The 2015 Synergy Multimedia Home Automation System Comparison: We Pick the Best System to Recommend to Our Clients
Here at Synergy Multimedia, we are constantly evaluating the latest trends in home automation. Our latest research project was to come up with an entry level and mid level product offering to complement our “anything is possible” Crestron systems at the high end. In doing so, we came up with some interesting conclusions. First, for a simple single room solution, the $349 Harmony Ultimate Home remote system does a nice job of controlling simple home theater, lighting, shading, and climate. We’ve put the remote through its paces and we like the feel of the remote, its rechargeable batteries and our ability to remotely update the system, all crucial elements of a satisfactory user experience. There’s no possible way we would recommend using the HUH in a multiple room setup, especially one with a centralized equipment area due to the manufacturer limitation of a single remote per hub, but in a single room scenario, it does the job quite well.
The Middle Market Dilemma
Which brings us to our next dilemma, the middle market automation system for anything from one to many rooms integrating audio, video, lighting, shading, security and climate controls. We evaluated systems from Control4, URC Total Control, RTI, Savant, Clare Controls and Elan. We found lots of sub $1200 systems comprised of a central processor and remote control. For comparison, our Crestron systems generally start at about $2000 for a control processor, remote control and iOS or Android control, plus programming, so initially we thought perhaps we may find something that would fit our clients’ needs. We were wrong. Each system has at least one critical flaw and some have more than one. Of course, any system we choose has to adhere to our Home Automation System Bill of Rights.
Let’s start with the most popular mid-level home automation system company, Control4. At first glance, the price seems right – about $800 to start for a small controller and about $300 for a 2-way zigbee remote. Nice! Right in the sweet spot. What most people don’t realize is how many buttons you need to press to get to see, hear or control what you want. The most important part of the user experience is the remote. Control4 offers two remotes, one with a comically small one-color OLED screen sans graphics, only text, and another without any screen whatsoever. Neither remote has any facility for one-touch operation (in fairness, a newly announced version has 3 one-touch keys, but they are stupidly labeled <.> <..> and <…>). Soooo intuitive, right? Back to the operation of the remotes: We can dismiss the cheaper remote out of hand because it ONLY operates an on-screen display. Without a tv powered on in the room, it is useless. Let’s go through how you turn on the Bluray player. Hit Watch, look at the tiny orange text on your remote, scroll down with the menu buttons 3 times until you see BluRay and hit Select. That’s 5 button presses navigating via a tiny screen that will confuse the old and young alike just to turn on the tv to BluRay and we haven’t even begun to navigate the BluRay interface itself on the TV (counter intuitively using the same buttons that operate the text menu on the remote itself. Huh?). Even dumber is using the Control4 navigator on your TV screen. Yes, it takes a separate video input (expensive if you are using an HDMI matrix switch and need to buy a bigger model to accommodate) and yes, you need to wait for your display device to fully power up before you can do ANYTHING. Not bad if you are using an LED TV, but think about those of us with video projectors that take a minute or more to start up. C4 apologists will say, but you can assign your favorite source to the Watch or Listen buttons. True enough, but it’s not intuitive to press a Watch button to watch AppleTV. C4 has some well-priced options and they have an extensive list of compatible 3rd party devices. Were it not for the infuriatingly counter intuitive operation via the remote controls and need for a separate video input for its on screen display, it may have earned a spot in our lineup. Oh, that and the incredibly cheap feeling of their lighting and keypad devices.
On to the next system. We’ve been URC fans for quite some time. We use their remotes in our Crestron systems because they are bulletproof and have historically provided better value than Crestron’s own remotes until recently. Total Control was released a few years ago pretty much in beta. We actually bought a demo system and it was so unworkable a few years ago, we put it aside. We figured we’d give it another shot with the most current programming software and firmware. Bottom line is URC should stick with making great remotes. This more advanced control thing is not for them. Their wifi remote is expensive, has terrible battery life and we just can’t get it to connect to our wifi network reliably. The baby $299 TRC-780 has a horrible LCD screen. It’s dim, low res and tiny. Really, really bad. Redeeming the system somewhat, the TRC-1080 is a 2-way version of one of our favorite remotes, the MX-890. But $599 is expensive for a remote and 2-way remotes are just a dumb idea anyway in this day and age of fabulous, readily handy smartphones and tablets. The Achilles heel of TRC is two-fold: Their multi-zone audio equipment is not cheap ($2200 for a 6-powered/2-unpowered zone amplifier) and due to limited input capabilities aside from the proprietary network audio sources sold from URC, it’s not capacious enough for the vast majority of our systems. Second, the programming is really not faster than with Crestron, so expensive remotes wipe out any pricing advantage it may have, especially in larger systems.
