Zipato ZipaBox Wireless Home Automation Controller Mega Review

Zipabox Review

The £170 ZipaBox from little known Croatian company Zipato challenges VeraLite’s Micasa Verde on price, yet promises a feature set on a par with high-end controllers like the Fibaro Home Centre 2. We put the ZipaBox through its paces to find out if it can really deliver.

For this test, we’re using a ZipaBox together with the £85 battery extension module, which provides a 3300mAh battery back up that should be sufficient to power the ZipaBox for 24 hours in the event of mains power failure.

The ZipaBox is a strikingly styled diminutive 86x86x48mm and can be DIN rail mounted. The battery backup module clips into an expansion port on the side, in a manner that will be familiar to anyone old enough (and minted enough) to have owned a second processor for their BBC Micro. There’s an expansion port on either side – currently there is a Zigbee module, in case you still believe that Zigbee is going to dominate Home Automation and there are plans afoot for generic 433MHz and KNX modules.

zipabox-boxed

Assault and battery

zipabox-rear2The plugin battery module contains a backup battery as already mentioned and also a facility for network backup over 3G/GSM. However, it turns out that this function is the provision of a USB port, into which you can plug your own “GSM stick” – none is provided. £85 might seem a lot for a $15 battery, a $1 USB port and the conspicuous absence of a $40 3G module – I guess those fancy plastics must be expensive. In its favour it does make the ZipaBox portable, which will help you work around some of the irritating fundamental shortcomings of Z-Wave networking.

What’s in the box?

zipabox-systemAs with so many of these devices, the ZipaBox is provided with a European wall-wart power supply and maybe a free adaptoid from your supplier, if you’re lucky. Why none of these controller companies can take the time to specify a UK power supply is beyond me, so if you fancy a less rickety solution you’ll be wanting a 12 Volt 1 Amp DC power supply, positive tip.

You also get a natty flat ethernet cable (ethernet only I’m afraid, there’s no WiFi here) and a screw-in antenna for the built in Z-Wave radio. Also a quick start guide, which is very much on the basic side.

Cloudy, with a chance of hateballs

Before I go any further, I should point out that the ZipaBox has one attribute which has polarised popular opinion: many of its features and services are cloud-based, in other words they rely on servers run by Zipato.

zipabox-front3All configuration and day-to-day management through the web interface is actually done via the my.zipato.com gateway, although any changes you make are downloaded to your actual physical ZipaBox and run locally. The ZipaBox has a local web server, but it is only there to support the (currently undocumented for developers) REST interface, which allows the iPhone and Android apps to work locally. They also have the option to work remotely via the Zipato gateway.

zipabox-sideZipato have come under some criticism recently for the quality of their service provision and they’ve responded by moving the whole shooting match to the Amazon cloud, which seems to work well, I certainly haven’t experienced any issues. What it does mean is that if Zipato suddenly becomes disinclined to continue running the service for whatever reason, then you will lose your web-interface and with it the ability to create or edit ‘rules’ – more on those later – because neither of these capabilities is supported by the iOS/Android apps. Zipato are keen to point out that in the unlikely event of any corporate unpleasantness they will release all their source code, but as a veteran of many a failed start-up, I can tell you that the inclination to support customers ex post facto is pretty minimal. Most folk seem to take the view that for £170 they’re willing to take the risk and that script kiddies will have reverse engineered the whole thing by then anyway.

Zipato Web Interface

Still with me? Good, then let us have a shuftie at the ZipaBox’s web interface. Being charitable, this can best be described as ‘functional’. Like a men’s room toilet brush, it ain’t pretty but it gets the job done. The interface is presented as an array of panels, styled like the sort of free default template you get with an open-source CMS. The 2011 copyright message doesn’t fill you with confidence, nor does the quirky behaviour. For example, the layout adapts to the size of your browser window, but it isn’t elastic – start with a narrow window and you’ll get two columns, drag your window out wide and you’ll get….two columns and a lot of wasted space. But hit reload and suddenly you get three columns. Weird.

