Accessory review: TellStick Net home automation bridge
Home automation has been around for a while, but it’s yet to become as common as other connected electronics, like network storage or media streaming boxes. I used to think that the reason for this was that the equipment needed is still too expensive, but boy was I wrong. Turns out that for us Europeans at least, the future is very much here already, and it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.
What’s a TellStick?
TellStick is the name of the product series made by Telldus. There are three different versions: The TellStick, TellStick Duo, and TellStick Net. I like to refer to them as home automation bridges, as that’s basically what they do: They bridge existing home automation equipment from dozens of manufacturers with either a computer or the internet, and from there, mobile devices.
Europe has a standard for home automation equipment that runs on a 433.92MHz band, and it’s equipment that uses this band that the TellSticks can control. The band is shared by lots of manufacturers, and Telldus itself doesn’t produce anything other than the TellStick bridges. As such, you can mix and match equipment from different manufacturers and use them as one connected system through the TellStick. Both the 433.92MHz system and the equipment that uses it is primarily for Europe, however, so while the TellSticks are USB powered and work worldwide, you’d be hard pressed to find anything to use it for outside Europe.
Best of all, since a lot of the equipment is “dumb” on its own – i.e. it’s not internet connected – it’s also exceptionally cheap. The TellSticks themselves start at about 450 NOK here in Norway, with the Net going for about 950. Direct currency conversion puts that at $80 and $165 respectively, but keep in mind that high incomes make direct currency conversions rather misguiding when it comes to Europe compared to the US. Had these been available in the US, I would have guessed $50 and $100.
Those prices are for the TellSticks though, which is really the entry cost of this system. Once you have a TellStick, you can add actual remote controllable equipment that is far cheaper, as only the TellStick has the parts that cost a lot of money. Most of the gear I use with my TellStick Net is from the Swedish company Nexa, which uses the 433.92MHz system. A bundle with a remote (that I don’t need) and three wall socket adapters cost me 180NOK, a single dimmable receiver was 200NOK, and the Jenkinsbird temperature sensors I use are 80NOK a pop. That’s about the price range for most of the equipment, which includes everything from receivers for building into the wall, to motion sensors, outlet adapters for outdoors, and so on. Check out the compatibility list on Telldus’ site to find the supported manufacturers and product types. A typical wall socket receiver looks like the Nexa receiver below:
As for the TellStick Net specifically, it’s the latest addition to the TellStick series. Whereas the TellStick and TellStick Duo require a running computer to work, the TellStick Net is an independent device. It needs USB power and a wired connection to your router, and then it’s set to go. It currently doesn’t support the computer connection that the other two are dependent on, and it currently has very limited support for remote control input (i.e. from another remote into the TellStick), however it supports Telldus Live!, the online service that allows you to control your equipment from any web browser.
In the box
The TellStick Net box contains the unit itself, antenna, USB cabel, network cable, and USB AC adapter. The use of a USB power system allows it to run directly off routers which have USB ports, however in the process of adding that feature it seems that Telldus forgot that most routers aren’t positioned right next to AC outlets. By that I’m referring to the USB cable’s length, which at about 50cm long is a bit short if you need to use the AC adapter. I had to find a USB extension cable to give it power. It’s a standard mini-USB connector though, so you won’t have trouble finding other cables – it’s just that it should have come with a longer one as well.
Other than that, it comes with everything you need. It’s great that they thought of direct USB power from the router, as I don’t have much positive to say about the proprietary AC adapters that such products normally come with.
Setup is surprisingly simple. Once everything is plugged in on the TellStick end, you sign up for (or in to) a Telldus Live! account, and then it should discover the new device automatically – assuming you’re on the same network as it. The wording in the menus can be a bit confusing, as the TellStick Net is considered a location, whereas devices are actually home automation equipment tied to that “location.”
Adding devices depends on the manufacturer and type, but it’s generally simple enough. The Jenkinsbird temperature sensor simply showed up in the sensors list, allowing me to rename it. The wall socket receivers needed me to program them, which basically involves following the receiver instructions for pairing mode (depends on the device), and then clicking a “learn” button in Telldus Live!. It’s not much more complicated than plugging the wall socket adapter between your existing electrical equipment and the wall socket, and then pressing a few buttons. Once that’s done, you have controls or sensor information available in the control panel, depending on what the equipment is. You choose the device type before pairing, so dimmers automatically have dimmer controls, and so on.
Obviously I wouldn’t be reviewing this system on Pocketables if it didn’t have something to do with mobile technology, and that’s where the next part comes in. There is currently software available for connecting to Telldus live! on both Android and iOS, in fact there are multiple apps for each. There is a bunch of third party software available for the TellSticks thanks to its API, so while only iOS has an official app, there is third party software on both platforms. Heck, I even discovered that the PC remote control app I already use on Android, Unified Remote, has a TellStick plug-in available. Setting up that one was a bit backwards, but for the other apps I tried, you basically just have to log into your TellDus Live! account from within the app, and then it just works.
In use – iOS
iOS has an official Telldus app, but it’s…well, it’s kinda sad. It has the absolute bare minimum of controls, apparently can’t display sensor information, and is overall not very useful. The app description even apologizes for requiring the latest version of iOS, which it claims to be 4.1, promising a fix that hasn’t come since the last update in January. All in all, it’s kinda pathetic for an official app.
There is however a third party app called TellEvent. It’s currently only available in Swedish, which is a problem. An English version is coming according to the developer, however there’s no date for when that will happen. Both Telldus and companies like Nexa are Swedish, and the distribution is highly centered around Scandinavia, however since the system works throughout Europe the need for English versions of everything is definitely there.
