Review: Quirky Spotter 10

Quirky SpotterI really wanted to like this product. I really did. I bought it on impulse from Home Depot after reading this description on the box:

Spotter keeps you updated on what’s going on at home—from anywhere. Monitor motion, sound, light, temperature, and humidity all from your mobile device. Use Spotter as a veritable extension of your senses, for anything from baby monitoring to washer/dryer notifications or perfecting your wine cellar; the possibilities are endless.

Having the ability for my washing machine to tell me when it’s finished has been my holy grail of home automation for a while now. If my wife or I don’t hear the buzzer, we’ll forget that towels are in there… and a couple days later we’ll discover “funky towels” that need to be rewashed.

So I gladly spent $49.99, brought the device home, and tore into the box. Check out this marketing video from Quirky for a glimpse of the promised functionality:

Upon opening the box, it’s clear Quirky’s going for a simplistic “Apple-style” packaging approach. The problem is, while Apple products generally don’t need a lot of documentation, the Spotter needs way more than it came with. I consider myself a pretty smart and tech-savvy consumer, but I had trouble getting this thing working. There are no instructions on how to open it to remove the batteries to reset it (which I had to do on multiple occasions during my product test), and I eventually had to go online with my phone to look it up.

The setup is pretty cool… when it works. You download the Wink app for your iPhone or Android, tell the app your WiFi settings, and then it “blinks” the settings to the device when you hold the screen of your phone up to a sensor on the Spotter. It took me a few tries, but eventually I was able to see the Spotter on my phone.

But that’s when the awesomeness stopped. The Spotter simply wouldn’t notify me when the washing machine stopped moving. I even tried simulating the motion stop by enabling the alert, moving the Spotter around in the air, and then setting it down on a counter. I’d get false alerts sometimes, but none when it had actually stopped. I tried again and again, but could never get it to reliably tell me when something had stopped moving.

Since that was really the only reason I wanted this product, I gave up and decided to put it back in the box and return it to Home Depot.  Before I did, however, I also tried out the light sensor, sound sensor, and temp/humidity sensor functions. All of them seemed to work OK as long as I was staring at my phone’s app in real-time to see the Spotter’s status, but there were still major problems with the notification settings. And, unless you’ve got its AC adapter plugged in, only the motion and light sensor functions work when it’s running on battery. It’s a pretty neat idea, but it’s just not ready for prime time.

I might try the Spotter again some time in the future if/when they get some of the software issues worked out, but for now, I can’t recommend it.

UPDATE 1/1/14: 

I published this post yesterday, and the first comment I received (see comments below) was from someone named Denny with an email address. That leads me to believe that’s possibly Denny Fong, who is the inventor of the Spotter. If that’s the case, I appreciate Denny taking the time to come here and comment, to acknowledge that I’m not the only person reporting these types of issues with the Spotter, and to suggest that a firmware update might address my issues.

As luck would have it, I actually tried returning my Spotter yesterday, but mistakenly took it to Lowes (who doesn’t sell it), instead of Home Depot (who does). Doh! So the Spotter was still sitting in my car when I read Denny’s comment this morning, and I decided I’d go grab it and give it another go, if for no other reason than out of appreciation for him taking the time to comment.

However, I’m regret to report that the same problems still persist, and that my second examination revealed even more reasons I can’t recommend this product.

Denny’s comment directed me to this forum post on the Quirky website:

As of today, that thread is an “impressive” 21 pages long. After unboxing my Spotter again, I followed most of the troubleshooting steps in the first post. I verified that I had the latest version of the Wink software (but I didn’t delete the app and re-install it, or reboot my smart phone, as I think that’s a bit excessive since the average non-geeky homeowner would never do that).

I then removed the Spotter from the app, removed the batteries, put the batteries back in to reset it, and noticed that the Home icon wasn’t blinking. Grrr… the batteries were dead. After a couple hours of my initial testing last week, followed by a week sitting motionless on a shelf, followed by maybe an hour of motion as I drove the box to the wrong store and back, the batteries were dead. So I think I’ve stumbled across a new element of this device that isn’t ready for prime time: battery life. And unlike most of the other issues I’ve found, I don’t think a firmware update will address that.

That’s also when I realized this device has no ON/OFF switch. Oh, man. That’s a tragic omission. No switch means that that if I wanted to use this device in battery mode in my laundry room (which was my primary reason for buying it), in order to preserve battery whenever I’m not doing laundry, I’d need to always remove the back panel, remove the batteries, and place the batteries somewhere they won’t get lost. Then, when I wanted to do laundry, I’d have to find the batteries again, put them in, put the back panel on, and cross my fingers and pray to the tech gods that the device connects properly to the WiFi network. I realize that the addition of an ON/OFF button may have pushed the device over the magic $49.99 retail price, or eaten into Quirky’s margins, but this device is fatally wounded without one.

