Hey Alexa, turn on the lights.
Alexa, I said turn on my lights - not play a song called turn on the lights!
Annoying, isn’t it? Voice assistants are pretty cool most of the time, but sometimes what you really want is a physical button to press.
And this is why one of the most unexpectedly useful gadgets I’ve used over the last couple of years is Flic, a tiny bluetooth button that hooks up to your phone, and lets you use a physical button to trigger custom actions that you pre-configure in the Flic app. For example, you can use the button to control your IoT lights - or play or pause your Spotify.
Or as I described when I reviewed the buttons in January 2017, in my case I use the Flic button to toggle podcast playback from my phone when listening while playing video games. As soon as an important in-game cutscene begins, I can give the button a tap and immediately pause the pod. So I don’t miss anything. No need to bark at a voice assistant and hope for the best.
What I’m saying is, these little things turned out to be super useful. And if you’re slightly nerdy, they’re also developer friendly, so you can use them to trigger web-apps and custom stuff you’ve made too.
There was just one problem, however - that many users identified. The weak link with Flic is… your phone.
The problem is that for the bluetooth connection to work, you need to be running the app on your phone, and as it could be hours between presses of your Flic button, chances are you’ll have opened dozens of apps after you opened Flic, and your phone may have closed the Flic app to save on resources. This differs from, say, using bluetooth headphones because in that case the bluetooth connection is constant, so your phone will know to keep the app alive - whereas a press of the Flic is just little discrete bursts of data.
And this means that when you hit the button… there’s a chance that nothing would happen.
So what to do? Finally, Flic has figured out a solution.
This is the Flic Hub, an extra piece of hardware that you plug into your router. The idea is simple: rather than connect the buttons to your phone, which you use for other stuff and often take out of your house, instead you can connect your Flic buttons to the hub, which is always on and listening, 24 hours a day. So when you hammer the button to turn on your lights, you can expect the room to immediately light up.
It’s a small white box, above the size of a large box of matches, and it can apparently connect up to 64 flic buttons at once. Getting started in easy: Go into the Flic app, press to add a hub, and the app will find it and get it connected to your network by either wifi or bluetooth. Then in the phone app you can pair buttons to the hub and configure how you want them to behave. Within seconds, you’re good to go.
The hub also has a couple of clever extras built in. First, there’s an infra-red (IR) blaster that you can program with your TV remote. This means that Flic can suddenly be used to operate your TV or any other IR-powered device within range (such as an air conditioning unit). And there’s also a 3.5mm audio out socket, with a short cable coming in the box. This means that you connect up any speaker in your house and instantly transform it into a Bluetooth speaker too. While not completely revolutionary, it is definitely a nice add-on.
I’ve been using the Flic Hub for a couple of weeks now and have used several buttons doing several things, like controlling lights. Which has worked great. Perhaps the most useful use though has been as play/pause for my Sonos system, especially when the phone rings. Now in time-sensitive situations, I don’t need to quickly launch the right app or dive over to the hardware button on the device itself: I can just bash my fist on to the bottle-cap sized button next to me, and suddenly I’m able to answer the call in peace. Brilliant.
Essentially then, as far as this review goes, is that… well, it works well! It was easy to setup and configure, and it has made my life a tiny bit easier - which is exactly what you want from an IOT gadget. Hurrah!
Flic Hub is available now for pre-order on IndieGogo, starting at $134 - which works out as about £100, and includes 3 extra buttons too.