I tried to adjust the time on my alarm clock. I failed.

Raymond Chen

Raymond

For some reason, my alarm clock requires that I install an app on my phone. And the app required me to create an account.

I’m going to repeat that: In order to set my alarm clock, I had to create an account with the clock manufacturer.

Anyway, I went through the setup process up back when I bought the alarm clock, and promptly forgot about it.

Most of the United States went from Daylight Saving Time to Standard Time this past weekend, which means that my Sunday morning consisted of walking around the house adjusting the times on the clocks in the house. This is normally a chore that takes just a few minutes.

Until I got to the alarm clock.

I had uninstalled the “Set the time on the alarm clock” app because, c’mon, it’s not like I change the time on the alarm clock every day. I set it once and forget it.

Okay, so I have to go back and re-download the app. And then I try to connect to the clock.

The clock doesn’t respond.

Okay, go download the manual, figure out how to do a factory reset. The clock now reads 12:00AM, like all clocks do when they are reset.

Go through the clock set-up again. The app’s UI is confusing. I can’t figure out how to re-connect to an existing clock or delete an existing clock so I can re-add it. There is a hamburger button ☰ next to the clock, but tapping it has no effect. I eventually figure out that you are supposed to swipe on the hamburger button, not tap it. That exposes the garbage can icon 🗑 for deleting the clock from the app.

Okay, so I’ve deleted my clock. Going through factory reset process. But when I enter my Wi-Fi password, the app just hangs with a spinning circle. It appears to be unable to connect to the clock.

I spent an hour resetting the clock, going through the configuration process again, trying different Wi-Fi networks, resetting my phone, resetting my router, resetting my reset button, nothing worked.

So now I was left with a clock that reads “12:00AM January 1, 2018”. We have progressed so much as a society in the past fifty years.

They say that a broken clock is correct twice a day. This one can’t even manage that.

I unplugged the clock and put it in the closet. Maybe I’ll try again tomorrow.

Bonus chatter: I’m thinking maybe of plugging the clock in at exactly midnight. The date will be wrong, but at least the time will be correct.

Epilogue: I think the problem is that the clock’s Wi-Fi chip is broken. It successfully adjusted from standard time to daylight time back in the springtime. But it failed to adjust automatically for the fall changeover. The clock said “No Wi-Fi”.

Epilogue 2: In the instructions, after “Step 2: Set up with the app”, there is a “Step 3 (optional)” that talks about making adjustments. It is not obvious, but step 3 is not dependent upon step 2, and you can use it to set the time without an Internet connection. I never made it past step 2 and therefore never noticed step 3.

The Wi-Fi connectivity is nice when it’s working (like it was during the springtime) since it means never having to adjust the time after a power outage or time zone change. There are other features unlocked by Wi-Fi, but we never used them.

But it’s all moot now because I returned the clock.

It’s not obvious from the box that you need an app to set up the clock. The person who bought the clock did so for the “project the time on the ceiling” feature, which is a pretty awesome feature. Highly recommended. But maybe not with this clock.

Raymond Chen
Raymond Chen

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28 comments

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  • Avatar
    Kyle Brown

    Seems like there’s a step missing. How do you connect to the clock to tell it what wi-fi settings to use without connecting to the clock and telling it what wi-fi settings to use? Does it have a way to physically connect the clock to the network, an ad-hoc network mode or an NFC mode so you can connect directly to the clock?

    • Raymond Chen
      Raymond Chen

      The first two steps are putting the clock into configuration mode and entering your clock’s serial number into the app. Presumably this allows the phone to find the clock and send the Wi-Fi settings.

      • Avatar
        Dave Bacher

        Try pressing and holding the power button for about 30 seconds, if there’s not a visibly separate connect button.

        As Almighty Toomre said…

        Usually you’ll go into connect mode, and that will make an adhoc or wifi direct network with a name like “brandx_aabbccdd” where aabbccdd is often the serial number of the specific device. The code then can enumerate those, and pair down the list to anything starting “brandx_”.

        At that point, it can connect adhoc or wifi direct and push the settings in the least secure way possible (* typically it’s something like TFTP or HTTP with no protection against an attacker at all in the pairing). And then it resets and tada its on your network.

        More rarely you’ll see WPS.

        It usually requires a manual action such as holding the power button until your finger has to be amputated to prevent gangrene or the LED starts flashing, whichever comes first. Sometimes there’s a half hearted attempt at a PIN, too.

        It is also possible to go the other way (have the phone put out a known SSID, have the device connect to it), it’s just less common because the device has full permissions while the App likely doesn’t.

