Home Automation Systems Review
Why Buy a Home Automation System?
Editor's note: ADT recently announced the completion of a merger with Protection 1. Although the two companies currently operate independently, both will eventually operate exclusively under the ADT brand. When ADT and Protection 1 complete this brand integration, we will update our home automation system reviews to reflect that information.
The top performers in our review are Crestron, the Gold Award winner; Control4, the Silver Award winner; and Savant, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a provider to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 systems.
With home automation systems, you can forever banish concerns of overly expensive utility bills and stop wondering whether or not you locked the front door. These high-tech solutions can help make your home into a smart home. In fact, a smart home system can control every light, appliance and compatible peripheral in your home.
This burgeoning industry offers a choice selection of products from respected manufacturers. We’ve compiled a list of the best home automation systems available and ranked them based on their offerings in a variety of categories. Our evaluation focuses exclusively on professionally installed automation systems, sometimes called smart home as a service or SHaaS. However, if you want a more-affordable, less-complete option, check out our DIY home automation review. For additional information, see our articles on home automation systems.
What to Expect from Professional Home Automation?
Professionally installed home automation is a serious investment, not a hobby or a gimmick. Getting a home automation system is on the same level as remodeling your home in cost and complexity. Our research revealed a few ways you can rein in your expectations so you can find a system that works best for you.
Types of Systems
There are two kinds of professional home automation systems in our review: whole-house automation and home security systems. Whole-house automation systems from Control4, Crestron, Elan, RTI, Savant and URC tend to be more expensive but have more features and connectivity, especially in terms of home theaters. Whole-home automation usually requires custom wiring and programming, which can take weeks to prepare in some cases.
Home security systems such as ADT, Monitronics, Protection 1 and Vivint, primarily focus on home security but offer home automation upgrades. These upgrades do not approach the same level of complexity or customization that whole-house automation companies offer, notably with a lack of home theater integration. This professional solution is usually more affordable and includes home security monitoring. Mobile apps are common in both system types.
A Stable Market with Local Dealers
Home automation has existed since the 1970s in one form or another, almost always in luxury homes, businesses and schools. Whole-home systems rely on local dealers, also called integrators, in most states. These dealers act as resellers and install and set up equipment. Home security systems are more widespread with larger installer networks. Only in the last decade have DIY systems appeared, but these haven’t found traction in many homes.
Unlike DIY home automation, equipment compatibility is one less thing to think about when you work with a dealer. The dealer figures out which products work together ahead of time and then offers a variety of solutions that provide the features you want for your home. On the manufacturer side of things, most companies offer every piece of equipment you could want while also supporting hundreds of third-party products.
A Big Price Tag
Professional automation systems are a luxury, which should give you an idea of how much they cost. According to CE Pro, a publication for home automation integrators, the average whole-home automation system installation costs around $25,000. Much of this cost comes from hardware such as home theater components and security camera systems.
For simpler projects, you can expect to spend between $2,000 and $5,000 to add smart locks, lighting, thermostats and sensors to a modest home. The cost comes from a combination of an expensive home automation controller and the sheer number of less-expensive devices that can add up quickly. Many home control systems also require custom programming on a home-by-home basis, since few smart homes are alike. A home automation system adds value to your home but not without upfront investment.
Home Theater Integration
This is the single most expensive part of a whole-home automation system. This is because of the controllers that allow you to send audio and video to rooms throughout your home. The rest of the cost associated with home theaters comes from audio equipment, such as speakers and amplifiers, and video equipment such as projectors, TVs and AV receivers.
What We Evaluated, Why It’s Important
The cost and complexity of the systems in this category limit the amount of hands-on testing we can do. We approach our evaluations from the point of view of a potential customer starting research. Our evaluations are based on discussions with dealers, manufacturer offerings, brochures and in-house research. Most of the differences in professional home automation systems are superficial, but we highlighted the biggest ones we could find.
Customer Education Resources
The best home automation companies offer case studies, brochures and galleries. These showcase different projects in which the company’s technology played a major role. We looked at the showcases offered by each company to get an idea of what each system can do. Companies with detailed descriptions and multiple examples did better than those that only showed photos of completed projects.
Ease of Finding a Dealer
We visited the websites of the companies in our review and looked for ways to contact dealers near our office. The most effective companies have clear calls to action on their homepages. This is usually an interactive dealer map, a form or a phone number you can use to get information. Control4, for example, has a form on its homepage that helps you get a quote, and it is one of the clearest calls to action we saw.
Number of Hardware Partners
We looked at each of the companies in our review to get a rough estimate of how many brands work with each automated home system. Manufacturers that support many brands score higher than those that support fewer since they give you more choices. The best home automation systems partner with hundreds of brands. This is important if you have a favorite brand like Bose or Sony that you want to include in your system.
Customer Support Options
As a general rule, a dealer is going to be your first, and maybe only, point of contact with some home automation companies. Dealers have an advantage of being available to make service calls to your home but often charge a fee to do so. Since we can’t evaluate all of the thousands of dealers across the U.S., we looked at the companies directly to see what they offer in terms of direct customer support. If there’s even the faintest glimmer of direct customer support, we gave the company extra credit.
Our evaluation is designed to provide you with useful information that helps you decide which system to use in your home. For our home automation system evaluations, we researched each manufacturer’s offerings and looked at how the company communicates with its customers. The companies have no input on our evaluation methodology, and our rankings were not shared with them prior to publication.
Where to Start
When you decide you want a home automation system, aside from setting a reasonable budget, there are only two things you need to consider: what and who. Getting what you want is as simple as finding the right focus for your smart home. From there, decide who should install it. Here are a few tips to help you decide the what and who of your smart home system.
