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Control4 CA-1 Automation Controller Reviewed

In a world where every new product release often seems like a bigger, badder, version of the last big, bad, do-everything thing before it, it’s refreshing when a company sails against the prevailing winds and says, “Nah, here’s a thing that’s smaller, simpler, and made for a specific niche.”

That’s the approach that Control4 has taken with its latest product, the CA-1—an automation controller with no audio/video connectivity of any sort, no IR control outputs, nor any contact closures or relay controls.

What it does have, though, is everything you need to set up a complete IoT-type control system for ZigBee, RS-232, and IP-controllable devices (to which you can add Z-Wave via a sold-separately module), including lights, locks, sensors, climate control, and security systems, along with any other devices that don’t require IR, relay, or contact control. To get specific, its connectivity consists of a ZigBee antenna, a Wi-Fi antenna, two USB ports, and two RJ-45 ports: one for IP with PoE, and the other for RS-232 via pinout.

If you’re reading all of the above and thinking, “Eeesh, that seems rather limiting,” well, that’s the point. Not artificial limitations, mind you, but rather having a specific product purposely designed for scenarios where that’s all you need. Maybe it’s a vacation home or condominium. Maybe it’s a hotel. Or maybe you have a situation similar to my dad’s house, where all of the entertainment is stacked into one half of a 3,500-square-foot house, and one controller alone isn’t enough to cover all of the wireless dimmers and sensors scattered around in a completely separate island of devices in the other half. Or maybe you simply have a job where you know from the giddy-up that you just want to do lighting control and that’s that.

Whatever unique situation you’re facing, the CA-1 is yet another unique tool in the Control4 dealer’s toolbox. Does that mean it will have a home in all of your jobs? No, of course not. Probably not even most of your jobs, depending on your beat. But it does open a door to opportunity for those smaller jobs that might have been overkill for Control4 gear in the past, and at $350, it’s a flexible and affordable solution for extending control into those parts of larger homes where entertainment isn’t an issue.

Given the flexibility of the CA-1, as well as the fact that it’s equally adept as a standalone controller for small systems or a team player in larger ones, it’s no surprise that Contro4’s Composer Pro software is required for programming. Adding it to a project works just as adding any other controller in the company’s lineup, and the steps you take to configure the CA-1 as a ZigBee Server or ZAP coordinator, or enable Z-Wave capabilities, are exactly the same.

The biggest differences in setting up the CA-1 as opposed to, say, an EA-1, are obvious as soon as you tab over to the Connections screen. Aside from RS-232, there aren’t any control connections to bind, but that one will certainly come in handy if you’re integrating your fair share of security systems.

Despite the fact that Control4 seems to have gone out of its way to avoid mentioning entertainment (either in the product’s title or in its installation literature), it took me all of five minutes tinkering around with the hardware in Composer Pro to say to myself, “Hang on a minute here—I have an IP-controllable TV, a network-connected receiver, a Roku, Blu-ray player, and satellite receiver all supported by IP drivers. What’s to stop me from setting up a complete home theater system operated entirely over the network?”

As it turns out, the answer to that is mostly processing power. This sort of thing might be technically possible, but it’s just not what the CA-1 is designed for. Going this route would also prevent you from, say, switching from satellite to most cable providers, who rarely if ever provide IP-controllable DVRs. And even if you take broadcast media out of the equation, it does limit the ability to expand or modify such a home theater system. Perhaps the biggest downer, though, is that it sorta limits you to app control of such a system. Add an SR-260 remote control to the cost of a CA-1, and you might as well go ahead and get a much more powerful EA-1 instead.

In the end, the setup that made the most sense for my home and my unique home control setup was to use the CA-1 on the east side of my house, in lieu of an old ZigBee repeater, to provide a better mesh network for my Yale front and back door locks. The CA-1 has proven stronger and more reliable, and has also allowed me to add a few Z-Wave lighting devices to my wife’s home office, which is the only other thing of note on that extreme end of the house and which has, until now, remained largely un-automated as a result. And since all network connectivity in that part of the house is wired (it’s the only part of my entire property where I don’t get a strong Wi-Fi signal), the CA-1’s Power over Ethernet capabilities made physical hookup a neat and tidy snap.

You might be asking: why not just add a few additional ZigBee devices between there and the rest of my house? It’s a good question, and the answer boils down to architectural particulars that I won’t bore you with. At any rate, had the CA-1 come out a couple of years earlier, I would have likely installed it in my dad’s house instead of SmartThings, primarily because it isn’t programmed and operated via the same app, which means I’d now be receiving fewer 9 p.m. calls that begin, “I think I messed something up…” No matter how you employ it, though, I don’t think there’s any denying that the CA-1 Automation Controller is a nifty little offering and a welcomed addition to the Control4 dealer’s arsenal.