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Smart-home remotes want to replace your phone, but they have their own issues

There are lots of ways to turn on your lights, beyond just the switch. Thanks to smart bulbs and outlets, you can program your lights to turn on at 6:30 p.m. or have them illuminate whenever your smartphone comes within Bluetooth range. But even so, smart-home systems can come with little headaches. If a family member flips the switch on your lamp, the only thing that will bring it, and its connectivity, back to life is a physical action.

Numio Smart Home ControllerMany people just don’t see the connected home as convenient quite yet. Taking out a phone, entering a password, scrolling through screens, opening an app, and pressing a button takes time. Unless you’re tucked comfily into bed, isn’t it easier to lower the thermostat manually? But there are a host of new products that want to take the control of your smart home off your phone and put it in a separate device.

Whether they’re buttons, dials, rectangles, or cubes, they’re basically remote controls for you house. In fact, Neeo is designed to look just like something that works for your TV. That’s by design, because it’s a universal remote with smart-home functionality. With both buttons and a touchscreen display, it’s pretty easy to tell whether you’re turning on the TV or locking the front door.

Related: Striped, Solid, or Smart: Researchers are developing wallpaper to control devices

Other interfaces forgo the screen all together. The Silvair Control is a dial-like “mouse” that you can turn or tap, and it will raise your blinds or turn off your lights, depending on how its set up. Magnetic and palm-sized, you can take it from room to room. The circular button has four little lights on its front to help direct you to which smart-home device you want to control.

Numio looks remarkably like the Silvair, if a little bigger: It’s a button surrounded by a ring, but it adds gesture control, as well. To switch through the applications, from your smart lock to your Nest, you hold down the button and swipe through the LED icons until you find the one you want.

  • Cube smart home controlerBreaking the mold a bit is Cube, which lives up to its name. Perhaps a little smaller than a Rubick’s cube, the black device lights up with different icons when you pick it up. Give it a twirl to lower the music. Gently roll it over like a die to reveal a different function: a bulb for lights, thermometer for thermostat, and so on.

These remotes all strive to simplify the day-to-day operation of a smart home. A true smart-home remote needs to be portable, but none of them will easily fit into your pocket. While the Amazon Echo is slowly integrating with connected devices and IFTTT, it has to be plugged in at all times. You can tell it to turn on your lights… as long as you’re in the same room. Voice-activation integration is coming with Siri and OK Google, but it’s still a bit clunky.

The other issue is that these controls don’t fully replace your smartphone. It might be easier to snag a button off the wall and give it a few taps then go through the rigmarole of opening an app on your phone, but the Cube is limited by its six sides. (Plus, isn’t your Nest or light switch right there on the wall, too?) Numio still needs your computer or phone to fully work with music apps such as Spotify or Pandora.

Though these devices attempt to make smart homes more streamlined, they could also introduce one more problem into the house if you and your loved ones already have epic battles over who controls the remote.