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REVIEWS / AUTOMATION
Control 4 Media Controller System
Company: Control 4

Pros: Either way you look at it, this system is a winner. It's a great home theater controller with exceptional home-automation expansion possibilities

Cons: Media Controller's front panel is a little flimsy

Product Rating:

4.5 Star Rating: Recommended

Editor Rating 4.5

User Rating 0

First Review: Oz Control 4 Controller

By Darryl Wilkinson | Wednesday | 01/03/2006

Home Contol Systems Just got a lot cheaper with the launch of the Control 4 range in Australia. Among the first products launched is a central controller that retails at $3,500.00.

That's not to say that there aren't manufacturers that offer home-automation and home theater control on the cheap. But, whereas the AMX and Crestron systems typically deliver rock-solid performance, a system built around inexpensive devices isn't always 100 percent on target. I've spent more than my fair share of time waving at an X10 motion sensor trying to make it acknowledge my existence, and almost as much time explaining to my wife why it isn't working the way I said it would.


Click to enlarge

Promises, Promises
So, along comes Control4, promising to, in my words, do a lot of what AMX and Crestron can do for a fraction of the cost (but it's still in a higher price range than the X10). Furthermore, Control4 explains that their systems are easy to retrofit into an existing home. Finally, they say there's no need for extensive, expensive, customized programming. Oh, it's sweet music to my ears: a fairly affordable full-blown home theater control system that's expandable and extendable to wirelessly control my devices all over the house.

A Control4 system starts with a central controller that communicates with and controls other devices using a combination of Ethernet, RF, IR, RS-232, and—for most of the home-automation devices—ZigBee (IEEE 802.15.4) mesh networking technology. (See sidebar for more on ZigBee.) Both of the controllers currently available, the basic Home Theater Controller and the more advanced Media Controller, include a two-way RF system remote control that, if you didn't know better, you'd assume was just another universal remote control.

For the price of a mid-level Philips Pronto, Control4's $1400 Home Theater Controller offers extensive control of your home theater system. Control4's included two-way RF system remote control uses video sense inputs, an RS-232 connection, multiple IR outputs, and more. But, unlike a typical universal/programmable/macros-out-the-wazoo remote control, the Home Theater Controller incorporates an Ethernet connection and wireless ZigBee connectivity, providing multizone audio and wholehouse automation upgradeability.

At a bit more than twice the price of the Home Theater Controller, Control4's Media Controller ($3500) starts with all the features of the basic unit and then piles on oodles more. For starters, it offers many more control capabilities, thanks to additional RS-232, relay, and contact connections, plus built-in Wi-Fi (802.11g) connectivity. Hidden inside the black box (with its large front-panel LCD), however, is a full-blown, three-zone digital music server with disc recognition of music on the internal 80-gigabyte hard drive (via an online database). It also provides automatic title recognition of CDs and DVD movies loaded in RS-232-equipped disc changers.


Think about that for a moment: For less than the price of most single-purpose digital music servers on the market, Control4's media controller is a three-zone-capable music server plus a home theater control system and the beginnings of a wholehouse control system. While $3500 certainly isn't pocket change, it is one heck of a value for the money.

Taking Control of the Controller
Any control system—even one as simple as a basic universal remote control—requires at least some amount of programming. Typically, the more elaborate the control capabilities, the more extensive the programming, which ultimately equals more time (self-installed) and/or more money (professionally installed). Control4's goal is to hit the exquisite but elusive sweet spot that balances cost and capabilities.

 

The PC software required for the initial setup isn't available to the end user. Although it's intuitive, the program requires an attention to detail that many consumers may not anticipate—especially those who, like me, don't read manuals until they've exhausted all other trial-and-error methods. The first time through, you will have to identify how your components are connected and figure out which sequences you should include for various programmed features. The consumer-oriented ComposerME software allows for tweaks and small changes to the way the system operates (including different menu layout skins), but major amendments require the assistance of an installer. You can do most of the modifications online, though, so an in-person service call might not be necessary.


Click to enlarge

Control4's recently announced 4sight service, when used in conjunction with a security system, allows homeowners to remotely monitor their home using a PC—allowing you to keep tabs on all Control4 devices, lights, temperature controls, and so on. They can also install other optional devices such as a water sensor. The system can even send you e-mail notification of changes in the house (like open doors and windows).

Personalisation rather than customization minimizes programming time and costs. Control4's onscreen menus don't provide AMX/Crestron-style customizability. Instead, they use a predefined common layout with easy-to-identify icon buttons. The user-interface graphics are the same whether you view them on your television, the 10.5-inch Wireless Touch Screen, or one of the 4-inch Ethernet Mini Touch Screens. While it's definitely not as much an ego stroke as a menu screen designed specifically for you, it's absolutely fine for the 90 percent of the population who can't afford one of the high-end control systems.

