Automating the light in your home is easy if you only consider getting some smart bulbs or switches or plugs. But once it comes to natural light, the equation gets a bit more complicated. Smart shades/blinds/curtains aren't as ubiquitous, and the current solutions aren't ideal. You either have to replace your entire shades (Ikea, Lutron), the motor (Neo Smart Blinds), or if you're not feeling particularly adventurous, you can try to retrofit your existing window coverings.

The solution for that is both a little genius and ridiculous: there's a cord to control your shades, so how about adding a motor that just pulls on that cord instead of you? Many companies have taken that approach, to mitigated success. Today, I'll take a look at Soma's solution: a battery-powered Bluetooth controller, with optional solar panel, and its WiFi connecting bridge that adds voice assistant compatibility (including Google Home).

The Good

It works It raises the shades and lowers them. The app works, and so does the Connect bridge.
Solar panel Soma's battery lasts 25 days approx, but if you connect the solar panel, you don't have to worry about charging it.
Google Home With Soma Connect, you can raise or lower your shades to any percentage you want via voice. It also works with Alexa or HomeKit.

The Not So Good

Slow Two minutes to open or close a window shade on average. You need patience.
Many drawbacks The setup process is a little wonky, the app is beyond bare-bones, and the shades can't be controlled manually once you install Soma.
Limited automation There are no geolocation triggers and no sunrise/sunset scenes. Only timers.
Expensive At $149 for one shade ($119 if you buy 3) and $99 for the Connect, this is by no means a cheap solution.

Hardware and what's in the box

The Soma smart shade system consists mainly of one nondescript white box that measures about 7.5 x 5.8 x 4.5 cm. Remove the front panel and you'll see two screw holes and the gear that turns the chain. Soma is compatible with beaded and endless loop cords, though you should to check if your chain has a connector that might block it from moving around the gear. In that case, you'll need to replace the cord. On the bottom, there's a 3.5mm plug for power (yes, we're going old-school), and the back has two adhesive strips to secure Soma to the wall.

 

If you have horizontal blinds with a rod, not a cord, check out the SOMA Tilt. You can get two with their solar panels for $229.

Once installed, the box does look quite large, though inoffensive. If you're particular about your interior decor, you may want to find the whitest wall to install it on, or a way to hide it from view.

Since Soma communicates only over Bluetooth, you need a bridge to be able to control it via Google Home or other voice assistants. (Yes, the C by GE bulbs can talk directly to a Google Home, but so far, that's more the exception than the rule. Sigh.) Soma's Connect hub plays that role. It's another nondescript white box with plenty of ports that I can't see any need for (unless the company plans to add more features later). It plugs in via MicroUSB and that's the only port you'll use here.

Soma Connect.

In the Soma shade box, you get the white controller, USB to 3.5mm charging cable, solar panel with its cable, an extra beaded chain, and a manual. The Soma Connect comes with a USB to MicroUSB cable and a wall adapter.

Left: Soma smart shades box content. Right: Soma Connect box content.

Setup and usage

Smart Shades
Smart Shades
Developer: Wazombi Labs LLC
Price: Free

Setting up the Soma system is relatively easy, though it takes a while because of how slow everything is.

You start up by setting your shades manually to the middle of the window then download the Soma app (linked above) and give it permission to access location (any Bluetooth device requires that, that's Google's fault). You activate the Soma device by tapping its front panel, then begin the process of feeding the chain to the gear. That might sound complicated, but it was quite easy once I understood the mechanics of it.

You fix Soma to the wall with the included adhesive tape, or with screws if you prefer that, and then configure it by raising the shade and lowering it to the desired maximum positions. Assign a room and you're done. You can now control your blinds with your phone, or pair Soma to other devices and tablets too.

If you're interested in seeing the detailed setup, the manual can be found here and I've shared screenshots of the different steps below.

However, things aren't as simple as that. I had to repeat the setup process a few times. Once because the app froze mid configuration and a couple more because the lowest position setting wasn't registering accurately. I have dual-layer roller shades, so if they're off by a mere centimeter, they're not really closed and some sunlight streams through. Between configuration and usage, Soma was off by about 4-5 cm, which meant that a lot of light was still coming in. What makes matters worse is that once Soma is set up, you can't force it to lower more, so I had to go back to the start and pretend the down position was about 4-5 cm lower.

Coming back to the app, it's very bare-bones and looks objectively bad. You get your window diagram with a gradient background that changes with the time of day (bright in the morning, dark at night) and the date/weather. Slide the shade to the desired position and Soma will follow suit. Slooooowly. It never failed to connect though, when I was within Bluetooth range, so there's that.

