“We Had To Destroy It To Save It”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

A Tale Of Two Pipes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

A FOMO Guide To Video DoorBells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Putting The "Why" Into DIY Home Automation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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


Consumer Product Quality Exceeds The Professional Gear
Two simple reasons:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Back To Basics: DIY 3-Way Lights

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Out With The Old; In With The New

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are You Documenting Your Smart Home Projects?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

 

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

The Secret Epoxy For Smart Home Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Here’s a few examples of possible integration:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

These services allow you to:

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

Is Your Smart Home Safe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Use random, complicated passwords - Do not use common names, or personal info like date of birth, children’s names, etc.
Use 2 factor authentication whenever and wherever it is supported
Use a different password for each login - do not re-use the same password even 1 time

I advise all my clients to use a password manager.  This a software application like 1Password or LastPass that gives you a safe and secure way to keep track of all your passwords and login information.  You only have to remember one complex password and the software handles the rest.

I strongly recommend using a password manager application and not relying on the built-in limited password handling capability of your web browser (Safari, Chrome, or Internet Explorer).  A password manager is much more secure and because it runs on everything (smartphones, tablets, Mac computers, and Windows PCs) you can rely on it everywhere.


Put Away The Toys You Are Not Using
Most products today can do a lot of things.  They obviously do the things you want (that’s you bought them), but they can also do a lot of other things you may not care about or even know about.

Turn off all the features you are not using right now.  Even if you plan to use some capabilities in the future, leave them turned off until you are ready.  The less stuff you have turned on, the less likely something is configured wrong, mis-configured, or left with a default setup.

It’s really common sense, but something we all overlook.  This is especially true now that a lot more smart home devices support multiple systems - systems that you might not own or be using.

Many products can support HomeKit, Google Home, and Amazon Alexa simultaneously, but most homes are not using all of these systems.

If you are using Apple’s HomeKit and Siri for voice control, than make sure the support for Google Home and Alexa is turned off.

If you can’t turn off all the features you don’t want or need, check to make sure that if they have logins or passwords controlling those features that you have set the passwords and turned off as many options as you can.


All Politics Is Local - But Not Smart Devices!
Remote access is so convenient many products have it enabled by default.  Forgot to shut the garage door?  Want to turn on some lights before you get home?  Warm or cool the house from afar?  Remote access to your smart home devices or control systems is the answer.

But remote access is also the easiest way in for hackers and ne'er-do-wells.  Same advice here - disable all remote access if you don’t need it.  Much safer and less hassle.

Only provide remote access on a case-by-case basis when you must.

If you want to dig deeper on the risks, pitfalls, and advice for remote access, be sure and read my recommendations for disabling universal plug and play (UPnP), limiting use of “port forwarding”, and using a virtual private network (VPN):

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


Don’t Worry, Be Happy In Your Smart Home
Network and computer security is important, but with a few straightforward steps you can enjoy the benefits of home automation with less worry.

Just follow the instructions above to secure all your devices with unique passwords, keep track of your logins with a password manager, and disable or turn off every feature or function that is not needed - especially remote access.

Be smart, be safe, and enjoy your smart home!


Products To Help With Smart Home Security

1Password Password Manager
LastPass Password Manager

Synology Router with VPN access

Bring The Cineplex Home With Plex Media Server

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Media - A Fancy Word For News, Leisure, & Entertainment
The Plex Media Server is an amazing product that brings order to all your media - music, photos, and videos.  It deserves serious consideration to be included as part of your smart home system and best of all, it is mostly free!

In our modern digital age our collection of books & magazines has been replaced with their electronic equivalent.  Many of us no longer subscribe to newspapers or magazines and get most of our information online by reading websites or following newsfeeds on social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

If you’re an avid reader, most likely like me you long ago ditched the hardcover or paperback printed book and started using an E-reader like the Amazon Kindle.  Now my book collection is just a few electronic files stored in my device and online in a cloud account.  (Actually, I mostly listen to audio books from Audible, but that is really the same kind of thing.)

