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Integrator Review: Control4 Composer Express Changes Home Automation Game

Long-time Control4 dealer Joe Whitaker goes gaga over new Composer Express home automation configuration app, which dramatically reduces installation time and increases profits for integrators.


Nothing could be simpler than enrolling SDDP-enabled devices (such as a Dish satellite box, Sony receiver or Lilin IP camera) into a Control4 home automation system through Composer Express.
Joe Whitaker · October 21, 2014

Prior to CEDIA Expo 2014, I was hearing two vague things about Control4 (Nasdaq: CTRL), which didn’t seem all that impressive at the time: something about a new home automation app and something about a game changer.

I would later discover that the new product, Composer Express (available now), really would change the game for installers and home owners alike. It makes the front-end of a home automation system much easier (and less expensive) to install, with little more than a handheld smart device. Yet the rich back end remains intact.

As CE Pro’s Julie Jacobson noted in her CEDIA piece about the new software, it allows integration companies to keep the install techs in the field, while the programmers can spend more time at the office programming, and less time driving around to client homes.

What this means for installers is a much more efficient (that is, profitable) installation.

At CEDIA, I congratulated Control4’s Eldon Greenwood, director, dealer tools & interoperability, for the digital accomplishment. He tells me I wasn’t the only Control4 dealer who had been begging for this type of approach for a very long time.

Before the review, here are a couple of notable issues about this new application:

First, the other popular (and emerging) home automation companies at CEDIA also released platforms that make systems easier to configure from a smart device. But they seemed to make the biggest deal about new tools that let end users create their own scenes and schedules – something that used to require a pro.

Control4 doesn’t make that point about Composer Express because the DIY-ish element has always been available through Control4 software. Their focus with Composer Express is to reduce labor costs by enabling entry-level technicians to set up a system at a clients’ house without having to master complex back-end applications that more experienced programmers can handle.

Second, it is important to understand that Composer Express does not replace Composer Pro. It only enhances it but expediting the installation process, Composer Pro still does the heavy lifting software-wise, while Express serves as the entry-point to get products quickly into a Control4 system – enrolling connected devices and “placing” them into rooms, for example.

You should also know that you won’t leave a house with a programmed system. For example, you cannot create scenes and schedules via Composer Express. You can imagine, or at least hope, that that feature would be a logical next step.

Now, back at the office with Composer Express in hand, I can share with other integrators what the experience is like.

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[1. Creating a project]

Setting Up a System

As with Composer Pro, an Express project begins with the automatic discovery of the Control4 controller.

But even this simple task got simpler. You can create a new my.control4.com account on the fly and it will automatically send a temporary password to the client and add the permissions to the system.

This allows a one-stop primary controller identification, product registration and check-in with my.control4.com. [1] There’s no need to go in and out of different processes for each step.

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[2. System update]

In addition, you can start, maintain and change ZigBee services within the same process. Combined, all of these tasks comprise the core function of virtually every Control4 system, and they have been put together so well in Composer Express that just about any skill level technician can have the base of any system up and running in under 5 minutes, all from the convenience of their iOS or Android mobile device.

Updating a system with Composer Express is just as quick. Here, Control4 provides a nice at-a-glance visual indicating OS versions per device. [2]

Once you are on the update page verify the system devices against the current listed version and click UPDATE NOW.

An additional feature is the ADVANCED tab where you can manually enter the updated URL. This is especially helpful if there are previous versions available or if you are using a custom URL for those on the Beta team.

The next and most notable portion is the DESIGN feature. From here you can add devices, add rooms, and even make name changes on the fly to accommodate the most meticulous clients without breaking out the laptop.

Adding devices has been made simple and streamlined for products that are in the Control4 database. Type in a search term and you get a list of all devices matching your description. For convenience, if your device just so happens to be a Control4 device, you can choose MY DEVICES and get the entire current catalog of Control4 devices. [3]

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[3. Adding devices]

Once any network- or SDDP-enabled device is added, Composer Express tells you “No ID”. Don’t fret, this is intentional. Just touch where it says “No ID” and you get taken to the ID DEVICE page. [4]

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[4. Identifying devices]

Furthermore, at any time if you are curious or lost, just touch the “i” in the top right corner.