zipabox-web-overview

You can drag the panels around and right click to show or hide panels to your liking. You can even resize them vertically, but not horizontally, with the exception of the graph widget which has a wide mode and a narrow mode. This is a pity, as some panels (I’m looking at you, Events panel!) aren’t really wide enough to display their contents, without a lot of tedious resizing of column headers. Another peculiarity is that the panels’ layout is stored locally in your browser cookies, so if you go to a different computer you get a different view. Even more annoying is that most panels have a drop down menu that configures their view and this isn’t remembered at all.  For example, when you first log in, the Events panel, Current Value panel and Energy panel all default to showing bugger all, which isn’t particularly useful. They should remember their last setting, or at the very least have a sensible default.

Another limitation is that you can’t have more than one instance of a panel – so the funky circular dial thingy that goes by the catchy name of “Current Value” can only appear once and you have to keep switching its view using the drop down menu, when it might be nice to have a few of them on the page to provide an overview at a glance.

General panel

zipabox-panelThe General panel is where you get all of your basic configuration done, as well as adding and removing devices and users. System notification messages and firmware updates are also managed from here. I upgraded to the latest 0.9.972 firmware for this test, so I was surprised to be told half an hour later that my firmware was out of date and that I should upgrade… to version 0.9.972. I’m hoping that that’s a bug rather than Zipato pushing out different firmware images with the same version number; nevertheless, it hasn’t reoccured.

What’s not immediately obvious is that you can click on the device summary to get a device manager, which lets you delve down into the properties of individual devices. There’s a ‘problem devices’ section which will tell you which devices are currently experiencing trauma, but it won’t give you any hints as to what the problem is, so you’re on your own for the diagnosis.

zipabox-add_devicesAnother hidden gem is the ‘Add Devices’ drop down, which contains generic and manufacturer specific Z-Wave devices, a whole raft of entries which are useless because the requisite hardware doesn’t exist yet. This includes X-10, which the ZipaBox doesn’t support as standard, in either its wired or wireless variant (an X-10 compliant 433MHz plugin module is in the works). Down the bottom are a bunch of extremely handy ‘virtual’ devices, more on those later.

Speaking of adding devices, I was unable to add a couple of mine, until I release that I had to release them from their fealty to the Fibaro controller with which they were associated. Irksome, but a Z-Wave issue rather than a ZipaBox issue. Less impressive was the fact that my EZMotion 3-in-1 PIR, temperature and light sensor was not recognised by the ZipaBox at all and the EverSpring SM103 door/window sensor was able to join, but the ZipaBox couldn’t see any notifications from the sensor — although mysteriously it started working some hours later.

zipabox-device_manager

These are not range issues either, because the total radius of my test setup is no more than a few meters. Occasionally after a successful joining, the ‘adding devices’ dialogue will hang around for absolutely ages, of the order of 5 minutes and sometimes it gets stuck and you have to reload the page. Doesn’t seem to affect the functionality though.

zipabox-configFinally there’s a configuration panel, which lets you enter details about yourself and any other individuals upon whom you wish to bestow user status, or those whom you would simply like the system to pester in the dead of night when the alarm goes off. Under the details tab, there are a surprising number of fields: it wants to know absolutely everything about you. I wanted to enter my mobile phone number in a futile effort to get SMS notification working, but I wasn’t able to enter that in isolation without filling in all the other info too. More worryingly, there’s a whole section titled “billing address”- billing for what, exactly? My advice would be to leave this whole form blank, for the time being.

There is one other button in this panel that is of paramount importance and that’s the ‘synchronise’ button. If you will permit me a bit of bold: always click the ‘synchronise’ button after you change something! In fact, even if you didn’t change anything, click it anyway. If you change something and a helpful dialogue box pops up saying “synchronising settings” – realise it for the lie it is and click synchronise regardless. There’s no indication on the web interface that your current world view is out of synchronisation and 9 times out of 10 any weirdness you’re experiencing is cured by clicking it, so click it often. You will thank me for this.

