Smart Home Automation: Why smartphones aren’t a replacement for dedicated control points
Click on. Click off. Turning our lights on at the light switch as we walk into a room, or off as we leave, is so ingrained into us that we almost don’t think about it. Why then, in so-called “Smart Homes”, must we take our phone out just to dim the lights? Or turn the radio on? Is there not a better way?
TL;DR: Fixed, wall mounted control points such as touch panels, programmable keypads or, combining the two, touch screen light switches, offer quick and easy control. Keep reading for the many benefits of this approach.
Using your smartphone to control your smart home is all well and good, but it’s not always the easiest and most convenient option: fumbling in your pocket for it; unlocking with your face or finger; finding the right app; waiting for it to load and connect before you can finally adjust the thing you want. What’s more, do we need another reason to be on our phones?
Even with a desktop control point such as an Echo Show or Nest Hub, the fact that they are “desktop” means they are normally located on a surface near where one might sit…hardly convenient as you arrive in a room; walk around tidying up; or entertain guests. On the subject of guests, do they know where or how to adjust your smart home if they need to?
“Voice control is the answer!”, I hear you say. Yes, voice control is certainly convenient, but it’s not a silver bullet. Whilst, as a society, we are gradually starting to accept voice control, there are scenarios it simply is not the solution. What about the middle of the night, for example, when you don’t want to wake others or simply don’t want to engage your vocal cords? Again, what about your guests or visitors? Do they know what commands to issue, or even that you have voice control?
In professionally installed smart homes, wall mounted touch panels have been a staple for decades and have evolved into responsive interfaces. A fixed touch screen by the likes of Crestron, Control4 or Savant, to name a few, offers a permanent and obvious go-to control point. A fully centralised smart home system serving these touch panels isn’t without compromise, though, not least of which being the cost, but does provide simple control.
Wall mounted tablets are one option, but it’s not really what they are designed for: they are multi-functional devices and, as such, when you wake the screen there are normally more steps than just a button push, such as navigating to the right app. This puts you back in a similar position as with a smartphone, not to mention a decent tablet is pricey, simply because of the multi-functionality which you probably won’t use if it’s wall mounted anyway.
For simpler, one-touch control, there are smart lighting keypads from the same manufacturers and also the likes of Lutron and Rako. These offer programmable buttons that can trigger pre-defined scenes affecting not only lighting but other elements such as playing/pausing music. With their socially-ingrained position at the light switch location, use of these devices is almost second nature, with guests and visitors not requiring any direction or training (as long as they’re labelled properly).
These solutions are expensive, though. Not only economically but also in the vast space, power and cooling requirements all of the centralised components require. Not to mention navigating all the different devices and complexities on the market and the different technical considerations. There are cheaper, IOT-style keypads available online but the single button functionality is hugely limiting. So, is there a happy medium?
Enter the touch screen light switch, or smart switch. By providing a touch screen at the light switch location the size of a regular single switch, a smart switch can offer both one-touch control and more granular options.
With a favourite scene assigned to each time of day, a simple tap of the blank screen can activate it without waking the screen. If you need more control, a long press will wake the dark-mode style interface, which minimises the disturbance to the room and one’s eyes at night. With a quick standby-timeout, you’re not left with a lingering glow from one corner of the room.
The ability to quickly activate, for example, a Philips Hue light scene without your phone (or without pressing their own keypad 3, 4, 5 times until you get to the scene you want) is really convenient. With lighting colour temperature so hugely affecting our mood, melatonin release and sleep pattern, getting the right scene the first time is important. Add to that quick and easy Sonos control and you won’t live in silence ever again because you “didn’t get round to turning the radio on”.
When paired with a slightly more feature-rich system such as Fibaro, a smart switch offers even more value with control of heating zones, for example.
A fixed control point of any format, be it a basic light switch or a fully blown smart home touch screen, is invaluable to getting the most convenience out of your smart home. Which one is most suitable for your use case depends on your budget and your other systems.