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.

 

Control Your TV Your Way

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Are You The Master Of Your (TV) Domain?
Turn it on, turn it off, change the volume, change the channel, switch the input - these are all straightforward actions that we do frequently when watching TV.  So why is it so hard to automate it properly?

Controlling a TV used to be very simple - just a switch and two dials.  The power switch turned the TV on or off, the channel dial selected the desired station by number (from 2 to 12 in the old days), and the volume knob raised or lowered the volume.  Easy to do and everyone learned quickly without an instruction manual or complicated training.

Somewhere along the way it has gotten out of control (pun intended).  The single box TV with a built-in screen and speaker has become a collection of sleek boxes with a stereo receiver, amplifier, surround sound speakers, DVD player, streaming movie player, and more.

We can operate this “home entertainment system” from the luxury of our armchair without getting up, but we have to juggle 3 or 4 remote control sticks with cryptic buttons, keypads, and confusing layouts.  Where did it all go wrong?


Why is it hard to control your TV?
The common hand-held stick shaped remote control uses infrared  (IR) light that is invisible to our eyes for remote control.  Unfortunately, every company has chosen to use a different set of control codes to accomplish the same thing.  To accommodate this “Tower of Babel” most of us have a collection of remote controls on our coffee table and we constantly juggle them to do even the most basic tasks.

There are now multiple systems and options for solving this problem with varying degrees of success.  Before going into the possibilities, I want to explain one important limitation.  Most of these AV automation systems work well most of the time, but none of them are perfect or flawless.

If you understand the limitations, you will be in a better position to decide if you want to use any of these systems and why they don’t always work as you might expect.

All of these systems retro-fit new technology (computer control) onto older technology (IR remotes).  The big limitation of IR systems which are unfortunately still widely used, is that the basic IR remote is a ONE-WAY system. 

The remote control sends a command to the TV (or stereo, or streaming box, or whatever) and never receives any response back.  The remote control has to assume the command was received, understood, and processed correctly - and that’s a big assumption!

When we use a remote manually, our human eyes and brain correct for this automatically so we don’t even realize it.  Let me give you an example.  You are watching TV channel 6 and want to change the program to channel 7.  You press the “channel up” button on the remote control but hold it down too long.  The channel changes to channel 8 instead.  You see this, so you simply press “channel down” quickly to go back down to channel 7 without even realizing that you have done this “course correction” subconsciously.

It is not that easy for a computerized remote.  It has to send out the “channel up” command with just enough delay that it is received, and not too much delay that it is acted upon twice.  The TV doesn’t tell the remote what channel is on the screen and the remote doesn’t have eyes to see the wrong channel is selected,  so it cannot correct the mistake.

Most TV’s have a “go to channel 7” command so the remote can send that command instead of “channel up”.  It’s more reliable and easier to send a command with a specific action instead of a relative action (go to a channel number instead of go up three channels). 

But we still have a lot of devices (both old and new) that don’t have a specific “turn on” or “turn off” command - they only have a “change the power” command, so even the simple task of reliability turning something on or off can be a challenge.

If you are interested in the details, having a specific command that is not dependent on prior actions is called a “discrete IR code”.  Some devices have them, but others still do not.  Even with discrete IR codes, the commands are one-way.  There is no way for a remote control to ask the TV “what is the current channel” or “what is the current volume setting” so remote control devices go through a lot of internal gyrations remembering the commands they sent and what the TV should have done to try and stay “in sync”.


Alternatives to IR
In the past few years we have gotten two alternatives to the proven, but limited, IR system of remote controls.  Most cable/satellite boxes and many newer TV/stereo systems have radio frequency (RF) controls..

These control sticks look just like the other ones, but use radio waves instead of infrared light.  This allows them to operate without being pointed directly at the equipment or relying on the signal bouncing off the walls to hit the box in the right way.

RF is an improvement, but it has all the other limitations of IR because it is built on top of the existing IR system - same one-way communication and same problematic “Tower of Babel” of manufacturer-specific codes and limited use of discrete codes.  A small improvement, but not enough to make a big difference.

A better contender for solving this mess is the use of “IP Control”.  If your TV (cable box, receiver, or other device) can be connected to your Wi-Fi or Ethernet home network, then it might have the ability to be controlled over the network instead of using IR or RF.  Using this “IP Control” is more reliable, and more flexible and has the potential to solve a lot of these problems.

Not all entertainment devices have IP control and not all control systems can use IP control.  Eventually we’ll look back at IR and RF remotes and laugh at how we ever managed to put up with them, but that time is still many years in the future.

With a mixture of IR, RF, and IP controlled devices we need to choose the automation system carefully.  Some automation solutions are only use IR, some only use IP, and some use a mix of both.  It’s not a simple choice - many of the IR systems as long established and very reliable while the IP control systems are newer and can be buggy or limited.

Depending upon your equipment and objectives, an all IR system might work better than a newer IP control system or vice-versa.


Have It Your Way
When considering an AV control system, the first thing to decide is how do you want it to operate.  Of course we want an integrated system where a single control device can command all the various boxes and equipment, but how do you want to use it?

There are three choices to consider - physical remotes, smart device apps, or voice control.  Physical remotes operate like the standard control stick provided with the product originally, but are enhanced with the intelligence to operate multiple devices.

These remotes can be packed with lots of useful (or extra) features.  Backlit keys, special function keys, small display screens, and rechargeable batteries are some of the more common things to look for.


Let’s Get Physical
There is a wide range of products available so it helps to know what you want it to do and the price range you have in mind.  You can purchase relatively simple universal remotes online or at any retail store.  These can be programmed to control more than one device, but you might have to touch or switch a button between “TV”, “DVR”, and “DVD Player” as they can be fairly dumb.

True intelligent remotes cover a wide range of products, prices, and technologies.  IR, RF, IP Control, and even voice are some of the capabilities that may be sorted - alone or in combination.

Some remote controls include hubs or repeaters for controlling other equipment such as lights, screens, or shades and can serve as the primary controller for whole house automation systems.

Don’t forget to consider the aesthetics, ergonomics, and physical attributes.  Some remotes are boxy and too large to hold comfortably in your hand.  Some are just plain ugly and won’t pass the “architectural committee” review in your household.

Be sure and look at the power options - those built-in screens and backlit keys eat through batteries quickly so a nice rechargeable version becomes a necessity.


Smart Device Apps
With all of us using smartphones and tablets, there should be no surprise that “there is an app for that” to control our TV / AV entertainment systems.   Most apps use IP control, but there are a few that work with IR adapters that either plug directly into the device, a connected base station, or a Wi-Fi adapter.

The important distinction is that an app-based solution will be using the touch screen of the smartphone or tablet as the primary method of input.  Some people like touch screens, some people don’t.  Without actual physical buttons, you have to look at the screen to make sure that you are touching the function you want.  It is very hard to use a touch screen by tactile feel alone.

If you like to have your smartphone with you at all times, it is very convenient to always be able to pull out your smartphone from your purse or pocket and instantly control everything.

Of course, if you put your smartphone down when entering your home, it is much less useful to have to find your phone to change the channel on your TV.  That’s just as bad as looking for the regular remote that has fallen through the couch cushions!

Smart device apps can be self-contained or they can be included as part of another system.  Many larger home automation control systems that include AV control will have options for both physical remotes and app-based interfaces.

Remember, it is not just for people that prefer one over the other - personally, I use both.  There are times when I want to use a physical remote and there are other times when I prefer reaching for the app on my smartphone to do the same thing or different tasks.  If you can choose a system with more flexibility, you don’t have to limit your choices up front.


Voice control
Controlling anything and everything by your voice is all the rage - and rightly so.  It is easy, fun, and convenient and can be empowering for anyone that is physically challenged or immobile.  I view voice control as an add-on feature that should complement a control system and not be the only way to operate.  You’ll have to do some careful digging around, but most of the control systems either already work with voice control or adding support.

You’ll want a solution that can work with one or more of Apple Siri/HomeKit, Google Home Assistant, Amazon Alexa, or Microsoft Cortona.  There is also Josh.AI, but that’s a high-end (meaning high priced) voice control solution more suitable for a large custom system.


AV Control Recommendations
Keep in mind that there is no “one size fits all” so you really need to do a fair amount of research and ideally try out some of the systems before making a decision.  Nonetheless, here are some suggestions and recommendations.

Physical Remotes
Logitech has an extensive line of remote control devices from basic programmable remotes to comprehensive control systems with built-in screens, touch interfaces, and companion IR repeaters and hub.  Here’s a few models to consider:

The Logitech Harmony Elite Remote Control, Hub, and App is the most full-featured solution supporting IR, IP Control, and a hub for lights and other appliances.

The Logitech Harmony Ultimate Home is the older version of the Elite at a much lower price.  Although discontinued by Logitech, it is still supported and with millions of them installed, no risk of them not working.

The Logitech Harmony Companion All in One Remote is less expensive version (no touch screen).  Unfortunately the buttons are not backlit so it is hard to use it in the dark and not one of my favorites.


Don’t overlook the newer fancy remotes from your cable or satellite provider.  I have used the newer Xfinity (Comcast) physical remote and with the addition of the built-in voice support, it is pretty nice.  If the basic smart functions can also control your AV receiver, it might just be enough!


Smart device Apps
The best app-based solution for AV remote control is called Simple Control.  It extensively uses IP Control to work with many devices that other systems cannot control and it supports add-on hardware called “Blasters” that can be used for older equipment that only responds to IR commands.

It is quite sophisticated and offers a lot of customization and configuration capability so there is a learning curve to get started. It only works with iPhones and iPads but this limitation allows very tight integration now with Apple HomeKit and Siri. Simple Control was also one of the first companies to support Amazon Echo so if you use Apple devices but prefer Amazon for voice, you’re in luck.

My second choice for an app-based solution is the Logitech Harmony Hub for under $80.  This app is compatible with both Apple/iOS and Samsung/Android and provides an easy to use solution.  Working with the Harmony Hub it has excellent control of every possible IR device that you may own and you can always add a physical remote that works with it later.

Most people don’t use the Logitech Harmony Hub only with the app - they purchase it as part of a physical remote control (see above) and then have the best of both with an actual control stick along with an app solution that can be used mix and match.

Are you considering a control system for your TV? Let me know what you think.

Do You Feel The Need - The Need For (Wi-Fi) Speed?

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Does Size Matter?
When drooling over buying a new Wi-Fi router for your smart home network, are you obsessed with size and power?  Do you look at price tags thinking the biggest, baddest router must be the most expensive one on the shelf?  Do you have “router envy” for one of those cool looking sleek black boxes with a zillion antennas sticking out in every direction like a demented spider?

Sorry, no!  The age of the mega-router is over.  Although there are a few specialized situations where a souped-up high-performance Wi-Fi router is the right solution, for almost all of us the new generation multiple access point (AP) mesh solutions are a much better choice.

Retail sales stats say that the new mesh Wi-Fi products, only a few years old, are now generating over 40% of all retail sales.  There’s clearly a router revolution happening and I’m going to try and guide you through some of the important things to know.


Wi-Fi Is Really Just A Radio
Did you know that Wi-Fi is just a silly marketing slogan?  It may not even really stand for “wireless fidelity” which is about as meaningless technobabble as it gets.  Fortunately, we all know it means wireless networking equipment that is widely using in homes and business to avoid the cost and trouble of running actual wires everywhere to connect devices together.

Sometimes lost in all this Geek-speak is that Wi-Fi is a radio technology.  Meaningful data is transmitted across open space using electromagnetic radio waves.  Transmission of anything by radio requires a transmitter and a receiver.  Because radio waves can be fairly weak, antennas are used to grab the signal and send it along to the rest of the radio hardware for transmission or reception.

 

Antenna “Hide And Seek”
The thing that is overlooked is that both the transmitter and receiver need antennas.  Most of us have seen the antennas on the router - those black things that stick up at different angles and can be adjusted to point in different directions, but have you seen the antenna on your smartphone, tablet, or computer?

Probably not - the antenna for most consumer electronics is inside and not visible.  Often, the antenna is just a small engraved copper wire on part of the tiny circuit board inside the device.  And that’s the root of the problem!

When your smartphone (or any other device) is communicating with the router, it is both sending and receiving radio signals.  Sure, it can receive a strong signal from the Wi-Fi router (because those huge external antennas put out a nice strong signal), but when the smartphone answers back, it is transmitting a radio signal from a tiny internal antenna so that signal is going to be much weaker.

Like having a conversation with someone with a sore throat that can barely whisper, if one half of the communication can’t be heard, the entire conversation won’t succeed.  Doesn’t matter if you have a megaphone on your end, you still won’t be able to hear the other person trying to answer back to you.


Many Hands Make Light Work
John Heywood’s quote from the 15th century is very appropriate for fixing Wi-Fi problems.  The best way to fix network coverage and signal strength/speed problems with your wireless network is to use more than one Wi-Fi access point (AP).

