— Recommendations are independently chosen by Reviewed’s editors. Purchases you make through our links may earn us a commission.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years of testing grills, it’s that charcoal is the way to go. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. I love my electric Traeger pellet grill for set-it-and-forget-it smoking, and a propane portable grill is unarguably convenient. But when I really want to infuse food with unforgettable flavor, I use my charcoal-fueled Big Green Egg.
The biggest problem with charcoal grills is they’re not necessarily easy to use. They come with a bit of a learning curve, from lighting the briquettes or lump charcoal to setting the vents for temperature control. There are no dials or settings, so you have to adjust the amount of airflow to control the heat. That’s not a problem for direct-heat grilling: Open the vents all the way and cook your burgers or steak over the hottest heat possible. On the other hand, temperature control is crucial when you’re smoking large cuts of meat or cooking a whole chicken over indirect heat, and it’s easy for the temperature to creep up on you if you’re not careful.
That’s where the ThermoWorks Smoke X probe thermometer and Billows BBQ Temp Control Fan come into play. The Smoke X not only has the ability to measure meat’s internal temperature using a wireless remote, but it also has an ambient temperature probe that monitors grill temperatures. Combine it with the Billows, a 12-volt-powered fan that promotes airflow when you need it, and you can turn any charcoal grill into a set-it-and-forget-it device.
What is the Billows BBQ Temp Control Fan?
ThermoWorks Billows is a thermostatic controller designed to regulate airflow within a charcoal grill or smoker, keeping it at a consistent temperature for the entire cook time. No more fiddling around with air-intake vents or pushing around hot coals; Billows monitors the ambient probe (the one that measures the grill’s temperature) and uses a vent fan to keep your grill at a set temperature. It’s designed to work with ThermoWorks wireless Signals WiFi BBQ Alarm Thermometer or the Smoke X probe thermometer.
What is the Smoke X—and how is it different from other probe thermometers?
There are several wireless probe thermometers on the market today that allow you to monitor your grill temperatures remotely. Most of them connect to your smartphone via Bluetooth or WiFi, giving them a limited range from about 30 to 330 feet, depending on the connection. If you go too far from the base unit, you have to walk back toward the grill to reestablish the link.
Instead of connecting to an app on your phone, the Smoke X connects to a wireless receiver via 915Mhz radio frequency. That gives the base unit up to 6,562 feet (1.24-mile) line-of-sight transmission distance to the receiver, and the signal is powerful enough to penetrate walls if you step inside. That means you’ll always be connected, even if you wander away from the barbecue.
The Smoke X2 has two channels (and the Smoke X4 has four) that are compatible with any of ThermoWorks pro-series, commercial-grade probe thermometers. One channel can be dedicated to monitoring ambient grill temperatures while the other one to three can measure your meat’s internal temperature as it cooks. Each can be set with a high and low alarm temperature, and the base unit also displays the minimum and maximum temperatures reached during the cooking session.
How the ThermoWorks Smoke X and Billows work together
There are two versions of the Smoke X Probe Thermometer. The Smoke X2 has two channels and two temperature probes, and the Smoke X4 has four, a great option for anyone who needs to monitor several individual temperatures at once. Long, pointed probes are used for meat, like roasts, whole chickens and turkeys, or smoked brisket. The base unit and the wireless receiver display the current temperature in big, bold numbers while the low- and high-alarm settings are shown in smaller numbers. The base unit also shows the minimum and maximum temperatures reached during the current cook session.
You can also dedicate one of the channels for measuring the grill or oven’s ambient temperature. Instead of inserting this probe into meat, this short, rounded-edge probe is clipped onto the grill grate. The Billows plugs into the Smoke X base unit and syncs with this probe, monitoring the grill’s temperature and kicking on the fan when the heat drops below the set level.
How we tested
We tested the ThermoWorks Smoke X2 side-by-side with the Weber Connect, MEATER+, and a number of other models to find the best probe thermometer on the market. We tasked a professional chef (that’s me!) with grilling burgers over direct heat, cooking a pork loin over indirect heat, and smoking a pork shoulder. These tasks were performed at different grilling temperatures to assess the thermometer’s ability to measure ambient grill temperature and meat’s internal temperature.
Our first task was to set up the probes, syncing them with their smartphone apps via Bluetooth or WiFi. In the case of the Smoke X2, which doesn’t have an app, we simply had to power on the base unit and the wireless receiver, and they automatically connected via patent-pending RF wireless technology. Once the unit was properly set up, we fired up the grill and watched as the ambient probes measured the temperature inside the grill.