A side menu on the left lets you change rooms and add the Soma Connect. On the right, there's another menu for accessing the status of different devices in this room and setting up triggers.

Soma device options are limited to just deletion and seeing the battery percentage. And triggers are only time-based. Choose any day(s) and time, set the desired position, and that's it.

In its current state, the app is overly limited. It lacks several essential features: granular controls for up/down instead of sliding (like the up/down buttons that show up in the configuration process), visuals for sliding curtains instead of vertical shades, sunrise/sunset triggers, location triggers (and even weather ones), a reconfiguration option for existing devices, per device control instead of per room, and more. The fact that it hasn't been updated since late 2017 also doesn't bode well for it.

The other issue is how slow Soma is. It takes 2 minutes and 20 seconds on average to open my window shade, and 1 minute and 50 seconds to close it. I didn't even set the upper position to roll up the shade completely (180 cm), but only to reach the ledge of the window (105 cm). Granted, I have large dual-layer shades (174 cm) which are a bit heavy, but that problem exists regardless of the size (check this video for example).

And then you have the sound. At a distance, it's not annoying, but if your bed happens to be right under the window and you set up Soma to open the shades in the morning, it acts as a nice alarm. On most days, I woke up before the light even begun streaming in.

Smart home integration

In order to control Soma with Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, or Apple HomeKit, you need to add the Connect in the app. Set up is easy. Plug in the device, connect it to your WiFi network through the app, and that's it. You don't even need to tell it which Soma devices are in your house as it will automatically connect to them via Bluetooth.

There are no usernames or passwords to an account, so you have to write down the ID number at the top of the Soma Connect screen. It's what you'll use to set up your integrations. For Google Assistant, there is no native integration, so you need to link your account by first saying "Talk to Soma Connect" then adding the ID.

The lack of native smart home integration also creates another issue: each time you want to control Soma, you haves to say "ask Soma Connect to..." and the controls are Voice Match dependent, so they won't work for other people in your household unless you link the Soma service from their Google Assistant too. You can read more about the limitations of Assistant apps in my guide, but suffice it to say that this isn't ideal, especially when other makers (Neo, Connector) are able to integrate natively with Assistant.

However, to its credit, the Soma Connect Assistant app works really well. It's succinct in its interactions, and super fast to respond. Before I even hear the "OK," the shades have already started to open/close. You can see it in action in the video below. There's almost no delay between the end of my command and the gears starting to turn.

Should you buy it?

Probably not. There are several limitations to Soma's shade system that make it not really worth the trouble in its current state. The system is relatively expensive for what it is, and the device is big and difficult to hide. The motor is slow and, depending on how far away you usually sit/sleep, loud. Worse yet, you can't manually roll up or down your shades once it's installed, so you better hope you're never in a hurry to open or close them or that it doesn't die on you at any point. The Soma app offers very little in terms of functions and automations, and there is no IFTTT integration to circumvent those missing features. And finally, the Google Assistant app isn't native, so it comes with a few drawbacks as well.

However, I won't deny that should you agree to those limitations, the Soma shades do actually work. Whether over Google Home or in Bluetooth range, they are reliably quick to respond and I didn't encounter any connection issues. The trigger timers can be set once and forgotten — your phone doesn't need to be within range for the timer to change your shade's configuration.

I can see a few scenarios where having a Soma makes sense: if it'll be installed in a home with disabled/elderly people, if all you want is timers for your shades, or if you have horizontal blinds with a cord where the full open/close only needs a few seconds (case in point: this video).

For every other situation, you will be compromising a lot. However, the issue is that competition is quite limited in this retrofit shades space. MySmartBlinds only works with horizontal blinds and Brunt Blind Engine is cheaper but seems to require power at all times. The one decent competitor I found is AXIS Gear, which has on-device controls and works with an Echo+ or SmartThings hub. It's $249 though — yikes!

If you're considering smart shades/blinds/curtains, my personal recommendation now is to either save up and get a proper upgrade for your shades (Ikea, if the preset sizes work for you, or Lutron, Somfy, Hunter Douglas, etc...) or wait a bit until a more powerful retrofit option with faster motor and better features comes along.

Buy if:

  • You absolutely do not want to change your current shades, but want them to be connected.
  • You don't care about speed or features, you just want timers for your shades.
  • You have horizontal blinds with a cord, and waiting a few seconds for them to open/close isn't that bad.
  • You're aware of the compromises, but have a disabled or elderly person for whom this is a real upgrade from manual shades.

Don't buy if:

  • You want to still be able to manually raise/lower your blinds.
  • Speed and discretion are essential.
  • You need more features and automations than just timers and voice control.

Where to buy?