First Look: Insteon's Easier Home Automation

Home automation has always seemed like a hobbyist's pastime, probably because in the past only someone who liked to fiddle with things would be willing to put up with the poor reliability of available products. But SmartHome's new Insteon products may one day help home automation shed its hobbyist reputation.

Like earlier products from X-10, Insteon's products let you use your home's electrical wiring to turn lights, appliances, and other electrical devices on and off according to a predefined schedule.

Plugged In, Lit Up

I tested Insteon's $99 Starter Kit, which includes a tabletop control panel, modules for controlling two lamps, and two signal enhancers for picking up commands sent from wireless, radio-frequency remote controls (not yet available). After connecting the Insteon modules, you can dim the lights or turn them on or off via a control panel plugged into another socket, or via remote control. The Insteon tabletop controller worked flawlessly with the Insteon modules: Lights turned on and off without fail.

Setup is easy--though not quite as simple as with X-10 products. First you plug a module, which is about the size of a baseball, directly into a wall socket. Then you plug a lamp into the module and press a button on the tabletop control panel until its LED status light starts blinking. Next, you press the setup button on the lamp module for a few seconds until its status light blinks. The Insteon process requires a lot of back and forth across the house, whereas with X-10 you merely use a screwdriver to turn two dials--programming in a letter and a number representing the device's address--and you're done.

On the other hand, X-10 devices aren't particularly reliable. Press the right button on your remote control, and most of the time the lights will go on; but electrical noise and other factors can interfere with the control codes. Most X-10 products are one-way devices, too, meaning that they send control codes but can't receive them. As a result, there's no automatic notification system if a device doesn't work.

By contrast, Insteon uses two-way (send-and-receive) technology and communicates over both electrical wiring and radio frequencies. If you send a command through a controller, the controller will confirm that the command went through correctly; and if something goes wrong with the transmission, the controller will automatically resend the command. SmartHome says that the name Insteon stems from the fact that communication--from transmission to reception--takes only 0.04 second; that's 15 times faster than with X-10. Because of the faster response, you probably won't notice a lag if a signal has to be retransmitted. All Insteon products act as repeaters, monitoring for signals and retransmitting them, so you shouldn't have to worry that weak signals won't reach distant parts of your estate.

Who's Playing With the Lights?

A crucial feature of Insteon is its backward-compatibility with X-10 modules. You can program the Insteon tabletop controller to issue X-10 commands, and you can assign X-10 addresses to Insteon modules. This flexibility enables you to use existing X-10 wireless controllers to control Insteon modules, and to use the Insteon tabletop controller to control X-10 modules. Likewise, computer software programs such as MouseHouse or ActiveHome that are designed to work with X-10 products will also work with Insteon products.

A word of caution, though: How well such mixed products work together depends greatly on the particular X-10 hardware you use. One of the lamps I connected to an Insteon module wouldn't respond at all to my X-10 wireless remote control, and another was finicky about dimming. When the same lamp was connected to an X-10 module, I could use the controller to adjust the light from off to 10 percent brightness, but trying to do this with the Insteon module made the lamp jump to 100 percent brightness--undesirable when you're trying to peek into the baby's crib without waking him up.

I was able to dim the light back to the level I wanted after it went to full brightness, but doing so took several seconds. I tried a couple of replacement modules from SmartHome, with the same result. SmartHome says that while some old X-10 hardware initially sends a full-on command and then sends a dimming command, newer X-10 hardware won't behave that way.

I also tried out the computer interface, which lets you set up macros for turning your devices on or off automatically. The interface comes in serial ($50) and USB ($60) versions and works with Embedded Automation's $60 MControl automation software. MControl can work through either Windows Media Center Edition or a Web interface (if you're using Windows XP Professional); at least in its XP Pro version, the software has far fewer features than some older X-10-based applications, but for now it's the only software option you can get.

Insteon modules are considerably more expensive than X-10-based modules. For example, an Insteon lamp module costs $30, whereas an X-10 module costs $15. But the Insteon modules feel much more substantial--and the LED status lamps act as pretty good nightlights.

The biggest issue at this point is the lack of available Insteon products. At last check, SmartHome's offerings were limited to the tabletop controller, an appliance module, two lamp modules, and a couple of wall-mounted light switches. Most important, you can't get a remote control yet. X-10 does much better on this score, offering thermostat controllers, Internet-connected video cameras, security systems, and even irrigation system controllers.

Compatibility with existing X-10 products will help smooth the transition to Insteon's products. The technology's reliability, paired with a wide selection of products yet to come, may eventually expand the appeal of home automation appeal to regular folks, beyond a core group of geeks like me.

SmartHome Insteon Starter Kit

Technology offers promising home automation controls and backward compatibility with X-10, but SmartHome needs to introduce a wider range of products designed for Insteon.
$99 street

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