Control4's Ernie Coulter programmed my test system, which consists of a Media Controller, a 10.5-inch Wireless Touch Screen, a couple of ZigBee-enabled dimming outlets for lights, and a 4-inch Ethernet Mini Touch Screen for second-zone access and music. After I had the chance to put it through its paces—including the brutal wife-and-family test—I was overwhelmed by the exhilarating yet strangely calming feeling that this is the way things ought to be.

Quite frankly, since I first heard about Control4 more than a year ago, I was a little skeptical that they could produce the low-cost/high-capability system they envisioned. Now that I've used the system, I'm a believer, a true devotee, and someone who desperately wants one of these systems for his own.

Don't Touch That Panel. . .
But you must know something. The majority of the time, I used Control4's 10.5-inch Wireless Touch Screen to operate everything. Be warned: Do not let a salesperson put one of these touchpanels in your hands, or you might as well write the $4000 cheque for it right then and there. It's that addictive. Not only does it give you the full menu screens, it puts disc cover art, playlist programmability, and all kinds of automation control right in the palms of your hands—and once it's in those hands, you won't want to give it back. I nearly had to pry the panel out of my wife's hands in order to box it up and ship it back.

I'm not egotistical enough—nor rich enough—to demand special customization (much as I would love to have it), but I can't tolerate a control system that's not extremely reliable. On this count, I have nothing but praise for Control4's system. Discs played and stopped when they were supposed to, lights dimmed and brightened, and audio went where and when I told it to go. I can't ask for much better than that.

Considering that this is Control4's first generation of product, it's surprising that they got so many things right. Could it be improved? Sure. I'd like to see video distribution. I want a less expensive wireless touchpanel. I'd like the system to automatically discover music files transferred to the internal hard drive from a networked PC. Let's have more ZigBee-enabled devices. And, by all means, give me one of these systems to keep—with the wireless panel, if you don't mind.

I don't know how the system will work if you have the maximum 65,000 ZigBee devices connected. But, for the average homeowner, this system is—like the microwave oven, the cell phone, and the Internet—something you'll wonder how you ever lived without. Unfortunately, at my house, now that we've sent the system back, we're not only questioning how we lived without it, we're sadly pondering how we're going to be able to continue to live without it.

Darryl Wilkinson is a reviewer on Home Theatre Magazine


Connections
Inputs:
Video: N/A
Audio: Optical digital (1), stereo analog (3)
Outputs:
Video: Component video (1), VGA (1), S-video (1), composite video (1) (for onscreen interface)
Audio: Optical digital (1), stereo analog (1)
Additional: Video sense loop (4 inputs, 4 outputs), serial RS-232 DB9 (2), Serial RS-232 three-wire, RS-422, or RS-485 pluggable terminal blocks (2), contact inputs (6), relay outputs (6), wireless IEEE 802.11b, Ethernet 0/100baseT RJ45 jack (1), V.22is internal modem (1) (not yet enabled), USB (1 front, 1 rear), infrared jacks (4 inputs, 8 outputs)

These listings are based on the manufacturer's stated specs.

Features
No. of Sources / No. of Zones: One / Three
Processing Modes: MP3 audio encode/decode
Number of Amp Channels: N/A
Power Rating (per channel): N/A
Frequency Response: N/A
Hard Drive: 80 GB
Audio Recording Formats: Uncompressed WAV and PCM (44.1 kHz, 16-bit stereo to be supported in a future software release, MP3 (32 kbps to 320 kbps, VBR)
Dimensions (H x W x D, inches): 5.2 x 17 x 15.9
Weight (pounds): 17.5
Price $3500

Ratings: Control4 Media Controller System

Build Quality: 89
· Media Controller's front panel is a little flimsy
· Wireless Touch Screen feels sturdy

Value: 96
· A music server and movie organizer plus wholehouse controller for less than the price of most music servers
· The Wireless Touch Screen isn't cheap, but it is a bargain

Features: 94
· Wide variety of control-type inputs and outputs
· 80-GB hard drive with USB connections for external hard drive expansion
· Syncs with MP3 players

Performance: 96
· Reliable system communication
· Acceptable brightness and contrast

Ergonomics: 96
· Give me a color touchscreen, and I'll follow you anywhere
· Consistent menus on all screens make usage almost brainless

Overall Rating: 95
Either way you look at it, this system is a winner. It's a great home theater controller with exceptional home-automation expansion possibilities, and it's a fine music server with multizone capabilities.

General Information
Convergent Technologies can be contacted on 03 9480 2999

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Control 4 Media Controller System Reviewed by Darryl Wilkinson Rating: 4.5