clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why smart alarm clocks can’t be trusted

New, 48 comments

Smart speakers are angling for a spot on our bedside tables, but they need this feature first

If you buy something from a Verge link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Smart alarm clocks like this Echo Dot with Clock have lots of great features, but are missing one key feature.

When you buy a product labeled “smart,” it should be better than the “dumb” version, especially considering it costs twice as much (at least). But that’s not the case with smart alarm clocks, which are very dumb in one specific way.

Smart alarm clocks are bedside buzzers with smart features, letting you set an alarm with just your voice, waking you up with your favorite Spotify playlist, possibly tracking your sleep, and definitely controlling your smart home. Most have touch screens, some have radar, very few have cameras (thankfully), and others can use lighting to wake you up more naturally than a jarring buzzer. But what none of them have is a backup battery, something that’s been standard on the dumb versions for decades.

If your power goes out in the middle of the night and doesn’t come back on in time, you could stay in dreamland indefinitely. Why do smart alarm clocks not have this blindingly obvious feature?

Amazon’s Echo Dot with a Clock smart speaker is clearly designed for your nightstand — the app has over 20 different alarm tones to choose from. But does it come with a battery backup? Nope. Lenovo’s Smart Clock 2 has a nightlight, touchscreen, even a dock for wirelessly charging your phone, but no little lithium-ion battery to make sure you wake up. Google’s Nest Hub with sleep tracking is smart enough to watch you while you’re sleeping using Soli radar tech. But it’s not going to wake you up if your power goes out overnight.

The Lenovo Smart Clock and the Echo Show 5 are two touchscreen smart alarm clocks that offer a myriad of smart features, but can’t be guaranteed to wake you up.

Missing an alarm is not a huge issue for a lot of people, but for some, it’s a big problem. Take my husband for an example. He’s a fire captain / paramedic, so rolling up late to work not only raises the possibility of being fired, but it means his counterpart who was up all night dealing with a five-car pileup has to work an extra hour or two on top of his 24-hour shift. This is one of the many reasons he refuses to rely on one. He loves the features smart alarm clocks offer (especially the sleep tracking on the Google Nest Hub), but he always has his smartphone plugged in by his bed to actually wake him up. Because it, unlike any smart alarm clock, has a battery that can last well into the morning if that plug fails him.

There are a couple alarm clocks out there with smart features that manage to find room for a coin cell battery or a couple AAs to keep your settings intact if the power goes out, but it’s doubtful they’ll have the juice to sound your alarm as well. This iHome alarm clock does and even works with Siri and Google Assistant (if you push a button). The $150 Loftie, which offers sound baths and guided meditation, also throws in a backup option. But when it comes to what I consider a real smart alarm clock, with useful features like a touchscreen, built-in voice assistants, smart home controls, and Wi-Fi connectivity, you’re out of luck if you want to be 100 percent sure you’re going to wake up on time.

The sleep tracking on the Google Nest hub is powered by radar technology -- but if the power goes out it’s not going to wake you up.

It seems manufacturers are so concerned with stuffing every feature possible into their smart bedside displays that they’ve neglected to focus on the product’s original core function. That’s a running theme with many smart home devices.

Smart alarm clocks can send you to sleep with soothing sounds of the rainforest while dimming the lights in your room, locking your doors, and adjusting your thermostat. Then they can wake you up with your favorite songs while telling your lights to gradually brighten to trick your circadian rhythm into getting its ass in gear. They can even turn on your thermostat to keep you from catching a chill when you get out of the shower. Some can also charge your phone and watch at the same time! But will any of them go off if the power is out? Nope.

It doesn’t seem like that oversight is a technical limitation: Philips’ artificial sunlight alarm clock includes an 8-hour backup in case of power failures, though it’s a stretch to call it “smart.” And Facebook’s new Portal Go is a smart display with a giant lithium-ion battery inside. While it’s not designed to be used as a bedside clock (it’s huge, has a camera in it, and is really for calling your family on Facebook — not something you often do from bed), it does prove it’s entirely possible for a smart display to have two reliable power sources.

Yes, the likelihood of being affected by a power outage is slim — the idea that your clock will be dead at the exact moment you are supposed to wake up. And, because they’re smart enough to reset when the power comes back on, you aren’t going to wake up to the terror-inducing red LEDs blinking “12:00” at you. But the fact remains: there’s a possibility they won’t work. And that’s discomforting enough for someone like my husband. He refuses to rely on a smart alarm clock until it can do its job properly.