When it came to the meat tests, we paid attention to how far we had to insert the probe, the size of the holes they left behind, and how easy it was to set target temperatures. Then, we walked as far away from the probe as possible, testing the strength of the connection to the smartphone app or wireless receiver.
We also wanted to test the thermometers’ accuracy, so we used them to measure the temperature of ice water (32° F) and boiling water (212° F at sea level, or 200.5° F at my elevation). These tests also allowed us to determine how quickly the thermometer could register temperature changes. We clocked the speed at which each probe measured the ice and boiling water, and averaged the results.
To test the Billows BBQ Temp Control Fan, the first step was to cover up the air intake holes on our grill. The unit comes with heat-resistant flue tape that works with most standard grills. We happened to test the fan with a Big Green Egg, so we picked up their $6 kamado mounting plate instead. From there, we inserted the Billows into the remaining air vent using the hairpin spring, plugged it into the 12-volt power adapter and the Smoke X base unit, and fired up the grill. After setting the desired temperature on the ambient temperature probe channel, we monitored whether the Billows fan kicked on and off to hold the grill within 10°F to 15°F of the set temperature.
What we like about the ThermoWorks Smoke X and Billows
Long range connectivity
The ThermoWorks was the only probe thermometer we tested that didn’t lose connection when we wandered long distances from the grill. ThermoWorks states you can bring the receiver up to 6,562 feet (1.24-mile) line-of-sight distance from the base unit. Obviously, a number of factors affect this maximum distance, including physical barriers and other radio signals.
To test the limits, we used a grill located about 75 feet from the house, with a garage and several sheds in between. We walked around a half-acre property with the Smoke X receiver, a WiFi-connected Weber Connect, and a Bluetooth-connected MEATER+. We went inside buildings and walked down the road, putting at least one house in between the receiver and the base unit.
The Bluetooth-connected thermometer lost connection pretty quickly, and the WiFi-connected device barely held on when we walked inside the house. The Smoke X didn’t drop its connection if it was in sight of the base unit, and it took several structures in between the units to cause an interference.
Responsive at controlling the grill temperature
Once our charcoal was lit, we closed the lid, adjusted the top vent so it was slightly open, and let the Billows take over. When the ambient probe thermometer dropped to within 10°F to 15°F of the target temperature, the fan kicked on to stoke the coals. When we increased the temperature from 250°F to 275°F (and again later from 275°F to 300°F), the Billows reacted quickly and reached the new target temperature within minutes.
Thin probes have kink-free wires
The probes included with the Smoke X featured kink-free wires and nice, long cables. We had no difficulty reaching any location inside the grill, even if we placed the base unit on the furthest edge of the grill table. The probe itself was thin, making a smaller hole that was less noticeable when we carved our pork loin roast. As a bonus, the probes come with color-coded rings, making it easy to identify multiple probes without following the mess of wires.
It’s fast, accurate, and easy to calibrate
ThermoWorks thermometers are some of the fastest on the market. The Smoke X went from room temperature to ice-cold or boiling water in seconds. The readings were accurate within +/- 1.8°F out of the box, and the probes can be calibrated if the temperature readings start to slide over time.
The probe thermometer is designed for more than just grilling meat
While some of the probe thermometers we’ve tested are really only suited for grilling meat, the ThermoWorks Smoke X can be used inside and outside. The ambient temperature probe can be clipped onto grill grates or used inside when oven-roasting.
The Smoke X is also compatible with all ThermoWorks pro-series probes. It comes with their 6-inch probe, but you can also pick up 2- or 4.5-inch straight probes for smaller items, a waterproof probe for sous-vide cooking, or grab a 12-inch probe for large cuts of meat, deep-frying, and chocolate making. We found the probe wires to be sufficiently long, but ThermoWorks also sells a 3.3-foot extension that works with any of their probes.
What we don’t like
The Billows requires a 12V AC Adapter
The Smoke X is powered by a pair of AA batteries, but the Billows fan needs to plug into AC power. The good news is that the connection also powers the Smoke X, extending the unit’s battery life. The bad news is you can’t use the Billows without access to a power outlet.
A tiny quirk with the alarms
There’s a lot to love about the alarms on the Smoke X. They go off on the base unit and the receiver when the target temperature is hit, and dismissing the alarm on one turns it off on the other. We like that the volume can be adjusted, and the alarms can be turned off if you want to monitor the temperature without being alerted.
