It’s a couch potato’s dream. Imagine sitting on your sofa watching television, and at the same time being able to control your lighting, air conditioning, heat, irrigation, security, and entertainment systems—without ever leaving your seat.

Lutron Electronics

The idea of being able to manage the comfort and security in your home from a convenient touch control center may seem like science fiction to most people. Only a minority of homeowners today can boast an automated home. But as any technology aficionado can explain, controlling the home has been possible for the past quarter of a century as long as one was willing to spend enough money or enough time. Hard-coded and hand-switched X-10 controllers were the mainstay of hobbyists and professionals alike until the advent of computing-based home automation systems, a development that has enabled seamless, programmatic and highly customized tailoring of the home environment.

One route to computing-based automation is the smart-panel system – which almost always requires proprietary software. Those who take this route usually turn to architects and electronics installers to develop customized systems to run the home. The traditional tower computer which has become a fixture in many homes is less acceptable for the task of home automation because it is so bulky and inconvenient to locate anywhere but on a desk. Still, the tower computer offers a second route apart from the more expensive smart panel systems. Local electronics retailers and many Internet sites provide a vast array of X-10 and PC products which homeowners can use to bring the home entertainment and security system and computer together into a network sharing an Internet connection. The interfaces and wizards already standard on Windows and Mac OS make such connections easy. It makes it possible for a homeowner to review and control many aspects of the house even when away. Despite the availability of software, the disadvantages of the tower computer are discouraging enough to make this route one that only the very determined homeowner has been willing to take. In addition to the awkward size and shape of the tower computer, elaborate schemes are usually required to hide all the wires.

The introduction of the all-in-one computer, which dispenses with the tower, offered a more convenient package for installers to use as the center of a home automation system. Unfortunately, the typical all-in-one computer has still been associated with a large “But. …” when it comes to home automation. Like towers, most all-in-ones are limited to being used only on a desktop. This forces the homeowner to find dedicated counter space — where the computer will be safe from spills and falling objects. In many homes, the most logical location for installing a home automation system is the kitchen, but unless the all-in-one computer is wireless, kitchen installation often requires extra construction costs to accommodate the appropriate connections for networking the computer to sensors.

Such connections are essential to home automation. For example, when sensors placed outside the home detect changes in light patterns, the computer can turn the lights on at the moment dusk arrives each day. (Among other benefits, this makes it look as if someone is always at home.) Similarly, if sensors indicate the lawn is dry, the computer automatically turns on the sprinkler.

The introduction of the Intel® Pentium® M processor this past July offered the way to make the all-in-computer more effective for home automation. The processor can be configured with built-in Wi-Fi connectivity, the leading standard for wireless networking. An all-in-one computer with this processor can network all of the systems in a home without the need for new construction. The control center can be placed in the kitchen without tearing it apart. Equipped with a TV tuner, the computer doubles as a TV.

An all-in-one computer with Wi-Fi is also a boon to the couch potato – and others – who wish to run home theater systems. By getting rid of those pesky wires, Wi-Fi enables the homeowner to create a better-looking design and removes the headache of trying to hide a thicket of cords. The control center is mobile should one want to leave the sofa.

Wherever the automation control center is located, home automation is simpler and far less costly with Wi-Fi than without it. It’s no wonder people often name wireless connectivity the main feature they seek in the computer that runs their home.

Although originally intended for mobile computing, the Pentium M offers additional advantages to Wi-Fi for home automation. The processor reduces heat output to almost nothing and makes it possible to build a computer requiring virtually no cooling and ventilation. The result is an almost soundless computer that creates noise measurable at less than a whisper. Such a quiet system enhances the pleasure of watching movies or listening to music. Similarly, the last thing people want in a home automation system is to hear the computer constantly whirring in the background of their kitchen or family room.

Another advantage of the Pentium M for home automation is that consumes a fraction of the energy of previous Pentium and competitive designs. It supports a battery that runs substantially longer – up to more than doubling running time. The chip can also shift its clock speed and core voltage according to the needs of the task, a versatility also enhances running time and energy efficiency.

British manufacturer Pelham Sloane, which offers a unique a patented design integrating an all-in-one computer within a flat-panel monitor, recently became the first all-in-one computer maker to use the Pentium M processor. The Pelham Sloane computer built around this chip uses about the same amount of energy as a night-light – 15 watts. Comparatively, the Pentium 4 chip, predecessor to the Pentium M, uses about 200 watts.

It would surprise no one in the computer industry if other manufacturers follow Pelham Sloane in using either the Pentium M or other advanced chips to create a better computer for home automation. However, it seems certain that the all-in-one form factor is essential in this market, too. An all-in-one computer with built-in wireless networking opens the way for a much broader swathe of middle-income families to consider home automation. It’s both less expensive than smart-panel systems and potentially more efficient.

Pelham Sloane’s bid to retain its premier position in the budding market is based upon additional features homeowners and home automation installers find specially suited to home use. The company offers the only touch screen among all-in-ones, a feature often easier to use than keyboard and mouse. While these are available with the Pelham Sloane models, they can be tucked away in a drawer until needed. Pelham Sloane has found that its VESA standard mount, also unique among all-in-ones, is attractive to homeowners who want free their computers from the desktop. The computer can be mounted on an arm – including an articulating arm – or attached flush on a wall. Installers say that the built-in networking capability of Wi-Fi makes it easier to configure and install the machine. They like the fact that it can be operated with only a single cord – the power cord to plug it in.

The Pentium M combined with the right design features in an all-in-computer may be poised to create a quiet revolution in comfort, security and entertainment within our homes. It’s enough to make a couch potato want to stir from the sofa in order to go out and purchase a system. But, wait – he or she can do that online.