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 - just click ‘reply’ and write a quick note.


For More Information and Assistance
If you would like to learn more about automating your home, visit our website at www.DoItForMe.Solutions


Blast From The Past

In case you missed it, here’s an earlier blog post that you may find interesting:

4K TV Upgrade - Is Now The Right Time?

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.

Insteon Home Control Starter Kit http://amzn.to/2x7Yl3L

Philips Hub Smartbridge http://amzn.to/2gM1P5W

Samsung SmartThings Smart Home Hub http://amzn.to/2gKs5gM

Lutron Caseta Wireless Smart Bridge http://amzn.to/2xahUsM

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.

(Disclaimer: These prices are only examples to show the relative differences in cost and how the cost of a hub is insignificant if you are outfitting a room or house and not buying a single device. Prices change all the time so do your own comparisons and research before buying.)

A few Smart LED lights:

iDevices Socket - WiFi Light Bulb Adapter $49.95 http://amzn.to/2w5D0E0

TP-Link Wi-Fi Smart LED Light Bulb $19.99 http://amzn.to/2vKYOt0

Cree Connected Dimmable LED Light Bulb $14.97 http://amzn.to/2vKIGrC

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.

DIY HomeKit Bluetooth Mesh (Make HomeKit ‘Go the Distance’)

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Over the past six months manufacturers have started shipping a lot more smart home products that support Apple HomeKit. This is great news for early adopters and anyone contemplating using HomeKit as it increases the choices available.

HomeKit supports devices that connect using either Wi-Fi or Bluetooth wireless. (Other devices can also be used but they require the use of a separate hub or bridge).

Wi-Fi is the most versatile as it provides a much bigger range of operation and more capability. Bluetooth, especially BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) has become popular because it uses very little power and allows devices to easily be battery operated.

Bluetooth is typically used for smart locks, door/window sensors, temperature/humidity sensors, etc. Bluetooth devices can also be lower cost because an external power supply is not needed.

The biggest limitation of Bluetooth is the shorter operating range. The device must be within 30 to 100 feet of your iPhone or iPad. Within a single room this is usually not a problem, but when you consider automating more rooms in your home, this can be problematic.

In the long run, Bluetooth technology is evolving and a new capability called “Bluetooth mesh” will extend the range by allowing all Bluetooth devices to connect to each other and forward transmissions between them.

The good news is that Apple has quietly created a very usable solution to the Bluetooth range problem that works today. Newer models of the Apple TV streaming media box and current iPads (LINK TO IPAD) have the ability to act as Bluetooth signal repeaters to relay the Bluetooth transmission to extend its range.

Through a simple one click setting to “Use this iPad as A Home Hub” or a similar setting on the 4th gen Apple TV, the distance problem is solved.

In order for this to work your iPad or Apple TV must be turned on, logged in to the same iCloud account, and on the same local network in your house. You aren’t limited to only one device - you can turn on the Apple “Home Hub” feature on multiple iPads and Apple TVs so for larger homes, this can extend coverage throughout your home.

As an added bonus, once you enable Apple Home Hub, you can take create actions to control your HomeKit devices automatically such as turning lights on or off at specific times or performing a series of actions all at once.

If you turn on the Apple Home Hub feature in an Apple TV, it also provides remote access so you can control your HomeKit devices when you are away from home. (Only the Apple TV can do this; the iPad Home Hub feature only works inside your home.)

So if you are using or planning to use HomeKit, take a closer look at enabling the Home Hub option to get the most out of your smart home devices.

If you would like to learn more about automating your home, visit our website at www.DoItForMe.Solutions

Are you using Apple HomeKit? Why or Why Not? Let me know what you think.

“Secrets” to Saving Money When Buying Home Security Cameras

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Looking for a deal or to save money on adding a home security camera system?

Home security is often the #1 goal for a smart home retro-fit or upgrade. There are a huge number of IP security cameras available for sale and the differences between the products can be confusing. With hundreds of brands and models, it can be hard to choose.

My “secrets” to saving money when buying security cameras:

There are only a few actual manufacturers of the image sensors and video chips and most of the cameras all use the same chip. So you won’t find a big difference in video quality between a lot of the products.

If you aren’t stuck on brand names, you can save a lot of money. Brands spend money on advertising and promotion and pass along those costs to you as higher prices. “No name” products can be a lot cheaper because they don’t spend on advertising and PR.

