Does experience make HomeSeer the best Smart Home Controller?
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The US has had a head start when it comes to Home Automation - the roots of technologies such as X10 can actually be traced all the way back to Scotland in the mid-1970's, but it was the US that took the technology main stream in the early 1990's.
So it's no surprise that it's a US based company that has one of the longest histories in the Smart Home arena - HomeSeer. Since 1999, HomeSeer has been developing Home Automation software and now has many, many thousands of systems in use around the world!
While HomeSeer has been incredibly successful in the US, we've not really had much experience of it in the UK or EU and even with the hundreds of thousands of customers that Vesternet has dealt with over the years, the HomeSeeer user-base seems to be pretty slim compared to the likes of Vera, Fibaro and Zipato.
A while ago we added the entire HomeSeer range of software and hardware controllers to the Vesternet site and HomeSeer were kind enough to provide us with a Zee 2 so that we could take a look at what they have to offer.
After testing the system over the last few months we're now ready to share our thoughts - note that this isn't going to be a review in the traditional sense, because a quick search of Google will bring up thousands of those already.
Instead we want to take a look at what's available from HomeSeer, how it compares to solutions from other manufacturers and where we would personally position HomeSeer as a prospective Home Automation solution.
What Is HomeSeer?
As mentioned above, HomeSeer have a long history in the Home Automation industry! They started out with a software only system that evolved over time to include dedicated standalone hardware controllers.
They even manufacture their own Z-Wave products as well, so there's a real depth to their talents and experience that's been built over many years - this definitely isn't a start-up that's still finding its feet or touting for funding on Kickstarter or Indiegogo.
Both HS3 and HS3Pro versions feature the same functionality, the only differences between them are that the Pro version includes licenses for the HSTouch Designer software (which allows you to design your own screens for the HomeSeer Apps) and licences for all HomeSeer branded Plugins.
HomeSeer hardware controllers are known as "HomeTrollers" and run exactly the same software versions as listed above.
The Zee S2 actually runs a cut-down version of the HS3 software that is limited to running a maximum of 5 Plugins to reflect its entry-level status.
Both the SEL and the S6 run the full version of HS3 and are also available with the HS3Pro version.
We said at the start of this post that this wouldn't be a normal product review, but we felt compelled to pass along some thoughts on things that stood out (both good and bad) in comparison to other controllers.
The overriding "feel" of the HomeSeer software is that it's something that has evolved over time and this is both a strength and a weakness in our opinion.
It's a strength because by ploughing all those years of experience into the development of the software, HomeSeer is by far the most complete Smart Home controller that we've used. We couldn't fault it for default features and functionality. For example all the logic requirements such as "if / this" with complex AND and OR conditions are there out-of-the-box - these things are often missing in other controllers.
It's also a weakness as it means that the User Interface (UI) is quite confusing to use on a daily basis, it reminds us of utilitarian web site designs from a decade ago - there's certainly very little in the way of flashy and whizzy graphics and the overall look is pretty boring when compared to say Fibaro or Vera.
Obviously it's not all about the looks though and the boringness could be forgiven if it lead to simplicity and ease of use, but we found a lot of HomeSeers functionality was hidden behind layers of menus. This may be that we're just used to how other controllers lay things out logically and we'd probably get used to the HomeSeer way over time, but this doesn't change the fact that when viewed alongside something like the Devolo UI it's clear which one is easier to use.
From a hardware point of view, there's support for just about every technology that you would want to use in a Home Automation System, either built in or by adding HomeSeer branded or third party Plugins. HomeSeer also try to maintain a list of supported products here, just reading through that we imagine that the list of things that you can't do with HomeSeer will be pleasingly short.
Z-Wave compatibility is a hot topic and while other controllers are often left playing catch-up when new devices are released we were pleased to see that HomeSeer are pretty much on the ball in this department. We can't go as far as saying that they're pro-active (wouldn't that be great, devices supported before they hit the shelves!) but it seems that support for incompatible devices is added pretty quickly.
For example we noticed that the Fibaro Swipe was added a month or so ago, not too long after it was released, that's pretty good going if you ask us, given that we've just put some serious effort into getting that to work in Vera ourselves!
Another area that falls somewhat short for HomeSeer is the App - while this exists for both iOS and Android, the standard App is again pretty utilitarian and boring - definitely functionality over form.