Anyway, I grabbed a brand new set of Energizer Ultimate Lithium AA batteries, and that got the Home icon blinking. I re-ran the setup process with the iPhone app, and it seemed to “take,” although without knowing what the red, yellow, green, and/or blue LED blinks actually mean, and not being able to find anything online to inform me, I can’t be certain (note to Quirky: make a post like this one by Logitech for their Alert camera LED). So did my Spotter update it’s firmware? Uh, maybe? But since there’s no way in the app to display the current firmware version of any Quirky product (that would be another feature I’d suggest, Wink Team), I have no clue!

Assuming the device was happy because it started blinking green, I created a new alert in the app to notify when when it sensed movement. I was prompted in the app to double-tap the top of the Spotter (which I’m assuming is the same surface where the house icon is, but maybe the top is actually the top edge as I’m holding the device up and looking at the house… I’m still not sure, and it’s not in the docs). I placed the Spotter on the kitchen counter, and nudged it. I got an alert! I nudged it again. I got another alert! I nudged it a third time. Alert! Hooray! Could it be that the problems were fixed? I nudged it a fourth time. Nothing. A fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth nudge also yielded no alerts. Sigh.

I decided to switch over to sensing when motion stopped, which is really why I wanted this device in the first place. After the double-tap for the Spotter to accept the new alert (would be really nice if it flashed the green LED three times or something to indicate a successful double-tap), I started shaking the device. When I stopped, no alert. I tried again, no alert.

I figured I’d come this far, I may as well see if maybe battery mode was the issue. I repeated my tests by removing the batteries and using the included AC adapter. After a couple failed attempts at re-configuring the Spotter after removing it from the app, I got the “Success” screen on the app, but the app still only displayed “Battery Mode” on the Spotter screen, and had the temp and sound sensor icons greyed out. No matter how many times I removed and re-added, I could never get the app to show that the Spotter wasn’t in battery mode (even though the batteries were removed, and the House icon was blinking and taking the setup screen-blink). But it didn’t matter. The motion tests were, once again, fruitless. I couldn’t even get it to alert a single time, either on motion start or motion stop.

I spend another 20 minutes trying a wide variety of power resets, device deletes and adds in the app, holding my flashing phone up to the Home icon, combinations of batteries only, batteries with the AC adapter, AC adapter alone, etc. I tried way more than would any normal homeowner who saw this on the shelf at Home Depot and thought “Hey! That looks cool!” But I could never get reliable motion alerts. Also, the app would never update the “Motion Last Detected” time to anything other than “Never” (another bug).

Having wasted enough time this morning, I boxed the Spotter up one more time, and there is nothing that can stop me from taking it back to Home Depot today to get my $50 back.

So Denny, while I really do appreciate you taking the time to read and respond to this review (and I really, really do), I have to respectfully say “strike two.” This product is still not ready for prime time, and the fact that it’s sold at such a major “non-geek” retailer makes the matter 100x worse.

I cringe to think how many frustrated people who received the Spotter for Christmas are pulling their hair out right now, trying to figure out how to make it work. If they were geek-folk (like me), who are comfortable trying to troubleshoot tech gear, that’d be a totally different story. But they’re not, and so I’d be morbidly curious to see Quirky’s internal returns data for this product…  although I’m certain they wouldn’t dare release that. Still, there will be one additional return today… from me… and to the correct store, this time.

Now, in the spirit of fairness, I would be willing to test this product one more time… later… much later… after the firmware issues really are ironed out. And I think part of that ironing out really needs to be an app update that allows users to see which firmware version the Wink devices are running, and possibly even a notification in the app that a firmware update is available.

However, I’m not willing to test this device again on my own dime. I’m getting my $50 back today, and I’m keeping it. So if a final shot at redemption is worth it to Denny and the folks at Quirky to send me another Spotter to review (later… when it’s really fixed), then I’d be happy to test it a third time and update this post. There are plenty of ways to reliably contact me via social networks or this blog’s contact form.

Again, I had really high hopes for this product, and I really wish it worked like it says on the tin. But as of January 1, 2014, it doesn’t — and I am forced to recommend that potential purchasers spend their $50 on something else. And for any frustrated users who find this post while searching online for ways to make their Spotter work, I have to recommend that you locate your receipt and take it to the closest Home Depot before your return deadline. If you don’t have the receipt, take it back soon and say it was a Christmas gift so you can at least get store credit.

So with all due respect and apologies to Denny and Quirky, perhaps “Quirky” was the wrong branding for this innovative idea… because the quirks are all I seem to encounter when trying to make it work. 🙁