Lights and Power panel

The Lights and Power panel is where all your lighting controllers and plug-in modules appear. You get a list of all the relevant devices in the system by default and the drop down filter at the top lets you focus on a specific room. You might be wondering about rooms, given that this is the first time they’ve been mentioned, but it turns out you can click in the General tab to reveal the device tree and therein devices can be associated with rooms, or new rooms created. The ZipaBox isn’t big on the whole rooms concept, but it does crop up in a couple of places in their user interface.

Binary on/off devices have a large ugly icon on the left, which shows the current state and which you can click to toggle them. They also have a small iOS style on/off switch, which shows the current state but seemingly doesn’t let you click on it, until you realise that you have to click on the slider, not the word next to it and it must be a click, never a drag.

zipabox-devicesDimmables appear with a slider, which this time you must drag, you can’t click on the slider track, which is horribly inconsistent. Clicking on the big ugly icon toggles the dimmer between 0% and 100%, it doesn’t remember the previous dim level.

Like all of these web interfaces, frantic clicking will eventually lead to a displayed status that is hopelessly at odds with the current status of the device, although to be fair the ZipaBox does catch up eventually. This is particularly noticeable with dimmers, which when bombarded with user interface actions will leap around in a frenzy of indecision between what you asked for and what’s actually happening at the moment.

One peculiarity of this panel is that battery powered devices do not report their battery level – in fact I have seen no mention of battery level anywhere in the user interface, which is a bit short-sighted.

The other type of device that can appear in here is an “Air Conditioning IR code” – which is apparently a keypress from an aircon’s remote control, learned by something called a Remotec ZXT-120, which turns out to be a “Z-Wave to AC IR extender”, something with which I am sadly not equipped, so I can’t comment on the functionality.

Leaving the realms of the actual, for the moment, we can focus on the virtual. The ‘add devices’ widget lets you add virtual switches and virtual level controls, which appear just like their real-world equivalents. In the settings for a virtual control is a list of other devices that you want it to delegate to – and the genius is, this can include other virtual controls. If you’re of a childish bent with plenty of time on your hands, you can set up a giant tree of interconnected virtual sliders and have them all dancing around like crazy — it’s a bit like the automation on an expensive mixing desk.

Virtual devices can’t have a URL associated with them, so you can’t for example have the ON and OFF states of a virtual device trigger some external system via HTTP, however this sort of functionality is possible with ‘rules’, which we will cover shortly.

The keen-eyed amongst you may be wondering what that “DISPLAY” device is in the screen shot of my Z-Wave devices and I can honestly say I have absolutely no idea. It appeared unannounced, seemingly from nowhere. The device manager says it is a “ROUTING_SLAVE”, which isn’t much help. I haven’t dared delete it lest everything come crashing down around my ears.

Sensors panel

zipabox-panelThe sensors panel is the counterpart to the light and power panel – here you get the devices which sense things rather than actuate things. If you don’t like the default ugly icon that results from adding a generic Z-Wave device, you can click on the settings and change the device type to get a different ugly icon – strangely this also requires you to assign the sensor to a room.

Once again there’s the juicy bonus of virtual sensors. These come with two URLs, an activate URL and a deactivate URL; fetching either of these in a web browser or script will cause the virtual sensor’s status to alter accordingly. Virtual sensors can be bound to devices, so the state of a virtual sensor will change the state of a bunch of actual (or even virtual) devices. The URLs don’t require you to be logged in to your my.zipato.com account, so you can send ‘em from anywhere; the drawback being, so can anyone else, but the URLs are quite long and unguessable. They’re also on the Zipato server, so they only work as long as the server does.

Meters panel

zipabox-panelsThe meters panel is your interface to those sensors which have an analogue range rather than simple binary on/off values. Examples are power meter plugins, various meteorological feeds that you might get from adding a Virtual Weather Station if it worked (which it doesn’t) and of course virtual meters. Meters can have multiple channels and a virtual meter is no different – it provides you with 16 different URLs, each of which takes an arbitrary reading. You can specify a unit too for your value ranges which will show up in the current value panel.

