Home Automation @ CES 2014

This year’s show was focused heavily on home automation (HA) and the “Internet of Things” device so I spent most of my time at the show running down different HA vendors and talking to them about the products they have, and the ones that should be out sometime this year. Instead of breaking each one into its own post I decided to group them all together in one post, by focus, so that hopefully it’s easier for you (the reader) to understand where the competitive lines are drawn.

General Thoughts

I’m asked the question “what was your favorite/best thing at the show” countless times at CES and when I get back, and in previous years it was easy not to choose HA because, while very cool to me personally, the overall story that was being told by the vendors and technologies was too siloed to really cross the line into “Wow”. That changed this time around. While there is clearly still progress to be made in all of the segments (DIY, service providers, CI, etc.) the ground covered in ease of use, flexibility and vendor choice is simply amazing. Z-Wave is still the obvious choice when it comes to DIY, but there is an awesome trend in controllers to focus less on selling a single radio solution and more on user experience. Part of this is UI improvement, another part is better mobile apps, but I think the most important is where they free end users to select the best HA device regardless of protocol (Z-Wave, Zigbee, IP, etc.) and it just works.




There’s no disputing that the Piper camera-as-HA-controller is slick, but the mobile apps only (iOS & Android) approach leave me a bit flat. Not just because I carry a Windows Phone, but because I want the experience to work everywhere – even when I don’t have my phone with me. Also, because there isn’t a browser UI I worry that integration into 3rd party devices/apps would be difficult or impossible. Fortunately, it is possible to join it to an existing Z-Wave network so if you already have a controller, this very cool device will play nicely.



If maximum SAF is your most important requirement Fibaro sets the standard from what I saw. Their app UI was incredibly polished, fast, and useable but like the Piper Windows Phone and Windows 8 users are SOL — at least there is a Web GUI that you can fall back on. The system isn’t out in the US yet (coming soon), and won’t be cheap at $699.



Nexia is the only one in this group that requires a monthly fee, but they also have the cheapest controller ($60) in the bunch so it makes sense that they would need to make up for it that way. I must admit that my preferences run more the other way so when I chose a controller it was not on the short list. That said, I can completely understand why someone’s preferences would run counter to my own, so it’s great to have an option out there that provides a low upfront cost of entry. Pushing that discussion aside, Nexia had a very interesting product at the show – a garage door controller with a tilt sensor. What makes this so unique is that as far as I know, it’s the only one that exists for the DIY market. Now it is possible to roll your own (I did with a Z-Wave outlet, some scenes, and an open/close sensor), but it’s not perfectly legal and more importantly the BOM of that solution won’t save you much versus the expected SRP of ~$100.



I was disappointed when the updated Vera devices we talked about last year didn’t ship, but honestly that all slipped away when I found out what they’ve been doing over the past twelve months. Instead of focusing on new hardware, they fixed (or more correctly are fixing) the biggest adoption issues for them – out of box UX and UI. Addressing the first, those in the US will start to see Vera HA kits at retail stores like Fry’s (IIRC) in a few different SKUs intended to grab up those considering HA, but unsure how to get started or unwilling to take the risk that online sales can sometimes entail. Of course that doesn’t mean much the first-run experience is poor, so they’ve also poured significant effort into creating a setup wizard and will release UI6 soon (with UI7 expected second half this year). With UI6 there should be mobile apps that also focus on improved UX (see the gallery for some pictures). Also, for those of you who were waiting for new hardware, we should see some this year as well (although the “when” was a bit ambiguous) with the updated Sigma Z-Wave chip as well as a Zigbee radio onboard. Of all the controllers I saw, this one excites me the most because of how well it promises to straddle the DIY and UX focused segments.



If serious DIY is your thing, the RaZberry Project (Z-Wave hardware for the RasperryPi) might be just what the doctor ordered. The GPIO daughter card goes for ~$65/£50, and looks to be written primary in JavaScript (Node maybe). The fellow manning the booth was so busy coding to dig into the details; having been there myself a time or two I didn’t press too hard.



