X-10's Active Home

Brian Abernathy

X-10's Active Home
by Brian Abernathy Email

There has probably been no more talked-about product release than X-10's Active Home interface. When a call was first placed in the COMP.HOME.AUTOMATION group was made, asking for volunteers, there were literally dozens of experimenters who responded. There has been a constant discussion about the product since then.

That first handful of volunteers were shipped a small box containing a rather plain looking module, which was almost absent of all markings, with the exception of the X-10 plate on the back. It looked like a combination of an appliance module and a TW-523, but lacking the TW-523's red LED. The volunteers also got two diskettes of software. The only documentation was in the HELP file that was on the disk. There was also a small slip of paper, directing them to the X-10 beta website. Rather sparse beginnings, no?

The first versions were clumsy, and problems were rampant. Lockups were common. The volunteers had to keep their computers running at all times, because the unit relied on the Active Home software for it's 'intelligence'. That unit was later replaced with the CM11A, which is the unit that is shown in all the current literature.

The CM11A looks much like it's predecessor, but only at first glance. The front of the unit hides a small panel which opens to reveal a compartment holding two AAA batteries, which are used to keep the clock running during power failures. It is also heavier than the first beta unit. That is due to all the additional hardware which it contains. The best way to describe the unit is to call it an improved combination of the CP-290 and TW-523, but with much better software.

INSTALLATION
Installation of the unit is extremely simple. Attach the included cable to the CM11A and the desired serial port on your PC, and plug it in. The software will run on either Windows 3.1 or Windows 95. When the Setup program is run, it will ask a few questions, including which port it will be using and where the software is to be installed. After that, you begin configuring the software for your environment. The software comes with a sample setup which demonstrates several applications. Even the included README file refers back to the sample application. Using the samples, most users will be up and running in a short time.

The program has a simple visual interface. It does not rely on scanned pictures of rooms, or drawings of your house. Instead, you are given several 'Tabs' across the bottom of the screen. In the sample setup, these tabs are given names such as "Living Room", "Kitchen", "Dining Room" and - well, you get the idea. The names and number of tabs can be easily changed by a Configuration pull-down. The only tab which is predefined is the "Trash Can". That tab appears in red, and it can't be changed.

PROGRAMMING
Setup of an X-10 unit is very simple. Just decide which tab the module will reside in, click on the desired tab, click on a representation of the type of unit to be installed, then modify the information in the box which appears. Each unit has at least 7 modifiable fields; they are the representative icon, unit description, control time on, control time off, module house code, switch control area, and LifeStyle selection. Depending on the type of unit, the switch control area may change. For example, lamp controllers have a slider control to vary the brightness of the unit. These representations also emulate the corresponding hardware. If you have set up an appliance switch, or a wall plug, you will have a picture of a switch, with a power indicator. The power indicator shows the state of the module. Clicking on the switch will toggle it's state and send out the X-10 command to the physical unit. So the icon can be used as a manual controller, in addition to being used to program the schedule.

The LifeStyle selection, mentioned above, is an interesting field. By enabling the 'LifeStyle' choice in the 'Tools' pulldown, the software will remember all modules which are turned on or off during a 24 hour period, either by the interface, or through other controllers (such as a mini-controller). After that, the interface will repeat these commands, to give the house a lived-in look. Of course, it has no way to 'see' units that are turned on or off manually. Using this method is a quick way to set up a schedule. The only drawback to this method is that the schedule that is captured is not a regular schedule, and can't be edited.

As mentioned before, each unit has a control time on and off. Clicking one of these fields will present you with a dialog box for timer events. Each event has several options which are tied in to the programmed times. In addition to setting absolute times, you have the option to make the event happen only on certain days of the week or specific dates. Dusk and dawn with offsets are also available. As if all these options aren't enough, the designers also give you the ability to select Security, which will randomize the event plus or minus 30 minutes; multiple transmissions for noisy environments and even freeze an event, to temporarily suspend the event from occurring.

It is possible to download events as well as macros directly to the interface. When this is done, it is not necessary to keep the computer running. The interface will act directly upon the events and the macros. The carton of the CM11A even proclaims: "Once the Home Automation Interface has been programmed, the computer is no longer needed. Two AAA batteries retain the time, scheduled events, and macros for up to a week if the power fails. You can even unplug the interface after programming it and plug it in elsewhere in your home. The interface then sends signals over your existing house wiring to control lights and appliances connected to X-10 modules."

