Insteon Starter Kit Review

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img-product-hero-tw-tw-00-11-00112a53a66e60ccad6aaef5d3b539fbThe Good: Tons of out of the box integrations with other products such as Nest, Sonos, Amazon Echo, etc.  Fast initial setup.  Ability to create, schedule and trigger scenes with multiple devices quickly and easily.  Works with Alexa for voice commands.  Massive selection of compatible devices.  Included plug in dimmers work with any bulb or lamp.  Communicates via both wireless and powerline.  Fairly low price compared to competitors.

The Bad: The app is a little clunky and confusing for beginners.  The Hub may make a constant high pitched sound that irritates some people (more on this below).  Add-ons are expensive, but that comes with the territory in the smart home market today.

Overall: Despite some app limitations, the Insteon Starter Kit is a great starting point for anyone starting or upgrading their home automation system.  The price for this kit beats out virtually every competitor, and the ecosystem is absolutely huge.  Most people purchasing a hub will want more than two attached devices, so this is a purchase that can get pricey quickly, but that is the price you pay for convenience these days.  Communication over both a wireless mesh network and powerline means less chances for missed commands.  The Insteon Hub works with Amazon’s Echo lineup right out of the box, meaning setup of voice commands is fantastically simple.


Setup

I was fortunate enough to receive both the Insteon Starter Kit and an Amazon Echo as gifts at the same time, and thus had voice commands set up literally minutes after installing my hub.  The setup was on par with what I have come to expect from other devices.  After plugging in the hub and wall units (the hub will require a wired connection to your router), I downloaded the Insteon app and created an account.  Once I was logged in I had to add the devices through the app.

When you add a new device the app shows you pictures of what the device should look like, which is handy if you’re new to this.  You have to hold down a button on the new device until it flashes, then hit next in the app to tell the hub to look for the device.  You will hear chirps from the hub and the device, confirming that they are communicating.  They will run through a group of tests to make sure they are communicating correctly.  When the tests complete successfully, you can name your device and choose a number of settings including the icon, room and scene memberships, schedules, alerts, the on level and ramp rate.  I had to do this once for each plug in unit.

Once I had my devices discovered and my rooms defined, I could create scenes.  At first all I cared about was having the lights come on at sunset and turn off at 11 PM.  This is a super easy scene to create because the Insteon Hub knows your location, so it knows sunrise and sunset in your area.  I named the scene, gave it an icon, set up my sunset and 11 PM on/off times and added the rooms with my plug in devices in them.  Insteon then contacts all of the devices in the scene and turns them on to make sure it is performing as you had expected.  It then asks if you want to turn the scene off but gives you the option to leave it on.

There is an important difference between creating a scene with a room, and a device.  When you add just devices to the scene, it will not dynamically add devices to the scene as you add them to your home.  Since I planned to install more Insteon devices around my house and in the two rooms I had added to my scene, I applied the scene to the rooms.  This way when I eventually add switches, bulbs, and plug in lamp controllers to my den and living room, they will automatically be added to the scene when I tell Insteon that they are in the den or living room.

Once everything was set up, pairing my Insteon devices with my Amazon Echo was as simple as running a device discovery in the Alexa app.  The Echo saw all of my devices with the names I had given them.  I was then able to add them to existing groups and create new groups to control them by voice.  One cool feature with dimmable Insteon devices is that you can ask Alexa to turn on a group at a certain level.  For example when I watch a movie, I can say “Alexa, set the downstairs to ten percent,” and it will dim every light in that group to ten percent.

Operation

The Insteon app gives you full control of Insteon devices and partial control of some other devices like Nest and Sonos.  Since I paired this with my Echo, I rarely use the app except to add new devices or trigger scenes, which Alexa doesn’t yet have the ability to do.  When you log in you are brought to your favorites screen.  This contains the devices and scenes that you mark as a favorite, and it gives you easy access to interact with your most used devices and scenes (see left picture below).

You can access the menu by clicking the hamburger icon in the top right (yeah, I call it a hamburger icon) or by swiping left.  This gives you a quick way to view devices, scenes, sensors, thermostats and rooms, as well as add devices, create scenes or add rooms (middle picture below).  I find that editing devices is a little annoying in that you have to leave the favorites screen, open the devices container and then access the menu again to edit all devices.  This brings you to a sub menu of all devices, and you have to select your intended device.  The same goes for favorites, scenes, check-ins, thermostats and rooms.  I feel like this can be a lot quicker, and I hope it will be addressed in a future update.

One of my favorite features of dimmable devices is that you can select their on level and ramp time.  This means you can define how bright the lights will initially be when they are toggled on from either the app or the physical switch.  Plus you can define how quickly you want it to reach that level with ramp time.  I use these in my kitchen (right picture below), where I have one switch controlling five very powerful recessed LED lights, so that they gradually come up to 25% and don’t blind anyone in the process.

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The Mystery Sound

I currently keep all of my networking equipment tucked away in our entertainment center in the den.  One day my wife was dusting in that area and started yelling.  I came running in thinking she had knocked the TV over or something, only to find her holding her ears and saying something was making a deafening high pitched noise.  Since I couldn’t hear any noises, I was convinced that I was now on an episode of the X-Files, and would have to start driving her west as fast as I could (look it up, it’s funny).  Being a good husband I started crawling around behind the entertainment center checking for noises.  When my ear was right next to the Insteon hub, that’s when it hit me.  A shrill, super high pitch noise similar to the noise those mosquito repellent apps (that don’t work) make.

I can only assume that since my wife is younger than me, she was able to hear the sound from farther away than I could.  Once I had heard it, though, I couldn’t un-hear it.  I wound up moving the hub into my basement in order to keep my wife from smashing it with a hatchet.  I have posted on a number of forums and asked Insteon about the noise directly, but no one else seems to be affected.  Maybe I really am crazy.  Maybe it’s just the CIA experimenting with us.  I want to believe….

Conclusion

Overall I couldn’t be happier with the Insteon hub and the starter kit in general.  This has been running in my house since December and the lamps have never failed to turn on or off at the appropriate time.  I have added new devices without issue, and the integration with my Echo is flawless.  The Insteon Starter Kit is currently selling at Amazon and Costco for about $100.  In comparison, the SmartThings hub alone is $99, or you can get it bundled with one outlet for $159, and the Wink hub with two GE bulbs was $97 but it is currently sold out.  With a price that’s tough to beat, a huge ecosystem of compatible devices, backwards compatibility with X10 devices and out of the box integration with Amazon Echo, the Insteon Starter Kit is a great starting point, or addition to your smart home.