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Review: HomeTroller Series 2


HomeTroller Series 2 sitting on a standard Elk M1 metal enclosure door The HomeTroller Series 2 is the new version of the original HomeTroller.The original HomeTroller The new HomeTroller looks great, it looks like a real appliance, compared with the 'desktop' look of the previous version. It's so small, it could actually be mounted into a typical structured wiring enclosure. It is also touted to be more energy efficient than the previous platform, consuming about 12 Watts of power (nominal). Dimenions have changed as well, the old HomeTroller measured 11.5" W x 2.5" H x 10.5" D, while the new unit measures 9.25" W x 2" H x 7" D.


Unboxing

The unit arrived in a small box, protected well by styrofoam type material.  The following items were in the box:

  • 1 HomeTroller Series 2 Controller
  • 1 External power supply (Input: 120-240v, 50/60 Hz, Output: 12VDC - 5A MAX)
  • 1 Getting Started guide
Unboxing the HomeTroller Series 2 HomeTroller Series 2 box content

HomeTroller System Restore USB flash driveI was surprised that there was no Ethernet cable included, since it is a network based appliance after all.  I was also hoping to see some sort of recovery disk, allowing you to restore the unit in case of major trouble, but it looks like this isn't the case.  They do sell a $39.95 System Restore flash drive, which is bootable.  The flash drive will reformat the Disk-On-Module drive and reinstall the operating system + software to get you back up and running.  I highly recommend you take a snapshot of the system using something like Acronis True Image, and a bootable CD/DVD-ROM drive, before you start configuring the system, and another backup once you have everything up and running.

Hardware

While the new external changes significantly improved the look and functionality of the new HomeTroller, a lot has changed on the inside as well. The new unit is based on the popular VIA C7 platform with a 1 GHz CPU. The previous generation used to ship with a Celeron M 1.5 Ghz processor (still used by the PRO-100 controller), which initially worried me a little, but my own testing, and feedback from current HomeTroller Series 2 owners, confirm that it isn't a big concern at all.

Memory has also been doubled, from 512 MB to 1 GB, and the hard drive has been replaced with a 4 GB Disk-On-Module (basically, an industrial flash drive).  The drive is divided into 2 partitions, one for the operating system, and one for the Homeseer software. By default, the operating system partition is write protected, creating a more stable environment, since any operating system errors/issues will be gone after a reboot.  In theory, this also allows you to unplug the device without having to worry about corrupting the operating system, but since the Homeseer partition is not protected like this, you should still treat it like a regular PC and perform clean shutdowns.

As you can tell, they totally redesigned the hardware platform, turning it into a very efficient design, which doesn't contain a single moving part. The lack of moving parts means it won't consume as much power, won't generate as much heat, and has less points of failure.

A look at the internals of the HomeTroller Series 2The new HomeTroller Series 2 is advertised as a hybrid platform, combining home automation software and hardware into 1 reliable platform. The new HomeTroller is based on the popular Via C7 architecture, with a 1 GHz CPU. While this might look slow to the untrained eye (especially since the previous platform came with a 1.5 GHz Celeron M processor), the unit also comes with Windows XP Embedded, an operating system based on Windows XP.  It is extremely customizable by the manufacturer, allowing manufacturers to run this operating system on very low power devices. Windows XP Embedded is currently also used in ATM's, set-top boxes, fuel pumps and many industrial controllers.


While Homeseer Technologies managed to shrink this platform physically, they did a great job keeping all the important I/O ports. The back of the unit offers a PS/2 keyboard and mouse interface (great in case you are using an older KVM switch), 3 USB 2.0 ports, 10/100 Ethernet, standard audio ports, a VGA port, and 4 RS-232 (serial) ports. One of the RS-232 ports can actually be switched to RS-485 mode, but I am not aware of any Homeseer features which can use this mode.

HomeTroller Series 2 HomeTroller Series 2 (front) HomeTroller Series 2 (side) HomeTroller Series 2 (rear)

Just to give you an idea of how small this unit is, here are some pictures comparing it with the typical slim CD/DVD case, and a WRT54G Linksys router.

Linksys WRT54G on top of the HomeTroller Series 2 (front) Linksys WRT54G on top of the HomeTroller Series 2 (side view) HomeTroller Series 2 next to a slim CD/DVD case (width) HomeTroller Series 2 next to a slim CD/DVD case (depth)

Software

As mentioned earlier, the HomeTroller ships with Windows XP Embedded. This means that while the environment might look familiar to Windows XP Home/Pro users, many of the unneeded OS features have been removed. The HomeTroller ships with a standard (albeit optimized for the Windows XP Embedded/HomeTroller environment) copy of Homeseer, meaning you can use the scripts/plugins released for the regular version of Homeseer.  Obtaining additional plugins is done the same way, using the web-based updater. This review won't be an in-dept review of Homeseer, as the focus here is on the platform as a whole, not the Homeseer software itself.

