I think it's fair to say that the two biggest players right now in the world of custom home automation are Crestron and Control4. While Crestron still caters primarily to a high-end clientele, Control4 can be more of an everyman's solution. That's not to say that the company's products are cheap or that you can't assemble a super-high-end, highly complex whole-house control system based on the Control4 platform. It's just that, for those people with more modest needs and budgets, Control4 can certainly accommodate. If your home theater system has advanced to the point where you'd like to step beyond a standard universal remote control and incorporate some home automation, consider the subject of today's review: the HC-250, which is Control4's lowest-priced controller box at $750 plus installation. The HC-250 is designed primarily to be a single-room solution that, when combined with a handheld remote like Control4's SR-250, is the perfect replacement for a universal remote control but, as you'll soon see, this Control4 system brings a lot more to the table than just AV control.
The HC-250 has a 1GHz processor, which is much more powerful than previous entry-level Control4 controllers and thus allows for faster, more robust operation. The small black box measures just 8.59 inches wide by 4.92 deep by 1.23 high, so it can sit discreetly in your gear rack, be tucked away in a closet, or even be wall-mounted behind your flat-panel TV (the box can be powered via Ethernet if needed). The front panel consists only of four blue LED lights for power, link, data, and WiFi. The backside includes four IR outputs to control your AV gear using IR emitter cables; each IR output can accommodate two devices with the use of a splitter, so you can connect up to eight components. Two of the IR ports also support RS-232 serial control, and one contact and relay switch is available. HDMI and component video outputs allow you to connect the HC-250 to your TV or AV receiver and view the Control4 interface on your big screen. There's also an analog audio mini-jack input and output, a USB 2.0 port to connect an external media drive, and an Ethernet port (10/100) to add a variety of network-friendly features, like IP/iOS/Android control, media streaming, and remote management. The box also has integrated 802.11n.
Control4 sent along the SR-250 handheld remote to use as my system controller. This traditional handheld remote measures 2.1 inches wide by 8.3 inches long, which was a little too long for my small hand to reach all the buttons without having to readjust the remote's position in my hand. The bottom half is thicker and heavier than the top, which keeps the remote feeling well-balanced in my hand. The backside has a textured, rubber feel that also makes it feel secure. The remote puts a lot of black buttons on a black background, but it is fully backlit, with an adjustable brightness control and a motion sensor to automatically illuminate when you pick it up. At the top is a five-line display that allows you to easily navigate the system menus when your TV is off and you can't see the onscreen interface, such as when you only want to listen to an audio source. Below that, you'll find buttons to navigate the onscreen interface, which I'll describe in more detail in the Performance section. These controls include the red "4" button that can turn on the entire AV system (a Room Off button that sits in the top right corner performs the reverse task) and the Watch and Listen buttons that let you navigate the various sources you've connected to the HC-250. Below that is the full complement of buttons you'd hope to find on a universal AV remote, including guide, DVR, menu, page up/down, channel up/down, previous, color buttons, navigation arrows, transport controls, volume up/down, and mute. The SR-250 has a total of 47 hard buttons. My review sample was the basic battery-powered SR-250 ($199) that requires four AA batteries; a more expensive version ($300) is available with a rechargeable lithium ion battery and supplied base station. Control4 also sells the lower-priced SR-150 ($129) that lacks the five-line display at the top, which would make it more difficult to navigate sources without the onscreen display. Of course, the company also offers an assortment of portable and in-wall touchpad controllers at higher price points.
The Control4 platform allows devices to communicate with each other via Internet Protocol or the wireless ZigBee radio-frequency communication protocol. The HC-250 and SR-250 communicate using ZigBee and thus don't require line of sight, so you can tuck away the control box and initiate commands from another room. You also can easily incorporate a variety of compatible wireless automation products, be they Control4-branded or through third-party partners. Control4 sent me just a sampling of Control4-branded products to get a feel for the automation part of the equation, including a wireless thermostat and several lighting products that I'll discuss in the Hookup section. The ZigBee protocol creates a mesh network, which means that each wireless device serves as both a transmitter and receiver. The more devices you add, the more robust the wireless network becomes, which makes it easy to expand your Control4 system as your budget allows.
Control4 also sent me the new wireless Music Bridge, which allows you to integrate the music from your smartphone, tablet, or computer into a Control4 system. Given all the other features I need to cover in this write-up, I'm going to handle the Wireless Music Bridge in a separate quick review, coming soon.
