GE’s Wireless Link Bulbs & Wink Hub: A (somewhat) Dim Experience in Home Automation

I’m a geeky guy, so when I heard that there were affordable lightbulbs that you could control via your smartphone I was interested. Not only are they name-brand lightbulbs, they were LED, energy efficient lightbulbs! The catch? You have to buy a “hub”. Basically these special lightbulbs talk to a product called a Wink Hub, that’s where the magic happens. This hub then connects to your wireless router and therefore your smartphone. Allowing you to control the bulbs from your smartphone or tablet.

I was skeptical, the reviews on places like Amazon weren’t too great. Although I have to admit the hilarious TV ad with Jeff Goldblum may have pushed me over the edge. The Home Depot had a deal around Labor Day where you could buy two bulbs and a hub for a hair under $50 altogether. Basically saving $20 off the regular cost of the setup if you purchase the items alone. It seems that for the 2014 Holiday Season this deal is back. I noticed this while on a recent trip to the store where a sales associate demoed the product. So I took the bait and figured I’d give it a shot. 

JeffG-Bulb

I got home and opened the Wink hub box. There are no instructions, no papers… nothing! GE claims this is because they want to give the most up-to-date instructions possible (via the app on your smartphone). Fair enough, the box has a simple sentence that tells you to download the app from your device’s app store / marketplace. At this time the app is only available for Apple iOS users running iOS 7.0 or higher or Android users running version 2.3 or higher . So if you have an iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch or recent Android device you should be okay.  Sadly there is no web-based app for incompatible devices, or a dedicated app for Mac or Windows user. I understand why, as the setup process requires your phone to send Bluetooth signals to the Wink Hub, which is how you connect it to your home Wi-Fi network.

But anyway, the Wink Hub box contains the hub and underneath it, the hub’s power cord. My cord was wrapped with a rubber band… maybe someone returned this hub before? The box’s tape was sealed however.

ge-wink-hub-link-bulb

Blink-blink…boom.
Anyway, I plugged in the Wink hub and watched the colored light blink around while I downloaded the app on my iPhone 6. Once downloaded I followed the instructions to create an account. I then took the 60w GE Link bulb out of the box and pressed the “Add a product” button. I taped the Wink Hub icon and was prompted to enter in my network password (for my wireless router). I tapped Next and waited. “Connecting to the WinkHub…” it said. I waited for about a minute before an “Uh-Oh” message came up. Little did I know this message would be plaguing me for the next half hour. It apparently could not connect to the hub. Weird, maybe I typed the password wrong? Nope, I tried again – still nothing. What was odd was the hub followed the correct color indications to say it was trying to connect. Eventually it would even turn blue (meaning it was successfully connected), however the app still gave me an error and would not connect.

Maybe it was my iPhone? I got out my older iPad and downloaded the Wink app. Nope, same problem! Some reviewers noted bombarding the Wink Hub with multiple devices sometimes got it to work. Sadly this did not seem to resolve the issue. So I unplugged the Wink Hub and waited 5 minutes before trying again. Still no luck. I did notice a “Reset” button on the back of the hub. The kind you need a paperclip to press. Again, there are no instructions in the Wink Hub box. Would it have killed them to put a sticker on the back of the Wink Hub letting you know what the Reset button does? I’m serious – for example some wireless routers have a reset button, but they only work if you hold it down for 15 or 30 seconds. Adding a simple piece of documentation (or a sticker) would be a good idea GE. Anyway I pressed the reset button, nothing.

The Uh-Oh message taunted me again and again. So I finally called GE’s Tech Support. Unfortunately I didn’t get to speak to a person! I was on hold for over 25 minutes (while I played with the Wink Hub and bulb some more). As soon as you dial up there is an up-beat voice joking that my call will be recorded “But not in a creepy way”. Okay who cares, just help me out. The voice says they’ll try to connect me to a real person as quickly as possible. 40 seconds go by and she comes on again “Man! This is taking a long time. We’re sorry and we appreciate your patience.” This repeats itself dozens of times as I’m on hold.