MACROS
Earlier, I mentioned macros. These are also called 'scenes' by other units, and are a very powerful part of this unit. If you aren't familiar with macros, let me give you an example.

You are sitting at home, about to watch a video. By pressing one button on a hand-held remote, your stereo turns on, the overhead light turns off and the lamps at the back of the room fade down to a comfortable level - just right for watching a good movie. All that was accomplished with one X-10 command. You have just experienced a macro in action.

Macros are really quite simple to set up. There is a 'M' (macro) button, which brings up a split screen. On the left is presented a list off all your current macros, and on the right is a list of all of the units you have defined. The INS(insert) key creates a new macro on the left side. Then, you just click and drag units from the right to the new macro on the left. Be sure to edit the new macro's name and X-10 code. Each macro is triggered by either an external event, or by a timer. Once a macro is defined, it has a visual representation on the main screens just like any other X-10 unit. In my setup, I have the macros all defined under one tab, obviously called 'Macros'.

I have to pause here to talk about something that confused me when I first started using macros. There are basically two types of macros; Standard and Fast. They are set up identically, and to all outward appearances, look identical. What, then is the difference? Only one. Fast macros are downloaded to the interface. Standard macros are only known to the Active Home software, so the computer must remain on, and the software running, unless you own a computer with the 'wake up on ring' option.

Well, what is to prevent you from downloading all your macros and schedules to the interface? Memory, my friend. The CM11A only has 1K of EEPROM for storing Fast macros and schedules, so you must be thrifty when deciding what to download. The software has a handy "Statistics" option on the Tools menu which shows how full the EEPROM will be. If only standard macros are used, and none of the module schedules are downloaded to the interface, the number of macros and schedules is virtually unlimited.

WHAT ELSE?
What else does it do? What else do YOU WANT it to do???? Remember that this unit, like it's older cousin the CP-290 is not limited to just 16 codes. All 16 house codes and 16 unit codes is available to you. Since the unit 'listens' all the time, it will also log ALL X-10 traffic it hears, including units it does not have defined. That will give you a quick check of any 'rogue' units operating nearby. I looked at that display one evening, and discovered that I had not added in the codes that my Intelligent Floodlight used. They were displayed on the map highlighted in red.

It is also one of the few X-10 units that will respond to the 'HAIL' request, so it has an option to 'Search for other computers'. If you suspect that a neighbor also has a similar setup, it is a simple matter to find out.

MISSING ABILITIES
OK - I've told you about the unit, and what I like about it. Now let me tell you what is still missing.

The hardware and software are better than just a clock/timer, but it does not compare to some of the more expensive 'Stand Alone' units on the market. One of the main things I find it lacks is the ability to write conditional logic. For example, some units have no problem with the following pseudo code:

IF DAYLIGHT THEN 
   IF A1-ON THEN 
	SEND B1-ON 
   ENDIF 
ENDIF 

Basically, the code would mean: If it is currently daytime, and the unit receives an A1-ON command, then turn B1 ON. I have seen code that was a LOT more complicated, but I think you get the picture. Active Home can't do imbedded conditional logic like that.

Another feature lacking is external stimulus. Several other units can read analog inputs, and act upon them. One good example would be external temperature. If it is freezing outside, the computer should be able to sense the drop in temperature, and turn on the heat tape wrapped around my water pipes.

Triggering external events is another missing feature. I would like the ability to play a .wav file if my motion detector is triggered, or maybe run a different program. (Maybe a dialer, so my modem could call me if something is amiss.)

The downloaded timers are apparently considered always 'valid'. If I have downloaded a timer event that is triggered on sunrise/sunset, until I download again, it is still considered 'good'. There is no way to let the software know when to refresh the downloaded data.

At the moment, the Active Home software also has the annoying habit of making noises. During the initial beta, the software was silent. Suddenly, it found it's voice. Now, every action I perform while using the software is accompanied by cartoon-like sounds. There is a plethora of beeps, clicks, snaps and pops. The only way to silence them is to use the Control Panel and reassign no sounds to the events. A configuration parameter for sounds would be nice.

RECOMMENDATIONS
So in conclusion: Would I recommend the Active Home unit? Absolutely! Is it perfect? Not at all. In all fairness, this is the first computer interface that X-10 has come out with in a long time, and while it is late to the game, it is still a contender.


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