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

This entry-level home automation option falls short of fresher, flashier, more affordable competition.

Ry Crist Senior Editor / Reviews - Labs
Originally hailing from Troy, Ohio, Ry Crist is a writer, a text-based adventure connoisseur, a lover of terrible movies and an enthusiastic yet mediocre cook. A CNET editor since 2013, Ry's beats include smart home tech, lighting, appliances, broadband and home networking.
Expertise Smart home technology and wireless connectivity Credentials
  • 10 years product testing experience with the CNET Home team
Ry Crist
8 min read

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.


Insteon Starter Kit

The Good

The <b>Insteon Starter Kit</b> 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.

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.

Plug in with the Insteon Starter Kit (pictures)

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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.

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.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

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.

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.

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?


Insteon Starter Kit

Score Breakdown

Features 7Usability 7Design 7Performance 7