Despite being on the technology radar for decades, home automation remains fairly fragmented, with multiple communication standards and an array of small vendors rather than a few dominant players. However, interest in home automation has recently been rekindled as major players are getting into the game and Internet of Things-style technologies take hold.
Note: This article is also available as an image gallery and a video hosted by TechRepublic columnist Tom Merritt.
1: Nest (free app that requires purchase of Nest hardware)
The "media darling" of home automation is the Nest, a controllable thermostat and associated app. Nest took the rather mundane home thermostat, applied some exceptional industrial design, and made automating the device fairly easy. While certainly not the first automated thermostat, the Nest device is Wi-Fi enabled and doesn't require any additional hardware. It also claims to "learn" your habits based on how you adjust the temperature. It can turn down the heating and cooling while you're away and send you pretty emails detailing your energy usage (Figure A).
Nest's biggest strength: its easy setup. But the end-to-end service is also its biggest weakness, as Nest doesn't talk to other home automation components without custom code or unsupported software. This is, unfortunately, a recurring theme in home automation.
2: Haiku ($49.99; requires a compatible alarm panel)
Haiku supports only automation controllers from an automation company called HAI and requires a fair amount of technical know-how to get your controller "talking" to the internet. The small benefit is that the automation controller can often communicate with various lighting and security subsystems, allowing it to serve as "translator" for the rest of your automation system. Once the technical gyrations are done, Haiku provides a fairly modern interface that gives you complete control of your home and lets you view security sensors, cameras, and lights (Figure B). Much to the chagrin of my wife, I'm amused to no end that I can turn our lights on and off from an airplane or another continent. More pragmatically, I can turn off the alarm and open the garage door to let a repairman in the house if no one is home.
3: Plex (free software; Plex Pass service offers additional functionality)
A major area targeted for home automation has been audio and video entertainment. If you're willing to forgo the convenience (and associated restrictions) of something like AppleTV, Plex (Figure C) offers a fairly compelling solution to viewing audio and video content on a variety of devices. The system consists of the Plex server application, which runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux, as well as client applications that run on everything, including desktops, televisions, Roku devices, smartphones, and tablets. Provide Plex with links to where you've stored media files, and it creates a beautiful user interface with downloaded information about the title, watched and unwatched indicators, and even an ability to sync content to an iOS or Android device.
Plex takes most of the hard work out of playing your media collection on almost any device, but do be aware that converting your existing media, especially studio-released movies on DVDs and Blu-ray discs, is time-consuming, frustrating, and potentially illegal depending on where you reside and the current state of copyright law, even if you've purchased those discs.
4: Sonos (free app; requires purchase of Sonos hardware)
Another standard component of most home automation systems is multi-room audio, whereby you can play and control music in multiple locations in your home or apartment. The problem with these systems is that they're generally difficult to retrofit, since they require speakers and wiring installed in each room. Sonos (Figure D) works around this problem by providing boombox-like hardware that can be placed in any room and controlled via a smartphone.
Sonos connects to various music services like Pandora and Spotify and can connect to your home network and retrieve music from your iTunes library or a shared drive. This easy setup and smartphone integration comes at a relatively high price, however, and the Sonos hardware is far from bargain basement pricing.
Z-Wave is emerging as the dominant wireless standard for home automation. (The main competitor, ZigBee, is a bit more expensive and generally more widely used in commercial applications.) Devices ranging from light switches to door locks to garage door openers can communicate over Z-Wave (Figure E).
The obvious benefit to using a wireless protocol like Z-Wave is that you can retrofit automation components to an existing home without removing drywall and running wires. The main drawbacks to Z-Wave are similar to every wireless standard: limited range, slower transmission speeds, higher cost, and less reliability than wired. While that's a daunting list, as someone who's attempted to run new wires behind existing drywall, I can attest that avoiding that task is often worth the drawbacks.
Z-Wave is not specifically an "app," but a variety of devices can communicate via the Z-Wave protocol, and smartphone applications that can control them. Most automation controllers, ranging from traditional alarm and automation panels to stand-alone automation controllers like the Mi Casa Verde, can "talk" Z-Wave and be controlled by a smartphone application. Similarly, you can purchase a USB stick that will communicate with a Z-Wave network and use an application like InControl, or even an open source automation controller like openHAB.
Are you automating?
Have you used any of these technologies in your home? What other automation solutions are you using or considering? Share your thoughts with fellow TechRepublic members.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.