Hands on with Zuli’s smartplug

I wanted to review the Zuli smartplug, a device that makes a compelling argument for the Internet of Things without requiring consumers to set up a bunch of sensors, connect a central hub to their router, and tinker with an app’s complex settings. However, my house was determined to make it nigh impossible for me to really use the thing (more on that in a moment).
Still, there’s plenty of reason to call some attention to Zuli, which today announced that the device will debut in Lowe’s retail stores across the U.S. September 28, and that it’s forged a partnership with the Google-owned Nest Labs. Zuli’s smartplug is pretty simple: Just stick the device into an electric socket, connect to it via Bluetooth, then use the mobile application to gain limited control over dumb (sorry, non-connected) household utilities plugged into its side. It took me about 10 minutes to get a few of the smartplugs up and running in my home.
Taylor Umphreys, the company’s chief executive, tells me that Zuli was designed to bring the Internet of Things to people who can’t hook up other connected devices. I’ve written in the past about the struggle to use “smart” devices while renting — how many renters can rewire the thermostats in their apartments? — and these plugs are supposed to give people living in those situations a taste of the connected life.
“Lots of renters move around a lot, and they don’t have the ability to install appliances,” Umphreys says. FiveThirtyEight supports that claim with a report indicating that many Americans will move 11 times throughout their lives. It’s hard to imagine them bringing connected devices with them during each move.
Zuli is supposed to tackle another issue: Plug-in appliances that can’t be controlled unless their owner is right next to them. People who own their own homes can install wall-mounted switches for their lights or purchase some ceiling fans. Renters are stuck with lamps controlled with an itty-bitty switch and standalone fans.
The smartplug is supposed to make those products easier to use from afar. They can also be scheduled to turn on or off at specific times, and the plug can control the amount of electricity passed onto an object, basically acting as dimmer switches for lamps that previously would have been “on” or “off” with nothing in between.
But the main draw is a feature called “Presence,” which tailors a plug’s settings based on its owner’s proximity. If you’re in your living room, that light might turn on. Leave for the kitchen, and that one will turn on while the other lamp switches off. It could very well represent the epitome of smartphone-enabled laziness.
That potential is better realized for owners of the Nest smart thermostat. Zuli has partnered with the device’s maker to offer control directly from its own app, giving smartplug owners a way to control both devices without having to switch apps. Nest can also be controlled with Presence, making it easy to fiddle with a room’s heating.
Presence does have some limitations. It requires three smartplugs to function, which is why Lowe’s will sell the device in single and multipacks, which will cost $60 and $160, respectively. The mobile app also supports just one person at a time, which means multiple people can’t tailor Presence to their own preferences until Zuli ships an update that Umphreys tells me will be available in the near future.

Easy to use, but not without issues

Now, about my problems with Zuli. I’ll preface this by saying that this probably won’t affect everyone, but I suspect that more than a few people will encounter this issue: I didn’t have enough outlets, or enough appliances I wanted to control with Zuli’s mobile application, to use the three smartplugs I was supposed to review.
Plugging In
I rent an older home. Instead of the three-pronged outlets that help prevent people from being electrocuted, I have the old two-prong outlets. This means I can’t use Zuli for many things. And where I was able to find three-pronged outlets, I didn’t see any device nearby that I thought would really benefit from using the device.
So I set up one device to automatically turn on the fan in my dog’s room at a certain time, and turn it off early in the morning. This wasn’t a critical function, I’ve never forgotten to turn on the fan without a smartplug’s assistance, but I figured it would be a small thing I could use to test the plug’s capabilities. And it worked! For a few days I heard the fan turn on from the other room with nary a finger lifted.
But that was about the only use I got out of the product. All of the other fans are controlled with a wall switch or plugged into two-prong outlets. My lights are the same way. I couldn’t think of anything else to use the smartplugs on, so I pulled the units from my walls and stuffed them back into their package to be mailed back.
Umphreys was sympathetic to my problems. When I spoke to him about it, however, he pointed out that many people are unlikely to have the same issue. I think it will be more of a problem than he might expect, but I’m willing to concede that most consumers interested in the Internet of Things will have better luck.
He also pointed out another use for the smartplugs: Giving control over appliances to people who can’t, or simply don’t want to, get up and turn them on manually. See, when we spoke last week, Umphreys had just broken his arm over the weekend. He told me that he used the smartplugs set up in his home to control his lights, fans, and other appliances when the painkillers made it hard for him to do so himself.
That’s an interesting fringe case. Might people who struggle with daily activities be able to benefit from something like this? Then again, couldn’t they get similar use out of a clapper that illuminates their homes whenever they slap their hands? I’m not sure, but I could see how both options might come in handy for some people.
All of which leaves me with this pseudo-review of the Zuli smartplug. Should people buy it? If they have an idea of what they would use some of them for, and are willing to spend $160 for its most interesting feature, I think it could be worth a shot. It will be interesting to see if the company can partner up with other connected device makers, too, and give consumers more control from a single mobile application.
Zuli’s smartplug is well-designed and easy to use, and I understand the thinking behind it. In the end, though, the device tries so hard to appeal to people renting modern apartments that it proved all-but-useless to me in my older home. For me it’s not any more useful than other “smart” products. I won’t miss it when it’s gone.