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

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MSRP: $119.99

The Good The Insteon Starter Kit is cheaper than the Insteon Hub on its own, and will set the foundation for a system that can include a variety of sensors and devices. Unlike some other options, Insteon doesn't charge a monthly fee for the use of its system.

The Bad The clunky Insteon app is a bit limited and more frustrating to use than it ought to be, making it one of the weaker home automation systems that we've tested.

The Bottom Line You'll almost certainly need to expand upon this kit in order for your system to be particularly useful, and for the majority of buyers, we're not convinced that Insteon is worth the investment. Start elsewhere.

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7.0 Overall
  • Features 7
  • Usability 7
  • Design 7
  • Performance 7

Review Sections

At the time of this review's publication, the reviewer was unaware of the conditional automation possible by linking a motion detector to a "scene" of linked devices. The Insteon Hub's app is capable of automating lights to turn on or off when motion is detected, as our readers have pointed out, and the review has been adjusted accordingly. This feature is only available through the purchase of the motion detector hardware, which is not included in the Insteon Starter Kit base package.

If you're looking for a start in home automation that's free from fuss -- and, more importantly, free from monthly fees -- then you might want to consider the Insteon Starter Kit, available for $119 exclusively at Best Buy. Insteon claims that with its line of automation products and its free smartphone app, "your home is with you wherever you go."

You should temper your expectations here, as the Starter Kit, with its two LampLinc dimmers and the router-esque Insteon Hub, will only allow you to automate a pair of lamps. Automating just two lamps is a tad underwhelming. The important thing is that with the Insteon Hub, you'll have a sturdy home automation foundation to build upon. Add the Insteon Thermostat to your system, for instance, and you'll be able to control the temperature of your home remotely. Add an Insteon Motion Sensor or perhaps an Open/Close Sensor for your front door, and you'll be able to receive alerts whenever someone's moving through your home. With the Insteon Leak Sensor, you'll be able to detect minor drips before they become major catastrophes. While all of these devices are all sold separately from the Starter Kit, Insteon won't ever charge you a monthly fee to automate them, no matter how many of them you add to your network.

The real downside is that unlike newer automation systems such as WeMo, Nexia Home Intelligence, and SmartThings, Insteon's Starter Kit doesn't offer you conditional, IFTTT-style automation between multiple devices, at least not without paying for additional devices and upgrades to your system. Even then, the process of getting these devices working in tandem is far more cumbersome than it ought to be, and certainly more of a headache than what we've seen with other systems. For instance, even once you buy a separate Insteon-compatible motion detector, the app won't let you simply connect it directly to another device to power it on and off with motion. To do that, you'll need to connect the motion detector with a "Scene" of linked devices that automate simultaneously. It's a far clunkier process than what we've seen in the WeMo app, or the highly intuitive and powerful Nexia website.

All in all, it's a pretty heavy limitation given the current trend toward conditional automation, and it's a shortcoming that we hope Insteon addresses as it continues updating its products and app. Still, if you have a a specific interest in controlling and monitoring your smart devices remotely, you'll want to give Insteon a look, especially if you're looking to avoid paying monthly fees and don't have a specific need for more powerful programming right out of the box. If you decide Insteon would work for you, then the Best Buy-exclusive Starter Kit, which costs $10 less than the Insteon Hub does on its own, is the way you'll want to go.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Design and features
At first glance, you might mistake the Insteon Hub for a Wii accessory. It's a stark, minimalist device, with just one blue LED light, two ports (Ethernet and power), and no buttons, save for the tiny reset button hidden in the back. To get your system up and running, you'll plug the Hub into a wall outlet (Insteon asks you to avoid power strips, if possible), then plug it into your router using the included Ethernet cable. From there, the free Insteon Hub app, available for both iOS and Android, will take care of the rest, making quick, easy work of the setup process. This includes adding the LampLinc dimmers to your system -- just tell the app you're adding a device, then hold the "set" button down on each dimmer you want to add.

The LampLinc dimmers look fine, and match the Hub with their stark, blocky white finish and LED light. They won't block an entire wall outlet, so long as you use the bottom socket. However, you'll have to plug your lamp up into the bottom of each dimmer, so if your outlets sit low to the ground, plugging your lamp in might be awkward. Placing the socket on the front of the device, as the WeMo Switch does, would have been a better design call.

As for the app, it's pretty bare-bones for the home automation scene, but it does the job. You can assign one of a few dozen icons to each of your devices (for my flex lamp, I went with a light bulb). Tapping that icon will then allow you to control that device. In the case of the light dimmers, you'll be able to turn a lamp on or off, or by pressing a small plus sign icon, you'll have access to a dimming slider, along with up and down arrows that will let you "bump" the light level up or down. If you tap the gear icon, then "Edit settings," then select the device you want to tinker with, you'll be able to rename it, change the icon, set up a schedule for when you want it to activate and deactivate, and also set alerts that will notify you whenever the device turns on or off. None of it is too difficult or complicated, but as apps go, it's probably a bit clunkier than it needs to be, and definitely somewhat lacking in polish.

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.