Commercial Wi-Fi networks have always used a collection of AP’s.  These are simply multiple Wi-Fi devices connected together with a wired Ethernet cable.  This provides overlapping radio coverage and when arranged properly even the largest home or office can be bathed in high speed wireless data everywhere.

Historically, multiple AP’s were not used in home network for two reasons - the individual cost of each AP was fairly expensive and it was difficult, or sometimes impossible, to run the Ethernet wires to connect them all together.

Many homes have used a range of building methods including brick, concrete, stone, and other materials that are difficult to retro-fit with new wiring.  To work around these limitations, companies began selling mega-routers with multiple antennas, frequency bands, and the maximum radio power allowed by the FCC.


Chewing Gum and Baling Wire
If a manufacturer takes an access point and modifies the software so it uses the Wi-Fi radio to both communicate with computer devices and also establish a link back to another AP, then the need for a wired connection is eliminated.  Although this technique of “wireless backhaul” works in theory, in practice this shortcut has resulted in a lot of “Wifi Extenders” being sold that are problematic.  Most Wi-Fi Extenders are notoriously unreliable, they drop their radio connection and stop working until they are reset by unplugging the power cord and restarting them.

Wi-Fi Extenders are relatively inexpensive and some don’t even have external antennas.  Unfortunately, the acne-infested teenage clerk at the local big box store will steer customers towards these devices when asked for something to “fix my Wi-Fi problem”.  (Well, not completely true, first they’ll try to sell you that overpriced mega-router and if you resist, they point to the Wi-Fi Extender as the only other solution.)

For the technically minded, Wi-Fi Extenders have a big design flaw - a single radio.  Even if they don’t drop the connection, they are using one radio for two purposes - communicating with your smartphone, tablet, or computer and also linking back to another access point.    When it does manage to work, the Wi-Fi Extender cuts your speed in half or even more.  (It’s like those one-lane tunnels on a country road - traffic has to take turns alternating in direction and that slows everybody down even without any other traffic jam.)


It’s Broke, Gotta Fix It
We are fortunate that the evolution of technology for ever newer products that are faster, better, cheaper provides an excellent solution to these problems.  The new generation of multi-access point Wi-Fi systems are Mesh Wi-Fi Routers. Mesh products take the concept of the Wi-Fi Extender and overcome their limitations by adding more than one radio (and much better internal software).  With additional radios, the mesh access point uses one radio to communicate with your devices and a separate, dedicated radio to link back to the other access points.  Voilà - problem solved!

Mesh Wi-Fi routers are often sold in 3-packs or pairs.  The design of the software is sophisticated so that all the units are identical.  The first AP you install becomes the master or primary AP and connects directly to your dsl line or cable modem.  The additional units configure themselves as wired or wireless extenders but without the limitations of the older products.

Most mesh Wi-Fi routers include one or two wired Ethernet ports so you can still interconnect them using wired Ethernet if you have the luxury of being able to run actual wires between them. This is still the ideal configuration and will give you the best performance and reliability.  Some of the newest mesh systems have three radios instead of just two - this adds more capacity and throughput which can be helpful if your home network has a lot of wireless devices or covers a large physical area.


I Feel The Need - The Need For Speed
So in summary, if your smart home Wi-Fi network is slow, has dead spots, or just isn’t working for you anymore, don’t rush out and buy that mega-router you see on the big box store shelves.  Spend a little time reading up on the new Mesh Wi-Fi systems and invest in a network upgrade that will really make a difference.  At least please don’t be a sucker and buy a problematic old-school “Wi-Fi Extender” - they barely work, are very unreliable, and will cut your speed at least in half!

For my clients, I usually install Eero Mesh Wi-Fi networks, but there are several other great products too.

Should You Get An Apple HomePod?

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Rip Van Winkle Is the Only Person That May Not Have Noticed
The big news last week is the shipment (finally) of the long-awaited Apple HomePod smart speaker.  The reviews are in and now all the early adopters are jumping in with their reviews, blog posts, and click-bait comments.  I am not going to join the swamp with everyone else - it is easier for you to read the existing reviews and it saves me the trouble of repeating what has already been said.

I am limiting my opinion to this specific question: “If you are interested in a smart home and home automation, should you buy an Apple HomePod”?

 

Sounds Great to Me
Let me get this out of the way first.  The HomePod sounds great.  The audio quality is superb and vastly exceeds the quality of anything from Amazon or Google.  But it should!  There is no surprise here that a $350 product sounds better than a $50, $100, or $200 speaker.  That’s really table stakes in this game.  If the HomePod didn’t sound really good, it would be in a lot of trouble.


The Easy Choices First
I like to use a process of elimination to help make decisions.  Find the easy flaws first, and use a process of elimination to reduce the selection further.  It is easier to choose between two or three options than twenty or thirty. 

Since the HomePod can be many things - a smart speaker, a voice assistant, a home automation controller, a TV sound system, a music player, & more, it risks being a “Jack of all trades and master of none”.  If you narrow down what you want or need the decision process is much simpler.

If you want to listen to great music then audio quality should be a key requirement.  If you want to control your smart home then the range of devices it can control will be important. If you want to ask questions  (“Who played first base for the Giants in 1973?”) then the quality of the answers should be what sways you.

 

Any Color So Long As It Is Black
Henry Ford’s famous quote fits perfectly -   “Any smartphone or tablet as long as it runs iOS”;  “Any computer as long as it runs MacOS”; and “Any music as long as it is Apple Music”.

If you are not heavily into the Apple eco-system, the HomePod is not for you.  You must own an iOS device (iPhone or iPad) to even set it up.  If you only use Samsung or other Android smartphones and tablets, the decision has been made for you - move on.

Your music collection must be stored in iTunes, bought from Apple’s iTunes Music store,  or streamed using an Apple Music Subscription in order for HomePod to be able to access it.  Anything else and you’re stuck using AirPlay, if you can, to stream from your Apple device instead.

This is a real limitation.  Apple makes great products and I use a lot of them.  But I also know that Apple has only 15% market share of worldwide smartphones, and 7% of worldwide desktop/laptop market share.  

When it comes to streaming music services (the obvious primary use for wireless speaker) the numbers are equally revealing:  Apple has 15% compared to Spotify’s 35%.  Even if you use only Apple products,  many of you don’t use Apple’s streaming music service so no music for you!

(These are approximate numbers I found using a basic Google search; take them as approximate, but meaningful information).

 

No Man Is An Island
Most families have a mix of technology in their home.  If you have a household where both Apple and PC laptops are used, some family members like iPhones, others (perhaps your kids) prefer Samsung, and you have an eclectic mix of saved digital music, streaming services, etc. then a HomePod is not a practical solution unless you don’t mind leaving out a significant portion of the people, and music, in your home.

Don’t forget about friends and visitors.  If your kids friends come over, will they be able to listen to their music on your speakers?  Do you let friends stay in your home while you are away?  Do you rent a room using AirBnB?  These are all considerations for choosing smart speakers and music products that may have to serve many different “masters”.


Bring your Bitcoins
The Apple HomePod is beautifully designed and sounds great.  It is elegant, stylish, and has every attention to detail in both physical design, ergonomics, and usage.

If absolute price is important or more important than value, you’ve probably already thought the $350 price tag is sky high.  There are so many other speaker and smart speaker options that are much more budget friendly and no eco-system lock-in so you can choose something else if you are not comfortable with the cost.

There are tons of decent Bluetooth speakers from $10 to $50.  Just as many or more high quality speakers from $100 to $200.  My current favorites are the UE Boom Mini and UE Megaboom.  Bluetooth speakers work well with any kind of computer, tablet, or smartphone so they are a good universal choice if affordable music is your primary need.


My Way or the Highway
Apple’s HomeKit is a complete home automation solution.  You can control lights, appliances, security cameras, motion/door sensors, and, of course, music and entertainment.  The selection of smart home products that work with HomeKit has increased dramatically.  At this point, just about everything is available, but you will find a smaller number of brands and products to choose from and the prices are a little higher, but no biggie.

If you are already using Apple HomeKit (or considering it’s use), The Apple HomePod is an great choice.  With the excellent built-in microphones that can hear you from across a crowed room, you have full voice control of your smart home devices.

Personally, I prefer “talking into the air” as more natural and easier than pulling out my phone from my pocket.  (This is also true for Amazon Alexa’s and Google Home’s “voice in a can”.  All smart speakers work much better than trying to control devices from your phone.)

The HomePod can also function as a HomeKit Hub and gateway.  This provides remote access when you are outside your home from anywhere in the world.  This is a great free added benefit - especially if you don’t own an AppleTV or wish to leave an iPad running 24 x 7 (the only other options for HomeKit remote access).

If you like HomeKit, but are a little worried of locking yourself “in” while smart home technology is still rapidly evolving, no problem.  There are a range of products such as Lutron Caseta and RA2 Select lighting controls that work with everything - Apple HomeKit, Amazon Alexa, & Google Home.  With careful selection, you can keep all your options open.


We’re #2 (or #3) And We Try Harder
For other Smart Home control options, the leading contenders are Amazon Alexa and Google Home.  Amazon was first over four years ago (November 2014) and has supplemented the original “black cylinder” Echo with a lot of options at a range of prices.

From the low-cost Echo Dot to the Echo Show with a built-in screen, or the new cute “alarm clock” style Echo Spot, there are a lot of models you can choose from.

Google has entered the market very strongly starting with the Google Home and recently adding the Google Home Mini and the Google Max.

Once again, each company is playing to their strengths.  The Google voice assistants excel in answering just about any question you can throw at them.  Google home automation is less versatile than Amazon, but catching up.  Google also has a few voice recognition tricks up it’s sleeve so Amazon and Apple better watch their backs!

Both Amazon and Google smart speakers support bluetooth for near universal input, and some models also have conventional audio out (AUX) jacks for more flexibility.  So for many households, Amazon or Google can be a great choice.


The Trojan Horse
The ancient Greeks conquered the city of Troy by hiding inside a large wooden horse presented as a gift.  No discussion of smart speakers and music systems would be complete without including Sonos products.  With the recently introduced Sonos ONE for $199, they have executed the perfect “Trojan Horse” strategy.

Sonos has a long established reputation as the inventor and leader in modern wireless whole-home audio systems.  Although the diehards will argue whether Sonos is a consumer product or an audiophile high-end solution, they have brought easy to use wireless music systems to a wide range of households.

Sonos has had a reputation like Apple - beautiful design, superb technology and a meticulous attention to details that come with a large price tag.  (So similar that many had predicted Apple might have bought the company to jump-start getting into the wireless speaker / higher-end audio business.)

Sonos has had ups and downs as a company and that story alone would fill a book.  The really short version is that they have made a huge comeback with the Sonos ONE smart speaker.  This product took their most popular and affordable product, the Sonos Play:1 and built-in a complete Amazon Alexa voice assistant (with full cooperation of Amazon).

Take the Amazon Echo and replace the “ok” audio with Sonos hardware and add Sonos’ proven multi-room audio, stereo pairing, and support for over 56 (and counting) different music services and you have the Sonos ONE.  Basically, an Amazon Echo on steroids.


But Wait, There’s More!
Sonos has built-in software that allows every Sonos product to access and stream Apple Music - both iTunes and Apple Music subscriptions.  This was done with the full cooperation of Apple and does not rely on flaky back doors or reverse-engineered tricks that might stop working at any time.  No other manufacturer has been granted this access by Apple.

This is a huge competitive advantage and Sonos has announced that the new Sonos ONE, along with the rest of their products, will also fully support the new Apple AirPlay 2 system when it becomes available later in 2018.

But wait, there’s even still more!  Sonos has announced that the Sonos ONE will also fully support Google Home Assistant voice input.  This means the Sonos ONE will simultaneously have Amazon Alexa, Google Home, and Apple AirPlay 2 capability all in one product.

  
Price War Anyone?

Sonos knows they have a unique place in the market right now.  Just before Apple started shipping the HomePod they came out with a special deal for a limited time.  You can purchase two Sonos ONE smart speakers for only $350 - the same price as a single Apple HomePod.  

With two Sonos ONE speakers, you can put each one in a different room and have synchronized live multi-room audio or you can put them both in a single room and use them as a combined stereo pair.  Both of these capabilities are promised for the Apple HomePod for a “future software update” but no specific timeframe has been stated.

And in case you are wondering, although a single Sonos ONE sounds just about as good or better than an Apple HomePod (depending upon the review you read or music you listen to), everyone agrees that a pair of Sonos ONE speakers sounds much better than a single HomePod.

If this isn’t a Trojan Horse, I don’t know what is!


Should You  Get An Apple HomePod?
If you are all-in on Apple, using HomeKit for home automation, and appreciate awesome sound, then the Apple HomePod is the hands-down choice for you.

