Just as smart thermostats are muscling in on old-school programmers, smart plugs are having a good go at yesterday’s twiddly timer switches, allowing you to turn just about any device smart and control it remotely. We've rounded up a few of the market leaders and tested them out, to help make sure you buy the best.
If you're hoping to pick up some more smart home tech, take a look at our guide to all the best smart home devices, then look at our round-up of the best smart home deals to make sure you're smart about your spending too.
What is a smart plug?
Basically it’s a switch that you plug into a power socket, and then plug another device into so you can control it via an app on your smartphone or tablet over Wi-Fi.
With the best smart plugs you can set schedules, monitor energy usage 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. 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.
The 'smart' switch is more capable, linking with a smartphone app for device control wherever you are with an internet connection (Wi-Fi, 3G, 4G, etc). 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 battery run out.
Tap the app, select the smart switch you’re after, and turn on the light. Bingo.
One of the more appealing functions of smart switches is energy use and cost monitoring. Not all switches offer this feature, but many do. 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 Ego smart socket is especially clever at cutting back on Standby time.
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, and these do exist now.
Smart switches start at around £25/$25, and rise to around £55/$55, so they're not yet so cheap you can buy one for every appliance. But for those you really want to control from afar, it can be worth the outlay.
TP-Link Wi-Fi Smart Plug
TP-Link's Wi-Fi Smart Plug is one of our top picks. For a start, it's only £24.99/$29.99 and second, it connects via Wi-Fi directly to your router. So it doesn't need a hub, nor does it need (as Elgato's Eve Energy does) an Apple TV or iPad for remote control away from home.
There are iOS and Android apps, but the icing on the cake is that it also works with Amazon Alexa. That means - while at home - you can say, "Alexa turn on the xxx" and control your device hands-free.
Via the app you can create schedules as you can with Energenie's switch, turning the plug on and off as many times as you like, with different schedules for each day if you like. Using your location, you can also choose sunrise and sunset as triggers.
There's also a timer mode so you can turn the plug on or off after a preset time, which could be handy for a sleep timer or to turn off the TV once the kids have had enough screen time.
For just a little more, you can buy the HS110 which is the same except that it also monitors the energy the connected device consumes. You see at a glance how many kWh the appliance has used so far today and how long it has been on. Tap on each and you get more detail, such as current power usage, plus totals and daily averages for the past week and month. (It's the same breakdown for runtime).
With a well-designed and good-looking app, no need for a hub and a decent price, the TP-Link Wi-Fi Smart Plug is one of the best you can buy right now.
Efergy Ego Smart Socket
The Efergy Ego smart switch (which you can buy from Amazon for £29.99, though it's not available in the US) 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.
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.
While it lacks 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 Standby feature you set an amount of time, so after 'x' minutes of the TV being on standby I want it to turn off at the mains.
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.
No hub is needed, so the price is all you pay, and at £29.99 at the moment it's great value.
Belkin WeMo Insight Switch
You can buy the WeMo Insight Switch for £49.99/$39.99, so it certainly isn’t cheap. It's part of a larger WeMo home-automation series of products, including Smart LED Bulbs and Light Switch, and WeMo Motion.
There’s a very visible green power-on indicator on top, and, weirdly, a Micro USB port that currently has no function. Setting up the 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. But at least it doesn't require a separate hub connected to your router.
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.
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.
Rules can be set for: Weekends; Weekdays; and, Individual days. And allow for: Turn on only; Turn off only; and, Turn on then off.
It isn't the cheapest but the ability to create rules could make it the best option for you.
Elgato Eve Energy
The Eve Energy is a smart switch which also monitors how much power the connected device uses over time. It's an Apple HomeKit plug which means it works only with iOS devices. However, this also means you can control it with your voice using Siri and that it benefits from the full encryption that HomeKit offers.
Rather than use Wi-Fi, the switch uses Bluetooth. This makes setup easy (and also means you don't need to have a hub connected to your router) but it does limit the range over which it can be controlled. It will work in most 'normal' UK homes, but if you want to control it when away from home, you'll need an Apple TV (3rd gen or later) or a spare home-based iPad (newer than iPad 2) running iOS 8.1 or later.
You can turn the switch on and off via the Apple Home app in iOS 10 or use the Eve app. If you're standing next to the switch, there's a button on top for manual control, too.
Setting up timers is possible using the Scenes tab in the app, but creating a schedule is needlessly complicated compared to other apps, such as TP-Link's. However, the Eve app is built to work with the whole Eve range - not just a smart switch - and you can make all the gadgets work together using Scenes. It's powerful, but could be easier to use.
It's fairly expensive, but if you already have an iPad or Apple TV for remote access and you like the idea of controlling it via Siri, it could be right for you .
Energenie MI|Home Adapter Plus
Energenie's Adapter Plus is the top-of-the-range switch which monitors and controls connected devices. It's not too expensive at £34.99, but does require a £69.99 hub that connects to your router - again, this one's UK-only unfortunately.
You can buy the Adapter Plus bundle, though, which includes two switches and the hub for £109.99. And there are other products in the range including two-gang wall sockets, smart TRVs, motion sensors and door / window sensors.
Pairing the switch with the hub is as simple as plugging it in and holding down the button for a few seconds. You can then add it as a new device in the Mi|Home app (Android / iOS).
In the app you can tap ON or OFF to manually control the switch (even when away from home) but you can also set up timers. You’re free to create as many as you like, for multiple power cycles each day and different times on different days.
There's also a geofencing setting so you can turn it off (or on) when you leave the house and then do the opposite when you return. You can even set different distances to trigger the geofencing depending on whether you're leaving or returning.
For energy monitoring, you can see current and average power use, plus daily and hourly totals. It will also tell you how much the connected device has cost to run each month for the last quarter.