Ever since I saw the first homes with wall-mounted touchscreens, controlling everything from music to security systems, I’ve yearned for an affordable solution with the high WAF’s (Wife Acceptance Factors) that ones in the glossy magazines and movies clearly exhibit. I’ve never had the disposable income to consider luxury (and proprietary) brands with high up-front investments and price tags in the thousands per touchscreen (such as Crestron). I’m also an avid a DIY-er, so I wanted something I could install, upgrade, expand and above all tweak myself: I wanted to make it do what I wanted it to do, not what a custom installer thought I wanted it to do.
I looked at entry-level solutions in the late nineties: something where I could get a basic controller and control a few lights. At the time X10 was the promise of the future. I paid my $120 to get my basic controller with serial interface, a couple of lamp modules, and a basic remote. The whole thing was hideous. Everything was huge; it all looked cheap; and was just too geeky, even for me.
A few years ago, we sold our two-flat in the Chicago and moved to the North Shore. The two-flat took forever to sell with the decline in property prices and a difficult economy. The property was on the market for a long time and I didn’t want to start installing new electronics while it was on the market. When we were eventually close to finalizing the sale, I bought a handheld z-wave controller, a few lamp modules and whiled away my evenings reading about z-wave, Insteon, universal power line bus (UPB) and various software and hardware controllers. I read about some of the newer players in the market, but these were still too pricey, too limited in their interface support and too proprietary.
We eventually purchased a 98-year old house that needed quite a bit of work. The main electrical panel had 12 circuits (which turned out to be mostly knob and tube wiring). Because of this, I presumed anything that ran over electrical lines would probably be doomed to failure. After much research, I decided z-wave was the way forward. I outgrew my handheld controller in about a week and stumbled across HomeSeer. This seemed to be the solution for me: low cost, technology agnostic (allowing me to add any interface I needed in the future), expandable, native iPhone app, and most importantly tweakable! I could start out by running a free 30-day trial with a $60 USB z-wave controller on my everyday laptop to see if it really was the gem I thought it was. It was. And much more.
Within a few short weeks (while a new roof was being installed), I had all z-wave light switches (Cooper Aspire) installed and could set scenes (dining, entertaining, bedtime, etc.); have lights come on an hour before sunset; set lights to ramp up and down over a few seconds rather than that abrupt on-off you get from a normal switch; and so much more. Next, I turned to the iPhone interface. I bought a few graphics, built my own screens using HSTouch Designer and could now do everything from the iPhone with fancy graphics to boot.
Soon I had an iPad, and HSTouch ran on that tooâ€”in full screen. So now I had the gorgeous 5-inch (iPhone/iPod Touch) and 10-inch (iPad) handheld controller. I dazzled my friends and family with fancy sliders on the handheld devices that would dim the lights, and boy did I have fun turning the lights out when my wife was home while I was out with my friends. I was fast approaching the home I had dreamed of (and divorce, so I had to cease the remote demonstrations).
Fast forward 9 months. I’ve rewired the entire house and gut-rehabbed the entire first floor, stairway and upstairs hallway in my spare time. As far as automation goes, everything’s now up and running seamlessly. The system is integrated with my Sonos multi-room music system, my home security system, my HVAC and my media room. My media room lights automatically dim when I play a movie and raise when I hit pause or stop. Other cool-yet-useful features include a graphical status of the water level in my sump pit with accompanying text messages at various levels and pump cycle councts (paranoia about a flooded basement).
The icing on the cake would be those elusive, inexpensive, wall-mounted touchscreen in every room. The iPod Touch was too small and the iPad was too expensive at about $500 (plus high priced, aesthetically pleasing, mounting brackets). Then the iPad2 came out: surely I could pick up a lightly used 16GB Wi-Fi iPad1 for a few hundred bucks? Alas not. Windows 7 tablets hit the market (and some quickly disappeared), but they were just as expensive as the iPad, or even more. I resigned myself to picking up a 16GB iPad1 when the iPad3 comes out, probably at the back-end of 2012.
A few months later, Android tablets started hitting the market. The turning point was the launch of touchscreen, eBook readers running Android, as the eBook vendors decided to enter the market. Clearly, very few people would spend $500 on an eBook reader. My HomeSeer software has an Android plug-in and the Barnes and Noble Nook was only $250. All I needed was a hacked version of the ROM and I would be all set. I scoured the web, read all about it, and was finally put off by the chance of bricking the device. Enter Amazon with the Kindle Fire. Christmas really had come early: a $199, 7-inch color tablet that would run Android apps without hacked ROM’s. Without hesitation, I ordered one with next day delivery.
