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 HomeRemote Wireless Home Automation Gateway

 Author: Gerry Blackwell
 Review Date: 8/30/2007


It’s not clear yet whether Z-wave technology will make home automation any more consumer friendly than first-generation technologies such as X10. But market response to new Z-Wave-based products such as Hawking Technology’s HomeRemote Wireless Home Automation Gateway ($230 direct from Hawking) and Wireless Video Camera ($180) should tell the story.

Z-Wave is the narrowband wireless technology developed by Zensys Inc., a Danish company. It uses the 900 MHz ISM band to establish short-range wireless mesh networks populated with remote-controllable lighting, audio/video, security, and HVAC (furnace, air conditioning) nodes. Hawking is one of several companies making Z-Wave gear.

The HomeRemote Gateway lets you control nodes with ‘scenes’ or schedules created using its browser-based software. You can also control devices directly using the included wireless RF remote. The remote has six On and Off buttons that can be programmed to control devices, plus two buttons used in the procedure for adding Z-Wave devices to the network.

The camera is a Wi-Fi/Z-Wave unit that comes with a mounting bracket and can also sit on a flat surface. The lens assembly adjusts slightly to point in the direction you want but cannot, as with more expensive units, be controlled remotely. You view images from the camera using the gateway software.

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The HomeRemote products are interesting for a few reasons. First, they include remote monitoring functionality — using the Internet to log in to your automation system when you’re away from home, including with a smartphone. Remote monitoring not only has a high cool factor, it adds real utility. 

If you end up working late, for example, you could log in to the gateway from an office computer and tell the HVAC system not to start heating (or cooling) the house until shortly before your new expected arrival time. And with live video from the camera, you can monitor in real time what’s going on with latchkey kids, nannies and elderly family members living alone.

Hawking bundles the Home Automation Gateway with a 30-day free trial of Dynamic DNS (DDNS) service from TZO ($25 a year). DDNS lets you use a Web browser on any Net-connected computer to log in to the gateway through your high-speed, Internet connection.

Also included is a 45-day free trial subscription to Hawking’s Cell Link service. Cell Link allows you to access the system on a smartphone over a cellular network using the same DDNS service. Cell Link costs $80 a year for the first phone, plus $20 a year for each additional phone.

These products are also interesting because they’re being targeted at the do-it-yourself consumer market. A lot of other Z-Wave gear is still pitched primarily or exclusively to professional A/V installers and custom integrators.

Making this technology DIY-ready is a challenge, though. The HomeRemote products go a long way towards making it simple enough for reasonably tech-savvy consumers, but not far enough for the average home owner. And simplicity cuts two ways. The gateway control software is limited in functionality compared to other similar products.

I used the Hawking gear to set up a test network that included HomeSettings lighting control modules from Intermatic: a couple of plug-in dimmer units and an in-wall dimmer switch. The plug-in modules are transformer-size blocks that plug into a wall outlet. Then you plug the lamp or appliance you want to control into the module.

The out-of-the-box experience with the Hawking products has been well thought out and made as uncomplicated as possible. Hardware set-up for the gateway is simple. Connect the modem-size unit to a network router using the included Ethernet cable, plug it into the wall and put batteries (not included) in the wireless remote.

The package includes a Home Planning Guide, a sheet on which you make a list of the devices you’re going to add to the Z-Wave network with name, type of device, room and section (main floor, second floor, outside, etc.) There is also a printable version on the CD.

The included software automates almost the entire set-up process – testing network and Internet connections, assigning IP address and so on. The first time I ran the wizard, it didn’t for some reason detect the gateway, but this problem resolved itself the second time through and the rest of the process worked as outlined in the very clear illustrated Getting Started guide.

At one stage, you have to copy the information from the handwritten planning guide into the wizard. Then you use the remote to add devices to the network. It involves going to each device and pressing the Include button on the remote, then the Program or On/Off button on the device. It’s tedious but not complicated, and worked perfectly for each device.

