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 can — as with a lot of technology — end up making it more frustrating. There’s nothing worse than a smart light that doesn’t turn off on command. The look my spouse gives me when he has to get up from the couch to flip the switch because a voice assistant didn’t do its job could be trademarked.
Enter the Belkin Wemo Stage Scene Controller with Thread for Apple HomeKit. An elegant and reliable way to use physical controls to run your smart home, this $50 smart switch can do much more than a standard switch. Tap one of its three buttons to control any connected HomeKit device — from opening the shades and playing the radio to locking the front door and turning on smart lights. Even better, one press can do all these things at once, and a second press can turn it all off. See if your standard Decora can do that.
A scene controller is a concept that’s trickled down from high-end home automation systems like Crestron and Control4. Sometimes barking a voice command or pulling out your smartphone is inappropriate or just inconvenient, and there are plenty of situations where a motion or contact sensor isn’t the right fit 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.
While there are a few smart buttons and some remote controls for lighting systems such as Hue and Lutron Caseta that can work as scene controllers for HomeKit (and are about half the price of the Wemo), most of them require a proprietary hub or bridge to work.
Leviton’s new Decora Smart Scene Controller Switch (which I will be testing soon) is one of a handful of nonproprietary multibutton scene controllers available. This works over Wi-Fi, so it doesn’t need a hub and is also compatible with Amazon Alexa and Google Home. But it has to be hardwired to your home’s electrical and requires a more involved installation. It also doesn’t double as a portable remote control, which the battery-powered Wemo can.
The other feature that separates the Wemo Stage from the competition is that it’s the only option that works over Thread. And, as with my previous review of a Thread-enabled device — the Eve Motion Sensor — this gives it a serious leg up in the current smart home.
A scene controller is a concept that’s trickled down from high-end home automation systems
Thread is a wireless mesh protocol designed to make low-powered smart home devices respond more quickly and use less power than other protocols used in home automation. Thread devices don’t need a hub or bridge hooked up to your router; instead, they communicate directly with each other and with other home networks through a Thread border router. This is an always-powered device — such as a smart speaker or streaming media player. Apple currently has two Thread border routers: the HomePod Mini and Apple TV 4K (second-gen).
The Wemo Stage is a very small device, about half the size of an Apple TV remote, with three recessed buttons that have a raised dot pattern to indicate if it’s button one, two, or three. The buttons can be paired 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 distinct options.
As you might guess, this is a lot to remember. I’d like a way of indicating what each button does on the device itself. Leviton’s Scene Controller offers this by way of custom engraved faceplates, but that does make changing your mind a bit expensive. The tiny, minimalist design of the Wemo makes that impossible. Instead, you just need to remember and somehow get everyone else in your household on board with it. (Some tips on that in a bit.)
The Wemo Stage comes with a magnetic mount that can attach to a wall or table with included tape or by screwing it into an existing lighting receptacle. You can swap the included faceplate for a standard Decora one so that the Wemo Stage can sit alongside your regular light switches. It’s 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 lasting up to one year as promised.
The Wemo Stage works exclusively with Apple’s Home app for HomeKit, which is where you program each button and its various presses to run a scene or control multiple accessories. If you have a HomeKit-compatible Thread border router in your home, it will use the Thread protocol.
“It’s too early to confirm whether or not Belkin will introduce a Matter-enabled Wemo Stage.”
Otherwise, it will communicate over Bluetooth LE to any other Apple Home hub (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 was “buggy and unreliable” over Bluetooth, especially when too far away from a HomeKit hub. This is something I have experienced with other HomeKit devices that work over Bluetooth.
The other advantage of Thread is it’s 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 setup 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 to stick with HomeKit, this won’t be an issue, but Matter’s major promise is platform agnosticism, so a theoretical Matter version would be able to work with Amazon Alexa, Google Home, and Samsung SmartThings platforms.
Out of the box, the Wemo doesn’t have Thread enabled. I needed to download an update to put it on firmware version 2.9.6. This is odd for a device that came out over a year ago and also irritating since, without access to a Wemo app to force an update (it only works with the Home app, not Wemo’s app), I had to sit and wait until the Apple Home app rolled out the update. (It took about three days for me but only 20 minutes for my colleague).
Otherwise, the setup was really simple. The Wemo Stage uses Apple’s NFC pairing tech, so I just had to hold my phone on top of 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 shows up as a Programmable Switch) to a room, and from there, you can customize what each button will do.
This is where it gets really fun. Your options are pretty much endless. You can connect any single device, multiple devices, or scene (a preset collection of devices and actions) to each button. The simplest way to use it would be to program the lights in a room to full brightness, 50 percent brightness, and off on each button, making it act as a de facto dimmer. But that would only be harnessing a fraction of its power.
I found setting the three presses for each button to 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 activate a Worktime scene with a single press. This turns on my office lights at full brightness, raises the shades, starts a radio station from an AirPlay-enabled speaker, and adjusts the thermostat. A double press on the same button activates a Zoom scene, which pauses the music and adjusts the lights, and a long press turns everything off.
Keeping each button focused on the same concept makes it easier to remember what they do
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 activate a Good Morning scene for the whole household (short press), a Good Night scene (double press), and a Bedtime scene (long press).
By keeping each button focused on the same concept or set of lights, it should be easier to remember what they do. But in a week of testing, I did still have to keep referencing the app to remind me how I had set it up. And I didn’t even attempt to get anyone in my family to use it.
The Wemo ended up being a personal device for me, an easy way to manage commonly used home automation scenes without having to pick up my phone or use voice. Instead of mounting it to the wall, I kept it on my desk during the day and on my bedside table at night.
Here, its size and slightly disappointing plasticky build work against it. Compared to the new Hue Tap switch I’m also testing — which is a solid piece of kit — the Wemo feels like it won’t hold up to much accidental damage. (The test unit is already showing a few signs of wear and tear.)
In use, the button presses triggered everything quickly — under a second — and consistently, although there was some “popping” of lights, where a lamp would come on a fraction of a second after the other (both were Nanoleaf Thread-enabled bulbs). The music actions always took slightly longer and were less reliable — likely as it has to go through Apple Music’s cloud service, whereas everything else runs locally.
The single press and long press were most consistent, but occasionally the double press would get confused and run as a single press. It’s hard to tell if this is a hardware issue or me fat fingering it — I have large hands, and this device is very tiny.
If you are 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 previously, there are a handful of singular smart buttons out there from the likes of Eve (Bluetooth), Aqara, Hue, and Flic that can trigger three or four scenes using a combination of short, long, and double presses, but the Wemo can do nine.
There are also some with multibutton functionality, including Hue’s Tap and Dimmer switches and Lutron’s Caseta Pico remote. 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 for the Eve Button) work with a proprietary hub or bridge. Wemo, with the addition of Thread, can fit into your Apple Home setup pretty seamlessly if you have a HomePod Mini or newer Apple TV.
Photos by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / The Verge