The unit also comes with HSSentry, which can reset the unit if software or hardware failure is detected. Since this device was designed as a real appliance, a monitor is not required. Remote access is provided through an included copy of the popular VNC remote control software, which offers clients for almost every platform out there. Every aspect of this unit is managed through the Homeseer web interface, including the ability to reboot the machine.

A copy of Homeseer has been pre-installed, and is ready to run at first boot up.  I configured it to take over some of my day-to-day home automation tasks, and didn't run into a single issue.  Since I also wanted better Text-To-Speech voices, I opted to install the speaker client on my existing home automation system, allowing it to use the SAPI5 compliant voices installed on my existing home automation server.  This worked great,  and no delays were encountered.  I am fairly confident you really have to do some crazy things before you start stressing the CPU.

I also tried a beta copy of HSTouch, the new touch screen software from Homeseer Technologies, and designed a basic interface just to see if this system could handle it.  Designing an interface with HSTouch is extremely easy, so it it didn't take long to get something up and running.  I didn't notice any performance problems, but I did not get to test out advanced features such as music library management or anything else which might require a little bit more processing power.

Power

One of the important features of the new HomeTroller is that it is very energy efficient.  I decided to use the popular Kill A Watt energy monitor to see how energy efficient this unit really is.  The highest energy consumption was recorded during the bootup process, which used 16 Watts.

HomeTroller Series 2 power usage while idle HomeTroller Series 2 power usage while booting up

When the system isn't under a heavy load, I recorded an average of 13 Watts.  These numbers are very impressive, and very close to the advertised numbers. The result is that you will pay much less to run this unit compared with a regular PC, and you don't have to worry about buying a very large UPS.

HomeTroller Series 2 universal power supplyThe new HomeTroller also comes with an external 'universal' power supply.  It uses the standard PC power cord to power the transformer, which drops the voltage down to 12V.  This would also allow you to come up with a more efficient battery backup solution, as you could run it straight from a regular 12V automotive battery (using a DIY or commercial 12V battery charger of course).

Conclusion

The HomeTroller Series 2 home automation controller is definitely a great device.  I am a big fan of embedded systems which contain no moving parts, and this device definitely fits in that category.

Although the system takes a while to boot up, I am not concerned about the CPU not being powerful enough.  I don't think there is another platform out there, which offers this kind of performance, uses this little energy, and still be very affordable.  Maybe this will change with the nVidia ION based chipsets in the near future, but even many current Atom based Netbooks can't match these numbers and features.

$895 is a pretty good price for a very flexible and robust home automation controller.  Since this price also includes a license for Homeseer, you are getting a lot of bang for the buck.  While the controller is compatible with most of the home automation hardware out there, you will probably have to purchase and install some plugins in order to get that functionality.  This is not a real issue, as it is made clear in the brochure, but I wanted to mention this in case you aren't familiar with Homeseer's pricing structure (many plugins are free, but some are also pretty expensive and can run up to $100).  I do wish they would include 1 or 2 of the commercial plugins (such as the UPB plugin, considering how popular UPB is), but I guess this would compete against Homeseer Pro/PRO-100.

One of the things I do have an issue with is that you can not get the Homeseer Pro version with this hardware.  Homeseer Pro makes a lot of sense if you plan on purchasing more plugins and the HSTouch software (cheaper in the long run).  If you want Homeseer Pro, you have to purchase the Homeseer PRO-100 unit, which runs between $2600-$2800 on average, and can not be purchased directly from the Homeseer store.  If you do need all these add-ons, the HomeTroller might not be the right choice, or be prepared to spend a lot more money.

With that said, I would definitely recommend this unit to anyone interested in a Homeseer based home automation solution, and doesn't have the (energy efficient) hardware yet.  The HomeTroller is an extremely configurable home automation controller thanks to the popular Homeseer software which drives it, while still being extremely stable thanks to the Windows XP Embedded operating system.

It's impressve that this little machine offers more features and CPU power than my old (and large) Windows XP Pro based Homeseer server, while being very energy and space efficient.

Pros

  • Energy efficient
  • Looks and feels like a real appliance
  • Affordable
  • Extremely flexible

Cons

  • No recovery disk
  • No out of the box UPB support
  • No Homeseer Pro upgrade

Documents

  • Brochure for the HomeTroller Series 2 (PDF)
  • HomeTroller Series 2 Getting Started guide (PDF)
  • Manual for the CV700C VIA mainboard (PDF)
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