Otherwise, if you want awesome sound, a pair of Sonos ONE speakers, for the same price as a single Apple HomePod is my recommendation. (I’ve used both and I prefer the Sonos - the sound, the software, the app and flexibility is much better.)

If you have a mixed tech household; you are ok with good but not great audio quality; you don’t use HomeKit; you prefer other subscription music services; and you have a smaller budget; you’ll want to consider the products from Amazon or Google instead.

If you simply want the least expensive external speaker for music, then a bluetooth speaker will be the most cost effective choice.

Don’t sit on the sidelines - With a range of choices and prices there is no reason not to enjoy the benefits of great music and voice control for your smart home.

Using Augmented Reality (AR) to Improve Your Smart Home

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The Augmented Reality Hype is Real!
Have you heard about augmented reality?  It has been one of the most hyped new technology trends with a lot of activity last year.  AR is a variation on virtual reality (VR) that has more practical applications than just playing cool computer games.

It can be really complicated, but in a nutshell, AR mixes the real world you see with computer generated images.  Most of us have seen movies like Top Gun where the fighter pilot sees all the plane’s instruments right on the windshield while looking out.

That’s a straightforward but powerful example - the real view outside the cockpit is blended (“augmented”) with computer projected images of important dials and information.

Mostly A Novelty
Last year both Apple and Samsung upgraded the software and/or hardware in their smartphones to allow the creation of AR apps.  Unfortunately, most of the first wave of apps that came out were amusing but not really useful.  I tried about a half-dozen different apps and after playing around with them for a few minutes, I never used them again.

But lo and behold, I came across an app called Magic Plan, and my life has never been the same.  Well, ok, a bit of exaggeration, but let me explain why I am really excited about this app…

For troublesome WiFi problems (dead spots, poor streaming, slow throughput), I always perform a site survey for my clients to know what is really going on.

It’s not rocket science - just walk around the entire home balancing a laptop on your hand and taking all kinds of Geek radio signal measurements with a special software package.

More a chore than anything else, to tell the truth.

The most important secret to getting good results is to have an accurate floor plan with decent measurements.  You can’t figure out how far the WiFi reaches if you don’t know the room dimensions.

Most clients are like me - they don’t have the original architectural blueprints available and couldn’t care less.  Sure you can get a tape measure or appraiser’s measuring wheel, or maybe even a laser pointer (yeah, I looked all that stuff up on Amazon), but you still can’t measure accurately with all the furniture and obstacles in place!

An Affordable Versatile Tool
Amazingly, with just an iPad and an inexpensive app (Magic-Plan), an accurate floor plan with automatic measurements is only a ‘walkabout’ away!  (You could even use just a smartphone but I find an iPad much easier.)

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Not just for WiFi planning, AR floorplans are a truly useful tool for interior design, landscape design, retro-fit construction, etc.

Worth a look if you thought “augmented reality” was just for hunting Pokemon creatures!

Have you tried any augmented reality apps? Let me know what you think.

Are Your Smart Bulbs Making Your Smart Home Dumb?

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Smart Bulbs are dumb!
Yeah, I just did the unthinkable for a tech consultant - I stated a clear-cut opinion that just might rub some people the wrong way.  I don’t like to be confrontational, so I try to steer clear of controversial positions that might offend or bother people.

It’s not that I’m afraid to give my opinion, but having been involved in technology or tech-related services for over 30 years, I know there are very few absolutes.  What is the “best” or “right” way to do something can fall out of favor and actually be the “wrong” way in only a few months or a year or so.

For many tech solutions, there really isn’t one best product or approach.  It may sound lame, but more often than not the correct answer to “Should I use product XYZ ?” or “Is this the best way to accomplish ABC ?” is simply “It depends”.

But I don’t think I’m going on a limb here this time.  The easiest solution for automating your lights in your home is simply a bad choice - almost all of the time.


What is a Smart Bulb?
Let’s start with the basics.  A smart bulb is a light bulb that includes additional electronics in the base to allow it to be remotely controlled.  Since the standard incandescent light bulb has been replaced, for the most part, with the newer LED lights, all smart bulbs consist of an LED light source.  Although it’s inaccurate to call it a “bulb”, most of us still call them “LED bulbs” so I’m going to keep using that description too.

The electronics are simply a micro controller (tiny computer) with a wireless network interface.  The micro controller provides the “smarts” and allows the light bulb to respond to commands that are sent or received via the wireless network.

The simplest commands, which every smart bulb implements, are commands to turn on, turn off, brighten, or dim.  The basic things we all want to do with a light.  No surprises here.


How Are Smart Bulbs Connected?
There are several different kinds of wireless networks used in smart bulbs.  The most common are Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, Z-Wave, or manufacturer proprietary.  A big difference here is that with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth your smartphone can connect directly to the smart bulb to control it.  With Zigbee, Z-Wave, or manufacturer proprietary you’ll need a hub or gateway to get started.

The popular Philips Hue bulbs, for example, have a starter kit that includes the Philips Hue bridge plus one or more Hue bulbs.  The good news is there are some 3rd party hubs or systems that have Z-Wave or Zigbee built-in.  The new Amazon Echo Plus includes Zigbee hardware, so that’s an interesting option.  there are a lot of other nitty gritty technical differences in these wireless protocols, but they don’t really matter for now.

Any of these wireless protocols allow the LED bulb to be controlled from an app on your smartphone or tablet; a specialized home automation hub (such as Wink, SmartThings, etc.); a web browser (sometimes); or a voice assistant such as Amazon Alexa, Google Home, or Apple Siri and they all work about the same.


Sounds Great.  So What’s The Problem?
All smart bulbs have a big problem and it has nothing to do with the wireless network hardware, the software, the brand names, or even the price.  It’s all about electricity and power!

Smart bulbs, like regular bulbs, need electricity to operate.  That’s obvious - you screw in the bulb and AC power is delivered to the bulb through two conductors - the metal screw base and the metal center pin at the bottom of the bulb.

The issue is that the electronic circuitry hidden in the base of the bulb (the micro controller and the wireless network interface) also need electricity to operate.  Just like any computer or electronic device it takes electricity to power it up and make it work.

If you operate the smart bulb using the app on your phone. No problem.  You can turn the light on or off whenever you like and depending on the hub, software, and the way you have it connected you can control it from across the room, another part of the house, or even remotely from another country.

If you, and here’s the rub, or anyone in your household turns the light off the old-fashioned way, by flipping the switch, the light goes off and stays off.  You lose all control of the light from your smartphone, tablet, voice assistant, or automated routine.

Why does the Smart Bulb Stop Working?
The failure is very subtle.  When you turn off a smart bulb using your app, the electricity is actually not shut off.  The internal micro controller and wireless interface remain powered-up.  The smart bulb simply turns off the power to the LED portion of the bulb to shut off the light itself, but the rest keeps running.

With the electronics powered-up, the smart bulb is still able to communicate and respond to commands.  The problem is that when you flip the wall switch, all power is stopped so the smart bulb becomes totally dead.  There is no way to wake it up from your smartphone; the only solution is to manually flip the switch back on.


Problem Solved.  Just Don’t Flip The Switch, Right?
If you can discipline yourself to never flip the wall switch then you’ll be ok.  But that’s not realistic unless you live alone, never have visitors, and don’t mind the inconvenience.  Truth be told, there are times when just flipping the fricking wall switch is the easiest thing to do.  Fumbling for your smartphone or trying to say the right command to Siri or Alexa can take longer and be confusing if you’ve just woken up from a deep sleep, for example.

What’s The Real Solution?
Fortunately a good solution to avoid smart bulbs that actually are dumb is easy.  Instead of buying individual smart bulbs, simply install a smart lighting system and use regular plain old bulbs (LED or incandescent - your choice).

A smart lighting system uses intelligent controllers that connect to the electrical wires that control your light - any light.  The smart home lighting systems install in your wall and replace existing wall switches or dimmers.  So there isn’t any new construction or complicated wiring needed. 

Just turn off the light at the fuse box or circuit breaker, remove the wall plate, and replace the dumb switch or dimmer with a smart switch or dimmer.  Most DIY homeowners can do the installation themselves or hire an electrician to do it for them.

Everything else about smart lighting controllers is just about the same as smart bulbs.  They use the same kinds of wireless networks - Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, Z-Wave, or manufacturer proprietary.  Some need a hub, some don’t.


Sounds Good, But Is It More Expensive?
That depends (sorry, but that is the only honest answer).  For a single light, it will probably be more expensive.  For multiple lights, it will be a lot cheaper.  Remember, with both kinds of systems if you need to buy a hub or bridge, you only need one so the cost of that initial extra purchase isn’t really a big deal when you are planning to have 3, 6, or even more automated lights.

Better yet, because the truly smart lighting systems work with regular bulbs, you can keep using your existing incandescent or LED bulbs without having to buy new ones.  That will save a lot of money!  If you do buy new bulbs, you’ll save money because each bulb is just a bulb and may cost as little as $1.  

Smart bulbs are expensive.  The smart bulbs need to replicate all the micro controller and wireless networking hardware inside each bulb so each time you buy another bulb, you must pay for all that circuitry all over again.  Even the cheapest smart bulbs cost at least $15 to $20 and most are in the $30 to $50 range.

One More Thing…
There are may differences between one light bulb and another.  “Lighting Geeks” worry about color temperature, CRI index, and other tech specs that deal with the quality of the light itself.  Much like some people listen to music with a simple portable speaker but audiophiles are very picky about all the equipment in their music system, lighting can be the same way.


If you buy a smart bulb, you are stuck with the light bulb that has been pre-selected by the manufacturor to incorporate into their product with all their electronics.  They don’t offer very much choice of the actual light, if any. Now do you think they use the most expensive, highest quality, purest light bulb or do you think maybe they are buying the cheapest bulb from an unknown manufacturer that they can get their hands on?

When you buy your own bulbs, you can Geek out and select bulbs based on any or all of the advanced criteria or simply choose them based on price or convenience.  Either way, you have a lot more options - use your existing bulbs, or buy as little or as much “bulb” as you truly want.


Are you convinced to avoid using smart bulbs? Let me know what you think.

 

DIY Security Cameras Technical Guide

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Choosing the best security camera system to buy is not easy.  Although you can purchase very high quality cameras for affordable prices there are many different kinds of cameras making it much more difficult to know what to buy. 

Since I’ve gone through the process of buying, testing, and installing a lot of products, I’m going to describe the capabilities and features that i think are important and provide some guidance on how to navigate through the confusion so you can make the best choice for yourself.

I want to apologize in advance for the length of this write-up.  This is a complicated subject and it is difficult to provide useful information without getting into some of the specifics.  This is not meant to be the ultimate reference for the technology and products, so it isn’t an exhaustive “deep dive” but hopefully you will find this more useful than the superficial overview typically published online.

I’m not going to recommend specific models or brands as my choices continue to change and evolve as the products change.  I will describe below the features, functions, and important considerations when choosing digital security cameras so you can make your own informed decision based on your unique requirements, budget, and personal preference. 

 

Resolution
Modern security cameras are based on a solid state image sensor.  These are specialized computer chips that are photosensitive - they convert light to a series of electrical signals that can be converted into an image that you can see.  The technology continues to evolve with new cameras providing ever increasing resolution, color quality, and reliability at lower cost.

The most common resolution is similar to high definition (HD) television quality with a resolution of 1080p.  Slightly lower resolution cameras with 720p are also widely available.  At the other ends of the range there are very inexpensive cameras available with lower standard definition (SD) resolution of 480p and there are very high resolution cameras with 4K/Ultra HD 3840p resolution or even higher.

 

Physical Features
In addition to resolution, cameras differ in their physical capabilities.  Some cameras are suitable for indoor use; others are specially designed to withstand the elements and are certified for outdoor or rugged environments.   Built-in microphones are more common now and other cameras may have an audio jack for connecting an external microphone.

One of the most common additional features is a built-in motorized zoom lens that can also be moved side-to-side and up-or-down under (remote) software control.  These so-called PTZ (pan-tilt-zoom) features have evolved from the cinema and movie industry and are especially useful for outdoor cameras.

 

Network Connection
To be useful, you’ve got to get the video out of the camera and send it somewhere.  Originally, security cameras were analog and typically used multiple wires with either composite video (coaxial cable) or component video connections - but this isn’t worth delving into unless you want a history lesson as I don’t recommend messing around with analog cameras at all anymore.  Modern cameras are all digital and use the same networking technology as computers, smartphones, and tablets.

These “IP Cameras” can connect to the network using either wired Ethernet or Wi-Fi.  One thing to note is that most IP Cameras use an older 10 megabit (10 mb) or 100 bit Ethernet  speed and not the newer 1000mb (Gigabit) Ethernet.  All newer local networks with faster speeds are fully backward compatible so this isn’t a big problem but you should be aware of the potential for a speed mismatch.