Anyways, back to TellEvent functionality. You have access to both devices and sensors, which in itself is a step up from the official app. You also have groups and scenarios, which allows you to create sets of actions. A group would for instance allow you to turn multiple devices on or off with a single click, while a scenario would allow you to turn them one in a specific pattern, as an example.
If you have a Tellstick Net, it’s also possible to automate when devices are turned on or off. You can for instance turn on lights when the sun goes down, or at 6.00 every Monday. This is quite useful, albeit not very impressive compared to what’s possible on Android, which I’ll get to later.
Finally, a YouTube user has managed to get his Tellstick working with Siri via SiriProxy. This is quite a few levels above normal app tinkering, and requires quite a bit of tech know-how to get working. On Android it’s however a lot easier to do the same thing, and more.
All in all, TellStick on iOS is quite limited compared to on Android, at least unless you go to SiriProxy lengths to make it work. This is the result of limitations with the OS, the official app being extremely basic, and the only capable app being in Swedish only. It’s still amazing to be able to control your lights from your phone, as well as create groups and scenarios in TellEvent, but compared to what’s possible on Android you basically only get part of the functionality.
In use – Android
Now this is where it gets interesting! There’s no official app on Android, however there are several third party ones. The “go to” app on Android is RemoteStick, which is both a decent app in itself, and has a Locale/Tasker plug-in component, meaning that my favorite app in the whole world can control whatever the TellStick can control.
TellStick proper is somewhat similar to TellEvent, with devices, groups, sensor information, and scheduling capability. One feature that really sets it apart is the ability to add pages to the app, where you set an image as a background and then put controls and sensors onto that image. The point is to use a floor plan for a house or room as the background image, and then place sensors and controls where they are in real life. That way you get a very visual control experience and can easily tell where each senor and electrical device is.
RemoteStick also supports NFC. I don’t have an NFC capable device, but the idea is that you can have a sticker next to your lamp which will actually turn on the lamp if you touch your phone to it. Or, turn on a group of lamps, for that atter.
Tasker integration is why I wanted this system to begin with. Tasker is the alpha and the omega of my mobile device experience, which is why I write so much about it and have a massive guide for. It allows you to automate almost anything, and the plug-in component of RemoteStick gives Tasker a few new abilities.
The RemoteStick Device action allows Tasker to control devices connected to the TellStick as part of any other profile. Before I got the TellStick setup, I already had a profile that does a few things when I leave the house, which the phone knows happens because I then lose connection to my WiFi network. Adding a new action to that allowed me to set the light to turn off when I leave the house, saving power. Similarly, when I come home, the lights turn back on.
I’ve also integrated TellStick in several of my other profiles. I have buttons to control lighting in a pop-up settings scene I’ve created, my sleep mode now turns the light on or off based on whether I’m sleeping, I have a new nap mode that does the same, and a home cinema mode that dims it for video watching. While I don’t use any of these through voice on a daily basis, I’ve also experimented with integrating TellStick control into my Tasker-based voice assistant:
There’s also a context that’s part of the RemoteStick plug-in component. It allows you to run Tasker tasks based on sensor information, like for instance have a warning go off if the inside temperature goes below 10C. Unfortunately, it seems to lack the ability to transfer sensor information into Tasker, which is a major dowside. This means that you can have a task trigger based on the temperature, but you can’t use the temperature as a value yourself. You can’t for instance have a spoken message tell you the temperature, which is something I would have liked to have as part of my morning message.
That little issue aside, the plug-in component of RemoteStick works great. Tasker is extremely powerful, so by giving it control over TellStick-connected equipment, it makes the built-in scheduling systems of TellEvent and RemoteStick look like very basic features in comparison. Turn on the car’s block heater if the outside temperature is below -10C, but only on days where your calendar mentions you have a meeting at work? Sure, why not. Turn off your lights when the phone is on silent and it’s been ringing for more than 20 seconds? No problem.
The problem with this, at least for Telldus, is that to get the most out of your Tellstick Net, you need not one, but two third party apps. In a world where equipment from different manufacturers work together just fine I can see the logic behind “outsourcing” like that, but it also makes Telldus vulnerable. While it has an API so that anyone can develop for it in theory, the average consumer won’t be able to do so, and are hence dependent on apps like RemoteStick. There’s a lot more third party software available for the PC-dependent TellSticks than for the Net right now, which also gives them more ways of being controlled by mobile devices, through mobile apps that can control the PC programs that in turn handle the two other TellSticks. Hopefully, the Net will also be able to work directly with a computer soon.
The TellStick system is great, and the TellStick Net’s computer independence makes it a perfect companion for using the system from a mobile device. Having the expensive components located in a single device makes a ton of sense as it both gives you the ability to use equipment from dozens of manufacturers, and it makes this a system that can be expanded very cheap. Once you have the TellStick, you can go nuts with wall receivers and sensors without it ending up costing you a small fortune. It all works great in practice, and the integration with Tasker makes it that much more powerful, even if that particular functionality comes through third party software.
It’s also important to remember that this can be controlled from any web browser, so you’re not dependent on a supported mobile device or computer to control everything – though it obviously helps. Calling this a mobile device accessory might not be entirely correct, but if you end up using it exclusively from your mobile device – like I do – it isn’t incorrect either.
This is unfortunately very much a product for Europeans, which is simply a result of the 433.92MHz system itself being more wide spread over here. That puts Americans out in the cold for now, but I’m sure there is – or will be – something similar for the US market. Europeans can check Telldus’ list of retailers to find the nearest one. Both Clas Ohlson and Teknikmagasinet sells these, so if you have those chains in your country, you may just be a quick trip away from finding what you need.
This is very much a living system, able to gain new functionality through adding equipment and Tasker setups. As such, I’ll continue to write about what I do with the system. I’ve already written a few articles to that effect, and you can expect to see more in the future.