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    Belkin Crock-Pot Smart Slow Cooker review: Can WiFi make cooking easier?

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    Frying, baking, grilling, searing, boiling, roasting -- whatever the method, I love to cook. It's not always easy, and sometimes it's just plain hard work, but at least it's the kind of work I enjoy. Even so, I've never used a slow cooker, and have always been a little jealous of my friends who have one. Put ingredients in and deliciousness comes out. It seems so easy!

    Since I hadn't yet run out to my nearest Target to add a slow cooker to my kitchen collection, I jumped at the chance to try the Belkin Crock-Pot Smart Slow Cooker with WeMo. The name is a bit of a mouthful, but the idea of a slow cooker I could monitor remotely seemed like a definite plus -- using it to check on the things I cook and making adjustments as needed. And in this case, I could do it from my phone, even while riding on the train or walking to my apartment. Convenient!

    Gallery: Belkin Crock-Pot Smart Slow Cooker review | 12 Photos

    Engadget Score
    Poor
    Uninspiring
    Good
    Excellent
    Key

    Pros
    • Easy setup
    • Simple operation
    • Easy to clean
    Cons
    • App has limited utility
    • Might shut off without warning
    • Expensive

    Summary

    The ability to check to see if your food is still cooking might appeal to obsessive-compulsive types but, for most, the added WiFi won't be worth the $130 price tag.

    Hardware

    At first glance, the Belkin Crock-Pot isn't all that different from the non-smart slow cookers made by Crock-Pot. It's an oval-shaped container with a silver metal exterior, black handles on each side, a glass lid and controls on the front panel underneath the familiar Crock-Pot logo. But instead of a dial, or the soft-touch buttons of newer digital models, the Smart Slow Cooker has pared the controls down to one clicky button. That button lets you toggle among high, low and warm cooking settings, while everything else on the panel is just an indicator. Any control more advanced than that has been moved to the app. Inside, the cooker has a removable, black ceramic serving dish that accommodates up to six quarts.

    Software

    Connecting the slow cooker is a relatively painless process. You'll need to download the free WeMo app for Android, iOS or Kindle first. Once the Smart Slow Cooker is plugged in, it'll create a WiFi network that you connect to. Then, when you open the WeMo app, it'll prompt you to connect to your home network. I had to restart the app to get the connection to finish the setup process, but only the one time. I feel like a lot of smart devices often require frequent restarting and button pushing to get them connected, but this went fairly smoothly. The best part is that you only have to set it up once -- even if the slow cooker is unplugged (which happens a lot given that outlets and counter space are at a premium in my kitchen), it will remember its settings and reconnect automatically when you plug it back in.

    The WeMo app itself is pretty straightforward, and anyone who's already invested in Belkin's smart light switches or outlets should be familiar with what it has to offer. All connected devices are listed with their connection status displayed; just click on the one you wish to control at that moment. Overall settings for the app are available via the icon in the upper-right corner of the screen; selecting this icon while a device is selected will yield additional options to edit settings for the device or even update its firmware. Once set up, the slow cooker should appear in the list of devices and you just need to tap on the circle in its row to turn it on. Each tap cycles through the various heating options, from low to high to warm, before cycling back to off. Selecting the row itself allows you to set a timer, flipping up and down between numbers.

    Gallery: WeMo screenshots | 9 Photos

    In use

    With the slow cooker set up, it was time to give this thing a try. I settled on a barbecue-style chicken stew, with celery, onions, bell peppers, tomato and all the spices that would identify it as "barbecue flavor." Unfortunately, I quickly realized that though a slow cooker means I no longer have to stand over a hot stove monitoring the stew as it bubbles away, it doesn't make the preparation process any easier or faster. I still had to cut up all the vegetables and the chicken and that still takes time, dashing any thoughts of a "quick and easy" meal.

    Once everything was chopped and squared away in the pot, with the appropriate spices stirred in and the lid popped on top, I was faced with a bit of a conundrum: Should I use my phone to turn it on or press the button on the front? I opted to use the phone to set the cooker to "low," but felt mighty silly doing so since I was standing right in front of it. Experimenting with both the phone and manual controls, I noticed the phone exhibits a slight delay between temperature settings, so you might as well press the physical button when possible. There's a risk of holding the button too long in the app, accidentally setting it on the wrong temperature and forcing you to cycle through all the settings to get it back where you want it.

