Prebuilt vs Making Your Own
This blog post is not about the DreamPlug per se but it relates to plug computing and low-cost, low-power project-oriented computers (e.g., the Raspberry Pi) in general, and how they compare to embedded computers in prebuilt systems. In particular, I'm going to describe my experiences with an Insteon starter kit that I bought at Costco. I decided to go with Insteon for simplicity as well as cost — the starter kit offered a lot of gear for a relatively low price compared to buying separate pieces of a system. It was my hope/assumption that buying a prebuilt system would save me some time and hassle, so that I could get the core functions I wanted relatively quickly. Having spent the money, I'd like to say "Insteon did not disappoint" – but the opposite is true.
A system like Insteon offers a lot of promise. It can use both radio signaling and power-line signaling to control a wide variety of devices. It's compatible with older systems (specifically X10, parts for which I accumulated in years past) while offering much greater growth than outdated systems. There are many devices — sensors, controllers, etc. — that "should" work with the Insteon system.
Along with that promise of functionality should be a promise of simplicity. You're buying a packaged product, you're not developing a custom solution. That's why I chose it. However, Insteon fails on that front, and for very preventable reasons. In the same vein as "for want of a horsehoe nail, the battle was lost," the weaknesses of Insteon are small things that are easily fixed but, left unfixed, accumulate into serious problems.
One of those weaknesses is documentation. I might be tempted to call Insteon documentation "laughingly bad" there's no laughter involved when you're struggling to get something working, especially something that is supposed to be dumbed-down for average consumers. This isn't Sendmail, this is a collection of devices that should be pretty much plug-and-play. "Documentation" covers everything from manuals to error messages, and they're all weak enough to leave you in the dark unless everything goes exactly according to their plan. If anything varies, if you experience any problems, expect to be frustrated.
As an example of the weak documentation, the manual for the IP camera that came with the kit mentions that there are three user groups (visitor, operator, and administrator), which you can also see when you're logged in as an administrator and look at the user settings. The manual shows screenshots of the Internet Explorer interface for each type of user, but there does not seem to be any comprehensive documentation of exactly what privileges are assigned to each user group. We can make assumptions based on the screenshots, but assumptions aren't documentation.
If you're the type to skip the manufacturer's documentation and rely on online discussions, Google searches, etc., that doesn't work either. Or at best I will say "good luck." What you'll find are links to Insteon and links to places selling their gear. Finding actual third-party information has been much more challenging to me for this than it was for the DreamPlug or other technologies that are (presumably) more obscure than Insteon's product line. It was a little tough to find things about the DreamPlug, but that was a breeze compared to searching for useful discussions of Insteon's system.
Another weakness is mobile app design. Since they are pushing, as a key marketing point, the ability to control your Insteon system through your mobile device, the mobile app should be very usable. It's not. The visual design is poor — for example, small white text on a bright blue background is not optimal for reading. The initial configuration is poorly documented, as I came to expect from Insteon. The app is apparently optimized for phones and forces portrait mode (an instant irritation for me in any app, because I rarely hold my 10" tablet in portrait orientation). And the overall structure and usability of the user interface is much, much worse than something that seems to be their main selling point.
Because the system is difficult to get working, people are returning it. Naturally, Insteon turns around and ships out those returned products, but they're not adequately preparing them and they're not advertising that they're returns. The kit that I received had some very unprofessional taped-closed packaging and my son noticed some dirt on one of the items. Those aren't big deals. However, the Hub in the kit was apparently a returned item, and because it had not been properly reset, I struggled just to get it set up. Of course, the documentation said nothing about the username and password prompt that I encountered while trying to set up the Hub, which was presumably a result of somebody else setting up the device (which includes a connection with Insteon online) before returning it. It took me three tries at a factory reset before the Hub setup process moved forward as described in the documentation.
The IP camera is pretty good, it's about the only thing that I can say is giving me any satisfaction, although it should have been noted in the description on Costco that the camera is for indoor use only. Had I known that, I would not have bought the kit, as my original use for it was to be outside -- under a porch roof, but still exposed to temperature and moisture that would probably ruin it. It can look through a window, of course, but not with infrared illumination at night, so it's of no value for outdoor security at night.
Overall, the Insteon products have been a disappointment. Getting value from the kit was not a quick process — in fact, that process isn't even complete, and I've had the kit for a few months now. The low price for a good set of gear doesn't matter if the parts don't work cohesively. Each component does seem to function, but the system is only valuable if those components talk to each other and give me reasonably-smooth control over connected devices.
I can't say I'd have been better off developing my own system, because I have no time for that kind of development these days. I can barely set aside enough time to troubleshoot problems in existing systems. If I'd chosen that route, I would still be at square one. As it is, I've spent more money for less functionality than I wanted, but I have moved forward. I'm going to keep trying to maximize the value for the money spent, but at this point I certainly would not recommend Insteon to anyone else, even though the hardware quality seems good. The documentation and poorly-designed mobile app detract too much from the overall package.
About the Author
Stuart J. Whitmore is an author of fiction and nonfiction, as well as a photographer, technology developer, and more. If you enjoy reading his blog posts, you might also enjoy reading his books. Take a look at the books by Stuart J. Whitmore today, and download your copy of one that looks interesting to you!