connected home

Review: Revolv smart home hub

March 26, 2014: 2:44 PM ET

Is this connected device ready to turn home automation into home "awesomation"? Not quite yet.

By Jason Cipriani

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FORTUNE -- You might say I'm a home automation geek. I have a house full of Belkin's WeMo products, several Sonos speakers, a couple of Nest Protect fire alarms and a Nest thermostat. I'm anxiously awaiting the release of August, an automated lock for my front door.

I'm not alone: The smart-home market is worth $33 billion today and predicted to be worth $71 billion by 2018.

Still, no matter how much I enjoy being able to control and monitor various elements of my house, I have an issue with home automation on the whole: It's too complicated. Each product requires its own application to control it, leading to multiple apps installed on my smartphone in order to manage my home. At some point, the amount of work it takes to find and launch the right app becomes counterproductive.

This problem is what a team out of the TechStars startup accelerator in Boulder, Colo. is attempting to solve. Their solution? A red box called Revolv. Revolv is a small wireless hub that connects and consolidates home automation devices within your home. The end result is a device that gives you the ability to control multiple devices with a single application.

The first thing you notice after unboxing the Revolv is its lack of ports. The only port it has is for the included power cord, because its automation is achieved entirely over a Wi-Fi connection. That's good news: Instead of making room for another device next to your router, you can place the Revolv in a central location in your home.

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Indeed, you are reminded several times when unboxing and setting up Revolv to place it in the middle of your home. When I originally installed the device, I placed it on one end of my home just to see if the location truly made a difference -- it did. I kept receiving errors in the app, alerting me that my certain devices or the hub itself couldn't be found. After moving the hub to the middle of my home, the errors became less frequent and the hub became more reliable.

After plugging the hub in, you'll need to download and install the free Revolv iPhone app from the App Store. (Neither an iPad or Android version of the app is available yet, though Revolv says it hopes to make the Android version available sometime in the second quarter of this year.)

Once the iPhone app is installed and running, you are prompted to enter your Wi-Fi network information into the app. Then a magical thing happens: The Revolv app uses the flash on your iPhone's camera to communicate with the hub -- no account necessary. You're instructed to hold your iPhone just above the hub, and after some flashing and wizardry, the hub will connect to your Wi-Fi network and begin looking for compatible devices.

The hub took about five minutes to find various connected devices in my home, and each one was represented on-screen by an icon in the app. Should it not find a device, Revolv also allows you to manually add an item. You can even set up new devices using the Revolv app instead of the manufacturer's app, as I did with the Yale touch-screen lock that Revolv sent along with the hub.

You can control devices with the app several different ways. A quick double-tap of a device's icon toggles the status of said device -- turning a light on or off, for example. A single tap of a device's icon prompts another screen that allows you finer control over the device. In the case of a Nest thermostat, I was able to adjust the temperature and toggle heating or cooling modes.

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The ability to set actions based on time or location is a staple of home automation products, so naturally it's available in the Revolv app, too. Actions can be set to a specific time, or at sunrise and sunset. For example, you can have Revolv turn on your home's lights at sunset, ensure that your Nest thermostat warms slightly, and keeps the front door locked -- assuming you have all of the proper devices installed in your home, of course.

Action based on location is also possible in the Revolv app, but it needs some work. Any location-based action will be triggered by any smartphone approved to control your hub -- a potential headache for the modern, multi-device family. During my test, I set up a location action to turn on a few lights and a Sonos speaker when I pulled into my driveway -- but the action was triggered by both mine and my wife's iPhone, regardless of who was home.

The size of the area set by the location trigger was also problematic. Instead of letting me narrow the "geofence," as it's called, to a couple of houses in either direction of my home, the Revolv app only allows for a zone that I found to be far too large, even in a rural area. At times, I was nearly a quarter-mile away from my house and would receive the welcome home alert. For someone who only set lights and a speaker to turn on, it's an annoyance -- but for someone who might be using it to unlock the front door or open the garage, it has the potential to be a much bigger issue. (I did talk to the Revolv team, and they said they are working on adding better location-based triggers, including for specific devices. The update can't come fast enough.)

The Revolv hub aims to be the universal remote of home automation, connecting devices made by different manufacturers and replacing the proprietary hubs they come with. Though the app can be lacking at times, it's not enough to be a deal-breaker. The hub's $300 price, however, may be -- even for a smart home geek.

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