Current value panel

zipabox-parsecs-power

The current value panel shows the current value of any of your meter devices, real or virtual, as a large semi-circular dial. You can use the drop down menu at the top to switch to a different sensor and use the buttons at the bottom to switch between a particular sensor’s channels. It’s just a pity that you can’t have more than one, or configure the colour and size.

Energy panel

The Energy panel is, I think, an attempt to graph the readings from any of your meter devices. I say “think” because I’m unable to draw any firm conclusions because this panel is riddled with bugs. In the first image, the energy panel is attempting to graph my plugin power meter, which has been reading a constant 0.1kWh for a couple of days and failing miserably.

zipabox-graph_fail

Nearly every reading is zero, for some reason. In the second image, I’m trying to graph the output of my virtual meters, but the drop down menu us clearly broken – it has the right number of entries but the names are wrong and it won’t let me select anything other than the top value. Unique amongst all the panels, the graph panel is normally double width, but it has a control to make it narrower. It’s merely a different view of the same widget, the bugs are still prevalent.

zipabox-graph_fail2

In narrow mode you also lose the buttons which allow you to switch between a line graph, a bar chart, or a simple table of data. The settings for the energy panel allow you to specify a set of different tariffs and the periods for which they apply. You can’t graph by cost, but it does appear in the popup when you hover over points on the graph.

zipabox-graph_narrow

Event panel

The event panel is a simple log of events happening in the system. As you can see from the first image, it could really do with being a bit wider. The drop down filter allows you to view all events, events sorted by room, events sorted by endpoint, or events sorted by attribute, but in that last case the choices available become a little perplexing, as the second image demonstrates.

_zipabox-events-panels

I tried all the options in the drop down list – none of them displayed any events! You can drag the column headings to reorder them and click on them to change the sort direction. You can also drag the boundaries to change the relative column widths, which is just as well really. The event log seems to discard anything older than a couple of days.

Climate panel

The climate panel appears to be where HVAC type activities are managed, based on inputs from temperature and humidity sensors. I don’t have any suitable modules, so I can offer no further insight into this panel.

zipabox-climate

Scenes panel

zipabox-scenes

The scenes panel allows you to create scenes which are effectively macros consisting of setting a collection of your output devices to some pre-determined state, for example a collection of lamp dimmer settings could be lumped together under a ‘Movie’ scene. Scenes can include virtual devices and there’s a ‘Groups’ tabs on the settings page, whose purpose is still a mystery…possibly it is a reference to the groups mentioned in the security panel.

Cameras panel

zipabox-cctv1

The cameras panel is marked as beta, but it looks like it will eventually offer some exciting functionality. You can add a camera and configure it as either one of a small handful of preset camera models, or using a set of custom URLs. What’s particularly interesting is that Zipato offers FTP storage space on the my.zipato.com server and gives you the login and password details that you can program in to your IP CCTV camera. No mention is made of cost or available file storage, so presumably for the time being this is a free, unlimited service.

zipabox-cctv2

Although the FTP storage works fine, you can’t actually do a great deal with the stored images on the server, other than view a list of small thumbnails. Thumbnails don’t work, so the 4 tiles in the camera panel are always blank, but you can click them to play back saved video clips. Clips aren’t stored indefinitely, there is some sort of cap being applied. Viewing the live stream isn’t available yet either, although the snapshot functionality works. You can open the camera configuration page, which only works with a local LAN connection and you can’t view any video through it. I can’t see any provision for controlling PTZ cameras or any sort of motion detection either and as far as I can tell cameras aren’t scriptable, but it looks like there will be some useful stuff in here once Zipato get around to finishing it.

Security panel

zipabox-keypadThe security is the last panel we will consider and it is extremely comprehensive – I’ll wager that whoever designed this has a background working for alarm companies! The security panel first presents itself as a cheesy keypad widget. You need to enter your PIN, which is set in ‘general settings’ (the default is 0000). You can click on the buttons with a mouse/finger and then you can click on OK. You can also use the digit keys on a keyboard, but you can’t use ENTER for OK, which is mildly irksome. I also find that sometimes I have to click OK several times before it will acknowledge it and sometimes it gets into a weird state where clicking one of the numbers produces an ‘invalid PIN!’ dialogue box, even though OK was never pressed.