Determine Your Focus
Focus only on features you want. As a general rule, whole-home automation has elements of control, security, utilities and entertainment. Home security companies offer the first three but have no support for entertainment. These categories are not mutually exclusive; for example, lighting plays a role in all four. Once you have a focus, you can go to a dealer and tell them what you want to do.
Control – These devices add convenience by helping you create schedules, rules and smartphone controls. Common examples are light switches, garage door openers, thermostats and window treatments.
Security – Technology in this category protects your family, belongings and property by monitoring for and deterring intruders. Examples are door sensors, motion detectors, smoke detectors, smart locks, security cameras and sirens.
Utilities – Using these devices, you can improve your home’s energy efficiency, which helps you save on gas, electric or water bills. Examples include thermostats, sprinkler controllers, leak detectors and window treatments.
Entertainment – These are audio-video devices and home theater equipment. Universal remotes sometimes work with DIY smart homes to control TVs, home audio systems and streaming sticks.
Find a Local Dealer
Most major cities have a few home automation dealers. To find the right one for you, it’s a good idea to get competing quotes from the integrators in your area. With quotes in hand, learn about each dealer’s certifications, setup process and whether it can help you get security monitoring services.
Certifications – Look for dealers that are members of the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association, or CEDIA. CEDIA has a strong code of ethics and helps installers stay up to date with the latest technology certifications. In addition to CEDIA membership, make sure the dealer is certified to work with popular home automation products.
System Setup – Choose a dealer only after it gives you a detailed explanation of the changes it needs to make to your home such as removing drywall and installing wiring. If the dealer doesn’t give you a written contract of everything it plans to do before it starts, then find a dealer that will. A verbal contract is an invitation to overpriced installations that can bust your budget.
Monitoring Services – Ask if the dealer offers home security monitoring or can connect you to a security company that monitors home automation systems. In general, if you don’t have door sensors, motion sensors or security cameras, you probably don’t need monitoring and shouldn’t buy it if the dealer insists.
Getting the Most from Your System
Whether you use your system as a universal remote or have automatic tasks that run in the background, you can expect to interact with it every day. Idle systems are a great way to underutilize your investment – make them work for you. Here are a couple items every home automation system owner should know.
Learn the Ropes
Take time to study the manual, mobile app and other tools you have access to. Look at all of the components that make up your system and see how mobile app controls them. By familiarizing yourself with the app, you can find lights, create presets and know where in the menu everything is. In most systems, you can set up schedules to control devices such as your thermostat and exterior lights.
When to Call the Dealer
Aside from occasionally replacing batteries in a sensor or dusting off your equipment, there isn’t much maintenance you can do on your own without voiding the warranty. If your system is under warranty, you should be able to replace your defective components at no cost. It’s possible that you might pay a service fee, even with a warranty – check with your dealer to see when they charge for service calls.
If you don’t have a warranty, set priorities instead of calling the dealer any time a component stops working. Your highest priorities should fall under security and utilities, which should be fixed as soon as possible after they break. If a security camera fails, your home can become more vulnerable to thieves. Likewise, if the thermostat goes on the fritz, discomfort or high energy bills can result. Control and entertainment devices in the system may be inconvenient if they go offline, but if there’s no threat to your security or comfort, you can get them fixed as your budget allows.
When you work with a dealer, keep in mind that it may offer a separate warranty from that of the manufacturer. Check to make sure the dealer’s warranty covers installation, labor and offers coverage for at least a year. For defective hardware, many dealers work with manufacturers to get replacement parts so you don’t have to contact the manufacturer directly. The best home automation systems offer lifetime warranties or warranties around three years.
Home Automation Systems: Our Verdict & Recommendations
It can be hard to choose a home management system when there are so many good options on the market. Our recommendations come from each system’s standout feature, since that’s a good baseline to start from in your own research. Our top three home automation systems showcase the best the industry has to offer.
For our Gold Award winner, Crestron, there’s literally no project too big. This system is compatible with thousands of products from hundreds of manufacturers, more than any other company in our review. The system’s software is fully customizable from top to bottom, which is one of the reasons it expands beyond residential installations into commercial applications at schools, hotels and businesses. It takes an experienced dealer and a lot of time to install a Crestron system.
Control4, our Silver Award winner, is the top residential brand in our review. The system integrates software and hardware seamlessly without the need for a dealer to do intensive programming. This helps bring down installation costs while also creating a capable system that can be expanded by the dealer as your needs change. Control4 offers a strong selection of in-house hardware as well as support for hundreds of other manufacturers. Control4’s Composer Home Edition is home automation software that lets you create schedules and custom programs without calling the dealer.
Our Bronze Award winner, Savant, has a design with a lot of visual appeal. The sleek, glossy hardware evokes the same visual cues as Apple products. Not only does Savant Pro have a full line of professional products, but it also has a few DIY smart home products with an entertainment focus. For example, the Savant Remote comes with a high-resolution touchscreen, a simple button layout and voice control, something not found in many universal remotes. The advantage of the DIY remote is that you can get a feel for Savant systems before committing to a full professional installation.
Outside of the top three, RTI was the only other product in our review that had everything we looked for in a good home automation system, helping it earn a Top Ten Reviews Excellence Award. Monitronics, ADT and Vivint get honorable mention as home automation companies with extensive dealer networks, and they are the only products in our review with lifetime warranty coverage.
Finding the right verdict in this evaluation was tricky. Part of the appeal of professional home automation systems is that they can automate almost anything in your home, which is why we can’t make solid recommendations on the hardware capabilities of a particular system over another. However, whole-house automation systems offer a more complete smart home experience than home security systems. Home security systems are a better way to get into professional automation for most people since they don’t require complex installation and programming. In the end, the best advice we can give you is to use our reviews to choose the best smart home system for your needs.