I’ve abandoned SmartThings for Wink

I’m an amateur Home Automation hobbyist; we did some construction on our house a few years back and I took the opportunity to select a variety of Z-Wave switches and devices to replace our existing light switches; and over time I’ve replaced existing switches with their Z-wave equivalent. For the uninitiated, I can basically turn light switches on and off in my house from my phone, from anywhere in the world. If you get fancy you can also lock doors, control your thermostat, or change “scenes” in a variety of ways with some additional integrations.

As a quick overview, I have almost 50 light switches which are network capable, 3 door sensors, one door lock (on the separate garage – the jury is still out on the security of these), and an electric shade which can open and close using Z-wave. I recently starting playing around with motion sensors but haven’t gotten them installed quite yet.

I started my journey with the Revolv device, which was, in hindsight, an excellent device although sorely lacking in extensibility features. It was stable, it worked with all of the devices I had, and it had a good iPhone app with a good user interface which I missed sorely once I switched.

I’m a developer by trade and so I want to be able to control the devices programmatically if needed, and Revolv – at the time – didn’t support any API. So, I returned the device and, after some research, purchased the SmartThings hub. I was interested that you could integrate with it online using IFTTT which basically allows you to trigger actions based on outside triggers. It appeared you could program them, which was a strong positive at the time.

That was probably a year ago. After a  year of struggling with SmartThings, I gave up.  I bought the Wink about a month ago and am very happy so far.

While SmartThings is pretty healthy community of people trying to get things to work, it is absolutely too buggy to continue to work and I’m tired of the poor software not working most of the time.

Here’s my reasons why.

iPhone Application sucks. Like, totally.

Extremely slow, overly complex, and buggy. It appears to refresh EVERY. SINGLE. PAGE. VIEW (Hey nerds: Heard of caching? Apparently not.), and I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that the app itself is simply a wrapper around an extremely slow web site or something which “looks like” an app (that’s a technique you can develop an iPhone app without doing much additional work.)

While I’m not completely lazy (ok, I’m a little lazy), I would usually be able to stand up, walk over the wall in the room I’m in, and hit the switch in the time it takes me to open the SmartThings app and click the $@%$# icon to turn off the lights it was so slow. So useless.

No WiFi

First off, each of these things looks like a little box, basically which contains a radio transmitter and a small computer used to control the devices in your house. Here’s a photo of my SmartThings Hub:

SmartThings Hub. Banana for scale. Imgur anyone?
SmartThings Hub. Banana for scale. Imgur anyone?

First off, Revolv would be able to discover every device in my house without moving it anywhere. Literally no issue finding and registering new devices. When it takes a few minutes to add a light switch, for example, you don’t want to have to go anywhere while adding devices.

With SmartThings the manual said you had to be 10 feet from each device when you first add it, which is a bit ridiculous as the whole point of setting one of these up is that the way the Z-wave devices work is that when you add devices to your system, each of them acts as a “repeater” and works together with the other devices to get the right message to the right device. That way as long as every device in your system is only a few “hops” away from the hub, then the hub can talk to it. Very cool technology, and very cool design to make it work.

That said, SmartThings (the generation I purchased for $99 about a year ago) has no WiFi. So if you want to register your devices you have to walk around with a huge, long ethernet cable and put it close to what you’re trying to add to the system. If you don’t have an Ethernet connection close enough, you’re S.O.L. Thankfully, I did, and was happy to if after setup I never had to do it again.

With the Wink Hub I have, it has WiFi and I now realize how awesome that is. When I have trouble with a device I simply unplug the hub, walk it close to where I need to be and then plug it in. In addition, the Wink Hub  has a light on it which show the current “status” of what it’s doing which is massively helpful when trying to add and remove devices.

SmartCrapps … er … I mean SmartApps

I mentioned above that SmartThings iPhone app is “overly complex” – here’s an example: SmartThings has custom bits of code you can add to your devices called SmartApps. But they seem to pervade the system in different places. Here’s four:

  • I can attach a SmartApp to a device (buried deep within each device’s settings), or
  • I can create a “Routine” which is another form of app, I think.
  • And then I can add “Automations” which appears to be a third place where I can automate lights, etc.
  • And there’s a light automation SmartApp which allows you to add automations for multiple lights – meaning an app sort of has a “subapp” which manages lots of different light automations.

There’s no single place to find these apps, and there’s no consistent place to determine what apps are running. More on this later, but it’s confusing as hell, and as a developer I’m still not sure what should go where. It’s not that complex, but SmartThings has made it that complex.

I set up SmartApps as follows:

  • turn on the outside lights at dusk
  • turn off the outside lights at 10PM
  • turn off all of the lights in the house at midnight
  • when I hit one outside light switch, all outside lights would turn on/off
  • turn off closet, bathroom, and low-usage lights after 15 minutes of being turned on
  • notify me when a door has been left open for more than 15 minutes

Cool, huh? I wanted to be able to add scenarios which were more complex, but I never got there because of the next reason.

Here’s why I call them SmartCrapps

And for that matter, I called the whole system DumbThings. The SmartApps would just start working.  Turning on the outside lights at dusk – awesome. For the first week or so.

