Which smart switch is best? What do smart switches do, and are they worth the money? We test two of the contenders: the Belkin WeMo Insight Switch, and the Efergy Ego. Also read our review of the Wemo LED lighting starter set
Also see: Best Black Friday Gadget Deals
Just as smart thermostats are muscling in on old boiler timers today’s smart switches are having a good go at yesterday’s twiddly timer switches. But is smart as smart as it thinks it is? Read: Best smart home heating systems.
A smart TV can show catch-up TV channels such as BBC iPlayer and 4oD, let you browse the web, search for YouTube videos, and access Netflix and Amazon Prime, plus a ton of stuff you’ll never check out. Read: Netflix vs Amazon Prime.
So what is a smart switch?
Basically it’s a switch that you plug into a power socket, and then plug another device’s plug into so you can control it via an app on your smartphone or tablet over Wi-Fi.
With the best smart switches you can set schedules, monitor energy usage on electronic devices, and find out which devices are used most often and when. Armed with such data you can start saving on your home’s domestic electricity usage. Read: Home energy saving tips.
Sounds interesting, but is it really useful?
The not-very-smart traditional power timer switch is pretty handy at switching things like lights, kettles and fish tanks on at set times or intervals. You can buy an analogue timer switch for under a fiver, or get a fancy digital one for a few pounds more. Also see: Best robot vacuum cleaners
The digital smart switch is brighter (and a lot more expensive), linking with a smartphone app for device control wherever you are with an internet connection (Wi-Fi, 3G, 4G, etc).
Overriding an old-school, analogue or digital timer switch was possible only manually. With a smart switch you can fiddle around with appliance control all day from the other side of the world. And not only just because you can.
Say you stay out longer than you were expecting to (“Go on, just one more pint:”) and really want a light on inside your house to pretend you’re home. With a dumb-ish switch you’re stuffed. With a smart switch you’re only dumb if you let your phone run out of battery.
Tap the app, select the smart switch you’re after, and turn on the light. Bingo.
Analogue or digital timers are great but not so smart if you bend your schedule or are unsure when you might be home. For instance, say you want your home to be nice and toasty when you get home from work, but you return at different times each day. With a smart switch you can turn on a heater when it’s best for you, directly from your smartphone.
Some experts think you could save on your energy bills by powering down your fridge freezer for a couple of hours a day.
Energy companies are keen because the grid almost falls over every night between 5pm and 7pm as everyone gets home and puts on the TV and the kettle. (Do people really put the kettle on when they get home these days? Most people I know reach into the fridge for a bottle of white. Imagine their horror when they realise the fridge has been off for two hours…)
Another handy use for a smart switch will interest many men, but appal the ladies in the house. Cold-averse women are wont to leave the fan heater on even when they leave the room. Evil, scheming husbands and fathers can ensure that it stays on for no more than an hour, meaning cheaper electric bills, less chance of burning to death every night, and a blood-curdling scowl from a freezing woman. On second thoughts…
With a smart switch you could control the TV in your child's room from the comfort of your armchair, although popping your head around the door and/or reading them a book would be better parenting. Read: How much screen time is safe for kids.
One of the more appealing functions of smart switches is energy use and cost monitoring. Devices are often left on Standby when not in use for large parts of the day, and Standby use accounts for around up to 16 percent of the average electricity bill, reckons energy gadget maker Efergy.
With a smart switch you can dramatically cut down on this wasted Standby time. Efergy’s own Ego smart socket, see review below, is especially clever at cutting back on Standby time.
Smart switches aren’t yet so cheap that you don’t have to think long and hard about whether you really need one or not. And if they are so useful you probably need more than one, so the cost comes into even sharper view.
But with their energy-monitoring features smart switches do hold some promise for actually saving you money: via usage data, and Standby blocking.
And there’s enough on offer to save you time and effort, too, in the day. Fill your kettle or coffee maker in the morning, and turn it on via the app when you get out of bed so that it has boiled by the time you get to your kitchen. This might sound a very lazy use of technology, but it's a daily time saver – if you remember to fill the kettle the night before!
The ability to turn devices on and off via Wi-Fi from afar, plus on various timed schedules, is useful. Seeing the energy usage and costs of various devices could help you save money, but this would be even more useful if such switches could monitor multiple devices on a power strip.
Belkin WeMo Insight Switch review
Priced at £49.95 the Belkin WeMo Insight Switch certainly isn’t cheap but could save you cash in the long term.