The biggest difference is usually in the software (the web interface, the smartphone app, & the cloud services). Since the software only works with a specific brand of camera, you can usually download the app for free before you buy the camera. (Some features won’t work, but you can get a good idea of the overall quality this way very quickly).

The real cost isn’t the purchase price - it is the on-going monthly fees for “cloud storage” of the video footage. Shop around and pay close attention to the details. The smaller/unknown brands often have free or low-cost monthly charges. Costs also depend upon how many cameras you own - some companies charge you a monthly fee per camera, others have a higher monthly fee, but allow an unlimited number of cameras so your cost may depend on how many cameras you plan to have installed.

Buy only what you need, not what you want! For many locations, a lower-resolution video feed (“SD” standard definition or older 720p “HD” high definition) will be much cheaper than the top-of-the-line 1080p (or greater) high definition video. Do you really need to see the inside of your garage in 1080p instead of SD or 720p? Would you rather save $20 to $70 per camera?

A large hidden cost is often the physical installation. You might need to hire an electrician to install a power outlet that is near where you want to install the camera. Outdoor cameras require mounting and possibly drilling holes to run the network and/or power cords. (Wi-Fi can help, but don’t rush into battery-powered cameras unless you really understand the trade-offs and limitations.)

Know the difference between analog and digital security cameras; local or cloud-based recordings. You will see deals that are “too good to be true” at your local big box store (Costco, Best Buy, Target, Walmart) on complete “security systems” but often these are very cheap, low-end products with analog cameras and proprietary recording boxes that will lock you in with horrible software, limited expansion, and no flexibility.

If you just want one or two cameras to keep an eye on house (inside, outside, or both), then any of the retail individual cameras will do just fine. If you want to step up to a full camera system that provides better control, remote viewing, fine-tuned motion detection, and the ability to mix-and-match different brands and types of actual cameras then you’ll probably want to start with choosing the system software first. My two favorites are Blue Iris for PC’s and SecuritySpy for Macs.

IP Security Cameras Wish List / Shopping list - Here’s a convenient summary set of links:

Amcrest ProHD 1080P: http://amzn.to/2uE25tQ

Amcrest ProHD 720P: http://amzn.to/2fG01Lb

Nest Cam Outdoor Security. Camera: http://amzn.to/2wOu9rQ

Canary All-in-One Home Security Device: http://amzn.to/2vGPZgI

Recommended NVR (network video recorders) Software Systems:

Blue Iris Software (for PC computers): http://bit.ly/1Nyldf0

SecuritySpy Software (for Mac computers): http://bit.ly/2uHawEs

(Almost Free) Voice Remote

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The Amazon Echo Dot is a general purpose “personal assistant” that listens to your voice and can provide information on the weather, news, sports, and many other kinds of information with add-on apps called “skills”.

A huge feature of the Dot (and all the Amazon Echo devices) is that with the appropriate add-on hardware from other companies it can control lights, door locks, security cameras, thermostats, and many other smart home devices with just your voice. (It is really awesome and I encourage everyone to actually try it out in person.)

The most popular products in the Amazon Echo family are the Echo (the tall cylinder) and the Dot (the small hockey puck). The Dot is very affordable (retail price is $49), but the bigger difference is that although the Dot only has a tiny internal speaker (not so great for playing music), it has an AUX output stereo cable and can be plugged into your media center or family room full-blown stereo receiver / surround-sound setup for high-quality music.

The Dot is great for voice-controlled home automation because the internal speaker is just right for feedback to confirm your control commands. When you say, “Alexa, turn on the bedroom lights” the Dot can reply by saying “Ok” letting you know it heard the command was able to comply.

This is so convenient that many of my clients have purchased multiple Dots and sprinkled them throughout their home in different rooms and locations. Anywhere they walk around they are within “voice distance” for speaking commands. (The Echo’s are smart enough so that if two or more units hear you speaking, only the one closest to you will respond and the others will remain silent.)

Ok, so far everything I’ve described costs money and I asked if you wanted to have voice control for free, so stay with me….

Amazon has a few other more specialized versions of the Echo product line. The Echo Look has a camera and is focused on fashion advice and shopping (I did a brief “quick look” writeup here: http://bit.ly/2s00357). The Echo Show adds a touch screen so you can use it for videoconferencing (sort of like Skype or FaceTime), but the device I want to highlight is the Amazon Dash Wand.

