Choosing a home networking system is like trying to pick a winning team. Your odds will be better if you evaluate each company in light of the competition. By Charles Wardell

Are you trying to choose a structured wiring system for your homes? We feel your pain: A glut of vendors with incompatible offerings makes comparing products about as fun as choosing a health plan.

In fact when we set out to review these systems, we envisioned a head-to-head comparison of features and prices. It seemed reasonable: After all, most products look alike, with a central wiring hub serving home runs of coaxial cable for video and Category-5 wiring (Cat-5) for phone and data. Vendors compete on price, service, and upgrade modules--audio distribution, home control, PBX telephone--that plug into the hub. (Some may require additional low-voltage wiring.) But exact comparisons proved impossible--companies call similar things by different names, and many have proprietary designs.

What's worse, the industry seems ripe for a shakeout. We doubt that all 37 vendors we counted will remain standing in two years. That means you need to pick the winners. Otherwise, your customer may decide to add audio or security next year only to find that the vendor has vanished.

The following companies all have builder-focused sales staff. Many supply products at low or no cost to model homes in large communities. Consider the list a starting point for your own research, which should include the training available for your sales staff and the quality of technical support--things best gauged by asking current customers. Even then, the final decision will be partly a wager.

Here we've detailed the market leaders first, followed by the companies that treat structured wiring as part of a wider offering.

Young-Min Yoon

Current leaders

OnQ is the current champ: Analysts credit it with 40 percent to 50 percent of the U.S. market. Future Smart, Home Director, and UStec seem tied for second, each with about a 15 percent market share.

OnQ climbed to the top by aggressively wooing production builders. But while entry-level systems dominate its sales, the company just began a push toward the high-end production market. It offers a range of upgrades, from home automation to lighting control.

Alliances with Home Automation in New Orleans, Minneapolis-based Honeywell (home control), and Syosset, N.Y., Ademco (security) add home control via telephone or the Web. OnQ has also licensed a technology for distributing audio over Cat-5. It will train builders' salespeople, installers, and distributors. A new, interactive software program (tentatively called The OnQ Selection Center) lets buyers design their own networks.

Home Director's calling card is its software, which lets well-heeled buyers distribute digital photos and audio. And while layoffs last year fueled speculation about the company's future, it answered with a round of innovative products. Its Control Point server uses SYS automation software from Redmond, Wash., Premise Systems (see "Home OS," June 2002, page 122). Home Director is the only company to offer ITT Industries' DiLan wiring, which carries audio, video, and data over Cat-5. It just entered the production market with an entry-level system.

UStec is primarily a high-end vendor (though it also has an entry-level system). Its system can handle computer networking, security, and automation, and includes a video amplifier that sends eight inputs to eight different locations. A gateway server includes 80 GB of storage for video and sound, a cable or DSL modem, and wireless access. UStec only sells direct to authorized dealers, which, according to marketing manager Dave Marshall, lets it control the quality of installations.

Future Smart, a subsidiary of Eaton Cutler-Hammer, has a loyal following among custom integrators. Its well-organized, color-coded panel lets homeowners use patch cords to determine which rooms receive which services (phone, cable, etc.). Aesthetics also plays a part: Company reps tell us that some people will pay more for a designer look. The company has begun targeting the production market with an entry-level system, and its new Design Pro software lets builders configure standard or optional packages for their floor plans.

Owning almost half the structured wiring market, the OnQ system, above, is the one to beat. The trick for builders is spotting the strongest competitors.
Charlie Brown Owning almost half the structured wiring market, the OnQ system, above, is the one to beat. The trick for builders is spotting the strongest competitors.

The field

The rest of the market is fragmented, with no company having more than a 10 percent share. However, each has its own unique quality that could help it unseat the current leaders.

GE Smart (like Home Director) seeks competitive advantage from intelligent home systems, including automation products and a SYS-powered home server. But the company is really banking on a partnership with Microsoft. For instance, the company's automation products will support Microsoft's Simple Control Protocol (SCP), a power-line carrier technology that Microsoft hopes will replace the familiar X10 and CEBus devices, if and when it becomes available.

Greyfox seems to be re-inventing itself. It used to make systems for Home Director, UStec, and Verizon, all three of whom have since cut the cord. (UStec got Verizon's business in May.) To stay in the game, Greyfox has rolled out its own brand, as well as supplying its parent company, Pass amp; Seymour/Legrand. Greyfox recently supplemented its conventional system with the inexpensive Trio, a small, surface-mounted bracket (see "Network Blocks," March 2002, page 145). An interactive software product called Option Express helps home buyers choose upgrade options, prices the package, and produces a materials list.

Multiplex Technologies has two lines: Open House is designed for low- to mid-priced jobs. As the name implies, the company invites other manufacturers to make modules for the Open House hub. The Channel Plus brand aims at the high end, with modules mounted on an A/V rack. (Channel Plus started as an A/V vendor.) Multiplex's parent company, Nortek, also owns Broan and NuTone.

The specialists

The following vendors combine a structured wiring offering with high-voltage electrical products and are training electrical contractors to install their systems.

Eaton Cutler-Hammer's "Home Protected, Home Connected" system combines surge and arc fault protection with structured wiring made by its Future Smart subsidiary. Customers choose from pre-defined packages: basic, entertainment, network, education/ home office, custom high-end, whole-house audio.

Leviton only sells to electrical wholesalers and electronics distributors. It's also the only company that manufacturers all of its equipment. Its Decora Media System distributes audio and video over Cat-5 wiring. Leviton's hub is similar enough to OnQ's that it will accept many OnQ modules. However Leviton warns that doing so may cause warranty issues.

Pass amp; Seymour/Legrand's structured wiring components match those of its high-voltage equipment, including data ports that look like the company's switches and outlets.