Device Enrollment & Management

Composer Express makes it dead-simple to enroll ZigBee and IP devices into a project. [5]

ZigBee. One of the big benefits of Composer Express is its ability to identify and automatically populate ZigBee devices (switches, keypads, sensors, etc.) directly into a project. The process is darn close to perfect.

Even so, there remains one complication that is shared across all ZigBee-enabled systems: Each ZigBee device is enrolled in a different way.

Some you press twice. Some you press and hold. Some you rub your head and sing Kumbaya.

Furthermore, most ZigBee devices can be rebooted, reset to factory defaults or disengaged from a network with a “magic sequence” of button presses. For example, pressing the top button rapidly 15 times might reboot the device. These sequences are even more elusive than the ones for enrolling a device.

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[5. Enrolling ZigBee, network devices]

It would be really helpful if, in the Composer database, Control4 would indicate which of these magical sequences triggers any given behavior—I mean, as long as Control4 is trying to help integrators stay in a single application for the brunt of the installation work, why not?

Currently, that information is available only through a search of the Control4 knowledge base.

SDDP. While adding ZigBee devices within Composer Express is easy, nothing could be easier than enrolling SDDP-enabled devices.

SDDP (Simple Device Discovery Protocol) is a little piece of code that third-party manufacturers embed in their devices to make them instantly discoverable in the Control4 ecosystem. Virtually every major product category has at least one or two products that are SDDP-enabled.

At CEDIA, Control4 got its first SDDP-enabled alarm system (Napco), and in a significant move, Sony announced it would embed SDDP in all of its new W Series and X Series HDTVs starting this year, making them instantly interoperable through Control4.

The use of SDDP discovery and auto-importing is hands down one of my favorite features.

Simply choose DISCOVER DEVICES and it will automatically find all unidentified SDDP devices and list them for you to add into the system. Once you select to add the SDDP device it auto adds the driver and allows you to place it where it needs to be in the project.

Not only is SDDP quick and easy, it offers a true time-saving benefit to brands that have adopted SDDP.

Device Management. While adding rooms is just as easy as adding devices, the true magic in the DEVICES tab is managing devices from the main DEVICES page.

From this page you can scroll through every device in the system—similar to the left hand pane of Composer Pro—and manage every one of that device’s properties. Not only can you rename devices and other typical tasks, you can also identify a device, modify its connections, and pull a full connection report. [6]

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[6. Multiple device config options in one UI]

Two More Biggies

I would like to leave you with two takeaways from Composer Express that we installers commonly use multiple times per day in any given project. The first is a simple press to REFRESH NAVIGATORS. Found in the TOOLS tab, this button is probably the one item I hit the most, to keep things up-to-date as I go. [7]

The next item is something I check on a regular basis to get a quick look at system health. NETWORK TOOLS is also found in the TOOLS section. From here, I am able to get a real-time glimpse of the system’s devices, including an online/offline status report. [8]

Additionally, you can quickly click on any offline devices to access device properties, without flipping to a different application.

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[7. Refresh] [8. Status report]

I would like to see this feature added to Composer Pro as well, because it makes bringing devices back online so simple.

All in all, Composer Express is a game changer for Control4 dealers.

It will make it easier for entry-level technicians to create stable and sustainable systems and, if my crystal ball is working right, could serve as a stepping stone into a possible role in the consumer market with maybe Composer Express HE?

Video: Control4’s Paul Williams demos Composer Express



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  About the Author

With over 20 years of experience in home systems installation and design as well as being an award winning product designer, Joe Whitaker currently is principal of the integration firm thethoughtfulhome.com. He is a current member of the CEDIA board of directors first elected in 2013 and is a frequent contributor to CE Pro magazine. Have a suggestion or a topic you want to read more about? Email Joe at joe@thethoughtfulhome.com

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