Integrator Kris Hogg Reviews Neeo Remote: It’s Great if you Understand Limitations
Longtime CEDIA integrator Kris Hogg dives into Neeo remote and home-control system, saying it's a fine product with lots of promise if you temper expectations. Bugs with Sonos, Philips Hue, Fire TV sure to be addressed.
Last week we posted a piece about the Neeo remote control and home-automation hub, which just began shipping this month to U.S. Kickstarter backers. In that article, we focused on first impressions and feedback from early users who waited 2.5 years for their product. Most seem to agree that the quality hardware and the early software held great promise, but many were disappointed in the shipping product, given some of the highest expectations ever set by a home-control start-up.
Here we present a rosier and more detailed look at the product, graciously provided by Kris Hogg, a long-time UK integrator and CEDIA EMEA chairman. He shared some thoughts on Neeo with the CEDIA Technology Council, and allowed us to share his sentiments publicly.
He thinks Neeo is not meant for custom installers (CI), at least not yet, but he does see plenty of value in it for casual DIY users, acknowledging that early issues with Philips Hue, Sonos and Fire TV are sure to be worked out in the software. His comments are edited for typos, clarity, brevity and (sorry Kris) American English.
Joining the conversation is Seth Johnson, former integrator and now home-automation software developer for BlackWire Designs. He lauds Neeo's open NodeJS API/SDK, which still eludes even "well established players in the CEDIA space," he says.
Other users, please share your thoughts about Neeo in the comments section below. - Julie Jacobson
First, let’s talk about the experience of unboxing and handling. Raph [Oberholzer, Neeo co-founder] and his team have obviously spent time on this.
Neeo comes in a black box, with the lid sliding off to reveal the Neeo remote in a foam bed. The rest of the kit is in two little drawers below it -- the base and the charger in the top one and the cables in the lower.
There were a couple of UK USB charger adaptors chucked in the outer box, which you kind of expect from a device not designed in the UK.
Former CEDIA integrator
The cables in the lower drawer are lovely, braided in black, and adding to a "quality" feel. Best of all, they are plenty long enough to position the devices in a convenient location.
The Neeo remote itself is thinner than I expected, has a nice weight and feels nice to the touch. The power cradle has a magnetic element which makes the remote fall into place really nicely. They've obviously spent a lot of time and money getting the hardware feel and experience right.
Examining the product more thoroughly, my initial conclusion is: It’s a great Harmony alternative, but not a CI tool.
I’m suffering poor Sonos integration -- I have issues with selecting music from playlists; it keeps just playing the one track, regardless of feedback on the remote.
However, if I look at it as an easy IR-based remote, it’s actually great. If I take my [custom-oriented] RTI and URC expectation out of it, then it was a doddle to set up. I had my media room running in 30 minutes.
Neeo has dealt with crappy power toggle issues on “dumb” devices very nicely, which will manage the average customer’s expectation well. (For more info on how Neeo deals with "stupid" IR devices, see the original Neeo story here.)
It’s connected to the Hue bulbs and this is seamless.
Let's not forget, it’s a gorgeous thing to hold, tactility is superb and its [magnetic] docking action into the charger is a joy! Everything else is just software and can be fixed in the future.
So, I spent the evening playing with the Neeo, and I think have a better understanding of its brilliance and its failings.
I think that we need to firstly understand what it is and, importantly, what it isn't. (That said I can see the roadmap and it's going to be a slow burn to getting where I'd like it to be.)
It's a Harmony replacement, a very good one at that. Programming was for me a doddle. As an example, I use a Samsung TV in the room I'm using Neeo. The IR library Neeo gives you is in depth, with 12 different discrete codes for input select. I had to go through 8 before I got it to switch to HDMI 1 but it was a simple "test IR" process.
It deals with flags in the background. You have no way to set these yourself, but it builds up a coherent "recipe" for each function which just worked -- for every source device and amp I have.
You can amend the recipe to add other functions in, for example my set-top box. Neeo decided it was a stupid device, so it automatically put a manual power toggle page before launching the recipe.
For those of us that have had clients struggle with on/off states being misaligned on devices, this just makes sense. You can add in your own power toggle activity to the recipe, but you can't delete the power toggle page on the opening sequence.
There are a limited number of hard buttons on the remote, but more than enough to make it usable, and limited enough to make it simple to understand. They are, however, not configurable.
It's clear Neeo has been designed for a home user to get the maximum amount of functionality with the minimum of fuss, while configuring it themselves.
Today, it’s Mostly an IR Device
For me, at the moment, Neeo is an IR device. There is some IP control of some devices. For example, Sonos links easily, and if you understand the limitations of the functionality, I’d say it is working "reliably.”