    • Avatar
      Almighty Toomre

      Many IOT devices when reset will act as an access point and use a “well known” SSID. The app that accesses them will first see if there are any WiFi networks with that SSID, and if so, connect to the network. After that, it’s easy.

      • Avatar
        Mike Morrison

        I understand; who would’ve thought that you’d need a smartphone and an app just to set a clock? Here, let’s take some existing technology and add WiFi to it because of… reasons. Data collection is my guess.

        My wife’s alarm clock has physical buttons on it which allow you to adjust the time in 1 minute increments. What a concept! The other clocks in the house were similarly set: a few button taps or scrolling a wheel were all that’s needed to set the time. The phone and the TV recorder got automatic DST updates over the network, which is doubly good for me, as my phone is my alarm clock.

  • Avatar
    Ryan P

    Wow, just wow. I thought it was bad enough when I needed an app and account to configure my kid’s Octopus Watch and keep it synced with my phone on a daily basis. But this. Why do you need an app for an alarm clock?!?!?! It has 1 job, it shouldn’t need an app for that.

    I like my kid’s alarm clock. It has a physical button on the back just for DST changes. Push the button once, the clock adds an hour. Push the button again, the clock subtracts an hour. Done. I thought that was the greatest thing since sliced bread when I first saw it 🙂

    • Avatar
      Brian Boorman

      Until someone on Lord Howe Island, Australia buys that clock. There, clocks are set only 30 minutes forward from LHST (UTC+10:30) to LHDT (UTC+11) during their daylight saving time period.

  • nathan m
    nathan m

    Like you’ve said in other blog posts — some engineer probably got a bonus or promotion for adding that feature.

  • Avatar
    Peter Cooper

    I would have thought that one of the main points of a network-enabled clock would be that you wouldn’t need to configure it, and it would set itself over NTP. (I suppose if it didn’t have an ethernet jack you’d need some menu interface to connect it to wi-fi, but that should be the extent of it.) I searched in earnest for such a clock roughly a decade ago, but all I could find were really expensive complete-corporate-campus-timekeeping solutions. I had thought that somewhere out there would be a simple clock-with-an-ethernet-jack, but I suppose I’m the only one who ever imagined such a product. It’d be nice if it could double as the NTP server for my home computers, too, but that’s apparently a whole other thing. I suppose if I wanted another hobby I could cobble together something myself now that there’s Raspberry Pi and Arduino and the like around as affordable small computers, but it still seems like something that just ought to exist off the shelf somewhere.

    • Avatar
      cheong00

      It would be way easier and cheaper if you can just buy a cheap Android phone, set its display to “always on”, connect to WiFi and display the clock App there. (The phone stand values next to nothing for me, as I’ve got a few free souvenir that I got from talks here)

    • Avatar
      Lance Matthews

      I have wondered this and searched for this, too, but I suspect a device with the network stack needed to query an NTP server would necessarily be too complex/”smart” to be cheap. That won’t be a winner in a race-to-the-bottom business where people expect clocks to cost $10-20.

      Another one that seems obvious yet also non-existent would be a USB-powered clock that just displays the time from its (presumably NTP-synced) host. I’ve seen USB fans, beverage warmers, even mini Christmas trees, but I guess a clock isn’t enough of a novelty for USB. Maybe driver support for multiple platforms would make it too complicated and, therefore, expensive?

  • Bulat Shelepov
    Bulat Shelepov

    Just the other day I got a thermometer (the medical kind) that needs an app to take a measurement. Grudgingly, I installed an app, and of course the first thing it asked was to log into an account. So I signed up as “John Doe” with the “fuckyou@gmail.com” email address. Lo and behold, somebody else had already used that email address.

    I’m going back to my 20-year old dumb thermometer from Walgreens.

  • Avatar
    Deckard, Jared

    If your system clock is too far behind, SSL certificates will fail validation. I suspect during QA the certificates were valid for the reset date, but the current certificate is not.

  • Avatar
    cheong00

    That’s why not everything should be IOT-ed.

    In fact I don’t want most of the things that I used be IOT-ed.

  • Avatar
    Fleet Command

    Almost the same thing happened to me today: I tried to download Windows Admin Center 1910, but I was taken to Microsoft Evaluation Center of all places and told to create an account and fill a form.
    I didn’t download Windows Admin Center 1910. It is as broken as your clock.