    With the slow cooker slowly heating up, beginning the process of turning my raw ingredients into a delicious, delicious stew, I left for work. It was satisfying to know that after a long day at the office, I wouldn't have to worry about what I was going to eat when I got home. It would be there, waiting for me.

    I managed to get all the way to work without looking at my phone, but the first chance I got, I checked the WeMo app. It was still cooking. And that's... all I knew. The app only tells you the current cooking temperature setting and how long it's been cooking. It doesn't tell you what the exact temperature of the food is, how much it's bubbling or whether the tomatoes in the pot have boiled down completely. The cooking time isn't even that reliable -- it merely measures how long the slow cooker has been on, not how long the food has been sitting in it. If you decide to raise the heat, you need to cycle from low to warm to off, and then back to high, resetting the cooking time. You can still set the timer remotely, but it'll only tell you how long you're setting it to cook, not how long it'll take the food to finish cooking.

    I checked back periodically throughout the day, with the same distinct lack of discernible progress. "Yep, still cooking," I'd say every time I opened up the app. However, while a watched pot never boils, it was good that I was watching this pot -- one time when I checked the app, the slow cooker was off! Not sure if the problem was on my end or the pot just turned itself off, but it ended up being a good thing that I was metaphorically hovering over this stew. It didn't do it again, though, and remained on for the rest of the day.

    My obsessive checking got shut down cold turkey as I rode the subway home; there's no cell service underground, after all. But when I got a signal, I managed to restrain myself. As I walked to my apartment, I opened the app on my phone once more to set the pot to "warm," since dinner was now imminent.

    Upon arriving home, I walked straight into my kitchen to take my first look at the completed stew. The tomatoes had completely boiled down and the vegetables were tender; the disparate ingredients were simmering into a reddish concoction that smelled delicious. I grabbed my large spoon and ladled out heaping portions into bowls for myself and my boyfriend, sprinkling a little cheddar cheese on top. How was it? Delicious. It didn't have quite the tartness I was hoping for, but it still was very savory with the right amount of sweetness. My only complaint -- and this does, in fact, involve the cooker to some extent -- is that the meat wasn't completely tender to the touch. However, it easily pulled and shredded apart when prodded with a spoon.

    Once we had finished eating it was time for the worst part of the evening: cleanup. But it wasn't bad at all. The Smart Slow Cooker itself actually consists of two pieces, the metal exterior with the heating element, and an interior ceramic bowl that can be removed for serving or cleaning purposes. We just took it out and washed it like any other bowl, wiping it down with a sponge and some dishwashing liquid, and putting it back in the cooker once it had dried. The exterior portion can be easily wiped down as well; the lack of buttons is actually useful here as there are fewer places for escaped food particles to accumulate.

    Wrap-up

    While I enjoyed my stew, and using the Belkin Crock-Pot Smart Slow Cooker with WeMo was an overall pleasant experience, I can't say that WiFi connectivity added anything particularly useful to the device. Slow cookers usually have timers so you can have it cook for just the right amount of time and have it shut off before the food gets ruined. The one advantage of the WiFi connection is that you can turn it back on after it shuts itself off -- so if you end up working later than expected, before leaving the office you can set the cooker to "warm" to have your food ready to go again the minute you walk in the door. But like many other slow cookers, the Belkin Crock-Pot is well-insulated, making it unlikely that your food will get cold (or even lukewarm) before you get home, even when you stay out late.

    A little extra information in the app would have made the Smart Slow Cooker more useful, like the current temperature of the food and how long it's been in the pot. The app could use some improvements in general -- while WeMo is compatible with If This Then That (IFTTT), there's no specific compatibility with the slow cooker. I couldn't, for example, set up the Smart Slow Cooker so that it would occasionally brag on Twitter about the awesome stew I was making. In its current state, all the app does is move the controls from the front of the cooker into your phone. Instead of being something you "set and forget," the connectivity makes it possible to obsess over your food all day. Maybe some people like that degree of control, but for most, it's not worth spending $130 when a regular slow cooker can be had for as little as $30.

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