To a large extent, your home automation controller defines the entire system. First and foremost, it defines the system protocol. In addition, it sets the performance envelope of the system in terms of expandability, flexibility and reliability. Finally, in many cases this is the single most expensive item in an X-10 system. Thus choosing a controller warrants some thought.
This article reviews eight X-10 controllers, and attempts to provide a clear picture of what’s out there. It is my hope that this will aid you in deciding which X-10 controller would best suit your needs.
A note before we start: this article is sparkled with many links to pages in smarthome.com. Although I don’t endorse them, I do applaud their web site. It very thoroughly covers many X-10 products and has an extensive and thorough description of every item (well, at least their pros). If you’re new to X-10, their catalog is the best X-10 Beginner’s Guide I can think of.
That out of the way, lets define a controller as a software programmable X-10 transmitter device. I added â€˜software’ to the definition so as to exclude consoles such as the mini-controller. On the other hand, I didn’t confine the definition to â€˜transceivers’ because I want to cover one-way devices such as the classic CP290 and the relatively new kid on the block, the CM17A (Firecracker).
There are three quite distinct categories in controllers.
The teasers/appetizers, which will let you get a feel for what home automation tastes like, but have such limited capability that prevents many of what today seems basic. We’ll cover the CM17A and CP290 in this category.
Next up are the high return-on-investment devices. They are more mainstream, and usually enjoy a large application base and are well supported. We’ll cover the Activehome, Lynx-10 kit and the CPU-XA/Ocelot.
Rounding the review are the high-end devices. They are characterized by hardware that performs many of the functions that lesser controllers can only do through their host computer or not do at all. They pretend to look professional and are priced accordingly. We’ll cover in this category the JDS TimeCommander Plus and the Stargate.
Which brings us right to the issue of the benchmark, or how to quantify a controller. I’ll rate the controllers in each category from 1 to 5 stars according to the following criteria:
Price. This will quickly let you know if this controller can be taken into you’re your choice list.
Features. This rating will rate the controller features list with respect to other peers in its category.
Flexibility/expandability: how scalable and modular is the device.
Reliability: Known bugs and issues you should be aware of, or that are not commonly documented.
Support/application base: a popularity measure, which indicates bang-for-buck.
Overall score: an approximate, opinionated weighted integral of all the criteria. This, might be very different from your needs and wants.
Now that we’ve laid the ground rules, let them start marching in.
Teasers and Appetizers
Appetizer I: CM17A/CM18A (Firecracker)
The CM17A, called the Firecracker is X-10’s recent giveaway to first time users. For $6 you get a kit that includes the computer-to-wireless interface (shown left), a wireless transceiver, a lamp module and a remote control.
The combination of the computer interface and the wireless transceivers enables sending commands from the computer to the home power-lines, controlling the lamp module.
Praise: $6 is a hard price to beat. Wireless transceivers go for around $14 each and lamp modules for $5 at best. So obviously this is a great price.
The low price and small size of the computer device quickly prompted people to write software for it. You can find an ActiveX control for the firecracker, attempts were made to implant it into a 3com Palm, and the limited original software that came with the device was quickly enhanced to include web control and macros (chains of commands).
Gripes: The wireless transceiver module is limited to 16 devices. Additional devices would require additional transceivers.
Worst, your computer can only send commands. It cannot receive the status of devices (such as sensors) and thus cannot issue commands in response to changed states or events (other than time of day etc).
The wireless transceiver also has (as of this writing) a serious hardware bug: many people documented in the home automation newsgroup lockups when trying to dim lights using the wireless transceiver. The only way to release the transceiver from the lockup was to unplug it from the mains.
Overall, it will give you no more than a taste and proof that you indeed can control a light using your PC very easily. This is a far cry from anything that falls under â€˜home automation’ in my dictionary. I think you will soon grow tired of the demo, and will quickly look for a better controller. I argue that even as a demo it defeats its purpose because it is so limited and because home automation isn’t. If you want a much better taste for home automation, shell out $10-20 at Ebay.com and get a HomeDirector kit. Here is a link for X-10 items currently on sale at Ebay.com.
