The first thing I noticed on opening the box for this software is that it comes on floppy disks (2) and there is a substantial manual. This is unusual in this day and age of online help, CD-ROMs and huge program files. The installed program uses up about 5 megs … not bad and I for one like to have a written manual to refer to. Unfortunately though, if you like windows help files you’re out of luck here. They don’t exist. If it ain’t in the manual you gotta go online to the website for technical support.
The program authors also point out the fact that HCA is constructed to fully take advantage of Windows95. “Unlike ActiveHome it is a 32 bit application and uses the Windows task management facilities to make sure that X10 signals to HCA, UI actions, schedules, and programs all happen in a timely manner. Unlike other programs nothing is lost or dropped.”
Home Control Assistant is the first ActiveHome / Home Director software replacement that I have reviewed and it allows you lots of flexibility. It will also work with Marrick LynX-10 and LynX-Port controllers. In fact Advanced Quonset and Marrick have entered into an alliance to market and distribute this software.
Lets go through the process of setting up a system to learn about the software. As you can see from the main screen, the interface has a now familiar look and feel with a menu down the left side and an active window on the right. As you can tell from the HomeToys website, I like this layout … it just makes sense.
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So, the first thing to do is import your floor plans. The program only allows .dxf files which are created in architectural design or drawing programs. I think it would have been nice to allow bitmap images as well but the program supports DXF files written by almost all home floor plan design programs. These range in price from $15 (Expert Software) to AutoCAD (a lot of $). A handy wizards guides you through the process of loading the floor plans though and if you don’t have .dxf files you can just have each floor as a blank screen upon which to show devices.
OK, let’s build some devices to control. Again it’s pretty simple with the wizards. Just give it a name, address (device code), pick an icon etc. and away you go. Each device is described by it’s properties and these are adjustable and accessible from the properties dialog boxes.
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A small gripe … it would be nice if the program alerted you if you chose a device code that was already in use. But wait, in the HCA menu there is an entry called “House and Unit Code Inventory” which lists everything in use and even better there is what’s called a “Design Inspector” which tells me which devices are using the same codes. OK, I’ll swallow the gripe and make it a suggestion for even more improvement for those of us with very little active memory (and I don’t mean RAM).
The device icon is placed on the floor or floors of your choice. A right click on any icon brings up a menu allowing on / off / dim control, suspend (from a schedule) or open the properties dialog box. The icon changes color to indicate it’s current state.
Ok, so now we have a bunch of devices spread around the house. We need a schedule. In HCA this is done with wizards again. You can create several different schedules (i.e. have one schedule for normal days, another when you’re away from the house and another for holidays). Default start-up and power fail recovery schedules can be set. Another wizard lets you enter events onto the schedule.
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Here you tell the wizard which device to schedule and when you want it to come on and off. A nice touch is the “In plain English” screen which clears up some of the mud when you’re scheduling around sunrise / sunset times etc. You can tell HCA to vary the time randomly for security purposes as well.
A handy tool for scheduling is called “Visual Scheduling”. This consists of a screen showing each device on a timeline. You can drag and drop the On and Off times to change your schedule.
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One problem I had with this feature was that I couldn’t scroll up or down so unless the display was full screen, the entire day could not be accessed. Apparently the whole screen shows up in any resolution (in full screen mode) but I hope this is revised in future releases.
Next in the manual is another handy feature that allows you to set up groups of devices and act on them in a schedule or via direct command. Another wizard helps you name the group (i.e. “Great Room Lights”), select the individual devices in the group and assign a device code and icon for the group. Therefore you could now turn on all of the “Great Room Lights” with one command via the schedule or a remote control etc.
Now we come to the all important programming functions. Here, HCA takes a completely new approach they call Visual Programming. With visual programming you link building blocks representing tasks to represent the program. This takes a minute to get used to but for many it may be the answer to the confusing world of computer programming.
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The example above represents a motion detector program as shown on the Visual Programmer. The icons represent actions (i.e. Light On, Test, Delay, Wait, End Program etc.). To build a program you “Add” an icon (at which time you define it’s properties) and connect it to your sequence (drag a line from icon to icon). Once you’re done, the “Validate” button runs a test to check for obvious errors such as dead ends etc. Programs can be initiated by device code, directly from the screen, in a schedule or from other programs. You can also switch schedules in a program. I think for many this could be a very effective and easy to learn method of programming the home as it follows a simple building block approach.
There are a few other features worthy of mention in HCA. A nifty idea is the “Date Book”. It allows you to enter reminders of Birthdays etc. The message is displayed in the right hand frame on the day it was scheduled. HCA also allows you to keep a log of all events and display it as required. This is a handy troubleshooting tool. And since scheduling depends on your computer clock, HCA can be set to automatically update by calling a time service and downloading the correct time to your PC clock. Now that’s cool. I wish my VCR, stove, coffee maker, wall clock etc. could do the same. Sometimes I can walk around my house and think that I live in several time zones at once.
HCA allows you to print out most of the settings, devices etc. It lets you select what you want to print and includes a print preview function so you know you’re going to get the info you want and not 10 pages of extra stuff.
All in all I think HCA has a simple interface and is easy to learn and operate. That was the focus of it’s designers and they have done a good job. The visual tools and wizards make setting up the system easy for novices and old hands.
Of course, you have to leave your computer running with HCA active for it to do it’s job. For many this is not feasible or desirable. In addition, the program is limited to controlling X10 devices only (as is the hardware to which it connects). No IR or hardwired devices are supported. For these reasons, I think the price tag of $145 is a bit steep. We’ll see what happens as the software enters market distribution channels.
For more information about Home Control Assistant visit the Advanced Quonset website at www.advancedquonsettech.com