There’s a running joke in smart home circles: If a product works as well as a light switch, you’ve got a winner on your hands. Home automation’s attempts to make things more convenient – as with much technology – can ultimately make it more frustrating. There’s nothing worse than a smart bulb that won’t go out on command. The look my husband gives me when he has to get up from the couch to flip the switch because a voice assistant wasn’t doing its job could be trademarked.
Enter the Belkin Threaded Wemo Stage Scene Controller for Apple HomeKit. An elegant and reliable way to use physical controls to run your smart home, this $50 smart switch can do a lot more than a standard switch. Tap one of three buttons to control any connected HomeKit device – from opening the awnings and playing the radio, to locking the front door and turning on smart bulbs. Even better, one push of a button can do all of these things at once, and a second push can turn it all off. See if your standard Decora can do that.
A scene controller is a concept that evolved from high-end home automation systems such as Crestron and Control4. Sometimes barking a voice command or pulling out your smartphone is inappropriate or just plain inconvenient, and there are plenty of situations where a motion or contact sensor isn’t right for the job. This is when you need a physical button, something that consistently does the same thing every time you press it. Like a light switch.
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Although there are a few smart buttons and some remotes for lighting systems such as: Tint and Lutron Caseta that can work as scene controllers for HomeKit (and cost about half the price of the Wemo), most require their own hub or bridge to work.
Leviton’s New Decora Smart Scene Controller Switch (which I’ll be testing soon) is one of the few non-proprietary multi-button scene controllers available. This works over Wi-Fi so it doesn’t require a hub and is also compatible with Amazon Alexa and Google Home. But it needs to be connected to your home’s electricity and requires a more involved installation. It also doesn’t act as a portable remote the way the battery-powered Wemo can.
The other feature that sets the Wemo Stage apart from the competition is that it’s the only option that works through Thread. And, as with my previous review of a wire-enabled device — the Eve Motion Sensor — this gives it a serious edge in today’s smart home.
Thread is a wireless mesh protocol designed to make low-power smart home devices more responsive and consume less power than other protocols used in home automation. Thread devices don’t need a hub or bridge connected to your router; instead, they communicate directly with each other and with other home networks through a Thread border router. This is a device that is always powered, such as a smart speaker or streaming media player. Apple currently has two Thread border routers: the HomePod Mini and Apple TV 4K (second generation).
The Wemo Stage is a very small device, about half the size of an Apple TV remote, with three recessed buttons with a raised dot pattern to indicate whether it’s button one, two, or three. The buttons can be linked to a different scene or action in Apple’s Home app, and each has three separate presses – short, double and long – giving you up to nine different options.
As you may have guessed, this is a lot to remember. I would like a way to indicate what each button on the device itself does. Leviton’s Scene Controller offers this through custom engraved faceplates, but that makes it a bit expensive to change your mind. The Wemo’s small, minimalist design makes that impossible. Instead, all you need to do is memorize it and somehow involve everyone in your household. (A few tips about this in a moment.)
The Wemo Stage comes with a magnetic mount that can be attached to a wall or table with the included tape or by screwing it into an existing lighting mount. You can swap the included front plate for a standard Decora, so the Wemo Stage can sit next to your regular light switches. It is powered by a single CR2032 battery, and user reviews indicate it really chews through batteries. After a week, mine was down to 77 percent, so I don’t see it taking until a year, as promised.
The Wemo Stage works exclusively with Apple’s Home app for HomeKit, programming each button and the different presses on it to run a scene or control multiple accessories. If you have a HomeKit-compatible Thread border router at home, it will use the Thread protocol.
Otherwise, it communicates via Bluetooth LE with another Apple Home hub (either an iPad, original HomePod, or Apple TV HD). Early reviews of the Wemo Stage before the Thread update (which became available in January 2022) indicated that it: “buggy and unreliable” over Bluetooth, especially if it’s too far away from a HomeKit hub. This is something I’ve experienced with other HomeKit devices that work over Bluetooth.