Appetizer II: CP290
The CP290 is the oldest in the game, but surprisingly enough has some distinct features not found in higher priced devices.
Praise: For starters, it’s a combo of a controller and a console. The console has eight ON/OFF buttons that can control eight devices in one house code, and through software any of the 256 addresses can be controlled. Another quite unique hardware feature is that events programmed into the CP290 can be played right on time or randomized around the programmed time for â€˜lived-in’ look. Finally, it has a battery that saves programmed events through power-downs. Of course no transmitted event will get through the power-line during power-outs, but at least when power is restored, the controller will still have the events stored in it. It has its own internal clock so it can be disconnected from the host and play out the events.
Gripes: the worst single shortcoming of the CP290 is that it is a one-way (transmit) only device. In fact, I think that many, myself included, would have continued to use it and not switch to ActiveHome or other, more expensive controllers, if it wasn’t for this limitation. Priced comparably to ActiveHome, a two-way controller, it fails on that criteria.
Being old and retired by ActiveHome, the CP290 doesn’t get much software support on the newer operating systems. However, it has plenty of DOS based programs and I’m sure if you look hard enough, some Windows as well. Programming the CP290 is harder than the newer controllers, but its been done before and you can find the code if you look for it.
One known pesky problem with the CP290 is that the clock drifts badly (in excess of a minute per month), though there is a remedy for this (described here) that involves replacing the clock chip with a better one.
There is no low-battery indicator, and the internal memory can store only 128 events, so it can’t be disconnected from the host for too long.
Overall: for the price, there is no reason to buy this old timer (no pun intended) today. ActiveHome displaced it.
Mainstream I: CM11A (ActiveHome, HomeDirector)
I’m sure the CM11A is the controller behind most residential home automation systems today, and for a good reason. It is a sensible balance between most of the criteria needed in a controller.
Praise: The activehome is the first controller on our march that finally introduces two-way. This opens up a flood of situations that can be handled much better than with the previously reviewed controllers.
Secondly, it strikes a good balance between price and features. It also enjoys the status of most supported controller from applications. I am not aware of any new general purpose HA program that won’t interface with the activehome. It is easy to install and comes in many flavors: the CM11A is made for the 110v power-line voltage. CM11K is for 220v, and there are versions with French, German and British plugs. The HomeDirector is a CM11A under the IBM brand. Radio Shack calls it something else, and the list goes on. Marketing really sets this controller apart. X-10.com is pushing this device like it’s the best thing since sliced bread. The controller itself, however, boils down to a dumbed-down CP290, stripped from the console, but with power-line sensing circuitry. It has less memory then the CP290 but introduces macros, which are chains of events.
ActiveHome does a good job of reporting collisions. It not only reports the presence of collisions, it also reports the colliding command. This is important in order for the host to keep a correct state table of the modules. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only controller with a colliding-command report.
Gripes: There are plenty of documented problems with the CM11A in the reliability arena. There are no less than four different ways the CM11A can hang! (More details can be found here). In addition, there have been reports of the device overheating to the point of too hot to touch. All that doesn’t score too well for its reliability.
Overall: I believe it is a sensible choice for a controller unless you either know how to solder or are looking to automate your infra-red equipment as well, or are curious to what else is out there. If that’s not the case, I think your search ends here
Mainstream II: The LynX-10 kit
The LynX-10 is, in my humble opinion, a gem. It is not nearly as popular as the ActiveHome, although the kit’s price is in the same ballpark. The LynX-10 can be assembled from a kit that costs $50, or can be bought assembled ($120) or can be bought as an ISA card ($180). Thus, for the price to make sense, some assembly is required. There is no real reason not to buy the kit version, unless you absolutely don’t know how to solder and don’t want to learn. It is an easy kit to assemble and there are distinct pros to having the Lynx in kit form. This is important because if you’re willing to pay $120 for a controller, there is a better candidate (the CPU-XA, reviewed below). However, in the $50-$70 range, the LynX-10 kit rules.