Like a kid waiting for Santa, I looked out the window every 15 minutes on Saturday morning for the UPS driver. After what seemed like an eternity (it was after 10:30 am after all), it arrived. I excitedly unboxed it and got to work. Within 10 minutes, I had the tablet up and running and controlling devices and events (albeit with a sample skin). A few hours later, I had my custom iPad screens adapted to the size of the Fire and deployed on the device. I now had my $199 Home Automation touchscreen. One in every important room was within my grasp and my budget.
About the Fire
Opening the box, revealed a very elegant tablet.
The screen is gorgeous, using the same In-Plane Switching (IPS) as the iPad. At 1024×600 (169ppi). This is more than enough screen real-estate for most home automations system. The device is heavy for its size at 14.6oz (413 grams), but for my application (wall-mounting) that’s of little concern. The CPU is speedy enough for most applications, having dual-core CPUs clocked at 1GHz (Texas Instruments OMAP 4). Most home automation plug-ins store very little content locally, so 8GB of storage is more than adequate and support for all current Wi-Fi standards means it’ll connect to virtually anything.
The biggest physical limitation of the Fire is a single hard button for power. Annoyingly this is right in the center of the device: just where’d put your hand when holding it in landscape mode. I lost count of the number of times I turned it off while testing. In my final, wall-mount application, this won’t be an issue.
As far as software goes, like the Nook, it’s a customized version of Android 2.x and is unrecognizable as such. App purchases are restricted to the Amazon app store, but this is easily overcome with some slight tweaks. Non-Amazon app store apps can also be side-loaded from other Android devices. Alternatively, apk’s can be downloaded from the web using the built-in browser.
Battery life is pretty good. Mine ran on 70% brightness for about 6 hours.
As of the time of writing, there are very few wall mounts available. Most of those that are available are general purpose models designed to fit a range of tablets and are mostly for in-car use. I couldn’t find one that I’d want on my wall. The Fire’s screen is set fractionally below the unit’s surface (less than 1/16-inch) and the device is less than 1/2-inch thick, so flush mounting it in some kind of custom made frame will be easy enough. The only small issue is that the frame will have to be quite wide. The mask around the frame is about twice as wide where the power connector is located (about an inch), than the other three sides. On top of that, there’s the USB plug that sticks out. Right angle micro-usb plugs are quite a bit smaller than the supplied plug, so that will shave an-inch off the frame width. I’d estimate that a 2-inch wide frame will probably be required, which may look a bit strange on a 7-tablet. I’ll find out when I get the molding.
Loading Home Automation Software
I use HomeSeer at home, so HomeSeer was the natural choice for a test.
First and foremost you have to change the settings to allow installation of applications from unknown sources (Settings->More->Device menu), as the HomeSeer client isn’t available on the Amazon app store. Next I installed the Android plug-in on my HomeSeer server. Then I simply browsed to the relevant HomeSeer forum, clicked the URL for HSTouch (HomeSeer’s client application for touchscreens) and downloaded the apk. Once the download was complete, I ran the installer and I was all ready to take this puppy for a spin. All that remained was to enter my IP address, user name and password and I was connected.
The default Android project for HSTouch comes pre-configured for a screen size of 480×800, so this left a lot of blank screen real estate.
Anyone who knows or uses HSTouch, understands (and embraces the fact) that you have to use the HSTouch Designer application to either modify the supplied projects or create your own. Having a resolution of 1024×600, I figured it would take me about 20 mins to resize my 1024×768 iPad screens and I’d be good to go. How wrong I was. There were three major obstacles that stood in my way: fonts, the missing 168 pixels in the height, and where to locate buttons for my frequently used events.
The iPad screens that I was going to re-purpose, have a row of buttons at the bottom:
In my application, the Fire will be mounted horizontally and after resizing, I discovered that having buttons at the bottom just wasn’t a practical proposition with a shorter screen. This required a fundamental change to the entire layout, so that navigation buttons could be located on the side. As this was going to be a permanent installation (unlike my iPhone and iPads), I wanted frequently used events (mostly lighting scenes) on every screen for one-touch access. This contributed heavily to the need for a re-design. Regarding fonts, Android only has 3: Droid Serif, Droid Sans and Droid Sans Mono. This is fine unless you’re creating ransom-note layouts, and I’ve never been a fan of consumer devices using weird and wonderful fonts. To my untrained-but-not-totally-ignorant-about-typography eye, the supplied fonts are perfectly acceptable, but it did mean that anything containing text that I wanted to re-use from the iPad would need the fonts changing too.