Wireless Wi-Fi networks have evolved through several generations of standards.  Most IP Cameras only support the older 802.11b 2.4 Ghz frequency Wi-Fi networks.  Although modern Wi-Fi access points and routers still support 802.11b along with the faster 802.11n and the newest 802.11ac, some installations turn off the slower 802.11b range so you have to make sure your Wi-Fi network still has 802.11b enabled.

IP cameras vary by manufacturer - some cameras have models that only have a wired Ethernet connection, some have only a Wi-Fi connection, and some have both.  You’ll have to look carefully at the technical specs (ugh!) to determine which network connections are available.  And pay close attention to the product model numbers - with many IP cameras, the difference is only one small letter at the end of a long, cryptic model code.  If you order incorrectly, you’ll be delivered a camera that doesn’t have the connection you need for your home network.

 

Power Supply
Cameras are sophisticated electronic devices with networking, computing, and image processing hardware built-in so a good power supply is very important.  The most common options are a standard plug-in power supply (the so-called “wall wart”), battery operation (one-time or re-chargeable batteries), and Power over Ethernet (PoE).

 

Local Image Storage
All IP Cameras will give you a live, real-time image of what the camera lens sees.  For some smart home uses, this may be sufficient but most of us want some kind of storage - we have a life and are not planning on sitting in front our computer or smartphone watching the video feed 24 x 7.  The choice of storage options is intertwined with software and automation systems (described in the next sections), but it useful to know that many IP Cameras will include a slot right inside the camera or camera base that allows you to insert a small memory card, just like a digital camera.

The local storage card slot will be empty but you can plug-in a standard SD memory card or a Micro SD memory card.  This is a handy way to have basic no-hassle image storage.   Without any software on your computer, smartphone, or tablet, the IP camera, on it’s own, will store video to the memory card.  With the included manufacturer software you can view the recorded video directly or remove the memory card and use it offline with your favorite video playback or editing software.

 

Cloud Storage
In addition to the local storage option, IP cameras provide the capability to send video to another system for viewing and storage.  The camera will stream the live image and the computer/server on the other end is responsible for handling the storage and later retrieval.  This can get complicated quickly with a lot of options, operating modes, and confusing details, but the choice boils down to two options - sending the video to the cloud or sending the video to another computer that is installed in your house and connected to your local area network.

Cloud based storage solutions are simple and very popular.  Just click a few options on the software or camera setup screens and the camera will send it’s video feed over your Internet connection to a bottomless storage system located somewhere “in the cloud” in a data center far away.  You don’t have any hardware or software to babysit and you don’t have to manage anything.  No computer to worry about, no software updates, no security fixes to install, and no crashes to recover from.

The biggest disadvantage of cloud storage is money - there is a monthly cost for this service and the cost is based on how much storage you need and how many cameras you have.  Some services are priced based on traditional storage measurements such as gigabytes, while others base their charges on time - do you want to store 24 hours, a few days, a week, a month, or a full year’s worth of video.  This is further complicated by whether you are storing continuous video or only storing video clips which are controlled by manually (you turn the camera on or off or tell it to start or stop recording) or automatically (so-called ‘motion-detection’ or smart recording systems).

There’s no shortcut here - you’ll have to do the research and compare options.  If you plan on using cloud storage, you’ll really need to analyze this carefully.  The choice of camera to buy might be based on the storage options first and not the actual camera features because, and this is the big ‘gotcha’ - in today’s market most camera manufacturers want to hold you hostage.

If you buy a camera from company “A” you cannot use the cloud storage service from company “B”.  If you choose company “A”, you are stuck using the cloud storage from company “A”.  If you later want to change to company “B”, you have to throw out your cameras and buy new cameras from company “B”.  (Please note this is a simplification and there are workarounds or exceptions, but for most DIY consumers, your choice of cloud storage system will be limited to the same company that makes or sells the camera you are using.)

Since the price of cloud storage can range from $5 per month per camera to as much as $30 per month per camera, the cost is very significant.  An outdoor security system with 4 cameras (front yard, backyard, driveway, garage area) might cost as much as $120/month - just for cloud storage.  Of course, there are usually discounts for multiple camera subscriptions and prices vary a lot.  Some companies have flat-rate prices and may cover multiple cameras at no additional cost so so you’ll be dusting off your spreadsheet skills before you are done here! 

Since we are talking about yearly costs from $60/year (one camera, $5/month) to $1440/year (4 cameras, $30/month each) you can see that the initial purchase price of the camera is the least expensive part of the whole system.  I’ll put it another way - when you look at the total ownership cost you just might want to spend a little more for the fancier camera with the better resolution or motorized pan and zoom because the lifetime cost difference for only the camera is minuscule.

I should warn you that most camera manufacturers offer a brief free trial period for their cloud storage plans.  Just like a drug dealer that passes out free samples, they are trying to get you hooked on the convenience and simplicity of cloud storage before they shock you with the price tag after you have already determined you can’t live without it.

 

Local Network Storage
So now that I’ve scared you with the true costs of operating an IP camera, what’s the alternative?  Instead of paying a cloud service, you can simply use a software program to receive the live video stream from the camera and store it locally on a hard drive or SSD drive.  Pretty simple, right?  Absolutely!  This is a simple concept but the implementation, unfortunately, “gets complicated”.

If you want to use your own computer plan on leaving it running 24 x 7 x 365.  So you more realistically want to re-use an existing computer or purchase a new computer just for this purpose.  Receiving a live video stream and storing it to disk is not so hard for one camera, but when you start growing into a system with 4, 8, or even more cameras, you need the right equipment.  It may not be like Jaws “we’re gonna need a bigger boat”, but your going to need a high-performance computer, lots of memory, and big disk storage capacity.  But this is a one-time purchase!  You could be saving anywhere from $60 to $1440 per year, or more but plan on investing some of this savings up-front to have the right equipment for the job.

Although technically you might be able to get away with a simple “storage server” that provides FTP (file transfer protocol), NAS (network attached storage), or other shared storage on your local network, you’ll most likely need to purchase a software program designed for this job.  The prices are reasonable (given what they do) but they will cost from $50 to $200 or more.  I recommend Blue Iris for PC based systems or SecuritySpy for Mac based systems.

If you don’t want the headache of an extra computer, a new software package to install, learn, and operate, and the ongoing chore of managing yet another computer (operating system updates, hardware changes, etc.) but don’t want to pay for a cloud storage service, you do have another option.  Several companies make self-contained systems that you can buy and plug in to your network.  This Network Video Recorder (NVR) box is a plug-and-play device so there is much less work involved in setting them up and using them.

The downside to using an NVR appliance is there is less selection, they tend to be expensive because they are a niche product, and most of the vendors are smaller unknown companies so the quality of both the hardware and software is questionable.  Can you tell I don’t like this option myself?  That’s why I’ve never used them and I cannot recommend any specific company or product.  In my book, you either DIY your own “NVR server” yourself or buy a cloud service subscription for a completely hands-off, easy solution.  However, for some of you, the NVR box could be the right solution under the right circumstances so I’m including it here for completeness.

 

Software Usability
The “dirty little secret” about IP cameras is that the most of the product design is standardized.  There are only a few manufacturers that actually make the sophisticated image sensors and image processors that are at the heart of every camera.  A large number of mid-tier companies are primarily assemblers taking standardized components and putting them together in a common design.  They may change the physical enclosure/packaging, but the guts are all the same.  Only the larger manufacturers or specialists actually design their own devices.

This is not necessarily good or bad.  Standardized parts and design means the raw parts are lower in cost and with a lot of manufacturers assembling finished cameras, there is healthy competition resulting in very affordable products that only get cheaper every year.  (In the past 6 months a few companies have brought out new low-end IP cameras with prices as low as $25 each!)

Higher prices doesn’t always mean higher quality, but you will certainly see more advanced hardware and features in the more expensive cameras.  The Nest IQ camera which sells for a whopping $299 has a resolution of 1080p but the built-in sensor is capable of 4k resolution.  This unique hardware design allows the Nest software to provide a special algorithmic image zoom function instead of a motorized zoom lens.  The advanced hardware in combination with their cloud storage and cloud processing allows them to offer a unique facial and person recognition system to automatically identify people in the camera’s field of view.

For many products, the primary difference is the external design and the software - both the internal built-in firmware and the apps and user software used to setup, control, and operate the system.  Although there is common generic software that some of the companies use by simply putting their own logo on it, a lot more companies will write some of the software themselves or modify the generic software to create a better, more customized product.

Evaluate the software as thoroughly as possible.  A lot of the capability of the camera is lost or unavailable if you cannot navigate the software easily or if the software lacks what you deem important for your use.  Since the software and hardware work together closely, you cannot test the software separately; Purchase from a reputable source where you know you can return everything if it doesn’t measure up.  Buy one camera or the minimum system, test, test, test and only when you are satisfied go forward with buying the additional cameras and accessories that you need.

Are you currently using or considering the purchase of one or more IP cameras? Let me know what you think.

The Light At The End Of The Tunnel

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Is your house dark when you arrive home?
If you have landscape lighting to make your home look more appealing and to light up the way to your front door in the evening, it doesn’t really work if the lights are off when you arrive.

Landscape lighting may look sexy, but making it part of your smart home plans is not.

You don’t have to live with old-school mechanical timers.  They can turn the lights on and off at preset times or cycles, but they are dumb.  Mechanical timers know nothing about the changing seasons or the exact times of sunrise and sunset.

Right now there aren’t a lot of good options for automated landscape lighting systems from existing brand name manufacturers.  The leaders in the low-voltage/outdoor lighting game have either completely ignored the smart home or are bolting-on poorly engineered, ugly, and hard-to-use proprietary systems as their answer.

What kind of control do you want?
The most basic control for outdoor lighting (and really anything) is to be able to remotely turn it on or off.  Nowadays, that means using a convenient app on your smartphone, a voice assistant (like Amazon Alexa or Google Home), or just an actual switch - but conveniently located in your home and not in the far corner of the garage.

That’s ok, but honestly if that is all you want, it’s probably not worth the effort.  The exciting thing for me is to move from convenient control to full automation.

With my own outdoor lighting, I want it to come on every day 15 minutes before sundown - whether that’s 4:45pm in the winter or 8:15pm in the summer. and turn off every night at 10:30pm - every day of the year.

But I’m lazy - I want the lighting system to figure that out and never need adjustment.  “Set it and forget it” fully automated operation is the only way to go - it works every day, every year and even if no one is at home.  (I don’t have to share the app, passwords, or train anyone else how to use the system.)


Yeah, but it’s complicated!
What I want (and do) cannot be done with a simple mechanical timer.  The control system has to consult daily sunrise or sunset times, so that means Internet access, and instructing the system with this kind of more complicated rule is next to impossible from a small character screen and tiny buttons or control knob on a traditional landscape switch or transformer. 

Although the programming may not be that sophisticated, being able to easily set it up from the convenience of a smartphone, tablet, or desktop computer is the difference between doable and usable.


An elegant and straightforward solution
All landscape lighting systems connect to an AC power outlet.  Either directly, or they have a transformer box driving the low-voltage lights, but that box still connects to a regular AC outlet.

Simply plug the lighting power supply into any smart switch device and you are done!  Setup the automation rules to turn the lights on or off when you desire and enjoy the results.

There are a few weatherproof, outdoor smart switches if you need them, but most lighting systems are installed with the transformer/controller mounted inside the garage or in a weatherproof box.

Be sure and check that there is enough space to physically place the smart switch inside where it needs to go before you buy it.

 

Bonus Tip - Go Crazy!
Turning the landscape lights on or off automatically is only the beginning.  Once you have your smart switch installed, you can get really creative by adding door sensors that detect when a door opens or closes or motion sensors.

You can link everything together to do really interesting things that solves your unique problems or needs.

For myself, I sometimes have to let our dog out into the backyard late at night for a bio break.  I’ve rigged up a door sensor so that when I open the back door, the outdoor lights turn on automatically only if it is dark and the lights are off.  Then a timer starts ticking and automatically turns the lights off again 10 minutes later - but only if the lights were already off.

Now my “Let the dogs out” automated routine means I don’t have to think about anything or manipulate any switches - just open the door, let the dog out, then close the door and everything happens automatically whether is is 11:00pm or 3:00am.

Are you considering automating your outdoor lighting? Let me know what you think.

The Road To Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions (Disable UPnP on your home network)

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Universal Plug and Play (UPnP), a feature of most home networks, is bad, and should be turned off.  If you know what UPnP is, understand why it is very dangerous to allow it to be used, and have already disabled it your home network, your parent’s home network, and your non-techie friend’s home network, then stop reading, grab your favorite beverage and relax.