Fortunately you can design your own screens for the Apps using the HSTouch Designer, but this comes at an additional cost of $199.95 unless you buy one of the HomeSeer Pro software or hardware options.
The HSTouch Designer software allows you to produce some really outstanding screen designs, so it's well worth considering a Pro purchase at the outset.
Interestingly there's now a third party Plugin available that allows Imperihome (one of our favourite Apps for iOS and Android) to be the App front-end for HomeSeer. It's early days for this Plugin, but it does appear to be stable and usable - we're sure that this will get better over time too. If you've already been using Imperihome with your Vera or Fibaro controller then this would allow you to perhaps carry out a phased transition to a HomeSeer controller as Imperihome can bring together multiple systems under one UI.
Another important consideration when looking at options for a Smart Home controller is how much reliance there is on the "Cloud". Obviously everybody wants to be able to easily access their system remotely so some sort of Internet access is a pretty much standard requirement. But in our opinion you really don't want something that will fail the moment the Internet goes off-line or becomes slow, something that has plagued other controllers such as SmartThings for example. Fortunately HomeSeer is designed to be completely self-contained and doesn't require access to the Internet at all - it's completely optional - although obviously remote access, updates and the ability to install Plugins will need some sort of Internet connectivity, even if it's just temporary.
In terms of support HomeSeer also appears streets ahead of the competition with an extensive on-line support offering and direct-line phone number to call. Being a small company in comparison with others means that you're more likely to speak to somebody that is familiar with the software and knows what they are doing, rather than a first-line support operator that is following a script. Their forum is also filled with knowledgeable users, some of whom have been using the HomeSeer system for donkeys years, so they really know their stuff!
Our final comment is regarding IFTTT and you'll recall from our recent blog post that we think that IFTTT is becoming an important feature for a Smart Home controller to incorporate as it allows the integration of even more technologies, systems and products. HomeSeer scores additional kudos here as they've recently launched their own IFTTT channel, something that the likes of Vera and Fibaro have yet to even contemplate.
Indeed it is, even the entry level Zee S2 costs a pretty penny when compared to the other Z-Wave controllers that Vesternet sell.
During our testing we also found that the cost of expanding HomeSeer to integrate other technologies was quite high because much of this functionality is only available in "Plugins" from third parties that had to be paid for. With costs for Plugins averaging around $40 each, it's easy to see that your total cost of ownership (TCO) could soon climb pretty high, just adding plugins for Hue, Nest and LightwaveRF would rack up another £100 or so.
The Zee S2 is also limited to using just 5 plugins and two of those slots are taken up with the HSTouch and Z-Wave Plugins, so you could soon outgrow this entry-level device. It's not entirely clear from the HomeSeer web site, but we believe that it's possible to upgrade the Zee S2 to the non-lite version of the HS3 software to remove this restriction although that would increase the cost significantly.
Taking the software only option means that you'd also have to source a PC to run it on and add a Z-Wave USB device too. While HomeSeer is quite lightweight and will run on pretty much any Windows or Linux based PC hardware from the last half dozen years or so, would you really want to trust the centre of your Home Automation world on a crusty old desktop PC? Probably not, so you'd have to factor in another few hundred pounds for something to run it on.
It's Not Expensive!
Wait, how can it be both expensive and not expensive at the same time!?!?
Well this all comes down to whether you believe that price is really a relevant factor in your choice. If you think about it, the Home Automation controller is the heart of your system, so why should it be the cheapest part?
Over time we'd likely spend thousands as we automate more of our homes - lighting, heating, security, blinds, etc - shouldn't the price tag of the controller reflect the responsibilities that it has?
When you look at it like that, something like the HomeTroller SEL doesn't seem too expensive because when it's factored in to the overall system price it will likely be under 10% of your total budget. This is an interesting debate and one that rages back and forth on Vera, Fibaro & HomeSeer forums with each side offering their opinions and compelling reasons for why their choice is better.
From our point of view we actually prefer HomeSeers' business model - you have options to take a basic version of the system, whether it be software or hardware. As your system expands you pay for the extra functionality and the fact that HomeSeer has monetised their App Store means that third party developers get paid for their hard work. This should lead to better and more stable software in our experience.
You can also opt for the Pro software or hardware straight from the start and this will include all optional HomeSeer branded software and Plugins in the price. So that's a good way to reduce your potential future outlay, as you'll then only have to pay extra for any third party Plugins if required.