Praise: There are good assembly instructions on the web. The kit board can be placed inside the PC, on the floor, on top of a plastic sheet (so nothing gets shorted). In addition, the extra space on the right of the kit printed circuit board can be used for something useful. For example, you can build a watchdog timer that keeps an eye on your entire home automation system, and if something fails, resets the PC. Details here.
Another unique feature of the LynX-10 is that it is the only controller that senses 50/60Hz power-line carrier frequency. Why is that important? Well, to make a long story short, some of us live in countries that use 220v/50Hz power-line systems. Often there, three phases are used even in residential housing (3 phase motors are more efficient). The X-10 protocol provides for three-phase operation, but its up to the controller to set its internal timing according to the power-line frequency. Not having this ability means that the controller will be able to control modules that feed only from the same phase as the controller, i.e. one out of the three phases in the system. More details here.
Other nice features include extensive error reporting (carrier lost, command timeout, collisions etc), statistics counter and it handles dimming a bit better.
Programming is exceedingly easy for the LynX-10 and it comes with a robust general-purpose program.
Gripes: This is a general one from this point onwards. To communicate with the power-line, the LynX-10 uses a module called TW523. This $15-20 module sits between the power-line and the LynX-10, so take its price into account.
Another issue with the TW523 is that it does not support extended codes and does not receive DIM commands. Thus, the all TW523-using devices won’t â€˜hear’ advanced two-way modules that use extended codes or report dimming status.
Secondly, the LynX-10 needs a host computer running all the time. There is no backup battery. However, there is a small pro here: for what the LynX-10 can do, you probably want a host computer. Some examples: irrigation program that is forward looking based on the forecast downloaded from the Internet; control through the Internet or phone; speech synthesis and recognition. For these and others, you’ll have a PC running anyway, so it’s smart to move as many features as possible from the hardware domain to the software domain, where the solutions are much easier, cheaper and more scaleable.
Overall: this is the first controller so far that addresses the two-way issue while not compromising reliability, and in addition has some unique features. If you don’t need or plan on IR control, and am willing to solder, the LynX-10 kit is in my opinion, a sure bet.
Final note: Marrick Ltd, makers of the LynX-10 are working on a $100 controller that will encompass the TW523 and will support extended codes. It’s called the LynX-10 LPC. Details here
Mainstream III: CPU-XA and Ocelot
The CPU-XA and Ocelot, (its successor) are kind of at the high end of the mainstream category, and are priced accordingly. They are the controllers for a whole set of modular hardware by ADICON that allow data acquisition (analog, e.g. temperature, or digital, e.g. alarm sensors). The controller can also control relay modules (sprinklers for examples) and IR (entertainment equipment).
Praise: Concentrating on the controller itself, the CPU-XA/Ocelot has an internal clock and is battery powered. It has a relatively tremendous program space of 16K (compared to 1K for ActiveHome), and the big add-on is the built in infrared controller. Ocelot costs about $30 more than the CPU-XA and at the $150-$200 price range, this 15% increment is probably worth it: the Ocelot is more forward looking: it will be able to address a touch-sensitive screen (the â€˜Leopard’) and generally, is more scalable to future enhancements.
A unique â€˜feature’ with this controller is the dedicated and responsive tech support from Adicon. The level of support received many compliments in the home-automation newsgroup.
Gripes: The CPU-XA shares the same limitation with the LynX-10. They both use the TW523, and thus are prone to TW523 limitations described above.
In addition, the price of add-on quickly adds up.
Overall, the CPU-XA/Ocelot makes a superb X-10 controller, which is very expandable and flexible. The only reservation is the relatively high price tag.
High priced Controllers
A note before reviewing the high end devices. The price range for these controllers is $600-1000. At this price range, the bottleneck won’t be the hardware â€“ it will be the protocol. The X-10 protocol has some inherent deficiencies in it. For starters it is very slow. It takes around a second from command sent to command performed. Macro execution (several lights performing) may take much longer. Many people find that mildly irritating. People who are willing to pay $700 for the controller alone may find it very irritating.
Secondly, the protocol is collision prone, and it is difficult to load the system with more than three-dozen transmitters (sensors, two-way modules etc) and be able to respond to them well (i.e. to keep the state table right). In other words, the X-10 protocol does not scale up very gracefully.
