Home automation has made perhaps the most progress of any other category in the A/V industry over the past 10 years. Tricks that were once reserved for only the most wealthy people in the biggest homes can now be pulled off with innovative products that are sold in mainstream stores ranging from Best Buy to Home Depot to Amazon and even the local hardware store. Lighting control, retro-fit window shades, HVAC control, DVR-backed-up infrared security cameras, and voice-activated or fingerprint-controlled door locks are just a few of the options that John Smith America has in front of him. These are truly exciting times for those who want to create a smarter home.
But I have a warning: Much like a trip to Red Lobster when you are starving, you should pace yourself when it comes to your control system. The sad fact is that even many professionally installed home automation systems simply suck. The number one reason why they suck is that they are too complicated, so the consumer doesn't really use them. The Golden Rule of Home Automation is this: Just because you can doesn't mean you should. Less is more. Simplicity and reliability are the ways of the world.
A good example comes from one of my most beloved components: an Autonomic matrix music server. If you've never seen one of these puppies, it's a one-rack-space device designed for multiroom and audiophile music playback that can stream pretty much any format you can dream of: Pandora, Spotify, TIDAL, Sirius, Internet Radio, IHeartRadio, Internet Radio, terrestrial radio, and many others. You can also pipe in your own music, including hi-res tracks. It's a cool device without question, especially if you want a multi-room setup. You can order the unit to play in two unique zones or five unique zones. (Check out Adrienne Maxwell's review for more details.)
Here's where installers get in trouble, though. Just because there are upwards of a dozen streaming options doesn't mean you need to program the control system to use them all. On my system, I've got Pandora, TIDAL, and Sirius. That's it, and it's plenty. I have total command over nearly every CD ever made via TIDAL. I can access nearly every musical genre via Sirius, and I am quite familiar with the content organization, thanks to having the satellite radio service in my car. Then I've got a dozen or so streaming channels from Pandora--and really, despite their low resolution, they get the most play in my house. Adding in another five options just wouldn't lend anything more to my experience. Do you really need Spotify and Pandora? They're pretty similar in functionality. Again, just because you can include the feature doesn't mean you should, right?
Another place to keep things simple is trying to stick mainly with one brand of automation products. At the lower end, this can be hard to accomplish; but, as you move into the Savant and Control4 price range, it gets easier to solve multiple problems with one or two brands of control components. Personally, I use Crestron in my house for full automation (a review of my system is coming). While Crestron is the most expensive of the automation platforms on the market today, it is the most "enterprise class," thus it can do more things, more reliably--which made it worth the investment for my home. Crestron often tries to be everything to everybody, with mostly positive results. For example: Most people know them for remotes and control systems, but they also make excellent window shades. They make incredibly powerful lighting control, whole-home music servers, and much more. Control4 offers a similar suite of products.
Sticking with one brand and keeping the interface standardized is a smart move when you decide to invest in home automation. If you are just sticking your toes in the home automation waters, it's fine to have a Ring doorbell and a Nest thermostat, but I went with Crestron lighting over Lutron for no other reason than programing and integration simplicity. I've owned Lutron gear in my condo, old house, office, and elsewhere--and it's great gear. I just wanted to keep things simple this time, which helped keep my programming costs down and my reliability up.
A lot of my friends who are my age (I am 42 as I type this) are getting more and more into home automation. In one of my favorite articles that Managing Editor Adrienne Maxwell has ever written, she outlines how you can get started in home automation on the cheap and in mainstream retail stores on a DIY budget. This is where there has been a sea change, and lots of people are having fun toying with smart products to make their lives better. Still, the rule remains the same: consider what features you need and work to get them, but eliminate features that you don't need. Avoid features that are just going to make life more complicated because, in the end, the measure of the success of your control or automation system is, does it make your life better? Mine does, and it's worth every penny that I paid for it.
• CEDIA Expo 2016 Show Report and Photo Slideshow at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Home Theater in the Great Outdoors Is Less Expensive Than You Might Think at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Sorting the Sizzle From the Bacon When Choosing an AV Installer at HomeTheaterReview.com.