Everyone else: If you have any interest in keeping your home network secure, especially your home automation devices, stop everything and read this through to the end.  You can skip over the techie or boring parts, but please read enough to understand the risks, the simple things you can do to be safe, and tell your friends.

Network Security Doesn’t Have to Be Obtuse
Unfortunately we read a lot about network security problems and the risk of home computer networks without any specific actionable advice.  The writer or blogger will alarm us with stories of woe - criminals stealing identities, hackers remotely controlling baby cams, or stealing huge amounts of data from our computers.

After spreading this fear, the writer merely offers prosaic formulaic advice - don’t write your password on a sticky stuck to your computer screen; use complicated passwords that aren’t easily guessed; keep a backup of all your data, etc.

If they don’t offer simplistic advice, they often go the other way - telling us how complicated and confusing computers and networks have become and that we must consult an expensive security expert or risk losing everything.  Again, scaring everyone without any practical examples of what can be done to increase the security of our computers and network.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step
This famous quote by Lao Tzu is applicable to computer and network security.  Security solutions are complicated, but if you approach it one step at a time, you can make significant progress.  I’m going to describe a specific high-risk home network problem that is generally overlooked.  If you implement the changes I suggest, you will be taking a step or two towards better network security.  It will not be the only thing you need to do and it won’t make you invincible, but it is a specific action you can take that will make a difference.

What is Universal Plug and Play (UPnP)
UPnP is a software protocol (set of rules) widely used on home networks first established in 2008.  UPnP attempted to solve the problem of configuration and setup of devices on local area networks - specifically home networks.  When you mix computers, phones, printers, scanners, and other devices on a computer network, it is complicated to get everything setup properly and to have all the devices communicating with each other.  

At a high level, UPnP is a set of standards to allow devices to configure themselves automatically, advertise what services they provide to everyone else on the network, and establish connections, as needed, to other devices.  Imagine if you walked into a restaurant and there was simply a crowd of people.  You couldn’t tell who was a customer, who where the waiters, the chef, or the busboy.  Just  a crowd of people with no organization or coordination. 

UPnP would be a way for each person to identify their role (“I’m a customer”, “I’m a chef”, “I’m a busboy”) and uniquely identify their location (“I’m sitting at table 27”, “I’m working the grill”).  Then UPnP would allow communications channels to be established so customers could get menus from the waiters and the waiters could place food orders with the chef, etc.

Why Is UPnP A Problem?
UPnP was originally designed only to work within the local network in your home, but it was sloppily enhanced to facilitate communications over the Internet.  Occasionally a local device needs to allow incoming access to itself from a person or device located outside the local network.  For security reasons, this is normally not allowed.  The router/firewall on your home network only allows devices inside to access the Internet but doesn’t allow devices outside your home to come into your network.

So to override this and allow incoming access, the local device has to first make an outbound connection and ask your router to allow the incoming connection. This gets complicated quickly, so I’m going to use a simplified example to try and make it simpler.  Please understand this isn’t exactly how it works, but it should be enough to explain what is going on.

Think of your home network like a secure fortress with only one way in or out - the front door.  That door is guarded by your Wi-Fi router/firewall.  In order to get into your house, the router has to open the front door - no one else can do it.  The device that wants to let someone come in to your house (remote access from the Internet) uses UPnP to ask the router to automatically open the front door.  The router will always obey a UPnP request and open the door.

What’s The Problem?
The problem is there is no identification needed.  The router receives a command from another device inside your home network and trusts that the device is legit and always opens the door without any questions. This is the security hole - malicious software such as a computer virus or malware that infects your computer can take control of a device on your own network.  This malware then asks the router/gateway to open the door to let its criminal friends come in the “front door”, and the router obeys.

Easy Solution - Lock the Front Door
The simplest solution is to simply bolt the front door.  Almost every modern Wi-Fi router has a setting that allows you to disable Universal Plug and Play.  When you turn off UPnP, the router simply ignores all requests from any devices on your local network to unlock and open the front door.  The requests are ignored and the door stays shut to unwanted incoming visitors.

This works, but it also blocks all incoming remote access.  There are many legitimate uses for incoming remote access.  In home automation, one of the common uses is to view the live video stream from your security camera.  Another typical use is to “dial in” to your home computer when you are away and want to retrieve some important files or operate your home automation system from afar.

How To Allow Limited Remote Access
The solution is to go “old school” and use the manual configuration procedure that existed before UPnP made it easy and automatic. Using a configuration option in your router, you have to identify which device needs remote access and manually change the configuration to allow that particular device to have remote access.  In technical terms, this is called “port forwarding” and you will specify the local device (by listing its IP address) and the door that will be used (the TCP/IP or UDP “port”).

Just about every router nowadays supports manually configuring port forwarding.  The specific steps are different for each brand of router, but the concept is the same.  For help with configuring your own router, the following website provides a list of many popular routers and the specific instructions you will need:  www.portforward.com

Is It Safe?
This is a permanent setting so you will be allowing that particular device to have incoming remote access whenever it likes.  By doing this you are limiting remote access to only that device.  Only that device will be allowed incoming access.  A typical home network might have between 5 and 10 devices (when you count all the smartphones, tablets, smart TV’s, computers, laptops, etc.) and the count can easily be 50 to 100 when you add home automation and larger houses.  By manually configuring port forwarding only for the devices that truly need it, you reduce the potential devices that can be attacked to gain a remote door from 50 or 100 down to 1 or 2.  (In computer security lingo, this is called “reducing the attack surface”.)

An Even Better Solution
Disabling UPnP and manually configuring port forwarding when needed is a straightforward security step that you can do now.  If you want to up your game even more, consider completely disabling all port forwarding and use a newer technology called a virtual private network (VPN).  Incoming VPN’s are a lot more secure way to provide remote access to your network. 

Adding an incoming VPN to your home network can be a bit more complicated.  You might need to replace your router with a more advanced and more powerful model. Then you need to configure the VPN software which can be confusing.

For my clients that are interested in implementing an incoming VPN, I recommend using the Synology RT2600AC Router.  This router is affordable for home/consumer use, has very high performance, and setting up a VPN is straightforward and doable if you carefully follow the step by step instructions.

What are you doing about home network security?  Will you disable UPnP on your network?  Let me know what you think.

 

Is Your HomeKit ‘Glass’ Half-Empty or Half-Full?

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New Year’s Resolutions For Apple
In just a few weeks, we’ll be reading lots of advice about making New Year’s Resolutions for the coming year.  I’ve got an interesting angle - I’m going to list my wish list now for Apple’s HomeKit so when the product managers and engineers at Apple reflect on the past year and think about what they can do better or differently, they’ll have my list for reference.


Is The Glass Half-Empty, or Half-Full?
Ha!  Of course they won’t be paying attention to me but nonetheless, I think it is a worthwhile exercise to publish my ‘wish list’ of improvements I’d like to see for Apple HomeKit.  As the classic saying goes, a glass can be considered half-empty or half-full.  There’s certainly been more than enough criticism of Apple HomeKit, especially from the professional systems integrators and smart home technologists, so rather than jumping on the bandwagon with more complaints, I’ve put together my desires for improvements.


My Top 3 Wishlist Requests for Apple HomeKit
This list contains the problems and challenges I face in actually using (or trying to use) HomeKit for myself and my clients.  Ranked in priority of actual need - This is not ranked in level of difficulty or complexity - that’s an internal challenge for Apple’s Engineers.

Backup/Restore Of Configuration
Logs of Activity
Multiplatform Support


Backup/Restore Of Configuration
Apple HomeKit is tightly integrated into the rest of Apple’s ecosystem.  That has many advantages (unified security, automatic family sharing, iCloud remote access) but one big disadvantage:  Because HomeKit uses an internal distributed database that is managed invisibly by Apple “under the hood”, there is no simple method for backing up HomeKit configurations and restoring them to a known good state.

Very often setting up and configuring a home automation system is a series of trial and error steps.  You get things working, make a backup, and then you add another device or do something that screws it up.  Like a magician waving his magic wand, you hit the ‘restore’ and load back in the working configuration and try again.

With Apple HomeKit, you can’t do that.  Any changes you make are “live” immediately and there isn’t even an “undo” command to reverse the last thing you’ve done.  With other systems, there is either a built-in backup and restore feature or they store all the data in a set of files that can archived or backed up and restored using traditional operating system commands.

There is another challenge with not having backup and restore functions.  As a smart home technology specialist, I work with multiple clients and each one has different devices and different configurations.  With other systems, I can quickly restore a specific client’s configuration into my own device (computer, smartphone or tablet), adjust their configuration or diagnose the problem, and then backup the configuration and transfer it to them.

With Apple HomeKit, there is no easy way to switch configurations rapidly or pre-configure client systems before installing them at their home.  This makes the design, setup, and support of smart homes using Apple HomeKit much more labor intensive and difficult to support or troubleshoot.  (It also means that if customer’s have a preference, I’m going to recommend other solutions first and only use Apple HomeKit as a last resort.)


Logs of Activity
Apple has a philosophy of making products that are simple and easy to use.  “It Simply Works” it not just a marketing slogan, it is an important goal they embrace with all their products - both hardware and software.  The problem with Apple HomeKit is that this philosophy of expecting perfection doesn’t measure up in the real world.  There are always things that will go wrong and need to be adjusted or fixed.  Especially with a mix of smart home devices from many different companies.

Even if everything is working fine, adding more devices or changing what you want your smart home to do will require making configuration or operational changes.  Now I’m not criticizing Apple for striving for perfection.  The problem is that when things don’t work, Apple hasn’t provided even the most basic tools most other systems provide - a historical summary of what the system is doing.  In computer terms, a system log or activity log.  This isn’t rocket science, it’s a simple text file that records the system activity and is invaluable in troubleshooting both common and bizarre problems.

Let me give a basic example - controlling a light.  You might say “Siri, turn on the couch lamp” and then expect the appropriate lamp to turn on.  When it doesn’t, how do you figure out what when wrong?  There are a lot of things to consider.  Did Siri hear you correctly?  Did she understand the name of the device?  Did HomeKit issue the right command to the lamp module to turn on?  Did the lamp module receive the command?  Did the lamp module turn on but the confirmation message back to HomeKit get missed?  As you can see, the simple action of turning on a light has a lot going on “under the hood”.

A log file helps narrow down the problem.  If you have a log file and the entry says “Attempting to turn on the dining room lamp” you would immediately know that Siri or HomeKit did not get the correct lamp name because you wanted to turn on the couch lamp.  If the log file says “No response received from couch lamp” you would know right device is being controlled and HomeKit sent the command, but something else went wrong.  Perhaps the command was never received by the lamp, maybe the confirmation message from the lamp module was never sent, or maybe the confirmation message was not received properly.  Still a lot of things to track down, but at least the log makes it easier to know what to check.

Now Apple does use log files internally, but they are not made available to “mere mortals” and the Apple system logs are so verbose and laden with technical jargon and chit-chat back and forth that it is overwhelming and impossible to analyze unless you are an Apple employee/engineer.  Many other products from other companies have log files and it is not hard to make them available.  It is more an attitude or political decision on Apple’s part that they think they are not needed because having them would mean admitting some things don’t always work properly.


Multiplatform Support
Platform wars are nothing new.  Most of us are familiar with the PC versus Mac competition of the early personal computer years, the mainframe versus minicomputer distributed computing competition, Apple iOS versus Google Android smartphone battles, and currently the native App versus Web site/web service user applications conflict.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to pile on and give my opinion here.  What I want to emphasize is the difference between personal computing and smart home devices.

With personal computing (smartphones, desktop computers, tablets, etc.) it is ok to choose an ecosystem and stay within it as much as possible.  If all your computers run Microsoft Windows 10 it is going to be a lot to easier to network them, transfer files, and use the same apps then trying to throw a few Apple MacBooks with MacOS computers into the mix.  Similarly, if both your smartphone and tablet are in the same eco-system (Apple iOS or Google Android - take your pick), then moving back and forth between your tablet and your smartphone is going to be a lot easier.

This is fine because all these devices are really personal - only one person uses them and we don’t expect the device or software to have features allowing multiple people to share the device.  That would be nice, especially when your kids pick up your phone and you don’t want them messing with your email, but most of us are ok with the limitation that these devices are personal and intended to be used by only one person.

With smart homes and automation systems, the situation is entirely different.  Homes are not single user residences.  Assuming only one person inhabits your house is foolish and not realistic.  It is also much more likely that your home has a mix of platforms and ecosystems.  You might have a fancy iPhone on iOS, while your partner prefers the latest Samsung Galaxy phone with Android.  The adults and teenagers may use Apple iPads, while the children have the cheapest generic Android tablets you could find because you’re going to replace them several times when they are dropped or thrown on the floor and the screen breaks.