But what about photos, music, and video?  What’s the electronic equivalent of those dusty old photo albums; stacks of vinyl records; cd cassettes; or heaven forbid - 8 track tapes; or shelves full of VHS video tapes and DVD discs?

Entertainment is an important part of any smart home system.  At home we spend a lot more time consuming media (a fancy term for watching TV & movies, reading, or listening to music) than adjusting our thermostats, unlocking our doors, or playing with our lights - so don’t ignore it.

When you design your smart home or look at upgrading or adding to your system, spend the time to figure out what you need and want from your entertainment systems.  There are so many different options because everybody is not the same. 

Do you prefer casual background music or are you a serious audiophile listener?  Do you watch a movie once or collect your favorites to watch over and over again?  Are you the family historian fastidiously documenting every aspect of your life with photos that are carefully indexed, categorized, and filed so you can actually find them again?


Are You A Media Hunter or Gatherer?
Before explaining more abut the Plex Media Server, I have to ask you one question:  Are you an entertainment hunter or gatherer?  When you want to watch or listen to something, do you go online and search for it or do you have your own curated collection at your beck and call?

Do you only stream music from a popular service such as Apple Music or Spotify?  Do you watch videos online from YouTube?  Do you watch TV shows and movies from Netflix or Hulu?

If you answered “Yes” to these questions then you are media hunter.  You don’t buy or save your media locally, you go online and hunt (search) for it.  On the other hand, if you like to have your own media collection locally that is not tied to the Internet and always available, then you are more of a gatherer/collector.


If You Are Not Confused, You’re Not Paying Attention
The Plex Media Server is a comprehensive system for collectors/gatherers.  It is a software system that helps you manage a comprehensive collection of your own media - music, photos, and video.  Plex provides software that helps index and catalog everything along with viewing software that makes it easy to watch or listen to all your media from different locations.

Plex can be intimidating and overwhelming as it has a lot of features.  Some are very simple while advanced features are a bit complicated and a lot of obscure features may only be of interest to very advanced users.  Although I’m talking about using Plex to store and view your media, it does have some limited online streaming features called “channels” which I’m going to ignore here.  

Plex also has recently added the ability to work with some special add-on hardware to view live TV broadcasts using over-the-air (OTA) antennas and record them like a DVR (digital video recorder), but this feature is a bit complicated and still very buggy so I don’t recommend it at this time.

Plex manages music, photos, and video but I’ll be honest, I only use it for video.  I’m perfectly happy with my existing music solution using Apple iTunes and streaming music from Spotify, Pandora, or Apple Music to my Sonos ONE speakers.

In my earlier years, I did a lot of photography including having my own darkroom so I have more advanced systems for managing photos and again I don’t use Plex for that.  Not that there is anything wrong with it - you might find Plex a great solution for music and/or photos, but I’m not going to cover that here.


What The Heck Does Plex Really Do?
Plex is a client/server system - that’s fancy computer lingo meaning it has two programs that work together.  The Plex server handles cataloging and managing all your video files and the Plex client (or viewer) software provides the user interface for choosing what you want to watch and viewing it.

One person in a household (you) will be the administrator of the Plex system and you’ll be dealing with setup and operation of the server.  Everyone else will only be using the Plex clients - they do not need to know anything about the Plex server, and that’s a good thing.

At the most basic level, the Plex client is an app that you install on your smartphone, tablet, or other device.  The beauty of Plex is that they have a client app for just about everything.  Plex is available for computers, smartphones, tablets, game consoles, smart TVs, set top boxes, blu-ray players, and a web browser version for most computers.

There is a version of Plex in the Apple App Store, the Google Play Store, & the Amazon Appstore.  There are versions of Plex specifically for streaming boxes including AppleTV, Roku, FireTV, Tivo, and Nvidia.  There are versions of Plex for game consoles including Microsoft Xbox and Sony Playstation. 

