Info & Answers
All About Touchpanels
Touchpanels are the keys to sophisticated control systems
April 20, 2011 by Grant Clauser

A sophisticated and connected home hides much of its technology behind the walls, but the most visible element is the touchpanel. The touchpanel is the device installed into a wall, fixed on a tabletop or carried around to provide access to every system in your home: audio/video, lighting, heating and ventilation, security, you name it. The touchpanel brings the Wow factor to a home control system.

The touchpanel, however, is only one part of a much larger home control and automation system—and that larger system is what you need to focus on. The system, whether from big players like Crestron, Control4 or AMX, plus innovators like Savant or Universal Remote Control, should satisfy all of your control and automation needs before you decide on the touchpanels or in-wall controllers that operate it.

Think of the touchpanel as a remote—a fancy remote—but still a remote. You don’t purchase a car because you like the steering wheel, and you don’t purchase a TV because it comes with a larger remote than its competitor. Still, the touchpanel is the piece that will impress your guests. It will allow you to interact with your system, provide you with a visual guide to what you’re controlling, and can make the difference between having a happy relationship with your system or a frustrating one.

Most home control companies offer a wide selection of touchpanels, wand remotes or wall-mounted switches. The options and features will vary greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer, and they’ll be designed for optimal communication with that control system. Many manufacturers also offer apps so you can use your own devices, like cell phones, tablet computers and laptops, as extra controllers. The iPad and iPhone are the most popular, and all of the major control companies offer apps for those devices (see sidebar for more on the iPad as a control panel). Also remember that a complete system will probably include multiple touchpanels. While we don’t recommend selecting your system based on the touchpanel, we do offer guidelines on what to consider when making your touchpanel decisions:

This may vary by room and by your use. In a kitchen, for example, you might prefer a large touchpanel that can double as television display or web browser. When you’re in the kitchen with your hands full, a small screen that requires multiple touches to view your options can be inconvenient, so think larger. A dining room likely requires fewer button presses to get at the controls you’ll need, so a smaller in-wall touchpanel will do. In a living room or home theater, a tabletop system makes for much more convenient control over the entertainment system, but a touchpanel that’s too big becomes unwieldy when you’re just trying to change channels or pause a movie.

Wall, Table or Handheld

Touchpanels come in many forms, from elaborate remote controls that you can hold in your hand to flush-mounted wall panels that remain in place. Again, the form you select for each room is dependent on how you plan to use it. A wall-mounted unit is convenient in a room where you won’t be accessing the device frequently—such as a dining room, hallway or entryway. A wallmounted panel in a kitchen is also convenient because it keeps the device off the counter and out of the way of things that could damage it. In a media room or home theater, a wall-mounted device would not be convenient, because you won’t want to get up from the couch to adjust the music volume or turn down the lights.

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Grant Clauser - Technology and Web Editor, Electronic House
Grant Clauser has been covering home electronics for more than 10 years with editorial roles in several consumer and trade magazines. He's done ISF-level damage to hundreds of reviewed products and has had training from THX, the Home Acoustics Alliance, Control4 and Sencore. His latest book is Necessary Myths. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.

Should Your iPad be Your Main Controller?

When the iPod touch and iPhone became available, some predicted they would cause the end of advanced, programmable remote controls. Many apps were released, and many audio/video devices incorporated iPhones into their systems. Nearly every home control company released iPhone apps for their systems as well.

But still, the iPhone hasn’t replaced the remote.

The iPad is now making the same waves in the home automation industry, and there are some reasons it makes for a very effective control panel. First, it’s a lot less expensive than most advanced automation touchpanels. You can add apps without professional help, and many control companies now have iPad apps available.

So what’s the problem? The biggest problem is that if you’re using your iPad to control your lights, security and home theater, then you’re not able to use it to read an electronic book, browse the web or navigate your way around town. If you leave the house with it, whoever’s still at home will still need access to the control system.

The iPad is an excellent complement to a home automation system, but most users will still need a dedicated device to use as their primary system interface.

On the other hand, one company, Savant, promotes Apple devices (iPad and iPod touch) as the primary interfaces for its company’s Mac-based control systems, and even sells them as part of its control packages.

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