What this boils down to is that at this price range, X-10 may be the wrong technology for you. X-10 greatest benefits are low cost retrofits. If you’ve ventured into this price range, it may be worthwhile to also look for other alternatives such as dedicated control wires to each switch or control by wireless.
Now that you’ve been warned, let’s continue on:
TimeCommander Plus (by JDS)
The TimeCommander Plus (~$600) is basically a CPU-XA-like controller with the digital and analog I/O modules already built in. It has eight analog inputs, 16 digital inputs and eight relay outputs. If that’s not enough, you can add more with a $400 expander unit. It has host-independent macro features and logging, built-in timers (similar to the CPU-XA) and it has some special enhanced commands for high-end wall switches â€“ the PCS scene master.
Praise: This is an integrated unit with very powerful hardware features. It can easily control HVAC and handle alarm sensors and actuate sprinkler relays. The hardware for it is built in.
Gripes: There is no direct support for IR (which is a given in the CPU-XA). For IR support under the TimeCommander Plus, one needs to add the Infrared Xpander for $300.
Surprisingly, at this price range (>$500) the controller still needs the TW523 for X-10, with all the limitations of the latter.
The fact that the I/O is built inside the controller may be a mixed blessing: sometimes you’d have the sensors input far from the controller, or alternatively, will need to control far relays. Both situations will necessitate wiring, which defeats the entire underlying benefits of X-10.
Overall: a good choice for high-end systems, if your plans call for many sensors and controls actuated from a central location.
Touchlinc (By smartlinc)
The Touchlinc version 4.0 is the first controller since the CP290 that combines a controller with a console (not counting the Leopard, which is in beta at the time of this writing). The console is a soft touch-screen, which means that any sensitive spot can be programmed to be anything anytime, through customizable menus. The menus include lights, audio, video, temperature, clock and more. Everything is graphical, and is customizable to the pixel level via a programming suite called the â€˜Smartlinc Suite 2.0′. So this is a long way from the CP290 eight button console.
Gripes: in order to have sequences of commands, the Touchlinc needs to be tied to another controller, which in turn triggers pre-programmed commands. As all its predecessor two-way controllers except the Activehome, it too needs the TW523.
In addition, it might be worthwhile to wait for the â€˜Leopard’ from Adicon, which is said to be a one-up on this controller.
Stargate (by JDS)
OK. The ultimate in hardware control, the Stargate is a Timecommander Plus controller, plus voice and telephone response. Voice response (not to be confused with voice recognition) allows the user to record up to 100 messages and tie them to events and outputs (telephone, speakers etc).
Gripes: (Updated)As it’s predecessors, this controller needs the TW523 for two way X-10. At $1,000 the added value is, in my opinion, marginal. With a host PC and a freely downloadable Direct-Speech-Synthesis activeX control (you can get it here), one can very easily incorporate the added features, and while at it, also add speech recognition. There are $30-$50 products that do X-10 telephone transponding, or if you have a voice modem, you can do it with software. In short, the expense of moving features from the software domain to the hardware domain can get substantial, and is usually not warranted.
Overall: an extreme controller for this technology.
Concluding remarks and guidelines
There are, of course, other controllers besides the eight we reviewed. However, most of them fall somewhere around the ones described.
X-10 is by its nature modular and incremental. However, changing a controller is usually more involved than simply adding more modules to the system. Often, the software must be replaced, and the controlling commands rewritten or revised for the new features. There’s usually a different interface with new idiosyncrasies and learning curve. Therefore, for â€˜general-purpose’ home automation, my suggestion is to avoid the under-achievers. Looking at what seems basic today for home-automation, a controller must be able to do two-way X-10.
Another general suggestion is to think the system through. This is easier said than done, though. Looking forward, think about what you’d like to have in say, a year: would you want sprinkler automation? Would you want audio/video auto-control? Next, check the â€˜boundary conditions’: would you have a PC running continuously? Can you wire all your inputs to a central location? How reliable must the system be? How comfortable are you with rolling your own code?
Answering these and other questions can rapidly steer you to the right X-10 controller for you.