The Amazon Dash Wand is a $20 handheld, battery powered wand that has a built-in barcode scanner. Amazon has designed this for use with the grocery delivery service called Amazon Fresh. The idea is that whenever you need to re-order groceries, you just pick up the Dash Wand and scan the barcode on the can or box. That adds the item to your shopping list and automates the process of re-ordering and having it delivered right to your home. (I have not gone into all the details and there are safeguards to prevent your kids from ordering hundreds of candy bars, etc.)

The TOTALLY AWESOME and TOTALLY IGNORED cool capability is that the Amazon Dash Wand includes a microphone and speaker and Amazon Alexa support. You can press a button (because it is battery powered it is not always listening) and then speak most of the same Amazon Alexa commands that you are already using on your Dot or Echo.

You can’t use the Dash Wand to play music (wouldn’t make much sense anyway) but it fully supports all the Amazon home automation commands. So the Dash Wand is a portable, hand-held, battery powered voice remote control for only $20! The Dash Wand is great for putting on your night stand, your coffee table, your kitchen counter, or anywhere you want in your home. Now you have a convenient way to control your lights, your TV, your thermostat, or any home automation devices you have connected.

You can either leave it in one location (it has a magnetic on the back so it will stick to any ferrous metallic surface and it has loop and optional hook with sticky tape) or you can take it with you. This is perfect for use by children, guests, or anyone in the home that doesn’t carry their smartphone with them all the time (yes, there are people that do that).

Here’s the (almost) free part - The Amazon Dash Wand costs only $20 and if you are an Amazon Prime member (and who isn’t, right?) Amazon will give you a $20 credit on your Amazon account for future purchases. So as long as you plan on spending at least $20 more on Amazon in the future, you can get the Dash Wand for free.

Is there a catch? Yes - you are only allowed to buy one Amazon Dash Wand per Prime Member / customer!

Here’s a convenient summary set of links:

Amazon Dash Wand product information: http://amzn.to/2vij3NW

Amazon Echo product information: http://amzn.to/2uZnACd

Amazon Echo Dot product information: http://amzn.to/2tleql5

Amazon Echo Show product information: http://amzn.to/2tp45oF

Amazon Echo Look product information: http://amzn.to/2uWKhbD

If you would like to learn more about automating your home, visit our website at www.DoItForMe.Solutions

What do you think about voice remote controls? Are they a frivolous toy or a crucial part of your home automation system? Let me know what you think.

Is It Worth It?

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As a smart home system designer & installer, I enjoy helping my clients solve problems by automating their homes and implementing new and useful devices and systems. My clients rely on my knowledge and advice and their positive feedback encourages me to continue learning, researching, and problem solving.

But sometimes I meet prospective new clients and they aren’t sure about upgrading to a smart home - they want to be “sold” on the concept and benefits. Is it worth it? Why should I spend the money? How much is this going to cost?

Realtors opinions vary and depend upon the dynamics of the local housing market and geography where they work. In conservative parts of the country, they don’t understand smart homes and actually advise their clients selling their house to remove all the smart home gadgets if they want to keep them because it won’t result in a higher selling price. (So if you want to take that Nest thermostat with you when you sell, remove it before you start listing your house.)

Fortunately, in many real estate markets (both here in the US and Internationally), having a smart home increases the resale value. The new buyer appreciates that everything is already installed and working. In addition to saving a lot of time and money, it is much easier to see the benefit when it is already in place. The biggest appeal right now is for millennials buying their first home or condominium. Some of the biggest national home builders are now including smart home features as upgrades or even standard components of new home construction.

ronically, home automation is least important in the hottest tech markets like right here in Silicon Valley. The reason is simple economics - with more potential buyers than sellers, homes are snapped up quickly and there are usually multiple offers, sometimes over the asking price, so the presence or lack of smart home features is a secondary consideration.

Stepping back a bit, there are really two different scenarios - Retrofitting a house to be a smart home purely for the purpose of putting it on the market and getting a higher price, or upgrading your home that you occupy and plan to live in for the foreseeable future.

The first option is actually the easiest - if you are selling your house, then you’ll need to make a simple ROI (return on investment) calculation: If I spend $x on improving my house, will I get $x+y back when it sells? Conventional wisdom is that if you are only upgrading to facilitate a sale, then focus on the biggest bang for your buck - slap a fresh coat of paint where needed, maybe replace that ratty rug with a new, but cheap one, and pay attention to other cosmetic issues like the grass/landscaping, etc. Investing in home automation usually doesn’t make the cut - but should!