Then, like many things DumbThings, it would just stop working. And never work again. I would muck with the settings, it wouldn’t work. I would delete my settings completely and add it again. Still wouldn’t work.

There have been many reports of the SmartThings servers being too slow, and I think it may have to do with them not accounting properly for how much they would need to scale their server operation to handle the number of people using their service.

I have and do run high performance web applications and the issue is true: If you can’t scale, you die. Thankfully with modern cloud computing platforms it’s far easier to set up scalable web applications but obviously if SmartThings which was purchased by Samsung was unable to scale, then there’s obviously bigger problems going on. They had some downtime and some periods last year when they were upgrading their infrastructure, but it never really addressed many of the other prevalent software issues described here.

Using my software scale here, SmartThings looks Polished/Robust but it’s really a shined up turd.

Try deleting something. Go ahead. Try it. I dare you.

Those SmartApps above? Well, once you add a device to it and, say, maybe later you have to delete it, you have to slowly, painstakingly go through each place where the device is listed in each SmartApp and then manually delete it. Remember how each page in the application is slow to load? Ok, you’re getting the picture now. Click. Wait. Click. Wait. Delete. Wait.

And oh yeah, you can’t delete something which is included in another app. Meaning if I have a device included in multiple SmartApps (the outside light, for example), I have to remove it from all of those SmartApps FIRST, then delete the device again. How often are you deleting devices? Well, one or two a week if I want to keep my device list clean. Continue reading!

SmartThings “forgets” devices consistently

So, I mentioned above that you have to “register” each device with your hub. Once it’s linked, you should be able to manipulate it and never have to register it again, right? Well, not with SmartThings. Consistently lights in my house would simply stop working. It would register fine, work for a few days and then suddenly the icon in SmartThings would just do nothing. No response. The light switch would work (with my finger on the switch, heh heh), but SmartThings would simply not work anymore; so no remote control of the switch at all.

So, SmartThings has an option to “Replace” it. That wouldn’t work either, usually it would fail and give me a generic error.

So, you’d delete it, right? And add it again?

Remember – deleting things is a huge pain in the ass: You have to remove it from each SmartApp, buried in 4 different places in the UI, using a slow UI.

Now, do that for 3 or 4 lights every week or two and you start to see why I bothered.

Can you say “busywork”?

I’m ok with setting up the lights the first time – but having to do this over and over again wears you down.

I came up with some workarounds, of course. I’d rename the light “Zzzzz 1st Living Fireplace” to mark it, and I created a fake “room” called Malachi (side note –Malachi is also the name we used for the table at our wedding where we put the miscellaneous, eccentric relatives that don’t really fit in with any other table) and then put the dead devices in there.

I would then have to force “unregister” the device (using the app) and the re-register it, and then create the new “1st Living Fireplace” to replace the old one.

Then, go to each SmartApp and delete the link to the dead device, and add in the new device.

Here’s the rub: SmartThings has a very cool web site which allows you to review your devices on the web and see the configuration it stores with each.

In each device it has a magic serial number which identifies the device. I compared it once and basically the old device and the new one I had to “fix” (multiple times, over multiple months) has identical settings. Like, the same serial number, everything. So, where’s the bug? This happened at least 20 times in the past four or five months. Some times multiple times to the same device.

All of this gives you the uneasy feeling that the entire SmartThings network is a shined up turd.

I just gotta add one more complaint: The “unregister” function above? When you’re trying to fix these devices, you use this a lot. However, in the SmartApps phone application, it’s buried deep, like 5-6 clicks to get to that place where you can do that. Then you gotta navigate BACK to what you were trying to do originally (add an item, etc.) Who wrote this pile of steaming crap?

If leaving is any indicator

So. I ate the $99 hub fee and bought a Wink.

I’m going to talk about “removing” my devices from the SmartThings hub, so bear with me here. The way Z-wave security works is you register each device with your hub, and in so doing some process occurs which links that device and your hub as a pair which only can work with each other.

Once paired, you have to manually unpair it before you can re-associate it. This basically consists of setting up the hub into a special “Exclusion mode” and you hitting the switch on and off over and over until the app says it saw the device removed. I guess this prevents your neighbor from adding your devices to his network, for example, although with some binoculars and a lot of patience I could see a way around this. But no matter.

Long story short: Removing the devices was a joke. Half of them wouldn’t unregister, I started getting really random error messages, and most of the time when I removed a switch it would say I removed a different switch (not the one it thought.) I did this while pretty much alone in the house so it’s not the kids running around hitting switches randomly.

Here’s the rub: I can’t delete my SmartThings account until I can delete all of the devices.

Quick summary

Long story short, I don’t recommend SmartThings. The software is lethargic at best, the hub forgets devices, and it’s buggy. No one likes buggy software, myself particularly. I’m very tolerant of software bugs (as I write them all of the time!) but when I lose patience it’s a bad sign.

I’m using the Wink and it has a much more responsive and powerful iPhone app which is much easier to work with, and has much easier programming using Robots (things which the hub does for you) and Shortcuts (things you want to do).

So far – it hasn’t forgotten any of the devices, and so far it has worked continuously without problems for the month I’ve had it. In addition, the application itself is a dream to work with (although I would prefer to have the icons 3 or 4 across instead of 2-across), but overall, I’m very happy.