The Insight Switch is part of a larger WeMo home-automation series of products, including Smart LED Bulbs and Light Switch, and WeMo Motion.
Setting up the WeMo Insight Switch is straightforward, if a little long-winded at first. It took us a couple of goes to get it to recognise our Wi-Fi.
Plug the Switch into a power outlet in your home and then plug your chosen device into the Switch. Download the free WeMo App (iOS and Android), and pair it with the Switch and your Wi-Fi network.
Aside from turning things off without getting off your backside WeMo can inform you when, for instance, a laundry cycle is complete, which is actually rather handy. This is set up in the WeMo app’s clever Rules section.
Or you could be alerted when your child has exceeded his or her allotted screen/TV time. You could even set notifications so you know when little Jonny or Jane is playing on the Xbox instead of doing homework. Read: How much screen time is too much?
Via the app you set rules that trigger the power according to preset times, or to respond automatically to sunrise and sunset, or through motion detection via Belkin's WeMo Motion detector (an extra £64).
Rules can be set for: Weekends; Weekdays; and, Individual days. And allow for: Turn on only; Turn off only; and, Turn on then off.
The Insight Switch won’t look out of place in your home, although no doubt you’ll be asked what it is by nosy neighbours and friends. It is quite bulky, and can partially block adjacent power outlets’ flick switches.
There’s a very visible green power-on indicator on top, and, weirdly, a Micro USB port that currently has no function.
Belkin WeMo Insight Switch verdict: We especially liked the Insight Switch’s Rules and Notifications functions, which we haven’t seen on similar gadgets. Smart switches such as the Belkin WeMo Insight Switch will likely get even smarter in the future, and the WeMo shows this potential with its link up with Belkin’s motion detectors.
At £49.95 the Belkin Insight Switch isn’t cheap, and while it has money-saving potential any savings would be difficult to recoup if you bought even just one per room of your house.
But if you can afford one (or two) then it will make your home a little smarter and maybe cheaper to run.
Efergy Ego Smart Socket switch review
£10 cheaper than the WeMo, the Efergy Ego smart switch (£39.95) can work like a regular timer, and also has the knack of switching devices on and off at random, which could be useful when you’re trying to give the impression that a home is occupied when it’s actually vacant for a long time.
The random timer can be set to switch any appliance on and off up to 10 times within a pre-set time period.
Just for fun you could set it to random just to make your life more interesting or to freak out guests!
Like the WeMo its smartphone or tablet app will show you the energy usage of a device or strip of devices, plus their estimated cost over a period of time. Isolate the worst culprits and you’ll soon be making sure they’re properly switched off when not required.
You could use one Ego switch to test various devices around the home. This works better than a standard home energy monitor at isolating appliances.
While it lack’s WeMo’s handy Notifications feature, the Ego wins out with its ability to learn and turn off appliances automatically that have been on stand-by for too long.
When the appliance, most probably your TV, is plugged into the Ego and is on standby you go to the Stand-by/Learn screen in the app. Press the learn button and the Ego stores that value. Then in the Stand-by feature you set an amount of time, so after 'x' minutes of the TV being on stand-by I want it to turn off at the mains.
You could use this Standby Eliminator, say, if you have a four-way strip socket on your TV, DVD and Sound system. Plug that into one Ego and set to switch off 45 minutes after Standby is detected – saving you from having to manually turn off the sockets at the wall every night.
Don’t attach the DVR, Sky+ or Tivo, though, as you might miss late-night or daytime recordings.
There is a also a Group function for those who multiple Ego switches in their home. You can group them together and control them all from the Group/scene page. The best application for this is to have all appliances in one room in a group.
Like the WeMo, the Efergy Ego is reasonably inconspicuous but still a little too bulky to not get in the way of other sockets’ flick switches. It is taller than the WeMo.
Setup is, on the face of it, rather easy, but – as with the WeMo – we did have to have a few goes before everything fell into place.
The Ego seems to need a slightly stronger Wi-Fi signal than the WeMo, but that was a little temperamental, too.
Efergy Ego verdict: We liked the Efergy Ego’s Standby cut-out function, which should start saving you money straight away. The random timer is cute, too. As with all today’s smart switches it’s a little basic and can’t differentiate between multiple devices on a power strip, but it certainly can control them en masse. At £39.95 the Efergy Ego is cheaper than the WeMo but still not a casual purchase. It’s a good starting point in smarter home automation.