The Gefen Audio/Video Automation system (GAVA for short) was quietly released earlier this year. It didn’t make a big flashing dot or loud beep on my radar because automation isn’t a category I normally associated with Gefen. The company makes excellent baluns, signal converters, and what I call “problem-solvers” — small, non-descript boxes that have a specific function that can also fix a huge problem if (when) compatibility issues arise. We know that Gefen has some great products, but automation? That’s a seriously colossal endeavor, and companies with more experience in the field than Gefen have tried and failed to introduce new control systems to the market. How does GAVA stack up? I’m glad you asked. I was lucky enough to get my hands on a system and put it through the wringer. And boy did I wring.
The first and most obvious thing to note about GAVA is that Gefen is looking to the future with most aspects of this system. For one thing, it integrates beautifully with Sonos. This is huge. Granted, during my review period, Sonos integration was at the alpha testing stage, and only included transport control and queue browsing, but I can testify that it’s a real thing. That’s not something that I can say for many control companies.
Browser-based programming and IP control are a couple of the most notable features of GAVA. Since most devices in the home aren’t 100% IP controlled just yet, Gefen has also designed the EXT-PACS (basically, IO extenders) to communicate with legacy gear via RS-232, relays, and good ol’ infrared commands. The main GAVA system itself, though, is contained in a small grey metal housing that has a few ports: one Ethernet, two USB, one RS-232, and the power supply connection. This little guy stores your macros and code sets, serves up your programming GUI (over the network to your computer’s web browser), and sends commands over the network to the EXT-PACS. The EXT-PACS looks very similar to the GAVA System Processor, except that it includes eight routed IR ports, three RS-232 ports, 10 (count ‘em 10) relays, and an Ethernet port.
The GAVA System Controller can communicate with multiple EXT-PACS for use in large mult-room system. The EXT-PACS came with four Gefen IR emitters. I normally wouldn’t have stopped to mention the emitters, but I always expect them to be at least be a minor annoyance — if not an outright pain — for lack of verification, adhesive, or both. I had never used Gefen emitters before. They are by far my new favorite IR flasher. Finally, no need for extra adhesive. They look as if you mushed a Niles IR flasher down into a flatter square shape, and they hang on so well that I had to do a double take when I tried to remove them. I bet these will withstand even the most thorough dusting, and in my experience that drastically reduces service calls for installers and frustrations for end users. Big win for everyone.
As part of the review system, Gefen also sent along its GTV-AUDDEC-N scaler/switcher, which communicates with the EXT-PACS via RS-232. With its up-to-date decoding and discrete analog line level outputs, it made a killer switcher and decoder for my elderly (psh) HDMI-less B&K AVR507 receiver. All of the Gefen equipment felt like it was solidly built. The jacks felt good when connecting and disconnecting cables, and I never felt any of it was fragile. I appreciated the compact size of the gear as well. The GAVA, EXT-PACS, and GTV-AUDDEC-N might all fit on a single 2U rack shelf if you were slick with your wire management.
Once a GAVA system is programmed it creates templates for your iOS (5 or later) or Android (4.2 or later) devices. As of September 4, 2013, devices running Android 4.2 and above constituted 8.5% (up 2% from the month prior) of all active Play Store accounts but in this fast moving Android world, that won’t be a concern for long. Once you install the GAVA app on your tablet or smartphone, you’re ready to take control of the system. I should make it obvious that smartphones and tablets (that fit the requirements above) are the only control interfaces for GAVA as yet. As an installer myself, I personally don’t have many clients who want touchscreen-only control for their home. It’s great for lighting, music control, monitoring, changing the thermostat and what-not, but when it comes time to surf channels on the TV, people want hard buttons. That, more than anything, is why I feel that while GAVA may work for some residential applications, it’s real strengths are in the commercial sector.
Even if you can get over the lack of clicker buttons, there are some issues with the GAVA UI. On the plus side, it’s fairly no-nonsense, and I’m sure load times played into the design decisions but it’s very easy to read as well. That’s one of the more underrated aspects of a control interface in my opinion. GUI customizability, however, is not one of the selling points of GAVA. Gefen didn’t want to bog programmers and clients down with customizable graphics or buttons. This is a concept that I generally agree with. I have looked back on the programming of too many control systems and realized that I ended up spending far more time messing with button placement, finding obscure TV logos, and editing images than I did with actually making the thing turn on the TV. No thanks. I’ll pass.
Gefen took the simplistic route a little too far for my liking, though. Every button on any given screen is predetermined by the device you’re operating, aside from five function keys that are common to each device’s control screen. What’s that? You don’t want a PIP and recall button on the main screen for every device in the system? Sorry. They’re going to be there, at least for the time being.
Gefen is improving this system very quickly, though. I expect button relabeling and code reassignment to show up in the programming in the future, and Gefen representatives mentioned the possibility of an optional darker color theme as well.
The biggest thing the company needs to address, though, is the user interface lag, which plagued my experience on my Nexus 7 tablet. It seems as though each page is loaded over the network, every time you press a button. It’s only a split second, though, and hopefully Gefen will be able to minimize the UI lag with an update that makes all of the button presses and page flips instant.
The hardware portion of the GAVA installation was typical. I tested it on a very simple one-room system, so after installing the three aforementioned Gefen units, four flashers, an RS-232 cable, and some HDMI rewiring, I was ready to program. At this point I should probably confess that I am not big on reading manuals. On top of that, I intentionally went into programming my first GAVA system 100% uneducated, just to see if it was as intuitive as the company promised. All of that said, it was relatively easy. I read a few pages of the manual, started clicking like a madman that knew what he was doing, and when I got stuck, the info I needed was right there in the (less-than-20-page) manual. GAVA was the first browser based automation system I’ve ever programmed, and it took me awhile to make friends with it. I’m used to dedicated software that is locally installed on the laptop. When you’re programming GAVA, every tab is a separate web page (the programming page has a lot of tabs), and switching between those tabs can be a pretty laggy experience, as well. I felt like the programming was very click-intensive, which highlighted the slight delay that followed each click. I eventually got the hang of it, and after some practice I felt like I could easily program a pretty complicated system.
My favorite part about interacting with Gefen was the rapid support and development. I’m not impressed with the support I get from some companies, but Gefen always had a good answer on the tip of the tongue when problems arose. Even if it I got a “no” when requesting certain fixes or tweaks, the company at least had a logical reason why. More often than not, though, I got what I needed from the company quickly. Early on in my GAVA programming, I needed a discrete power code for my Blu-ray player. I called and quickly found out how to import hex codes to the IP address of the EXT-PACS, but I didn’t even have to. Gefen included the discrete codes in an easy-to-install GAVA update that was available way faster than I ever could have expected. One simply doesn’t expect that level of support these days.
Many new automation systems have a rough start. Automation is no easy task in the first place, and when you lump on a lot of guys like me — finicky installers expecting the most out of a new system — asking for every esoteric feature under the sun, it gets a lot harder. As for whether it’s ready for prime-time in the home? Probably not at this point. The UI is a little too impersonal, the constant screen-loading is frustrating, and again, most people want to press physical buttons when watching TV.
I think Gefen has the drive and ability to refine its maiden automation product into a real contender in the commercial market, though. It may not win design awards for it’s graphics, but GAVA is a robust control solution that’s capable of controlling massive systems with ease. With a little refinement of the user and integrator interface I think they will have a great solution for a any project that calls for touchscreen control.