  • Avatar
    Mark Zuckerdick

    Your alarm clock likely uses something like ESP-Touch or Airkiss for provisioning. The way it works is, the SSID/password are encoded in packet lengths, then the device sniffs the encrypted packets to decode the enrollment data. This only works well if (a) your phone is using 2.4GHz band, because most of those Internet-of-Shit crap doesn’t support 5GHz and (b) your phone has the strongest signal nearby, because that’s how automatic channel detection works in the sniffer algorithm. So, temporarily disable 5GHz on the router(s) and make sure your phone is closer to the alarm clock than any other WiFi device during setup.

    • Avatar
      Neil Rashbrook

      I have three! (Well, one’s a watch.) I should really go and reset the time on my legacy clocks at some point.

  • Avatar
    Lincoln Lorenz

    Have you tried setting your wifi router / AP to only broadcast 2.4 Ghz? Some of these automated wifi things get tripped up when the 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz radios have the same SSID. I had this problem when connecting my new fancy Philips wifi lightbulbs that took a whole hour to configure.

    Here’s the info from the WiZ FAQ page that pointed me in the right direction (https://taolight.helpshift.com/a/wiz/?s=getting-started&f=pairing-troubleshooting&l=en):
    2 – Check that your phone is connected to the 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi on your home router.
    2.4GHz is the Wi-Fi band used by the lamps because it covers more distance than 5GHz. Your phone has to be on 2.4GHz Wi-Fi so that the pairing works. If your router does not distinguish between 5GHz and 2.4GHz, you may need to check inside the router settings (http://192.168.1.1/ ).
    If you do not know which network you are on, go check your router settings, your router probably gives the same name to both 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks. You probably need to go into “Advanced Wi-Fi Settings” and check a checkbox saying “have different SSID for each network” (or something equivalent). Then, rename your 5GHz network by adding “-5GHz” at the end. Now, in your phone list of available networks, you should see one named “my wi-fi name” and one named “my wi-fi name -5GHz”. Choose the one without 5GHz, it will therefore be the 2.4GHz one. The lamps get the credentials of your router via a protocol named UDP. Please check that UDP is not blocked on your network in your router settings.

  • Avatar
    Jonathan Kroupa

    My wife’s alarm clock has a built in calendar and knows when daylight savings changes, except, it was made before they moved it back a week to accommodate Halloween. So now it always changes itself one week earlier than it should.

  • Sun Kim
    Sun Kim

    Sounds like overengineered BS. I bought atomic clocks – manual that runs on 1 AA and digital clocks that change date and time over the air via NIST (Colorado, CO). They cost me anywhere from $15 to $20 on Amazon. I replaced clocks in our conference rooms but use a wall adapter so batteries never need to be replaced. The time will adjust automatically whenever day light savings start or ends.

    • Raymond Chen
      Raymond Chen

      One of my friends has an atomic clock. His problem is that the signal is poor in the room, so whenever the time changes, he has to unplug the clock, go to another room, plug it in, let it sync the time, and then move back to the original room.

  • Avatar
    David Walker

    Sounds like an Internet-connected toaster. I know! Let’s put a computer in the toaster, instead of dumb controls. That way, there are more points of failure!

    I wish ALL clocks had a button that adds one hour, and a button that removes one hour. Or a plus-one-hour/minus-one-hour two-position slide switch. A few clocks do, but most do not. Sure, that won’t help when your DST time shifts by 30 minutes, but it will help most people.

    Or, better yet, get rid of DST altogether.

    • Avatar
      cheong00

      Talking about IOT-toaster, I’m curious if there is automatic toast maker instead.

      In here, lots of people are having their breakfast in cafe where they use online App to take orders already. It’ll be kind of WOW-factor if we can see a machine that while I make the order, it cuts a slice of bread, run the bread through the heating wires with conveyor belt to make it a toast, then drop butter/peanut butter/jam/nutella or whatever we ordered on it (no need to spread, let the customer do it generally makes it better experience) and plate it at the end.

    • Avatar
      Mike Morrison

      Or an IoT fridge. I recall looking at the refrigerators at the local big-box home-improvement store and saw a fridge with a tablet built into the door. They had it display the local time, weather forecast, ews, etc. As though I don’t have a TV for the morning news, or a tablet, or a laptop, or a phone… And you had a ~1500 USD premium for that “privilege”. Just to have a soon-to-be-outdated tablet embedded in your fridge. And what would you do if (when) the tablet breaks? Likely a service call, because it’s unlikely that it’d be a user-servicable part. Something tells me that it’d be an expensive service call. I think I’ll stick with my well-insulated but non-connected fridge, thanks. Ditto for connected clocks.