The first time you succeed in getting past the keypad, the system will prompt you for the ‘duress’ settings; basically you select a special PIN which you would notionally only enter with a gun to your head and this will “send a silent alarm to the central station”. Which is odd, because you get the choice of a silent or audible alarm and no further mention is made of it in the rest of the alarm settings. In the interests of intrepid journalistic enquiry, I have enabled a duress alarm and entered the duress PIN. Not a lot happened. A dialogue box popped up saying “invalid PIN”, which is odd, because you’d expect a duress PIN to behave like a normal PIN, but with added secret sauce. In other words, I would expect it to grant you access to the system, whilst alerting the authorities. “Invalid PIN” is just going to get you whacked by the perps. I can only assume that the Croatian police are on their way, if they turn up before we go to press I’ll let you know.

zipabox-optionsMoving on from all that excitement, the next thing we are confronted with is the alarms panel, which is initially empty. The idea here is that you first create some alarm “partitions” and then some “zones”. A “partition” is a virtual alarm and includes a complete set of options for what the partition should do when it enters the alarmed state. These include such things as designating one or more ZWave devices which control ‘sirens’ (I like to use a CD player set to repeat-play Bodycount’s There Goes the Neighbourhood), one or more devices which control ‘squawkers’ (no, I’ve no idea what that is either) and whether to end emails, SMS alerts, or voice alerts to people in the user list or people in the contacts list. You can also set time limits on the siren stuff and entry and exit zones. There’s an option for a silent alarm, although how this differs from an alarm that just doesn’t have any siren devices configured, I don’t know. 

Other options are ‘quick arm’ which means the alarm can be activated from a keyfob, a settings panel for which keyfob buttons do what and a setting that indicates whether this particular alarm is always armed or not, which is precisely what you want for smoke sensors and things of that ilk. A tick box next to all the entry and exit delay options hint that a warning sound can be played, which I assume to mean that the ZipaBox itself will beep, although mine is mysteriously silent. Perhaps that’s what the ‘squawker’ configuration option was for.

zipabox-partitionA partition can also have ‘cross zoning’ applied: this means that the alarm will not activate based on the output of a single sensor, unless it is corroborated within a certain time period by a different sensor, which should help alleviate false alarms. The final option is what Zipato amusingly refer to as “ALDERLY CARE”: there is a tick box marked ‘activity’ and a corresponding ‘activity time’ option, which if set will trigger the alarm if no activity from any of its zones has been seen within the activity time — in other words, a handy means of keeping track of aged relatives.

That’s a lot of options covered already, but Zipato are only half-way done: we still have to add zones to our alarms. Happily this is done with the ‘new zone’ button. A zone basically corresponds to one of your ZWave input devices, which amusingly includes the virtual sensors and the options that go with it. These include such things as whether the zone is an entry or exit zone, whether it is part of a ‘cross zoning’ set up, what kind of sensor it is and which state should be considered the alarm state. There is also the option to allow the zone to be bypassed and another option to remove the bypass…presumably there’s a subtle distinction there that I’m unable to fathom, but the first one puts a ‘BYPASS’ button next to each zone, so you can selectively exclude them from being part of the system when an alarm is active.

Zones can also be ‘followers’, which are zones on the path to/from an entry/exit zone and they can be ‘supervision’ zones, which is a bit of mystery. “Click here if you want this zone to be supervised” says the help, unhelpfully.

