Last week, I visited the world of the professionally installed smart home. This is the promised land. Everything just works, your voice assistant doesn’t try to sell you toilet paper, and you can control your whole home with just one app. Of course, you pay a hefty price and have to give up lots of control for the privilege.
The Ava smart remote could be the love child of an iPhone and a Logitech Harmony remote
I was at CEDIA Expo 2022, the annual trade show of the Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association (think CES, but less weird stuff and more stuff you — or someone with more money than you — can actually buy).
Here, I got to hold the almost perfect smart home controller: a sleek touchscreen, wrapped in a smooth anodized aluminum body with a tiny bezel and a nice pad to rest your thumb on. The Ava Remote could be the love child of an iPhone and a Logitech Harmony remote.
I say “almost perfect,” because the Ava Remote costs $1,300, is only available through custom integrators, and doesn’t make a good AV remote because it has no physical buttons. And that’s a real shame, because those three things aside, it looks like they’ve absolutely nailed it.
The Ava is the first Google Certified remote control, which means it runs the Google Play store, and you can download any app directly to the device. But unlike a phone, it’s not a personal device — so that embarrassing text message won’t pop up when you hand it to your mother-in-law.
It’s like a more advanced version of the Control4 Neeo remote (it was designed by the same person, Raphael Oberholzer). But the Neeo only works with Control4. The Ava can work with any ecosystem that has an app in the Google Play store: Control4, Crestron, Roon, and other custom integrator apps, but also Google Home, Philips Hue, Lutron, Spotify, Tidal, and Apple Music, just to name a few.
It’s a genius idea because, while there’s lots of talk about the ambient smart home and the home that knows what you need and does it for you seamlessly, we are not there yet. The inescapable fact is today’s smart home has been designed to be run from your phone. The manufacturer’s app is often the best interface to control your lights, locks, or music, but no one wants to control their home with their smartphone.
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been sitting on the couch, pulled out my phone to turn off the lights because I didn’t want to use voice or get up and push a button, only to be distracted by notifications and emerge 10 minutes later having totally forgotten what I was doing. Most people would like to leave their phones alone when they’re at home, and that’s almost impossible to do in a smart home.
As I’ve written before, the smart home needs simple, universal control devices that anyone in a household can use. These need to be easily accessible, easily charged, and easy to use by everyone, from family members to visitors.
Shoehorning an old smartphone or tablet into the role of a smart home remote control doesn’t work well
Voice is not always the solution; there are plenty of times you don’t want to have to call out to a speaker to control your lights (not to mention plenty of times when it gets it wrong). Current smart displays lack decent user interfaces for smart home control because they’ve been designed to be controlled by voice.
In-wall controllers such as the touchscreen Brilliant Control Panel and Orro smart switches go part way to solving the problem, but there’s still a need for a remote control that sits on the coffee table, nightstand, or kitchen counter and is just there for home or music control.
Shoehorning a device like an old smartphone or tablet into the role of a smart home remote doesn’t work well as they’re designed as personal devices. Plus, they don’t last more than a day without needing to be plugged in (or migrating into someone’s bedroom as a personal device).
The Ava addresses almost all of these issues. Made by a Swiss-American manufacturer focusing on audio streaming and home control, the device’s 2,200mAh battery should last up to six days on one charge. It has a USB-C-powered magnetic charging stand designed for one-handed use, and it can be locked to one app if you just want it to control just your Google Home or your Philips Hue lights. (It works with the Google Play store, so it’s not going to be an Apple Home controller, but it does work for Apple Music.)
The inescapable fact is today’s smart home has been designed to be run from your phone
It also has a built-in microphone and speaker for voice control with your voice assistant of choice, and to work as an intercom between rooms. There’s no lock screen to mess with; you just pick it up to wake it up. With a quad-core, 2 GHz processor under the hood, it can handle running multiple apps smoothly, something your old repurposed smartphone or tablet might not be able to keep up with.
The one thing the Ava doesn’t have is physical buttons, which limits its use as a remote for complex AV setups. With the Logitech Harmony gone (Logitech discontinued it last year), there really isn’t a universal AV remote that also can control your smart home. Luxury smart home manufacturers such as Crestron, Control4, and Savant have remotes with tactile buttons designed to control your smart home and your AV set-up. I saw a few at the show, and largely, they look like the Harmony.
If you have your AV system set up with Crestron, Control4, or Savant — which many Ava customers will, since it’s only available through custom installers — you can at least control your AV system with their respective Android apps. But without physical buttons, it’s just not the same.
There are some AV/Smart home solutions for the DIY smart home if you are all-in on one ecosystem — the Apple TV and its slippery remote does an okay job, as long as your TV is always on and you trust Siri to get all your voice commands correct. (Why Apple doesn’t have a native Home app on the Apple TV is still a mystery). Amazon’s new Alexa Voice Remote Pro paired with a Fire TV Cube has some basic smart home functionality, with two dedicated buttons that trigger Alexa Routines. But neither Apple nor Amazon (and definitely not Google) has nailed the “controlling my smart home on my TV” experience.
As I’ve said, the smart home has been designed to be controlled from a smartphone, and as such — while you can often control devices from different manufacturers through one app — in many cases, the device’s dedicated app offers better controls and a more intuitive interface.
This is why Ava’s simple solution feels like it could really work. It’s a vanilla remote that you put what you need to control your home onto, whether you are a Crestron integrator, someone who runs your whole home through Google Home, or if you just want a simple touchscreen interface to sit by your Sonos speaker, so you don’t have to pull out your phone every time you want to create a playlist.
The Ava isn’t the simple solution for everyone — not at that price — but it’s a sign of what could be. That is a portable, touchscreen smart home controller for everyone in my smart home that is as powerful and as easy to use as a smartphone, but is definitely not my smartphone. It needs to have long battery life and a price point under $200, so I can have one in each main room of the house. And I want it to control my TV, as well as my sound system and smart home. Plus, it needs to look good sitting in its charging stand in my living room. Is that too much to ask?