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.
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.