On the other hand, upgrading or remodeling your existing home can be beneficial. You will reap some reward eventually when you sell. Realtors caution that as a rule-of-thumb you won’t get back 100% of your investment, but you get the benefit of the improvements while you still live in the house. Remodel the kitchen or bathroom and you will have a much nicer house and when you do sell, it will be more appealing.

Smart home retro-fits and upgrades have the same payback - You get to enjoy all the benefits every day while you live in the home and it will certainly improve the salability even if you can’t directly calculate the ROI. When there are two or more homes for sale that are similar, anything that makes your house different and distinctive makes it more appealing. So even if you can’t guarantee that your smart home investment will increase the eventual sale price by $xx, it might make the difference between closing the deal or not be able to sell it at all.

If you would like to learn more about automating your home, visit our website at www.DoItForMe.Solutions

Have you considered upgrading your home to make it more valuable? Would you leave your smart home devices installed or remove them before selling your home? Let me know what you think.

Down to the Wire

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Home Automation requires a solid home network foundation to work properly. There are a range of conflicting hardware technologies and software systems used by today’s smart home products. When reading product descriptions or specifications on retail boxes or websites, you’ll come across many different buzzwords and acronyms, some or all of which may be unknown.

At the risk of boring or confusing you, some of the hardware terms you may see include Ethernet, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, BLE (bluetooth low energy), Zigbee, Z-Wave, or RF (radio frequency). Software terms include TCP/IP, UDP, HomeKit, API (application program interface), Skills, & Thread.

I won’t even try to explain all of these and you shouldn’t have to learn them either. The important thing is that sooner or later, all smart home devices must be interconnected to your home network. As the foundational backbone for your home automation system, it is very important to have a stable and reliable home network. If your network doesn’t work, then none of the devices connected to it have a chance of behaving properly.

A network within a home or office operating over short distances is called a local area network, or LAN. Ethernet is the most common hardware used for LANs so you won’t find any competing technologies to worry about. Ethernet runs over telephone-style wiring commonly called twisted-pair cabling and the ends of the wires have modular telephone-like jacks called RJ-45 (they are just a little bigger/wider than regular telephone jacks to accommodate more wires in the cable).

Because of the cost and complexity of running wires all around a house, and the inconvenience of being plugged into an actual cable, wireless LAN networking using the Wi-Fi standard has been widely adopted. Wireless networking uses radio waves to send and receive data through the air without any cables. Like any radio, Wi-Fi networks are subject to distance limitations. Radio signals work best in open space and whenever they pass through walls or other obstacles the signal strength is reduced and the range is affected. The quality of Wi-Fi in your home is greatly affected by building materials, physical home layout, and other radio devices nearby.

In a small home or apartment, your Wi-Fi may work perfectly, but in many homes, there will be parts of the house where the signal is weak or nonexistent. If you are working on your smartphone or laptop computer, you’ll just move to a different spot in the room or house to fix the problem. (If you have big gaps in coverage, you might install multiple Wi-Fi radios (access points), or even step-up to the new “mesh Wi-Fi” systems that work much better.)

The important thing to keep in mind is that when you are installing a smart home device such as a light dimmer, appliance controller, or other product, you have to put the controller where you need it. You can’t move the lamp because the automation device is getting bad Wi-Fi reception in that particular corner of the family room!

Before starting a home automation project, take the time to walk around your home with your laptop and see where you have poor Wi-Fi reception or dead spots. You really want to take the time to do a thorough analysis and resolve any problems you find. With an Apple iPhone, you can use the free Apple AirPort utility to measure Wi-Fi signal strength even if you don’t own an Apple AirPort Wi-Fi system. With a laptop, there are several good programs you can get that will help you measure your Wi-Fi network and build a map of coverage (some are free, some are paid).

Keep the following rules of thumb in mind:

Wired Ethernet is always the best solution. If possible, try to have most, or all of your computer devices connected via RJ45 wired Ethernet, if at all possible. Some homes are pre-wired with Ethernet jacks in most rooms. If your home is not, strongly consider installing Ethernet wires yourself, or hiring a professional electrician or network wiring expert to do it for you. Don’t forget that high bandwidth devices such as media servers (Apple TV, Roku, or other streaming boxes), IP cameras, and of course computers will work much better and more reliability with a wired connection.

