Timeless Trends in Bathroom Lighting

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(Guest post by Daisy Ridley)

If you are looking for new lights in your bathroom this will certainly give you some excellent ideas.

 

TIMELESS TRENDS IN BATHROOM LIGHTING– For most people their day begins in the bathroom and ends there too before retiring to bed. During the day there are also several trips to the bathroom either at home or when we’re out and about. Given we spend so much time frequenting bathrooms it stands to reason that we would take the time, energy and money to create a bathroom that is aesthetically pleasing and highly practical. For both a visually appealing bathroom and a highly functional one the lighting is a priority.

 

 

Bathroom Lights

There are a few timeless trends in bathroom lighting that will work well in virtually any bathroom, so why not invest in quality lighting and enjoy the ambience and practical nature they bring to the room every day. Planning out your lighting needs is a good idea as it allows you time to consider the types of lighting you require for the various activities you perform in the bathroom.

 

Under-counter lighting is perfect for relaxing evenings soaking in the bath or to create a lovely ambience for guests who are visiting for an evening meal. However, when applying makeup or shaving, bright lighting that is focused will be best. Be sure to think about all the ways you use the room to ascertain the different types of lighting you need.

 

For focused lighting in areas such as the vanity and mirror choose wall mounted fixtures positioned above and beside the mirror. The look is classic and will provide the amount of light you need for the fiddlier jobs performed in the room. Wall sconces are certainly worth that little bit of extra effort it takes to have them fitted as they are a truly classic lighting fixture that will be appreciated by all who view them, particularly candle sconces which are highly captivating.

 

For the longest time recessed lighting has been popular and this type of lighting is ideal for when you’re taking a bath and want to fully relax and cherish each moment. You can create this luxurious spa-like atmosphere with the help of dimmer switches. These will transform your lighting fixtures into sources of light that can be adjusted to fill the room with the perfect amount of light for your desired effect. It’s important to be aware that recessed lighting on its own will not offer good lighting conditions – a combination of lighting is required to avoid annoying shadows and unattractive lighting results.

 

Classic Victorian style fixtures add timeless elegance to the room and are surprisingly affordable. Select decorative lights that are mounted on the ceiling as a way of adding your personal style to the room, along with another form of lighting that will compliment your recessed lights and under-counter lighting.

 

The key to bathroom lighting success is to include a variety of lighting styles in the room and to then choose which ones to turn on and in what combinations to suit the specific circumstances at the time. Visit your local bathroom and lighting supplies stores as well as online stores to peruse the wide range of options available and to seek out the best price to suit your budget.

Can You Avoid Buying a new $1,500 Stereo Receiver?

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When my clients decide to buy a new TV, they are often surprised when I tell them they will also need to upgrade their stereo receiver.

If you have anything more than a standalone TV, you probably have a modern audio-video receiver (AVR) connected.

Popular brands includes Sony, Denon, Yamaha, Anthem, and others you may never have heard of.

The AVR becomes the heart of your entertainment system. It provides the audio processing for stereo or surround sound output which is much better than the TV’s own tiny built-in speakers.

Everything, and I *mean* everything, plugs into the AVR first.

Video and audio sources for what you want to watch or hear:

Cable and Satellite service boxes (we all love to hate ‘em)
CD & DVD players (does anyone still use CD’s?)
Streaming boxes (Apple TV, Roku, Chromecast)
AM/FM Radio turners
Generic digital audio inputs
Generic analog audio inputs
Turntables (classic vinyl collection anyone?)
Digital music players (iPods, MP3 players)
Game consoles (Microsoft XBox, Sony Play Station, or Nintendo Switch)

The AVR routes the signals to one or more connected outputs:

Television screen
Analog audio outputs (speakers)
Digital audio outputs
External amplifiers (pre-amp outputs)
The main output from the AVR is sound sent to speakers - lots of speakers.

For a minimum stereo sound, you’ll have two - a left channel and a right channel speaker. (That’s to mimic the two ears that every human has, in case you were wondering.)

Typical media rooms and entertainment centers usually have at least a center channel speaker (for hearing dialog in movies better) and a separate subwoofer for stronger base and sound effects.

For movie watching, you’ll want to equipment your home theater with surround sound speakers too and you can even add more speakers in the ceiling and around the room for a totally immersive experience with Dolby Atmos.

Can You Hear Me Now?

Speaker configurations are usually summarized with a decimal number indicating the number of speakers, the number of subwoofers (yup, you can have more than one), and the number of spatial effects speakers.

So a 2.0 speaker system is a basic stereo system with two speakers (left and right channels), while a 5.1 system is a typical surround/sound media room configuration with left, right, center, surround left, surround right, and a subwoofer.

If you’ve got the budget, you can keep adding more surround speakers, ceiling speakers, and even a second subwoofer. You’ll have bragging rights to a full blown Dolby Atmos 9.1.2 setup.

For deeper understanding of Dolby Atmos speaker setups, there is a great reference on their[website.

The Ultimate Control Freak

AVR’s know they do a lot so they have become control freaks wanting to be the master control of everything, whether you like it or not.

Modern AVR’s include a lot of different control interfaces but you’re probably most familiar with the common handheld remote that uses infrared (IR) signals.

AVR’s now have local area network interfaces with built-in Ethernet RJ-45 connections or wireless Wi-Fi adapters and often both.

Hidden away in the back you may find even more control interfaces such a serial RS-232 or Universal Serial Bus (USB).

Some AVR’s include built-in IR repeater ports and relay contact trigger ports. These specialized connections fall squarely into the “if you don’t know what they are, you don’t need them” category.

Note: Although more cable and satellite boxes are starting to use point-me-anywhere radio-frequency (RF) remote controls, most AVR’s are still in the dark ages using only IR line-of-sight signals for their handheld remotes.

A Rose Is A Rose Is A Rose

So as you can see from the above, the AVR has three important functions - handling all the different inputs (of which there are a lot), handling the speaker outputs, and controlling everything.

Based on their original job of only handling the audio speakers AVR’s use to be called amplifiers, but it helps to realize that almost of them today are multi-function devices doing a lot more than just boosting the sound levels.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

AVR’s are complex devices and I haven’t even described much of the advanced features or capabilities yet.

But don’t worry, I won’t be going deeper and cover more of the physical interfaces, processing capabilities (video upscaling, DSP sound manipulation, sound stripping/multiplexing) or special features some of them provide.

That’s because the usual 80/20 rule applies - most of us need only 20% of the features they provide so we can ignore the obscure and complicated stuff we don’t care about.

Quality Doesn’t Come Cheap

No surprise here - a good AVR can cost big money.

You can pay as little as $200 or $300, but expect to pay in the range of $600 to $2,000 for mainstream high-quality AVR’s such as Denon, Sony, Yamaha, or Anthem

The sky’s the limit for higher-end and custom gear, but spending around $1,000 for an AVR is what I see with as typical most of my clients.

The Fly In The Ointment

When you buy a new TV you’re going to want to make sure you are getting 4K resolution, wider color gamut, and high dynamic range (HDR) image features.

You’ll be spending most of your time comparing those capabilities between models and companies to make your selection.

You might be thinking, “At least I can still use my existing AVR. After all, the audio standards aren’t changing and what I have now works great”.

The video is just passed through the AVR so I should be fine. Woah! Not so fast - that just isn’t true.

As the heart of your entertainment system, the AVR is controlling everything and switching between the inputs so it has to be compatible with the improvements in your TV.

Just Passing Through Town…

Technically your AVR is terminating the HDMI connections from the source devices, handshaking all the control signals, and then output a fresh new version of the same data and signals on the output HDMI connections.

So just “passing through” the signal is not really straightforward and involves sophisticated processing.

Your AVR will need to support 4K resolution, HDR, and the newer HDMI interface standards. It is very likely your AVR currently supports only 1K, does not support HDR, and is using an older version of HDMI handshaking.

Sticker shock! After spending $500 to $5000 on a new TV, you’re faced with spending an additional $500 to $2000 to replace your AVR to get everything working properly and just as smoothly as you have it know.

Sounds Good To Me?

Here’s where things stand.

If you have the money and want the ideal solution, plan on purchasing a new AVR to go along with your new TV.

This will cost the most, but you will end up with a system that works the same, or better than what you have now with the least operational changes once everything is installed and setup.

The other options I am going to describe are all a compromise. Some are really good alternatives and some are not.

But they are all based on the assumption that you are willing to put up with a less than ideal solution because you don’t want to spend lots of money replacing your AVR to use your new TV.

First Option: Dump the old AVR

This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Although flat-panel TV’s have been criticized for having really bad built-in speakers, the newest ones aren’t all that bad.

Some of the built-in speakers might be ok if you are using the TV in a bedroom, kitchen, or not-so-large family room.

It’s certainly the cheapest option. Buy just the new TV and try it out. If you later want better sound you can always expand later to a new AVR or the other options below.

Second Option: Buy A Sound Bar

Within the last few years, the most popular TV accessory has become the sound bar. This horizontal rectangular box is easy to install by plugging into an available HDMI or optical connection and it does an amazing job improving the audio from any TV.

Sound bars are available in a range of prices from $100 and up. For a good TV costing $1000 or more, this is “chump change” for a much better listening experience than the built-in speakers.

Sound bars start with 2.0 (left and right channel) entry level setups, with the more popular ones having a wireless subwoofer for a 2.1 configuration (left, right, and subwoofer speakers).

Some sound bars have 4 or 6 speakers inside and used sophisticated digital signal processing (DSP) to create room-filling audio almost as good as a traditional AVR.

LG and Sony have sound bars with speakers aimed at the ceiling and can create a Dolby Atmos listening experience.

Third Option: Re-configure Your HDMI Wiring

If you have an AVR that has been working great, you love the audio quality, and it is already connected up to a ton of wired speakers, you might be able to compromise.

If the only thing lacking is the ability to pass through 4K video resolution and/or HDR, you can keep the AVR if you are willing to complicate your life a little bit.

The problem here is the “HDMI switching” features of your AVR. You’ll have to stop using that partially or completely.

Remember when you hooked up your TV and ignored all those extra HDMI ports on the back or sides? Well, now’s the time to dig out the manual and take another look.

Connect all your video sources directly to your TV instead of your AVR. Plug in your satellite or cable box or streaming video sources directly into one or more HDMI ports on your TV.

This eliminates the AVR as the “man in the middle” messing with the video which won’t work because the AVR can’t process the 4K/HDR signals properly.

The Sounds Of Silence

There is one big problem in hooking all your input sources directly to the TV. Where does the sound go?

Now that TV’s have gotten so thin, the speaker inside them are very small. So even large screen, expensive TV’s have speakers that are very disappointing.

If you hook your cable box, blue-ray player, or streaming box (AppleTV, Roku, etc.) directly to your TV, you need a way to get the sound back out to your AVR so you enjoy those big, expensive speakers you already have!

Hook Me Up!

Fortunately, there are two options to do this so you can pick whichever is most convenient or works the best for you.

Option One - go Optical

Almost all AV gear for many years has included a digital optical port for audio connections in addition to the conventional wired cables/ports you are familiar with.

It is very straightforward to plug a digital optical cable (they are small and thin) to connect the audio output from the TV to an audio input of your AVR.

Just remember to make the changes on your TV configuration menu and your AVR.

It’s an “all or nothing” setting. When you enable optical audio output from your TV, the internal speakers will be shut off, but you can switch back and forth, if necessary, without actually plugging or unplugging any cables.

Optical cables are inexpensive and you can buy them in local electronics stores or online in many different lengths with the connectors already installed.

So they are just as easy to use as a regular cable.

Quick tip: On most AV equipment, the optical port will be called “TOSlink” which stands for “Toshiba optical system link”.

Also, fun fact - the optical port does not use a laser, it uses LED technology so no worries about any kind of medical danger to your eyes.

This means you will have to move wires around, possible crawling behind your equipment fighting the dust bunnies to get everything re-wired.

Option Two - use ARC

More TV’s are now coming equipped with an HDMI enhancement called ARC - audio return channel.

This allows the TV to send the audio output down an HDMI cable in the reverse direction.

Takes a little thinking to wrap your head around this, but basically the HDMI cable that is normally one-way (like a one-way street alley) now carries signals in two directions: video from the AVR to the TV, and audio from the TV back to the AVR.

Think of it like a normal road with one lane in each direction.

ARC can be a little trickier to set up. You have to make sure that the option for HDMI-CEC is enabled, and sometimes it simply doesn’t work because of compatibility problems between different brands of equipment.

No Free Lunch

Don’t get me wrong - using optical TOSlink or HDMI ARC are workarounds to buying a new AVR. There are two limitations you need to be aware of:

TOSlink optical does not support all the audio formats your sources can output and AVR can handle.

TOSlink supports only two channels of uncompressed losses PCM audio or compressed 5.1/7.1 surround sound such as Dolby Digital or DTS Surround System.

TOSlink does not support Dolby Atmos or lossless formats such as Dolby TrueHD, DS-HD Master Audio, or more than two channels of PCM audio.

Similarly, HDMI ARC does not support Atmos. But it is messier - some TV’s only support 2-channel audio on ARC, other TV’s may pass 5.1 surround sound but only from the internal SmartTV and not from external connected devices like Blu-ray players or other streaming boxes.

There’s really no sure way to tell other than reading written specs and trying it out for yourself.

There is a new version of ARC in the works called eARC (enhanced ARC) that is supposed to fix all this, but at this time is isn’t really available in much equipment.

Everything’s Out of Control

When you stop using your AVR as the central connection for everything (by moving source devices such as your cable box or streaming box to the TV), the remote control situation also gets complicated.

This means you may not be able to control everything using the existing handheld remote from the AVR.

You’ll have to do some commands, like selecting the video source, using the original TV remote so it will take a little adjustment and re-training of household member.

To fix this, consider using a good programmable remote or control system such as the [Logitech Harmony Elite](https://www.logitech.com/en-us/product/harmony-elite). That will make operating your entertainment system much easier.

Fourth Option: Go Wireless With Sonos

I’ve saved the best for last. With a Sonos sound bar and wireless speakers, you can set up a full blown surround sound speaker system without an AVR and without wires.

Sonos makes really good sound bars (Second option above) that can be expanded wirelessly into complete 5.1 surround sound systems.

With the addition of a pair of Sonos ONE’s for rear surround speakers and a Sonos wireless subwoofer, you can setup a full audio system very quickly.

Sonos gear is very high quality and is not the lowest cost option. But you can start with just sound bar and grow as you go.

Add only the subwoofer or add the surround sound speakers, or both on your timetable (or your wallet’s).

When you are done you may be spending the same, or more, as you would have if you bought a new AVR, but you’ll end up with a very flexible solution and no additional installation costs.

No drilling, cutting into drywall, pulling speaker wires and most importantly, no plastering or painting later to fix up the holes and mess that was created with traditional speaker installations.

The Answer

So yes, you can avoid buying a new AVR when you purchase a new TV. Just choose any of these options:

First Option - Dump The Old AVR

Second Option - Buy A Sound Bar

Third Option - Route Audio with TOSlink optical or Audio Return Channel (ARC)

Fourth Option - Go Wireless With Sonos

What Makes a Smart Door?

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Many people tend to take doors and locks for granted but these systems are our number one source of security. The mechanism has pretty much remained the same for the last few millennia but doors are becoming smarter, thanks to technology.

Automatic locks

Newer car models are already made with a keyless and push start mechanism and home security is witnessing a similar upgrade. The best smart locks listed by Tech Radar have foregone the use of keys and replaced it with keypads and fingerprint access. The Nest x Yale collaboration requires homeowners to type in a code or to touch the logo and follow a few easy steps. You can even schedule your door to be locked in the event that you forgot to secure it at night.

On the other hand, the August Smart Lock Pro automatically unlocks the door when you’re a few feet away from it. You can use the accompanying app to check whether it has been activated and monitor the people coming in and out of your home.

Video doorbells

An automatic lock isn’t the only innovation that makes a smart door, as doorbells and surveillance cameras make it more high-tech, too. Last year, Amazon acquired the start-up company Ring which specializes in video doorbells with a wide-angle view of your front door and its surroundings. With your smart device, you can track whoever’s at your door and even talk to them with the two-way microphone feature.

Similar notable products on the market include SkyBell and the RemoBell Wireless Video Doorbell. And if you want CCTV cameras to beef up security, Presence by Netatmo can tell the difference between people, animals, and cars and alert you if any one of those is lurking on your property.

Upgrading your door

The great thing about these products is that they’re easy to install and even easier to operate. Choosing which tech to go with it depends on the type of property you own or reside in. An innovation like Presence is a great addition to home security systems but may not be appropriate for apartment-dwellers. The caveat is that you have to conform with the building’s rules, and co-op buildings are typically stricter with making cosmetic changes than condos. Yoreevo notes that co-op owners have to make their case and present their plans to the board which sets their own standards in terms of building management and occupancy. There’s no guarantee that you’ll be granted permission for changing even something as small as a door lock. But once you’ve gotten the green light, you can easily get in touch with one of DoItForMe.Solutions' partners that can install your smart door product with expert precision.

When you're finished with security, you can also consider upping your entertainment game by taking a look at TV comparisons on DoItForMe.Solutions. Let us know what you think about smart home solutions in the comments section below.

The Hub Is Dead! Long Live The Hub?

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“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”

Mark Twain

It’s a bad time to be a smart home hub, because if you believe the trade press and media, you’re dead!

I wrote about this over a year ago ( Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Hub? ) but I guess the editors didn’t get the memo!

This year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2019 edition just wrapped up a few weeks ago in Las Vegas.

Almost two hundred thousand people came to town to try and cover almost 3 million square feet of exhibit space and visit over 4500 exhibitors. (I stayed home.)

As some of you know from reading here, I try to avoid covering current events or news stories because they are well documented elsewhere.

I won’t hype the latest vaporware or fad (and there are always tons of them at CES), but I am upset that the totally false narrative about the “death of the hub” seems to be one of the big takeaways by the idiots that claim to be home automation professional journalists.

Why The Negative Hype About Smart Home Hubs?

In a word - boredom. This year’s CES did not have any revolutionary new smart home products. No big breakthroughs to “write home about”.