Setting up a Control4 system is not a DIY job. It requires that you go through an authorized Control4 dealer; the company arranged for a local dealer, Encore Sight & Sound out of Ft. Collins, Colorado, to come in and do my installation. Co-founder Brian Pantle was kind enough to let me look over his shoulder and ask lots of questions along the way. Of course, he also had lots of questions for me as he worked, which is precisely how an installer figures out how to configure an automation system to work the way you want to use it.
My home theater setup consists of four components: a Sony VPL-HW30ES projector, Oppo BDP-103 Blu-ray player, Dish Network Hopper DVR, and Harman/Kardon AVR 3700 receiver. Brian connected IR emitters to all four devices and ran them back to the HC-250. He connected the HC-250 to my Harman Kardon receiver via HDMI, devoting the receiver's Game source to display the Control4 menu and programming the system to automatically switch to that source upon startup. He also connected the HC-250 to my home network via wired Ethernet; since my router sits in my equipment rack, we went the wired route for convenience and stability. You don't have to connect the HC-250 to a network, but it is highly advisable if you want to enjoy network control and media streaming ... and if you'd like your installer to be able to service the system remotely.
Brian's team replaced my old thermostat with the wireless model and replaced four of my home's light switches (dining room overhead light, living room lamp, theater room lamp, and entryway light/fan) with Control4 wireless adaptive phase dimmers, wireless keypad dimmers, and a fan speed control keypad. Two wireless outlet dimmers allowed the integration of the free-standing lamps into the wireless control system. The team programmed a lighting scene into the entryway keypad that allows me to turn on multiple lights when I enter the home from the garage.
All of these devices are controllable directly through the SR-250 handheld remote, as well as through the onscreen menu on the TV. Control4 also offers a free iOS/Android control app that essentially mimics the layout of the onscreen interface and higher-priced touchpad controllers. If your HC-250 is connected to your home network, as mine is, then you can launch the app, sign into your Control4 account, and get all the system and automation control right there on your phone or tablet, from anywhere in the house. A separate 4Sight subscription ($100/year) allows you to remotely manage your system. Control also offers a Video/Audio Intercom license that allows for communication between all Control4 touchpads and door stations in the system.
Continue to Page 2 for Performance, Comparison and Competition, The Downside, and The Conclusion . . .
Unlike your average universal remote control that's just supposed to work behind the scenes to control your equipment, a Control4 system provides an experience, uniting the control of your AV components, lighting, temperature, and other options in one clean, simple interface. The Control4 home menu includes options for Watch, Listen, Comfort, Lighting, Apps, and More. It also displays local time and temperature. I can go into Watch to choose between my Dish satellite service and Oppo Blu-ray player or into Listen to choose from my external audio sources like the Oppo player, the satellite box, and the HK receiver's AM/FM tuners. But the Control4 system also offers a variety of integrated music options, including Rhapsody, TuneIn Internet radio, and access to my own network attached server. That's right, the Control4 system can also serve as a network audio player. I have all my music files stored on a Seagate Central NAS drive; with the Control4 system connected to the same network as the server, Brian was able to quickly link the two, so I can now browse and play music content directly through Contro4's My Music sub-menu. This menu is clean and generally easy to navigate. Album cover art is available, and you can browse by artist, album, genre, genre/artist, playlist, and queue, with the ability to jump to a certain letter using the remote's alphanumeric buttons. Control4 even offers Windows-based media management software called Composer Media Edition that allows you to customize the music content, create playlists, etc. The HC-250 doesn't have an integrated video player; however, if you add a network video player like the Dune HD Max to your system, you can enjoy a similar control experience through the Control4 system.
Within the Comfort menu, I could easily control the wireless thermostat to adjust the temperature on the fly, and it was also simple to program daily settings via the interface. On more than one cold morning, I reached for the smartphone on my bedside table and clicked up the thermostat through the iOS app to help warm the house before getting up. As for Lighting, I was able to control all of the connected lighting sources in the house, with two-way feedback that shows the status of any given light right there on the onscreen interface. Within the Apps menu, I found options for Weather, Yahoo News, and the 4Store, where you can browse and add apps to your system, just as you can through a Smart TV Web platform. The Settings menu allows you to change the screen saver, theme, wallpaper, and favorites, as well as make other system adjustments.
Now let's talk system control. The remote's 47-button design helps to ensure that virtually every major function on your source remote can be replicated on the SR-250, although there are always exceptions with any universal remote. For instance, there's only one Menu button on the SR-250. When configuring my Blu-ray player, we had to decide whether to assign that button to Top Menu or Pop-up Menu; we then assigned the other function to one of the SR-250's open color buttons. The IR-emitter control method worked well for my system; the HC-250/SR-250 combination executed commands quickly and reliably, although admittedly my Harman Kardon receiver was quite temperamental at first. Sometimes it executed commands reliably, and sometimes it didn't. The beauty of the Control4 system's network connection is that I could communicate any problems I had to my installer, and he could log in remotely to fix them. It took a few passes with the HK receiver, adjusting how it sends commands, to get it to 100 percent reliability. My other devices were much more reliable from the get-go.