If your Wi-Fi coverage is poor or weak, upgrade your Wi-Fi network by installing a Wi-Fi router or access point that supports the latest/fastest standard which is 802.11ac. I strongly suggest looking closely at the new mesh Wi-Fi systems such as Eero. Although you may have some sticker shock with the higher cost, you will be able to solve even the most difficult range and speed problems. At a minimum, avoid using any of the older Wi-Fi “extenders” - they really don’t work as they immediately cut your throughput in half and most are unreliable and can’t maintain a permanent connection.

If you don’t have wired Ethernet throughout your home there is an in-between option of using conversion technology that can send Ethernet through some of the existing wiring you may have in your house. The two most popular methods are MoCA (multimedia over coax) which uses your existing cable TV (coax) wires, and powerline, which uses your actual high-voltage AC power lines. I won’t go into detail here, but it is good to be aware of these options.

In the past MoCA and powerline have been useful options, but the newer mesh Wi-Fi technology is easier and often a faster solution so if you still want to pursue these options, it is important to understand the tradeoffs involved before making a decision.

Lastly, I want to mention something that is often overlooked - Wi-Fi performance depends not just on the equipment, configuration, and setup that you do. It is also affected by other radios transmitting in the same area.

So even if you are meticulous mapping out the dead spots in your home, installing the latest mesh Wi-Fi access points, and getting everything running perfectly, a few days or weeks later, it might have problems. The reason? One of your neighbors installs their own Wi-Fi network for the first time or upgrades their network with more powerful access points.

That’s why I strongly recommend running wired Ethernet everywhere you can - even if it costs money to have it installed for you. Once installed and working your network will perform consistently over time. The only changes that affect it are the things you change yourself.

How is your Wi-Fi network working in your home?

Let me know what your most common problem is and whether you have been able to fix it.

Turn your Amazon Echo into a DIY home intercom system

Update: "Never mind".

As of this week (June 26, 2017) Amazon has pushed out software updates for all Amazon Echo products that allows direct room-to-room calling.

Now by giving each of your Amazon Echo devices their own name (e.g. Office, Bedroom, Kitchen, etc.) you can use them as room-to-room intercoms by simplying issuing the command "Alexa, call kitchen".

I am very pleased to see Amazon add this capability so quickly and make it very simple to use.

My originl workaround suggestion:

The new Alexa Calling & Messaging service turns every Amazon Echo and Amazon Dot into a voice telephone. The free service allows you to make telephone-like voice calls from your Alexa device to any other Alexa device in the world free of charge. There is no monthly fee, no per-minute fee, and no per-all fee. You can also use the just-updated Amazon Alexa app on your smartphone to do the same thing.

Of course, this a walled-garden system - every person you wish to call must also own an Amazon Echo device or be using the Amazon Alexa app on their smartphone. This has very interesting possibilities and when the video-enabled Amazon Show device starts shipping at the end of June, video calls will also be possible.

For me, there aren’t a lot of people I know with Amazon devices that I would want to reach this way. A regular phone call, text message, or email would be fine. However, since I do have multiple Amazon devices in my home (two Amazon Echos and five Amazon Dots), I though it would be really cool if I could use this new Alexa feature to create an in-home intercom system like the classic wall-mounted units that have been around since the ‘60s.

With a little experimentation, late night testing, and helpful assistance from Amazon tech support I now have a room-to-room intercom system using only my existing Amazon devices.

How to make it work:

The secret to making this work is very straightforward once you understand how the Amazon Calling service supports with multiple devices. When you receive an incoming call, only the Amazon devices associated with that specific Alexa account will ring. When you tell Alexa to answer the call, the specific Alexa device that hears you (or the Alexa that hears your voice the best) will answer the call and be connected.

The trick to making this work for room-to-room calling is creating unique Amazon Alexa accounts for each device, or group of devices. You will have to associate a real telephone number with each Amazon Alexa account, so plan accordingly. When setting up the Alexa app it will text a one-time code to the telephone number so you’ll need to use your home phone, cell phones, and/or a virtual or VoIP telephone number service that supports text messaging if you need more telephone numbers than you actually have. To clarify: you need one real telephone number per Alexa account, not per Alexa device. If you have three Alexa devices on one account, you only need one telephone number for that account/group.

