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Saturday, 9 February 2013

Review: Neptune Systems Apex Controller

A quick review of the Neptune Systems Apex aquarium controller.

I recently collected my Neptune Systems Apex controller from Nick at Aquarium Cabinet Solutions and have since removed the on test GHL Profilux from my Lido 120 tropical aquarium and rigged up the Apex in its place to compare and contrast.

The base package consisted of the following.

  • 1x Base Unit
  • 1x Display Module
  • 1x EB6 Energy Bar
  • 1x Standard pH Probe
  • 1x Temperature Probe
  • Calibration Solutions

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The Base Unit is the brains of the operation and essentially what controls everything else on the network. It can operate alone with no Display Module and work purely through the included web application embedded in the device itself.

The Base Unit alone has the the provision for a temperature probe, a pH probe and a dual port that can take either an ORP or secondary pH probe. There are two variable control ports capable of controlling up to 4 circulation pumps (2 per port).

It does not require a power adaptor, despite the fact there is a power socket. It will quite happily run from the power provided by the Aquabus (USB based) system when connected to the Energy Bar. However, a power supply can be added to this port for additional reassurance and can work with a USP that also keeps you router running long enough to fire off an email informing you that the power has gone off. A very neat trick.

Connecting to the web interface is a very straight forward task with minimal networking knowledge when connecting with the Apex on your (Home) Local Area Network.

Accessing the system over the internet is entirely possible, but involves a bit more work. However the Comprehensive User Guide that can be found on the Neptune Systems website is thoroughly excellent and should have most people at least using the LAN access within minutes.

The web interface allows full control and programming of the system, and has a fully customisable dashboard, which you can use as a monitor type setup if you had a spare computer hanging around or dial in using a web browser from pretty much any device on your home network.

An example of my Dashboard…

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A very low form factor of the Base Unit and mounting tabs on either side make it very easy to mount into its desired location with very little loss in real estate.

So far i have yet to find any cons about the Base Unit!

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The Display Module is a great tool to have as part of the system, as it shows live data, allows (almost) full control and configuration of the system, and enables quick easy selections of Feed Pause controls etc...

It is not a touch screen, as Neptune Systems decided to go with the rubberised mechanical control. Each button is nice and direct and engages with a satisfying soft click when using the device, with no ambiguity if you have actually pressed it or not.

The Display Module is very light and thin, with an ultra thin and very generous length cable. A few strips of double sided sticky tape or Velcro are all that is required to attach it to a surface, no need to drill hanging screws or hooks, even though there is the provision in the rear.

While the parameter read outs are clear and easy to understand, the configurable icons that you can have along the bottom of the screen can look a little untidy with no real indication as to what they are referring to.

It is up to you to set these icons and as a result you will tend to remember what you have configured and where. The icons do change to emulate what a specific control or outlet is doing, such as a vague looking thermometer to show when the temperature is rising or falling.

I will play with the icons a little more and see if i can make more (personal) use of them, at the moment i have 4 of them set to pretty much show when an outlet is on or off etc...

The screen is a simple white on blue backlight affair, its basic, but doesn't have the potential elegance of the full colour GHL Profilux Touch. It also sometimes feels a little “jumpy” as you scroll through the settings screens, you kind of see each button push selection constantly reloading onto the screen. Honestly though, this is a very superficial observation, as it operates perfectly otherwise and the Display Module for me stands as a monitor for on the fly parameters, i have done 99% of the programming and setting adjustments through the web interface.

One thing i do like is the fact that the Display Module has 4 configurable screen layouts, which you can customise and have different information and parameters on each one. Very useful for when you have many probes… or if you have several aquariums, you can have one Base Unit and a Display Unit with a specific screen configuration for each aquarium! Effectively saving you money if you want to expand your system, and not having several individual systems.

Of course the latter will only work on 4 aquariums with a maximum of 4 probes/parameters on each one. Each Display Module attached on the Aquabus will show all the same information, you just need the correct screen selected for the correct aquarium.

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The EB6 Energy Bar is what finally made the Apex available in the UK.

With 6 outlets for control of pretty much anything with a 3 pin plug!

One thing i like about the EB6 is its small size in comparison to the competition. It will be substantially easier to mount into an aquarium system.