Bloggers and media people don’t care about what you and I want - real improvements, even if incremental, that move the home automation industry forward by solving the humdrum, boring, but serious problems or impediments to using technology to make our lives better in our homes.

Bloggers are always looking for “click bait” - that sensational sound bite (real or fake news) that will draw more people to their website to click on links from advertisers.

That’s how they make money. Actually, that’s now the *only* way they make money. So the more outrageous, the more they make your chin drop, and the most unique news scoop are what they are after.

So when the show is slow with nothing new or revolutionary, they do the next best thing - make things up by twisting something around to make it look like a disruptive new trend or repudiation of the status quo.

Did CES Did Have Some Interesting Stuff?

Now don’t get me wrong - there was some new stuff for our smart home that was worthy of attention. I’ll break my rule of not reporting news to highlight a few things that I enjoyed hearing about:

More Power

The new ConnectSense Outlet conveniently lets you control two different plug-in devices and monitor their power usage along with a convenience USB port for charging or powering other stuff.

The new version adds support For Amazon Alexa and Google Home Assistant and still supports Apple HomeKit.

If The Shoe Fits, It’s Too Expensive

LG demonstrated their amazing roll-up 65 inch OLED TV. It rolls-up like a window blind and disappears into a small rectangular box. Of course it is crazy expensive, and not something you or I can afford, but wow!

They showed it last year, but this year the say it will be shipping to customers and thus a real product.

Keepin’ Your Cool!

Lutron (my fav lighting / shades controls company) introduced a brand new Caseta ceiling fan controller.

An in-wall module that can be installed without adding a box in the ceiling and a companion Pico wireless remote make this an easy DIY project.

It works with Amazon Alexa and Google Home Assistant and Apple HomeKit compatibility will be added later (probably a time-to-market thing).

Seeing Is Believing

Netatmo, a French manufacturer that makes an eclectic mix of air quality monitors, weather stations, HVAC controls, and security lights / cameras previewed their new video doorbell.

The interesting, *but still very much vaporware* attraction is that they are claiming to be the first video doorbell that supports Apple HomeKit.

That’s true - if they ship and if the price is reasonable.

(I do need to mention that Netatmo was recently acquired by Legrand, a large traditional company that makes a lot of the switches and fixtures stuff you see for sale in your local big box stores.)

Notoriously, Ring, one of the first and still the market leader, the company that “everyone love’s to hate”, has left a long trail of broken promises for Apple HomeKit support stretching a mile long.

Ring is now owned by Amazon, so let your conspiracy theories go wild on whether you think this will help or hinder Ring finally supporting Apple HomeKit.

Back To Our Regularly Scheduled Column..

So here’s the deal with the premature death of home automation hubs: This year’s CES 2019 show was full of tons of “me too” gadgets and devices that have either Bluetooth or Wi-Fi radios built in.

Convenient, easy-to-use, straightforward to set up, and affordable. All welcome attributes for any product, but this wave of gadgets believe that’s their primary advantage.

In-wall or plug-in dimmer switch - yeah, been there, done that, but this one has Wi-Fi built-in so you don’t need a hub.

Lot’s of gadgets with the adjective “smart” that aren’t really suitable for home automation but again, with built-in Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, they are supposed to be the perfect thing.

Why They Think Consumers Don’t Want A Hub

The manufacturers and media trot out many excuses for explaining why they believe a hubless smart home product is better.

Here’s a few of the banal benefits they espouse (translated from marketing speak gobbledygook):

Cheaper - Without a separate hub, their super widget is cheaper

Easier to Install - No extra wires, cables, or software to deal with

Wider Compatibility - Works with everything because every smartphone has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Easier to Use - No hub means less complexity = easier operation

Time To Deflate The Balloon

I could write or talk forever on all the ways they are wrong; I’ll focus on some of the easiest ways to refute their silly claims:

Not Cheaper - Building Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth into every device is much more costly. These wireless radio systems were designed for computers, tablets, smartphones and other fairly large devices, so the internal design is complex requiring a lot of silicon, power, and software.

This translates into much higher cost when trying to build smart doorlocks, sensors, switches, dimmers, and other smart home devices.

The high power requirements demand more expensive power supplies or larger batteries. You’ll be swapping out batteries in just weeks or months instead of years.

Existing technologies including Z-Wave, Zigbee and manufacturer RF designs are simpler hardware that can be miniaturized more easily and use much lower power.

With a bridge or hub, the “heavy lifting” of connecting to Ethernet or Wi-Fi networks is only done once - inside the bridge, instead of inside every device.

A great example is the difference between a car and a bus or truck. Cars may be enjoyable to drive, but a bus or truck is much more efficient for transporting more than 1 person or package at a time.

Not Easier To Install - Physical installation isn’t the problem. Everyone can plug in a power cable or a network cable, if needed. The real difficulty with installing tech products is the complicated software, lack of clear instructions, and failsafe procedures that protect you from mistakes.

Making products easy (or hard) to install has nothing to do with whether they use a hub or not.

Having installed hundreds of products myself, I can personally attest that some of the worst installation experiences has been with self-contained products. The instructions are terrible or non-existent, and the process is not intuitive or straightforward.

Installing hub based products has often been much simpler. First install the hub, then install one or more individual devices. Breaking it up into two steps actually made it each simpler to do and easier to troubleshoot.

Poor Compatibility Of Standalone Products

Contrary to what is postulated by standalone product makers, I have found that hub based products hands-down have wider compatibility and better interfacing with more diverse systems.

It’s really simple - The hub or bridge is responsible for providing the interface to other devices such as consumer systems like Amazon Echo, Apple HomeKit, Google Home Assistant, or larger traditional systems like Control 4, Crestron, and Savant.

Hubs or bridges usually have clearly defined software development kits (SDK) or application programmer’s interface (API) that the manufacturer makes available to outside companies wanting to interface their own products.

There is an excellent economy of scale factor - once the hub can connect to another system, all the products attached to the hub will inherit that ability for a small incremental effort.

So, for example, once Lutron added Amazon Alexa capability to their Caseta and RA2 Select bridges, all the Lutron devices (lights, dimmers, switches, etc.) gained that compatibility with much less effort.

The Best Defense Is A Strong Offense

Ok, enough with defending against the claims of the hubless. It’s time to go on the offensive and tell you why having a hub or bridge is a better solution and one you should seek, not shy away from.

Larger Selection of Compatible Products

Besides these newfangled gadgets with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth built-in, there exist a vast selection of existing smart home devices available for purchase.

These devices use Zigbee, Z-Wave, and vendor-specific hardware technologies that are field proven.

Having been in use for many years and installed in both small and large homes with all kinds of building materials these products are proven to work.

Radio interference, physical barriers, mechanical limitations, and good old fashioned wear and tear are the real enemies of many smart home products.

When you buy products from well-known manufacturers with a proven track record, you are reducing the risk that products will break down or fail prematurely in a few months or a year.

You are also protected against the real possibility that the latest sexy smart home startup company goes broke and out of business. What good is that cute gadget if you can’t get any software updates or repairs for it?

At Your Service 24 Hours A Day

True automation means having things happen on their own without you doing anything.

A lot of products provide automation’s poor cousin - home control - turning on or off a light using a cute app on your phone or pushing a newfangled avant-garde or retro-looking button, but have very limited automation.

A hubless product cannot provide real automation. You need something other than your smartphone or computer that is running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to be in charge of automatically doing things on your behalf.

Would you like your lights to turn on a half-hour before sunset and turn off a half-hour before sunrise? That takes an “automation controller” - a device that is reliable, running 24 x 7 x 365, and handling the job of remember what to do and when to do it.

Would you like a motion sensor to turn on the lights when you enter a room? Or maybe run your lawn sprinklers on a pre-determined schedule, but only if it is not raining?

Guess what? That’s call a hub!

Fake It Till You Make It

Hubless products do have one trick up their sleeve. They use the Internet to try and fill the role of a hub.

Their devices connect to servers located hundreds or thousands of miles away through the Internet to perform even the most rudimentary functions of a hub.

So the simple task of turning a light on or off actually requires sending a message across the Internet to a far-away server and then waiting for the response.

In addition to delays, this causes everything to require an Internet connection which reduces reliability, adds complexity, and hidden costs.

And some products can’t even do that. They rely on links to iffy 3rd party services like IFTTT, Stringify, Yonomi or other Internet “glue” that is the high tech equivalent of chewing gum and baling wire.

Rube Goldberg would be proud.

In contrast, a hub or bridge based product can operate locally without an Internet connection. True, some features will require Internet, but many things can be done without any Internet connection at all.

“It Depends Upon What The Definition Of The Word ‘Is’ Is”

If you remember the Bill Clinton impeachment hearings, you’ll probably recognize that quote.

Those that claim a hub is a bad thing and isn’t needed are often playing a game of semantics.

While they tell you hubs are bad, they are selling you a “bridge” or requiring a “gateway” almost at the same time. That’s a distinction without a difference.

Others are a little more subtle - the hub is optional so they claim their solution is hubless because some functions work from their self-contained devices.

But when you look under the covers, you immediately see that full automation and remote access or compatibility with other systems requires a hub.

Truthfully, the worst offender here is Apple. The HomeKit system is growing more useful every year and it’s good enough for single room or smaller home systems.

But HomeKit is not hubless - it requires an Apple TV to be purchased and used as a makeshift hub for anything but the smallest setup.

The Apple TV is required for remote access and to use any automation (having stuff happen on it’s own) including the geo-fencing where lights turn on or off or other things happen as you enter or leave your home.

The Apple TV is also required as a makeshift Bluetooth repeater and controller to extend the range of Bluetooth connected devices so they are usable when your iPhone is not right nearby.

Oh, just a word to the wise, make sure to leave your Apple TV running 24 hours a day and beware of family members turning it off or rebooting it when NetFlex or YouTube gets stuck and their favorite shows or movie stops playing.

Are You Still Afraid of Hubs?

I hope you see how the benefits of using a hub-based smart home system greatly outlays the mostly false criticism levied against them.

If you are building a smart home system, whether all at once or step-by-step, if your goal is to have more than just a few lights or gadgets in a single room, it is best to embrace hub based systems earlier rather than later.

You’ll find using a hub or bridge will provide better automation, more flexibility, wider choice of devices, and lower cost for your installation.

What do you think? Are you still afraid of hubs?

Can You Choose The Right TV?

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What’s On TV?

If you haven’t noticed, we are in a transition period with mainstream TV technology moving from high definition to ultra high definition and even creeping towards 8K.

A quick history of TV formats in the United States

The easiest way to categorize the different models available is by the image resolution displayed on the screen.

Traditional analog broadcast TV had 525 lines of resolution and is the baseline everything else is compared with.

High Definition Digital TV has 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution. This is typically called HD or 1K television.

The new Ultra HD (or 4K) TV’s feature 3840 x 2160 resolution which is four times the pixel resolution - that’s 400% more!

New TV’s bring even more confusing image choices

With technology it is too easy for manufacturers to avoid making hard decisions.

Engineers and designers love to put multiple features and capabilities into a product and leave it up to the consumer to sort it all out.

So HD and 4K televisions have many confusing options - multiple resolutions, different refresh rates, contrast ratio, color rendering, color range, and that’s just the beginning.

HD televisions are available in both 720 and 1080 resolution, both interlaced (“i”) and non-interlaced (“p”) versions, and 4K provides even more choices for refresh rates.

As if that wasn’t enough, the new crop of 4K televisions brings new whiz-bang features including wider color gamut, high dynamic range (in multiple flavors - HDR, HDR10, HDR10+, DolbyVision).

Don’t forget the “Talkies”

But televisions also have sound, not just video. Choices include mono, stereo, surround sound, Dolby Stereo, DTS, THX, Dolby Atmos, and more.

Add-on sound bars or full-fledged audio systems have become de rigeur because the thin-screen TV’s we relish have tiny built-in speakers that aren’t up to the job of providing decent, let alone, great sound.

Looking Behind The Screen (Tech)

The displays themselves have evolved from heavy glass cathode ray tubes (CRT) to thinner and lighter weight panels.

Just as we were getting comfortable with esoteric technical terms like liquid crystal displays (LCD) and digital light processing (DLP), the industry moved to light emitting diodes (LED) and quantum dot (QLED).

Now the industry is enticing us with the next big thing in screens being organic light emitting diodes (OLED) and micro LED.

“Stream-In-A-Box”

Most televisions are now smart TVs with Internet streaming built-in.

Advanced consumers will still want to purchase their own AppleTV, Roku, FireTV, or Chromecast, but basic streaming functionality is now included so you can get started cutting the cord without extra equipment.

Out Of Control?

Managing all the capability of today’s televisions is a nightmare. There are a slew of remote controls using a mix of technology - infrared (IR), radio frequency (RF), and Bluetooth (BT).

Some remotes have a built-in keyboard and even mouse pointer features, too!

For compatibility with home automation and smart home systems, many televisions include a traditional RS-232 serial communications port and most offer some kind of control via built-in WiFi and Ethernet networking.

How To Choose A TV

With so many options, changes in technology, and conflicting features, how do you choose? Let me be so bold as to provide some practical guidance.

Narrow things down right away

Eliminate a lot of the confusion and save yourself time by understanding your goals or constraints.

How is the tv going to be used?

Are you shopping for the primary television for your media room / family room or an extra TV for the kitchen or bedoom?

Are you replacing an existing TV or adding a new one?

What do you like to watch? News, Sports, TV shows, Movies, Streaming, and/or DVD’s?

How long do you watch? Every day, only a few hours?

How many people will be watching at the same time?

What is the lighting in the room - Daytime, nighttime, mixed-use, or dedicated home theater?

How much do you want to spend? Knowing how much you will spend greatly helps narrow the choices, too.

Let’s Make A Deal!

With the cost and usage defined, you can make a first pass to greatly narrow the selection by picking the approximate screen size.

/Small screens/ (42” or less) are the most affordable and if usage is light you’ll probably shop primarily based on price - not technology or features.

/Medium screens/ (50” to 65”) are the sweet spot with the best bang for your buck.

As this is most likely your primary family room solution, you’ll want to weigh the differences between LCD, LED, and OLED balancing cost against image quality and brightness.

/Large screens/ will be the most expensive as you’ll want the highest quality LED or OLED technology for the best picture.

Cheap large screens are not a good value. For bigger home theater or dedicated media rooms, it may be worth considering a projector instead.

Things To Avoid

You’ll probably connect the television to a sound bar, traditional audio video receiver (AVR), or Sonos wireless speakers for stereo or surround sound, so don’t pay a lot of attention to the built-in speakers from the manufacturer.

Avoid HD (1K) televisions. 4K has become the mainstream technology and has a lot of future growth built-in. As of now I would only advise buying a 1K TV if you have a very limited budget, see an incredible sales price, or are buying an extra TV as an impulse purchase.

Similarly, I would stay away from 8K. It is an emerging technology and may become mainstream in the future, but for now it is incredibly overpriced, immature technology, and there is truly nothing available in native 8K format.

There is also discussion about whether 8K will even be viable for home use or end up as a commercial / industrial solution only. But to be fair, that’s what pessimists said about 4K when it was first introduced.

Understand That Feature Packages Are Marketing Decisions

The biggest lie in the TV industry is that you need higher resolution. For the typical American family room or bedroom, the image quality provided by a 4K television versus a 1K may not be visible to your eyes.

You must be in a larger room and further away from the TV in order for the higher resolution to make a difference. (There are industry charts and graphs that explain all this if you want to nerd out on the details.)

So why am I recommending 4K over 1K? Simple! The added features of more colors (wider color gamut) and high dynamic range (HDR) included now with almost all 4K televisions makes a huge difference in image quality.

When you go “Ooh and Ahh” comparing the 4K and 1K televisions in the store side-by-side the difference you are seeing in those perfect demonstration videos is due to HDR and wider color range - not resolution.

Bait And Switch?

The TV industry could have added HDR and wider color gamut to 1K televisions, but they decided to hold those features back and only put them into the 4K sets.

Why? The transition from analog to digital HD TV took a lot longer than expected even though the picture quality difference was huge.

The industry didn’t want that to happen again. They felt the difference between HD and 4K resolution might not be enough so they loaded 4K sets with lots of extra pizzaz to jump start sales.

Side-note: Watch out for low prices on first-generation 4K televisions that do not have HDR or wider color range. Some retail chains and distributors are still trying to unload these early 4K models on unsuspecting consumers by slashing prices.

Confused Yet?

This is getting long so I won’t even start to talk about the differences between the built-in SmartTV features versus using external streaming devices such as AppleTV or Roku.

I also haven’t delved into the options for universal remote control or smart home control systems integrated with your television - that’s a huge topic unto itself.

But I do want to say that I hope having read this far you understand the value of hiring a professional smart home / custom integrator such as my firm, DoItForMe.Solutions to help advise and guide you through the confusing array of choices and products.

It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. I work with clients both locally and across the country helping you understand your needs and navigating the jungle of products, choices, and options.

Sometimes, a quick telephone consulting session is enough to help you understand your options so you can do-it-yourself buying and installing the right products saving hundreds or thousands of dollars and hours of your time.

If you are located in the San Francisco / Monterey Bay Area, and want more assistance, please get in touch.

I’ll be glad to talk with you about handling everything - selection of television, audio, and smart home control systems including purchasing, installation, and local help. [Contact me for details](http://www.doitforme.solutions/contact) ]

Naming Names!

I get annoyed when my questions get answered from other experts with “it depends” or “they are all good”, so with all the usual disclaimers implied here’s what I am buying for myself these days:

Screen size - 65” for general use, 77” or larger for family room / media room

Screen technology - OLED when I can afford it, high quality LED otherwise

Manufacturer - I am having great results with LG right now

Streaming box - AppleTV 4K (We’re a big Apple household)

Control system - Logitech Harmony Elite/Pro (but others too)

What Do You Think?

Are you interested/thinking/considering a new television? Let me know what you are considering.

Secrets Of Voice Controlled Lighting

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The Challenge with Big Lighting Systems

Having recently completed a major project for a client (installing a lighting automation system with a large number of dimmers and switches), I was confronted with figuring out an optimal configuration for voice control options.

