One of the names often associated with DIY home automation systems is Insteon, yet in the recent explosion of new smart home hubs and devices, Insteon rarely gets mentioned. We decided to take a look at the Insteon hub to see how it compares with other basic smart home systems.
The Hub, as it’s called, is Insteon’s latest smart home controller, and in practice is similar to smart hub systems such as Lowe’s Iris, Staple’s Connect, Revolv, Wink, SmartThings and the new Peq (and the Piper, which isn’t exactly a hub, but works like one).
The user operates the system and all connected devices in the home through the Insteon Hub app (be careful, because there are two different Insteon apps in app stores, and only one works with hub). The Insteon Hub uses the Insteon communication protocol, which is a dual-band mesh network that can communicate either wirelessly via RF or through your home’s powerlines. Because the Hub is connected to your home network, it can also connect to some non-Insteon devices such as the Nest thermostat (though the control is somewhat limited) as well as X-10 powerline products, though the one X-10 module I tried wouldn’t connect. One thing that’s important to understand about the Insteon Hub is that while most new smart home systems use one or several standard communication protocols (Z-Wave, Zigbee, 6lowpan and others) Insteon uses its own proprietary system. This means that every product you connect to it (with a few exceptions) has to be from Insteon. Systems such as Revolv, SmartThings and Staples let you connect devices from other manufacturers.
Getting started with the Insteon Hub is a simple and fast process. In fact the easy setup process may leave you a little overconfident in the system—a feeling that may be lessened as you get further into configuration.
After downloading the app on your iOS or Android device you enter an email address and create a password, then plug in the Hub to your router. That process takes just a few minutes, and then you’re ready to integrate devices.
One step in the setup process that a lot of people may want to skip is to enable remote access. Being able to remotely control systems in your home may be important, or not. Insteon uses a process called port forwarding to permit remote access, but port forwarding is not a very secure method. In fact, about a year ago custom home automation manufacturer Control4 put out a memo requesting that its installers not use port forwarding because it could open users’ network up to hackers.
The Hub starter system ships with two dimming plug-in modules for controlling lamps. I added those to the system by plugging them in and pressing a connect button on each device; then I gave them unique names in the app (big lamp, little lamp) and identified the room they were in. I went through the same process with 3 LED smart bulbs, an outlet and a motion detector. The outlet, of course, needs to be wired in.
Once all that was done, controlling the individual lights via the app is quite easy. Press the icon, and an on/off toggle comes on screen, which you can either tap for full on/off or slide to the desired brightness. The devices respond quickly to the app.
Beyond that, the next thing you’d want to do is create scenes—for a lighting system these could be scenes for different times of the day or different uses (dinner, party, night…). A “create scene” function in the app lets you add devices to a scene, name the scene and assign the scene to a room. The process isn’t as intuitive as some other systems, but within a few minutes I had scenes in my living room for low light, half light and full light (I apologize for the unoriginal names). You can even assign scenes to the in-wall keypad or the a portable remote, so you don’t need to pull out your phone all the time.
It’s important to note that you don’t need to assign a room to a scene. For example, if you want to create a scene that shuts down all the home’s connected lights, you can just assign all the lights to that scene, but not put it in a room page.
Setting up more complicated scenes that involved conditional situations is trickier. The app doesn’t do a good job of walking you through the process. The thing that separates a control system from an automation system, is how much you can get the system to work for you, rather than making you do the work. Creating automated scenes (some systems call them activities or rules, while Iris calls it Magic) is much easier with hubs such as Iris, Revolv and SmartThings. In fact, all of those include suggested scenes and instructions which guide you through associating devices with activities. Insteon will sometimes get you to the same place, but it takes more time and may create a bit more frustration. It’s almost as if the designers don’t want you to figure it out.
For example, setting up conditional scenes that involve if-this-then-that rules is fundamental to a smart home system. You want motion and contact sensors to alert you when they’re tripped. You want lights to come up when you walk into the house. You want a security camera to record when a stranger walks through your living room. Rules like that, when setup in the Hub app, are scenes, and require a clunky process of (in some case) physically pressing sync buttons and assigning responder and controller attributes to devices. It can work, but it’s not intuitive the way that, for example, the SmartThings “SmartApps” menu is.
Another example of how the app seems to thwart intuitive use is that there’s no one central home page or dashboard to start with. Each time you launch the app, it starts with the page you last used (which can be convenient), but many times you’ll need to go to the app menu to operate anything. From the menu you can choose Scenes, Rooms, Devices or Favorites. If you want to turn on a light, you can either go straight to the device page and find the light you want, go to the room page and find the light icon there, or go to the scenes page and find a scene you created that turns the light you want on or off. The variety of options may be convenient, or it may be confusing. If you set up a lot of scenes, the scene page may be your main page.
One of the things I especially like about this system is that it allows you to add remotes and keypads which can be configured to activate your scenes. This is important because a smartphone or tablet isn’t always the most convenient device to simply turn on a light. Sometimes I think DIY system rely on smartphone control for too much.
Overall, the Insteon Hub strikes me an effective control system for lights and maybe some other devices, but it’s not a robust automation system. If you want to use an app to control all your lights or turn on the ceiling fan with an app, you’ll find this system very capable. The scene creation and room assignment process lends itself to that use nicely. If you’re interested in more automation or a system with more customization, then you might want to look elsewhere.
Insteon Hub Starter Kit
Includes two plug-in modules
More on home automation:
Timers and Schedules Put the Auto in Home Automation
It’s the Summer of the Smart Home: Is Your Home Ready?
How and Why of Smart Home Automation
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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 training from THX, the Home Acoustics Alliance, Control4 and Sencore. His latest book is Necessary Myths
. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.