INSTEON announced less than two weeks ago a big, new strategic partnership with Microsoft to help bring home automation to the masses. In addition to offering INSTEON products in Microsoft Stores, Microsoft helped INSTEON, the home automation giant, to create apps for Windows 8 and Windows Phone. In the announcement they stated that the apps would be available on June 1st. They missed their target by a couple of days, but we’ve had time to use them on a Surface and a Nokia Lumia 1020.
If you’ve already been using the INSTEON Hub with other mobile platforms then you’ll simply log in to these apps with the credentials you’ve already created. If this is your first time setting up the Hub, then the apps will walk you through the process of creating a new account.
Setting Up Our Home
Adding devices is a pretty a simple process with the INSTEON for Hub apps. First it will ask what type of device you’d like to add. You have a wide range of options like plug-in modules, LED bulbs,thermostats, motion sensors, etc. After selecting the device type, it will give you specific directions on how to complete the pairing process. Once a device is paired, you can give it a unique name, adjust any settings that can be tweaked, and even select from a nice list of icons to assign to the device.
We found the process of adding devices simple and pain-free for all of our lights and motion sensors. Unfortunately, the process of adding an INSTEON Camera was anything but easy. First, if you’re only using Wi-Fi with your camera, you’ll need to connect via an Ethernet cable for the pairing process to work. We went through that, but the app still wasn’t able to find our camera. What we noticed was that while the app is instructing you to ensure that you’re on the same Wi-Fi network as the camera, it also mentions it being a 2.4GHz Wi-Fi network.
To complete the process, we needed to go into our router’s settings and completely disable the 5GHz network. Once we did that, we were able to continue through the process of adding the camera. Unfortunately, the rest of the process seems to be riddled with many unnecessary steps. The one good thing is that you only have to do it once—once a device is paired via any of the INSTEON for Hub apps, it will automatically appear in all of the apps.
Once the devices have been added, it’s helpful to then organize them into rooms. From the apps, this process utilizes all of the standard Windows conventions for managing items. You add a room and give it a name and an icon. Then it presents you with a list of all of your devices. You just select the items that should be in the room and tap the Save button. There is also a predefined group called Favorites that is managed exactly like rooms. Devices in the Favorites category will show up on the home screen of the apps.
Controlling Our Home
The INSTEON for Hub apps make it pretty simple to control the devices around your home. That doesn’t always mean that the interface matches expectations of a seasoned Windows user though. In the Windows Phone app tapping on a light’s tile will produce an odd vertically stacked On/Off button near the bottom center of the screen. The rest of the screen is greyed out. Below the buttons, it shows the title of the device your controlling, and in the bottom right corner, you’re given a grid icon to tap, which takes you back to the screen you were on prior to tapping the device tile.
Tapping the On and Off buttons will control the device as you would expect, but if you’d like to dim it or view more details you’ll need to tap the device’s name. The Windows 8 app also doesn’t behave how we would expect, but it’s not nearly as unusual as the Windows Phone app. Instead, when tapping a device, a context menu appears with the options Turn On, Turn Off, and More.
The INSTEON for Hub apps also place a large focus on cameras. Whenever you’re on a page that shows a camera it shows the video from the camera instead of an icon. Tapping on the camera’s video also displays arrows pointing in the four primary directions that allow you to pan and tilt it. The INSTEON cameras are also equipped with a microphone, so you can hear the audio from the camera within the app also. From the details page you can rotate your Windows Phone to view the video feed full-screen. In the Windows app simply double-tap the feed to achieve the same result.
Once you make it into the device details page you’re presented with many more options. If it’s a light, you can dim it (in two ways). If it’s a thermostat, you can change the modes and different temperature settings. The page also allows you to rename it, select a different icon, view and modify the rooms the device is associated with, and modify any scenes or schedules for the device. The page is cleanly laid out and behaves as you would expect—perhaps with the exception of motion sensors—on both Windows and Windows Phone.
Automating Our Home
Even if an app is great, opening it to control your lights doesn’t count as home automation. True automation means that your devices do things without you directly telling them every time. That’s where the concepts of scenes and schedules come in. Scenes allow you to control many devices with a single action. Want to turn off every light in the house at once? Create a new scene, give it a clever name (like All Off), and select every light in your home as a member of the scene.
We found some difference between the Windows and Windows Phone apps in how the processing of scenes is actually handled. When we created this scene, and then tapped its tile in the Windows app, we were presented with the Turn On, Turn Off, More context menu that we see when tapping a light. If we tapped Turn On it would turn every device in the scene on. Likewise, tapping Turn Off would turn all the devices off. The Windows Phone app provides a different experience though. With this same scene, tapping Turn On and Turn Off would do the same thing: turn off every device in the scene. This seems like a bug in the Windows Phone app.
The other half of the automation story with the INSTEON for Hub apps revolves around the concept of schedules. Schedules are a lot easier to explain, though. From within a device, you can tell the Hub to control the device in a specific way (turning a light on, setting the thermostat to a specific mode, etc.) at a given time. That time can be an actual time, like 5:00 PM, or you can select sunrise and sunset options.
Unique Features to Windows
There are a few features in the INSTEON for Hub apps that are unique to the Windows platforms. The Windows app provides a Visitor Mode. This mode, which can be enabled and disabled by supplying your password, simplifies the interface a little. The idea being that you could enable this mode and hand your Surface to the babysitter, or a child, and they’ll be able to control the house without the possibility of screwing up any of your settings. What we found odd is that instead of simply removing all of the things that a visitor to your home wouldn’t need or care to see, INSTEON has instead chosen to just disable them. You can view most of the details of your Hub’s configuration, but you can’t modify it. When navigating to a device you’re still presented with a Delete button, but it requires you to enter your password to actually delete the device.
In the original press release, INSTEON also touted live tiles as a big selling point. However, it doesn’t appear as if they have implemented truly live tiles at all. You can’t pin a device or scene to your Start screen, and the app’s tile never updates. INSTEON also describes the app’s home screen as a dashboard, but the only devices that are updated in real-time are cameras. To make matters worse, refreshing the home screen of the app didn’t always refresh all of the devices. One time it even crashed the Windows app.
Snap view is technically enabled in the Windows app, but it doesn’t make any modifications to the app’s layout at all. You are just presented with a very narrow window that does a lot of horizontal scrolling.
The INSTEON for Hub apps for Windows and Windows Phone are a welcome addition to the ecosystem. While home automation systems have been exploding across crowd-funding sites, they rarely support either of the Windows operating systems. INSTEON isn’t a new company or technology. They’ve been in this business for many years, and they offer a wide range of products that you can use to make your home smart. While Windows wasn’t the first ecosystem for them to write apps for, these new apps are without-a-doubt the best way currently to control your INSTEON-powered home from a mobile device. There are some minor things we’d like to see fixed or changed within the apps, but they already offer a great experience that you should check out. The apps are free on both Windows and Windows Phone, so the only thing you need to use them is the INSTEON Hub and whatever devices you’d like to install into your home to make it smarter.