The other advantage of Thread is that it is a key protocol of Matter, the upcoming smart home standard. However, Belkin told me that Wemo Stage will not be upgraded to Matter. “[It’s] specifically designed to control and manage scenes in the Home app,” said Cassie Pineda, senior global communications manager at Belkin. “It’s too early to confirm whether or not Belkin will introduce a Matter-enabled Wemo Stage.”
If you plan on sticking with HomeKit, this won’t be a problem, but Matter’s main promise is platform agnosticism, so a theoretical Matter version could work with Amazon Alexa, Google Home, and Samsung SmartThings platforms.
Out of the box, the Wemo has no Thread enabled. I had to download an update to put it on firmware version 2.9.6. This is strange for a device that came out over a year ago and also annoying because without access to a Wemo app to force an update (it only works with the Home app, not the Wemo app), had to wait for the The Apple Home app to roll out the update. (It took about three days for me, but only 20 minutes for my colleague).
Otherwise, the installation was very easy. The Wemo Stage uses Apple’s NFC pairing technology, so all I had to do was hold my phone to it to add it to the Home app. You can also scan the HomeKit code. Once paired, the app prompts you to add the Wemo Stage (which appears as a programmable switch) to a room and from there you can customize what each button will do.
This is where it really gets fun. Your options are virtually endless. You can connect any single device, multiple devices, or scene (a preset collection of devices and actions) to any button. The easiest way to use it is to program the lights in a room to full brightness, 50 percent brightness, and off on each button, acting as a de facto dimmer. But that would only use a fraction of its power.
I found that setting the three presses for each button on variations on a single scene or device was the easiest way to remember what it would do. For example, I set the top button to trigger a Worktime scene with a single button press. This turns my office lights on full blast, raises the curtains, starts a radio station from an AirPlay-compatible speaker, and adjusts the thermostat. A double press of the same button activates a Zoom scene, which pauses the music and adjusts the lights, and a long press turns everything off.
I set the second button to turn on (short press), dim (long press), and turn off (double press) all the lights in the room.
I set the third button to trigger a Good Morning scene for the whole household (short press), a Good Night scene (double press), and a Bedtime scene (long press).
Keeping each button focused on the same concept or set of lights should make it easier to remember what they do. But in a week of testing, I still had to refer to the app to remind me how I had it set up. And I haven’t even tried to get anyone in my family to use it.
The Wemo eventually became a personal device for me, an easy way to manage frequently used home automation scenes without picking up my phone or using speech. Instead of mounting it on the wall, I kept it on my desk during the day and on my bedside table at night.
Here the size and slightly disappointing plastic-like construction work against it. Compared to the new Hue Tap Switch I’m also testing – which is a solid piece of gear – the Wemo feels like it can’t withstand a lot of accidental damage. (The test unit already shows some signs of use.)
In use, the push of a button activated everything quickly – under a second – and consistently, although there were some “banging” lights, with one bulb coming on for a split second after the other (both were Nanoleaf Thread compatible bulbs ). The music actions always took a little longer and were less reliable – probably because it has to go through Apple Music’s cloud service, with everything else running locally.
The single press and long press were the most consistent, but occasionally the double press would tangle and run like a single press. It’s hard to tell if this is a hardware issue or if I’m fingering it – I have big hands and this device is very small.
If you’re looking for an easy way to control your Apple HomeKit home, the Wemo Stage Scene Controller is one of the best options right now. As mentioned, there are a handful of unique smart buttons from the likes of Eve (Bluetooth), akara, Tintand flic which can trigger three or four scenes with a combination of short, long, and double press, but the Wemo can do nine.
There are also several with multiple buttons, including: Hue’s Tap and dimmer switches and Caseta Pico Remote from Lutron. While these are designed to control lights in their respective ecosystems, they can be modified to control Apple HomeKit devices and scenes. But all of these options (except the Eve button) work with their own hub or bridge. Wemo, with the addition of Thread, fits pretty seamlessly into your Apple Home setup if you have a HomePod Mini or newer Apple TV.
Photos by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / The Verge