Sure it’s exciting to work on a large multi-room installation but when you get into a system of this size, there are a lot of things that you can’t ignore or sweep under the rug.

There’s several key “lessons learned” and tips from different aspects of this particular installation, but I want to focus on voice control - it’s one of my favorite features and very popular with the explosion in smart speakers from Amazon, Google, and Apple.

The challenge is as follows: With so many rooms and individual lights / light fixtures, how do you architect a voice control solution that preserves simplicity and ease-of-use? Voice control is very convenient, but lacks the physical, tactile and visual feedback we expect to guide our interactions.

If you have worked with voice control, even in a single room, you probably know that naming all the lights and keeping things straight can be a real problem. Current voice control technology is fairly primitive and requires strict or structured voice commands and a lot of memorization to identify the correct room and desired light.

Divide And Conquer

The first thing I did was to set the right objectives. Since this project has other means of lighting control, the goal for voice control was to provide a convenient alternative to other controls - not the primary interface.

So I could narrow the focus by eliminating the need to control every single light individually and, for this particular installation, exclude controlling scenes or house-wide commands by voice.

In discussion with the client, we determined that the primary use for voice control was convenience in turning all the lights in a single room on or off with a voice command. This would be particularly useful in the bedrooms and common areas including kitchen, home office, and media room.

As you’ll see later, this really helped in two areas that can be problematic - naming rooms and naming each individual light. By not focusing on controlling lights other than the room you are currently in, and by not needing direct control over every single light individually, the naming scheme was much simpler and not “mission critical”.

Choosing A Voice Platform

The next step was to choose which voice control platform to use. It was not by accident that the lighting automation system chosen supports all major voice platforms - Apple HomeKit/Siri, Amazon Alexa, and Google Home Assistant.

The lighting controls were picked for what they do best without worrying about the voice overlay. Truthfully, there never was any doubt that I would be recommending and installing a Lutron lighting system and I already knew that Lutron works with all the voice systems under consideration so this wasn’t really a deciding factor.

The only lighting automation choice was to figure out which Lutron system (Caseta, RA2 Select, RA2, or Homeworks QS) would be appropriate. (That’s a topic for another day but spoiler alert, Caseta is too small, Homeworks QS is too big, so the decision was simply RA2 Select or full RA2.)

This is a bit of a Catch-22 situation - Do I recommend Lutron because I am a Lutron Residential Pro dealer or am I a trained/certified dealer because I found Lutron was always the best solution? Answer: Yes!

The Voice Decision Process

Every project is different so the choice requires balancing often competing needs or capability. This particular household is Apple based using iPhones, iPads and Mac computers but Apple HomeKit/Siri was not the right choice.

The client doesn’t want to carry their iPhone around the home and doesn’t use an Apple watch, so the only way to issue voice commands would be to install Apple HomePod smart speakers.

Freestanding HomePods would be required for guests and visitors so they could also use voice control without having to install a special app on their devices or be “invited” to HomeKit as a guest user.

In this install, multi-room music was not desired so investing $350 per room for HomePod’s would not be cost effective.

More subjectively, Apple HomeKit is not a good fit for a large installation like this. It is not mature enough and does not provide enough support/diagnostic features to fix problems when they arise.

Also, in my opinion, Apple’s voice assistant, Siri, is too “chatty” and doesn’t give predictable results for voice control as the same exact command will sometimes give different results. (Based on current capability and features; if I am fortunate that you are reading this at a future time, all bets are off and the choice may be different.)

Amazon Alexa was the platform chosen. With inexpensive $50 Echo Dots spread around the house, the goals could be met cost effectively. There are also a range of 3rd party brackets and adapters that allow hiding the power cords and mounting the Echo Dot directly to a wall outlet for a neat and tidy installation.

The “Secret Sauce” of Advanced Configuration

Like most devices today, the Echo Dot doesn’t come with much of an actual user manual or documentation. Most of us learn our way around by trial and error experimenting with various voice commands and seeing what they do.

The Amazon Alexa App for smartphones and tablets isn’t that easy to use and can be confusing to set up, so many people avoid it entirely.

Amazon has been continually improving the Alexa experience and features so figuring out the best way to setup a multi-room Amazon Echo system involves doing a lot or research, experimentation, and chasing a moving target.

With the usual YMMV, here’s the configuration that I found works well. The key is using a feature called “Smart Home Groups” that many Alexa users are not familiar with.

Understanding Alexa Groups

First I need to explain how Amazon has implemented regular device groups. Although you might consider groups to be the same as rooms, they don’t have to be.

You can create groups called “kitchen”, “guest bedroom”, “office” and place the appropriates lights or other devices into the group that corresponds to their physical location. That’s a convenient way to organize everything and a good starting point.

One way I use groups is to create alternate names (“aliases”) for existing devices. Here’s an example - I have a color laser printer called “XZY Color Printer” connected to a smart switch. This allows me to turn the printer on or off by voice command and also automatically.

In my home office, due to physical constraints, the printer is located upstairs so I like being able to turn it on or off without having to run upstairs first.

I also like to turn it off completely to save power as I don’t print all that often anymore, but like many people, I forget to do that so I have an automatic routine that turns it off daily at 11pm.

Now I’m lazy even when talking. I could say “Alexa, turn XZY Color Printer ON” but that’s a mouthful. I could rename the printer to simply “printer” so I could say “Alexa, Printer ON” but I like having descriptive device names so I know what everything is (I have several other printers too).

What I did is create a device group using the Amazon Alexa App and I call the group “printer” and place the “XYZ Color Printer” into this group. Now I can use the command “Alexa, Printer ON” easily.

This works because you can tell Alexa to turn a group on or off just like a device. The “Duh” moment for me was realizing you are allowed to have device groups with only 1 device in the group. Seems obvious, but I never thought of using groups with only 1 device until I realized i could use it to give nicknames to a device.

It gets more powerful - I actually have two printer devices that are in the group “Printer” so Alexa will turn both of them on or off at the same time.

In tech lingo, “Printer” is a virtual device which is a composite of multiple actual devices but operates just like a single real device.

Grouping The Lights In Each Room

Hopefully if I haven’t lost you and you “get this” you’ll realize the next step is to create groups for each room of your house and place all the lights and light switches into the appropriate groups.

Now you could create “kitchen”, “bedroom”, etc. but I prefer to use group names like “kitchen lights”, “bedroom lights”, or “office lights” to make it clear that the groups I am creating are for controlling only the lights - not other devices.

This is more than just cosmetic - if you have other devices in the room, say a fan or TV, you don’t want them turning on or off when you are trying to control just the lights.

So far so good, now for each room you can more easily control the lights with a simpler command. When you want to turn all the kitchen lights on you can say “Alexa, kitchen lights ON” and even if you have 3 or 4 sets of lights (ceiling lights, counter lights, hanging pendant lights, and more) all the lights are easily controlled with a single command.

You don’t need to know the names of the individual lights so you are free to use names like “Counter 2 led light strip”, “Corner overhead lights”, “Ceiling Downlights”, and other descriptive, but lengthy names to keep all the configuration clear without making knowing or memorizing the voice commands impossible for mere mortals.

When Is a Light Not A Light?

When it’s a switch! Seriously, Alexa knows what a light is and understands that you might want to turn it on, turn it off, or dim it.

If you have a light connected to a smart switch, Alexa doesn’t know that. Fortunately, Amazon has added a configuration command so you can manually change the configuration of a switch using the Alexa App and tell her that it is actually a light.

You may not need this, but if you run into trouble with lights not working the way you expect, this is one of the first things to check. It’s a subtle configuration option and was only recently added so many people don’t know this exists.

But Wait, There’s More…

Like a bad informercial, I can finally get you to the cool stuff. Amazon Alexa has a special kind of group called a “Smart Home Group” and it really ups the ante of what you can do.

When you have more than one Amazon Echo device, using the Alexa app you can add the Echo device to a specific group and that turns the group into a Smart Home Group.

With my client’s installation, I installed an Echo Dot in the kitchen, office, media room, and several bedrooms. To keep things straight, I renamed them in the Alexa app so they became “Kitchen Echo Dot”, “Office Echo Dot”, etc.

Using the Alexa app, I added the Echo devices to the appropriate groups. I added the “Kitchen Echo Dot” to the “Kitchen Lighting” group; I added the “Guest Room Echo Dot” to the “Guest Room Lighting” group, and so on.

The beauty of doing this is that when you have multiple Amazon Echo devices, they use a kind of “voice triangulation” to automatically figure out which Echo device is closest to you. That device is the one that will respond to your voice commands.

So when you are in the kitchen, even if it is close to the media room/family room, the Echo in the kitchen will respond, not both of them.

Here’s what is truly magical - this means Amazon can automatically figure out which room you are in. So when you are in the kitchen, you can say “Alexa, lights ON” to turn on the kitchen lights instead of saying “Alexa, Kitchen lights ON”.

Now you can go to any room in your house that has it’s own Alexa and use exactly the same command, “Alexa, lights ON”, to turn on only the lights in that specific room. You don’t have to know or use the room name, you don’t have to know the actual name of the lights, switches, or dimmers.

With this setup, guests and visitors will not be intimidated by your smart home. Even 80 year old Grandma can probably understand this simple explanation: Go to any room and say “Alexa, lights ON” or “Alexa, lights OFF”.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

Now you don’t have to go completely crazy and put an Echo device in every single room. Just choose the rooms where you want easy voice control. It’s not all-or-nothing: You can start small and add rooms as you find the need (or other members of the household get jealous).

Don’t forget that as the “power user”, you can always use room specific commands. Just be kind - when you are in the media room watching a movie, don’t say “Alexa, Guest Bedroom Lights OFF” and prank your visitors. Trust me, they will want to harm you!

Voice Control Is Not A Gimmick

In addition to explaining the specifics of how I configured this particular system, I hope I have been able to show from a real-world example how voice control is useful right now.

I still hear too many people say “it’s a gimmick”, “it doesn’t work”, or “it’s just a toy” when I ask them about adding voice control. For me, the key is to keep it straightforward, as simple as possible, and make it easy to use.

I don’t try to “boil the ocean” making everything controllable by voice with overly complicated configurations and commands. Just careful use of voice commands to complement, not replace, tried and true controls such as physical light switches, keypads, and remote control devices.

What Do You Think?

Are you using voice control in your smart home? Which voice platform are you using or considering?

Are HDMI Cables All The Same?

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I was wrong? Or Was I?
I just ran into a situation that caused me to re-think a strongly held position. I’m usually an easy-going type of person, but once in a while, a few things really bother me.

As a consumer, and later as a product manager / marketing manager at several high tech companies, I have always had the customer’s interest at heart.

Now, as a smart home systems integrator, I am still very upset when I see shady business practices or questionable sales tactics focused on profit (and greed).

Selling grossly over-priced accessories, especially HDMI cables, has often put me “on a mission” to educate the “regular guy or gal” and set the record straight.

I have been vocal in telling friends, clients, and customers that there is no difference in HDMI cables. Under most circumstances, the least expensive no-name cables provide the same result as the expensive fancy brands.

That used to be true, but now I must admit, I learned the hard way that the answer is “it depends”.

Gold-Plated AV Cables
If you’ve been around the consumer electronics and stereo industry, then you’ve probably come across the salesperson trying to sell you gold-plated (literally!) AV cables.

Whether it’s speaker wire with 100% pure, oxygen-free solid copper wire, or simply connection wires for your DVD player or other device with RCA jacks, there are always several grades to choose from.

When you ask for the cheapest option, the store will show you their basic house brand or generic/unbranded cable and then proceed to tell you all the reasons why it is a bad choice.

“You are investing a lot in buying this fancy stereo. Do you really want to hook it up with a junkie cable that will ruin the sound?”

“You need these solid-gold cables to really hear the music. Isn’t that why you are buying this system to replace that little speaker you have now?”

“The gold-plated is ok, but I think you should really get the solid-gold wire. Isn’t quality sound worth just a little more?”

And then there’s my favorite, “A chain is as strong as the weakest link. Your spending $XXX on a great system, don’t ruin it by skimping on the wires and connections.”

A Nugget of Truth
The reason they got away with this is because there is a glint of truth in everything they were saying. Speaker wires and connecting cables were (and still are) analog wires.

They carry an infinitely varying signal (voltage) that is an electrical representation of the sound (or video) signal.

I’ll probably make engineers and physicists reading this cringe, but in a great oversimplification, analog signals are very delicate. The signal weakens as the cable gets longer and the signal can be affected by nearby electrical or magnetic interference.

The quality of everything going into a typical analog AV cable makes a difference.

The purity of the metal, the thickness of the wire, the materials used for insulation, the connectors, the soldering of the wire to the connectors, etc.

Each and every one of these factors, and many more, can *theoretically* affect the sound that you hear from your stereo. I say theoretically because it takes certain conditions for these differences to be noticeable.

Once again, distance and interference are the two big ones - if you are running long av cables and they run near motors (air conditioning, refrigerators) or other electro-magnetic devices (florescent lights), it is much more likely they can pick up electrical noise that interferes with the signal.

Unless you are an audiophile or have extremely sensitive hearing, you probably, like me, can’t hear the difference anyway most of the time.

So although *theoretically* those $100 or even $1,000 speaker wires might be a little better, the store brand $5 wire will usually work just as well.

I’ve even read stories of people taking old lamp cords, cutting off the plugs, and using them instead of speaker wires in a pinch. Not something I would even consider, but interesting anecdotes.

Digital Wires - It’s all about the 1’s and 0’s
HDMI (which stands for High Definition Multi-media Interface) is a digital transmission system, it is not analog.

While again my engineer buddies may cringe at this simple analogy, a digital cable either delivers the signal or it doesn’t; there is no in-between.

If the post office delivered mail like HDMI cables deliver TV signals, you either receive a letter or your don’t. You would never receive a letter where the envelope is dirty, some of the envelope and it’s contents are torn or missing, or the contents of the envelope is partially unreadable.

So my rule for using HDMI cables (until now) was very simple. Buy any cable you like, plug it in, and if it works then you are all set. If it doesn’t work, then you need a different cable.

When an HDMI cable doesn’t work, you’ll know it. Because the signal “didn’t get delivered” your TV has no choice but to display a blank dot on the screen.

So when you see a snowstorm on your screen instead of a picture, you know you have a cable problem.

(As a side note, if the audio portion of the signal is not received properly from the HDMI cable, the TV and most AV equipment is designed with an automatic mute function so you’ll hear silence instead of corrupted noise or sound that might hurt your ears.)

This wasn’t just my personal opinion. Although not widespread, there have been articles published that explained why you didn’t need to spend big bucks on fancy HDMI Cables.

Now in fairness I do need to say that digital cables such as HDMI will also have transmission issues when using fairly long cables around 30 feet or more. In that case, higher quality cables can make a difference, but again, it either works or it doesn’t.

For very long distances and use inside walls or large home theaters there are specialized HDMI cables which are called “active cables”. These cables have electronics incorporated into the cable itself to amplify and strengthen the signal so it can be sent over longer or thinner cables.

Active HDMI cables are more expensive and are worth the money if you need the increased distance or thinness, but for most consumer applications they aren’t necessary.

4K and HDR Changes Everything
As technology continued to evolve and we went from HD (sometimes called 1K TV) to 4K TV (often called UHD or Ultra HD TV) everything changed.

Although we are still using HDMI cables, sending so much more data down the same set of wires is really a magic trick of amazing proportions.

So much had to be changed “under the hood” of HDMI to make this work and work well.

In addition to more raw data, the introduction of HDR (high dynamic range) and wider color gamut (more colors in the picture) has put even more demands on the transmission system.

Now the huge increase in data requirements means we need to use higher quality HDMI cables. Ok, you’re probably thinking “No big deal, just do like before. Buy the cheapest cable, try it out, and if it doesn’t work, just get a better one”.

That was a good strategy in the past, but no longer. The problem is that 4K isn’t a single specification or standard, it is a range of features and performance with different bandwidth and data rate requirements.

If older HDMI cables were like a good one-lane road, then it didn’t matter if you were on a 2-line, 4-line, or multi-lane freeway, they would almost always work because the road was always *at least* one lane wide.

The challenge now, which I learned the hard way, is that newer TV standards like 4K and HDR are too flexible for their own good. The devices will adjust to the lowest common denominator, often silently.

If the HDMI cable between your video source and your TV can’t handle the bandwidth for 4K running at 60 frames per second (fps), the TV might automatically shift to a lower frame rate.

You’ll still see your program on your TV, but it won’t be displayed with the quality you expect.

Similarly, if your HDMI cable is capable of supporting 4K but doesn’t have the added bandwidth for HDR, your TV will simply shift to displaying a regular 4K non-HDR picture (sometimes called SDR - standard dynamic range).

Currently, HDMI bandwidth ranges from 10 Gbps up to 18 Gbps for full quality 4K video. Work is already underway to support 8K video and beyond with bandwidth requirements up to 48 Gbps!

If you want to see more of the nitty gritty details (with all the various combinations of 4K) here’s a chart that will totally confuse most of us.

What You See Is What You Get
I have to thank Apple for helping me realize what is going on with HDMI. I hooked up an Apple TV 4K media player to an amazing LG OLED TV and was a bit disappointed by the quality of the image.

After checking settings and fiddling around trying to get the Apple TV to display the 4K HDR video I expected, this message flashed on the screen:

After, what I admit was a knee-jerk “WTF” reaction, I realized that my existing HDMI cables purchased many years ago from unknown sources with unknown brand or quality, were simply not up to the job.

How To Shop For Quality 4K HDMI Cables
If you want to future-proof your cables here are my recommendations:

Only buy certified cables - These are cables that have been tested by an outside agency such as [DPL-Labs](https://www.dpllabs.com/page/about-dpl-labs) to insure the cables actually can do what the seller claims.

Look for HDMI cables that support at least 4K, 60fps, 18 Gbps bandwidth, and HDR - You may find some cables that support even higher bandwidth, but anything that supports these three key metrics will be able to handle just about anything you can throw at it.

Avoid cables that claim to be 4K but nothing else - Low-end, cheap cables that only support 10 Gbps of bandwidth are allowed to claim they support 4K but that is barely the truth.