A home automation system has to work for everyone in the home.  Using Apple’s Siri or Google’s Home Assistant for voice control sounds good, but not everyone has the same kind of device so they can’t talk into it and have it respond.  (As a side note, that’s one of the reasons Amazon’s Alexa has become so popular - it is sort of a peace-maker choice that both Apple and Android die-hard fans can compromise and agree to use.  Like a hi-tech ‘Switzerland’).

Even if by dictatorial decree or the generosity of your wallet in buying everyone in your household devices only from the same ecosystem (Apple or Google),  you can’t completely enforce a monoculture in your own home.  We all have service providers such as baby sitters, dog walkers, cleaning services, etc. where we can’t dictate the kind of device they use.  And don’t forget visitors and guests that might be staying in your home when you are not even there.  (I won’t even start to talk about short-term rentals like AirBnb.)

Apple has been very driven to creating a walled garden for Apple products.  Although there are exceptions (iCloud support on the web and Windows OS, a version of Apple Music available for Android), by and large, using Apple HomeKit means anyone not already onboard the Apple ecosystem is out of luck and not supported.  I’m not asking (or expecting) Apple to extend HomeKit and recognize the multi-platform reality in our homes and fully embrace Android or Microsoft Windows, however…

It would go a long way if Apple would at least fully support MacOS and the web.  Most Apple homes still have a mix of iPhones, iPads, and Apple laptops or desktop computers.  With no HomeKit support on MacOS, there is no ability to control the smart home from your desk or lap.  This is a glaring omission - Apple has added Siri voice support to MacOS, but without HomeKit support, Siri cannot control anything when invoked from your desk.

I would also like to see Apple support HomeKit from the web by adding it to the existing icloud.com web portal.  There are many scenarios were being able to use a web browser, on any computer, when you are not at home to view and control your smart home is extremely useful.  Home security cameras, video doorbells, and many other devices would be much more useful if a computer and web browser could also be used for a quick look and not just your iPhone/iPad.

What do you think of my wish list?  Do you agree or disagree?  Are there any other limitations or missing features in HomeKit you would add to the list?

Disintegrate Your Home Automation System

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I’ll admit it - I like online shopping, especially during Black Friday and Cyber Monday.  Even though as a Smart Home installer I have access to some equipment through distributors and wholesale sources, I still find I can usually get better deals online.

Full disclosure - At www.DoItForMe.Solutions, I sell very little equipment.  The majority of my work is designing solutions and installing equipment that clients have purchased but do not want to install themselves.

Some of my clients ask for recommendations and need help in choosing the right solution for their smart home projects.  For them I act as the purchasing agent and help them get the best deal.  When they save money on the equipment, there is more budget for bigger projects!

So shopping online for the best bargains is one of those skills that I practice regularly.  Good excuse, right?

Great Deals
This season, Amazon is really promoting the Alexa/Echo family of products heavily.  There are a lot of great deals with savings of up to 40%. Over the weekend I went online to pick up a few more Amazon Echo Dots as they were only $29.99 each (depending when you are reading this, they still might be a great deal).

During the checkout process Amazon offered an upsell that was hard to refuse - they gave me the option to include a TP-Link HS100 smart plug for only $5 more (by itself it sells for $29.99).

Classic dilemma - Super deal on something I didn’t really want but could always find a use for.  Don’t get me wrong, I think smart plugs are great gadgets and I already have a bunch of them sprinkled throughout my own home. 

The problem is that TP-Link is a low-end/basic smart plug.  It has it’s own app (iOS or Android) and is compatible with Amazon Alexa, but it is not HomeKit compatible and does not have an API (application programming interface) for use with more advanced control systems.

My preference is always for multi-platform hardware (devices that work with all the major systems) and maximum flexibility for integration with different automation systems.

Did I buy them? 
Yes!  Here’s the thing - it’s ok to have “islands of integration” on a case-by-case basis.  Although the dream solution of having everything in your home fully automated and fully controlled from a single system is a worthy goal, it should not be the only objective.

Why do I choose to buy the TP-Link smart plugs?  I already have several other smart plugs and they work smoothly with both Apple HomeKit, Amazon Alexa, and my larger automation control system with a unified user interface and voice control.

Simple - I have a need for a smart plugs that is relatively isolated from everything else in my smart home so a standalone solution with it’s own smartphone app is perfectly acceptable.

In our home we use Directv satellite boxes for our traditional TV station channels (we use AppleTV and streaming media too, but not ready to “cut the cord” completely yet).

Perhaps once or twice a month, at least one of our Directv boxes needs a full reset to fix a temporary glitch or problem.  This can be done by opening a small door on the front and pressing a tiny red button but the physical location inside a nice cabinet/equipment rack makes this awkward for most family members.

Problem Solved!
To solve this problem, I have plugged each of the Directv power cords into a smart switch so they can be controlled remotely.  Because resetting the box is rarely needed, but a real pain in the you-know-what, it was worth spending $50 for a typical smart plug to do the job.  (I was the one who would have to crawl around on the floor to pull the power plug manually.)

You can see where this is going, right?   I’m replacing the $50 integrates-with-everything but rarely used smart plugs with the $5 TP-Link smart plugs.  I don’t mind having to use the special TP-Link app to turn the box on or off because the savings is huge.

As a bonus, I am redeploying the original smart plugs to control more frequently used appliances that are programmed as part of more advanced scenes or automated sequences in the more fully integrated systems.

You Must Destroy It To Save It
Lesson learned - sometimes it makes sense to disintegrate (tear apart) a well-crafted integrated smart home solution and partially replace it with standalone isolated devices.  

There is no “home automation law” that says you must have everything connected to a single (possibly overpriced) integrated control system.  It’s ok to have “islands of automation” or use a few different smartphone apps instead of “one app to rule them all”.

The trick is to understand the trade offs and limitations and make sure the benefits outweigh the added inconvenience.  

Saving $45 per smart plug for a rarely used, but real need was exactly this kind of successful trade off for me.


What did you buy for your smart home on Black Friday or Cyber Monday?

Are You Getting The Right Tech Support for Your Smart Home?

Who you gonna call?
When something goes wrong with your Smart Home, who are you going call?  If you’re like most of us, you are probably spoiled by the reliability of modern computers, smartphones, and tablets.  When we have a problem, assistance is only a phone call away or a quick trip to the Genius Bar at the nearest mall.

I can still remember the days when turning on a PC was the high tech equivalent of Russian Roulette - will it turn on?  Will it boot up?  Will it get stuck somewhere before the final system prompt is on the screen?

 

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Thankfully those days are behind us.  The reliability of computers and electronics has improved greatly.  In the rare case where something doesn’t work, the low prices often make it cheaper to simply throw it away and buy a new gadget instead of having it repaired.  (That may partially explain why many of the neighborhood pc repair shops have closed up.)

When it comes to your Smart Home, we are not so lucky.  With so many new gadgets, systems, and companies, tech support can still be a real issue.  In fact, getting proper support for your home automation system requires your attention before your purchase any products or hire a professional to help.  Here’s a few tips to guide you to avoid many common pitfalls.


At Your Service
When choosing products for your Smart Home, look carefully at the support policies.  How do you contact them?  Can you call them on the telephone and speak to a live person?  If you are only allowed to contact them electronically, how easy is it?  Must you use their special website form and answer a slew of questions before they even allow you to send an inquiry?

Check their website or installation manual for details on their support policy.  Pay particular attention to their hours of operation.  If they only offer support during business hours, is it 9 to 5 in their time zone or yours?  What happens during evening and weekends?  Many DIY home automation projects are done at night or during the weekend to avoid disturbing the rest of the members of the household. 

Be savvy when you are doing your research.  Don’t fall for the “we offer support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week” pitch only to find out later they meant you can submit a request via email, 24 hours  day, but you won’t get a response until “the next business day”.  If you run into an installation problem at 3 pm on a Saturday, are you going to have to wait until Monday morning to get a response?

Do you have to supply serial numbers, order numbers, or sales receipts to get support?  Some companies will accept support questions from anyone.  Other companies are very strict and require proof-of-purchase and special product and model numbers so make sure you keep all that information handy and available.


Products or Services - Are You On The Hook?
Make sure you understand whether you are buying a product or a service, or both.  Many Smart Home products require an ongoing service to operate.  The most obvious example is a security camera.  These products typically require a paid service to store the video footage in a cloud storage system and charge a monthly fee.  If the company goes out of business and the service is no longer available, the product may not work at all.  Unlike your computer, many Home Automation products may need an Internet or cloud service connection just to turn on or login!

Don’t be fooled into thinking you are fine if you are not paying for a service.  Just because there is no monthly charge, doesn’t mean the product isn’t reliant on a service from the manufacturer.  Many Home Automation products offer a remote access or remote control ability to manipulate the device when you are not at your house.  These features rely on Internet/cloud services even though they are free.

Here’s the deal - it is expensive to operate Internet servers and cloud services.  Computer equipment, bandwidth, engineers and managers to supervise the operations are all real expenses.  Many startups and emerging companies (like that exciting product you just supported on Kickstarter or Indiegogo), grossly underestimate, or even ignore, the cost of providing the ongoing service for their products.  You might get a great deal on that shiny new gadget, but if the company goes out of business in six months, was it really a good choice?

Bait and Switch!
Unfortunately, in the past few months several popular home automation products have seen the manufacturer take away features that were free and require monthly subscriptions if you want to keep them.  Without warning, the product is not usable unless you start paying a monthly fee.  These so-called “bait and switch” deals are certainly unethical and might even be illegal.  Since small companies have very little assets, lawsuits are of little value.  Choosing products from large, established companies does provide protection against these kinds of tactics.  Large companies have lots of assets which they do not want to put at risk with this kind of customer dis-service and they are a bigger target for class-action lawsuits.


Test Support Ahead of Time
This may be a little controversial, but I always suggest that before you buy a product, create an excuse to contact support first.  Send them a request with a simple question to test their system.  See how long it takes them to acknowledge, process, and respond to your request.  If they offer telephone support, call them on the phone and speak with someone.  It is much easier to do this in advance, before you really need their help, then to call them when you are in dire need of assistance only to get voicemail or be placed on hold for 2 hours.


Problem Solving On Your Own
Troubleshooting technical problems requires a lot of skill, specialized training, and patience.  I can’t teach you very much in the scope of this article, but I can give you a few tips that might help.  Think logically - computers and technology are devices, not people.  They do not have emotions or superstitions.  If something doesn’t work only on a Wednesday or in the evening, there must be a logical explanation. 

The most important first step is to determine the exact sequence of events that causes the problem to occur.  If you can describe the steps exactly and replicate the problem, you are already more than halfway done.  Tracking down random, unpredictable issues is the most difficult part of troubleshooting.  The more “moving parts” - computers, networks, devices, cables, accessories that are involved, the more complicated this can be but this is key to solving the problem.

Use a logical process of elimination.  Carefully and methodically change one thing at a time.  If you are not getting sound from an audio device, don’t adjust settings, reboot your computer, and change the audio cables - all at the same time.  Change one setting, one device, or one cable and then re-test.  Only through the controlled process of elimination can you isolate the problem so you can focus on the actual cause. 

This is harder than it sounds - our natural inclination is to fiddle around quickly, changing a few things, and then hope for the best.  Without realizing it, you can easily waste 30 minutes or even several hours with a haphazard approach. 

Worse, since you haven’t followed a logical path or plan, when you finally realize the problem isn’t going to identified and fixed by random actions, you’ll be starting at the beginning in trying a step-by-step, one-thing-at-a-time more disciplined method.

Determine the smallest building block that is worth analyzing.  The majority of your troubleshooting effort should focus on finding the malfunctioning or mis-configured device or module.  Long gone are the days of using a soldering iron to replace individual transistors or other electronic components.

Ideally, if the suspected problem is with a common element (a cable, a computer, one of several identical devices), once you identify the suspect you can replace with another identical one and re-test to verify that you have found the problem.  Then follow-up with the manufacture to repair or replace the defective product.

Build Up Your Own ToolKit
Are you comfortable with hardware, software or both?  If you are going to be doing a lot of DIY home automation projects, build up a toolkit of the more common tools and materials you might need to diagnose problems.  For example, to diagnose Wi-Fi networks, you’ll want specialized software programs that can scan your network and identify connected devices, measure the Wi-Fi signal strength (might need h/w too), or run continuous data transfer tests between devices to identify bandwidth or placement issues.

For general purpose hardware such as computers, smartphones, and tablets, you’ll want to have  good selection of interface cables, power cords, and data cables including USB, serial port, HDMI adapters or other “dongles”. Don’t forget a handful of flash memory drives for temporary storage and transfer and one more external hard drives for system backups and recovery partitions.  If you are comfortable opening computers or other devices, you’ll certainly need a special set of tools to properly remove the screws, fasteners, and seals used.

