Music, Lights, Action With One Click

Devices that let you control many appliances from your couch are increasingly accessible -- and affordable

How can you be a proper couch potato if you have to get up to pull down the shades, flick on the lights, turn up the heat, turn off the oven, and see who's at the door, all the while fiddling with the controls on your home-theater system? The answer: Make your home smarter. Thanks to the digitization of many consumer-electronics products and the rise of personal Wi-Fi networks, you can buy a wireless system for little more than $400 that will let you control many of the moving parts in your home from a touchscreen pad or remote device.

Recently I tested four home-automation technologies. My conclusion: They are simple enough that most of us won't need a network engineer to use them.

The most elaborate setup I sampled required an installer, and came from Salt Lake City-based Control4. The company makes equipment that uses your wired and Wi-Fi Ethernet connections to organize audio, video, climate, and lighting into a single user-friendly remote device or several wall-mounted LCD screens throughout the home. I had the installer equip my media room and bedroom with units to control my entertainment systems and lighting. The equipment: a touchscreen pad and remote device to control media with infrared blasters, wireless lighting keypads, and a smaller mini-touchscreen in the bedroom. Together, it cost about $4,000 and took just over three hours to install and program.

Like most of the newer technologies, the system requires you to program information about various devices on a PC and transfer the data to the controllers via USB cable or Wi-Fi. The choices are dazzling: To roust me out of bed, the installer programmed my bedroom lights to come on at 5:30 a.m., and my music system to play my favorite tunes from MP3s stored on an iPod connected to the Control4 system. The optional 10-inch tabletop touchscreen to control the entire system was far handier than the complicated remote that was included. With its bright icons, I can sit in a comfy chair and use the touchscreen to turn on my 50-in. LG plasma set, see cover art from DVDs stored in a 400-disc Sony (SNE ) changer, and start watching TV, all in seconds.

Simpler Hub

It's definitely cool stuff, but suppose you want something simpler just to run the home theater? A good middle-ground choice is Universal Electronics' (UEIC ) NevoSL remote. Essentially a souped-up Windows CE Computer, the $800 device uses Wi-Fi and infrared to control MP3s, photos, and videos on your PC; digital-music hubs; TVs, and set-top boxes. An add-on product, the $300 NevoLink Wi-Fi hub, helps expand the universe with a half dozen more infrared flashers that can operate compatible electrical appliances.

The übersleek design includes a 3.5-in. touchscreen and 22 relatively easy-to-figure-out buttons. Even so, it took several tries to find the home button on the side of the remote, which takes you back to icons representing all the devices you want to control. But the customization was so simple, with the ability to quickly flip to your favorite channels and device settings, that even a child could use it.

While not as glitzy as NevoSL, you can also try Logitech's new Harmony 890 Pro remote, which retails for just $450. Essentially a follow-on to Logitech's popular 880 model, the 890 Pro adds new technology from Zensys, a chipmaker that created a technology called Z-Wave. The wireless system sends signals over a largely unused radio spectrum to a base station, which then blasts infrared signals to any components in that zone. Just press a button, say "watch a DVD," and on comes your set and DVD player. The 890 also can control other home automation technology using the same Z-Wave chips. Carrier and Honeywell, for example, are adopting the Z-Wave capability for home appliances.

With the Harmony remote products, you can do much of the programming yourself on Logitech's Web site: You plug in the model numbers of your components and how you use them. It took me about 30 minutes to program remote functions for eight devices, including TVs and digital video recorders. The color display, at 1.5 inches, was the smallest of the systems I tried, but still easy to read.

Finally, I tried Smarthome's Insteon, the successor to the popular X-10 home automation gear that has sold more than 10 million units. Insteon uses Powerline technology and radio frequencies so devices can talk to each other, shuffling data from one to another until they reach the right device. The $100 wireless lighting kit I used was simple to set up, with a push-button tabletop controller to turn lights on and off and dim them. I found the equipment a little bulky, but a perfectly suitable alternative. Insteon also sells a $200 kit for controlling appliances, heating and air conditioning, and alarms.

Until recently, the home automation market has been worth less than $450 million annually. That's mainly because retrofitting the millions of older homes involved tearing through walls to snake in cables. With these new technologies, and more in the works, such as wireless videocamera systems from companies like WiLife, you can send your basket of remotes into early retirement.

By Cliff Edwards

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