I got my iPad project scaled down and deployed to the Fire, just to see if everything works. With the exception of some server-based status images not displaying (sump water level), everything seemed to function. With the rest of the weekend in front of me, I set to work on my new screen design. I completed most of it by the end of Sunday. I then spent a few evenings designing and creating buttons and icons. My final design turned out pretty well. I had navigation icons on the left hand side and frequently used events on the right.
Operationally, everything seems to run pretty smoothly as long as the device remains powered on. There’s a short delay loading a news story from the BBC web site when clicking on one of the headlines, but their pages are pretty graphics heavy. Occasionally, when switching to the music screen, there was a delay of up to five seconds. The screen in question has 4 sets of album art, but it’s hard to believe that would take so long to retrieve. For me, that’s acceptable, as I just use the music screens to quickly play, pause, and skip. Anything major that I do with music, I do from the Sonos hardware controller or their iOS app. (There’s a Sonos Android App coming soon, so I’ll be installing that on the Fire too.)
The only thing that’s missing is a hard button on the front. I think Amazon have made a big mistake here. One poorly located hard button that’s just for power is a huge shortcoming. For my application, it’s not too big a deal, but if I’m going to flush-mount the Fire, it means there’s no way I can use the built-in screensaver (as it requires the power button to be pressed to wake it up). The screensaver is also problematic with HomeSeer. Whenever the device comes out of sleep, the HSTouch client seems to have problems reconnecting. Strangely, some controls respond OK, but others result in a “Not Connected” message. It’s no big deal to reconnect, but not something you’d want to do for permanent installs. Right now, I don’t plan to use the screen saver. If I need one, it will be just to reduce the glare in the bedroom at night, but this can easily be achieved by having a black screen that shows at night. Clicking anywhere will then bring up the home screen.
A full color, high quality touch screen for under $200 is incredible. A refurbished 16GB Wi-Fi iPad 1 with a decent mount still comes in at close to $500, so this is a real bargain. Personally, after holding up the Fire and iPad side by side at mounting height, I think the iPad is too big for a wall mounted controller.
Would I recommend the Fire as a wall mounted touch screen? I’m ordering two more if nothing untoward crops up in the next week or two, so an unreserved yes. My dream is finally attainable. There are cheaper tablets out there, but not of this caliber. Many of the cheaper ones have resistive, or poor quality, screens. The screen on the Fire is akin to that of the iPad and frankly that’s the most important thing (assuming the software runs OK).
Would I recommend it for an everyday tablet? No. The Nook is probably a slightly better bet with more storage, more RAM and a faster CPU. That said, I wouldn’t buy a Nook either for an everyday tablet. I love my iPad. I have a large, growing collection of iTunes media and have yet to see something that would make switch. I also read full-size magazines on my iPad: not something I’d want to do on a 7-inch screen. If I wanted an eBook reader, I still wouldn’t buy it. I’d buy a regular Kindle with e-ink technology. It’s way lighter and has daysâ€”rather than hoursâ€”of battery life, so I don’t have to worry about finding a charge every 8 hour. At less than $100 I wouldn’t be too concerned if I lost it or broke it either.
Additional Information for HomeSeer Users
I thought I’d include some more specific information for HomeSeer users.
By far the biggest problem I encountered was alignment discrepancies between HSTouch Designer and HSTouch on the fire. This makes the design an trial and error process and very time-consuming. I have never experienced such issues when designing for iOS. Below is a screen shot of the main screen in HSTouch and on the Fire.
Areas that show significant differences:
Vertical alignment of everything in the title area
Alignment of “Headline News”
Overlapping of temperatures (probably related to font size discrepancies)
I experienced several crashes. These were typically when changing screens (mostly to music). I was presented with a dialog announcing that the application was not responding. Several times I pushed the “Wait” button, but the application never recovered. Pressing Force Quit, takes you back to the home screen where you can easily re-launch. I’m confident enough that whatever the issue is will be resolved in time. It’s rare enough, and easy enough to recover for it not to be a concern.
Several times after coming out of the screen saver, clicking an item resulted in a “Not Connected” message. It’s quick and easy to reconnect from within the application and if you’re wall mounting, you won’t be able to use the screensaver, as the power/wake button will more than likely be unreachable.
Mark Anderson is a full-time software consultant. In his spare time, he’s and avid Home Theater and Home Automation enthusiast and occasional contributor.