Insteon® advertises itself as "the most affordable, complete connected home solution". In an age where the Internet of things is pervasive and invading our lives and our homes, we decided to put that slogan to a test.
The principles behind the operation of the Insteon system are long tested and proven. What we wanted to see was if it really did the job in a simple, effective and economical fashion.
So what do you want to be when you grow up?
If you've been around technology long enough to remember the early transistor radios, the emergence of FM, UHF TV stations and the Bowmar brain, then most assuredly you remember places like RadioShack selling the X10 controllers that were so convenient to turn lights and devices on and off. X10 is still alive and well (https://www.x10.com/) but it always had certain limitations because of its dependence on the internal wiring structure of your home.
Insteon's smart home devices are sort of what X10 would look like when it grew up. It combines the use of your home's wiring system but augments that by setting up a Wi-Fi mesh network among its devices. This is what makes up Insteon's patented dual band technology. All of our testing demonstrated a 100% device activation success rate.
So what's in the box… How does it work?
What's in the box depends on the starter kit you buy. However, in all cases it will include a hub and some control modules. There are a myriad of choices when it comes to modules, but let's focus on the hub.
Insteon's hub connects directly to your network. While it uses cloud functions to control its scenes and programming, its direct connection to your network allows local control of all devices even if the Internet is out. This can be a big plus. I'm personally not a big fan of the cloud. I'm one of those privacy freaks who believes my life is my business (and not Google's) and doesn't want to find out that the world has stopped if my Internet service is interrupted. I'm comfortable with Insteon's use of the cloud in that I don't care if they know what time I turned my lights on or off.
The other important thing to note here, and this is why I bring it up, is that generally anything connected to a cloud service ends up costing you a monthly fee. Insteon charges no fee for this service. That's a major difference from a number of the competitors in this space.
Operation of the system is simple, and again you are given multiple options. You can control everything from your smart phone, or your tablet, or your desktop or even a number of handy handheld or wall mounted switches. This is another positive improvement over the simpler technologies such as X10.
What about setting it up?
Set up is quite simple. You download an app onto your smartphone or tablet, enter an e-mail address and create a password. Now all that's left is to plug the hub into your network via an ethernet cable.
The application presents an option to allow remote access. You may choose to skip this. Among other things it requires you to set up port forwarding which is sometimes considered a security issue. That's not a fault with the Insteon app. It's just a weakness in many security protocols.
Insteon's application only works on Windows 10 for desktops and laptops, so it's not legacy compatible with Windows 7 systems. I consider this a bit of a negative, but the app has versions for both Android and Apple smart phones to set the whole thing up. Once you have your hub online and your application running you can go around plugging in modules and integrating them into your smart home capabilities. The requirements are simple but sometimes we found the included instructions a wee bit confusing.
This is actually were one of Insteon's strengths comes out. They encourage you to call their support line. Who knew that kind of company still existed! We took them up on their offer and called support with both simple and more complex questions. They always came through with a solution.
What about compatibility?
Insteon has a very large selection of adapters and products. Most are reasonably priced. The technology they use is patented and proprietary, and although it uses the same frequency as z-wave, currently it will not work with those products. Insteon is expanding its embrace of other technologies in the Smart home market. You'll find everything from thermostats to door locks that will operate with these products.
For our tests, we installed on/off modules, lamp dimmer modules, wall switches (both on/off and dimmer) and keypads. The only small gotcha in the process is that the wired in wall devices require that you have a neutral in your wiring system. Older homes may find themselves challenged in that area and will need to call an electrician. Other than that, everything worked without difficulty.
What about the app?
Quite frankly, it could be much better. It's not as intuitive as one would hope, and the directions are probably the most confusing part. Simple things like definitions for scenes are not apparent. If you're not already familiar with the concept or understand their definition, you're going to find yourself redoing things several times. The ability to assign some of their preset timing capabilities, like sunset, limit you to one scene or group and it makes it difficult to set up multiple programs.
Setting up conditional sequences such as if/then may require having a bottle of aspirin on standby. It is somewhat convoluted and obtuse. This I consider a serious flaw in the software. Being able to set up 'if this/then that' scenarios is a basic premise of smart home systems. I'm sure these kinds of things are on their radar, but they should be at the top of their to do list.
If you're not completely sure about what I mean with this concept, think motion sensor in your living room. And the rule you want to set up is "if this motion sensor is activated, turn on the video camera and send me an e-mail". There are ways to make some of these things occur but they are very clunky.
What's the verdict?
While I find the app, its structure and operation, to be in need of some medical attention, all in all the products work very well. The pros are numerous in that its design is simple and dependable. With the wide range of control devices available such as your smart phone, a wall switch a wall pad or even a simple handheld pad, the operation of the system is a pleasure.
I mentioned earlier about Insteon expanding its connectivity to other technologies and devices. That brings us to the subject of our next article where we add voice control: Life with Alexa.