For typical distances up to 30 feet use passive cables - Don’t venture into the relatively murky waters of active cables or fiber optic cables unless you really need very long cables. (If you do, I suggest working with a consultant or company that has experience in this area as long cables are also much more expensive so you don’t want a costly mistake.)

Don’t Worry about ARC or Ethernet features - Some HDMI cables advertise their compatibility with extra features such as ARC (audio return channel) and integrated Ethernet networking. Although these are an important distinction for non-4K cables, all HDMI cables that meet 4K/60/18 Gbps specs will always also support ARC and Ethernet so you don’t have to specifically look for these additional capabilities.

Don’t Buy Online or At Big Box Stores - Unfortunately, the common online websites and typical big box retail stores don’t understand what you now do; Most cables sold do not meet all the minimum specs of 4K/60/18Gbps, and they do not carry DPL labs certification.

My last advice is optional - I would suggest never buying any other type of HDMI cable again. Even if you don’t have 4K TV or streaming media devices now, I think it is prudent to start planning for the future and simply always buy 4K/60/18 Gbps certified HDMI cables.

You might not need them, but the increased cost may be worth the peace of mind and future proofing. If it isn’t obvious, the newer 4K/60/18 Gbps cables work flawlessly with your existing 1K and older equipment.

Beware The Home Wiring Apocalypse

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Is Your Home Wiring A Disaster Waiting To Happen?
A few weeks ago I discovered a serious problem that may affects hundreds, thousands, or possibly hundreds of thousands of homes.  You may or may not be affected.

If you have an old home, live in an apartment, or don’t have Ethernet wiring already installed in your home, this probably doesn’t affect you - but keep reading if you want to be amused or surprised.

The dictionary defines apocalypse as “The complete final destruction of the world”, so, okay, I know I’m exaggerating a little bit, but this is really one of the biggest problems facing many homeowners they may not be aware of.

In The Beginning…
It all started with Internet connection problems in my own home.  (Yup, yours truly was a victim just like many of you of mysterious slowdowns, random failures, and generally lousy Internet service.)

Sometimes knowing too much (which in this case means installing networking, Wi-Fi, and smart home systems for clients and customers), can be dangerous.

Instead of immediately going right to the real problem (spoiler: it was my ISP’s cable modem provisioning settings), I chose to blame my somewhat aging network infrastructure and took it upon myself to do a complete makeover - replacing my router, firewall, Wi-Fi access points, and network switches - the whole shebang!

In my own defense, I have continued to evolve network design and equipment choices and it was time to get my own configuration “in sync” with newer products and solutions.

A bit convoluted, but one way to troubleshoot existing equipment and isolate the bad is to start over and replace everything with “known good” hardware and systems.

“Everything Must Go”
I replaced a high-end integrated consumer Wi-Fi router/switch from Synology and Eero mesh units with Enterprise-grade modular UniFi gear from Ubiquiti Networks.

“Out” with the dumb Ethernet switches and “in” with fully managed power-over-Ethernet (PoE) smart switches, high performance router/VPN/security gateway, separate Wi-Fi access points, and dedicated cloud controller management station.

I now had a world-class wired/wireless network system with amazing management, control, and features.  I even had a secure inbound VPN implemented along with notifications and alerts if anything should go wrong.

Unfortunately, I still had unreliable Internet.  But on the plus side, I now had beautiful graphs that showed my Internet connection speed bouncing from 50 mbps to 3 mbps every 10 or 20 minutes like a nice sine wave.

Back To Square One
So I did what I should have done in the first place - I called my local ISP tech support.  They tried various things and they noticed a problem on their end so they completely reset the configuration of my broadband modem.

They also scheduled a visit by a technician to inspect all the wiring, splices, and junction boxes, etc. as their diagnostics indicated there might be a wiring problem.

During the conversation I asked about higher speed options and much to my surprise I found I was eligible for a free upgrade from 50mbps down/5 mbps up to 100mbps down/10 mbps up.

The rep said it would take about 10 minutes and then I should be fine - my existing cable modem could handle it no problem.

“I Feel The Need for Speed”
Amazingly, in a few minutes I actually did get the speed upgrade and the reconfiguration on their end seemed to also fix the reliability problems I was having.

The technician did come out a few days later and replaced some old wiring junctions but didn’t find any other problems, so now I’ve been enjoying much faster speeds but…
 

A Brief History Of The World (of Ethernet Networking)
Wired computer networking using Ethernet hasn’t always been the same speed.  In the lab, Ethernet ran at 1mbps to  3 mbps, but the speed was bumped up to what was then a blistering 10 mbps speed when it became a commercial product in 1980.

Early Ethernet ran on thick heavy coaxial cables and the adapters alone cost several thousand dollars, but 3Com corporation came to the rescue promoting the use of thin coax and interface boards for the original IBM PC personal computer that only cost $995 each in 1981.

Over the years Ethernet has continued to evolve.  The next leap in speed was called “Fast Ethernet” and brought 10X speed improvement to 100mbps.

This 10X increase continued with “Gigabit Ethernet” supporting 1000mbps and now we have even faster versions supporting 10Gbps and beyond.

All these increases has been mostly backward compatible.  Given the right hubs, switches, wiring, connectors, and computer adapters, the different speeds can coexist with equipment automatically adjusting speeds to accommodate the slowest device or “weakest link”.

There’s The Rub, Maty (In My Best Pirate’s Voice)
My existing Internet service was 50mbps, the increased service was 100mbps.  Those are nominal speeds, so depending upon the time of day and actual conditions, I have achieved speeds up to 111mbps.

Do you see the problem? With my slower service, my maximum possible speed was always well below the Fast Ethernet limit of 100mbps, but with my upgrade, I am into Gigabit Ethernet (GigE) speeds of over 100mbps (and potentially up to 1 Gbps).

I’ll spare you all the technical details and cut to the chase - my in-wall Ethernet wiring can’t *reliably* handle the increased speed.

My house is relatively new.  We are the second owner and it was built about 20 years ago.  At that time, the builders pre-wired the house with Cat 5 cable making it move-in ready for telephone and computer networking.  

A great selling feature even though most home buyers really didn’t know what Cat 5 cabling was or how pre-wiring would save them a lot of money and trouble when they later needed it.

The problem is very simple - Cat 5 cabling is only rated for 100mbps Ethernet speed.  Gigabit Ethernet (1000mbps) requires Cat 5E wiring at a minimum.  Just missing an “E”, but a big difference.

Running Ethernet traffic faster than 100mbps on Cat 5 is asking for trouble - a lot of trouble.  Upon closer examination, I found that some of my Ethernet switches (all Gigabit capable) were automatically slowing down some of their ports to 100mbps speeds while other ports were running (or trying to run) at GigE speeds.

Just like overclocking your computer, turbo-charging a car engine, or otherwise putting the pedal-to-the-metal and violating natural or artificial speed limits, network wiring can often run faster than the rated speed.

But when you violate a cable’s certified specs, you run the risk of intermittent failures, distance limitations, and general reliability problems that are very hard to track down.

A First World Problem
Clearly, some of you have little sympathy for those of us that have had the luxury of pre-wired Ethernet cables that have worked (until now).

Nonetheless, it is a real potential problem and one that will become widespread as Internet speeds continue to increase every year or so.

If you face a similar problem, or may in the future, I have a few quick tips…

Cat 5 Wiring Speed Workarounds
Use only Fast Ethernet (100 mbps) Ethernet switches.  If all your network devices only support 100mbps speeds, then you won’t have a problem.

You’ll miss out on a little extra speed, but does 111mbps versus 100mbps really matter? (Yeah, but next year you might be getting 150mbps or 200mbps from your ISP so you’re just kicking the can down the road for now.)

Don’t forget that many low-end Wi-Fi routers with built-in Ethernet ports may only support 100mbps so getting access to the faster speed from your ISP might require replacing your current Wi-Fi and/or router devices anyway.

If you are using Gigabit Ethernet switches (which is very common as low-cost switches are now $20 to $50), check the indicator lights and see if some ports are running at 100mbps while others are trying to push 1000mbps through those Cat 5 wires.

It’s actually the faster ports that might have problems.  See if you can do any configuration commands on the switch to manually force the speed of the ports to stay at 100mbps or considering replacing the switches.

Again, the goal is to achieve a stable, reliable network by insuring the network traffic is not running faster than the maximum certified speed of the cable.

Short of replacing all your existing in-wall Cat 5 wiring with Cat 5E, or better yet, Cat 6 cables, these are all stop-gap measures, so plan accordingly.

Please note that much like a fence, Ethernet network is only as strong as the weakest link.  Using Cat 5E or Cat 6 patch cables from your Ethernet switches to your computer equipment doesn’t solve the problem.  The Cat 5 wires in the wall will continue to limit the safest maximum speed of your network to 100mbps, end-to-end.
 

Wires, What Wires?
If you don’t have Ethernet wires in your walls, you might already be running a 100% wireless home network.  That is certainly an option - just stop using the existing wires and go completely wireless.

Hardwired connections are still preferable, whenever possible.   If you have been relying on wired Ethernet you may need to install a Wi-Fi network or overhaul your existing older Wi-Fi system as it may no longer be up to the job of carrying the full load of all your devices.

Checking email, browsing website, and reading your Facebook newsfeed on Wi-Fi is very different than trying to stream Netflix on three TV’s at the same time!

“We Had To Destroy It To Save It”

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Back The Truck Up
Before specializing in smart homes and home automation systems, I started my business providing technology consulting to individuals and medium sized companies.  You can see the details at rsdevelopmentgroup.com, my corporate parent.

My early years working in the technology industry were focused on the IBM PC and compatible systems, while in the last five years I have spent a lot of time working with Apple computers and systems, but what I am writing about this week is applicable to all systems and platforms.
 

It’s Broke, Fix It!
Having been called into many clients homes or offices to not just help them, but actually fix their computer problems, I’d like to share my favorite secret computing tip.

With smart home systems, a lot of my time is spent working with devices (or “gadgets”), but ultimately everything connects back to the ubiquitous personal computer, so I hope you don’t mind this slight diversion.

Nature vs Nurture
In Psychology, there is the age-old debate of whether one’s particular behavior is intrinsic (natural or inherited) or a learned behavior (nurtured by our environment of upbringing).

With desktop computing, I saw that Windows users and Mac users approached using their computers in different ways.  Often this was due to the reliability (or lack thereof) in performing some tasks or the ease of use of performing others.

There are both similarities and differences between macOS and Windows or iOS and Android, but I’m going to focus on general issues all computing platforms have in common; so please stay with me regardless of which platforms you personally use.

“I’m just a soul whose intentions are good”
Those famous lyrics by The Animals certainly weren’t written about using computers, but they could have been.

Interestingly, I found many clients had the same bad habits.  Now I don’t know if using Windows versus Mac brought them to the same place in different ways, but that doesn’t really matter.


Step 1: Destroy Your Computer
What’s the first thing you do when you get a new computer or smartphone?  If you are like most people, you dive right in and start exploring the cool things it can do - the hardware or software features that enticed you to buy it the first place.

One of the most common tasks I have been asked to perform is to restore a computer to a stable working condition after it has been corrupted with viruses or malware.

The computer is not stable - basic operations such as browsing the web or running meat-and-potatoes apps like word processing or spreadsheets  are a constant battle with crashes, hangs, or unexplained freezes.

(Us Mac folks are not immune either; installing lots of add-on programs, especially playing with extra hardware and their device drivers can over time create a lot of the same symptoms as PC’s - it just takes longer.)

*My simple advice when getting a new computer or smartphone is to practice reloading/restoring the system before you do anything else.*

It’s the best time to do this - before you have any data on the system and while everything is still fresh and new.

Do You Know The Way To San Jose?
Well, not really important (unless you were trying to get to the WWDC conference in June).

But do you know how to reload the operating system on your computer or smartphone?  I’m not talking about rebooting, but actually completely erasing the hard drive (or flash storage) and setting the device back to pristine-right-from-the-factory status.

In many geek circles, we call this a “Nuke and Pave”.   Taking a post-apocalyptic system (everything wiped out) and building it back up to a working computer or phone like paving over a dirt path with a modern superhighway.

The Tools Of The Trade
You need three things to successfully “Nuked and Pave” your system:  A full data backup, the knowledge or instructions on how to do it, and the source media or original system files.

The lack of a decent data back typically stops most people dead in their tracks.  Without reliable backup, you can’t proceed with a full erase of your system.

This is a solvable and avoidable problem (a good topic for another time), but the beauty of a just purchased computer is that you don’t have data on it to worry about yet!

Most people have more trouble with the second and third requirements - They don’t know how to do it and when they need to, they can’t find those CDs or DVDs that came with their system and long ago were tossed aside.

(In all fairness, most computers and all smartphones these days don’t come with recovery or re-installation media, it has to be downloaded or accessed online, but you get the point).

FREE Technical Support
An often overlooked fact is that every computer or smartphone includes free technical support for some limited period of time.  This usually includes telephone support too.

Every company has different terms and conditions, but if you wait until a year or two after buying the equipment to try and learn how to “Nuke and Pave” successfully, you can be certain you won’t have free manufacturer technical support to help you.

Last and not least, every new purchase has some period of no-questions-asked return privileges.  If you change your mind, or in this case totally screw up your system, you can take it back and get a full refund.

It’s like a free pass to intentionally screw up your computer!

Wipe out the hard drive, re-install the operating system and if you fail, the manufacturer is waiting by the phone line to help or the friendly sales clerk will gladly refund your money.

For smartphones, this return period may be as short as 14-days.

So do you see why the first thing you should do is wipe out the device and try to reload it?  This magic grace period will expire before you know it otherwise.

Don’t Sweat The Details
The specific procedure for restoring your system will vary depending upon the type of device (Computer or Smartphone), the operating system (Windows, Mac, iOS, or Android) and the specialized or unique hardware in your actual system.

It is not my intention to give you a step-by-step guide in excruciating detail.  That’s what the Internet and Google are for!

Joking aside, the information you need is readily available online if you take the time and put in the effort.

The key is to realize that the best time to learn how to “Nuke and Pave” your device is when your computer or smartphone is brand new, working great, not in need of any attention, but still  under full warranty and refund status.

Lather, Rinse, and Repeat
In summary, my simple guide for safe computing:

Buy a new device
Wipe it out
Reload the operating system
Enjoy

If you screw up, use all the free customer support resources or just return it for a refund and try again.


What Do You Think?
Are you tempted to erase and reload your system or are you scared to try it? Let me know what you think.

A Tale Of Two Pipes

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Like Fixing A Hole In The Roof
Recently, I had the fun chore of finding and fixing two broken irrigation pipes for our sprinkler system.

It seems every year, without fail, there is always a broken sprinkler head to adjust or replace, but this time, two different zones were not getting any water at all.

As I ran back and forth, multiple times, between the ancient controller box on the garage wall and the different irrigation zones in the backyard, my thoughts turned to the same question - Is it time to install a smart(er) sprinkler controller?

Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It
Remember the children’s joke about the farmer with a hole in his roof?

During a rainstorm, his wife asks him to fix the leak.  The farmer explains that he can’t fix it while it is raining.

So after the storm, wife reminds him to fix the leak and he replies “Why should I bother, it’s not raining?”

I’m reminded of this every time I think about the expense (and honestly mostly the time and effort) to replace my classic sprinkler controller with a modern smarter one.

I say “smarter” because the controller i have has a small LCD display, some buttons, a dial, and a basic microprocessor inside that remembers zone settings and watering times along with a running schedule.

Realistically, there isn’t much more that is needed.  Even the newest, smartest units are ultimately designed to do the same thing.

This is really a case of “ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.  So why am I tempted?


Set It And Forget It!
Programming the irrigation controller is a chore.  Selecting each zone and specifying the watering time and setting the overall start time and other options requires navigating a cryptic user interface.

The tiny monochrome LCD screen doesn’t display much feedback, but with brute force diligence, the job can be accomplished.

If I had to do this frequently, I would have upgraded a long time ago just to avoid the agony.

But programming the watering cycles is a “set it and forget it” one-time procedure. I don’t think I’ve made any major changes in many years.


“Convenience, Thy Middle Name Is SmartHome”
I foreshadowed my actual pain point at the start of this note - I hate running back and forth to the sprinkler control box turning zones on and off as I systematically check each watering zone.

We have a reasonable size house (not some big McMansion), but with 12 zones there is still a lot of back and forth.

I have tolerated it, but no more.  Finding a broken pipe is more involved than just watching the sprinklers spray everywhere but where they are supposed to be pointing.

A broken feeder pipe requires digging into the lawn or dirt about a half foot down, to locate the pipe and find the break.  Even more running back and forth to turn the zone on and off to see the water leaking out.

When I got close, it was actually easier to wait a day for the the water to drain than continuing to dig in a big mud puddle.

No Ideal Choice
Once again, the overlap of my desired features and available products is almost nil.  No single product will give me everything that I think is reasonable.

The candidates break down into three categories - Smarter versions of traditional control systems from legacy lawn care/irrigation companies; A few better-known startup products (but not necessarily the best bang-for-the-buck), or a half-dozen other unknown products with some interesting unique capabilities that might not still be around in a few years.

Always Consider Frequency Of Use
Now you know already that I only really need to adjust the sprinklers about once a year.  I’m using this fact to help narrow the selection.

Since actual use is infrequent, I don’t care about fancy integrations or compatibility with HomeKit, Amazon Alexa, or Google Home. 

I don’t want to talk to my sprinklers, thank you very much!

Similarly, choosing a system that requires it’s own app is a non-issue.  I won’t be juggling between that app and others very often.  If I have to use a standalone app, I’m ok with that.

For me, the most important functionality is a clean, easy-to-understand app so when I haven’t used it in almost a year I can intuitively operate it without having to re-learn some weird icons or menu structure.

I also want a device that has reasonable traditional manual controls right on the unit in the garage.  The app control is desirable, but cannot be mandatory.


I’ll Keep You Posted
I hate to be anti-climactic (bad pun?) but I am just starting to review potential products so I have not made any decision or even narrowed down the field.