You can have multiple Amazon devices configured to a single Alexa account. This is probably what you have now if you simply bought additional Amazon Echos or Amazon Dots and added them to your existing account. Amazon Calling service will simply ring all the devices at the same time until you answer. This is similar to “simultaneous ringing” or “parallel call forwarding” that many PBX systems provide. Simply decide on a reasonable grouping of devices. For example, in our home where there are two adults, the kitchen and family room Alexas are linked to my wife’s account and the home office and media room Alexas are linked to my account.

Don’t forget that if you have Amazon Prime, you can link two adults and four children into one shared Amazon Prime account which is easier to manage and allows some of your Amazon Prime features to be shared.

It’s Time to Pull the Plug on your Smart Home

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Whether you are a do-it-yourself (DIY) enthusiast, or hire a professional to retrofit your home with the new crop of intelligent devices, it is worthwhile to have a basic understanding of how home control and home automation works.

Follow my advice, and you’ll want to disconnect (“pull the plug”) on your home Internet connection, as least temporarily.

One of the biggest sources of confusion is the requirement, or lack thereof, for Internet connectivity. Unfortunately, the industry has adopted the acronym IoT, or Internet-of-Things to represent many different types of connected devices ranging from simple household gadgets to turn a light on or off from your iPhone to multimillion dollar jet engines with thousands of sensors monitoring millions of data points every second.

Hyping one acronym and stretching it to cover everything so any new device that is IoT-related gets PR buzz, website clicks, and attention? I could live with that if the word “Internet” was not included.

Unfortunately, there is a huge difference between simply being connected and being Internet connected. With the huge growth of smartphones and devices like the iPhone and iPad we have become accustomed to treating Internet and general connectivity interchangeably, but they are not the same.

Before we had the Internet, we had local and wide area networks and a variety of connectivity hardware and software available providing useful, and crucial functions. (Back when I worked on PC’s and LANs, and used Excel or other productivity software and shared documents with my co-workers on an Ethernet LAN, the Internet was still an obscure network-of-networks used primary by universities and the military.)

It was possible to get work down without an Internet connection because, by definition, the Internet didn’t exist. As we added Internet connectivity, new capabilities were possible (email, websites, search engines) that complemented and augmented our computing infrastructure and productivity, but we could still do most, if not all, of our daily work without the Internet.

Fast forward to today. A plethora of companies, both large and small, are promoting lots of products for building or retrofitting a home to make it into a Smart Home. Apple has HomeKit, Google has Nest and Google Home, Samsung has SmartThings, Amazon has Alexa/Echo and that’s only the start. The brand parade continues with lighting companies (Lutron, Philips, GE), Audio (Sonos), and gadgets – lots of gadgets (Insteon, Wemo, Elgato, August, DoorBird, Fibaro & more).

Before considering the more confusing aspects of hardware interfaces, software protocols, hub vs hub-less, and cross-product/cross-vendor compatibility when trying to decide, I humbly suggest focusing first on these two crucial criteria:

Are you buying a product or a service? Will this device operate without an Internet connection?

The hidden bane of many, but not all, IoT and home automation solutions is that you are not simply buying a product that you can plug in and use. Many products require a service provided by the manufacturer or third party to work or be useful.

Some products now require you to have a smartphone and an Internet connection to even set them up for the first time. Unfortunately, vast ease-of-use improvements with almost magical streamlined setup procedures rely on having an active Internet connection back to the manufacturer. Trying to set up that device in a part-time ski cabin or beach house without Internet access? Sorry, no can do.

The worse offense, and yes, I’m finally getting to the headline, are products that require an Internet connection to function at all. I won’t mention specific brand names, but consider the example of taking your iPhone out of your pocket, opening the app for brand X, and using it to turn on device Y. If you trace all the steps involved, you will be shocked at how many times data is moving back and forth across the Internet to accomplish this simple task.

Not all manufacturers will clearly explain their dependence on an Internet connection nor will they distinguish between necessary for setup, necessary for operation, or optional capability.

The worst offenders are devices that offer some capability standalone, but all the advanced “want to have” features require an Internet connection. Turn on a light from the app on your iPhone – no Internet needed. Have the light turn on automatically after dark – Internet connection required.

