Insteon Starter Kit review: This automation old dog needs some new tricks

Colin West McDonald/CNET

The limitations of the Insteon system become evident the more you use the app. Some are fairly trivial, such as the fact that you can't create custom icons for your devices by snapping pictures of them, the way you can with most other home automation apps. Others are more disappointing, like the fact that the app will only let you set one schedule for each lamp -- one time for it to turn on, and one time for it to turn off.

You can't add additional timing rules from the LampLinc's in-app device settings, although there is a workaround that again involves the app's customizable scenes. A morning scene might have all of your lights turn on together at 7 a.m., for instance. If you wanted to create an additional schedule for a lamp, you could simply create a scene with that lamp as its only device. Still, this is barely acceptable. Setting multiple on and off times for a device is about as standard as home automation gets these days. The fact that Insteon forces you to employ a workaround to accomplish such basic functionality doesn't inspire much confidence in the thoughtfulness of the system.

Usability and performance
Limitations aside, the Insteon app is a largely reliable piece of software. When you log in and tell the app to turn your lamp on, you can feel confident that it's going to turn your lamp on. Interestingly enough, the app differentiates between local usage and remote usage. Getting the app to work on your local network is a piece of cake, but Insteon openly acknowledges that the router wrangling and port forwarding required before you'll be able to monitor and control your devices from beyond your home network might be a bit tricky, especially for networking novices.

This is actually where Insteon shines a little bit, bracing users for a potential challenge by offering them step-by-step instructions specific to their particular brand of router, all directly within the app. Users still experiencing difficulty are also encouraged to call Insteon toll free for live assistance. It's a refreshingly honest and straightforward approach to an often finicky area of home automation, where full setup is rarely as simple as the product's instructions would have you believe.

Insteon acknowledges that setting up remote access can be a bit tricky, but deserves credit for helping you through the process as best it can. Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

In terms of performance testing, the Insteon Starter Kit's limited functionality didn't leave a lot of room for experimentation. Scheduling lights to automatically come on and off worked just fine in every one of our tests, and manual controls were equally reliable. I was not, however, able to get the Insteon app to alert me when the light was turned on or off, despite explicitly telling it to do so. This included instances where the light was turned on and off automatically as well as instances where I turned it on and off manually, through the app's local network controls. Curious about this, I added an Insteon Motion Sensor to the network and set the app to alert me whenever it detected motion. The SMS alerts came through just as promised each and every time. Still, when it came to lights, nothing I tried got the alerts to come through in any form. This was a definite disappointment, and a bit of a head-scratcher, as well.

Maintenance
By design, home automation systems typically don't require a great deal of maintenance, if any, and the Insteon is no different. Once you've got your system up and running, you can largely forget about it. Neither the Hub nor the LampLinc dimmers run on batteries, although some of the additional, separately sold sensors, like the motion detector, do. If you add any of these to your system, you'll need to change the batteries periodically. Unlike some other home automation apps, the Insteon's app will not track the remaining battery life of your devices, or alert you if their batteries are running low.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Service and support
Should you encounter any difficulties with your system, Insteon offers toll-free technical support over the phone six days a week, and also one-on-one live chat support through its Web site. The site also features an online version of the same port forwarding guide included within the app, as well as full documentation for every Insteon-compatible sensor and accessory currently available for sale.

Conclusion
In years past, the Insteon system's limitations and inconsistencies wouldn't have been as noticeable or as damning. However, the home automation game has changed, with new options available that are more powerful, more flexible, and more affordable than ever before. The bar has been raised, and Insteon hasn't necessarily risen to meet the challenge. Still, experienced home automators with aging systems might appreciate that the Insteon claims to be compatible with existing X10 devices, and for these existing networks, the Insteon Hub might make a good fit. People looking for something specific from their system, like leak or smoke detection, might also be satisfied with the Insteon's wide array of specific automatable sensors.

However, for people new to home automation, Insteon's Starter Kit isn't anything close to the starter kit I'd recommend. For $119, you're getting a system capable of lamp automation and lamp automation alone, and unless you purchase a separate motion detector or other upgrades, those automations will be about as basic as it gets. Compare that with the Belkin WeMo Switch + Motion , which costs $40 less ($70 less if you don't want the motion detector), can automate anything with a plug on it (not just lamps), and is fully compatible with IFTTT and the highly advanced conditional automation that comes with it - all right out of the box, no additional components or upgrades necessary. Which one sounds like the smarter start to you?

Editors' Top PicksSee All

 

Join the discussion

Conversation powered by Livefyre