The wide availability of Plex clients is one of the key advantages.  Just about everyone and every device you might want to use is included.  All of these client apps are either free of charge or have a nominal one-time cost (I think most are free, but they have charged in the past so I’m keeping it real mentioning there might be a one-time purchase required.)


Setting Up A Plex Server
To get started you’ll need to setup a Plex server.  Just like the client software, the Plex server is free of charge and available for a variety of systems.  The most common way to setup a Plex server is to simply install it on a PC or Mac computer.  Just keep in mind that you want the computer to have lots of disk storage (tv and movie files are big) and you’ll need to have the computer running when you want to use Plex.

In practical terms, this means a computer with a large external storage drive and one that you can leave running all the time.  You don’t truly need to keep it on 24 x 7, you could turn it on when you want to watch movies, but it is much more convenient to have it running all the time - especially if you have multiple people using it and you plan on using remote access.

The Plex server can run on other kinds of equipment including network attached storage (NAS) arrays from Synology and QNAP, along with the popular Raspberry Pi embedded computers so there are a lot of options to choose from.  You can even run Plex on a laptop, so don’t let the equipment scare you - try it out first and then you can always move it to a bigger/larger computer later.


Load’er Up!
The most important part of setting up your Plex server is loading in all your media.  Grab your video files and copy them to a folder on the Plex server.  Plex understands all the media formats (MP4, H.264, H.265 (HEVC), ASF, AVI, MOV, MKV, & WMV) and will automatically convert them, as needed, when viewing them on difference devices.

That is one of the biggest advantages of Plex!  You can take video in any format you have as is - you don’t have to convert everything ahead of time.  The ability of Plex to convert the video on-the-fly and stream it to just about any device for viewing is the greatest strength of the Plex Media Server.

You can store your Plex media in one or more folders any way you like.  Plex has some recommendations such as creating a separate folder for each TV series and a folder for each year movies were released, but that is not required.  Plex will scan each file you add and matches it with several public databases of movies and tv series to build a detailed description of each file.

Plex will add a thumbnail image, movie title, movie description, and additional information including actors and stars.  All of this added data is displayed automatically when you browse through your collection using any of the Plex viewing apps.

It’s like having your personal Netflix system but everything is stored on your own computer and running entirely in your local home network!

It may not be obvious, but Plex works great with your personal videos that you have recorded with your camcorder, smartphone, or DSLR.  It is not just for commercial movies you purchase or convert from your DVD collection.


Anytime, Anywhere Entertainment
When set up properly (and I’ll admit, this can sometimes be tricky), you can access your Plex Media Server from anywhere - not just when you are home.  This is awesome for business travelers or family vacations.  Instead of paying extra for overpriced in-room hotel entertainment services, you can simply connect back to your Plex server and watch anything from your own video collection on your computer, smartphone, or tablet.

Plex even figures out the speed of your network and will automatically change the quality of the video to avoid buffering and stuttering during playback.  Whether you are on wired Ethernet, fast Wi-Fi, a slow hotel connection, or your cellphone, the Plex viewer app and the Plex server app coordinate between themselves to figure out the best resolution, speed, and bandwidth for you.

If you are a super techie, you can bring along a Roku, or Amazon FireTV stick and plug it into the HDMI connection on the hotel TV and enjoy your video on the big screen instead of your laptop, but that’s totally optional.


Don’t Be A Stranger
Plex can keep track of what you have watched, what is new in your library, and your personal viewing preferences.  This works well because with Plex you can create user logins for each member of your household and your friends.  You can limit everyone else to be a regular user and only give yourself the “superman” rights to control everything.

With the user logins, you don’t have to worry about anyone else messing around with the server configuration, erasing movies by mistake, or doing anything that might affect the reliability of the server.  If each person signs in to Plex with their own id, all their settings will be remembered.

You can create logins for your friends and vice-versa.  With Plex remote access, your friends can login and watch movies from your library and you can access theirs.  This is especially cool if you are in a different time zone.  When you are sleeping your friends can be using your Plex server when it otherwise would be idle.