Here is a simple test everyone can perform – After you have installed any smart home device, go to your Wi-Fi router (or whatever provides your Internet connection) and disconnect the cable. Simply unplug the incoming Internet feed (broadband coaxial cable, RJ-45 Ethernet cable, or DSL cable).

Now put your device through its paces. Test all its features and capabilities and make a note of what works and what does not. (Coordinate this testing with the rest of your household; if you shut off your Internet while others are trying to stream a movie, post on Facebook, or get work done, well, you don’t want to do that.)

Testing the reliance on the Internet for automated/scheduled activities will take some planning. You might want to create synthetic tasks (shut the light off 10 minutes from now) so you don’t have to wait for the normally scheduled events.

Lastly, if you use an app on your smartphone to access to device, be sure and turn off cellular access. Leave only Bluetooth and Wi-Fi enabled on your phone. Most consumer IoT devices do not have backup Internet connections using cellular, but you should eliminate that from the equation anyway.

In conclusion please understand I am not against IoT and home automation. I design, install, and retrofit home automation systems as part of my Concierge Mac Support and DoItForMe.Solutions home integration services. But I strongly believe in a layered systems approach – basic functions must work without complexity and that means without requiring an Internet connection. When there is a choice between two devices, one which requires an always-on Internet connection and one that does not, I prefer the simpler approach whenever possible.

Fix Plex Movie Viewing Problems

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Can't watch your Plex movies while away from home? Here's a quick fix!

Are you enjoying the holidays away from home and getting frustrated trying to use Plex to watch a movie on your home server?

There could be lots of reasons why that movie keeps buffering, stops for no reason, or simply won't play at all.

With a couchful of friends and relatives, now is probably not the time to start a serious troubleshooting session.

If you have remote access to your home system (via TeamViewer, Screens, Back to My Mac, or some other mechanism), then here is a "quick fix" that might help.

Step 1: Get your hands on a PC or Mac computer. You probably brought your laptap, but if you didn't, hopefully there is a computer you can use temporarily.

Step 2: Using remote access to your home system, download the media files to the computer you are using. (Various techniques to do this, most remote access programs have a built-in file transfer command or your can copy the file to a cloud service and then copy it down to your computer.)

Step 3: Log in to the Plex.tv website, download the Plex server (not the client), and install it on your computer.

Setting up Plex is really easy; just accept all the defaults and create one media folder/library that points to the files you downloaded in Step 2.

Now you can view the media locally on this computer, or stream locally to other devices at your location - laptops, Roku, Apple TV, etc. without any broadband, Internet, or bandwidth worries.

Wi-Fi Secrets: Configuring dual band routers

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Dual band Wi-Fi is complicated, but with a little insight into how things work, you can optimize your home Wi-Fi network without being a rocket scientist.

Wi-Fi bands have nothing to do with your ISP, even if your ISP rents or sold you the router/modem/wifi device you are using.

5 GHz band is not always better than 2.4 GHz. Radio waves are subject to interference which varies according to frequency, "width", physical construction (walls, concrete, metal), and the overlap of other Wi-Fi networks other than yours, in the same radio space. (Neighbors in close-packed houses or apartments, condos, buildings, etc.)

A high-speed 5 GHz connection with a lot of interference will be slower and less throughput than a 2.4 GHz strong signal. In general, 5 GHz is faster, but travels shorter distance and has poor penetration of walls and other physical barriers. 2.4 GHz is slower, but travels longer distance and penetrates walls better.

You have two options in setting up Wi-Fi routers - manually create two (or more) different networks for each band by giving unique SSID's or setting up one SSID that handles all bands.

Usually the default config from an ISP will setup different SSIDs using something like "YourRouterID" and "YourRouterID-5G" for example.

When using a single SSID for all bands, the way a device (computer, phone, network-connected gadget) determines which band to use involved a complex series of decisions that are made in co-operation with the router. It depends upon the Wi-Fi hardware (chips, radios, firmware) and the operating system software (inside the router and iOS, Android, Windows, Linux, etc.).

For most situations, setting up a single SSID and letting the device figure out the "best" connection is the most robust and optimal way to go.

If you really know what you are doing, there are special optimizations you can achieve by using multiple SSID's and manually switching the connection your device makes, but most of the time it is simply not worth the trouble or complexity.

If you have poor Wi-Fi coverage or speeds, rather than futzing around with bands and SSID's, you need to fix the real problem by adding multiple Wi-Fi access points (NOT extenders), but that is another whole discussion for another time.