Each EB6 has 4 Aquabus connections, and will provide the power to the Base Unit itself via this connection.

It is not the quietest power bar i have come across though. There is an audible “clunk” when a relay contacts or disconnects, which could be annoying if your aquarium is in a quiet area like a bedroom. I currently have mine mounted outside the aquarium cabinet which does not help. Hidden away inside the cabinet or a dedicated electrical cupboard would likely dampen the sound.

Also a shame as the US spec EB8 has 6 of its 8 sockets controlled with TRIAC’s (the other 2 are traditional mechanical relays) so those sockets are silent in their operation and also give a “soft start” to the piece of equipment being controlled, in effect you don't get the surge start of switching on something with a normal contact switch. The only issue with them is they are not so good with very low current devices, which is a 1-in-100 thing with aquarium equipment.

Another criticism of the EB6 is it does not have the current monitoring capability's that are found on the US EB8 version. This is one thing i was looking forward to after noting it on the Neptune Systems website (although i missed the comment about it not being supported on the EB6!) as i like to keep a close eye on my household energy usage.

The GHL plug bars will monitor the current on each individual socket, so its a Plus+1 to them there, even though you cannot currently log it, like you can with the EB8.

As a bonus though, the data logging does record the total “On-Time” for each outlet, so the power usage could retrospectively be calculated using Excel by using the XML output available through the web interface. I will try this out in future.

I wonder if Neptune will give us a different Energy Bar in future pending sales success that adds these functions?

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The iPhone and iPad apps (i believe there is also an Android app) are utterly brilliant, and work flawlessly, and they're free! Graphs, live data and manual control can be carried out on these devices and programming can be carried out in the same manner that it is conducted when using the web interface.

This is excellent as it means you can stand at the aquarium with your Smart Phone or Tablet and adjust and control things on the fly and see the results. No need to try and set the laptop up or try and awkwardly work with a PC.

Some iPhone app screen shots…

Multiple Apex controllers can be accessed by the app and are selected from the opening screen, a summary of the probes is also shown. Rich detail scalable (using tap and pinch) graphs of probe data.

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Manual control of all sockets and functions, Feed/Maint pauses can be launched from the device.

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History (a favourite of mine) shows when sockets have been turned on or off in chronological order. Selecting one will show the Cumulative Runtime Summary.

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Advanced programming can also be carried out on the device in the same way as per the web application.

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If you get you system enabled over the internet, your phone and tablet will be able to inform you of your aquariums status wherever you are (pending a data connection of course!) I have managed to carry this out recently and it continues to work flawlessly.

It is especially easy if you are willing to spend around £20 to get yourself a DynDNS account and an email provider that doesn't insist on SSL (which the Apex is not compatible with). I personally used the offering of a domain name with 5 email inboxes from 1and1. The information in the Comprehensive Manual is slick and easy to follow for setting up the net access.

I love the scope for DIY with the Apex system too. Although there is the provision for a Neptune supplied Break Out Box. With a bit of knowledge, a handful of components and an afternoon you can rig up your own break out system to work with a pretty much any open switch circuit. Ranging from buttons to launch feed pauses, cabinet door switches to turn lights on (or off) and float switches for top off and automatic water changes. I will be expanding on this in the near future when i have a go at it myself.

Conclusion

On the whole i recommend the Neptune Systems Apex controller, to both novice and expert aquarists. As it offers a grand scale of usage options, for those who want a robust and compact controller to look after the simplest of operations, to the techygeeknerd’s of the aquarium world. It is well priced and well built system.

Is it better than the GHL Profilux? There are pros and cons to both systems and its difficult to say one is outright better than the other, but i do feel the Apex has more scope for the DIY enthusiast and the programming method is far superior.

However it lacks on the email side of things that the GHL is able to offer. Yes it does have email capability but the GHL has much better customisation options. That said the Apex has the wholly superior mobile applications, that said again… GHL are soon to release their own mobile apps!

I also prefer the nicer colour touch interface of the Profilux, but don't dislike the LCD and button controlled Apex display module…

I could go on and on like this… so i will look at compiling a comparative list soon instead!

The Apex in comparison though, will work out cheaper, and you certainly get a lot for your money.

Hope this has been of some help.

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