One peculiarity is that a ‘partition’ can be armed to a ‘home’ or ‘away’ state, yet I can find no means for indicating which zones are ‘home’ zones, and which are also ‘away’ zones. I suspect that it is a function of that zone’s category (options like Perimeter, Interior, Motion, Tamper etc) but there’s no clue given as to which means which. Presumably this sort of thing is obvious to someone who’s spent a long time designing alarm systems. Ah, I note that one of the alarm categories is ‘Duress’, so I’m probably meant to set that up before the whole duress PIN thing works…

zipabox-zoneExcitingly, the options for reporting an alarm in progress include sending emails, sending SMSs, or ‘voice reports’. I’ve reviewed a fair few of these systems, and have developed Ant’s First Law of Home Automation, which is simply this: Any HA controller system claiming to support SMS and voice invariably doesn’t. Can the ZipaBox be the first to break this pattern? No, no it can’t. Of course it doesn’t. Perhaps this works back in the ZipaBox’s native land, or perhaps it relies on some paid-for cloud service that’s yet to materialise…who knows. Maybe if they’d put a GSM modem in the battery backup box they could have used that!

Crushing SMS disappointment aside, the ZipaBox’s alarm set up is really quite phenomenally detailed. Bordering on the obsessive, in fact. I recommend the little help icon in the corner of the alarm panel, which has a lot of interesting detail on what the myriad options mean. Certainly you want to get a handle on all this before you hook it up to anything that resembles a real siren. Fortunately you won’t be waking any of your contacts up with ‘voice reports’ in the dead of night, but there’s always the risk of mildly harassing them by email.

While it is undeniably comprehensive, I can’t help but wondering if some of their alarm concepts aren’t a little outdated. Why the cheesy keypanel widget, when we’ve already got individual user accounts, and a login password has already been entered? In a world of wireless internet devices, do entry and exit zones make sense any more? And silent alarms don’t make a lot of sense when your alarm output is a generic Z-Wave device, many of which are inherently mute.

In the unlikely event that you can think of an alarm scenario that Zipato hasn’t already catered for, you may be wondering what your options are. “Ant, surely there’s some sort of scripting capability?!” you may cry. Glad you asked…

The Rules Creator engine

_zipabox-rule_creator

Nestled in the top right corner of the ZipaBox web interface is an unassuming little icon marked rules creator, which launches Zipato’s take on scripting. They’ve gone for a visual programming metaphor in an attempt to bring easy programming of the system to non-programmers (or “muggles” as I like to call ‘em), and they’ve made a pretty good job of it.

The idea here, like similar systems, is that you drag various colour-coded programming elements from the palette of available options on the left, and combine them in the work sheet to do your bidding. Zipato’s unique take on this is that as well as being colour-coded, different programming elements have different shapes, and they will only combine in certain permutations, like the pieces of a jigsaw.

_zipabox-complex_rule

Here’s my attempt at a moderately complex rule to wake me up in the mornings. You can see that this is a conditional, within which is a repeat loop, which in turn contains a sequence of actions. Scheduler expressions allow you to gate your rules on a certain time or date, and while they may look limiting at first, clicking on the ‘repeat’ tick-box brings up a whole new raft of options for managing continuous events:

zipabox-scedule1

Things can rapidly get quite complex, and you can end up running out of desktop real estate pretty quickly. For example, I couldn’t find an easy way of expressing the concept “if the day of the week is monday to friday” and ended up with this behemoth:

zipabox-monday_to_friday

Note that my complex rule above includes both an HTTP action and a Socket action – both of which have a lot of different options:

zipabox-action

There’s an SMS action too, but it’s pointless describing it, because SMS doesn’t work, as I believe I may have mentioned earlier.

Here’s another rule I created. You should be able without too much effort to determine that this rule is attempting to catch me whacking the old snooze button, immediately turning a lamp device back on again if I try to turn it off:

zipabox-antisnooze

There’s precious little documentation on any of this, so you pretty much have to learn by experimenting. A mistake I made fairly early on was to assume that the ZipaBox ran through all the rules once every tick, say a few times per second, and that you could trigger things based on time of day, for example. Not an unreasonable assumption, since time of day calculations are the right shape to fit in the conditional hole of a ‘when’ or ‘if’ control. Something like this:

zipabox-invalid_flash

What I’m trying to say here is “always do this: turn thing ON, wait 5 seconds, turn thing OFF, wait five seconds”. In other words, flash a lamp on and off fairly slowly. The ZipaBox wasn’t keen on this at all however:

