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Worse Than Dumb: When Smart Home Gadgets Just Don’t Work

Lidia Davis

Lidia Davis

Contributor

5 min. read

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There’s always some excitement when opening the box that holds a product we’re about to review. Excitement, mixed with a certain degree of wariness in both the product and our ability to test every single angle we possibly can to make sure it’s worth your time and money — and in some cases — safe to use, even after countless hours of research. We’ll be the first to tell you we’re not the experts. We’re consumers, just like you, who talk to the experts and jump through all the necessary hurdles when it comes to a certain product or service so you don’t have to.

We’re obsessed with getting it right. And sometimes, getting it right means you have to get — or discover — a few things that are really wrong along the way. Take our recent review of a Husqvarna Automower 315X robot lawn mower, for example. We spent over two hours on our hands and knees in the hot sun, stapling about 500 feet of boundary wire into the ground to create a perimeter for our robot lawn mower to roam about the area. We also worked around a dead outlet, a broken extension cord, and hundreds of feet of downright finicky boundary wire, all to make sure we were testing this device to the best of our ability. Despite assurances from Husqvarna that everything should be working based on our setup, that was not the case for us, at least not until we abandoned our first testing area and set it up elsewhere, this time in a true backyard.

You read that correctly. We neglected to check what is probably the most important aspect of a power-enabled product: the outlet. To be fair, it looked like it should’ve worked. Still, we should’ve checked it ahead of time.

But let’s back up a bit. This was all after we’d taken a trip to Lowe’s, spoken to a salesman about the Husqvarna Automowers, weaved through a few phone trees here and there to reach Husqvarna representatives, contacted a turfgrass scientist, and, later, a head groundskeeper for a minor league baseball team. We also consciously decided to take the hard route here. You can call on a local Husqvarna representative to install everything for you. But doing it yourself is cheaper than professional installation — and, according to local mower shops here in Charlotte — it’s not that difficult of an endeavor to undertake on your own.

We can’t speak for everyone’s potential experience with an Automower, because truthfully, we still can’t say definitively why the area outside our office seemed to be a boundary wire dead zone while the backyard was a haven for robot mower connectivity. We can say we wanted to write a review for those of you who want to save some money (especially when it comes to a $2,000 robot lawn mower) and opt to install on your own, and for those of you who might simply enjoy a good outdoor project. Typically, professional installers will use a machine that drives the boundary wire into the ground and potentially out of harm’s way from being nicked by a mower blade, or kicked by a kid. So we asked, what does an install job look like when a couple of groundskeeping amateurs drive boundary wires into the ground with plastic stakes? It’s absolutely feasible with a little bit of patience and diligence. It’s what comes after the setup that might give you a migraine.

In an effort to recoup lost time from wiring an entire system around a dead outlet on our first try, we ran an extension cord from the second floor of the building to generate power. This worked for a few days and allowed us to watch the mower run its course — here, we tested for general cutting ability, terrain-handling to make sure it could get up and down the hills in the space, how accurate its GPS-navigation abilities were, and what the grass actually looked like after a solid 12-hour run. Just before we could feel any ounce of triumph, the “no loop wire” signal made its grand appearance, rendering the entire system useless. Typically, this means there’s a breakage in the wire or in the boundary wire’s connection to the base station. We walked the perimeter of the wire countless times over, unplugged, plugged, and mended every semblance of a breakage we could and still couldn’t fix it. This is where we scrapped the whole thing and used all the untouched wire we had left from the first round to create a much smaller lawn in the same area.

We could’ve racked our brains trying to speculate the reasons behind our persistent testing complications, but in an effort to rule out the possibility of everything being solely the mower’s fault, we bought another medium-size installation kit to test the robot in a true residential space. John Puterbaugh, senior editor at Reviews.com and editor for this piece, offered his new suburban Charlotte backyard. There, we were able to use the mower the way it was intended to be used — hands-off, with fewer signal errors. (The only one we got there was when John’s son stepped on the boundary wire – and that was an easy fix!).

You might be asking at this point: What’s the point of this behind-the-scenes narrative? To show you we learned (through both unexpected and methodically-planned steps) that these machines probably aren’t as mindlessly-operated as they’re advertised to be. But they do have some redeeming qualities. The Automower 315X does offer a good deal of automation and some benefits to your lawn, like dispersing the short clippings that enhance fertility. They’re designed to make mowing a more frequent task and keep your grass uniformly short (in return, this helps cover up the fact that it zigs and zags without any apparent rhyme or reason across your lawn).

As a product review-centric company, it’s natural to assume we’re privy to all the ins and outs of everything we examine when you read one of our reviews. And to an extent, we are. But the road to get there — and to a final publish — probably looks a lot like yours would, filled with all sorts of questions mingled with surprised remarks of “wow — no one told us about that.” We put ourselves through the same sticky situations everyday consumers might encounter — all to make sure our reviews not only better prepare you for your next purchase but are also relatable in the most authentic and reliable way possible.

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