Which Smart Home System is Best?
(Control4 vs. Crestron vs. Savant)
Today, there are lots of products out there that label themselves as smart home devices. Internet of Things devices, or IoT for short, including Nest thermostats, Amazon Echo, and Hue light bulbs are just a few. All of these products are neat and provide some basic level of functionality. Many can even be used in a full smart home system, but none of these devices on their own will make your home truly smart. The fact is that what most people think of when they think of a futuristic, truly “smart” home cannot be achieved by simply buying one of these devices.
There are, however, a few brands out there that make what we call full smart home systems, or full home automation systems. Currently, there are three main players in this market -- Control4, Crestron, and Savant. Each of these systems is capable of fully automating and controlling security systems, lighting, whole house music, thermostats, televisions, cameras, and more.
This is not to say that other systems can not also do these things, but if you talk to the top smart home integrators or luxury homeowners across the country, you’ll hear these same three names over and over. They’re the big boys in the space.
Audio Advice is one of the few companies in the country that has years of experience selling and integrating all three of the big 3 smart home systems, which leads to us always being asked to compare and contrast them. Our customers are always asking us, “Which Smart Home System is Best?”
Now that we’ve defined what a truly smart home is, and paired down the options to the three major brands, let’s walk through each of the major questions we get and compare the different capabilities of each of the big three.
What They Have in Common
If we’ve learned anything in our 40 years in business, it’s that technology is constantly changing and evolving. Of course, a few years from now a company is bound to come along and make a dent, and Internet of Things products will continue to advance. But for now, if you want a true smart home system, Control4, Savant, and Crestron are where you should be looking.
Each of these three has invested over a decade of production learnings, have substantial engineering and financial resources, and have solved the last 5% of issues that literally kill the other newcomers and cobbled together solutions you will find on the market today. They all have the ability to integrate the vast majority of lighting control, security, thermostat, music, and TV brands that are out there. This requires an enormous database and tons of experience. Each of the three has generally checked these off. Further, their embedded customer bases are large enough that you don’t need to worry about investing in a technology for your home that may not be supported in the future.
Also, for the purposes of determining which smart home system is best, we are going to focus on the practical capabilities and differences between the systems. We guarantee you that each manufacturer, as well as any dealers that only sell one of these brands, will tell you that theirs can do anything the others can do and that their system is the best. While it’s true that most of these systems can be programmed to do most anything, what homeowners really want to understand are the practical differences -- how do they function in normal situations, without buying lots of third-party gear or paying for a bunch of custom programming that is hard to change down the road.
Since we're on the front lines of our customers' homes, day in and day out, we know what works well together, what doesn’t, and the individual strengths of each system.
User Interface (UI)
While the backend programming allows all three systems to perform most major automation functions, the user interface is the portal for you, the homeowner, to control the entire system. This makes it perhaps the most important aspect of the system, so this is where we’ll start.
Control4 and Savant each have standard interfaces, although they are quite different from one another. The Control4 interface is designed for simplicity. It is easy to use and understand, leveraging large icons for each category. We find that our customers pick it up very quickly.
Savant's user interface historically was a little sleeker looking, utilizing photography to represent different rooms and scenes. We think that it's a bit less intuitive for first-time users than Control4, but with the number of mobile apps people use today, either of these should become second nature for you very quickly. Control4 did a major upgrade in 2020 that now has a very clean and sleek look as well.
While there are two version of Crestron, today we're going to focus on the more advanced, custom solution, as it's the most common system available through large Crestron integrators. For this type of system, the user interface is actually determined by the integrator -- the company that is designing and installing your system. This can be good or bad, depending on the integrator, so be sure to ask to see their interface before you commit. Make sure the Crestron interface is easy and intuitive to use, rather than something that looks cool but no one can figure out how to navigate.
Here at Audio Advice, for example, we spent several years creating our Signature Series version of Crestron, which included many focus groups and ongoing testing and improvements.
One of the most popular capabilities in smart home systems is Whole House Music -- the ability to play different streams of music throughout a house in any particular grouping. Control4, Savant, and Crestron can each do this.
Control4 has Pandora, TuneIn, iHeartRadio, Napster, Deezer, Spotify, Qobuz and Tidal all native to every Control4 system. For those who use Spotify, there is a special interface to enable Spotify that is a little bit different.
Savant has also built streaming services into its platform, including Pandora, Deezer, and more.
Crestron, on the other hand, historically did not have native streaming services integrated the way the other two did but recently has added several services. Although many Crestron systems are integrated with third-party streaming solutions such as Autonomics. The benefit to this is that when you integrate a third party system, you can get more services and other advantages. The downside is that the interface and usability rely heavily on how good your integrator programmer is, just like with the user interface. At this point, we feel it is a better solution to have them natively integrated vs. plugging into another system.
Many of our customers come to us because they’ve heard we are one of the largest and most advanced Sonos dealers and want that type of functionality. Luckily, all three of these systems can do what they do -- play multiple streams of music in different locations in the home at the same time.
Junior could be listening to the game in the media room while dad is in the kitchen listening to country while mom is sipping some coffee on the back porch listening to 80’s music. When the doorbell rings and company arrives, it’s easy to put the system into party mode, combining the streams into one and playing the same thing throughout the home.
The ability to control all of the lights in the home is probably the second most used and most requested capability in a smart home. For instance, hitting one button to turn off the lights when you go to bed or hitting one button to set the house to an evening scene or to turn off all the lights when you leave a home. Lutron popularized this functionality years ago and it’s still extremely popular today.
Unlike hue and other WiFi types of entry level lighting systems you'd find at a Best Buy, Control4, Savant, and Crestron all have the ability to control an infinite number of lights throughout a home of any size.
