Savant’s Slick $500 Smart-Home Hub Reinvents the Remote
We’re neck-deep in smart-home gadgets, and in many cases, each of these connected widgets is controlled by its own app. Build a Wi-Fi savvy house, and your phone could end up with one entire homescreen filled with apps to make all the different pieces toggle, beep, flash, and buzz.
The next stage of the smart-home revolution—the one that promises to gather all our connected in-home gadgets into a cooperative team—involves hubs. These boxes and pucks let us control several devices with one tap, creating the perfect blend of mood lighting, temperature, background music, and televised entertainment all at once.
There are plenty of easy-to-install smart-home systems available, things like WeMo and SmartThings and the Wink Hub. But long before any of those products could be found for a couple hundred bucks at Home Depot, and long before the “Internet of Things” was a buzzword, such integrated systems could only be obtained via a pricey home installation specialist. A leader in this field is Savant, a decade-old company that sells professional (and super expensive) custom installations to control thermostats, lights, blinds, music, and security systems in mansions, castles, and yachts the world over.
“We’ve really been servicing the one percent of the one percent in the luxury market,” says Savant CEO William Lynch. “These are people with very little time and patience for stuff that doesn’t work. I think that’s one of the real differentiating elements for us… We know automation, and we sell it at tens of thousands of dollars, hundreds of thousands of dollars in some cases, to the world’s most-demanding homeowners.”
To leapfrog the onslaught of cheaper and easier-to-install options, Savant is trying to boost its appeal to the common man by introducing a lower-cost, self-installed system that emphasizes smart design. It’s not just the same thing in a fancier package: The complete kit costs $500 and includes everything you need to hook up a living room and maybe another area of the home. And it wouldn’t be complete without a truly kick-ass remote control.
Smart for Brains
The Savant Host hub itself is a fetching piece of hardware—it resembles a brushed-aluminum version of the company’s professionally installed Smart Host unit. But the real appeal of this new system is its remote control. Like Savant’s higher-end systems, you can activate in-home lighting, music, and TV scenes by tapping on a smartphone app. However, included in the package for the Savant system is a brand-new, wonderfully simple, well-constructed, and versatile remote control.
It’s easily one of the world’s coolest clickers. The top half of the tapered, well-balanced remote sports a curvy color touchscreen, which gives you one-tap access to your favorite network and cable-TV stations, Sonos, Roku, Apple TV, game console, and even lamps. The remote automatically wakes up when you lift it, thanks to built-in accelerometers. You can control it with backlit buttons and a great-feeling directional pad, but it also handles voice commands. Pressing the microphone button and saying keywords such as “morning” or “goodnight” or brings up a combination of lighting, music, and TV schemes that you program via the mobile app.
“Voice control can be somewhat hit-or-miss,” says George Katsiris, Director of Product Management at Savant. “We wanted to make sure that if we did it, it was going to be hit. This is about 18 months in the making. So you can pick it up and say ‘CNN,’ and it automatically will turn the TV on, switch the input, and go right to that channel.”
Katsiris says you don’t even have to tell the system that CNN is on channel 201. When you set it up, you tell it your ZIP code and your provider, and it can look up a complete map of the channels.
The high-resolution touchscreen has three main pages, navigable by swiping left and right on its rounded surface. The first screen has a list of your favorite channels, the second screen lists your components such as Sonos or Apple TV or Xbox (complete with the appropriate logos), and the third provides a list of “scenes” that you’ve set up via the app. The favorites screen supports multiple user profiles, and you can even “capture” a combination of lighting, music, and TV channel to save as a scene, then bring it back up at any time. These scenes can be programmed to switch on automatically, like a real-world alarm clock.
The remote—which is really nice to hold—is the centerpiece of the Savant experience. Weighing a quarter pound and finished in matte black, the remote’s face features a curved glass panel for those taps and swipes, and there’s a notch on the back where your index finger nestles. That divot serves a practical purpose beyond comfort.
“We worked a lot on the balance,” says Ammunition Design founder and partner Robert Brunner. Brunner, who preceded Jony Ive as the industrial design director at Apple, led the design process for the Savant system. “That center point where your finger falls on the back helps guide you on where to hold it. It’s a one-handed interface, which is not a simple thing to accomplish. Most remotes are throwaways, so we wanted to make sure this was so far above in terms of quality and feel. We wanted it to feel like a precision piece of equipment, which it is.”
Even precision equipment runs out of battery power. You recharge the remote via its base, which pulls double-duty as an IR blaster. The remote communicates to the base station via Bluetooth, which in turn communicates to the Savant Host via Wi-Fi. And if some of your most-important A/V components are behind thick closet doors, the system also comes with a second AAA-powered IR blaster you can tuck in a cabinet with them.
The system also controls lamps, turning “dumb lamps” into smart lamps with an included Lamp Controller. It’s a little plug-in adapter that lets you turn anything plugged into it on or off with the Savant system. Right now, Savant’s Lynch says, you need that adapter for the Savant to work with smart light bulbs such as the Philips Hue; it’ll turn them off and on and dim the lighting, but direct controls over the Hue aren’t supported.
Compared to some of the other multi-protocol systems out there, Savant won’t win any compatible-with-everything contests. According to Katsiris, that’s by design.
“Part of the mistake we think [the other hubs] have made is trying to integrate everything, and then doing a mediocre job of it,” he says.
Company CEO Lynch says the new Savant system is “a platform,” with plans for more types of devices to work with it over time. “To start, we focused on entertainment with Sonos and all the other devices,” he says. “But you’ll see us add devices that we feel are best in breed at controlling climate, shading, and some other things.
In one box, you get the remote, the host, the charging base, the additional IR blaster, and a lamp controller. That package costs $500, and it’ll ship in early December. While that price tag might be cheap for a Savant product, it’s significantly pricier than competing—but far less slick—smart-home hubs. Also, if you get a different hub, you miss out on the groovy remote.