"Batteries Not Included”
Just kidding!  Plex is not a battery operated device, but I do need to mention that although Plex is free - both the server and most of the viewing apps, there are a few advanced features that cost money.  These advanced options are included in the PlexPass subscription which you can purchase a la carte monthly or yearly, whichever works for you.

The PlexPass features that I use include a free mobile app (instead of a one-time purchase price), Mobile Sync (being able to download a movie from the Plex server into your smartphone or tablet for local viewing), and Managed Users (advanced user login controls).


Your Authorized Plex Installer
DoItForMe.Solutions is an Authorized Plex Installer.  On their website, Plex describes this as “The white glove movie experience”: An Authorized Plex Installer will come to your home and set up your Plex server, configure your Plex clients, and help you enjoy all your movie, TV show, music, and photo collections at your fingertips.

If you are located in the San Francisco Bay Area and would like help setting up a Plex Media System, please contact me for details

If you are located outside the SF Bay Area and need assistance, you can check the Plex website to see if there is an Authorized Plex Installer near you.

Top Ways to Save On Your Smart Home

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Cost-Effective Smart Home System Choices

Most DIY projects serve two different masters - our enjoyment of doing something by ourselves and the desire to save money.  But the fun of learning, hands-on doing, and fiddling around with smart home tech is very different from the goal of keeping the cost down.

DIY automation projects done for fun and learning can be relaxing and enjoyable while projects undertaken primarily to save money are often stressful and unsuccessful.  (“If I had the money to buy the right tools, I would have hired someone to do it for me in the first place!”)

Home DIY efforts apply to many things including home repairs, remodeling, landscaping, or major retro-fit construction/expansion.  For smart home DIY projects, I never recommend undertaking an automation project solely to save money.  If your heart’s not in the work, it is going to be difficult and stressful.

Nonetheless, saving money is a reasonable goal when approached logically and not from an artificially low zero-based budget.  It may just be words, but being frugal is a lot different than being cheap.  Here’s a few examples.


Smart Dimmers Are Cheaper Than Smart Bulbs
With many smart home technologies, the cheapest solution to start may become the most expensive.  If you buy a single automation device, such as a lamp dimmer or appliance switch, you may be tempted to choose the product with the lowest cost.  But if you eventually grow your system to handle multiple devices and multiple rooms in your home or apartment, the cost can be much higher than other approaches.

I’ve written in the past about the difference between smart light bulbs and smart dimmers/switches.  With smart bulbs, the initial cost can be lower, but each additional light you automate requires an expensive smart bulb.  With a smart lighting system, you’ll spend a little more up-front for the hub or controller, but then for each additional light you can use inexpensive “dumb” LED bulbs that cost much less.


Old-School Wiring Is Cheaper Than New-Fangled Networks
Wireless and radio technology continues to amaze us every day.  Wi-Fi networking, Bluetooth headsets and speakers, traditional infrared (IR) remotes, and newer radio frequency (RF) control systems are all wonderful solutions to connecting a device from point A to point B without wires.

Although wireless works well, it is not flawless and when it doesn’t work, it can be a real nightmare to diagnose the problem and fix it.  Poorly designed systems or installations are ticking time bombs but even flawless systems can go haywire.

Wireless signals penetrate walls and ceilings and and don’t understand ownership or property lines.  If your neighbor installs or upgrades their Wi-Fi equipment, it could suddenly cause your own network to slow down or stutter - no fault of your own.

A lot of wireless systems, such as Wi-Fi networks, lighting controls, outdoor pool and spa controls, etc. are popular because they avoid the need for installing wires inside walls or in difficult locations such as outdoor areas or underground conduit.

The fear of installation & retro-fit construction can be so great that homeowners will spend a fortune on fancy equipment to avoid a simpler solution - hiring someone to install a cable or wire.  Even with the cost of plaster patching and painting to remove any sign of the installation, it can be more cost effective to bite the bullet and have the wires installed.