For cable/satellite TV, Ethernet networking, or telephone systems you may wish to have the appropriate tools for crimping/terminating the ends of cables and otherwise fixing or repairing the physical connectors and connections.


Be Kind
I do want to encourage you to be polite to your support rep.  Remember they are in a tough position having to field calls or emails from people with a problem 8 hours a day.  Often they are only an intermediary and their ability to help you rests mainly with the information and tools their company provides them.  They may have good intentions and a great personality but still be limited by bureaucracy.

If your problem requires them to bend the rules ( perhaps you have a product that is just outside the warranty period or needs a replacement part that normally isn’t free), you’ll get better results with kindness than anger - “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar”.

do you think do your own tech support?  Let me know what you think.

Are You On Krack? (Don’t Panic: Two Simple Steps To Protect Your Home Wi-Fi Network)

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Danger, Will Robinson!

Within the last week, the tech media has been obsessed with spreading fear about a new and potentially very dangerous attack against all Wi-Fi networks.  The so-called “Krack attack” is certainly something you should be aware of, but it is not the doomsday end-of-the-world scenario bloggers and news reporters would have you believe.

What is Krack?

Security researchers (you know, those university guys with the pocket protectors) have found a theoretical flaw in how Wi-Fi routers handle encryption - the process of scrambling everything that is transmitted between each device on a Wi-Fi network and the Wi-Fi router/gateway that connects to the Internet.

They have proven, in the lab, the flaw exists and can be used to break into a Wi-Fi network by forcing it to disable all the encryption.  So far, no actual attacks of real networks have been detected, but this is considered likely at some point soon.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Here’s the most important thing - the attacker/vandal/criminal must be physically within range of your Wi-Fi radio signal.  For a typical house, the Wi-Fi is mostly inside with only a weaker signal detectable outside for about 5 to 50 feet from your walls.

This means an attacker has to be physically inside your house or very close - like sitting in a strange looking car or van parked right outside your door.  Unlike most of the other security problems that have been reported in the past few years, they must be nearby or no go.

A 300 lb introverted nerd sitting in their Mother’s basement in Peoria or a team of highly trained cyber-terrorists working for a unfriendly government entity in hidden building located on the other side of the world cannot even attempt to access your home Wi-Fi network. 

Be Safe - Upgrade Your Router and Devices

Nonetheless, it is still recommended to update your Wi-Fi router and all your computing devices.  Some router manufacturers have already issued updates, and the rest are working on them.  If you have newer product like the Eero Mesh Wi-Fi Routers, the updates will be downloaded automatically - you don’t have to do anything.

For other devices, a straightforward procedure using your web browser or a  program on your computer will handle the updating.  If you need help, ask someone you trust or hire a computer consultant that knows what they are doing.

Computing devices (PCs, Macs, Linux) and mobile devices (Smartphones, tablets, etc.) should also be updated.  Some manufacturers have already issued fixes, others are working on them right now.

Don’t Forget Home Entertainment and Home Automation Devices

Be sure to check your streaming devices such as Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and similar products.  Some of these will automatically update, others will need manual action.

You’ll find the biggest discrepancy in Home Automation devices.  Some companies and products will be updated, others will be ignored by their manufacturer (especially the unbranded or unknown brand devices).  Nest is already working on an update for their popular thermostats and other devices.

Just remember - because of the need for the attacker to be inside your hour or very close outside, you really don’t have to worry a lot about devices that don’t get updated.  If you are the tin-foil hat type person then you probably turned off your Wi-Fi a long time ago anyway.)


Consider Enhanced Security  Configurations / Equipment

It is certainly worth reviewing your current Wi-Fi equipment and network settings and making changes for better security. If you are still using the Wi-Fi router provided by your Internet company, you may wish to replace it with a high performance and more secure system like the Synology RT2600AC router.

If you have Wi-Fi dead spots, coverage problems, or simply want a Wi-Fi system that is higher performance and utilizes the latest advantages, then an Eero Mesh Wi-Fi network might be just the ticket.

What do you think about the Krack Wi-Fi Threat? Are you worried?  Have you already upgraded your router? Let me know what you think

 

4K TV Upgrade - Is Now The Right Time?

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Besides lights, HVAC controls, and security systems, smart homes almost always include automated entertainment systems.  Whether it’s a modest “all-in-one” remote control for TV, Blu-ray player, and perhaps a game console or a fully-custom home theater that is the envy of everyone, the cornerstone of any AV system is the television.

Over the years we’ve seen some fads (such as 3D TV) come and go.  If you jumped in too early, you paid a lot of money for technology that was unproven, hard to use, and ultimately faded into oblivion before ever becoming mainstream.

The latest buzz to catch everyone’s attention is 4K (or “Ultra HD”) television.  This week I’m going to try and demystify the technical jargon and provide guidance on whether you should upgrade your current TV to 4K.

What is 4K Television?

4K TV is the next step in the continuous evolution of television technology.  After a long time with very little change, we have seen the explosion in low-cost consumer electronics design and manufacturing providing a steady stream of TV improvements.  We’e gone from standard definition (SD), to high-definition (HD) to Ultra high-definition or as most people called it - 4K.

Each of these technologies incorporates many changes that affect picture quality, sound quality, transmission standards, user interfaces  and more but consumers have focused on picture quality because, simply, that’s what the industry marketing and advertising has emphasized.

TV picture size (or resolution) is defined by the number of dots in the horizontal and vertical dimensions.  Regular HD TV can be up to 1920 x 1080 dots.  The newest 4K TV increases the resolution to 3840 x 2160 dots.  Higher resolution should be better right?  Simple decision - buy the highest resolution you can afford?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.  

Size (Of The Screen) Matters!

What you see is determined not just by the technology, but by how your eye and brain work together to convert the image you see into what  your mind understands.  Without going into all the science (for which I’m not really qualified), the simple summary is that in order to see the higher resolution, you need to have a large screen and be viewing it from a certain distance away.

The experts don’t agree 100%, but as a general rule of thumb, for a typical family room where you are about 8 feet away from the screen, you need a screen size of at least 60” or more to see the difference.  If you have a screen smaller than 60”, then you won’t be able to see the difference and a regular HD TV would be just as good.  

For detailed charts and technical data if you want to “geek out” check these links:

4k vs 1080p and upscaling: Is UHD worth the upgrade?

4K Calculator – Do You Benefit?

Before you measure your viewing distance and start shopping for the right sized screen, you’ll need to pay attention to the “rest of the story”.

4K Is More Than Resolution and Screen Size

Although the resolution increases from HD to 4K, you aren’t really getting a proportional improvement in the image quality.  The bigger benefit of moving to a 4K TV are two other features - High Dynamic Range (HDR) and extended color gamut.

HDR is a technical term that refers to the range of contrast between the lightest part of the picture and the darkest part of the picture that you see on the screen at any time.  With HDR, there is a dramatic improvement in picture quality even with smaller screen sizes.  Although you eye and brain may not see any difference in the resolution between HD and 4K, you can easily see the tremendous improvement in any TV that has HDR.

The third, and equally important improvement is extended color gamut.  This is a technical term that means the TV can display more colors on the screen at the same time.  If the video source was created with a wide color gamut (more about this in a bit), then you will see a richer image with more subtle variation in colors.

Think of two kids making drawings with crayons.  One kid has a box with 8 different colored crayons and other kid has the mega box with 152 different colors.  Which kid’s drawings are going to be more vibrant and colorful?

Here’s How the TV Manufacturers are Screwing Us (again)

HDR and extended color gamut are the two hidden features of 4K TV’s that improve the picture quality much more than the higher resolution.  In fact, if you took a medium-sized plain-old HD TV and added HDR and extended color gamut in would like as good as, or better than the much more expensive 4K TV.

The TV guys now this - so that is why they simply don’t make regular HD TV’s with HDR and extended color gamut.  If you want to get a TV that looks better, you have to buy a 4K TV (which, of course, is more expensive).

Oh, and did I mention that the first crop of 4K TV’s that came out a few years ago were “plain vanilla 4K” and didn’t have HDR or wide color gamut?  Yup, those suckers (myself included) that bought a 4K TV two years ago now realize we have to buy another one if we want to see the real benefits of 4K (increased contrast and colors).

It’s All About The Content!

To get any benefit from a 4K TV you’ll need to view something that has been created in 4K resolution (and hopefully with HDR and wide color gamut, too).  Unfortunately, there still aren’t a lot of 4K movies or programs available.  Very few programs are available on broadcast, cable, or satellite TV (and you’ll probably need to upgrade your set top box and pay a monthly surcharge to get it).

Most of the good stuff is only on actual Blu-ray DVD discs.  If you use any of the popular online streaming services, even if they say they support 4K, they are using their own compression algorithms that squeeze the image into a smaller stream to make it more affordable for them and the resulting image is not true 4K.  But you might not be able to see the difference anyway!  Only a few streaming services support HDR or extended color gamut, so you have to check for that too.

Lastly, although the online rental/download services are starting to support 4K, keep in mind that a lot of the 4K material available was originally created in regular HD and is being transformed (“upconverted”) to 4K and is not true 4K.

Streaming Content Boxes

The following “set top boxes” all provide 4K with HDR capability for optimal viewing:

Sony Streaming Blu-Ray Disc Player 

Amazon Fire TV 4K Ultra HD

Roku Premier+ HD and 4K UHD


The Bottom Line - Should You Upgrade

Here’s the thing - TV manufacturers are not making regular HD TV’s any more but they are still selling them.  If you don’t need the actual benefits of 4K, you can shop around and get awesome deals on regular HD TV’s.  Especially the “pre-owned” TV’s that are being dumped by the early adopters moving on to 4K.

If you do wish to buy a 4K TV, make sure it is one of the newer models that have HDR and wider color gamut.  The big box stores are notorious for running big ads on 4K TVs at low prices - but those are the “plain vanilla” 4K TVs which unless you are buying large screen sizes, are no better than the much cheaper regular HD models.

In a nutshell:

For the best deal, buy regular HD TV’s at rock bottom, blow-out prices.

Only buy 4K TV’s with HDR and wide color gamut to see any visible benefit and future-proof your purchase.

Understand your equipment/upgrade requirements for 4K from your cable or satellite provider.

Understand that true 4K content (movies and programs) are not yet widely available.

Need a dog sitter?

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Do you use your TV as a dog sitter?  Are you looking for a better solution using your Amazon Echo?

In our house, we have a cute little cocker spaniel who is really spoiled.  When we leave the house for more than a few minutes, my wife insists on leaving the TV on in the family room for him.

I don’t know whether it is to keep him entertained, provide some comfort to avoid separation anxiety, or simply to drown him out if he should start barking at the gardener or an unknown noise outside, but it has become an automatic part of our “leaving the house” checklist.

Is Dog TV real?

It may not be as silly as it seems - several years ago DirecTV, our satellite service, started offering the DOG TV channel.  They claim it is “friendly programing scientifically developed to provide the right company for dogs when left alone”.  Yeah, right!  After the free trial we didn’t buy it and never thought twice about it - until today.

Flying by my screen I saw something that said “Audible for Dogs”.  From the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse and knew I had to learn more.  A quick trip to Google and I was on a new webpage from Audible that was promoting audio books for dogs [“Cesar Millan’s Guide to Audiobooks for Dogs”]

The “Guide to Audiobooks for Dogs” is free

It’s a free FREE audio book from Cesar Millan, the “dog whisperer”.  In a nutshell, he has conducted research that shows that reading aloud to a dog, while you are away, can help with separation anxiety and keep your dog calm.

If you asking “what the heck does this have to do with home automation”, let me explain: Audible is an online store/service that sells audio books - books that have been converted to audio format either by the author or professional narrators.  

Since audible is owned by Amazon, in addition to listening to audio books on your iPod, smartphone, tablet, or computer you can also use your Amazon Echo.  Working together, Audible and Amazon allow you to access your entire collection of Audible audio books and have them read to you.

This works for humans too!

Not only does it work for actual audio books, but Amazon went further and added the capability for Amazon Echo to convert written books to spoken form with their own “text to speech” processing.  So you can have any book, not just audio books, read aloud to you.

I’m seriously going to look into this - not only is it more convenient to use Amazon Echo to keep the dog entertained, it is more flexible because with Amazon Echo and Amazon Dot devices in several rooms, it can be used in many places where we don’t have a TV.

You can listen to audio books on several Amazon Alexa devices; in this case I recommend the Amazon Echo - the built-in speaker sounds great and is large enough to be heard everywhere in the room.

Lower your electric bill by turning off the TV

It is also eco-friendly - playing an audio book on the Amazon Echo will use a lot less electricity than leaving the cable/satellite box, stereo receiver, and big screen TV on for multiple hours when no one (except the dog) is at home.

What do you think about using Amazon Echo as a dog sitter? Let me know what you think.

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Hub?