No surprise, but now that both feeder pipes are fixed, the “ain’t broke, don’t fix it” procrastination is starting to set in again.  I’m only human!
  

What Do You Think?
Have you already installed a smart irrigation system? Let me know what you think.

A FOMO Guide To Video DoorBells

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“In Any Moment Of Decision, The Worst Thing You Can Do Is Nothing”
Theodore Roosevelt was on the right track.  Today we call it analysis paralysis.

It may not be the most critical part of my smart home, but choosing the right video doorbell has been one of the more difficult decisions for me.

There are several good products and many many other ones to choose from.  The challenge for me has been finding the product that meets all of my criteria 100 per cent.

In a previous newsletter about smart home upgrades called Out With The Old; In With The New, I listed the criteria I use to help me choose between the “hero” and “zero”.

If you would like to read or re-read the issue, I’ve posted it to my website blog here.

The problem for me is that I have not been able to find a product that meets all my criteria.  If a product is great in one area, it falls down in another that is equally important.  What to do?

My first reaction was “Expletive deleted, don’t get anything”.  That’s the easy way out.  The truth is, why should I deprive my household the enjoyment of using a video doorbell just because no single product is perfect?


Smart Home FOMO
I’m sure many of you face the same dilemma.  There is something that you want, but it is not perfect.  Should you proceed now, or hold off hoping that something better will come along in the future.

In the online social world they call this FOMO - fear of missing out.  Let me assure you this is just as real for smart home gadgets and systems.  The only difference - by “missing out”, you do avoid spending a lot of money :-)

For me, the answer was to be logical and practical:  If the price is reasonable, and the product, provides useful features and capabilities that I want, then stop waiting for perfection (which may never come) and go forward.


You Can’t Always Get What You Want
So here’s the stuff I wanted that no single product could/can provide.

This is not an exhaustive list of all the features of video doorbells, just the things that are important to me.

When you are planning your DIY project, draw up your own list of criteria and then compare possible products against the list.  It makes it much easier to choose, especially when there is no clear-cut winner, when you have objective data in front of you.


Aesthetically Pleasing
In a word, it has to look nice.  This is a lot easier said than done.  The computer geeks that build most of our smart home products have no sense of design.  They don’t understand colors, finishes, or visual aesthetics.  Size and shape of an enclosure is limited to what type of sheet metal or plastic they wrap around the product at the last minute when everything else is done.

In my house, along with many of my clients, the first criteria is how the product looks.  Before even discussing any of the features or capability, the client wants to see a photograph or sample product to see if it will fit with their architectural style, color scheme, or physical location.

In the systems integration business, we often joke amongst ourselves about getting the SAF (spouse approval factor), CFO approval (chief financial officer), and the ADC sign-off (architectural design committee) for each project - all from the same person!


Line Powered
I don’t want to deal with batteries.  There is existing wiring for my original doorbell so I know, somehow, I should be able to get a video doorbell that has a hardwired power supply and does not rely only on a battery.

Using a battery powered will solve a lot of problems and that is why they are so popular.  Mounting can be done (poorly) with glue or sticky tape so no drilling or mechanical effort is needed.

I won’t go into all the tech details here, but doorbells are powered using this weird thing called 20 VAC power.  It’s not your normal direct current (DC) power supply and it’s not the typical high-voltage 110V alternating current (AC) in all your wall sockets.

There are subtle issues with cutting in to your existing doorbell power supply and circuity so in this case, the product warnings of “professional installation required” rightly should scare off many  DIY’s that don’t have electrical or wiring expertise.


Auxiliary Ringer
In my home our existing doorbell, which we replaced a lot time ago with a cheap wireless unit, did not have a standard ringer.  It was wired up more like an intercom system and caused one of our home telephones to ring.

The product I choose has to have a ringer option besides hooking up to the existing doorbell ringer (which we don’t have).  Now every video doorbell on the market comes with an app for your smartphone where you can get alerts, but I need a solution that doesn’t require everyone to have the app installed on their smartphone.

It is not acceptable to assume everyone will always have their smartphone with them and with children, guests, and visitors staying in your home (when you are not there), the doorbell needs to simply work - as it always did - with an easily heard ringer.


Extra Ringer
This is a little more specialized need, but with the layout of our home, we don’t always hear the doorbell.  So being able to install an extra ringer of some kind in another part of the house was high on my list.  (Not an absolute requirement, but a highly desirable-give-you-extra-points kind of feature.)

This wasn’t so common at first, but since the popular Ring Video Doorbell (spoiler alert - it didn’t make my list) has an optional electronic ringer, this is becoming “table stakes” for all the competing products too.


Real-Time live Video
I want to be able to see the video feed from the doorbell camera at any time, whenever I want.  I thought this would be an easy requirement, but it turns out to be one of the things that “separates the men from the boys”.

Although every security camera can do this, the majority of video doorbells cannot.  Most products, including the super successful Ring video doorbell, only provides video clips when the doorbell is pressed or only provide a live video feed after someone at your door has pressed the button.

There are technical reasons for this with the biggest limitation being the use of batteries.  That’s why one of my criteria earlier was requiring line power but that is not enough.

My rationale?  A video doorbell is mounted in a great spot - right in front of your door at eye level.  It’s the perfect location for a security camera and the best example of “hiding in plain sight”.

Video door bells are designed for outdoor use so they already have the weatherproofing and physical design to resist the elements.  It’s a perfect candidate for dual-use: serving the function of a doorbell and a security camera at the same time.

Note to manufacturers: When a video doorbell can truly act just like a regular security camera it is worth more and can sell for more.  Although pricing was not the most important criteria, I’m ok with my choices being more expensive than a basic Ring doorbell because I’m actually saving the cost of a separate security camera (that’s a $50 to $300 or more savings).


Compatible with Industry Standards
This is often my most important criteria.  I want a product that is compatible with key standards such as Amazon Alexa, Apple HomeKit, Google Home, and networking/technical standards.

I have not found a video doorbell that meets all my requirements including supporting all these standards.  In the end, I compromised here in order to proceed as no ideal choices exist (or existed).


And The Runner-Up Is…
My second choice, and the product I have been using the past year is the DoorBird video doorbell.  Yeah, it’s a weird name.  This guy is engineered and manufactured in Germany, but available worldwide.

The DoorBird passed the ADC (architectural committee) with flying colors and until recently was the only product available with continuous video.  I really like that it supports industry standard ONVIF and RTSP streaming video protocols so it can be connected to many different software systems for live viewing and recording.

The DoorBird has a full API (application programming interface) allowing it to be controlled by many automation systems including consumer and high end commercial systems. It’s a favorite of professional installers for this reason.

The DoorBird is line powered and uses industry standard Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) or a regular DC power supply. It does not use the funky doorbell 24VAC power supply (which is a pain to use).

Another key consideration was the support for auxiliary electronic ringers. These wall mounted devices are nicely designed, work on either Ethernet or Wi-Fi and you can use more than one to put ringers anywhere in your house that you want.

For limitations, I have to say the smartphone app works and is ok, but won’t win any design awards.  The product is expensive, but includes options for controlling electrically operated door locks and a secondary wired doorbell button, so it is very flexible.  They have plans to support RFID keyless entry systems and other features geared more towards apartment buildings or larger installations.


We Have A Winner!
My first-choice, and the video doorbell I am now using at my home, is a new product but not a new company.  The Nest Hello, from the same company that literally invented the modern smart HVAC control with the Nest thermostat, has done it again.

Many pundits said they were very late in bringing out a doorbell (there are many other competitors now), but they didn’t just do a “me too” product.  The Nest Hello is superior to industry leader Ring and every other product on the market (as of this writing).

I’m simply blown away by the video quality!  The Nest Hello has combined a high resolution camera with HDR (high dynamic range) capability typically found only on high end TV’s.

The video from this thing is far better than any other doorbell in both bright sunlight and darkness.  The unique HDR feature means that when the camera adjusts the brightness so you can see the person in front of the door, the background is not blown out as a solid white blob - you can see full details on the background street view behind the person.

The Nest Hello requires the 24VAC doorbell power supply so it is not the easiest or simplest to install but it doesn’t need babysitting like the other products using batteries.

The Nest Hello wasn’t the ugliest, but it failed the initial ADC (visual review).  With it’s small streamlined size, I was able to mount a standard light switch metallic wall plate behind it to provide a more acceptable visual look.  I also found colored plastic sleeves on Amazon that cover the jarring white plastic casing so with these mods it gained ADC approval.

Live, continuous streaming video, even when nobody is at the door or pressing the button, is available both from the smartphone app (iPhone or Android) or any web browser.

So you can monitor your home from your work computer with any browser - a very convenient feature.  This is lacking in most other products (but the DoorBird can do this also, by the way).

The Nest Hello uses the same app as the Nest Thermostat.  If you already have a Nest, that’s one less app to juggle.  The app is very high quality with all the features easily available.  It is slick to use and very responsive.

The ringer situation is not ideal.  The Nest Hello can use a Google Home Mini (small Wi-Fi speaker the size of a donut) as an auxiliary ringer.  This is an added $49 expense plus more if you want a plastic bracket to hang it nicely right on a wall plug, but it works.

Although Nest does not support Apple HomeKit, it is compatible with Google Home and will also work with Amazon Alexa.  If you have an Echo Show, the Amazon Alexa with the built in video display, you can even see the live camera feed.

Nest is a closed-system - you’ll have to purchase a cloud storage plan from Nest if you want access to video clips.  There is no interface for 3rd party video streaming or recording systems so you have no choice but to deal with Nest on this one.


One More Thing..
In addition to having the best camera technology, Nest has tapped into the massive computing power and software expertise of their parent company Google and their technology for machine learning and artificial intelligence.

If you log in to your Nest account with a web browser, you can create “activity zones” for your camera feed.  Nest shows you the video from your doorbell and you draw any sized 2 dimensional shapes with your mouse.  This zones are areas that will generate alerts when Nest detects motion.  You can also outline areas to ignore - very handy if there are tree branches, street with cars, or anything else you want to ignore and not generate notifications constantly.

Event better - the Nest Hello has facial recognition and identification.  The Nest can not only identify people in the video feed, but once you assign them actual names, it will remember their names and announce them.  The App, or the Google Mini remote speaker will say “Robert is at the door” instead of just “Someone is at the door”.

These advanced features do require a paid cloud storage plan as the real brains behind these features is the processing done in Google’s massive data centers behind the scenes.  Fortunately, Nest recently added an affordable 7-day plan for only $5/month.

Do you have a video doorbell or are you considering installing one?  Which one?  Hit ‘reply’ and let me know what you think.

Putting The "Why" Into DIY Home Automation

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What Is Professional Home Automation?
This simple question generates and lot of different and unexpected answers.

When I ask many people what they think distinguishes a Pro from a consumer DIY project, I get may different answers but the only thing everyone agrees on is the cost.

Almost universally, the first reaction to the word “professional” is to think that something is grossly overpriced.

Buying a fancy digital camera?  If it is called a “Pro Edition” you’re going to pay a lot more.

Hiring someone to do simple home repairs?  A handyman is very affordable, a “Pro” is going to charge a lot more.

Marketing and advertising firms know how to push our buttons.  As soon as they put the word “Pro” onto a product, they know it will appeal to the ego and they can charge more - even if the product is no different than the regular version.

As home DIY’ers, we enjoy the tinkering & adjusting and surprising the rest of the household with the amazing (from our point of view) things we can accomplish.

The same level of “almost works” and forever needing tweaks is unforgivable for a professionally installed system.

Much of the real work in professional integration is in the planning and design - avoid the latest fad of almost working product for proven, tried and true products that will continue to work for many years to come.


Don’t Fall Into the ‘Old School’ Trap
It’s easy to fall into the same trap when looking at smart home systems and installers.

Many of the actual pro systems are very costly, require custom installation and setup, & withhold most of the documentation and instructions from the customer so even if you want to try to do it yourself, you can’t.

Believe it or not, it is still common for “old school” custom integrators to withhold the necessary login passwords and software serial numbers from their consumer customers for that $50,000 system they just purchased.

They believe customers are stupid and cannot be trusted to make even simple changes.

It’s the wrong answer to complicated and confusing technology that is well past it’s prime.  (The right answer is to use modern systems that are easier to install and simple to operate.)

 

The Dirty Little Secret Of Modern Professional Integration
The industry doesn’t want you to know, but the truth is a lot of those traditional, expensive systems are not very good.

They don’t really work that well, they are not expandable, and they look cheesy  (ugly sheet metal boxes or 1970’s styling on plastic parts that haven’t changed in years.)

The one thing they have going for them is that all the problems are well known and the dealer/installer has painfully learned exactly how to install them to avoid the limitations and keep them running smoothly.

In the last few years, as the large consumer computer companies such as Apple, Google, and Amazon have entered the smart home market, the quality of the products has greatly improved while prices have nosedived.


Consumer Product Quality Exceeds The Professional Gear
Two simple reasons:

*First*, these companies have more than just hardware skills. They have a huge staff of software engineers to painstakingly obsess over ever minor detail of how the software looks and works.

Traditional industrial brands are primarily hardware companies.  They reluctantly throw together the software needed to use their products, but they really just want to sell their gadgets like widgets off a production line.

Software is the necessary evil they must supply to keep selling their hardware devices.

*Second*, the manufacturing volumes of the consumer companies are huge compared to the traditional companies.

Google sells millions of Nestcams while traditional security camera companies are only selling thousands, or hundreds of thousands of their own.

Traditional companies do not have the volume to invest millions in tooling - custom plastics, buttons, knobs, and style/design experts because they don’t sell large enough quantities to amortize all those up-front costs.


Disclaimer: It’s Not Black and White
I do need to say these are generalizations and there are still exceptions or product areas where professional equipment makes a huge difference.

High end audio (amplifiers, digital signal processors, ATMOS receivers, etc.); High end video displays (large flat screens TVs, projection TV systems that can rival commercial movie theaters); are a few examples of truly professional gear with no consumer equivalent.

There is still a wide range of network gear. There are eal differences between consumer-grade Wi-Fi/mesh systems and higher-end Wi-Fi, network switches, and router equipment, but most of the additional features are not needed in residential, single-home installations.


My Definition of Pro Smart Home Systems
I view the difference between DIY and Pro systems in a different way.  I don’t divide up the products and services based on technology, functionality, complexity, pricing, or ability to configure it yourself.

I don’t believe there should be two types of equipment and software - “starter” stuff for consumers, and full-blown “professional” gear that only the dealer/integrator can touch.

The differences that matter, at least to me as a smart home systems integrator, is the ability to deliver a system to my clients that works today, will work tomorrow, and has an extremely high probability of working in the long-term future.

I’m not talking about formats or technical evolution - we will always have newer storage methods, better compression, and higher power computers tempting us to upgrade faster than our wallets or budgets will allow.

A professional integrator can draw on their experience and expertise to look at the overall system and design a solution that meets what the consumer wants today and may not even realize they might need in the future.

The ideal solution will probably include a mix of consumer-grade and professional gear.

Some installations may be entirely mass market products, but installed and configured to work holistically as an integrated solution.

Other installations will require a careful mix of equipment and software to achieve the desired result.


The “Do It For Me” Modern Systems Integrator
At DoItForMe.solutions, I analyze and recommend the right solution based on the needs and goals of my client.  I use a mix of consumer and professional gear - whatever will get the job done with the right features and price.

I charge for my time and expertise, not the equipment (in most cases).  My business income is not based on maximizing the mark-up on professional gear that isn’t needed.

I don’t recommend unknown brands of audio gear because the distributor offers nice kick-backs and commissions to push them out the door faster.

When as consumers we buy the latest gadget or experiment with various hubs and software systems, we have only ourselves to blame if the system requires constant attention.  Heck, to be honest, for many of us, the fun is in the doing not the results.

It’s different with a professional system.  When you hire a pro you are paying for and expecting pro results.

My humble advice - seek out the modern professional integrator that takes a holistic approach and works with you to design and configure the best solution at the best price - not the highest profit for themselves.

Back To Basics: DIY 3-Way Lights

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Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?
With apologies to Rod Stewart, this week I am not writing about cool new gadgets or control systems.  I’m going back to basics to describe one of the most common smart home projects.

This solves a real problem and is easy to implement.  A great starter DIY first project or a nice add-on to your existing home automation.


What is a 3-Way Light?
By definition, a 3-way light, is where you have more than one switch controlling a light.  The typical example is a hallway or staircase where you want to be able to control the light from either end of the hallway or from either floor of the staircase.

Electricians have solved this problem for years using a wiring scheme involving a third wire, often called a traveller, which runs between two light switches connected to the same light fixture.

If you have two switches that control one light, then you have a 3-way light installation.  Note that this is completely different from older 3-way bulbs.

Usually installed in a table or desk lamp, a 3-way bulb  has two filaments inside and special wiring in the bulb base and the light bulb socket giving you three different light levels.

Most 3-way bulbs have been phased out with the wider use of dimmers and modern LED lighting, but many are still installed.

Trivia tip:  Because of the unique wiring in 3-way lights, you cannot rely on “On” being “Up” and “Off” being “Down” on the switch paddle.

Depending upon how each switch was last used, “On” can be either “Up” or “Down”.  Moving the switch to the alternate position will turn the light on or off, but it can be a little annoying.

Quick tip:  The 3-Way wiring can be extended to support more than two switches.  It is very common to have 3, 4, or even more switches controlling one light.  So it would be more accurate to call it “N-Way lighting control”, but I’ll stick with 3-way for simplicity.

 

Where There’s a Will, There’s A Way
As homeowners, we are faced with two common situations:  We have an existing 3-way setup in a hallway or stairs and we want to automate the lights preserving the 3-way operation or we want add 3-way control to a regular light that has only one switch.

In the first scenario, the goal is simple - make sure we add smart home lighting control as a convenience and improvement without losing the marvelously simple, yet valuable, 3-way control.

This can be easier said than done.  Some of the simpler consumer oriented smart light switches do not support 3-way lighting control. 

This is especially true if you use a general-purpose on/off smart switch (not a dimmer) because you decided you don’t use or need dimming and/or the cost of the switch is cheaper than one that includes dimmer features.

