Integrated Control vs. Multiple Apps for Home Automation

iOS apps for Hue, Nest, i-Zone and Unity

Is an app-controlled house good or bad?


Aug. 13, 2013 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Have a smart thermostat? There’s an apps for that. Has you front door been fitted with an electronic lock on the front door? You can control it from an app, too. Want to stream music to the loudspeakers in your house? Just peck at the app on your phone. It seems that for nearly any type of electronic component there’s an app that can be used to monitor, manage and control it. And, many of these apps can be downloaded to your smartphone or tablet free of charge.

Feasibly, from one smartphone you could launch several apps individually to control electronic components throughout your entire house, and, in fact, some people are starting to do just that. “We’ve been proponents of this design philosophy for awhile,” says Robert Gilligan, a custom electronics (CE) professional at Engineered Environments, San Francisco, Calif. “With multiple apps you’re getting the best in class user experience from each individual manufacturer.”

As appealing as it sounds to simply use an app to control the lights, another for the thermostat, and an app to operate the audio system, it’s far from being a perfect solution. For starters, it can be rather inefficient and awkward, requiring a user to launch one app to control a certain device, back out of that app then launch another app to control something else, and so on. Also, because each app was designed by a different manufacturer, you’ll be dealing with inconsistencies in the layout and look of the individual control menus and icons. “It’s like using five or six different remote controls, which just happen to be all on your tablet or phone,” says CE pro Justin Dohman, Smart Homes of Texas, McKinney, Texas.

These are usually minor issues, though, and if you’re comfortable pecking at and swiping through screens, there’s nothing wrong with loading up your tablet or phone and controlling your house this way. “In fact, it’s a great way to get comfortable with the concept of home automation,” says Tommy Kissell of Eco High Fidelity, Carrollton, Texas. You might start with one app, get familiar with it then download more apps as you purchase additional products for your home.

As you continue to grow your app-controlled house, you may get to a point where it would be more convenient, efficient and effective to unify all of the various apps under the auspices of a central home control system. “Unification is always our preference,” says Noah Stein of Smarthomes Chattanooga, Chattanooga, Tenn. The biggest advantage of laying a control system over the individual apps, CE pros agree, is the ability for the various components to seamlessly interact with each other. For example, one command from the central control app on a tablet could tell the lights, the thermostats, and the audio system to all adjust for your arrival home from work. Furthermore, various electronic components can be automated to self-regulate according to conditions like the time of day, occupancy in the home and even the position of the sun.


Savant and Crestron home control apps

Another benefit is a consistent user interface, where the controls you see on your phone or tablet to monitor and operate the lights look similar to the controls you use to set the thermostats or security system. 

And, remarkably, bringing all your apps together under one control system shouldn’t cost much more than having your CE pro set up a slew of free individual apps. “It takes close to the same amount of time to configure and coordinate the look and feel of five or six individual apps as it would to integrate them all into a single user interface,” says Gilligan. “In order for the multi-app approach to work well for our clients, we make sure the room names, the font size, the colors, etc. of each app are similar. The raw hours to do this are remarkably similar to the programming required of a central control system.”

So what’s the best solution? “It really boils down to user preference,” Gilligan says. There are distinct advantages and disadvantages of each approach, so be sure to investigate your options closely and discuss your concerns with a qualified CE pro.

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