Everyone with a “smart home” starts with one gadget, like a connected light bulb. Once they see how easy it is to set up and control, other devices usually follow, like thermostats and garage door openers.
The first few are easy, but once you get to a dozen different products, or a score (not uncommon now that Amazon is marketing smart speakers for every room), the sheer number of apps can get unwieldy. Plus, there can be other issues, like redundant features or incompatibilities between products.
That’s exactly why Amazon, Apple, Google, and Samsung all offer platforms that promise to “unify” your smart home experience. Apple Home, for example, can integrate any device that supports the company’s HomeKit standard. From a user perspective, it allows you to control the gadget via the Home app (as well as native Apple features like Siri) and enables different devices to share data through Apple’s platform, potentially making the experience even more seamless.
At least that’s the dream. In practice, the promised unity often falls short of that ideal. Different standards have different criteria for developers, so many pick and choose. Plus, the major tech companies are all competing with each other, meaning services from one sometimes don’t work with the other (though there have been recent signs of hope). And the hardware is often a grab bag, with a central hub that may be underpowered, obsolete, or nonexistent.
Enter the Unifier
That’s where companies like Control4 come in. Control4 promises to be a better unifier for a complex smart home than any free or DIY solution. While its equipment isn’t cheap, the device compatibility is impressive (13,500 devices and counting) and its clean and user-friendly software is constantly being improved. Today’s rollout of Control4 Smart Home OS 3 marks the company’s latest step to simplify matters.
“We’re clearly seeing today what I call Smart Home fatigue,” says Charlie Kindel, senior vice president of products and services for Control4. “People get started with one or two devices; they end up with four or five different brands. What we need is an operating system for the home that takes all of those disparate fragmented devices and scenarios breaking together into a single unified customer experience.”
Broadly, the new Control4 system introduces a host of new controls, but also makes the experience more native to whatever you’re doing. Like, when you’re looking at your security system, you’ll see a prominent icon showing armed/disarmed status, the video dashboard has at-a-glance icons for various services like Spotify and Pandora, and light controls now include “scene” editing. In short, OS 3 takes the best UI bits of native apps and puts them directly in the Control4 interface.
One of the smarter updates is a new default screen for each room that has user-selected Favorites specific to that room. Favorites can be anything — a playlist, a video or music service, a scene — giving users quick access to things they use the most.
Video courtesy: Control 4
“OS 3 introduces 1,000 enhancements to the user interface,” Brad Hintze, Control4’s senior director of product marketing, explains. “We leverage a lot of the interactions mobile phone users are familiar with, so they can just pick it up and understand how to use the home and how to get around.”
First Principles of a True Smart Home
But OS 3 goes beyond an improved UI. According to Kindel, there are five areas where the system – and by extension any smart home platform/hub – must excel. It must:
- Unify a system with potentially myriad different devices.
- Be “infrastructure grade,” meaning Control4’s hub and software can’t have fail whales (at least not regularly).
- Provide choice, so customers can swap out hardware at will.
- Prioritize privacy and security, protecting the system from any prying eyes.
- Include professional support, and Control4’s partner network of 5,900 custom installers in 100 countries means a pro is usually close by.
Clearly, though, that level of reliability and support comes at a price. Integrating Control4 into your smart home costs a minimum of $1,000, and the company says installations typically run between $5,000-$8,000 (although that includes the third-party hardware like smart speakers and connected lights). Every installation includes one of Control4’s hubs, which vary in capabilities depending on the size of the home, and some custom controllers. It’s a one-time fee, although Control4 offers an optional subscription for $100 a year, which includes voice control (via Alexa) and remote access to your system.
For existing Control4 customers, OS 3 will arrive as a free update starting today (individual dealers will push it out to customers). For those that haven’t made the plunge into a premium smart home platform, Control4 makes a compelling case. The nature of a DIY smart home is that the more equipment you get, the more you’ll see exclamation points and alerts from the apps you integrate. Sooner or later, you start to feel your second job is IT support for your own house. With its new smart home OS, Control4 doesn’t just promise to bring order to the chaos, but to do it with some style.