Almost a year ago, Sonoff launched the NSPanel: a hackable and flashable smart touch display that could be used to control all of your smart devices from one location for a relatively affordable price - but now they have launched a new pro version, which should mean it’s a better product than the original…right?
*Full transparency as always - Sonoff did provide the NSPanel Pro to me for me to review.*
Specs & Software
Let's get the specs and features out of the way before we dig into this - the Sonoff NSPanel Pro is a 4 inch, 480 by 480 touch display that is designed to allow you to control smart home devices all from one convenient wall mounted panel. It runs Android, has a built in ZigBee hub allowing you to control ZigBee devices directly from the panel itself, it also can be integrated with Home Assistant, works without internet access and can be used as a two way intercom solution with the built in speaker and microphone...
...the problem is, only 2 out of those 5 things are actually true as of today.
Sonoff actually lists a ton of great features on their website, particularly the Home Assistant integration and two way intercom. However, the vast majority of the things they mention aren’t even available yet with them coming in a future version or just coming “in the future”.
Have a look at the list of features available on the NSPanel product page and out of the 20 features listed more than half of them, 12 to be exact, are not currently available. 12 features?! At what point do we call this what it really is, a beta product at best? Saying that, at least with beta products, you can usually use the features talked about and they just may have some bugs but this doesn’t even do that!
I can understand launching a product with one, maybe 2 features at most, that are not included and promised in future software updates - however, even then I wouldn’t recommend buying a product based on future updates - but 12 missing features is an absolute joke. It’s not even like they are minor things, the Home Assistant integration is a huge feature, the intercom feature is huge, 3rd party support is huge - like come on guys, why did you even launch this with not even half-baked software?
Putting aside the severe lack of software for now, using the NSPanel Pro is a decent and familiar experience to the original non pro version. You can access different screens by swiping left and right through the pages, and a swipe down from the top will give you access to the settings. The interface is a nicer and more polished version because it’s using Android this time and, although the gesture response isn’t perfect and misses occasionally, the display looks much more pleasing to my eyes than the original did, thanks to its extra 40% more pixels, plus an extra half an inch of size... which I’m told can make all the difference.
You can also add cameras to the display which can then be brought up on the main display, including RTSP cameras which is a really cool addition - problem is that for me it just didn’t work at all. I was able to add the camera no problem, but the resulting image would give me literally 1 frame every 10 minutes, even when using the lowest substream of my camera. Maybe it’s just my cameras though so your mileage may vary!
If you swipe down from the top, you can also add ZigBee devices directly to the panel itself using its inbuilt ZigBee gateway, assuming, of course, they are Sonoff, Philips Hue or IKEA devices because that’s all it supports right now out of the box. Once you add these devices, you can then tap to control them from the main page, which, to be fair, does work pretty well and depending on the device, it will give you different options.
Although, I think they have a bit of work to do here when it comes to smart bulbs to fix the colour shown on display versus what the actual light bulb shows - check the picture below which shows Purple selected but the colour of the light itself is Red.
The ZigBee controller seems nice on the surface but I can’t help but wonder what the point of this really is.
Firstly, I can’t pass all of the devices connected here through to something else like Home Assistant, for example if I have a bulb connected through the NSPanel Pro, I can’t make that show up in Home Assistant for control.
Secondly, the idea with the NSPanel is that you would have one in every room to give you access to the smart devices in that room and allow you to control them from this one panel, but the problem there is that all you are going to end up doing is creating a lot of completely separate ZigBee networks for every room in your house that are all going to be independent of each other.
We all know that one of ZigBee's strong points is that it's a mesh network, so adding more powered devices should strengthen the mesh and improve range and reliability, but with these you miss out on that completely, not to mention interference.
The way this should have been done, in my opinion, is to have these work as ZigBee routers instead, where they can then join an existing ZigBee mesh and then because they are mains powered, they will help to improve and strengthen that mesh as whole - that would then also allow you to integrate these with other systems.
As is, I just don’t see the implementation of Zigbee to be very good.
That kind of leads me onto one of my other major gripes... Sonoff are trying to create yet another smart home ecosystem that needs its own app to control and only works with theirs or limited other devices - meanwhile literally the entire smart home market is preparing to shift to intercompatibility through Thread and Matter.
Sonoff need to recognise that their entire brand and customer base is built around hackable and flashable devices like pretty much the rest of their line-up. They also need to remember that people buy Sonoff devices simply because you can easily install your own firmware onto them and connect them straight to Home Assistant and do whatever you want with the hardware, and without that ability, Sonoff becomes just another generic brand in a sea of companies all doing the same thing.
You also only need to take a quick peek inside the NSPanel Pro to find its a re-branded product from Tuya and is pretty much identical in every way to a unit I received from Zemismart way before the NSPanel Pro arrived.
This is because it is a Tuya Product and that does mean that there is no way of installing custom firmware onto it.
Of course, because it’s Android, it’s entirely possible that someone may come up with a custom ROM for this that will unlock more functionality but that’s quite a big if.
The one saving grace here would have been if it had a more full featured version of Android that you could use, maybe to install the Home Assistant app to display dashboards or if we could even open a web browser, but doesn’t seem to be possible yet, at least officially. However, I'm sure someone will figure out some weird sequence of events you have to do like a cheat code that will make a browser appear that you could then load web pages on.
The Two P's
Finally, we come to the two P’s: Pro and Price. The use of Pro in the name indicates an upgrade or improvement over the non pro version, but I would argue that the original is more useful in its current state. The screen is certainly better on the pro, but you lose the two physical buttons on the front to accommodate that, and you also give up the ability to install your own software. This could definitely change over time with the software updates, but I can only evaluate what's here today.
It is also really quite expensive at $80 on the early bird price, with Sonoff saying it will rise to 120 dollars after - that’s a very steep price to pay for this, especially given we don’t know when, or even if, those promised features will even arrive. And I personally cannot recommend buying a product based on promised "future updates."
To You, Sonoff
So Sonoff, I hope it was worth it to you to launch this product with so many critical features completely missing knowing full well you were going to get slammed in reviews like this. At the end of the day, these reviews are going to be out there forever and are probably going to be the first thing people see when reviewing this product, even if you do good on everything in the future, and that’s going to leave a permanent stain on this product. In my humble opinion, you would have been much better off delaying this product until it was actually ready for prime time, because the state this product is in right now, I cannot recommend that anyone spends their hard earned money buying one.
Unfortunately a bit of a negative one this time but hopefully this helps anyone that was on the fence in regards to buying one! Curious to know what you all think? Will you still be purchasing one? Do let me know!
Until next time...