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.

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.