To compare and contrast the systems, this time let's start with Savant. Savant sells smart LED bulbs that integrate with its system. However, most integrators have historically used Lutron lighting controls with Savant. Ask your integrator about the pros and cons of using Lutron vs. Savant for lighting.
The upside to Savant using Lutron is that they are a leader in the lighting space. Their products are extremely reliable and their choice of colors for switches, keypads, and faceplates is unmatched.
Crestron created its own lighting system, which largely emulates Lutron. It has slightly fewer color options, but most Crestron dealers would tell you that the capabilities are very similar. Most Crestron integrators either use Crestron lighting or integrate the Crestron system with Lutron lighting, the same way it is done in Savant systems.
As Control4 grew, it invested heavily in its own lighting control system. While some Control4 integrators use Lutron lighting, most have embraced Control4 lighting. By using Control4 lighting keypads, you get some big advantages. Control4 has an ambient light sensor built into their keypads, which we utilize in our implementations all the time. It enables the backlighting to turn up or down based on the light in the room it’s in. For example, you can have the backlighting turn off in a master bedroom when the lights in the rest of the house turn off. Control4 lighting keypads can also turn a specific color if your alarm is set or your garages are left open. We have a host of these cool capabilities we integrate into all of our Control4 Signature Series implementations which really brings a smart home to life.
When considering putting controlled lights in your home, the most important thing to consider is whether the company that makes them will be in business for a long time. We’ve seen dozens of new startups enter the space over the past few years. Many have already gone out of business and most won’t be in business 5 years from now. You don’t want to invest in a system integrated into your house that won’t be around for the long term. We are confident that Control4, Crestron, and Lutron will be supporting their lighting systems for the long haul.
Also, the design capabilities of your integrator are crucial for lighting control. Regardless of which system you choose, if your integrator is great at designing keypad layouts, scenes and how all of the lighting works together, your final solution will be dramatically better than one that is cobbled together. Think of it this way -- you can hand the same brushes, same paint, and same canvas to two different people. If one is a great artist and one is not, the outcomes will be dramatically different. It’s not just about the materials, but what you can do with them. If you are trying to figure out if your implementor has this kind of skillset, there are two things you can quickly check on: i) ask to walk through a home they have implemented and look for all the attention to detail and ii) ask if they are a Diamond or Pinnacle dealer for Control4 (Audio Advice is both). This will give a good sense of how many systems they've implemented and how impressive their implementations are.
Control4, Savant, and Crestron will all tie into a security system so that you can arm and disarm your security. All three also support cameras, camera DVRs, and electronic door locks. Currently, Control4 has a slight edge in the number of electronic door lock options natively supported and fully integrated into the interface. If you are meeting with a potential integrator, ask if they have a security license and will be providing the security system as well. Most professional security systems use the same or similar hardware and software (CPI, ADT, as well as security licensed smart home installers). So its just more seamless to use one company that provides both fully integrated with one phone call to make if something needs to be addressed.
All three smart home systems integrate well with thermostats. While Nest has gotten a lot of press, we believe that using the thermostat sold by the smart home manufacturer gets you a better thermostat that is more fully integrated into the smart home capabilities.
As an aside, you really don’t want to have your HVAC constantly turning on and off every time you leave the house -- which can actually consume more energy. All three of these smart home systems get rid of the gimmick sound bytes of turning systems on and off, and instead, actually focus on getting the job done and integrated into your whole smart home system.
If whole house intercom is a big deal to you, the superior solution today is Control4. Their panels all have a full video intercom systems built in and the user interface is terrific. The Control4 wall and tabletop panels also double as doorbell interfaces, popping up video and the ability to talk to someone at the door. Popping up door cameras on Savant and Crestron panels can also be done but it's a little different than Control4’s integrated intercom interface. If you have the budget available to implement dedicated control panels from the manufacturer, you should do it. All too often people think they will save money by just using their phones and iPads which works but our experience shows us that when the panel is always on sitting in the kitchen it as a totally different experience in terms of quick button touches, using the intercom, responding to doorbells vs. swiping your phone on and waiting for face recognition and then opening an app. Our customer who have Control4 panels throughout their home utilize the intercom and other features all of the time and rave about the experience.
Alexa Voice Control
Control4, Savant, and Crestron all have basic integrations with Alexa, meaning that you can program them to react to basic voice commands. Our own testing and customer feedback has been that voice control is much better today for getting a quick news briefing than it is controlling a large or advanced home. This is both true standalone and when connected to a full smart home system. Alexa or Google Assistant would be fine turning one light on or off, but reliably and intuitively shutting down a house and arming security is a whole new level.
In reality, we have found that most customers don’t use their voice assistants for smart home functions for a variety of reasons, including reliability, false positives and negatives, and the simple difficulty of having to memorize all of the phrases. We predict that voice control will likely have a more important role in integrating into automation system in the future but right now our surveys show us most people find it frustrating and revert to using touchpanels or phones/tablets. Each of the big three smart home systems will be ready for it when the systems are ready for prime time which could be a number of years out.
Choosing the Right Smart Home System for Your Home
In summary, you should generally feel confident choosing any of these three systems. It’s really about your individual needs and the expertise of the dealer/integrators in your area.
For now, we would advise staying away from the “me too” systems out there. They have a long way to go to have the backing and reliability of Control4, Crestron, and Savant. Remember, you are choosing a platform that is highly sophisticated and can make your life dramatically safer and more fun if implemented well.
Of course, this is only a general overview and there are a host of details that we cannot include as they may only be relevant to a small percentage of homeowners. The most important step is choosing a smart home integrator who has substantial experience in these systems -- a company that you trust will take care of you and your home for many years to come.
Be sure to check out our blog, which is full of articles about high-end home audio.