Review: iDevices iGrill Bluetooth Cooking Thermometer for iOS Devices
App-enhanced iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad accessories will continue to increase in quantity and hopefully quality over the next few years, but their success will depend largely on a single factor that too few developers are taking into account: value for the dollar. Thus, though we were initially intrigued when iDevices unveiled an iOS-enhanced digital grilling and cooking thermometer named iGrill ($100), we ultimately didn't find that it delivered $60 or $80 worth of added value over traditional meat thermometers. If you're willing to pay a steep premium to monitor your meat from a distance using your iOS device, this isn't a bad accessory, but we'd wait on a second-generation version and improved software that addresses some of this unit's idiosyncrasies. (Note: The original version of iGrill, released in late 2010 and sold through Apple, was recalled and replaced by an updated model. We tested one of the updated models.)
Larger and considerably thicker than any iPhone or iPod touch, iGrill is sold in glossy white or glossy black versions, each with three front-facing capacitive buttons—power, temperature up, and temperature down—and a rear switch to toggle between fahrenheit and celsius readings. iDevices packages each iGrill with a four-foot-long metal-cabled probe, connected via a left or right 2.5mm port so that the plastic device can sit at a safe distance away, plus a package of four AA batteries, which are inserted into a compartment on the unit’s back. Surrounding that compartment is a pop-out stand that enables iGrill to stand upright, providing easy visual access to its red, glow-through three-character display, which can read “LO” (low), “AL1” or “AL2” for alarms 1 and 2, and whatever two- or three-digit temperature from 32 to 400 degrees fahrenheit the probe is detecting. A blue flame light glows above the iGrill name to indicate power.
So far, none of the features mentioned in iGrill would be unusual in a $20 or $40 digital meat thermometer—except for the four AA batteries. Most competing devices use two AAA cells and have commensurately smaller footprints, but iDevices apparently needed the extra battery power and space for iGrill’s special feature: a Bluetooth chip that enables the accessory to communicate wirelessly with an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad. Whereas most Bluetooth devices work only from 30- or 60-foot distances, iGrill’s Bluetooth chip boasts a 200-foot maximum broadcasting range that practically enables it to communicate with most iOS devices through the wall of a house or across a yard. Consequently, you can use your iPod touch, iPhone, or iPad in the kitchen while a grill is cooking your meat outdoors, or monitor the temperature in an oven when you’re sitting in your living room. iDevices also sells an additional temperature probe for $20 more, enabling users to track two temperatures at once, a feature we did not test. Temperatures using the included probe were accurate to within 1 or 3 degrees of other thermometers we tested at the same time.
Notably, we found that iGrill’s wireless hardware drains its AA cells quickly enough that a “low battery” warning appeared after less than three weeks of infrequent iGrill use, and the batteries actually died mid-testing a couple of days after the first warning. Additionally, we discovered that you can only pair one iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad at a time with iGrill before having to hard-reset its settings—hold all three face buttons down at once after powering the unit down. The power consumption and single-device pairing issues together suggest that iDevices isn’t taking advantage of the power-efficient Bluetooth 2.1 multi-pairing features supported by Apple’s devices, which enable some Bluetooth headsets and keyboards to last for months on smaller batteries than iGrill users. Better Bluetooth hardware and power management would make an iGrill sequel more appealing; for this price, a rechargeable battery really should have been included, as well.
What iGrill’s Bluetooth feature actually offers iOS users is relatively simple: realtime wireless temperature information. You need to download a free iGrill application that thankfully includes separate interfaces for the iPad and iPhone/iPod touch, whereby the iPad UI combines three separate iPhone screens into a single screen. On the iPhone and iPod touch, screen one is a traditional analog-style meat thermometer, complete with labels to show you the temperatures at which beef, veal, ham, pork, and turkey are modestly or thoroughly cooked. Next is an old-fashioned kitchen timer with 1 to 60-minute settings. Last is a a graph with tools that can estimate the remaining time your specified meat will need to reach a given level of doneness, based on the current temperature.
On the iPad, a metal handle at the top of the screen lets you pull out a tray with additional tabs for “tips,” “recipes,” and a “browser” that goes out to the web for assistance in troubleshooting the device—a feature that we were surprised to actually find ourselves using due to the aforementioned pairing limitations. By comparison, the iPhone and iPod touch interface presents the thermometer, timer, graph, and other features as a mix of swipable screens and tabs, the former requiring careful swipes to avoid accidentally triggering the screen-filling timer. We repeatedly found ourselves accidentally adjusting the timer until we learned to change pages carefully using less occupied portions of the screen. Additionally, because the web pages accessed by the browser aren’t optimized for either the iPhone or iPod touch, you’ll need to pinch-zoom them to find whatever you’re looking for; all of the built-in recipe and tip content is properly screen-optimized, but incomplete. iDevices could really improve the experience by adding most of the web-based information directly into the app.
There’s a bigger streamlining issue, though. While the iGrill application looks quite nice in screenshots, it’s saddled with an unnecessary adherence to tradition. Filling the entire iPhone or iPod touch screen with an old-fashioned analog meat thermometer or timer may be cute, but that’s not a great use of an iOS device’s display or hardware. Why devote a huge dial to a timer that can be represented with a straight-line slider, or have labels on a thermometer that become obscured whenever the analog “hand” moves? Flashing the screen blue to indicate that a temperature alarm is going off is fine, but wouldn’t a more specific on-screen alarm indicator be better? Presenting temperature, timer, and alarm information in a fully digital manner, rethought for the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad displays, would be a better use of their hardware. The iGrill app comes closest to offering this on its third and unnecessarily graph-laden iPhone/iPod touch screen, which appears at the top of the iPad interface, but further refinement would really improve the user experience. In the future, on-device multitasking notifications would be a great alternative to requiring the app to run in the foreground.
Given that iGrill is a first-of-kind accessory, we struggled a little with the appropriate rating: on one hand, iDevices has made an aesthetically attractive and certainly unique iOS accessory with an application that similarly looks nice and does generally what it’s supposed to do, but neither the hardware nor the software performs as well as should be expected given how well-established both digital thermometers and Bluetooth wireless technologies are at this point. We can’t speak to the original and now-recalled version of iGrill that shipped in late 2010, but what pushed the currently-shipping iGrill into only “okay” and C-rating territory was the $100 price tag, which is really high relative to perfectly competent $20-$40 non-iOS thermometers, and demands truly major improvements over the prior state of the art. Our advice would be to wait on some substantial improvements or a big price drop before jumping on board with this one; most users will benefit from holding off for a true sequel with better power consumption and improved software.