Smart homes will be able to balance form and function just a little more easily from now on, thanks to some exciting innovations in smart home control panel design. Efficient miniaturisation is the focus here, and Ekinex has taken a huge leap forward. Before we talk about that though, let’s take a step back to review the problem they face.
“Let there be light”: The importance of control from the beginning
Controlling our environment has been important since time immemorial. This is doubly true for our homes, where a balancing act has always taken place. We know that cave-dwelling people would hide animal bones and tools at the back of their caves. Meanwhile, art was created at the entrance, where it could be seen in the sun or firelight. Ever since then, we’ve struggled with the balance of beauty and functionality in the places where we live. We try to hide ugly tools from flint scrapers to dishwashers.
The smart control revolution
In recent years, home automation has enabled us to put entire processes out of sight and mind. We've also added new functionalities to make our homelives more beautiful and enjoyable. The task of smart home designers is to ensure that the old tools aren’t replaced with a new set of ugly devices. Have a look at our previous blog for a discussion on this subject.
While most systems can be kept discreet or beautiful, the control panel has always been a challenge. Adding more functions to a system has historically required larger, more obvious controls. We’ve only just started getting to grips with the touchscreens and voice controls that stop this from being the case.
Small is beautiful – The Ekinex Signum
Small control panels require great design. In this, Ekinex’s new Signum virtual switch is some distance ahead of the competition. It’s the first touchscreen that can control most of the functions of a modern smart home from a light-switch-sized unit.
The size is important because it makes the switches easy to retrofit in almost all homes. Perhaps more importantly, users are familiar with switches of this size and form in this place.
Functionally, the switch can be used and customised easily, the latter with the help of a relatively simple mobile app. At the top level, the switch can have between one and four touch-screen buttons, which can lead to different controls or more sub-menus. Each menu selection can enable control of anything from lights to thermostats to audio and door locks. These are just a few picks from a list of dozens of functionalities that can be integrated with many systems and assigned on the mobile app.
The big leap forward - The end of the form/function choice
It’s important to communicate why getting all relevant functionalities into something the size of a light switch is such a big deal. There was a time early in the smart home revolution when all clients and designers had to pick between form and function. There were large smart home control panels that controlled everything but looked like a computer monitor on the wall of each room. Then there were small switches that were limited in what they could do. Any compromise between the two extremes was awkward and difficult to use.
For a while now, companies have been trying to get as much functionality as possible into the light switch space without sacrificing ease of use. Those 74 square centimetres have seen varying degrees of success, notably from Ekinex, as well as Zennio, Jung and Rithium (formerly Violet).
That said, Baker Stone is fairly confident in stating that the Signum is the first smart home control panel where it’s ‘mission accomplished’. It fits in the space, it’s easy to use, it’s attractive and it can control everything you would want to control from this part of a smart home. What’s more, the switches can be reconfigured by the user or administrator without a huge expertise requirement after setup. If the user adds a sound system to their lounge, they can pop in a Spotify controller next to their light and heating controls.
The physical space on the touch screen is limited to around one-third of the device’s width. This could be seen as the one flaw of the switch. It’s probably done for the sake of simplicity and aesthetics, as well as to build similarity to the light switch. However, further limiting the space available on a screen that is already necessarily small is a strange choice, to say the least. Aside from this subjective weakness, the Ekinex Signum is a very strong contender that stands head-and-shoulders above the competition.
The best of the rest
While the Signum has undeniably got us excited here at Baker Stone, we pride ourselves on specifying the best tech from across the market. Here are our other picks from what’s on offer in KNX-compatible controls.
This simple and discreet black touchscreen has got the looks and simplicity requirements nailed down. Functionality is not as comprehensive and is limited to lighting, audio and climate though. However, the recently reinvented company is improving on this gradually, notably by adding a thermostat in the near future. The simple switch is much easier than the Signum to configure. Perhaps the discreet aesthetics go too far though, limiting the readability of the screen. You’ll need your readers on to use this properly.
The opposite to Rithium in many ways, Zennio’s offering is big and friendly. It targets colourful simplicity over the competitor’s dark discretion. The advantage here is that its bright logo-accompanied buttons are easy to see. It stands out rather more than the Rithium for better or worse. In the right place for the right person, these buttons can be great options. The company also offers a range of more traditional switches with easy-use logos for smart homes, as well as a range of other solutions.
Sitting between Rithium and Zennio in design, Jung offers a range in minimalist black and white that is easy to use. Functionality is on par with Rithium. The range of functions that can be integrated is a little superior, though not comparable to the star of the article. The switches offer a lot of data too but do suffer in terms of ease of use though as the interface can be clunky.
Conclusion – Thinking form and functions
While voice and mobile device controls are nice, pushing a button is going to remain the most natural way to control a home for some time yet. That being the case, we advise professional designers and homeowner users alike to think about their control panels as a core part of the system rather than an afterthought. Ask if you want discretion or high visibility, ease of use or comprehensive functionality.
New technologies like the Signum mean that you can have your cake and eat it more than ever before. However, there are still other options and thinking carefully about what is needed will make for better specification, setup and use. The more innovations that appear on the market, the more important such considerations will become. Pick right and it could make a significant positive difference to the user’s life.