Wired or Wireless
Touchpanels can communicate with the control system in various ways. You want something that’s convenient for the application, but also reliable and robust enough for the data. Some devices will communicate primarily via Wi-Fi (such as tablet PCs or smart phones) while others will use wireless radio frequency (RF). Wi-Fi is extremely convenient, but not always reliable due to its range and interference issues. The connection your touchpanel has to the control system can also affect the system’s speed. We want our devices to react immediately, like flipping a light switch, so a robust and reliable connection can make or break your experience.
If you’re using a tabletop touchpanel, do you want it to be fixed and always connected to power? That’s convenient if you always want to know where it is, but you can’t walk around with it. On the other hand, a battery-operated system could run out of juice unexpectedly. For a wall panel, many new systems use Power Over Ethernet (PoE), which allows the high speed Category 5 network cable to provide the power—this makes the installation of the system much simpler.
The software is the key. This can’t be emphasized enough, and it’s nearly impossible for a buyer to evaluate independently. A home automation system is basically a computer designed to do a limited number of functions, and do them well. The touchpanel is the device that talks to the computer and tells it to close the shades, turn up the music or arm the security system. Whether the system is Mac-based, Windows-based or proprietary makes little difference, except when considering what accessory devices it might work with. A custom electronics (CE) pro will be the best person to advise you here.
The graphic user interface (GUI) refers to the way the touchpanel displays information. For the most advanced systems, the GUI can be customized by the programmer. Some programmers are wizards at creating inventive GUIs for a home, while others will go for more mundane but functional GUIs.
Buttons or Not
While the main aesthetic appeal of a touchpanel is the LCD screen, there’s something to be said for tactile or “hard” buttons. Many touchpanels include dedicated hard buttons for basic applications such as volume and light control. Hard buttons for frequently accessed features save you from having to tap though multiple screens to get what you want— especially if your touchpanel always defaults to a main home screen. Also, there will be some rooms in the house where you won’t need an elaborate LCD touchscreen, and for those a panel with a few simple hard buttons will work well and cost less.
Yes, the touchpanel is only the steering wheel of your control system, but that steering wheel needs to be ready for whatever driving conditions it encounters. You can almost guarantee that what you expect out of your control system will change over time, so plan ahead for expansion. Do you need the ability to communicate in different ways? Do you need the flexibility to add more devices or options? Do you need sound and video? Do you need web access? Your budget might exclude the most advanced features, but it’s smart to think ahead about what you might want to do down the road.
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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 audio training from Home Acoustics Alliance and Sencore. He's also the author of the book The Trouble with Rivers
. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.