But certainly don't expect drivers for things like Kaleidescape. Neeo just uses IR to the player (fortunately, mine is in the unit under the TV). I do get some functionality from the remote, though. The channel up buttons give me fast-forward control … but I had to swipe the screen to get to the transport controls page to stop it.
These will be just driver snags, which I expect will get sorted out. Neeo provides an SDK, and it looks like developers are developing!
Unfortunately, even some of the most popular DIY devices communicating over IP aren't quite there yet. Nest support isn't ready. Sonos improves every day but is still quirky. And Amazon Fire TV pretends to have IP control, but it really doesn't.
Amazon Fire TV is listed in the "Works with Neeo" finder, and it appears in the app. The auto-generated recipe asks you to select the TV power state and input, and the amp power state and input, but then it gives you a screen to tell you to use the Amazon remote. Bit of a shame.
I suspect that a lot of IP control is actually looking for feedback strings over the network to confirm a state or activity, but I don’t have a device that fits that profile, even though all my devices are IP controllable.
Neeo doesn’t tell you what protocol it's using. Nor can I see an IP address input screen to allow me to identify a device. This makes me suspect it's discovering devices on its own, which may lead to issues if you have multiple units of the same product on the network. I'd need to set that up as a test.
What I couldn't do, and there is no option for this, was to add in any activity-based conditional commands, for example: On play, dim lights to 5%; on pause dim to 30%.
This is stuff we've been doing for years that adds to the customer experience, but stuff your average punter isn't going to care about.
I believe Neeo plans to add these capabilities in the future.
In Sum: An All-for-One Upgrade
In today's form, for me Neeo is a simple upgrade from an All For One-style remote, and a potential Harmony killer. Programming for core functionality is easy, and the IR database seems very comprehensive; however, if you have a weird device then you can’t "learn" a set of codes, which means you have to rely on the original remote for that unit.
[Note: The Neeo Brain has an IR receiver for learning in codes. Currently, though, it's not exposed in the UI, according to Oberholzer. “Of course we will make this feature available in a future firmware release,” but it hasn’t been a priority at this time: “We knew we already have a working solution to get all IR gear supported, with the large database we have built, with the awesome and fast service the driver team provides and the live IR testing functionality that allows support like not seen on any product in the industry.”]
Neeo is not an infinitely configurable device (unless you can use their SDK) and works along the lines of giving great reliable functionality without allowing you the opportunity to mess it up and destroy the user experience.
It's not, however, a product for an integrator at this time. It's a standalone consumer-targeted remote, so if you've bought one to add to a complex home control system, or to get it to do funky stuff, forget it. It’s not yet the remote for that.
It is, however, the first remote I've put into the house that Mags [wife] understands and could use instantly without instruction, which is either a good reflection of the device or a sad indictment of my programming skills on more advanced remotes.
Update 2: Diving into Sonos
So I had another issue with Sonos. I added another player into the cinema room. Using the add device wizard Neeo could only find two units on my network. I was able to control all the Sonoses (Sonii?) in the house from the Sonos app so I knew they were connected. Neeo only showed me two.
I did some research online and found a post on the Neeo site that mentioned the recent software update seemed to require a reboot of the Neeo Brain to allow it to connect.
I tried that the next day and it saw everything that was powered on.
The Sonos was then added to the cinema room and it appeared on the screen on the remote:
I had to amend the “Recipe” though. Which was a shame. I’d already told the Neeo it was a Sonos connect unit, so it should have known it needed external amplification.
The wizard just set it up as a standalone device. It’s a simple process of adding in the amp power, volume and source commands. It should have known that already and asked simply what input it needed.
A work in progress though, not a huge issue but avoidable.
Using the Sonos integration is OK, but not awesome. You have to remember, however, that the Sonos API is limited by Sonos to a core set of functions, so some of the frustration is in that, not the remote.
For example, with Spotify, you have to set up your favorites and these appear as icons on the home screen, but you can’t browse, which let's face it with a screen that small, who would want to?
As an industry pro, I know this to be a new limitation recently enacted by Sonos and Spotify, but I wonder how many Neeo users know this?
In any case, if I have a song list playing and I want to change it to listen to another album, you can’t, it just adds it to the end of the playlist and restarts the playing song (video below).
Again not a killer but annoying. [Note: Neeo is working on Sonos/Spotify integration.]
For me, the promise of the "best Sonos integration" hasn’t yet been fulfilled. I’ve resorted to using the remote as source selection and volume and using the app on the phone to select music. Of course, I could just do that with the existing remote for the Amp, or just use the app in rooms where I only have Sonos.