Unfortunately, the Billows automatically sets an alarm limit for 25°F above or below the set temperature, a range that can’t be adjusted. When you plug it in and choose your desired temperature, it starts to chime, and you’ll have to click a button to quiet the alarm. Furthermore, every time you set the temperature, it turns the alarm back on. That means that—even if you just turn the alarm off—adjusting the temperature requires you to go back through the settings and turn it off a second time. A small thing, but an annoyance nonetheless.
A slight difference in the base unit and receiver temperatures
We found that the wireless receiver stayed connected with the base unit, even if we walked into buildings or down the road. Unfortunately, the unit became less accurate the further you got. Once we walked over 200 feet from the receiver, or put several buildings in between the two units, the receiver’s readings started to vary. They were within two degrees of the base unit, but they didn’t maintain a 100% sync. As we returned closer to the base unit, the receiver became more accurate, so there must be a slight communications lag with extended distances.
The Billows only works with the lid closed
The Billows works by monitoring the ambient temperature probe and fanning the coals when the temperature drops below the set temperature. That probe works by measuring the air temperature, which is only accurate when the lid is closed. When we opened the grill’s lid, the probe temperature dropped rapidly, causing the Billows fan to kick on.
That meant we were stoking the coals when we didn’t really need to. This isn’t a problem for most indirect-heat cooking or low-and-slow smoking like pulled pork or beef brisket, where the lid stays closed to trap the smoke inside. But you wouldn’t want to use the Billows for foods that are frequently turned or cooked over direct heat with the lid open.
Overall, how do the ThermoWorks Smoke X and Billows perform?
We’ve used several ThermoWorks products over the years: Their ChefAlarm topped our list of best probe thermometers, and the ThermoPop was our favorite digital thermometer. So we weren’t surprised when the Smoke X received top marks on our tests.
We were not only impressed with the range of the Smoke X wireless receiver and the thermometer’s speed and accuracy, but we were also pleased with how well the unit worked with the Billows BBQ Temp Control Fan. We set several temperatures on the ambient probe channel during our tests, going from high to low temperatures and back up again. The fan held the grill at 225°F for hours when we smoked a pork shoulder. When we were ready to cook a pork loin over indirect heat, it quickly increased the temperature to 350°F. It was responsive with each change, and everything we cooked turned out juicy and wonderful.
The Smoke X and Billows are both covered by a two-year warranty and guarantee against defects in components or workmanship. The probes are only covered for six months, but replacement probes are available for $18. That said, the probes can be recalibrated and are commercial-grade rated, so they should last for several years if they’re well cared for.
We’ve been using a ThermoWorks ChefAlarm on a regular basis for over two years, and we’re still using the original probes. When using, ThermoWorks recommends suspending the wiring through a rotisserie slot or another opening in the smoker or grill to prevent flame or heat damage to the probe or probe cable. They also advise to avoid running the wiring through concentrated heat areas, like the smokestack, chimney, or exhaust vent.
Are the ThermoWorks Smoke X and Billows worth it?
ThermoWorks doesn’t make the cheapest thermometers on the market, but they’re absolutely worth it. They’re the fastest and most accurate thermometers we’ve tested, and the probes can be calibrated to ensure they retain that accuracy for years to come.
It doesn’t come with a fancy smartphone app, but the wireless remote has a much greater range than most probe thermometers, a big plus if your grill is located far from the house. The difference between the Smoke X2 and X4 won’t break the bank ($169 vs. $199), so we recommend picking up the four-channel probe thermometer if you host a lot of backyard barbecues. You don’t have to use all four channels at once, but they’ll be there if and when you need them.
As far as the Billows BBQ Temp Control Fan goes, it’s definitely worth the $59 price tag if you’re new to grilling. The ability to precisely control grilling temperatures will help you build confidence, making it more likely that you’ll branch out from hot-and-fast cooking items like steak and burgers. The ability to easily turn your grill into a smoker can also save you a ton of money if buying a smoker isn’t in the budget. That said, if you’re a seasoned charcoal grill enthusiast and you already know how to control your grill’s temperature, you can probably skip this extra purchase.
The product experts at Reviewed have all your shopping needs covered. Follow Reviewed on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for the latest, deals, product reviews, and more.
Prices are accurate at the time this article was published, but may change over time.