Don’t even get me started about the problems with smart light bulbs (where the control circuity is inside the base of the bulb).  If you want a refresher, you can read my critique here:  [Are Your Smart Bulbs Making Your Smart Home Dumb? — DoItForMe.Solutions](https://www.doitforme.solutions/blog/2018/2/15/are-your-smart-bulbs-making-your-smart-home-dumb)

Take it from me, never add smart home automation to lights if it removes basic 3-way use.  Keeping the rest of the family happy by not taking away a basic feature they have been accustomed to using is extremely important.

The second scenario, adding 3-way control, is a great DIY starter project.  Just identify an area of your home where you would like the convenience of controlling a light from more than one physical location.  Here’s some ideas besides hallways and stairs:

Workshop attached to a garage - You may enter from either the garage or an outside door.

Backyard or outdoor lights - You have several doors that open to the same yard or patio.

Large rooms - Just like hallways, larger rooms may be entered from different sides or directions

Bedside lamp - Who wants to get out of bed to turn out the lights?


“There's an app for that”
Before we talk hardware, I need to address the elephant in the room - smart home apps.  It should be obvious that we can all achieve the effect of a 3-way switch by using an app on our smartphone as an extra switch.

With our light connected to a smart home hardware dimmer or switch, we can control it from anywhere just using an app.  Walking upstairs or down the end of the hall and want to turn off the light when there is no physical switch?  No problem, just use the app on your phone and switch it off.

That is certainly a reasonable approach.  For some situations where you would like to have 3-way control but simply cannot justify the cost of extra hardware, using an app might be ideal.

But in most homes, having to dig our smartphone out of our pocket to turn off a light just doesn’t make sense!  Do you have your phone with you when you are in your pajamas raiding the fridge at 2:00 am?

Do your 5-year old children even have their own smartphones yet?  What about house guests?  You get the picture.  It is too limiting and far too inconvenient to insist on using an app all the time.

The same is true for voice control.  I love using my Amazon Alexa’s and I know Google Home or Apple Siri can also do the job.  But there are times when voice control is inconvenient so you need an alternative.


3-Way Workaround
Many otherwise good DIY lighting controls do not have a built-in solution for 3-way light switches.  The products were only designed to control a single light and they perform that function fine.

Fortunately, there is a workaround than provides a decent solution.  The idea is to use a wireless switch to simulate 3-Way control.  A battery operated switch press is detected by the home automation system which then controls the actual light.

The wireless switch has no direct wired connect to the light.  It can be placed anywhere or moved around as needed.

There are now a good selection of battery operated switches available in a choice of technologies and physical options.  Switches are available that use Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, Zigbee or manufacturer proprietary communication protocols.

Software support varies with some switches working with multiple control systems, others created for a specific company’s own products or a single automation system.  If a switch does not directly support your lighting system, you may be able to use a 3rd party integration solution like IFTTT or Stringify to link everything together (but that does loop the communications through a cloud server).

Physical designs also vary with a choice of colors, shapes and mounting options.  Some switches are designed to be cute and modern, like the Fibaro big red button or the Logitech large circular button.

The most versatile approach is to make the switch the same size and shape as an actual typical wall mounted switch or dimmer.  With the appropriate mounting bracket, these switches can be installed right next to existing switches or replace them.

Any of these switches are a good solution for converting a single light into a 3-way system.  The wireless switches can be mounted on the wall or placed on a table anywhere - there is no need for electrical wiring or modifications.

The disadvantage of this approach is that the additional switches will not work if your automation system is not working.  There is no “fall back” operation as a basic light switch.

Don’t forget aesthetics - With strange designs that look more like toys or gadgets, some of these switches may not win the support of everyone in your household.  Switches should be obvious, easy to use, and not look different just because “under the hood” they work differently.


3-Way Done Right!
For proper 3-way lighting control, until recently we would have had to venture into the much higher-priced world of larger traditional home automation systems.  Lighting controls from established companies such as Lutron, Control4, Savant, and Crestron support proper 3-way switching, but at a high price.

For the savvy consumer/prosumer, Lutron’s Radio RA2 Select, a smaller, more affordable version of commercial Radio RA2 lighting system fully supports 3-way (and N-way) lighting controls.

In addition to the expected in-wall dimmers, Lutron has a remote dimmer in-wall module which works with the special wiring already installed for 3-way switches.  This makes replacing existing 3-way dumb light switches with 3-way smart switches straightforward and cost effective.

GE, a well-known traditional electrical/appliance company, also provides a remote switch that works with their smart switches for true 3-way operation.  The GE Add-On Switch will work with any GE Smart Lighting switches that use Bluetooth, Zigbee, or Z-wave.

iDevices is another company that provides 3-way support.  This is a more expensive solution as you need two of their switches and they have to be paired to each other via Bluetooth.

I haven’t worked with iDevices products yet, but they support Amazon Alexa, Apple HomeKit, and Google Home Assistant so if you need a product to work with all of these control systems this might be another choice to consider.

Insteon is another company that has in-wall switches and dimmers with support for 3-way lighting.  You  simply purchase two of them and install them where needed.  Although they don’t have a less expensive remote switch version like Lutron does, the Insteon switches do not need a special Bluetooth connection like iDevices.


Solutions For 3-Way Lighting Control
In summary, there are two approaches for DIY / consumer projects to have 3-way lighting controls:  Use a wireless switch with smart home automation programming to simulate 3-way operation or use a true 3-way enabled in-wall switch/dimmer from companies like Lutron, GE, iDevices, Insteon, or others.

Now when planning your lighting control system, you can accommodate the desire for 3-way switches and not have to give up this important capability or rely only on a software/app workaround.

Are you going to add 3-way lighting controls to your smart home? Let me know what you think.

Out With The Old; In With The New

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Spring has Sprung!
Now that we have swung full speed into Spring, it’s time to plan for re-planting the smart home garden of controllers, devices, and appliances. 

Every Spring I take an inventory of where things stand, what needs to be fixed or changed, and what I would like to do.

It’s not necessary to change your home automation equipment frequently, but once a year it is worth a look.  

Technology improves, prices change (usually downward), and new capabilities that were not even a glimmer in your eye become feasible.

You don’t have to wait for an actual sale to upgrade or grow your smart home.  With careful selection of products and planned upgrades and migrations in a timely fashion you will save lots of money in the long run.

I know it may be cheesy, but the adage “time is money” also applies.  If you speed up your home network and automate more functions in your home, you can give yourself the luxury of more time for other things and we all know time is the most precious commodity.


Is Your Crystal Ball Rusty?
A video doorbell?  Nobody was even thinking about that before they were created. 

An industrial grade mesh Wi-Fi network for great coverage everywhere in your home that doesn’t cost thousands of dollars?  Nobody knew that was coming.

A control system built into your smart phone and free with an operating system upgrade?  Nobody saw Apple HomeKit or Google Home Assistant coming before it did!


Not All Fun And Games
It’s not all exciting new tech (or toys) to play with.  A lot of my annual Spring upgrades are really just scheduled improvements and evolution to my smart home system that have already been planned but are convenient to tackle during the nicer weather.

Much like kids that receive clothes and other needed items for Christmas, it may not be a surprise, but it is still welcomed nonetheless.


It’s Not You, It’s Me
I don’t know what you may need or want, so remember this is simply my take on what is interesting or worth considering.  Everyone should evaluate for themselves what they need or wish to do when upgrading or expanding their smart home system.

Of course, if you would like assistance, either by telephone or in person, please don’t hesitate to reach out and explore if i can help you analyze your systems and make recommendations tailored to your own unique situation.


A Peak Behind The Curtain
I use a lot of different criteria to determine whether I consider a product a “hero” or a “zero”.  It goes without saying that I actually purchase the product myself and test it extensively in my own network and lab environment. 

I never rely on other people’s reviews or second hand information.  I do take comments and feedback into consideration, but I like to get my hands dirty and try everything myself.


My Selection Criteria
Listed in no particular order, I review every product based on the following:

Uniqueness - “one of a kind” or “me too”?

Functionality - How well does it perform relative to similar products?

Design Details - Is the software and hardware refined or rough around the edges?

User Interface - Is it intuitive, easy to use without RTFM (reading the freaking manual)?

Compatibility - Will it work with X,Y, and Z?  Does it get along well with others?

Standards - Fits into existing systems or a round peg squeezed into a square hole?

Life Span - “Flash in the pan” fad or does it have a long life span for many years of use?

Support - Telephone, email, forums - How fast is the turnaround and what is the quality of answers?

Professional features - Advanced programming/technical interfaces or only consumer grade?

Professional support - Dealer programs, technical training, VIP Hotline?

Price - Not whether cheap or expensive, but is it worth the asking price?


I Could Write  A Book…But I Won’t
Evaluating every product against the selection criteria, ranking products in relative order, and providing nice descriptive details on each would be enough material to fill a book.

I’m not going to do that.  My goal here isn’t to throw my hat into the ring and be yet another product reviewer.  I’m cutting to the chase giving you my biased, personal (but professional) opinion and “short list” of recommended products.


The DoItForMe.Solutions Spring 2018 List of Recommended Smart Home Products


Amazon Echo Plus - This is the updated version of the incredibly successful Amazon Echo that brought intelligent voice control home for a very affordable price.

The Plus is the larger speaker so sound quality is very good for playing music - equal to or better than most casual Bluetooth speakers.

The Plus includes a built-in Zigbee hub so it is ready to control a nice assortment of smart home products such as LED lights, dimmers, switches, door locks, and more.

If you have no smart home system and want to dip your toe into home automation waters, the Amazon Echo Plus is a great place to start.

If you have a smart home but no voice control, any of the Echo products, including the affordable $49 Amazon Echo Dot is a great way to add another dimension of home control to your system.


Lutron Caseta - Many people get started with lighting control - turning lights on or off and setting the brightness with computer controlled dimming is easily understood and gratifying.

Lutron has a rock-solid wireless solution that works with Apple HomeKit, Google Home Assistant, Amazon Alexa, Samsung SmartThings, and more - basically everything!

The hardware and software is rock-solid  - Lutron’s experience (they invented the modern dimmer, yes, not an exaggeration - they invented the dimmer and hold many patents) means they really understand lighting from top to bottom.

They have both in-wall and plug-in modules suitable for easy DIY installation. With a choice of starter kits getting started is affordable and expanding is cost effective.

*Prosumer tip:*  If you have a larger home and need extended coverage, larger maximum system configuration, and additional module choices then the more advanced Lutron Radio RA2 Select product line may be the better choice.

Radio RA2 Select is a dealer only product but uses the same software and apps as Lutron Caseta so it is really easy to use once installed.  (For more info on Radio RA2 Select, please contact me.)


Eero Mesh Wi-Fi - Was the first and is still the best, consumer-grade whole-home mesh Wi-Fi system.  Installation is really easy - everything sets up from your smartphone and you don’t need a PhD in engineering to get it to work.  

A flawless Wi-Fi system is a crucial requirement for any home network - especially if you are using or expanding your smart home.

Stop limping along with consumer/retail store Wi-Fi or that ugly low-powered box “conveniently” supplied to you (free or for a monthly fee) from your Internet provider.

Stop the dead spots while speeding up your network to “ludicrous speed” wireless performance with an Eero system.  You can start with a 3-unit Eero Home kit and add additional units if you have a larger home or need even more coverage.


Synology Wi-Fi Router - The router is the heart of your home network pumping data throughout the system and negotiating the flow between your devices and the public Internet.

Sadly most consumer routers are underpowered with very slow processors inside and only the basic minimum features needed.

Synology is a premium Prosumer brand mostly known for their network attached storage (NAS servers) but they make a kick-ass router.  The Synology router has features normally only found in corporate or commercial equipment.

For me, the biggest draw is the ability to setup an incoming secure virtual private network (VPN).  This allows access to your home network when you are away in a much more secure way than typical routers that use “port forwarding”, Universal Plug and Play (UPnP), PPTP, or other insecure methods.

Other advanced features include the ability to have two Internet connections at the same time, setup your own private cloud storage, and a super strong built-in Wi-Fi signal (traditional, not a mesh).

Synology has two models - the more expensive version has a much faster processor inside.  If you decide to upgrade to a Synology router only get the higher-end model; you’ll need the better processor to take advantage of VPN or other features while giving you room to grow.

*Prosumer tip:*  Eero Mesh Wi-Fi normally acts as both your Wi-Fi and your router, but it can but put into bridge mode and used only for Wi-Fi with a separate router.

Call me crazy (or a genius?) but I prefer running Eero in bridge mode with my Synology router handling all the “heavy lifting” for network management and control.

It’s the “best of both worlds”!   Although a bigger initial investment, I like letting each product do what it does best - Eero for mesh Wi-Fi and Synology for routing & control. 

Just like high-end stereo systems that have multiple components and not a single “home theatre in a box”, I prefer my networking gear a la carte too!

 

Sonos One Whole House Wireless Audio Speakers - Sonos has been around a while and has had it’s ups and downs, but with the new Sonos One it has hit a home run!

The Sonos One is the evolution of the widely successful Sonos Play:1 redesigned to have Amazon Alexa voice recognition and control built in.

Think of it like having an Amazon Alexa but with the sound quality of a high-end (well, mid-range really) audiophile speaker for only a little bit more money.

Sonos has the widest selection of streaming music services.  Not just Pandora, Spotify, and Apple Music, but over 50 different streaming services are fully supported and the list keeps growing.

If you are astute, you will notice that the list includes Apple Music.  Sonos is the only company, I repeat, the only 3rd party company that is allowed direct integration and control of Apple Music.

Through a special relationship with Apple, you can play your entire Apple iTunes, iTunes Match, or Apple Music (streaming service) directly from your Sonos gear.  Every other speaker system on the market requires you to tether your iPhone over Bluetooth if you want to play your Apple music.

Sonos has got the Switzerland thing really nailed down.  In addition to having Amazon Alexa built in, full support for Apple Music, and a wide range of streaming services including Spotify, Sonos has announced they will be adding Google Home Assistant support and Apple’s newer Airplay 2 upgrade too!

I must admit, when Apple introduced the new HomePod, I was tempted, but Sonos created a special promo (which may or may not still be available when you read this) where for the same $349 price as a single Apple HomePod you can purchase two Sonos One’s. 

Place them in two different rooms or put both of them in the same place and they will connect to each other to give you full room-filling stereo sound perfectly synchronized.

Ok, actually, I did also purchase an Apple HomePod (gotta test everything).  The HomePod sounds great but is too expensive for me to recommend.  And for audiophiles, my pair of Sonos One’s, outputting true stereo, puts the HomePod in the dust!

*Prosumer tip:* The older Sonos Play:1 and the new Sonos One have very similar names/models.  Be very careful when shopping to buy only the newer Sonos One. You might see even lower prices as a lot of dealers are putting the older Sonos Play:1 on sale to try and unload them.  

You can mix and match Sonos One with the Sonos Play:1, or other Sonos speakers in multi-room whole-house systems, but *you cannot mix them to create a stereo pair*. 

The Sonos One can only be mated to another Sonos One if you want a true stereo setup.

Are You Documenting Your Smart Home Projects?

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The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword
The biggest secret to a successful smart home project is not in the design or the building, but in the documentation.  Without exaggeration, I must admit it has taken me many years to learn this simple lesson.

Recently, I decided to do some work on the wiring of the network in my home.  I am fortunate to have a relatively modern home which was pre-wired with computer grade cat5 cables running to most rooms of the house.

In the master bedroom closet is an OnQ “structured wiring center” mounted in the wall.  That’s contractor speak for a overpriced metal cabinet with custom peg holes that nothing fits.

Over the years, I have re-wired that sucker several times.  When we moved in, my first task was to re-configure the wiring so instead of just handling the telephone line, I could route an Ethernet network throughout our home.

I could have wired some jacks for voice and others for data, but being the young nerd I was at the time, I decided to use a standard, but rarely used method to wire each single jack with both telephone and data lines.

“My Kingdom For A Jack”
If you plugged a normal RJ-11 telephone style cord into the RJ-45 wall jack, you got a telephone line.  But if you plugged a special splitter pigtail cable into the RJ-45 jack first, you could plug both an RJ-11 telephone cord and an RJ-45 Ethernet cable into the splitter and have both.

This worked great for many years, but eventually I wanted to upgrade my home network from 100mbps Ethernet (so-called “Fast Ethernet”) to the faster 1000mbps or “Gigabit Ethernet”.

Without going into all the technical details, the splitter arrangement would no longer work.  This wasn’t a big deal because by then our home phones were using a wireless/cordless system so I only needed one actual “telephone jack”.


The Red Pill or the Blue Pill?
Re-wiring the jacks would be easy.  The problem was I didn’t know how I had originally wired them.  Home wiring can use one of two standards called T568A or T568B.

Both wiring schemes use the same wires, the same jacks, same wall plates, same everything!  The only difference is the order of the wires inside the jack or in the punchdown panel.

Choosing “A” or “B” doesn’t really matter.  They both work equally well in almost all circumstances.  The important thing is to be consistent or the wiring won’t work.

So this being a side-project, I wanted to take the path of least resistance and just re-wire the minimum number of jacks to whichever wiring scheme was already in use. Should I choose T568A or T568B?


The Happy Ending
A quick search on my computer for “home wiring” and I found an old file that not only contained my original notes when I first made the wiring changes, but even included a diagram I made of the wiring with all the the cables and connectors clearly identified.

The project was completed quicker and without frustration because I had taken a few extra minutes the first time to write down what I was doing.


Documentation Is Not Just for Wires
Every aspect of a smart home project requires decisions and making choices.  How do you name your devices?

Do you name them based on the function - “Lamp”, “Switch”, “Lock”?  Do you name them based on the location  - “Bedroom”, “Family Room”, “Kitchen”?  Maybe a combination of both - “Family Room Lamp”, “Kitchen Lamp”, etc.

As you can see, even picking names can get complicated.  Documenting your choices, and the reasons for them may seem obvious or redundant at the time, but it can be a lifesaver months or years later.


The Road Not Taken
All products have flaws.  Software bugs or hardware bugs can never be fully eliminated.  Some problems are insurmountable and when a project encounters them, the only choice is to hit “reset” and start over with something else.