Systech is similar to the rPi solution in that it is only for the hardcore, but their target demographic is more the commercial space where the specific HA controller application would be provided by the next player in the food chain. Obviously this makes their kit a bit less appealing to less adventurous readers, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to highlight it because of the flexibility the hardware provides. Not only does it include GPIO, RS-232 and USB, but the devices are modular as well, customers can opt for multiple radios including Z-Wave, Bluetooth or Zigbee. Also, when I spoke to their representative he was very open to pursuing the technical DIY market; which reminds me I owe them a follow up email.




SimpliciKey enters a the crowded entrance security market with a door lock that can be operated via your smartphone or keyfob. At first look, it’s hard to see where they fit in. The lock doesn’t support standard protocols like Z-Wave or Zigbee, and the IP part requires a separate gateway on your home network that isn’t documented (yet, they did claim that it would be soon). Most blocking is the price though; at $500 for the lock plus a $1-2 monthly fee, I really can’t see why anyone would select this solution versus a more flexible and cheaper lock from a different vendor.



Kwikset was demoing there newest lock at the show, and frankly it appears to fix all of the complaints I had with the older model and a lot more. Full numeric keypad, better finish, all metal design, smaller, quieter and it’s UL rated for a fire door (so you can legally put use it in a garage).



I don’t have any experience with Schlage locks, but from what I understand they are popular and high quality. I opted not to pick them up when I was shopping this segment because at the time they required a monthly fee via Nexia, which many no longer be the case as the two companies have since separated. Either way, the locks looked great and I really liked the no wear touch panel which is tough and won’t show fingerprints.



Poly-Control has been around for a while, but this year they have a Z-Wave, and combo Bluetooth/Z-Wave, “lock” in addition to their older Bluetooth only model. Because they overlay the existing door locks, it reduces the cost (Z-Wave only is $99) and you can keep your existing keys.



NextLock had one a couple really interesting devices at CES. The first was the $99 “SmartFob” gesture driven Z-Wave scene controller, which includes a fingerprint reader that can be used to authenticate actions. The second, their “SmartHub” cylinder-less deadbolt which can be unlocked either via HA, smartphone, PIN or the built-in fingerprint reader and includes a camera.  Unfortunately the SmartHub isn’t available yet; NextLock is only taking pre-orders through their website for $299. Both devices can be used together to create the same effect as SimpliciKey, but with the general interoperability and flexibility that Z-Wave offers for $100 less.


Having a single source for chips is one of the major drawbacks to mainstream Z-Wave adoption by service providers. I wasn’t aware of this before, but Mitsumi was also manufacturing older Z-Wave radios for the Japanese market (which apparently run in a different frequency). I wasn’t able to get much from the representative, who’s English was pretty limited, but one of the guys at Z-Wave Alliance told me that they just started manufacturing a modern chipset comparable to the newest one from Sigma that could potentially be sold outside of Japan.

The remaining galleries are the collection of different device vendors. They didn’t have anything requiring discussion, they are included to show the variety of different options available.

  • Just saw that Monoprice is

    Just saw that Monoprice is starting to carry their own line of z-wave stuff.  Maybe this’ll be the year I actually reinstall home automation; been missing it a bit since I dumped my x10 stuff years ago.

    • If you do, let us know how

      If you do, let us know how you get on with it.

      • What’s your opinion on z-wave

        What’s your opinion on z-wave controllers?  The rasberry PI add on looks fairly cost effective, but might take a bit of tinkering.

        • It really depends on how much

          It really depends on how much you want to mess, and your technical level. The rPi controller looks really slick, but I doubt that it’s a drop in solution. It’s probably very hands on, but in return you probably have more control around how it works (i.e. you won’t have to deal with some of the annoying system behaviors of other HAC because you own the stack).

          Personally I think the Vera strikes a good balance. You can do pretty much anything (even log into the system and mess around), but it works OOTB with minimal fuss (should be even less fuss when UI6 comes out). I am planning to go this route again when the new HW drops.

          The cool thing now (vs. when I was first getting into the space) is that there appears to be a decent option for everyone regardless of DIY-ability.