zipabox-error2

What I think they’re saying here is, even though my “now = now” conditional has the right shape to fit in the ‘when’ clause, it’s still invalid, and this is where the whole visual programming, jigsaw puzzle metaphor starts to break down. Indeed, there is nothing to stop you constructing gibberish such as this:

zipabox-gibberish

But back to the original problem: clearly the ZipaBox is not running rules every frame or tick or whatever, it is only running rules in response to external stimuli, or Events, if you will. I modified my rule to look like this:

zipabox-flash_accepted

I’ve included the settings panel for my Scheduler object so you can get an idea of what’s going on. I’ve configured it to go off every minute (or ‘minutely’ as the ZipaBox puts it!), ie create a scheduler event every minute, to which the rest of my rule will respond. The body of my rule will then repeatedly (12 times, in fact) toggle the state of my lamp and wait for five seconds. This rule was accepted by the ZipaBox, but it didn’t behave how I expected. Instead of a lamp continually turning on and off every five seconds, I get a lamp that changes state once per minute. Here’s my event log demonstrating the issue:

zipabox-flash_result_fail

I suspect that the ‘repeat’ block doesn’t actually work at all, because in some of my earlier experiments I got a bizarre error message:

zipabox-error

And this is where it all starts to fall down a little bit, because if you want people to adopt your fancy visual programming environment you need to make sure that it is completely consistent and utterly bomb proof, and the ZipaBox’s rule creator just isn’t there yet on either count. As well as the gibberish problem above, I’ve encountered pieces that will not snap in to place, and missing attributes on actions:

zipabox-puzzle_piece_not_snapping

zipabox-missing_attributes

Even more bizarrely, items come and go from the palette of available options seemingly on a whim. Here’s what the default actions palette looks like, and what mine looked like after a few minutes of playing:

zipabox-actions2

There are quite a few usability irritations too that make this not as much fun as it could be. For example, rules are shown with a name (usually “Rule 1″ or something similar by default) and you can’t click on this to change it. You can set the name when you save it to the rules list window on the right hand side, but if you re-edit it, it’s stilled called “Rule 1″ and not the name you gave it. If you get past the quirky error messages but the ZipaBox doesn’t like your rule, the rule apears in red and is marked “Invalid!” — but it doesn’t tell you why. There’s no facility to test or debug rules, so really it’s a matter of guess work, and as I demonstrated above with my flashing rule, even if you get the syntax right the system doesn’t always behave in the manner you’d expect.

Other annoyances include a complete lack of documentation or context-sensitive help (eg what does the Advanced action “join” do??), the fact that you can’t drag new items into the giant blank space on the bottom left corner for some reason, and the fact that there’s no way to construct useful functions or macros or little canned sequences – there isn’t even copy and paste – so you end up repeating yourself, a lot. You can’t even call rules from other rules. Also I would like the event viewer to indicate that an event was caused by a script, and not by a user or actual sensor, which might help with the debugging at least.

The biggest omission by far though is any kind of ‘randomise’ functionality. For some reason, it’s always overlooked by people implementing these sorts of controllers, but I’d have thought that a lot of potential scripters are going to want to knock out scripts that make their house look lived in – and I mean unpredictably lived in – when they’re not there, and there’s nothing here that will let you do that. Come to think of it, there’s no concept of ‘dusk’ and ‘dawn’ either, which are common scripting requirements.

All in all the rules creator is quite an impressive effort, but it has a few rough corners that need to be knocked off. I would ideally like to see an alternative embedded interpreter for those of us who aren’t afraid to get down and dirty with some real code: maybe an embedded Lua or JavaScript interpeter. Or they could go really fancy and chuck in Python or Ruby.

iOS / Android app

Finally, we come to the mobile applications that are available from Zipato as free downloads from the relevant app stores to control your ZipaBox. I’m testing the iOS app here, but I expect the Android app is broadly similar.