In many cases, the problem or bug is annoying, but not fatal.  By doing things slightly differently, or sometimes even in a different order, we can avoid or bypass the problem.

In the urgency of the moment, once a fix or workaround is discovered, it is easy to press on.  I strongly advise taking a little time to document what you did.  Write down notes on the problem you observed, the unexpected results, and the alternative approach or workaround you created.

In the future, when you come back to the project to make changes, adjustments or upgrades you won’t have to scratch your head and wonder “Why did I do that?” or “Is that patch still needed?”


It’s Not Rocket Science
I’m a strong advocate of documenting your project, but that doesn’t mean it has to be complicated.  There is no shame in using pen and paper.  An inexpensive notebook, a few sheets of paper, and your favorite writing instrument are more than enough.

Having said that, here’s a few tips if you want to make the job easier, or more fun, by using technology.

 

A Bird In The Hand…
For actual writing, use whatever software you already have.  Every computer or smartphone includes a basic notes app or simple text editor.  Remember, you’re not writing a novel or a fancy love letter.  Just basic text capturing your thoughts and a description of what you have done is all that is important.

Use what you know - if you use Google Docs or Microsoft Word, or some other word processor normally, than keep using it.  It will be more natural and easier to document your project if you don’t have to learn a new app or program first.


A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words
You don’t have to write long winded descriptions when a picture is better.  Use your smartphone camera to take photos as much as possible.  Just remember to take a “before” photo too!

Hooking up a smart thermostat?  Take a photo of all the wires and connections you have now *before* you disconnect the old thermostat. Then take another photo when you are done.


“Could It Be A Faded Rose From Days Gone By?”
Unlike that famous Tanya Tucker song, there is no need to guess.  Take all your handwritten notes, especially any drawings or diagrams, and convert them into digital form.

Once again, you don’t need a fancy document scanner (but use it if you have one).  The resolution of most smartphone cameras is more than enough to take a photograph of written notes or drawings.  Just make sure you have plenty of light.

Don’t forget that a fax machine is still a decent document scanner.  If you work in an office or still use a fax machine at home, just fax a copy of the documents to yourself and save them as a digital file.


Don’t Worry, Be Happy!
The best way to make your smart home project easier is to take the time to document what you are doing.  A little extra effort with pen and paper will make a huge difference.  

Everything seems obvious when you are knee deep in configuration commands, installation procedures, and trial & error experimentation but trust me, you won’t remember everything for ever.

Document it now and “Future You” will thank you!

The Secret Epoxy For Smart Home Success

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DIY or Pro Integration?
As your smart home continues to grow, it can reach the point where you may feel like you are losing instead of gaining control.  That simple home automation project to turn a few lights on or off at your command has morphed into a multi-room confusing system.

Perhaps you have taken advantage of the incremental, step-by-step benefits of DIY evening or weekend projects.  Maybe your budget has limited your purchases to individual or small sets of devices that work well alone but not together.

Don’t be alarmed or upset; it is very common for a system that grows organically step-by-step to end up with “islands of automation” - separate systems that work fine as intended but cannot work together.

It’s not a case of your thermostat and lighting system being anti-social; more likely they are simply shy and don’t know how to introduce themselves and talk to each other.

One of the benefits of hiring a systems integrator or dealer is designing and purchasing a system where every element is planned in advance and coordinated to work together.

It used to be an “all or nothing” hard choice  - buy a super expensive system from Control4 or Crestron that runs smoothly or buy a bunch of unrelated gadgets that end up in a crazy setup that even Rube Goldberg would find hard to understand.

But fortunately there are alternatives to going the professional route that help.  You won’t end up with a “lean, mean, automation machine”, but you can get more of your isolated devices or subsystems to work together for the greater good (of your home!) if you are willing to put in the time and effort.


Hero or Zero?
Products and systems from a single company are usually automated and integrated by design without any special effort.  So I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the best way to avoid the challenge of integration is to simply purchase everything from one company.  If one company can provide everything you want, then don’t overlook the simplicity of this approach.

Many of us are used to buying “hero” products - the best single product for the job at hand.  We reward ourselves for the hours of research comparing specs, features, user reviews, and feedback to determine the best product at the right price.

That’s fine when each product stands alone, but when you want them all to work together, it might be reasonable instead to compromise on individual features.  If you have a Nest thermostat, you’ll find it a lot easier if you also buy your security camera and video doorbell from Nest too.

Maybe you have a Ring doorbell (they have been the market leader and sold tons of them), but like the much better video quality and features of the Nest Indoor our Outdoor cameras.

Now you have a much tougher choice - do you buy everything from one company, even though not all the products are “best in class” but they work together seamlessly, or do you continue to buy the best single products and then try to link them together?

Sometimes a company is great at building one product, but terrible at building other products.  The same company might have some products that are real duds.

Do you avoid using the hero because they have the zero, or do you pick and choose carefully hoping to mix-and-match later?


Let’s Hook up!
All is not lost - there is a solution to this problem and it is free or low cost.  In technical terms, what you want to do is integrate, or link, multiple products to each other.  Actions and reactions.  Cause and effect.  Command and response.

It can be called many things but the idea is to combine multiple devices or services together to provide an otherwise unobtainable result.

Here’s a few examples of possible integration:

With young children in your household, you want to receive a text message when they arrive home from school (the front door opens).

When you turn on the overhead light in your family room, you want three other table lamps to also turn on automatically.

When the humidity or room temperature is above a certain level, turn on your air conditioning or humidifier even if you are not home.


Independent Hubs and Controllers
One way to accomplish this link-up of products from multiple companies is to use a centralized controller.

These hubs (usually hardware) will have the physical interfaces and drivers (low-level software) to control a wide range of devices from multiple manufacturers.

There are both DIY and commercial products and they are available in a wide range of prices and capability.  Choosing one of these systems that works with all or most of what you already own can be a great way to achieve an integrated system without starting over from scratch.

Unlike the basic hubs that come with some smart home products, these controllers are not limited to one type of product or one brand of equipment, so your mix and match options are more likely to include everything you already own or plan to purchase.

Often, however, when you buy one of these 3rd party control systems you will be replacing the app or software that comes with each individual product.

Depending upon your point of view, this can be good or bad.  Instead of juggling 5 or 10 apps, one for each device, you’ll use a single app that controls everything.

The flaw with this approach is that most of the manufacturers of these systems are not able to devote the resources and attention to make world-class software. Their app is functional, but may be ugly, hard to use, or simply lacking in features.

Since writing software linkage/adapters (“software device drivers”) for every smart home device being made is a herculean task, you’ll find only a few major brands of products are supported.  In reality, these systems are only a partial solution and you’ll still need to use other apps for some of your devices.

But this is worth considering - if you have limited your purchases to major brands of devices, you might find it a good fit.   For some of you, this might be the right solution.

Of course, your friendly smart home consultant (cough, cough, me!) is always available to help guide you through the selection of the most appropriate control system and options.

Buying a controller or hub can still be an intimidating decision and you might want to explore other options - especially if your smart home system is not large enough to justify the expense but has grown to where you really want more integration and capability and do the work yourself as a DIY project.


Hubless Solutions
The most common alternative to a centralized hub is a distributed approach where each control point (smartphone, switch, or voice assistant) communicates directly with the device you wish to control.

Let’s take the example of a lamp dimmer that you control.

Using an app on your smartphone, you can dim or brighten the lamp, or turn it on or off.

The app on your phone communicates directly with the module controlling the lamp.

The communication, over Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or other method is going directly from your phone to the device and then back.  (In datacom terms this is called peer-to-peer communications.)

Although this works simply and easily, there are a few significant limitations.  You must physically be close to the device you wish to control, and you can’t set up automated actions because everything has to go through your phone.


Internet Connected Cloud Solutions
Cloud software “bridges the gap” and limitations of peer to peer connections by connecting every device through the Internet to a centralized server.

By looping everything through the cloud, you gain a lot of flexibility and added capability.

There is a trade-off — cloud-connected services means you will be SOL when your Internet connection is down.  There can also be a noticeable delay as the round-trip time to send a command through the Internet to a central server and then back again can slow things down.

Here’s a fun fact: The widely used and very popular Amazon Echo voice assistant and the Google Home voice assistant are both cloud-connected systems. - everything they do requires a round-trip through the Internet.  

Technically, they record your voice command locally, but the audio recording is sent through the Internet to a remote data center where a vast array of servers working in parallel perform the computing intensive task of recognizing your speech and converting it into meaningful commands and responses.

I’m going to describe a few cloud-connected services that are available for DIY use at no cost.


Software “Glue” to Link Devices Together
There are two software services that provide an excellent capability to link together all your smart home devices and more.  These products consist of both Internet connected services and apps for smartphones (both Apple iPhone and any Android phone).

Although they each use different terminology, the concept is the same:  they provide a set of software building blocks that each do one specific thing and you can link them together to accomplish almost anything you want.

Some of these building blocks control devices you own (“Turn your Lutron Caseta lights on or off”), get information from your devices (“Get notified when your Nest thermstat switches to ‘away’ mode”), or communicate with you (“Get email or text messages when certain things happen in your home”).

By combining these building blocks in a mix-and-match way, you can build sequences of automation to do really interesting things such as “Turn on the outside lights 15 minutes before sunset” or “Turn off all the house lights when I leave home”.

These services allow you to:

Build sequences of actions with multiple devices that you can control with a single command

Build actions that automatically run when a condition (“a trigger”) happens without you having to do anything yourself.

Run these actions or automations even if you are not home or do not have your smartphone with you (depending upon the hardware involved).


Without further ado, here are the two services I recommend exploring along with, in their own words, a description of what they do:

IFTT  (www.ifttt.com) - IFTTT is the free way to get all your apps and devices talking to each other. Not everything on the internet plays nice, so we're on a mission to build a more connected world.


Stringify (www.stringify.com) - Change Your Life By Connecting Every Thing.  Connect all your physical and digital Things together in one place so you can take better care of your self, your family, your home or just get more done.


Don’t be intimidated
There is some lingo and new stuff to learn, it really isn’t that hard.  The easiest way to get started is to read their introductory information and tutorials.  Resist our normal temptation to skip past everything and dive right in.

Another great way to learn is to copy their examples.  There are lots of sample automation routines already created.  You can try them out and then slowly adjust them to match your own needs.

There are lots of examples and tutorials that you can find on their website and elsewhere on the Internet.  I’m purposely not trying to teach you how to use these services - many other people have already written great articles and demonstration videos.

My goal has been to introduce the concept and get you interested in taking a look and seeing if it might work for you in your own smart home.


It’s Your Move
Have you tried IFTTT or Stringify? Let me know what you think - just click ‘reply’ and write a quick note.

Is Your Smart Home Safe?

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Look Past The Obvious
I know there is a lot of general advice about security that is available.  Hopefully you know some of the basics about avoiding viruses and malware on your computer and not replying to that Nigerian prince looking for your help to move millions of dollars that are “stuck” in an account overseas.

Besides the login to your email, your computer, and your online bank accounts or other financial transactions, when you have a smart home there are many other security risks to consider.

Why Smart Home Security Is Unique
Home automation involves a lot of moving parts.  Unlike general purpose computing where you are probably spending most of your time using email, surfing the web, or interacting on social networks with a few apps, a smart home is much more complicated under the hood.

Common smart home devices such as thermostats, lighting systems, and entertainment systems actually consists of much more than the actual hardware you have purchased and plug in.

Every smart home device is part of a larger environment that may include hubs, controllers, gateways, and/or remote access systems.  Each of these components has its’ own security considerations.

Whether included free of charge or an optional paid subscription, many smart home device operate with an ongoing service.  The device may “phone home” to a centralized Internet server for basic operation or may communicate with the server periodically to verify logins, serial numbers, or other authentication.  

All of this communication with other servers and systems happens “under the covers” - much like an iceberg, a lot of what you don’t see is more important than what you do.


Start With The Basics
The first step in securing your smart home is to review the accounts and passwords used by all your devices.  Check each device or service and make sure you are not using a default login account name or password. 

Although manufacturers have improved their products in the last few years, there are a still a lot of devices that ship with a standard username and password that anyone can find with a quick Google search.

Here’s a helpful tip - create a special email account just to use for all your device logins instead of using your regular email account.  This isn’t required, and might seem a bit more complicated at first, but it actually makes everything a lot easier.

If you need to give temporary access to someone else (someone in tech support, your dealer, installer, or even a helpful friend), you limit your exposure by not giving them your primary email account that you use for many other things.

It also helps when you eventually move and sell your home.  You can simply give the email account to the new owner instead of frantically running around trying to reset dozens of devices, logins, and passwords.

Resist the urge to name the new email with your street address.  Creating 123mainstreet@gmail.com or Macy.W34thSt.NYC@gmail.com might seem cute, but why include information in the email that makes it easier to figure out where you live?


Use Recommended Password Hygiene
All the existing security advice about passwords applies here.  I hope you are already familiar with and follow these recommended procedures:

Use random, complicated passwords - Do not use common names, or personal info like date of birth, children’s names, etc.
Use 2 factor authentication whenever and wherever it is supported
Use a different password for each login - do not re-use the same password even 1 time

I advise all my clients to use a password manager.  This a software application like 1Password or LastPass that gives you a safe and secure way to keep track of all your passwords and login information.  You only have to remember one complex password and the software handles the rest.

I strongly recommend using a password manager application and not relying on the built-in limited password handling capability of your web browser (Safari, Chrome, or Internet Explorer).  A password manager is much more secure and because it runs on everything (smartphones, tablets, Mac computers, and Windows PCs) you can rely on it everywhere.


Put Away The Toys You Are Not Using
Most products today can do a lot of things.  They obviously do the things you want (that’s you bought them), but they can also do a lot of other things you may not care about or even know about.

Turn off all the features you are not using right now.  Even if you plan to use some capabilities in the future, leave them turned off until you are ready.  The less stuff you have turned on, the less likely something is configured wrong, mis-configured, or left with a default setup.

It’s really common sense, but something we all overlook.  This is especially true now that a lot more smart home devices support multiple systems - systems that you might not own or be using.

Many products can support HomeKit, Google Home, and Amazon Alexa simultaneously, but most homes are not using all of these systems.

If you are using Apple’s HomeKit and Siri for voice control, than make sure the support for Google Home and Alexa is turned off.

If you can’t turn off all the features you don’t want or need, check to make sure that if they have logins or passwords controlling those features that you have set the passwords and turned off as many options as you can.


All Politics Is Local - But Not Smart Devices!
Remote access is so convenient many products have it enabled by default.  Forgot to shut the garage door?  Want to turn on some lights before you get home?  Warm or cool the house from afar?  Remote access to your smart home devices or control systems is the answer.

But remote access is also the easiest way in for hackers and ne'er-do-wells.  Same advice here - disable all remote access if you don’t need it.  Much safer and less hassle.

Only provide remote access on a case-by-case basis when you must.

If you want to dig deeper on the risks, pitfalls, and advice for remote access, be sure and read my recommendations for disabling universal plug and play (UPnP), limiting use of “port forwarding”, and using a virtual private network (VPN):

The Road To Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions (Disable UPnP on your home network) — DoItForMe.Solutions


Don’t Worry, Be Happy In Your Smart Home
Network and computer security is important, but with a few straightforward steps you can enjoy the benefits of home automation with less worry.

Just follow the instructions above to secure all your devices with unique passwords, keep track of your logins with a password manager, and disable or turn off every feature or function that is not needed - especially remote access.

Be smart, be safe, and enjoy your smart home!


Products To Help With Smart Home Security

1Password Password Manager
LastPass Password Manager

Synology Router with VPN access

Bring The Cineplex Home With Plex Media Server

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Media - A Fancy Word For News, Leisure, & Entertainment
The Plex Media Server is an amazing product that brings order to all your media - music, photos, and videos.  It deserves serious consideration to be included as part of your smart home system and best of all, it is mostly free!

In our modern digital age our collection of books & magazines has been replaced with their electronic equivalent.  Many of us no longer subscribe to newspapers or magazines and get most of our information online by reading websites or following newsfeeds on social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

If you’re an avid reader, most likely like me you long ago ditched the hardcover or paperback printed book and started using an E-reader like the Amazon Kindle.  Now my book collection is just a few electronic files stored in my device and online in a cloud account.  (Actually, I mostly listen to audio books from Audible, but that is really the same kind of thing.)

But what about photos, music, and video?  What’s the electronic equivalent of those dusty old photo albums; stacks of vinyl records; cd cassettes; or heaven forbid - 8 track tapes; or shelves full of VHS video tapes and DVD discs?

Entertainment is an important part of any smart home system.  At home we spend a lot more time consuming media (a fancy term for watching TV & movies, reading, or listening to music) than adjusting our thermostats, unlocking our doors, or playing with our lights - so don’t ignore it.

When you design your smart home or look at upgrading or adding to your system, spend the time to figure out what you need and want from your entertainment systems.  There are so many different options because everybody is not the same. 

Do you prefer casual background music or are you a serious audiophile listener?  Do you watch a movie once or collect your favorites to watch over and over again?  Are you the family historian fastidiously documenting every aspect of your life with photos that are carefully indexed, categorized, and filed so you can actually find them again?


Are You A Media Hunter or Gatherer?
Before explaining more abut the Plex Media Server, I have to ask you one question:  Are you an entertainment hunter or gatherer?  When you want to watch or listen to something, do you go online and search for it or do you have your own curated collection at your beck and call?

Do you only stream music from a popular service such as Apple Music or Spotify?  Do you watch videos online from YouTube?  Do you watch TV shows and movies from Netflix or Hulu?

If you answered “Yes” to these questions then you are media hunter.  You don’t buy or save your media locally, you go online and hunt (search) for it.  On the other hand, if you like to have your own media collection locally that is not tied to the Internet and always available, then you are more of a gatherer/collector.


If You Are Not Confused, You’re Not Paying Attention
The Plex Media Server is a comprehensive system for collectors/gatherers.  It is a software system that helps you manage a comprehensive collection of your own media - music, photos, and video.  Plex provides software that helps index and catalog everything along with viewing software that makes it easy to watch or listen to all your media from different locations.

