Our home multimedia control center is running all the time, so it makes sense to have it handle some additional chores. One is power control, and the way to get there is through Insteon (EiED Online>> Insteon Now, ED Online 11782) from SmartHome.
Our PC communicates with an Insteon powerline network using the Powerlinc Controller V2 USB (see Fig. 1). This USB device contains its own microcontroller and acts as a buffer between the PC and other Insteon devices, such as the KeypadLinc V2 Dimmer (see Fig. 2). The unit comes with its own device driver and timer software. The latter is rather basic — it can turn devices on and off — so I won't go into any detail on the software. Luckily there are a couple of more interesting options available.
The first is mControl (see Fig. 3) and the other is HomeLinc (see Fig. 4). The two are actually complementary given the nature of our home automation system. I was able to test the system since I already have a number of Insteon devices around the house. Utilizing these by PC control was simply a matter of plugging in the Powerlinc Controller and installing the software.
Embedded Automation mControl
Embedded Automation's mControl can be found in bundles with Insteon hardware or it can be obtained separately. It is designed to provide a simple interface to Insteon devices. It can also control a number of other systems including those based on Z-Wave and X-10. The latter can be controlled directly through the Powerlinc Controller. The program is sophisticated but easy to use. It can handle a range of devices from irrigation systems to digital cameras.
The documentation that comes with mControl is impressive, easy to read and utilize. It is extensive because of all the features, but the intro did a good job of getting the basics that most people will need. The program can be controlled by a range of remote devices, such as an infrared remote but that requires a bit more reading to configure.
Installing mControl was typical for a Windows-based application. It is designed to run as a full screen application on a TV configuration like ours, but it can be used easily on a typical PC screen using a mouse to select items. I was able to use the remote control device used with the TV board as well as the Logitech keyboard and keypad.
The system divides devices into zones. The terminology and usage is common to heating and lighting systems. Typically a zone is one or more rooms along with the devices within that area. I set up separate zones for the major rooms in the house and then started adding the devices to each zone.
You need to have the Insteon and X10 device IDs and device type when adding devices to the system. The type allows you to control the kinds of features available on a device since some of the more complex Insteon devices have more than just a power on/off feature. Typically this process is done once and when you add new devices.
Adding a device provides access to basic operations like turning a device on and off. Things get more interesting if you want to take advantage of macros. Macros can be triggered by an action like pressing a button on a KeypadLinc. Macros are simple programs that can do anything with a device that can be controlled by the system. It can also send mail. Since e-mail can often be sent to cell phones, you can be notified when someone turns on a light or when a detector is triggered.
Macros can employ timing sequences and can be time-triggered as well. This is a simple way to turn on the lights on a timed basis. You can even incorporate randomness into the process. It is relatively simple to turn on a light, later a radio, and then turn things off giving the illusion of activity within a house.
I was not able to test the camera support because the units I mentioned in part 2 were not compatible with mControl. Still, the interface described in the documentation seems relatively simple, especially after the system is configured.
I still use Insteon keypads for most system control, but macro management is where I use the software interface most often. It is handy to be able to turn off or on lights while watching TV, though. It is just a couple clicks away.
SmartHome's HomeLinc is a different animal than mControl. HomeLinc's Windows-based interface is easy to use but it is completely different from mControl. The mControl interface is designed for use by people that may not have configured the system. In fact, many homes are set up by contractors, and homeowners simply use the configured system.
The HomeLinc interface is divided into multiple panes. The top left pane contains a list of devices. HomeLinc has a discovery mode that is indispensable. In fact, I found that setting up HomeLinc first was easier because it gave me the list of device IDs that I needed to enter into mControl. The discovery mode can be run when new devices are added to the home or you can add new devices manually.
All the features of a discovered device are available for viewing and manipulation. This includes any associations that were set up manually. For example, to set up the same actions on a pair of KeyLinc switches I had to hold down buttons and walk back and forth between devices to set up the linkages so I could turn on a light by pressing the same key on either switch. The autodiscovery mode found all these relationships.
Setting up the relationships would have been easier using HomeLinc. In fact, I finished linking other devices and switches that I never got around to doing manually. With HomeLinc, the process was a matter of drag and drop. Simply select a switch button entry under a switch device and drag it to another control device.
The other major advantage of HomeLinc is to save the configuration. This is something that is really lacking in a standalone Insteon system and it can take hours to set up a rather sophisticated environment. It takes much less time with HomeLinc and it is simple to save and restore a configuration. This is especially handy if your spouse prefers a configuration he or she has been used to for months over the "new and improved" configuration.
HomeLinc can handle macros and timing like mControl. HomeLinc's documentation is simpler than mControl because HomeLinc is specific to Insteon and X10. Features like cameras are not part of HomeLinc's repertoire.
HomeLinc and mControl complement each other. HomeLinc is much better at setting up relationships between devices. Its discovery mode is very useful. Still, mControl wins hands down when it comes to user interface for general use. If you do not plan on using powerline devices from a PC without a multimedia interface then you may need only HomeLinc.
Wireless To Elk Components
The fourth and final version of this series of articles will be dealing with Elk Products home management hardware, including things such as smoke detectors and security systems. The Elk M1G Home Control System is a large box with its own microcontroller and interface hardware designed to be the central management point for wired home automation systems. It contains its own battery backup system.
The M1G Home Control System has a number of interfaces that can include remote LCD panels as well as a remote PC. In our case, the PC interface is through the Powerlinc Controller V2 USB. The same unit can be used with the Elk software as well as the other products reviewed here like mControl.
The coverage for the M1G Home Control System and its related devices will have to wait until the next part of this series. Till then, it's lights out, on, off, on...