|February 2007 - Home Automation Part 1 - page 3
Touch panel Controllers:
Both sexy and functional, the freestanding touch panel controller includes screens that can be customized to suit your system and taste. Price is often dictated by the size of the screen, how many colors its capable of, how many custom screens it can accommodate, how customizable those screens are, and whether the touch panel includes features like Internet connectivity, HD video playback, audio and microphone support, and streaming A/V functions. Portability is also important: Some touch panels integrate screen and base to sit on your table like a computer monitor, while others pop out of a freestanding or in-wall docking cradle to function like a wireless handheld controller that you can use throughout the house. Installing a freestanding touch panel can be less cumbersome than an in-wall, although the installer often still needs to run cable from the main controller to the touch panels base; a portable controller may communicate with the base via RF or WiFi.
Handheld Remote Controls:
While some people love the allure of a tablet-style wireless touch panel, others prefer the tried-and-true layout of the standard handheld remote control. Some over-the-counter universal remotes incorporate limited whole-house control, but IR and basic RF wireless communication technologies lack the stability and functionality that custom installers rely on for whole-house control. As wireless communication methods evolve, were seeing more manufacturers introduce handheld controllers that reliably control a system from anywhere in the house. Both the AMX MIO and Niles IntelliControl ICS remote communicate wirelessly over a ZigBee mesh network. Unlike WiFi, in which devices communicate through one central access point, a mesh network allows all of the devices on the network to relay information back and forth between one another, allowing for a larger and more stable communication chain, subject to less interference. Z-Wave is another mesh-network technology being used for wireless control devices. The most obvious benefits here are flexibility and an easier setup process. Since the technologies are relatively new, product offerings are still somewhat limited.
TV and Computer Screens:
Why pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for control interfaces when you already have TVs and/or computer screens all over the house? Companies like Exceptional Innovations have designed software interfaces that let you perform most, if not all, of the same functions found on a keypad or touch panel using your television or computer screen and remote. This is a great solution for someone who already has several video displays in the house, but it does require that the displays be turned on whenever you want to perform an adjustment. Speaking of computer screens, one feature thats becoming increasingly common is the ability to control your system remotely via a Web browser that you can access from your laptop, PDA, or cell phone.
Putting It All Together
If youve only installed a single automated systemsay, whole-house audio or lighting controlit makes sense to use the controller(s) supplied by the company for that specific system. But what if youve installed a whole host of automated systems? Who wants 20 different in-wall keypads or wireless controllers floating about? Thats when you turn to a more-advanced control system that can unite your automation elements under one simple control interface. As I mentioned earlier, companies that sell complete home-control solutions often sell products in multiple home-automation categories for easy integration. In some instances, once you pick a certain home-control system, youve committed to that platform and are limited in the kinds of products you can add to the system, so make sure you discuss the systems flexibility with your installer.
When selecting a control system, its important to consider three issues: how advanced are your control needs, how do you plan to integrate the system into your home, and how much are you willing to spend. At the top of the pyramid in all of these respects are the control systems from Crestron and AMX. These systems offer the ultimate in customization and control, but it comes at a premium, in terms of the products themselves and the service and support provided by these companies dealers. Take a step down in price, and youll still get a solid amount of flexibility and functionality in control systems from companies like Elan, Home Automation Inc. (HAI), and Niles.
While the systems above offer varying degrees of sophistication and customization, they have in the past shared a similar setup and communication philosophy that asks the custom installer to run a lot of wires and perform a lot of complex programming. Surely and not-so-slowly, Internet and wireless technologies are changing the home-automation business, making it much more scalable and ultimately more affordable, even through custom-installation channels. Control 4 and Lagotek, for instance, use wireless communication as the foundation for their home-control systems, which makes them a good choice for the consumer who cant or doesnt want to run wiring through a house or apartment. Control 4 is confident enough in the ease of their setup process that they even sell some entry-level, do-it-yourself systems that well explore in part two. Netstreams uses Internet Protocol as the communication method for their whole-house audio and control systems. Exceptional Innovations has developed the software-based Life/ware home-automation system that uses the open Web Service Devices (WSD) platform, so you can mix and match products from multiple manufacturers, controlling everything via a Windows Media Center interface on an EI touch panel or Media Center PC.
Lets Make a Deal
So, are you more or less overwhelmed than you were when we first began? As you can see, home automation is indeed a thriving, and consequently a complex, business. The good news is, you dont have to have all the answers to take the plunge. The one who should have all the answers is the custom installer, so your choice of installation companies will be the most important decision you make. If your heart is set on a certain product line, that companys website should provide information on authorized dealers in your area. If youre beginning from a truly blank slate and dont know where to turn, visit the website for the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (CEDIA) at www.cedia.net; the Finder Service can help you select a certified installer in your area. Whichever route you choose, make sure you like your installer and feel comfortable asking questions. Then do just thatask a lot of questions, consider a wide range of possibilities, and, most of all, have fun designing a smarter home.