I’d love to have a Neeo in the bedroom, especially if I could add in the new snooze feature. With proper browsing it would be so much easier than messing with my phone.
Neeo Thoughts from Home Automation Software Pro
Seth Johnson is a former integrator who now writes home automation software for a living, working with BlackWire Designs. He co-housts the Hometech.fm podcast, which recently featured Neeo co-founder Raphael Oberholzer.
Setup was super simple — granted I only have a few devices on my workbench (LG TV, AppleTV, Hue, and a Sonos). My set-up works fine after <10 minutes of work. That's hard to match, in my opinion. It took longer to take everything out of the box.
Discovery is something they are not good at. I didn’t realize there was a Hue integration until I interviewed Raph, and I didn’t know there was a Sonos integration until I read your article. That doesn’t speak well for the on-boarding process and after using them both I see the rough edges that others are complaining about. Luckily that's all software and can be fixed, patched, or updated in the future.
I think the expectation that people have might be a little too high. I don’t think we are at NEEO’s "Day 1,” but I don’t think it's a Beta state either — it's well worth shipping and using, but realize this is early and you will find bugs and you will find issues.
There’s plenty of room for them to grow in the future, and already having an open NodeJS API/SDK will be a big advantage over even some of the well established players in the CEDIA space (that still do not offer this!). There’s already a list of projects people are trying to work on. If I ever slow down I’ll throw my hat into that ring too.
In short: Plenty done right. A couple of rough edges. Lots of promise here.
More Discoveries - Fire TV, Switching, Philips Hue
As mentioned above, the other big issue I have is with my Amazon Fire TV. I have no control other than selecting the source. I have to resort back to the remote for transport activities.
I also mentioned that at first glance Neeo seemed to be handling the switching on sources quite well. I take that back. I’ve realized that it simply leaves each recipe running and only selects the new recipe when you change source.
For me this isn’t an issue, as all but one device has discrete IR codes for power. For others it may well be.
There are niggling issues in other areas, one of them being the lack of channel icons for broadcast channels in the UK (the U.S. seems well catered for ), so I have simple stars for favorite icons on the main screen for the TV tuner. I'm sure the rest of the UK channels will come.
The last point I’d like to make is on my Philips Hue integration. I don’t use RGB bulbs, so only need on/off and dim function. This works well, but there is a lag on feedback that can confuse a little.
Currently both Hue bulbs in the cinema room are turned off at the switch so they aren’t communicating. Neeo doesn’t recognize this fact, or at least isn’t telling me it can’t see them (unlike my Echo). So the buttons and sliders still work, even though the Hue power is off. It makes me wonder how good the feedback from Hue is, or if Neeo only polls data occasionally (I suspect the latter).
Still a Great Device
My opinion hasn’t changed: This is a great device for the average homeowner; it’s not ready for the integrator channel.
Neeo keeps saying they are giving people the ability to develop their own drivers. So I have an SDK and the Kaleidescape API -- just write an IP module, right? Doubtful. In the niche market where Kaleidescape plays, no one is going to do that, and in the integrator market, why would they when companies like RTI have one already done?
Now that’s probably an extreme example. Kaleidescape is a little exotic for most users. Of more importance are mass-market products like the Fire TV, which doesn't work today.
Would I buy one for my CEDIA chums? No. Would I buy one for my Mum? Absolutely.
It doesn’t match up to an RTI or URC, but they are a) a lot more expensive, b) need a trained integrator to program, and c) aren't Neeo's competition anyway.Is it the best remote out there? Not yet. Does it give you the best Sonos experience of any remote on the market? Actually, no. My phone does. But if we look at its price point in the consumer marketplace, then I’d say it could get there.
I’d love to be their UK sales guy, once they nail the larger functionality issues. When they do that, and this thing hits the retailers, it’s going to fly. They’ll fail, however, if they don’t get their functionality/support ratio right. People will work with stuff for only a short time before putting it down as a bad job.
Phillips learned that with its Pronto remotes. When stuff is tricky for the average person to do, your support overhead ends up strangling your profitability. And Philips certainly wasn't the only one.
Neeo is headed in the right direction, in my opinion, and the product works well for my purposes. In theory, Neeo keeps control of the user experience better than others.
But, it is flawed -- not disastrously so, but it really does need more work. As an early backer I expected that. Neeo keeps saying vote for more features or devices. I can’t be bothered.
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Julie Jacobson, recipient of the 2014 CEA TechHome Leadership Award, is co-founder of EH Publishing, producer of CE Pro, Electronic House, Commercial Integrator, Security Sales and other leading technology publications. She currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. She's a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player currently residing in Carlsbad, Calif. Email Julie at firstname.lastname@example.org
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