Nowadays there's also a good chance that you'll already have a permanently running PC in your home - for example a Media Centre hooked up to a TV in the living room. So adding a Z-Wave USB device to that and opting for the HomeSeer software is a quick way to get up and running. And don't forget that the HomeSeer software is available as a trial in the first instance, as are most of the third party Plugins, so you can always try-before-you-buy and your only outlay is on a compatible Z-Wave USB device.
You could also consider running HomeSeer software "virtually" - many of us will have a "Network Attached Storage" (NAS) device serving movies, music, tv shows and photos to connected devices in our homes already. Some of these NAS devices offer Virtual Machine (VM) technology built in, so that's also an option - run the HomeSeer software in a VM and add a HomeSeer Network Interface for the Z-Wave connectivity.
So, Who's It For?
There's no doubt that HomeSeer is powerful, expandable, customisable and flexible. During our testing we found it to be very stable and on the Z-Wave side it had good compatibility with a large range of devices.
But, and it's a big but, this comes at a price both in complexity and in a financial sense and it's these two areas that we believe helps us with the positioning of HomeSeer.
It's not for those wishing to take a tentative step into the Smart Home world - in all honesty we don't think that we could recommend HomeSeer as a first step into the world of Home Automation as the out-of-the-box end-user experience is in stark contrast to something like the Devolo system.
Even when compared to Vera the differences are still vast - like Devolo, the Vera UI is largely Wizard driven with helpful hints throughout that make things easy for somebody new to Home Automation to get to grips with. While Fibaro doesn't have that sort of hand-holding their UI is still clear, concise and easy to follow.
At times we were lost with HomeSeer and we would consider ourselves at the more advanced end of the user-base, so we think that for a new-comer there will be an almost insurmountable learning curve if they choose to start out with HomeSeer :-(
That said, if you're comfortable with technology and have experience with PCs - perhaps the sort of person that friends and family come to for advice and assistance with all things technical - then there's no reason that you couldn't get to grips with HomeSeer pretty quickly. Just don't expect an Apple-like experience of installing an App and a few clicks later to be up and running :-)
In terms of bang-for-buck it's also tough to put HomeSeer above the competition. A Vera Edge can be had for under £100 now - that's a cracking price for a Z-Wave Plus controller - and as mentioned, the Vera UI is welcoming for newcomers to Home Automation as well as offering more advanced features in the future when needed.
The cheapest HomeSeer option is around £150 for the Zee S2 and for that you're somewhat limited in expansion possibilities if you want to integrate other systems such as Hue, Nest & LightwaveRF. Not to mention they'll cost you extra for the associated Plugins too which could see costs doubling in no time at all!
With all thing considered, we believe that HomeSeer is most suited to upgraders and switchers - recently Vera, Fibaro and Zipato have all experienced well publicised issues with their software and while in the large majority of cases these controllers are all running absolutely perfectly there are customers that are disappointed with them due to stability issues, Plugins not working correctly or device compatibility problems.
So if you've already invested in a Home Automation system that covers one or more technologies such as Z-Wave, Hue, Nest or LightwaveRF and have some experience under your belt then in our opinion HomeSeer is a worthy contender for switching or upgrading to.
Their vast experience has helped to create stability in both their software and hardware offerings, which could be a welcome change for customers that have been experiencing problems with their current controller.
HomeSeer is also designed to be scalable and can manage multiple Z-Wave networks simultaneously. This is becoming an important feature because it allows expansion to cover greater distances or even separate properties in the same location. Vera and Fibaro have always been a bit flaky in this respect, yes, they both support methods to "bridge" to multiple controllers but it's often difficult to get working satisfactorily. With HomeSeer it's a simple case of adding additional Z-NET interfaces and away you go!
Having evolved HomeSeer over time it has been developed to be technology agnostic so the base features and functionality are a solid foundation to build on. All manner of different devices can be used with HomeSeer and compatibility is strong in all areas.
Overall we're glad that we added HomeSeer to our range of products. After spending some considerable time with the Zee S2 we've discovered that both the software and hardware will likely provide a great upgrade path for customers with existing Home Automation systems.
If HomeSeer decide to focus more on the initial out-of-the-box experience, perhaps by developing some simple Wizard based interfaces, then it's possible that HomeSeer could be on a more even footing with the likes of Devolo and Vera. We'd then have no hesitation in recommending HomeSeer to ALL customers!
Bye for now.