Home Entertainment & Home Automation for the Rest of Us
By Dawn Gordon Luks
When I first got into the consumer electronics biz in the early 1980's things were a bit different than today. For one, the art of home automation consisted of a bunch of X-10 lighting modules that worked "most of the time", but often self-destructed from the occasional electrical surge. Multi-room audio consisted of an agglomeration of speakers wired into a single stereo amplifier with marginal results. The high-end systems back then had volume controls in-between the amplifier and the speakers. It was a little like Russian Roulette.
Here we are a quarter of a century later, and we have so many more options at our disposal. There are dozens of home systems to choose from, from the low-end to highly advanced systems with stratospheric pricing. Not surprisingly, many of these all-in-one systems are not compatible with one another, as they each have their own proprietary operating system and hardware. So if you like the lighting control from company A, but want the cool color touchscreen audio interface from company B youíre out of luck. Well maybe not. The latest systems coming out are using a ubiquitous computer technology called IP control. This stands for Internet Protocol, and itís steadily taking over the consumer electronics market, and appliances arenít too far behind. Because IP is a set standard, one companyís audio server can talk to another companyís touchscreen control interface. We arenít completely there quite yet, but there is one company thatís betting its whole existence on affordable, yet complete systems that work with non-proprietary standards, and itís called Control4.
Founded by seasoned industry veterans, Control4, offers lighting control, multi-room audio, home theater control, climate control and security control. As a whole this isnít a new idea; companies such as Crestron, Elan and AMX offer control systems for most of this stuff. What sets Control4 apart is that they offer these capabilities at up to 1/3rd the cost. Another great Control4 coup is the ability to add complete home automation and entertainment to homes and condos without any existing wiring Ė via WiFi and a new standard called Zigbee, more about this later.
I was very intrigued by the Control4 booth at an industry trade show in September of 2004, so I signed on to become a dealer. I went to Control4 training at the companyís headquarters near Salt Lake City a few months later. At this point, nothing was really shipping, and the control software was still buggy. I leaned what I needed, and went home. It wasnít until almost a year later that I received all the products I had ordered, along with the latest software. I wasnít about to try out any of this stuff in a clientís home without testing it on my family first. Fortunately ours was almost a complete retro install, as we had no Cat 5 wire pulled to any of the touchscreens, or lighting modules. Even the main media controller (the product that controls the whole system) didnít have a hard wire connection to anything. So we were the perfect guinea pigs for this test. The only other product we are waiting for is the wireless thermostat, which should be shipping by the time you read this.
Control4 lighting products, (switches, dimmers, outlets, and outlet dimmers) can be purchased as wired (with Cat 5) or wireless versions. I really donít see any reason to purchase the wired modules, as the wireless modules work perfectly and donít miss a beat. What makes the wireless lighting products better and more reliable than any other wireless lighting technology is a system called Zigbee. Zigbee is named after the powerful communications system used by the honey bee to share information on the location of newly discovered food sources. Like the Honey Bee, Zigbee devices communicate with every other Zigbee device within its range and as a result the information is passed from device to device, through a series of hops, until the information reaches its destination. This is called Mesh networking, and it allows for some very creative lighting control. Take note that Control4 also wisely enables you to use the dimmers and switches manually - even if the control system goes offline.
The switches and dimmers have these really cool blue LED lights to indicate on and off status, and through software you can change the color of the LEDs to pretty much any color you choose, or turn them off completely. You can also adjust how fast the dimmers "ramp up and down" and the initial light level when you turn them on. You can also create "lighting scenes" which can be executed at the touch of a single button. For example, an Entertaining scene could turn on entry lights, turn on your landscape lighting, turn on the lights over your artwork, turn on various lights to certain levels etc. With a little programming, you can create a scene that initiates at a specific time in the evening to turn out all the lights, turn on the bathroom night light, turn on your security system, and even turn off your TV. The power of the system is linked to your lifestyle and your custom installerís imagination.
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Dawn Gordon Luks is a veteran consumer electronics journalist. In addition to her writing schedule, Dawn also designs home audio, home theater, and home automation installations in South Florida. Send an email to Dawn Gordon Luks.