If a part of your home has terrible Wi-Fi coverage, consider installing an Ethernet cable that will connect that area of the home back to your main router or Wi-Fi system.  The new Wi-Fi mesh systems are great, but they work even better when inter-connected with Ethernet cables.

If you have a limited budget for networking upgrades, use it to run one or more Ethernet cables and then buy a cheap Wi-Fi device instead of the more expensive mesh systems.  The wire will last forever and you can always upgrade the Wi-Fi gear in a few years when it becomes obsolete anyway.


The Confusing Costs Of Using “The Cloud”
The one phrase that strikes fear in the hearts of both consumers and professional smart home integrators are the words “requires a Cloud connection”.  Usually because those words are followed by “requires monthly subscription” and a request for your credit card.

Buying a product that has a one-time purchase price versus using a product that has ongoing monthly or yearly fees can have a dramatic effect on your budget.  This can get complicated quickly - some smart home products require an Internet connection but do not have a monthly charge; some products have optional features that need an Internet connection so you can choose whether you want them or not.  Some Cloud features are free, some are not.

Choosing a product based on whether it needs an Internet/cloud connection is more than just a financial decision.  If you want remote access to control devices in your home or receive updates about the condition inside your home, then you’ll need a system that includes Internet capability for remote access.

I want to focus on one area where this decision is very important - security camera systems (including video doorbells).  A security system is one of the most popular reasons many people initially decide to invest in smart home products, so it is worth understanding the costs involved.

Security systems use the cloud to store the video footage captured from the security cameras and video doorbells.  The terms and conditions vary, but most products include a limited amount of free storage and then have a choice of monthly fees depending upon how much storage is desired.

Different companies measure this in different ways - some companies specify the total amount of storage based on file sizes (megabytes and gigabytes); some companies measure storage by the number of days (1 day, 10 day, or a full 30 days); and others measure storage by the number of hours of video that has been saved.

Even more confusing, some companies charge a fee per camera (with multiple camera discounts) while others charge a fixed cost for an unlimited number of cameras.

I leave it up to you to compare the differences but with IP cameras selling for $50 to $300 each, and monthly cloud storage running from $5 to $30 per month (sometimes per camera), you don’t have to be a math wiz to realize the cost of the cameras, over the lifetime of the system, is insignificant.

So maybe that fancy camera with a motorized zoom lens and infrared vision isn’t really that expensive after all!  Certainly over the long haul you will spend a lot more for video storage than you do for purchasing the cameras themselves - something to think about!


Go Local?
There is an alternative to using cloud storage for your security system and paying those monthly storage fees.  The network video recorder (NVR) is a computer system designed to receive and store video footage on a hard drive.  In many ways, it is similar to a Tivo or other DVR (digital video recorder) that stores your favorite TV shows for later viewing.

NVR’s can be purchased as a complete plug-and-play system or the more adventurous DIY’r can convert an existing PC or Mac computer into an NVR by purchasing the appropriate software program and setting it up. 

Processing and storing video requires a lot of computing power and disk storage so don’t expect to take a 5 year old PC and press it into service.  You’ll need to invest in a modern high performance computer and lots of disk storage.

With enough internal storage, external drive, or a network storage system you can expect the total cost of an NVR to run $1000 or more for a capable system.  Not cheap, but a one-time cost that avoids all those monthly cloud storage charges.

Keep in mind that with an NVR system you have volunteered yourself to be a computer system administrator.  You’ll need to constantly monitor the system to insure it is working.  Installing software updates, security patches, and keeping watch over the health and operation are important tasks and hidden costs that you must factor into your decision. 

Even a commercial plug-and-play NVR is never really a “set it and forget it” easy product to use.


One More Thing…
Ignoring the cost differences, administrative chores, and configuration or operational issues of having your own NVR system, there is one more thing you should at least consider. 

With a local NVR, all your security video is stored on a computer system inside your home.  If something should happen to this computer, or your home, all the footage will be lost.

With cloud storage, your video footage is continually being uploaded to a remote data center.  Your video is safe and secure from hard disk crashes, computer viruses and malware, or general computer problems.  In addition, your video is instantly available for secure viewing from anywhere.


