mPanel In-wall touch screen.
We just love the idea of having a connected home where every device in our house -- you know, like the HDTV -- is integrated together. Unfortunately for the most part, the connected home is financially out of our reach -- as it is for most Americans. Affordability is one of the reasons why we've keep our eye on Embedded Automation and its new mPanel in particular. While most 7-inch in-wall touch panels cost at least $3,000 (some as much as $7,000!), the new mPanel hit the streets last week at $999. This might not seem cheap in the world of netbooks and $200 Blu-ray players that we usually cover at Engadget, but it does bring a cool gadget into our price range. The mPanel seems like even more of a deal when you consider that it is a full-on Windows CE touch screen computer that does POE (Power over Ethernet) and even has a built in amplifier for audio. Of course it is only one of many pieces necessary to bring our dreams of a connected home to reality, but one we definitely enjoyed putting through the paces.

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mPanel Review


Software
The mPanel in its most basic form is a Windows CE 6.0 computer, which we like because it is relatively open to third party development. We're not exactly up on the embedded operating system industry, so we're not sure how good it matches up with rivals, but we're just glad EA didn't use a proprietary OS or lock down the mPanel from running 3rd party software. The mPanel is designed to run EA's software, which fits in nicely with the overall mControl digital home.

mPanel mounted near some Insteon Switches

The mControl digital home is pretty open and starts with the mControl Home Automation software which sells for an unbelievably low $75. Out of the box you really can't do much with the software though, but combined with various devices around the house, you can connect everything together. The most obvious thing to control is lighting. For about $45 each, you can replace the dumb switches in your house with Insteon switches (pictured above mounted below the mPanel). Then combine them with a $70 USB adapter to interface with mControl, and you're on your way to a whole house system. As you can see, this can get expensive if you try to do your entire house, but wiring up your home theater so you can dim the lights automatically when a movie starts is pretty reasonable. When you start to look around you'll see controllable devices everywhere, but it is really easy to get out of hand. Luckily most devices aren't too expensive if you buy them one by one, which makes for a fun long term project. Our favorites -- besides lighting -- are things like thermostats to control the AC, power monitors to keep an eye on power usage, an alarm system to turn on lights when the alarm is sounded, and of course our HDTV and Windows Media Center.


mPanel Alarm view

As expected, the included mPanel software integrates very easily and seamlessly with mControl. We think it's a nice addition to the existing ways to control your home with mControl, like the Web Interface (which works on the iPhone and other mobile devices) and the Windows Media Center UI. There are a few extras with the mPanel however, and most notable is the UPNP client. The mPanel will automatically detect UPNP servers in your home -- like Windows Media Player or PlayOn media server -- and give you an easy way to play back your music in that room (complete with play lists and cover art). The included software works good, but we're not real thrilled with the looks of the interface; we prefer the way the Vista Media Center plug-in looks. This, on top of the fact that the look and feel isn't customizable at all, really exposes the weakest link with Embedded Automation's digital home technology. We are told that a customizable interface is on the horizon, but there is no word on when.

The only problem we had was that although we set the back light to turn off after a few minutes, it stayed on, which might be a problem if you plan to mount it in a bedroom. We also wish the included software integrated with the OS better and let use use features like sleep, etc. Luckily EA is good about software updates and updating the mPanel is as easy as copying the new version to it over the network.

mPanel UPNP music screen

Although the included software works great with mControl -- as we mentioned before because the mPanel runs CE -- you can really use any software you want. This opens up the opportunities in the world of home automation, because at this price point we're sure other DIY HA systems will adopt it and make it part of their overall systems as well.

The Hardware
The mPanel has the do it yourself retrofitter in mind from the very beginning. Among others, it features dog leg screws and Power over Ethernet (POE) to simplify the install. Thanks to these two slick features, installation is as easy as running a CAT5 cable to a hole you cut in the wall -- if you don't have a POE injector, you still use the included standard power supply. Once you get it mounted and the wires run, you just pop on the magnetic face plate and you have yourself a nice looking in-wall touch panel. Another cool feature is the included amplifier, which makes it very simple to bring music to the room by simply running some speaker wire from the mPanel to your speakers. Of course this isn't going to bring you high fidelity sound, but 20-watts per channel is still a pretty nice addition. The touch screen is pretty good, but it is still a resistive touch screen, so it doesn't stand up to the usability of a capacitive touch screen like we've come to love in the iPhone or the G1.

The mPanel connections

Conclusion
If you've been waiting for prices to come down to automate your home, the time just might be right. Although the DIY HA industry is still a bit messy with all the players going their own way, with companies introducing more affordable products like the mPanel, a complete automated home is, for the first time, becoming affordable. Obviously $1,000 is still a lot of money for a 7-inch touch screen computer, but it is much easier to install and use than less expensive alternatives. This, combined with the included software and overall mControl system, makes it an attractive option for the DIY home automation system.

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