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Review: Wink Hub & GE Link Lightbulbs

by on September 1, 2014

I’m a sucker for gadgets—ever since the earliest days of running SchwarzTech, I’ve always been at odds with if I really needed something, and the desire to have a new toy to play with. From a financial standpoint, I feel like I’ve mostly made reasonable choices on purchases (I still haven’t gotten any sort of smart watch yet), but I’ve always been fascinated with the home automation side of things. Products like the Philips Hue have been out my reach for just dipping my feet in the pool, but GE’s new Link bulbs, priced at $15, piqued my interest.

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As part of GE’s partnership with Quirky, the you-design-it-and-they-make-it accessory company, the company is releasing three LED lightbulbs that will be sold between $15 and $25 at Home Depot stores and Amazon. I picked up a couple of the $15 version—they’re 60W equivalent (actually use 12W) A19 bulbs (what you typically find in most fixtures and lamps in your home). The other models are a BR30 “floodlight”-style, used in most recessed lighting and PAR38 “halogen”-style, used for outdoor security and spotlights. At the price, these bulbs are often about the same price as standard LED lightbulbs.

These bulbs are designed to be used with either GE’s forthcoming Link Hub or the $50 Wink Hub, which will connect these bulbs to your Wi-Fi network. Wink was previously part of Quirky, but spun off to focus on home automation gadgetry. The Wink Hub is about the size of a prior-generation AirPort Extreme. Other products that it can talk to include Philips Hue and TCP Connect lightbulbs, Lutron light switches, Honeywell thermostats, Chamberlain garage door openers, Schlage door locks, Kidde smoke alarms, Bali blinds, anything using the Z-Wave or Zigbee standards, and much more. Most Home Depot stores will have an endcap featuring a number of products that work with the Wink Hub and the associated Wink app for iOS and Android.

Amazon and Home Depot are cutting buyers a deal on the Hub if you buy Wink-compatible devices with it: one device gets you the Hub for half price ($25) and two gets you the Hub for 99¢. This promotion seems to be going until September 3, so it looks like an early-adopter special. That being said, if you buy the Hub and two GE Link bulbs with this promotion, it’s actually cheaper than buying the Hub by itself.

GE has also been advertising a Link Hub, which seems like scaled down, smaller version that only works with the Link bulbs. The packaging also includes mention of a Wink Relay, a wall-mountable controller that will duplicate the functionality of the app on a more permanent scale.

As these bulbs are very new (and very cheap), they’re still slowly arriving in stores and seem to be going as quickly as they’re unpacked. The Wink Hub has been for sale for awhile, and has had mixed reviews, mostly due to teething troubles with its app. For those who snagged the GE Link bulbs early, most products are listed to add, but the bulbs need to be added as generic lightbulbs. They should be added to the Wink app once they’re “officially” for sale today.

Installation of the Wink Hub went smoothly. The packaging includes the main steps:

  • Download the Wink app on your mobile device.
  • Follow the instructions on the Wink app to connect your Hub.

The app setup involves creating a Wink account, finding your Hub (presumably with Bluetooth), giving your hub your Wi-Fi credentials, and checking for any software updates. The whole process took me about 15 minutes (and that included the software update). The Hub does not include an Ethernet port, so you must use it with Wi-Fi. In fact, the only connector is for the AC adapter.

Once the Hub is set up, adding the GE Link bulbs is also easy—install them in the fixture you want, make sure they have power, and tap the “Add a Product” button. Most products can even be set up by scanning the barcode off the box, although the GE Link bulbs seemed to be too new. Once paired, the light will blink and appear under the “Lights” section of the app. Each bulb is assigned a name—in my case, I named it for the location of my living room lamps.

The actual lighting controls are pretty simple. There is a slider to adjust the brightness of the bulb and an on/off toggle. All of the ones on your account are on a list, allowing you to make changes rather quickly. The part where the Wink app really shines (no pun intended), is that you can create Shortcuts. Shortcuts are favorite configurations for all of your Wink-compatible devices. In the case of mine, I have a few different setups for how the three bulbs act: if I want them all on, all off, some lower than others, or just a single one. You can mix and match devices, too. For example, you could have a Shortcut that closes your blinds and then turns on a few bulbs—perfect for a home theater.

Another area that the Wink app gives you additional controls is the idea of Robots. Robots are ways to create actions based on certain circumstances. An example would be that if you unlock your door lock upon arriving home, your lights will turn on and your thermostat will be adjusted. They are also location-aware, so you can set up your phone to trigger these within a certain range of a location.

Finally, the Wink app lets you schedule for devices, giving you the ability to set a certain timer for devices to work while you’re away. This gives the $15 light bulbs the additional capability of a generic $5 timer for when you’re traveling and want to give your house a “lived-in” look.

In my experience of a few days of testing the GE Link bulbs, I’ve been rather impressed. Not only are they incredibly cheap for connected LED bulbs, but the light is rather close in color and quality to traditional incandescent soft-white lightbulbs. If you’re pickier, you may want to give one a try before jumping in completely. Since these do use a standard protocol, you could wait until other manufacturers make bulbs. I’d expect GE to make a good lightbulb, and so far they seem to be holding up their end of the bargain.

As far as the Wink Hub, it has worked well so far, although there are a few instances of the end result lagging if you send too many commands at once. This may be due to the the command being sent from the app, over the Internet, and then back to your devices. It also may be due to the Hub needing time to process the commands and then find the device over the mesh network. That being said, it wasn’t annoying, but just worth noting that it is not as instantaneous as flipping a physical light switch.

The other limitation of the Wink Hub is that it needs Internet connectivity to work. If your Internet connection goes down, the bulbs seem to revert to acting like a normal lightbulb. This gives me some confidence that they’ll still be useful in the future, even if a compatible service/protocol (Wink, Zigbee) goes away during their 22.8-year-rated lifespan.

One nice feature is the ability to give access to products to others with a Wink account, allowing them to control some devices, but not others. This can be handy for families, roommates, or even if you want to use multiple old iOS/Android devices for extra controllers. They can even create their own Shortcuts and Robots.

Overall, I’ve been very happy with the purchase so far, and it shows major promise. What would make this system more perfect would be a local-mode that can control devices within your network, eliminating the need for Wink’s service to always be available, and additional accessories. I’d really like to see a plug switch that is as affordable as these bulbs (I can’t see the hardware being much different) that can also be controlled with this system.

Although Apple will be releasing HomeKit soon and nobody is sure what exactly will be supported, GE’s Link bulbs and Wink’s Hub are a promising combination in themselves, especially if you take advantage of the promotions for the Hub to be free.

Update: Version 2.0.5 of the Wink app added the GE Link bulbs—it may be placebo, but they seem to dim more smoothly and are more responsive.

The One-Sentence Verdict™

GE’s Link lightbulbs are a great way to test out the waters for home automation, and Wink’s Hub helps facilitate their use quite well.

Pros: Easy to set up and use, cheap home automation options, new devices added regularly, multiple users
Cons: Requires Internet connection, HomeKit-compatibility a question, some devices expensive
Rating: 7/10

The Facts

Product: Wink App/Hub
GE Link
Platform: iOS 7, Android 2.3 or later
Price: $49.99 for Wink Hub, $14.97-$24.97 GE Link Lightbulbs

This post has been filed in Miscellany, Mobile Devices, Reviews