So after trying again and again (while I’m on hold) with my iPhone and iPad I gave up! I hung up, got in the car, drove to Home Depot and exchanged the Wink Hub for another. Maybe it was a previously opened model that didn’t work? I was going to try once more. At the store I noticed there were only 2 Hubs on the shelf. Both of the boxes had their plastic tape/seals broken. Maybe someone had a similar problem and returned the rest? I made sure to tell the cashier that the product was defective and not working properly.

Round 2… light!
I get home and plug in the new Wink Hub, this box was not sealed, but the power cord had a white twist-tie around the cable. Maybe this one wasn’t previously returned? So I plug it in and try again. My first attempt failed, but I switched to the iPad right away. On the 2nd try… it worked! The Wink Hub connected correctly and was now working. I then plugged in my 60w Link Bulb. After an attempt or two I got that working as well. With the bulb connected I was now able to control it from my iPhone. I could turn the bulb on and off or dim it. The default control to dim the bulb is a bit odd, you need to tap the bulb (kinda) and then slide your finger. It’s odd because the whole screen may slide around or you may turn the entire bulb off. Thankfully if you tap on the bulb a different horizontal slider comes up. I personally would prefer this over the odd button. Maybe they should make this an option in the future.

Now time for the second bulb. I follow the same instructions. But this time the app can’t find the bulb. Hmm. I play with this again for 10 minutes and then call support. Now 30 minutes go by, still no answer. Just the same little tune and the automated message. I understand it’s the holidays, and with these on sale you probably are getting a bunch of people calling for help… but they need to fix their support line. You put no manual in the box and you ask people to call up, you better have enough people there! At the least you should have an option to “hold” your place in line and request a call-back like some places. Unfortunately I was tired of waiting and hung-up. I would have run-out to Home Depot again, but they don’t have any more of these bulbs in stock. Looks like I got an unlucky draw two times in a row. I want to like this system, I do. It’s an interesting concept. But their quality assurance / quality testing department area needs to look into these products closer. I can now understand all the frustrated users online. Maybe you’ll get lucky and they’ll work out of the box. As for now I have a working hub with one lonely bulb.

Pros:
The 60W bulbs are $15, making it easy to expand your lighting system
The Wink Hub (at a discounted price) makes getting into home automation a bit less painful
No monthly fees or additional service costs to use the service or the products
The 60W LED bulb is bright and dim-able via any outlet. And is quoted to last 22+ years (rated if used for 3 hours per day)

Cons:
Phone support is lacking. This is unacceptable, especially since GE wants you to call them instead of including a manual.
Zero documentation with the Wink Hub or Link Bulbs, I understand being minimal but come on. Not even a single piece of paper?
Either I’m unlucky or someone is taking a snooze at the GE quality control department
The bulbs get hot quickly at the base, but the top part remains cool to the touch.

Conclusion:
These are cool, but GE has to revamp their phone support and quality assurance areas. Also the way to control these bulbs are lacking. Sure iOS and Android are dominant devices, but why not enable you to control the lights via your laptop or desktop? I see there is an API section of the website for software developers to take advantage of. I for one would love to use my Raspberry Pi to control the lights. Or even recycle an old iPhone as a remote for the lights (sadly the GE Wink app is only for iOS 7 or higher).

I want to like these, I really do. But if me, a technology geek, is having to jump-through hoops to get this to work… your average Joe or Jane isn’t going to be too pleased about it. Unless they get a lucky batch and it works without a hitch. I hope if you purchase these products you have a better experience than I did. I won’t be returning these (except for the defective bulb), but GE has a way to go before these can really shine.

 

2 comments
sualeh
sualeh

I am so glad I found your blog! I thought I was going crazy. I have had the same experience as you - it is like deja vu. I am going to return my Wink stuff that I bought for $100. This was supposed to be a holiday gift for the family.

stevenmatarazzo
stevenmatarazzo

Thanks for reading!! Thankfully things are working now and I have 5 bulbs setup. So far so good, hopefully you have good luck with your setup (or your future setup if you return them.) too bad a lot of these units seem to be defective or kooky.