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Review: Control4 Was Worth The Wait

With its innovative configuration software, scalable architecture and manageable devices, Control4 has proven that multimedia can be perfectly blended with home automation.


Control4's Media Controller can handle most devices using IR, serial, network and ZigBee wireless connectivity, which is based on the IEEE 802.15.4 standard. The controller can also access music from file shares and USB devices like iPod.

The controller, however, does not cover all bases. To connect Control4 devices without pulling wire through existing homes, integrators need to use third-party devices. As part of our setup, Digital Connect Lab engineers used two ZigBee-compliant wireless light boxes to simulate lighting in a kitchen and living room. We added two speakers for the living room and two speakers for the kitchen using Control4's Speaker Point device ($449), which is designed to add an audio zone using WIFI to rooms other than the living room.

Media Controller functions like many controllers reviewed by Digital Connect engineers. Control4's magic, though, lies in its Composer software. Composer is a project drive, allowing integrators to configure projects using a simple three-pane UI with drag-and-drop capabilities. At the start of a project, integrators are asked to enter a homeowner's ZIP code. Composer uses the ZIP code to adjust an internal astronomical clock that helps automate lighting sequences during sunrises and sunsets.

Media Controller provides a clever way to help homeowners monitor devices using LEDs in light switches. The LEDs can be programmed to change colors to alert a homeowner if, say, the garage door is still open after all the lights in the house have been shut off.

Composer, which runs on a PC, also uses a wizard called Interviewer to automate all of its configuration steps. The powerful program will appeal to integrators new to the market because of its incredibly easy configuration capabilities. Control4 provides a media version of Composer that blocks a homeowner's access to the project design feature and only makes available media managing features, including access to shared drives.

Composer's comprehensive auto discovery allows dealers to find all the devices throughout a home. There is no need to jot things down or program any device using any proprietary language or command sequence. In less than an hour, DC Lab engineers were able to connect all Control4 devices, speakers, audio wiring, a display panel and a Sony Disc Changer. Interviewer walked engineers through each step in the setup and quickly diagnosed connectivity problems.

Media Controller
Includes an 80-Gbyte hard drive and acts as a control point for the home.
10.5-inch Wireless Touch Screen
Allows users to control home devices and systems.
4-inch Mini Touch Screen
Provides full device control in a small size.
Speaker Point
Includes a 50-watt digital amplifier for high-quality music throughout the home.

During the Media Controller installation, a simple test sequence in Composer helps integrators identify that Media Controller. Integrators simply turn the device on during the discovery process and the software does the rest. After Composer identifies a device's unique ID, integrators click 'ok' and the device is recognized. This process is repeated throughout a home until all devices are properly registered.

The icons on LCD keypads, instructions on button keypads and Control4's remote control automatically handle all features on devices as long as they are recognized by the software. Composer also has remote access capabilities, allowing dealers to configure devices without sending a technician on the road. Remote access can be used to manage commercial as well. This feature is useful for integrators servicing customers with multimedia equipment.

Control4 hosts two-and-half day training sessions at its Salt Lake City headquarters. Training is free to integrators when they submit their first PO for $5,000 worth of equipment. Control4 then covers the cost of training, accommodations and food, and integrators pay for their own airfare. After receiving hands-on experience, Control4 certifies them to sell, install and support the systems. In addition, the company provides integrators with technical support, release notes for new software and marketing collateral.

With Composer and Control4 devices, integrators will be able to scale up any project in a flash. From overhead lights to thermostats to garage door openers, almost any device can be added to a Composer project in minutes as long as integrators install the right drivers. Obtaining driver codes is not difficult but not all manufacturers make device drivers readily available. For instance, while testing the Media Controller, engineers used an NEC 46-inch flat panel LCD display to view the UI and test its multimedia capabilities. Engineers did not find serial codes for the NEC display. Instead of using IR emitters we hooked up a serial cable between the controller and display.

But before installing Control4 equipment we were using the serial cable with a cable box, so we could not receive any TV signals during testing. The missing NEC driver did hamper some of our tests. The Media Controller was supposed to automatically change the input signal on the NEC display when a movie was selected. That test failed since we could not register the display with the right driver.

After light switches, button keypads are the most convenient control devices to set up in a home. By placing these keypads throughout a home, integrators can create a variety of lighting scenes and home automation sequences for homeowners. For instance, with a single push of a button on a keypad at the top of a stairway, a homeowner can shut off all the lighting in the house, dim lighting in a bedroom, raise a thermostat and activate an alarm system.

The Media Controller provides seven simultaneous music streams and stores MP3 and .wav files. Control4 partners with All Media Guide to provide auto discovery of cover art and genre for MP3s.

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