RTI seemed like an interesting option. They have nice looking and feeling remote controls. Their system controllers are not expensive. They have reasonably priced audio distribution systems. They even have the holy grail of remotes: a cheap handheld remote with one-button operation. The two issues that stood out as deal-breakers are their mobile app policy and the programming software. For most families, multiple iOS or Android devices are the norm. In our family, we probably have 7 of these devices. RTI wants to charge you for EACH one of these devices. This more than wipes out the cost advantage on the controllers and makes people angry in the process. Finally, the programming software is ancient and it feels like it.
Savant has a reasonably priced remote control at $499. However, it is completely reliant on WiFi to operate. If your wifi goes out, so does it. The screen is super tiny at 1.7″ and it doesn’t have one touch control. All control relies on 2-way navigation on the screen itself. And Savant wants to play in Crestron’s playground, so it is priced accordingly. An apples to apples comparison does not favor Savant.
Clare Controls is the newest company and is doing some interesting stuff. It’s pretty easy to tell that a lot of what they are doing is “re-branded” equipment from other companies. Remotes are URC, security is Hikvision, etc. Which isn’t a bad thing; it just highlights that this is a new company just getting on their feet. Programming for the remotes is done half in Clare’s tool and half in URC’s own tool. There is Lutron Caseta integration but there’s no Nest or Sonos integration at this time. We can live without either Sonos or Nest, but not both. I’ll be keeping an eye on this company. Out of the listed options, I feel like this is the company that most “gets” the market. But they are not ready enough for us. Yet.
Which brings us to Elan. For any system above a single-room installation, the only remote option is an $870 two-way jobber with a color screen. And controllers cost basically the same as Crestron. Because we are looking at bringing in a less expensive options, Elan would be the only one here that would be MORE expensive than Crestron. With less capability.
So you are probably wondering why we like Crestron. There’s a choice of two GREAT remotes at terrific prices (actually there are about 15 different options when you combine all of Crestron’s own options with URC’s compatible remotes and RTI’s compatible remotes). The Crestron HR-150 no-screen remote with 8 one-touch engravable buttons at $349 OR the URC MX-890 at $499 if you want to have a bit more customization on the remote itself are both long lasting, child durable, one-touch remotes with no need for an on-screen or on-remote screen. The MC3 processor with an in-built wireless gateway compatible with Crestron remotes, lights, thermostats, door locks, and shades runs $1600. To that you add the HR150 remote at $349 with each additional remote $349. iOS or Android apps are $99 from the app stores and run on as many devices in your household as you have with ONE app purchase. Alternatively, a Crestron DIN-AP3 processor + RF gateway + URC MX-890 goes for $2300 with each additional remote $499. Our programming library is so extensive that we can whip up awesome programming in the same or less amount of time as all the lesser alternatives. Few would argue that Crestron is not the most powerful system on the planet. In the right hands, programming is fast and incredibly customizable and looks and operates great. I do ALL of our programming and have been a Crestron certified programmer since 2003, so we NEVER outsource any bit of our installation. We can remotely update nearly every part of the system without a truck roll. Crestron is also orders of magnitude larger than any of its competitors and offers the de-facto leader in digital video distribution, DigitalMedia.
In summary, we found out that a system that is fully featured, intuitive to operate AND less expensive than Crestron is a unicorn. It just doesn’t exist. So the best middle market system available today is the entry level system from Crestron, especially when scaled up to several rooms of control or more. We look forward to doing this comparison for our clients every time a new system or new capabilities of existing systems are rolled out. We think it’s our job to provide our clients with the best available system at any given moment in time and not be slavishly devoted to our favorite control system manufacturer. It just so happens that our favorite control systems manufacturer also offers the best overall value in home automation today.