Last week I visited the world of the professionally installed smart home. This is the promised land. Everything just works, your voice assistant isn’t trying to sell you toilet paper and you control your entire home with just one app. Of course, you pay a hefty price and have to give up a lot of control for the privilege.
Ava’s smart remote could be the love child of an iPhone and a Logitech Harmony remote
I was with CEDIA expo 2022, The Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association’s annual trade show (think CES, but less weird stuff and more stuff you—or someone with more money than you—can buy).
Here I got to hold the near-perfect smart home controller: a slim touchscreen, wrapped in a smooth anodized aluminum housing with a small 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 “near perfect” because the Ava Remote costs $1,300, is only available through custom integrators, and isn’t 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 absolutely nailed it.
The Ava is the first Google certified remote, meaning 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 no embarrassing text message pops up when you give 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 a compatible app on the Google Play Store: Crestron, Roon and other custom integrator apps, as well as Google Home, Philips Hue, Lutron, Spotify, Tidal and Apple Music, just to name a few. (It is not currently compatible with Control4).
It’s a genius idea because while there’s a lot of talk about the ambient smart home and the home that knows what you need and does it seamlessly for you, we’re not there yet. The inescapable fact is that today’s smart home is designed to be managed from your phone. The manufacturer’s app is often the best interface to control your lights, locks or music, but no one want to control their home with their smartphone.
I’ve forgotten the number of times I’ve sat on the couch, pulled out my phone to turn off the light, because I didn’t want to use a voice or got up and pressed a button, only to get distracted by notifications and appear for 10 minutes later completely forgot what I was doing. Most people prefer to leave their phone alone when they are at home, which is almost impossible in a smart home.
As I wrote before, the smart home needs simple, universal control devices that everyone in a household can use. These should be easily accessible, easily charged and easy to use for everyone from family members to visitors.
Using an old smartphone or tablet with a shoehorn in the role of a smart home remote is not working properly
Speech is not always the solution; there are plenty of times when you don’t want to call a speaker to control your lights (not to mention the times when things go wrong). Today’s smart screens don’t have decent smart home control user interfaces as they are designed to be controlled by voice.
Built-in controllers such as the touchscreen Brilliant Control Panel and Orro smart switches go in part to solve the problem, but there is still a need for a remote that sits on the coffee table, bedside table or counter and is only there for home or music control.
Using a device like an old smartphone or tablet in the role of a smart home remote will not work well because they are designed as personal devices. Plus, they won’t last more than a day without needing to be plugged in (or migrated into someone’s bedroom like a personal device).
The Ava addresses almost all of these issues. Created by a Swiss-American manufacturer focused on audio streaming and home control, the device’s 2,200 mAh battery should last up to six days on a single charge. It has a USB-C powered magnetic charging stand designed for one-handed use, and it can be locked with 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 won’t be an Apple Home controller, but it will work for Apple Music.)
The inescapable fact is that today’s smart home is designed to be managed from your phone
It also has a built-in microphone and speaker for voice control with your voice assistant of choice, and to act 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, 2GHz processor under the hood, it can easily handle multiple apps, something your old repurposed smartphone or tablet might not be able to keep up with.
The only thing the Ava doesn’t have are 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 can control your smart home as well. Luxury smart home manufacturers such as Crestron, Control4 and Savant have remotes with tactile buttons designed to control your smart home and your AV setup. I saw a few on the show, and for the most part they resemble the Harmony.
To be fair, CEO and co-founder Raphael Oberholzer tells me it’s not really designed to control your TV system. It is a special smart home remote control. But if you’ve set up your AV system with Crestron or Savant – which many Ava customers will do, since it’s only available through custom installers – you can at least control your AV system with their respective Android apps. But it’s just not the same without physical buttons.
There are some AV/Smart home solutions for the DIY smart home if you’re all in on one ecosystem – the Apple TV and its slick remote will do just fine, as long as your TV is always on and you rely on it. Siri gets everything your voice commands are 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 activate Alexa Routines. But neither Apple nor Amazon (and certainly not Google) have nailed the “control my smart home on my TV” experience.
As I mentioned, the smart home is 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 actually work. It’s a vanilla remote that lets you put whatever you need to control your home, whether you’re a Crestron integrator, someone who controls your entire home through Google Home, or just want a simple touchscreen interface with your Sonos. speaker, so you don’t have to grab your phone every time you want to create a playlist.
The Ava isn’t the easy fix for everyone — not at that price — but it’s a sign of what could be. That’s a portable, touchscreen smart home controller for everyone in my smart home that’s as powerful and easy to use as a smartphone, but absolutely not my smart phone. It should have a long battery life and a price under $200, so I can have one in every main room of the house. And I want it to control my TV, as well as my sound system and smart home. Plus, it should look good sitting in its charging stand in my living room. Is that too much to ask?
Correction, Monday 3 October, 6.30 pm: An earlier version of this article said that the Ava Remote works with Control4. There is no authorized Control4 app that can be accessed through the AVA Remote.