First Look: Catch the Home Automation Z-Wave
The biggest hurdle facing most home automation devices has been reliability: Because the technology underlying them is sometimes flaky, you can't count on many of the products to work properly 100 percent of the time. That appears to be changing, however, thanks to a new wireless radio technology from Zensys called Z-Wave. I tested several new products based on Z-Wave, and each performed as reliably as if I were flipping a light switch.
Z-Wave for A-to-Z Home Control
First I tried Intermatic's $130 Home Settings Lighting Control Starter Kit, which uses Z-Wave technology. The kit includes two lamp-control modules and a programmable master remote control. Then I test-drove a smaller, nonprogrammable remote control and an appliance module (each costs about $40). The lamp and appliance modules have on-off buttons, so in a pinch you can operate them without a remote. Most competitors' modules lack such buttons.
Setup is very easy: Plug a lamp or other device into a module, press the Include button on the master remote control, and then press the on-off button on the module to associate them. To program the other remote control, press a couple of buttons on the master remote to copy the commands.
The master remote can store some basic automated routines. For example, I set one lamp to turn on in the middle of the day, just to scare off any burglars who might be casing the joint, and all of the lamps to turn on at sunset.
The master remote has a randomize setting, too, so you can really confuse potential burglars. None of the other home automation technologies I've tested offer products that store automated routines. Instead, you have to use optional software to set them up on a computer and then upload the macros to an external module for storage. When I removed the batteries from the remote for several seconds, I had to reset the time, but the routines remained.
The Intermatic remotes provide visual feedback (text messages on the master remote, and a green light or a red light on the nonprogrammable remote) to indicate whether your command was received; I can't remember ever having to hit a button twice. Furthermore, because Z-Wave devices act as repeaters, I never found myself out of range in my house--I could control modules from 60 feet away with no problem.
The only thing I didn't like about the remotes was the way they handle dimming. If a lamp is already on, you can hold down the dim button and it will reduce the lamp's brightness to its minimum setting without turning it off. But if the lamp is already off and you want to bump it up to 10 percent brightness, you have to hold down the on-off button until you see the lamp respond, and then release the button as quickly as you can. Simply pressing the button once makes the device go to full brightness. Stepping the brightness level up or down is very difficult.
The Intermatics kit is good for basic home automation tasks, but for more advanced operations you need software and a computer interface. I tested HomeSeer's $200 Home Control Software 2, which requires a Z-Wave computer module such as HomePro's $60 Z-Wave USB Interface.
The software lets you create elaborate automated routines. Afterward, you can control them remotely via a Web page and activate them by voice or simply by sending an e-mail message. For example, you can set up the program to turn on the lights and adjust the thermostat when you send an e-mail message from your mobile phone.
But while HomeSeer is very powerful, it's also far more complex than the home automation applications I've used in the past. I had little trouble figuring out how to program simple routines, and the package comes with an extensive help file, but Home Control Software 2 is overkill for someone who just wants to turn a few lights on or off at fixed times.
For the routines to work, the software must be running on the computer; unlike with most X-10 and Insteon competitors, you can't upload the macros to the USB device. That means leaving a Windows 2000 or Windows XP computer running continuously.
In my experience with Z-Wave devices over several weeks, I found them to be faster and more reliable than the slightly less-expensive Insteon-based modules I reviewed a few months ago. For example, when I hit a button, the associated device responded immediately.
If your goal is to control a few lights, you can probably get by with the automation built into the Intermatic master remote control. If you're interested in a more complex setup, the HomeSeer application is worth a look.
Intermatic Home Settings Lighting Control Starter Kit
PCW Rating: 84
Z-Wave home automation kit works well, but extending your network can get pricey in a hurry.
HomeSeer Home Control Software 2
PCW Rating: 78
Home automation software is powerful, complex, and expensive.