Behold, the smart home hub:

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A small plastic box that fits in the palm of your hand. A power plug on the back, along with a jack to connect an Ethernet network cable and perhaps one or two other plugs of some kind. One or two small LED lights on the front and nothing more.

Beige, white, or off-white are the most common colors but they are also come in a sleek black or other designer color. Some are unimaginative squares or rectangles, some have rounded corners, and a few have oddball shapes but they all are cuddly, cute little boxes.

No big deal, just another piece of computer/electronic gear or gadget, right? But if I tell you it is a “home automation hub” then all hell breaks lose:

“Oh no, not a hub!”

“Product X would be my first choice, but it requires a hub”

“A great lighting system, but you need a hub”

“Great product, affordable price, but won’t work without a hub”

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of reading product reviews where really good or great smart home products are knocked down by the reviewer because they need a hub. The worst offenders are the tech columnists that presume to tell us consumers what we want: “It’s a great product, but consumers won’t buy it because they don’t want to buy a hub”.

These self-proclaimed “experts” are expressing their own snobbish opinion dressed up with anonymous “consumer” attribution to justify their position. I work with a lot of homeowners designing and installing smart home systems and not a single one has ever said “I like your recommendations, but I don’t want to proceed because it includes a hub”.

The truth is, most consumers don’t know what a hub is and don’t really care. We all want home automation systems that are reliable, affordable, and do the job they are intended for. If along the way we have to plug in a small plastic box, what’s the big deal?

So what is a hub?

A hub is a small box that has a tiny computer inside to perform specific functions needed as part of a smart home control system. Unlike a general purpose computer, it is smaller, lighter, and all solid-state electronics. There are no spinning hard disks, video cards, or other accessories that make up a traditional computer. Due to the small size and limited components, most hubs can be convection cooled passively and do not need a noisy spinning fan inside either.

The price of a hub varies greatly depending upon what it does, how it works, and how it is sold. The cost can be as little as $20 or as high as $500 or $1000, but the typical consumer smart home hub is usually in the range of $50 to $200. The hub may be sold a la carte, included as part of a “starter kit”, or included with a larger system so the price of the hub itself is not always obvious.

It starts with a bridge (or gateway)

One of the basic functions that most every hub provides is a bridge. Using a combination of built-in hardware and software, the hub connects together two different systems that are not compatible with each other. The simplest and most common example is a network bridge between wireless and wired local area networks.

The hub will have a wired Ethernet RJ-45 jack to plug into your wired home network (usually by plugging into a corresponding RJ-45 jack on your router or cable modem box). The hub has one or more wireless radios built-in and it has the intelligence and processing power to connect (or bridge) devices between the wireless and wired network.

Many different wireless radio protocols are currently used in smart home devices. The most common are Zigbee, Z-Wave, & vendor specific (proprietary). Z-Wave is used for many different kinds of devices, especially security system sensors like door/window sensors, temperature sensors, humidity sensors, water leak sensors, and inside air quality sensors. Zigbee is heavily used for smart lightbulbs and lighting systems, but also can be used in other devices.

Vendor specific/proprietary radios are simply wireless radio systems that were designed by one company and only used by them for many of the same products as Zigbee and Z-Wave. Historically, they may have “gotten there first” before the standardized wireless hardware was available or they may prefer the marketing lock-in they have by not allowing other products to use their radios, but the end-result is very similar to Zigbee or Z-Wave systems.

Some of the most common vendor specific/proprietary radios are the products from Insteon, Lutron, Somfy, & many others. (Some companies use standard wireless radio hardware but run their own software protocols so they are still effectively private as they cannot communicate with any other company’s products.)

Some quick examples:

Philips Hue LED bulbs/lighting systems - Zigbee radios OSRAM LED lighting - Zigbee radios Ikea Tradfre lighting - Zigbee radios Fibaro sensors (many kinds) - Z-Wave radios GE In-wall light switches/dimmers - Z-Wave radios Schlage smart locks - Z-Wave radios Lutron dimmers & light switches - Lutron radios Somfy wireless shade & blind controllers - Somfy radios Insteon smart home products - Insteon radios

Hubs Have Advanced Features Too!

Most hubs have many advanced features beyond acting as a bridge or gateway including task processing and remote access. Task processing is the ability to have the hub perform automatic actions on your behalf without your smartphone or computer being turned on.

Simple examples are having the hub turn your outside lights on at sunset and off at dawn. More complicated actions can be setting “scenes” or “activities” to perform a whole series of actions in a single step such as a scene for “movie watching” or a daily routine such as “waking up” or “leaving the house”.

Remote access provides a connection to the Internet and the necessary ‘plumbing’ (logins, proxy servers, encryption) so you can access and control your smart home devices securely from outside your home using any Wi-Fi network or just a cellular data connection on your smartphone.

Extremely useful for doing things like turning on your heat (in the winter) before you arrive home or turning on your air conditioning (in the summer) to cool down your house while you are on your way back.

Hubs can have a lot of other functions, but task processing and remote access will be features almost everyone always wants or needs. Very often, hubs will have multiple radios and provide bridging or gateways between them. Need to have a Wi-Fi connection to a Somfy wireless shade system, there’s a hub for that! Need to link your hot tub control system to your Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet network? There’s a hub for that! (etc. etc. etc.)

Why do bloggers and tech journalists “hate” hubs?

I think the dislike for hubs is driven by a few things. First, each vendor or system typically needs it’s own hub. If you use the Philips hue LED bulbs, you will need the Philips hue hub. If you use the Lutron Caseta lighting system, you will need the Lutron Caseta hub. If you use Insteon in-wall dimmers and keypads, you will need the Insteon hub.

As a homeowner, you will probably standardize on only one or two systems and so having one or two hubs to go along with possibly 10, 20, or 50 smart home devices is no big deal. But look at it from the perspective of a tech analyst / reviewer. If they are reviewing smart home LED lights from 5 different companies, they will end up with 5 switches or dimmers, 5 bulbs, and probably 5 different hubs sitting on their desk or bench with a tangle of power cords, networking cables, and accessories.

Worse, they may actually not be able to have everything plugged in at the same time as conflicting configuration settings means the various products will actually interfere with each other so they have to carefully turn off devices and keep resetting the hub and configurations. That’s enough to drive anyone crazy and in the artificial world of bench top testing, I wouldn’t disagree.

The second, and bigger objection is that they believe a hub is “one more thing to buy” that the consumer doesn’t want, doesn’t understand why they need, and doesn’t way to pay for it. I think early on this may have been true, but almost every smart home company now offers a “starter kit” that provides everything you need to get started in a single box for a reduced price over buying the pieces individually. This really eliminates the confusion on figuring out what to buy, and offsets the added cost of the hub with discounts on the included products.

Quick shopping tip: When expanding your smart home system, say a lighting system, it can be cheaper to buy more starter kits and throw away the extra hub. Shop around and compare prices; if you find a starter kit on sale you can save a lot of money this way.

The last complaint, and the one I feel is the most misleading, is that the reviewers believe the hub makes the product more expensive. A smart LED light that does not require a hub (because it has built-in Wi-Fi) might cost $50, while a smart LED light with Zigbee might cost $30 but requires a $50 hub for a total cost of $80.

Sure, it is more expensive if you only buy one smart LED light as a ‘toy’. But look at a typical family room or living room that has 4 lamps or lights. Buying 4 Wi-Fi smart lights will cost $200, while buying 4 Zigbee lights plus a hub will only cost $180. If you factor in the discount for a ‘starter kit’ it would make the hub-based solution even cheaper.

If you plan to automate a room or entire house and not just a single device, using a hub will provide significant cost savings, greater convenience, and more advanced capabilities than so-called “hub-less” solutions when the total cost of all the devices is compared.

So are you still afraid of the ‘big bad hub’ ? Let me know what you think.

Who is The ‘black sheep’ of the Smart Home?

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In the home automation market, some vendors are loved and adored while others are outcasts. No, I’m not referring to the continual iOS versus Android battles with the constant mudslinging and blog fights between fanboys on both sides.

There are some small vendors that have very interesting and useful products but for one reason or another, they are ignored by the general public, misaligned by their competitors, and only mentioned in the press or online articles when referred to as “has beens” or earlier tech.

I’m going to wave the flag for one of the vendors I work with that deserves more attention - Insteon. I don’t expect you to become instant fans; I only ask to keep an open mind as I try to explain the interesting and unique appeal of the Insteon smart home product line.

Most likely you’ve never heard of them, so hopefully this will be educational and informative. Even if you don’t choose to use any Insteon products, some of the capability I will describe is worth considering as you select companies and choose products in the future.

What is Insteon?

Insteon is a family of home automation products consisting of device hardware, control hubs, software, and services. A typical installation may use some or all of these capabilities. Insteon makes most of the common smart home devices such as dimmers, switches (both standalone modules and wired in-wall), thermostats, door/window sensors, motion sensors & security cameras.

They have a lot of devices - some of the more interesting ones are water leak detectors, in-ceiling fan controllers, in-wall keypad switches, and mini rf keypads and switches. They even have specialized devices such as dry contact relay controllers, micro modules, and devices certified for use in UK and Australia electrical circuits.

The first special feature of Insteon products that is routinely overlooked is the unique capability to work without any hub or control software. Every Insteon device has a small push button switch which can be used to manually configure the devices. With the proper sequence of plugging the device into the power outlet and pressing the buttons, you can link a switch to a dimmer or vice-versa. Now the switch is programmed to control the lamp or light attached to the the dimmer.

This direct linkage mode is called “peer to peer networking”. Insteon is the only smart home products that do this. Every other product on the market requires a smartphone, computer, or hub device to act as the central controller. With Insteon, you can start small (with only one switch and one dimmer) and then grow at your own pace.

You can always add hubs and controllers later without having to replace any of the modules you have already purchased.

Insteon products working in peer to peer mode do not require an Internet connection. This is a failsafe mode that most other products don’t provide - if your Internet goes down, Insteon keeps working.

Insteon devices can work by themselves but they become more valuable when linked together as part of a bigger automation system. Insteon makes two versions of their own hubs, but they make their software interface (“API”) available to other companies and there is a good selection of hubs and controllers (both hardware or software) available from other companies that supplement or replace the hubs and software made by Insteon.

The choice of which Insteon hub to use depends upon what other smart home systems you are using or plan to use - Amazon Echo or Apple HomeKit.

If you want to be compatible with Amazon Echo for voice control of your Insteon devices, you’ll want the Insteon Hub Model 2245-222. Alternatively, if you want to use Apple’s HomeKit and Siri, then you’ll want the Insteon Hub for HomeKit Model 2243-222. (Be careful matching model numbers as the names are similar and the hubs look alike)

Either of these are excellent choices for automating a single room or even several rooms. If you plan to automate your entire house, you might want to consider some of bigger control systems that work with Insteon. For more details reply to this email or contact me directly.

The second unique special capability of Insteon is how the modules communicate. Every Insteon device (except for really old products or the battery-only modules) have two completely different network communication interfaces built-in. Insteon devices that plug into a wall outlet or are wired in-wall, create a complete peer-to-peer mesh network using the AC voltage wires already in your house.

Each Insteon module can talk to any other Insteon module without going through a central hub or server. As a peer-to-peer network, each device automatically repeats every message it receives, so the more devices you install, the more reliable the network becomes. Since no device is a central controller, you can easily add and remove devices and a problem with one device doesn’t stop the network from operating.

(It’s like the old children’s game of sitting in a circle and whispering a message into your friend’s ear and they whisper into their friend’s ear until the message passes all the way around, but instead of going around in a circle, each person shouts the message so everyone else hears it at the same time.)

Using the household AC wiring to send signals is not a new thing - it has been done since the 1960’s or earlier. Before reliable lost-cost digital electronics it often received a bad reputation as being slow and unreliable. This has changed greatly and the current implementation is fast and proven.

Requiring every device to be plugged in does limit what you can do. Insteon developed a low-powered radio frequency (RF) technology that is battery powered and used by the door/window sensors, water leak detector, and other battery-powered devices. But Insteon didn’t stop there - they added the RF capability to all the AC powered products. So every plug-in device has two networks and each device automatically transmits (bridges) between both the AC network and the RF network.

Most other smart home devices only use a single radio (RF) network. High-power Wi-Fi or lower-power Bluetooth, Z-Wave, or Zigbee networks all suffer the same issues of limited range, problems traveling through walls, and dead spots. Insteon is unique in using two different mesh networks simultaneously so even a small project with only a few modules won’t have any trouble with range or distance limitations.

You gotta admire the simple beauty of this system - wherever there is noise or interference on the electrical wires the Insteon modules can “jump over” by using their radio frequency (RF) network and where there is distance or interference problems with the RF, the Insteon modules can “punch through” using the existing AC electrical wires!

What do you think about Insteon products? Would you like to read more about how to use them? Let me know what you think.