of the Google Home smart speaker, with which WeMo was an early partner, and you’re looking at what’s shaping up to be a big year for voice-compatible smart home gadgets. No wonder Belkin wants the WeMo Switch ready for a fresh closeup.
But staying competitive with iHome and iDevices isn’t just about cosmetics. Both of those smart plugs work with Apple HomeKit, the set of smart home controls built into the software that powers iPhones and iPads. Like its predecessors, the WeMo Mini doesn’t, and a Belkin spokesperson tells me that it isn’t likely to anytime soon, since Belkin declined to add in the necessary HomeKit chipset. The goal, the company tells me, was to avoid a situation where some WeMo products worked with HomeKit while other WeMo products didn’t. That means no HomeKit compatibility for any of them for the foreseeable future.
With HomeKit still working to establish itself as a market mover, that’ll either turn out to be a sagely bit of restraint or a big missed opportunity for Belkin. My guess is that we’ll know which by the end of this year.
Belkin does have one clear advantage, though, and that’s the $35 price tag. It’s a cheaper cost of entry than iHome or iDevices, and closer to what you’ll pay for bargain-priced competitors from names like Koogeek and TP-Link, where Belkin’s name recognition should serve it well.
You can pre-order the Belkin WeMo Mini Smart Plug starting today, with devices slated to ship out by the end of this month. Later this year, Belkin will follow it up with a new version of the WeMo Light Switch that’ll finally let you dim the lights. All of it will debut in the US and Canada to start, though Belkin sells its existing-gen WeMo hardware internationally.