To get information about devices into the gateway, you place the remote near the gateway, press a couple of buttons on the remote, then click a button on the wizard screen to activate the process. All of this worked first time for me.

After you’ve set up the devices on the gateway, the wizard takes you through steps to set up e-mail and/or text message notifications. The gateway can forward alerts in response to triggers you program using the software—if a light is turned on or a surveillance camera detects motion, for example. You need to know your SMTP Outgoing Mail Server address for this step, which will baffle inexperienced users.

I was impressed by the fully automated set-up of the trial DDNS service. First, you tell the wizard the URL you want to use – www.yourcustomname.homeremote.net. Then on my system, which uses the Windows XP firewall, the Novice or fully automated procedure automatically configured my router by opening the necessary ports in the firewall. There are also Advanced and fully manual set-up options if this fails.

Setting up Cell Link was a lot more complicated, partly because I was using a smartphone on a Canadian cellular service, which Hawking doesn’t officially support yet.

In the wizard, you select the name of your service provider from a pull-down list. All the U.S. national carriers are there. I was instructed by Hawking technical support to choose a listed carrier that uses the same network technology (i.e. CDMA or GSM) as my carrier. (This may also work for unlisted regional carriers in the U.S.) Further complicating matters, only some devices had been tested and worked with my carrier. My device, a Palm Treo 700wx, was supposedly one of them.

Next, you select your device from a pull-down list. Cell Link doesn’t support all but it supports many. And finally, you enter your wireless telephone number. The service sends a text message to the phone with a link to a Web site where you can download client software. I had to manually go to the Web site and download the software to my device. And before installing it, I had to upgrade the Microsoft .Net framework by downloading software from a Microsoft site.

This is obviously getting far too complicated for the average consumer. And in the end, I was not able to get the Cell Link service working. The software launched on the Treo and apparently connected to the HomeRemote Gateway using the DDNS link – it showed my rooms and devices—but the software froze and would take no input.

Remote browser-based control of the gateway worked perfectly, however. Everything you can do from a computer on your own network, you can do from an Internet-connected computer.

Setting up the camera was much less complicated, similar to setting up any Wi-Fi surveillance camera. You plug the camera into the router to configure it. When you unplug it from the router and place it where you want it in the house, it uses Wi-Fi. The set-up procedure also adds the camera to the HomeRemote software, where you can view it by clicking View on the Device Control page and logging in using the user name and password input during set-up.

Image quality — when the camera works as intended — is just barely acceptable in 1X mode. It works in three different screen sizes up to 640x480, but they all look fuzzier than other, albeit more expensive, cameras I’ve tested. The 2X digital zoom mode simply makes everything fuzzier still.

This was the quality I experienced after initial set-up. It later deteriorated to the point of being unusable — scrambled pictures, incorrect colors, little real motion. I was still trouble-shooting at the time of writing.

The software is very simple — too simple. It lets you manually turn devices on or off by clicking onscreen buttons (not on its own terribly useful) or adjust temperature on a Z-Wave thermostat (although I was unable to test this). It also lets you link devices in the network, so that when you turn one light off or on, others linked to it go on or off too.

You can set up notifications – to send you an e-mail or text message if any light is turned off or on. You can create very simple scenes, schedules for lights or linked groups of lights to turn on or off. But you can only use absolute times and set days of the week.

More sophisticated Z-Wave-based automation software such as HomeSeer’s HS2, which we reviewed here recently, lets you create much more useful schedules that calculate local sunset or sunrise time based on your latitude and turn lights on or off a certain number of hours or minutes before or after that time.

Bottom line: The HomeRemote products definitely do some things right. Hawking includes DDNS and smartphone access services, and well-designed software that makes it as easy as possible to install and set up a Z-Wave home automation network. But it’s not quite easy enough for the average consumer. Hawking has also compromised on software functionality, either to make configuring the products simpler, or perhaps to rush them to market. And finally, the company needs to work some bugs out of the cellular remote access and video monitoring functions.

This review originally appeared on Wi-Fi Planet.com.
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