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Right off the bat you’ll notice that the app supports both Local and Remote modes. Remote mode talks to the my.zipato.com in the same way as the web service, and thus is usable wherever you happen to be on the globe, but ‘Local’ is a much more interesting proposition: this only works on your home LAN, and is a direct connection from your iOS device to the ZipaBox itself, using a REST based web service. This is exciting news for developers, but unfortunately this interface isn’t (yet) documented. I found the ZipaBox app to be quite responsive in both local and remote modes, and everything functions pretty much as expected. One minor glitch though: whatever you do, don’t click on the scenes button, because that will trigger an immediate crash!

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The Lights and Power and Sensors panels work just like their bigger brothers. One peculiarity with lights: you can’t click on the big ugly icon like you can in the web interface, only on the little on/off switch, which is a bit inconsistent. The same is true for dimmers, only the slider has any control, the button doesn’t jump between fully on and fully off like it does in the web interface.

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The sensors panel also holds few surprises, but there’s something fishy going on in the meters panel: what happened to my virtual meter devices??

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No prizes for guessing that the security panel makes a strong showing in the iOS app. The cheesy keypad widget is there in all its splendour, but once past that you get pretty comprehensive control over your configured alarms, including a log of recent alarm events. You can bypass zones too, a task for which Zipato have shunned the elegant iOS on/off widget for a dreadful Delphi-esque giant green arrow one, bless them.

All in all the iOS app is a pretty solid performer – scenes don’t work, and you don’t get any of the fine grained configuration that the web interface offers (and you certainly don’t get the rules creator), but it’s more than up to the job of keeping tabs on an already configured system from afar.

Right to reply

As always, we like to speak to the developer or manufacturer of a system once we’ve formed our initial impressions to give them a chance to respond. In this instance Sebastian Popović, CEO of Zipato was kind enough to spare us some of his time.

Obviously I kicked off by whinging about the SMS and voice reports, and Sebastian told us that these are version 1.0 features, although Automated Home should be getting exclusive early access any time soon, so I’ll update this review as and when that becomes available. He was also able to shed some light on the ‘billing address’ mystery: there will be a Premium Zipato service that will offer 1GB of camera storage and “some additional tools for programming and configuration of the networks”.  All features that are currently available will remain free, however.

We were also told that PTZ is available for a couple of the preset cameras, and more camera presets are being added.

Rule Creator is very much their forward roadmap, and there are no plans to supplement it with a more traditional interpreter. We did learn however that SHIFT+CTRL+1 in the rule creator brings up some rule checker items, which allow you to inspect the generated JSON and Java code, which can be surprisingly useful in figuring out where your rules are going wrong. Cut and paste is coming, as are dusk and dawn variables.

We also learned that a new mobile app is due shortly which will add camera support and that once that is out of the way the local web API will be documented for developers.

On the product roadmap front, the 433MHz/X-10 module should be available this week and a 6-zone hard-wired alarm sensor module is due in May. Slightly further out is a Zipato wall station – a 7″ Android 4.0 tablet with a magnetic in-wall docking station that will be in the 250 EUR ballpark – suddenly those entry and exit zones make a lot more sense!

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The reckoning

I’d give the battery module a miss until it’s about half its current price, personally, but if you’ve got a spare USB GSM modem kicking about it might be more attractive.  In terms of bang per buck though, the Zipabox is pretty hard to beat. Yes, it’s no beauty and it has a few bugs and rough edges, but a bit of forum whinging and some firmware updates will sort that out. It also has a nice upgrade path with those natty little plugin modules and the X-10 interface may breathe some life into that giant box of ancient X-10 gear you’ve got hidden in the attic. If alarm systems are your bag then the ZipaBox is going to be right up your alley too and the IP camera functionality looks most promising.  So the big question: is the ZipaBox worth £170 of your hard-earned? You betcha.

www.zipato.com   :   Available from Vesternet

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2 Responses to “Zipato ZipaBox Wireless Home Automation Controller Mega Review”

  1. great review. It’ll be good to see if the initial bugs get resolved in a timely fashion. £170… hmmm time to hide the credit card incase UKHA fever takes over.

  2. “Zipato’s unique take on this… …like the pieces of a jigsaw.”

    I’d say it was an exact copy of the Scratch programming language, from 7 years ago, hardly unique.