Control4: Living In An Automated Bespoke Smart Home – Forbes

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Control4 system, controlled by touch panel

Control4 system, controlled by touch panel

Control4

Control4 is one of the biggest names in home automation. Long before Apple was pushing its HomeKit ecosystem, years before Google unveiled its Assistant, and in the days where the only echo at Amazon was if someone shouted inside one its warehouses, Control4 has been creating bespoke smart home systems for its customers – through its authorised dealer program – using connected products, from a wealth of different partners.

Launched over 15 years ago (at the 2004 CEDIA Expo home technology trade show), Control4 specialises in high-end products, at high-end prices, for users who not only want the reassurance of a professional installation but also a support system to rely on to maintain and update their connected tech.

However, while Control4 may have had the jump on its more mainstream, and cheaper, smart home rivals, it is now operating in a market where connected home products are more prevalent than ever; and users are a lot more savvy at creating their own smart home setups and automations.

So, is there still room for a premium service such as Control4?

I’ve been living with a one of the Utah based company’s smart home systems in my house over the past few months, as part of a comprehensive Control4 review published on The Ambient.

Here’s everything you need to know about Control4, along with some of my findings.

Finding a dealer

As mentioned, Control4 systems need to be installed by a professional dealer. A good place to start is its Product Planner portal. After answering a series of questions, you’ll get sent some suggested equipment lists and system ideas, along with details on a local authorised dealer.

Your dealer not only does the initial install, they are also there as your on-call support team whenever you might need them.

This is a major selling point for Control4; i.e. people don’t have to worry about setting up their smart home tech, nor maintaining it. But it does limit you somewhat too and adds extra costs.

Control4 living room setup

Control4 living room setup

Control4

Getting started

The starting point for any Control4 system is the controller, which is essentially a smart home hub, combined with advanced AV features and skills, so you can control things like lighting, blinds, shutters, heating and and connected locks.

For my review, I’ve been testing the EA-3 controller, which is a mid-range Control4 option (mid-range at $1,000, mind).

It’s a black set-top box that hooks up to my TV over HDMI for on-screen visuals and is capable of distributing up to three simultaneous, high-resolution audio streams.

The on-screen TV display is great for controlling AV action – using a universal remote that can be programmed to control a huge array of tech – but, when it comes to the rest of your smart home kit, you’ll interact in a range of different ways.

Controlling Control4

The most intuitive approach is by using a dedicated touchscreen panel – Control4 offer 7-inch and 10-inch models that can free stand or be wall mounted. There are apps available on both iOS and Android that replicate – with some limitations – these touchscreens.

Control4 also offers keypads that wire into your light switches, which can be the triggers for Control4 scenes. Scenes are routines that automate smart home actions. So you could have a ‘good night’ scene, for example, that turns off all of your downstairs lights, turns off the TV, sets the house alarm, locks the smart locks and so on.

The UI has seen a major overhaul in the last few months with the launch of Smart Home OS 3, which totally revamped (and massively improved) what you see on the digital displays and the app.

OS 3 allows for more customization on what is on show, with users able to select their favorite operations to see on the main home screens of each room.

Adding tech to the system

With Control4, you have a huge range of in-house tech to choose from; networking kit from Pakedge, audio equipment from Triad and more; and you can also add in compatible devices from a plethora of third-party brands. The system is able to work with over 35,000 devices and services, including the likes of Philips Hue, Nest, Sonos, Apple TV, Yale, Spotify, Netflix, Amazon Music, Lutron and many, many more.

There is a caveat though, as explained in my review:

“The dealer not only installs your Control4 equipment but also incorporates any compatible tech you want in the system.

“But, be warned, all of this comes at an extra cost. You’ll need to get dedicated drivers installed for non-native tech; anything Control4 doesn’t directly make itself. A lot of the time these drivers will cost you money.”

The in-house stuff – those two brands mentioned were Control4 acquisitions – is seriously high end. I’ve been living with both a Pakedge home network (think Google WiFi but on steroids) and also a Triad multi-room audio setup (think Sonos but on steroids, with some extra steroids for desert).

However, be warned that these systems come at a premium – you’re talking thousands, not hundreds, of dollars to get them set up. But you do get what you pay for.

Where the costs do seem a bit off the chart is when you just want to add some off the shelf tech to your system. Even something as simple as a $99 smart thermostat could end up costing you five times that when factoring in drivers, labor and extra bridge devices that might be needed.

Another area that Control4 is very strong in, is home security. You’re much better off sticking to in-house kit when it comes to doorbells, security cameras, alarms, sensors and so on; although the compatibility is there if you do want to add your own kit in.

The future for Control4

Control4, for all of its many plus points, does feel a little bit like a legacy system at times. For years it was automating people’s homes in a world where a DIY option was almost impossible.

But then Alexa, the Google Assistant and the rest of the off-the-shelf smart home gang turned up, making is easier, and cheaper, than ever to get an automated smart home. DIY setups are now a doddle and the smart home is a rapidly expanding consumer technology genre.

The smart home technology market is forecast to hit $112.8 billion by 2024, with a CAGR of 8.8 percent in the next five years. That’s the top-line from a recent analyst report from Lucintel, who state that, “the major growth drivers for this market are increasing awareness towards safety and security, increasing consumer need for simplicity and personalized experience, and the growing adoption of cloud-based technologies.”

Control4 is well aware of this threat and is making its system a lot more user-friendly. Smart Home OS 3 was a major step here but the company also realizes that it needs to be a bit more open with what users can tweak within their systems, and how people can use Control4 alongside the popular mainstream devices and services.

When>>Then (Control4’s answer to IFTTT) allows you to add layers of automations to the ones preset by the dealer, and the system is now compatible with both Alexa and Google’s Assistant – meaning you can run automations and control devices using your voice.

The verdict

Control4 is an absolutely world-class system and, in the area that the company operates it is a serious force. There’s a reason that people with huge mansions and high-end hotels turn to Control4.

There’s also a reason those are the two places where you’re most likely to find a Control4 system; it is seriously expensive. However, as explained – especially with the in-house tech – you are getting your money’s worth, with industry leading devices and a pretty much unrivalled support service.

Control4 wants to appeal to a mass audience beyond this though, and is making great strides to compete with lower-cost, DIY systems. In my house (which is far from a mansion) a Control4 setup sits alongside a predominantly Alexa-driven system and the two compliment each other.

And that’s the way Control4 need to keep heading in order to appeal to a broader audience. The good news is all the signs indicate it is.

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