Plex can be intimidating and overwhelming as it has a lot of features.  Some are very simple while advanced features are a bit complicated and a lot of obscure features may only be of interest to very advanced users.  Although I’m talking about using Plex to store and view your media, it does have some limited online streaming features called “channels” which I’m going to ignore here.  

Plex also has recently added the ability to work with some special add-on hardware to view live TV broadcasts using over-the-air (OTA) antennas and record them like a DVR (digital video recorder), but this feature is a bit complicated and still very buggy so I don’t recommend it at this time.

Plex manages music, photos, and video but I’ll be honest, I only use it for video.  I’m perfectly happy with my existing music solution using Apple iTunes and streaming music from Spotify, Pandora, or Apple Music to my Sonos ONE speakers.

In my earlier years, I did a lot of photography including having my own darkroom so I have more advanced systems for managing photos and again I don’t use Plex for that.  Not that there is anything wrong with it - you might find Plex a great solution for music and/or photos, but I’m not going to cover that here.


What The Heck Does Plex Really Do?
Plex is a client/server system - that’s fancy computer lingo meaning it has two programs that work together.  The Plex server handles cataloging and managing all your video files and the Plex client (or viewer) software provides the user interface for choosing what you want to watch and viewing it.

One person in a household (you) will be the administrator of the Plex system and you’ll be dealing with setup and operation of the server.  Everyone else will only be using the Plex clients - they do not need to know anything about the Plex server, and that’s a good thing.

At the most basic level, the Plex client is an app that you install on your smartphone, tablet, or other device.  The beauty of Plex is that they have a client app for just about everything.  Plex is available for computers, smartphones, tablets, game consoles, smart TVs, set top boxes, blu-ray players, and a web browser version for most computers.

There is a version of Plex in the Apple App Store, the Google Play Store, & the Amazon Appstore.  There are versions of Plex specifically for streaming boxes including AppleTV, Roku, FireTV, Tivo, and Nvidia.  There are versions of Plex for game consoles including Microsoft Xbox and Sony Playstation. 

The wide availability of Plex clients is one of the key advantages.  Just about everyone and every device you might want to use is included.  All of these client apps are either free of charge or have a nominal one-time cost (I think most are free, but they have charged in the past so I’m keeping it real mentioning there might be a one-time purchase required.)


Setting Up A Plex Server
To get started you’ll need to setup a Plex server.  Just like the client software, the Plex server is free of charge and available for a variety of systems.  The most common way to setup a Plex server is to simply install it on a PC or Mac computer.  Just keep in mind that you want the computer to have lots of disk storage (tv and movie files are big) and you’ll need to have the computer running when you want to use Plex.

In practical terms, this means a computer with a large external storage drive and one that you can leave running all the time.  You don’t truly need to keep it on 24 x 7, you could turn it on when you want to watch movies, but it is much more convenient to have it running all the time - especially if you have multiple people using it and you plan on using remote access.

The Plex server can run on other kinds of equipment including network attached storage (NAS) arrays from Synology and QNAP, along with the popular Raspberry Pi embedded computers so there are a lot of options to choose from.  You can even run Plex on a laptop, so don’t let the equipment scare you - try it out first and then you can always move it to a bigger/larger computer later.


Load’er Up!
The most important part of setting up your Plex server is loading in all your media.  Grab your video files and copy them to a folder on the Plex server.  Plex understands all the media formats (MP4, H.264, H.265 (HEVC), ASF, AVI, MOV, MKV, & WMV) and will automatically convert them, as needed, when viewing them on difference devices.

That is one of the biggest advantages of Plex!  You can take video in any format you have as is - you don’t have to convert everything ahead of time.  The ability of Plex to convert the video on-the-fly and stream it to just about any device for viewing is the greatest strength of the Plex Media Server.

You can store your Plex media in one or more folders any way you like.  Plex has some recommendations such as creating a separate folder for each TV series and a folder for each year movies were released, but that is not required.  Plex will scan each file you add and matches it with several public databases of movies and tv series to build a detailed description of each file.

Plex will add a thumbnail image, movie title, movie description, and additional information including actors and stars.  All of this added data is displayed automatically when you browse through your collection using any of the Plex viewing apps.

It’s like having your personal Netflix system but everything is stored on your own computer and running entirely in your local home network!

It may not be obvious, but Plex works great with your personal videos that you have recorded with your camcorder, smartphone, or DSLR.  It is not just for commercial movies you purchase or convert from your DVD collection.


Anytime, Anywhere Entertainment
When set up properly (and I’ll admit, this can sometimes be tricky), you can access your Plex Media Server from anywhere - not just when you are home.  This is awesome for business travelers or family vacations.  Instead of paying extra for overpriced in-room hotel entertainment services, you can simply connect back to your Plex server and watch anything from your own video collection on your computer, smartphone, or tablet.

Plex even figures out the speed of your network and will automatically change the quality of the video to avoid buffering and stuttering during playback.  Whether you are on wired Ethernet, fast Wi-Fi, a slow hotel connection, or your cellphone, the Plex viewer app and the Plex server app coordinate between themselves to figure out the best resolution, speed, and bandwidth for you.

If you are a super techie, you can bring along a Roku, or Amazon FireTV stick and plug it into the HDMI connection on the hotel TV and enjoy your video on the big screen instead of your laptop, but that’s totally optional.


Don’t Be A Stranger
Plex can keep track of what you have watched, what is new in your library, and your personal viewing preferences.  This works well because with Plex you can create user logins for each member of your household and your friends.  You can limit everyone else to be a regular user and only give yourself the “superman” rights to control everything.

With the user logins, you don’t have to worry about anyone else messing around with the server configuration, erasing movies by mistake, or doing anything that might affect the reliability of the server.  If each person signs in to Plex with their own id, all their settings will be remembered.

You can create logins for your friends and vice-versa.  With Plex remote access, your friends can login and watch movies from your library and you can access theirs.  This is especially cool if you are in a different time zone.  When you are sleeping your friends can be using your Plex server when it otherwise would be idle.


"Batteries Not Included”
Just kidding!  Plex is not a battery operated device, but I do need to mention that although Plex is free - both the server and most of the viewing apps, there are a few advanced features that cost money.  These advanced options are included in the PlexPass subscription which you can purchase a la carte monthly or yearly, whichever works for you.

The PlexPass features that I use include a free mobile app (instead of a one-time purchase price), Mobile Sync (being able to download a movie from the Plex server into your smartphone or tablet for local viewing), and Managed Users (advanced user login controls).


Your Authorized Plex Installer
DoItForMe.Solutions is an Authorized Plex Installer.  On their website, Plex describes this as “The white glove movie experience”: An Authorized Plex Installer will come to your home and set up your Plex server, configure your Plex clients, and help you enjoy all your movie, TV show, music, and photo collections at your fingertips.

If you are located in the San Francisco Bay Area and would like help setting up a Plex Media System, please contact me for details

If you are located outside the SF Bay Area and need assistance, you can check the Plex website to see if there is an Authorized Plex Installer near you.

Top Ways to Save On Your Smart Home

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Cost-Effective Smart Home System Choices

Most DIY projects serve two different masters - our enjoyment of doing something by ourselves and the desire to save money.  But the fun of learning, hands-on doing, and fiddling around with smart home tech is very different from the goal of keeping the cost down.

DIY automation projects done for fun and learning can be relaxing and enjoyable while projects undertaken primarily to save money are often stressful and unsuccessful.  (“If I had the money to buy the right tools, I would have hired someone to do it for me in the first place!”)

Home DIY efforts apply to many things including home repairs, remodeling, landscaping, or major retro-fit construction/expansion.  For smart home DIY projects, I never recommend undertaking an automation project solely to save money.  If your heart’s not in the work, it is going to be difficult and stressful.

Nonetheless, saving money is a reasonable goal when approached logically and not from an artificially low zero-based budget.  It may just be words, but being frugal is a lot different than being cheap.  Here’s a few examples.


Smart Dimmers Are Cheaper Than Smart Bulbs
With many smart home technologies, the cheapest solution to start may become the most expensive.  If you buy a single automation device, such as a lamp dimmer or appliance switch, you may be tempted to choose the product with the lowest cost.  But if you eventually grow your system to handle multiple devices and multiple rooms in your home or apartment, the cost can be much higher than other approaches.

I’ve written in the past about the difference between smart light bulbs and smart dimmers/switches.  With smart bulbs, the initial cost can be lower, but each additional light you automate requires an expensive smart bulb.  With a smart lighting system, you’ll spend a little more up-front for the hub or controller, but then for each additional light you can use inexpensive “dumb” LED bulbs that cost much less.


Old-School Wiring Is Cheaper Than New-Fangled Networks
Wireless and radio technology continues to amaze us every day.  Wi-Fi networking, Bluetooth headsets and speakers, traditional infrared (IR) remotes, and newer radio frequency (RF) control systems are all wonderful solutions to connecting a device from point A to point B without wires.

Although wireless works well, it is not flawless and when it doesn’t work, it can be a real nightmare to diagnose the problem and fix it.  Poorly designed systems or installations are ticking time bombs but even flawless systems can go haywire.

Wireless signals penetrate walls and ceilings and and don’t understand ownership or property lines.  If your neighbor installs or upgrades their Wi-Fi equipment, it could suddenly cause your own network to slow down or stutter - no fault of your own.

A lot of wireless systems, such as Wi-Fi networks, lighting controls, outdoor pool and spa controls, etc. are popular because they avoid the need for installing wires inside walls or in difficult locations such as outdoor areas or underground conduit.

The fear of installation & retro-fit construction can be so great that homeowners will spend a fortune on fancy equipment to avoid a simpler solution - hiring someone to install a cable or wire.  Even with the cost of plaster patching and painting to remove any sign of the installation, it can be more cost effective to bite the bullet and have the wires installed.

If a part of your home has terrible Wi-Fi coverage, consider installing an Ethernet cable that will connect that area of the home back to your main router or Wi-Fi system.  The new Wi-Fi mesh systems are great, but they work even better when inter-connected with Ethernet cables.

If you have a limited budget for networking upgrades, use it to run one or more Ethernet cables and then buy a cheap Wi-Fi device instead of the more expensive mesh systems.  The wire will last forever and you can always upgrade the Wi-Fi gear in a few years when it becomes obsolete anyway.


The Confusing Costs Of Using “The Cloud”
The one phrase that strikes fear in the hearts of both consumers and professional smart home integrators are the words “requires a Cloud connection”.  Usually because those words are followed by “requires monthly subscription” and a request for your credit card.

Buying a product that has a one-time purchase price versus using a product that has ongoing monthly or yearly fees can have a dramatic effect on your budget.  This can get complicated quickly - some smart home products require an Internet connection but do not have a monthly charge; some products have optional features that need an Internet connection so you can choose whether you want them or not.  Some Cloud features are free, some are not.

Choosing a product based on whether it needs an Internet/cloud connection is more than just a financial decision.  If you want remote access to control devices in your home or receive updates about the condition inside your home, then you’ll need a system that includes Internet capability for remote access.

I want to focus on one area where this decision is very important - security camera systems (including video doorbells).  A security system is one of the most popular reasons many people initially decide to invest in smart home products, so it is worth understanding the costs involved.

Security systems use the cloud to store the video footage captured from the security cameras and video doorbells.  The terms and conditions vary, but most products include a limited amount of free storage and then have a choice of monthly fees depending upon how much storage is desired.

Different companies measure this in different ways - some companies specify the total amount of storage based on file sizes (megabytes and gigabytes); some companies measure storage by the number of days (1 day, 10 day, or a full 30 days); and others measure storage by the number of hours of video that has been saved.

Even more confusing, some companies charge a fee per camera (with multiple camera discounts) while others charge a fixed cost for an unlimited number of cameras.

I leave it up to you to compare the differences but with IP cameras selling for $50 to $300 each, and monthly cloud storage running from $5 to $30 per month (sometimes per camera), you don’t have to be a math wiz to realize the cost of the cameras, over the lifetime of the system, is insignificant.

So maybe that fancy camera with a motorized zoom lens and infrared vision isn’t really that expensive after all!  Certainly over the long haul you will spend a lot more for video storage than you do for purchasing the cameras themselves - something to think about!


Go Local?
There is an alternative to using cloud storage for your security system and paying those monthly storage fees.  The network video recorder (NVR) is a computer system designed to receive and store video footage on a hard drive.  In many ways, it is similar to a Tivo or other DVR (digital video recorder) that stores your favorite TV shows for later viewing.

NVR’s can be purchased as a complete plug-and-play system or the more adventurous DIY’r can convert an existing PC or Mac computer into an NVR by purchasing the appropriate software program and setting it up. 

Processing and storing video requires a lot of computing power and disk storage so don’t expect to take a 5 year old PC and press it into service.  You’ll need to invest in a modern high performance computer and lots of disk storage.

With enough internal storage, external drive, or a network storage system you can expect the total cost of an NVR to run $1000 or more for a capable system.  Not cheap, but a one-time cost that avoids all those monthly cloud storage charges.

Keep in mind that with an NVR system you have volunteered yourself to be a computer system administrator.  You’ll need to constantly monitor the system to insure it is working.  Installing software updates, security patches, and keeping watch over the health and operation are important tasks and hidden costs that you must factor into your decision. 

Even a commercial plug-and-play NVR is never really a “set it and forget it” easy product to use.


One More Thing…
Ignoring the cost differences, administrative chores, and configuration or operational issues of having your own NVR system, there is one more thing you should at least consider. 

With a local NVR, all your security video is stored on a computer system inside your home.  If something should happen to this computer, or your home, all the footage will be lost.

With cloud storage, your video footage is continually being uploaded to a remote data center.  Your video is safe and secure from hard disk crashes, computer viruses and malware, or general computer problems.  In addition, your video is instantly available for secure viewing from anywhere.


Cost Saving Recommendations

Plan the entire project - A la carte purchases can end up being much more expensive

Invest in wiring if you need it - Hardwiring lasts longer and allows simpler and more cost effective automation/control systems

Choose cloud services wisely - The right online monthly fees might still be much cheaper than the alternatives

 

Did You Leave The Backdoor Open?

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Make Your Smart Home Fun with a Backdoor!
Adding a backdoor to your smart home can be fun.  Who said a smart home has to only be a serious automation and control system?  You’re the one building it (and paying for it), so why not have some fun at the same time?


What Is A Backdoor?
The dictionary defines a backdoor as “the door or entrance at the back of a building”.  Yes, every home (and even some larger apartments or condos) has a back door, but I’m not talking about that.  If you look up the same definition in a computer or security reference you’ll find it says something like “a feature or defect of a computer system that allows surreptitious unauthorized access to data”.

That’s a little closer, but still not what I have in mind - You’re not a cyber criminal and you’re not breaking into your own home, after all.  I’m thinking of undocumented or non-intuitive features or settings.  Think of it more like those secret passage ways built into castles and haunted houses that make it easier to move between rooms.

My concept of a smart home back door is very simple - add commands or options to your smart home that are not for anyone else, only for use by yourself.  These extra options don’t have to be hidden or secret; they are added for your own benefit and can hide in plain sight.

It’s like the ultimate personal customization.  Tame your smart home to do your bidding regardless of what anyone else (spouse, children, parents, visitors, or guests) might want or need.


Make The Front Door Into a Backdoor
Harness the worldwide network of geo-synchronous satellites in the sky to do your bidding.  The global positioning system (GPS) can do more than give you driving directions.  With the GPS circuitry inside all smartphones (mandated by your “friendly” government for safety reasons), your phone can be programmed to detect when you enter or leave a specific geographic place.

By creating an imaginary fence around your own home, your smartphone can send an alert or take action every time you enter or leave your home without you doing anything.  If you excuse the analogy, it is the same thing as your dog or cat wearing an electronic collar and being confined to staying inside an invisible pet fence.  

But instead of a nasty reminder shock collar, the geo-fence alert generated by your phone can be used to activate any smart home scene or sequence of commands you choose.  Simply by approaching your home the garage door can open, the lights can turn on, and your favorite music will start playing in your family room.

When you leave home, all the lights can be turned off, the music turned down, and other “leaving home” commands can be performed automatically on your behalf.  With geo-fencing, you can easily create a backdoor of automated activities that silently work every time you leave the front door of your home!

 

Using Buttons and Keypads
As your smart home grows, you’ll be adding physical buttons and switches to control some of the lights and devices in addition to using voice control or an app on your smartphone.  I recommend only using the normal button functions of on/off, brighten/dim (for lights), or individual dedicated buttons to do one task.

This makes the switch or button work just like the normal ones you already have.  No confusion for everyone in your home, no training, no special modes to remember, and no one getting frustrated that “the simple light switch is so complicated now”.

This take discipline as the engineers and marketing people love to add all kinds of extra modes and complicated features to try and sell their products.  The simplest example are light switches.  In addition to simply pressing them on or off, you can often program them to take advantage of a “double tap”.  So a double-tap on can mean one thing and a double-tap off can mean something else.

With double-taps, a switch that has only two functions (on or off) now has four (on, off, double-tap on, & double-tap-off).  There are even some devices and systems that can use a triple-tap or a long-tap to add even more choices.

This over-complication of what should be a simple, intuitive device brings to mind this quote from Inspector Gadget “Don’t push my buttons without reading the manual.”


Keep It Simple - Make the Special Button Modes A Backdoor
Just because double-tap,  triple-tap, or long-tap are confusing and not a good thing for general use, doesn’t mean you can’t use them for yourself.

Simply configure your smart home to do your private bidding when you use one of these modes.

In my home, I have a “double-tap on” in the family room turn on three different lights and set their brightness levels to exactly what I prefer for reading or streaming video.

The rest of my family has no idea this extra command exists - it doesn’t confuse them, it doesn’t get in the way, but it is alway there available to me.  Similarly, I have set the “double-tap off” to turn off all the lights in all the downstairs rooms so no matter which room I am in, when I want to “turn off the house” I can just double-tap off the nearest switch.

And it’s not truly secret.  If a family member or visitor learns what the double-tap can do, I don’t mind. No harm, no foul, they are free to use it.

Are you going to add a back door to your smart home?  Let me know what you think.