For the most part, the SR-250's button layout is logical and intuitive, and I personally prefer using a remote with actual buttons that you can learn to operate by feel, versus a touchscreen where you always have to look down to make sure you're pressing the screen in the right place. It took a little while to get used to a couple of minor things. For one, the remote has two circular configurations. The red "4" button is surrounded by a circle of watch, listen, and color buttons; almost right below that, the select button is surrounded by a circle of navigation arrows. At first, I found myself constantly hitting the 4 button when I meant to hit select because that was the circular configuration that sat closest to my thumb, and instinct would just kick in. Likewise, the transport controls are laid out a little differently than they are on many remotes. Play and pause are often sandwiched in between forward and reverse in some manner but, on the SR-250, play and pause sit off to the left of the forward/reverse and track-skip buttons, so again I found myself fighting instinct and having to look at the buttons. I did get used to both of these changes in short order, though.
Beyond the AV system control, I grew instantly enamored with the lighting control. Each keypad provides visual feedback of a light's status with a small LED, which is helpful when a keypad is set up to control a light that's in another area of the house. The all-on/all-off button next to front door proved incredibly helpful when I was entering/leaving my house. All of the control methods - the SR-250, the onscreen interface, and the iOS control app - provided wonderfully reliable execution of lighting control. When Brian first set up my home theater system, we decided to add in some lighting cues, like "fade to dark" when I hit the play button, "light to 40 percent" when I hit pause, and "light to 100 percent" when I turned everything off. After living with the system for a few days, I realized that those cues didn't quite fit how I use my system, since my room is not really a dedicated theater and sees multi-purpose use for music listening and casual TV watching. Again, a quick email to Brian, and he was able to tweak the cues remotely to better suit my viewing habits, and I love the results.
For all you DIYers out there who simply can't abide the thought of having to contact your installer to take care of any little system tweak, Control4 does allow customers to purchase the Windows-based Control4 Operating System software for about $150. Only a certified installer can add new devices to your system; however, once the devices are in place, you're free to use the software to customize to your heart's content.
The SR-250's screen is solely for feedback and navigation; it is not a customizable screen to which you can add controls that might be missing from the hard-button array. If you want to add a control that doesn't already have an assigned button, you only have the four open color buttons for each source, or you have to reassign another button to perform the desired task.
File support for the integrated network audio player is limited to MP3, AAC, and standard-resolution FLAC. It doesn't support full-resolution AIFF and WAV, high-resolution FLAC, or Windows Media, which is odd, given the Windows-centric nature of the Control4 software offerings. I do like that the My Music interface omits all unsupported file types that you might have on your storage drive, so you don't have to worry about clicking on a track and getting an "unsupported file" error message.
Comparison and Competition
If you need to control more than eight devices or have more complex control needs, you can move up to Control4's higher-priced HC-800 ($1,500), which has an even faster 1.8GHz processor, two RS-232 ports, six IR ports, and four contact and relay switches. The HC800 also supports four independent audio zones.
As for other competitors in the AV control and automation category, we recently reviewed the $499 Crestron MLX-3 handheld remote which, when combined with one of Crestron's entry-level single-room control boxes like the $1,400 MC3 would provide similar functionality. Likewise, Savant's $399 WiFi Universal Remote is a recent introduction to the market. Elan is another big name in home automation and control; the HR2 handheld remote and HC4 system controller can be a single-room solution.
Never underestimate the value of a good control system. If you feel like your family and friends don't fully appreciate the beauty of the home theater system you've assembled, perhaps it's because they're afraid to use it. Let's face it, this hobby of ours can be daunting to outsiders; the easier the process of bringing the experience to life, the more people will enjoy and appreciate it. If you've got a very modest AV setup, then something like a Harmony universal remote may suffice. But if you've invested thousands to assemble a high-quality system, don't shortchange things on the control end. Control4 can deliver a rock-solid AV control platform that also unites everything - even your networked and streaming music options - into one clear, simple interface that anyone can understand and use. The IP and ZigBee protocols make it easy to retrofit your house with automated lighting, temperature, security, and window treatments that really take the experience to another level of refinement. But be warned ... home automation can become an addiction. Once you get a little taste of its convenience, you want more and more, and I'm sure your Control4 dealer will be happy to oblige.