On Controls Cloud-Enabled Automation Platform Product Review

System Provides a Wealth of Customization Through Web-Based Programming Setup
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When reviewing a product or platform for Residential Systems, one of the primary questions I ask myself is, “Who is this for? What sort of dealer is going to install this? What sort of client will want it?” Formulating some sort of answers to those questions is essential before I can even begin to ask whether the product in question deserves a thumbs up or down.

So whom, in my mind, is On Controls’ cloud-enabled automation platform right for? The answer isn’t a simple one. It’s for the integrator who embraces the latest technology, but laments the pre-configured UIs so common to home automation systems these days. The integrator who doesn’t mind a quick wizard to help get a project off the ground, but wants exact control over the placement of every button and every graphic. The integrator who would love to install a centralized gear closet with everything lined up in neat and tidy racks, but more often than not has to tuck control gear into nooks and crannies where there’s room. The integrator who sees every unused IR port or contact closure as a waste of space and money. The integrator whose clients have very specific accessibly needs not met by other control platforms.

If that sounds like you, I’m probably preaching to the choir here. You likely already know about On Controls. If not, a bit of a recap may be in order. This relative newcomer to the home automation and control industry benefits from the fact that its approach is fairly distinctive. With a reliance on an entirely web-based programming setup, mobile device control, and small, modular I/O gateways that can be mixed and matched to suit the job you’re working on, On Controls is pretty much a niche in and of itself in the world of control.

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On Controls couldn’t be easier to set up a basic, straightforward control system.

And if you’ve become accustomed to programming software that hides the sausage-making unless you specifically dig for it, it can be daunting at first. By that I mean that On Controls doesn’t hold your hand except at the very beginning. Thankfully, its online training course is pretty fantastic, with a series of 13 video courses (and 11 accompanying quizzes) that walk you through not only the basics, but also the minutia of programming for this platform.

And there’s a lot of minutia, some of which may be relevant to your installations, some of which may not be, but all of which you’ll need to firmly understand before you can complete the training. If I have one big complaint about the training course, it’s that it sometimes seems to mire you with details that don’t seem relevant, only to reveal a few lessons later that, oh yeah, you definitely need to know that thing. And although the basics of everything you need to know to set up a simple, straightforward, one-room control system are all covered in the first handful of lessons, the last few steps you need to know to put it all together and connect the necessary control gateways aren’t covered until the penultimate lesson. So, the next time the On Controls training syllabus is updated, I think it would be a good idea to spend the first few videos on how to create the most basic control systems from beginning to end, hardware and all, and then follow up with more advanced functions and techniques.

Let’s talk for a minute about why I feel that would be a better and more accurate way of demonstrating the strengths of On Controls. Because, really, it couldn’t be easier to set up a basic, straightforward control system for uncomplicated home entertainment setups like the home theater in my bedroom. At the start of a new On Controls project, your first step is to choose a mobile device (and “handset” in the parlance of the company). A laundry list of iOS and Android devices is available, but the neat thing is that you’re not just limited to the specific devices listed. If you know the screen resolution of the device you’ll be using to control the system, it’s easy enough to simply pick one that matches.

From there, you select the UI theme and then the activities you want in the system: Watch Movie, Watch TV, Apple TV, Roku, Denon/Marantz Net Radio Module, Onkyo/Integra Net Radio Module, Automation, etc. If there’s an activity that’s covered by two devices in your system (maybe you want both your smart TV and your satellite box covered by different “Watch TV” activities), you simply run the wizard twice and rename them. The software then walks you through input and volume control assignment in a very Harmony kind of way. And once that’s done, all you really need to do is connect your hardware of choice to the same network as the handset you’re using for the system, then use the On Controls app itself to identify said hardware, assign control ports, and that’s it. You’re done. You now have a fully functional app-based control system that can be modified and updated via the cloud.

Speaking of hardware, it’s worth noting that On Controls has gateways to cover just about every conceivable setup, from wired or wireless I/O devices with three IR ports (which you can double up with dual IR emitters), to wired or wireless gateways with three contact closures, to wired or wireless gateways with a single DB-9 RS- 232 connection, up to devices like the OLP-201 Gateway, which I reviewed, boasting dual RS-232 and four IR ports in addition to ethernet with PoE. Prices range from $270 for the more basic gateways up to $480 for the OLP-201, so the hardware cost of an installation really varies based on exactly what sort of connectivity you need. There’s also licensing to factor into the price: A System License covering five handsets, 50 devices, and unlimited control modules (like iTunes control if you’re using a tablet, or the Net Radio modules for select receivers) runs $390; a simple Room License covering one handset, 10 devices, and unlimited modules runs $200; and you can add additional handsets or devices to a Room License for $20 a pop.

Once you move past the basics, On Controls can get really nuts-and-boltsy, really quickly. If you have a device that supports two-way feedback, for example (e.g., volume control on a network-enabled receiver), you have to program your own query commands and variables, with frequency-adjustable repeats. If you add lighting control and shades to a project, then you have to position every slider yourself, which can turn into a bit of a game of Tetris.

Whether you see that as liberating or terrifying of course depends on how much control you want over every aspect of your UI design and control system. I’ll simply say that as someone who’s most familiar with more drag-and-drop programming platforms, I find myself grumbling at On Controls for things that are harder to do than I’m used to (like adding two-way control at the swipe of a mouse), but giddy over the things I can easily do here that aren’t so easy with other systems (like placing a power toggle button for a tricky cable box right there on the screen next to the transport buttons). Truly, the possibilities are nearly endless. Need to build a control system for sight-impaired clients with ginormous, high-contrast buttons? Totally doable. Want to build his-and-hers apps for the same home that pare down the control experience to include only the devices that each family member cares about? Not a problem.

I often find myself wondering why specific products in our channel are custom-only, but that couldn’t be further from the case with On Controls. It’s the very definition of “custom,��� assuming you’re willing to put in the effort.

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Kudos
On Controls holds high appeal for integrators that prefer nuts-and-bolts-level control system programming.

Concerns
The learning curve for programming the system becomes something of a cliff, once you move past the most basic home entertainment setups.

Product Specs
Note: At present, On Controls offers a dozen different gateways, each with its own unique configuration of inputs, outputs, and network connectivity. The specifications below cover only hardware used in this review:
► OLP-201
► Two RS-232 ports (Phoenix)
► Four IR outputs
► Ethernet port with PoE
► 5V DC power connection

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