Home automation can be a tricky thing. To program an advanced remote control system well, requires factory training. Recently, I had the opportunity to spend four days in Chicago to learn how to program a Control4 system. Each day was over 8 hours in a classroom learning and hands-on activities. Every night was devoted to doing homework. At the end of the program there is a mandatory proficiency test. Why did I spend four days learning something I planned to use as a glorified remote control?
Let me explain
Control4 training isn’t something the general public or AV enthusiast can take. Nor, in fact, would they need to. Aside from myself and another press participant, all the other students in the class were professional installers. Before they can sell, install, or support Control4 products, they have to be certified to do so. What makes Control4 so much more complex than a regular universal remote? Well, Control4 isn’t so much a universal remote as it is a home automation system.
What is Control4?
Control4 goes far beyond controlling just your TV and sound system. You can control your lights, thermostat, fireplace, doorbell, and virtually anything with an IR sensor, relay, or RS232. The important aspect of Control4, and the reason for the intensive training, is the ability to tie these components together. A fully implemented Control4 system serves as the nerve center for your entire household.
What makes Control4 so powerful is the ability to have certain actions drive related actions. For example, when you come home, you might unlock the front door, turn on the lights inside, then put on some music. With Control4, you get the ability to tie all of these events together if you wish. Now when you trigger the front door, the lights in the hallway and kitchen turn on. Your music system kicks on to your favorite station. Maybe the HVAC adjusts the temperature too, or the system turns on the TV in the kitchen. One button, and it’s all done.
What if you get home at night and people are asleep? You don’t want to wake them up with all the lights and music (well, maybe you do, but you don’t have to). Programming features to only happen during the day is easy, so maybe at night you have fewer lights kick on, and only at 30% power. The music stays off, and everyone stays asleep.
How do you control all this? Well, the easiest is from your iPhone. When your iPhone can unlock a door, turn on the lights and music, and let your hands be free to carry in groceries or a sleeping child, now that’s pretty awesome.
Control4 in Action
- OK, so here’s what I’ve done in my home so far. When I watch a movie at times that the kids should be in bed, Dolby Volume automatically engages. This means I can hear the dialogue at low volumes better, and the subwoofer won’t wake up the kids.
- If I’m watching a movie in my basement theater and the doorbell rings, the movie pauses and the lights flash. No more missed deliveries or guests.
- When I leave the house to go out, I double-tap the keypad by the door. All the main floor lights turn off, the AV systems turn off, and the outdoor lights turn on.
- I get back home and triple-tap that same button. Now all the lights come back on and my favorite Internet radio station automatically starts up.
- At 6 AM in the morning, I have the lights downstairs turn on and the coffee maker kicks start automatically. No more waiting for a pot of coffee to brew when the kids get me up early.
Does a Harmony universal remote do that? Not even close. Sure, it costs a lot less (and you can program it yourself), but it’s a totally different category of control. This level of integration and programming is what we learned in class. After four solid days I’m comfortable enough to do all this programming for my own house, though not nearly the gigantic multiple-multi-room projects Control4 is capable of.
Control4 has to be bought, installed, and supported by a dealer. A lot of people would be happy to have this level of control, this “smart home,” but would prefer to manage their own system. So why does Control4 insist on this level of, well, “control?”
It’s because Control4 is designed to just work, but to get to that level of user-friendliness, there’s a lot of careful setup. If every product in your home was made by Apple, then maybe you could plug-and-pray a home automation system without need for a custom installer. But as it stands right now, getting everything to play nice takes some work. Configuring items in the wrong order or making the wrong connections could lead to no audio or video in a room. Make changes in your system but forgetting to send those changes to your controllers could leave a confusing mess. Tracking down these issues is easy enough for people that took the class, but without the class many would be stumped.
However, there are some DIY options, that might not offer quite the level of home automation as Control4, but are close. iRule, for example, uses Ethernet or Wi-Fi connected controllers to communicate with multiple devices, and a regular iPhone, iPad, or Android device for control. This can give you much of the same control, but you can buy it and control it yourself. What do you get spending more? Control4 offers the same iOS and Android support, but also physical remotes. Apps are nice, but pressing a physical button makes simple tasks a lot easier (think volume or lights).
- Manufacturers do a much better job supporting Control4 and writing device drivers for it. More hardware will simply work with Control4.
- If you’re not a programmer, or used to writing triggers in software, programming any system will be hard with iRule.
I think iRule is a wonderful product to have in the marketplace. I don’t think it replaces Control4, but could be the right solution for some people.
The Class, the control, and the conclusion
Automation systems only work as well as they’re implemented. In my prior life I wrote computer software. The logic of implementing a Control4 system makes total sense to me. But with programming logic like this, many people either get it or they don’t. It doesn’t even matter how intelligent you are, the programming logic sometimes just doesn’t make sense. For that matter, without the Control4 class I’d be struggling to program it. After the Control4 class, I have the ability to program the system I’m reviewing, and a full understanding of what is possible. I also have a full understanding of why they keep it controlled by certified dealers, as supporting it for consumers would be a logistical nightmare. Control4 provides a solution way beyond what something like the Harmony brand can, but one that takes a lot of experience to implement correctly.
Home automation and control as a category is something well worth checking out. The way it simplifies everyday tasks, and makes your home feel like it’s a “home of the future” can’t be understated.
Disclosure:Control4 paid Chris’ travel expenses and provided the training at no charge.
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