IKEA Smart Home: Everything you love and hate about IKEA at once

Living in Denmark usually means I get everything late compared to the US. Movies come out a bit later, technology often isn’t available, etc.

So I delighted to learn (likely due to the extreme proximity between Denmark and Sweden) that I could get some IKEA Kadrilj smart blinds. After setting them up and having them work I have some feelings about the product.

The stuff I like

First IKEA couldn’t have made this process more simple. Out of the box, the Kadrilj blinds come with everything you need. There’s the signal repeater, the up/down button, the battery pack, the micro-USB cord to charge the battery pack and a USB wall plug. The instructions were pretty simple to install the blinds and I was pleased by how there didn’t seem to be any tricks to the installation itself. Working with the up/down button that comes out of the box was great. It was already paired to the signal repeater, so testing that basic functionality was charging up the smart blinds, plug in the repeater and then hit up/down to make them work. They also look quite nice and aren’t very loud which is a nice touch. The price is also excellent for what you get.

Outside of the blinds the IKEA gateway you need to connect the devices to Google Home, Alexa or Homekit is very simple to use. It is an ethernet-only device that only goes out to the internet to check for updates and update its time from NTP. Some people may see this as a downside but TRÅDFRI is pretty secure as far as IoT goes. The device itself is going to get an unencrypted JSON to download a signed file (so unless there is some local DNS hijacking this seems like a great approach). The local communication over your network is UDP but uses DTLS which means the UDP packets are encrypted. The key used for a handshake between devices is on the bottom of the device and seems long enough to be secure. I have a lot of experience with UDP but not that much with DTLS.

Above the networking layer for the gateway, the TRÅDFRI is running CoAP (Constrained Application Protocol) which gives a REST API. In testing with simple scripts written in Python, you have a lot of functionality open to you that isn’t available in the app yet. It’s great to know that in the future if IKEA were to drop support for the device I could still write scripts to manage the device without having to worry about IKEA relying on server-side communication to keep the device working. I also appreciate how IKEA limited themselves out of the gate and gave us something that is designed for years of operation. The device itself is nice looking although it did irritate me that the lights telling you of the status don’t change colors when they are working. Instead “blinking white” means not set up, “steady white” means it is working. I prefer colors to tell me status but this is not critical once you grasp how it works.

If you are interested in exploring the product on your own I found the pytradfri library to be super easy to use out of the box. It was easier to get information about the status of the gateway and the overall state of the world through this library than through the actual app. I don’t know if I would rely on it to do anything critical but it does seem like the kind of thing if you ever need to tinker with the stack it would let you do it.

Because the wireless protocol is Zigbee you don’t need the IKEA TRÅDFRI gateway, but I don’t have anything else that can serve in that control function and I wanted to connect the devices to Google Home. Be aware you can save a bit of money if you already own a Philips Hue stack. Also props to IKEA for including the USB cable for power, the wall outlet, and the Ethernet cable with the gateway. It’s a small thing but it is nice to not have to go into a box and dig up another Ethernet cable.

The stuff I didn’t like

On the blinds themselves, it was hard to get the two to line up length. You have to hit the down button, then hold it and wait for it to get close to the next one and let go. If you miss the blind needs to roll back up to the top, you need to reset it by hitting one of the buttons twice to reset the length, then try again. It’s a small thing but it seems natural to me that you might have many blinds next to each other and would have loved a way to sync length between them. I also didn’t love how the battery pack that powers the blinds doesn’t seem to give me any feedback on its charging status. Once again IKEA has decided to go with one color LED here, another white LED. So I don’t know how charged the battery pack is. You let it charge for an hour, shrug and then plug it in.

In the smart home section, while I like the technical design of the gateway the app has some problems. First, the way you connect devices is super confusing at first. You take the up/down remote, reset it by unscrewing the back metal panel, then hitting a small button 4 times to reset it. You then take it over to the gateway, hold down the same button, wait for the app to say it has paired with the remote, then repeat with the signal repeater. Finally, you do the same thing with the blinds. This takes a LONG time. I couldn’t get it to pair with the signal repeater on the first 10 tries. Then I took a break, ate some dinner, came back and got it on the first try. It’s not clear to me why I need to use the remote to connect these devices and wish there was a less manual way to add stuff to the network. But, I suspect this might be a security thing since it requires me to get within 3 cm of the devices to pair.

Integrating it with Google Home, once everything was set up in the IKEA app, was super basic and worked great. Voice commands with Google Home worked on the first try and I didn’t encounter any surprises. Timers and other functionality in the IKEA app also worked. Since there is no internet functionality would appear to live on my local gateway which is great. But, I am a little worried about this stack.

Since everything is set up manually with me having to get quite close to each thing, I’m not sure how comfortable I am installing a lot of lights. There are reports online of people losing all their stored devices with software updates (which get applied to the gateway without any user intervention). I’m confident I could block it from hitting the update server (or doing something with DNS to trick the gateway to going to a local copy of the JSON file with the current firmware listed) but I’m not sure if that is a good idea since there isn’t a change log and I have no idea if there are critical security updates going out to the devices with these updates. Setting up three blinds again would be fine but setting up like 20+ devices with light bulbs and everything else is a multiple-hour job and since there is no backup to the internet I assume if the gateway dies or gets a bad software update I need to start from scratch.

Conclusion

I’m pretty pleased in general with these blinds. They work well with Google, they weren’t too bad to set up and I appreciate that IKEA has thought this product through to be defensively designed, which is refreshing in a world full of IoT devices that suck at security. The downside is that you are reliant on the physical gateway box that you purchased to continue working to keep your configurations and you are reliant on IKEA, who is not a software company, to keep all this running. I suspect a lot of the way they designed this product was with the assumption that if it proved to not be profitable it wouldn’t be dangerous for users to continue to run for years. I also appreciate that they used open standards and stacks without any ridiculous restrictions on access. If you have the gateway, you have the secret you need to make API calls.

The only thing I’m worried about is the lifespan of the blinds. Who knows if I’ll be able to buy replacement batteries in the future or where I will be able to find them. The lack of ability to wire these devices into power means I can’t imagine they have a lifespan beyond 5 years which is a bummer both for sustainability and also as a practical thing (I doubt the motor in there is only rated to work that long). But you can buy more of the battery packs (I didn’t see any inside of IKEA but they’re quite good about replacement parts so I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt here). I’m excited though to start expanding my smart home collection with a few light bulbs and a few outlets. Yet, I wouldn’t put anything critical on this technology yet. It seems like IKEA is on its way to figuring it out, but if you were relying on this to keep AC going for people with medical conditions or other more niche use cases I would keep looking. The software isn’t quite there yet. For normal home use though it should be fine.