After complaining so much about the lack of sub-$1,000 remote controls in my last blog, it seemed fitting I would try out the new Control4 EA-1 (just announced last week). I decided to jump in with both feet over the weekend and upgrade the old Control4 gear in my family room and see what my wife, mother-in-law, and three kids made of it in a “live fire exercise.”
For Livewire to sell the new remote control solution below $1,000, it means we can only price in two hours to get the work done. As it's been a few years since my own trip to the Control4 training center, I figured my experiences would closely approximate an entry-level technician doing the work. Would it be easy? Would Control4 keep me from steering into the ditch? I was about to find out.
New Toy Syndrome!
The process began with a box sitting on my front doorstep. I felt “new toy syndrome” getting my adrenaline going. It's great after all these years in our industry to still get excited over new technology. After unboxing the new gear, I started watching the video tutorials explaining how to complete the upgrade.
Control4 includes a migration wizard in its new version of Composer Pro designed for people like me with older systems looking to upgrade. The promise of the wizard is a seamless move from old to new. As with most home technology projects, this promise turned out to be 75 percent true.
Here’s how to experience Hi-Res audio, if you care, which you probably don’t.
The training videos spent a ton of time focusing on high-resolution audio. I found this ironic because my old HC250 has audio input/output jacks, whereas the EA-1 doesn’t have any audio output on it at all (or if it did, I didn't see it). I found the high-resolution audio thread amusing. I love great music, but I'm much too lazy to find out where to get high-resolution audio files. I suspect our customers feel the same. The Control4 slide on high resolution says it all. Instead of promising to up-convert our existing music to high resolution, they illustrate a labyrinthine series of steps to get some files to play with. I suspect if they ever choose to measure this feature, it will be ranked somewhere alongside screen doors on submarines.
My old HC-250 (note the audio input/output jacks.)
The back of the new EA-1, sans audio jacks and new external antennae/USB connectivity
After logging into Composer Pro, I followed the directions to add the new controller and upgrade the entire project to the new software version (2.8.1). This process took around 30 minutes (there goes 25 percent of our billable time!). During the process, Composer froze up and calmed down several times. After 20 years in the IT world, I've come to expect this, but it's still nerve wracking.
System hanging. Some things never change.
I soldiered on and soon had both controllers up and running in the project. After clicking around a bit, the Migration Wizard appeared and offered to transfer old to new. Several warnings and disclaimers appeared. I didn't read them closely (after all, can I expect our technicians to do this every time?). My old friend hourglass was omnipresent throughout the process, hovering somewhere between hang and crash (thankfully the crash fairy stayed away).
Beware! Turn Back Now! I didn’t read most of this.
After the migration completed, the wizard told me I could delete the old controller, which I did immediately. I ran to the family room to check out the fruits of my labors. I picked up the SR-260 remote control (previously paired to my old controller) and it didn't respond to any of my commands. I removed the batteries. Nothing. Tried a few other tricks. Nothing.
Permission to move about the cabin from Control4. No mention here that my ZigBee mesh is dead or Sonos won’t be working.
I reasoned the wizard didn't make a new ZigBee mesh for me. That hunch turned out to be spot on (though annoying because by this point I was 1.5 hours into the installation; 75 percent of the billable hours were gone). I re-created the ZigBee mesh, removed and re-identified the existing ZigBee devices to the network, and I was good to go. I only have a few ZigBee devices in my house, but I could easily see a job with more being a big time suck. I'm sure there's something I did wrong, but since I did the installation from the perspective of a neophyte installer, I can't count on every one of our technicians having more advanced troubleshooting skills (I wish we could; back when we were a five-man shop we could). Because Control4 promises to trim installation time with tools like Composer Express (its handheld app for basic installations), I felt my critical approach was fair.
After finally getting all the new connections made, I was ready to test again. In fairness, I did take the opportunity to add the new IP Apple TV driver (five minutes gone). The remote control now worked well (much faster than the old controller) and the new on-screen display is well laid out and intuitive. My kids and mother-in-law rejoiced at the new speed, and I surrendered the remote back to the family. No complaints. That's huge.
I then moved to other rooms in the house to make sure the multi-room audio and lighting control (Sonos and Lutron) worked as they should. Lutron did great, but Sonos failed in every room. I scratched my head. Back to Composer I went and after much digging found out the Sonos Network driver needed updating. At this point, 2.5 hours had elapsed, and I'd now comp’d 30 minutes to our phantom customer. There’s nothing worse than time you can’t bill.
Screenshot of the Sonos driver I needed to update. Discovering this took some time.
My main frustration with the Sonos and ZigBee issues is that a better wizard would've fixed those issues for me and kept me out of the ditch. Instead of selling three hours to a customer to get this remote installed, I'd prefer a quicker process. Two hours should be plenty of time to install a remote control or upgrade a project like mine.
Clifford's Highly Subjective Report Card
Migration Wizard: C+
There should be a better process for ensuring compatibility. This is easily improved upon and I'm sure Control4 will continue moving in this direction.
EA-1 Controller: B+
It's very fast and responsive. I'm sure Control meant well by eliminating the audio output on this controller and intended it to drive step-up sales, but it will probably result in frustrated dealers swapping out old HC-250s with existing audio connections. There needs to be better guidance here. It concerns me that the exterior design appears to be a large heat sink. Coupled with a system fan, it makes me wonder about heat issues and failure over time (especially because many of these will be shoved behind wall-mounted flat-panel TVs).
At the end of the day, Control4 listened to its dealers and introduced a lower priced line of controllers (while spending engineering resources on features we didn't ask for like high-resolution audio). In my opinion, Control4 leads the pack in terms of traditional home control bang for the buck but still has some work to do on making its user experience is the same across all interfaces. In addition, quality assurance (QA) continues to be an ongoing challenge; evidenced by their yanking the new app from the iTunes Store on launch day to avoid authentication issues (this resulted in a flurry of frustrated text messages from our customers). Because of the yanking, I couldn't test the new Apple Watch app.
My family loves their faster remote and their feedback is always invaluable. At Livewire, we don't install new technology for any clients unless my wife and kids sign off on it first. As a result, most new technology gets rejected and only the most reliable solutions make it through. Does your family evaluate new tech in-house before it goes live? We have a saying at Livewire: "Test it for the customer or the customer will test it for you."
Stay frosty and see you in the field!