The MK Electric Astral range of switches will let you automate your home lights, and more, with simple and customisable controls from an iPad or iPhone.
MK Electric is a name you'll recognise. You'll have seen its products stuck to walls all over the place, although you probably associate it more with a standard white plastic plug socket than the latest in iPhone-controlled lighting.
We know what you're thinking – can light switches be sexy? Ask any man standing in front of the array of designs in B&Q, arguing with his other half, and you'll agree that a switch isn't just a switch: it's a lifestyle choice (so says Mrs Pocket-lint and we wouldn't dare argue).
Fortunately the MK Astral line offers a range of finishes to match whatever décor you want in your home and, most importantly, you can change the facia at a whim, because they are very easy to remove with no tools.
There's a good reason for that too, because once you have Astral in your house, you won't want to let it go. The faceplace is pretty much only that: the real clever part sits behind in the body of the switch unit.
The switch itself will take your standard wiring connections and fits into a regular 35mm British standard back box, so you can retro fit Astral into an existing lighting system. Essentially, all you have to do is swap your existing vanilla light switch for an Astral unit. For example, if you have a two gang switch, you'll swap for a two gang Astral unit, or a dimmer if you prefer.
But rather than just giving you a switch mechanism, Astral also incorporates Z-Wave, a wireless RF protocol used in home automation. The Z-Wave system means each Astral unit will both send and receive within a MESH network to handle commands.
The benefit of this is that you have a network that knows what's going on and your remote needs to talk only to the nearest node (light switch) to relay the command across the network. This means that range essentially isn't a problem across larger properties.
A remote is available as part of the Astral range, but naturally you'll want to take advantage of the easy customisation that the iOS app offers (it's free and supports iPod touch, iPad and iPhone). The app is just about to be updated (the new version is pictured in our lead image) and MK Electric tells us that an Android app is in development.
To enable iOS control, you'll have to connect the Smart Interface to your router, giving you access through your Wi-Fi network. The Smart Interface then translates your Wi-Fi commands to Z-Wave to control the switches.
Because the whole system works on two-way communication, you can see what devices are on or off from your iOS device at any time, so you can peer at your phone to see if your pesky kids have turned their bedroom light back on - and remotely turn it off again.
You can also setup 3G access manually, so you can control your home lighting (and other items in the Astral range) when away from home, useful to check that you turned off the bathroom light as you run for the bus.
You can add and remove devices as you wish, and change the function of switches - so, for example, you could have a two gang switch, one of which turns off all the lights in the house, or the external lights for security, for example.
But that's not all. There is a battery-powered switch available too, so if your light switch is in the wrong place in the room, you can simply add another by mounting it on the wall. Another useful situation for this battery switch might be a bathroom, where you can't normally have a mains switch, only a pull cord.
We had the chance to see it all in action; it's logical and simple to set up and customising controls through the app is really easy. Installation is pretty much a breeze, as Astral will fit into a standard 35mm British standard backbox, already in place in many properties.
The app also allows you to set "scenes", so you could have a scene for watching movies, or house parties, or romantic dinners, or simply for night settings across the house.
One clever feature is a holiday mode. Enable the holiday mode and Astral will repeat the lighting patterns from the preceeding 24 hours, with a 30 min window to make it appear as though it isn't scheduled on a timer. It's clever stuff.
Also in the range are PIR devices, blind controllers and plug adapters so you can have power going to mains lamps, rather than lights on your lighting circuit. The blind controller means you can close blinds remotely, with a slider in the app to set the position.
The beauty of Astral is that you don't have to change any wiring or change the light fittings themselves. Naturally, if you want a dimmer, you'll have to have lights that can be dimmed.
Of course, sexing up your lighting and getting iPhone control is going to cost you a little more than buying standard white, or brushed aluminium, switches. Typically a system like Astral is installed through a company specialising in home automation on high-end residential projects, however the lighting system alone could be installed easily by any competent DIY enthusiast or electrician.
MK Electric told us that realistically you'd be able to retrofit a typical four-bedroom house for around £1500 and Astral can be sourced from any MK Electric approved stockist. You can find it at http://www.electric-center.co.uk/, for example, so give them a ring if you're interested.
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