Cost Saving Recommendations

Plan the entire project - A la carte purchases can end up being much more expensive

Invest in wiring if you need it - Hardwiring lasts longer and allows simpler and more cost effective automation/control systems

Choose cloud services wisely - The right online monthly fees might still be much cheaper than the alternatives

 

Did You Leave The Backdoor Open?

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Make Your Smart Home Fun with a Backdoor!
Adding a backdoor to your smart home can be fun.  Who said a smart home has to only be a serious automation and control system?  You’re the one building it (and paying for it), so why not have some fun at the same time?


What Is A Backdoor?
The dictionary defines a backdoor as “the door or entrance at the back of a building”.  Yes, every home (and even some larger apartments or condos) has a back door, but I’m not talking about that.  If you look up the same definition in a computer or security reference you’ll find it says something like “a feature or defect of a computer system that allows surreptitious unauthorized access to data”.

That’s a little closer, but still not what I have in mind - You’re not a cyber criminal and you’re not breaking into your own home, after all.  I’m thinking of undocumented or non-intuitive features or settings.  Think of it more like those secret passage ways built into castles and haunted houses that make it easier to move between rooms.

My concept of a smart home back door is very simple - add commands or options to your smart home that are not for anyone else, only for use by yourself.  These extra options don’t have to be hidden or secret; they are added for your own benefit and can hide in plain sight.

It’s like the ultimate personal customization.  Tame your smart home to do your bidding regardless of what anyone else (spouse, children, parents, visitors, or guests) might want or need.


Make The Front Door Into a Backdoor
Harness the worldwide network of geo-synchronous satellites in the sky to do your bidding.  The global positioning system (GPS) can do more than give you driving directions.  With the GPS circuitry inside all smartphones (mandated by your “friendly” government for safety reasons), your phone can be programmed to detect when you enter or leave a specific geographic place.

By creating an imaginary fence around your own home, your smartphone can send an alert or take action every time you enter or leave your home without you doing anything.  If you excuse the analogy, it is the same thing as your dog or cat wearing an electronic collar and being confined to staying inside an invisible pet fence.  

But instead of a nasty reminder shock collar, the geo-fence alert generated by your phone can be used to activate any smart home scene or sequence of commands you choose.  Simply by approaching your home the garage door can open, the lights can turn on, and your favorite music will start playing in your family room.

When you leave home, all the lights can be turned off, the music turned down, and other “leaving home” commands can be performed automatically on your behalf.  With geo-fencing, you can easily create a backdoor of automated activities that silently work every time you leave the front door of your home!

 

Using Buttons and Keypads
As your smart home grows, you’ll be adding physical buttons and switches to control some of the lights and devices in addition to using voice control or an app on your smartphone.  I recommend only using the normal button functions of on/off, brighten/dim (for lights), or individual dedicated buttons to do one task.

This makes the switch or button work just like the normal ones you already have.  No confusion for everyone in your home, no training, no special modes to remember, and no one getting frustrated that “the simple light switch is so complicated now”.

This take discipline as the engineers and marketing people love to add all kinds of extra modes and complicated features to try and sell their products.  The simplest example are light switches.  In addition to simply pressing them on or off, you can often program them to take advantage of a “double tap”.  So a double-tap on can mean one thing and a double-tap off can mean something else.

With double-taps, a switch that has only two functions (on or off) now has four (on, off, double-tap on, & double-tap-off).  There are even some devices and systems that can use a triple-tap or a long-tap to add even more choices.

This over-complication of what should be a simple, intuitive device brings to mind this quote from Inspector Gadget “Don’t push my buttons without reading the manual.”


Keep It Simple - Make the Special Button Modes A Backdoor
Just because double-tap,  triple-tap, or long-tap are confusing and not a good thing for general use, doesn’t mean you can’t use them for yourself.

Simply configure your smart home to do your private bidding when you use one of these modes.

In my home, I have a “double-tap on” in the family room turn on three different lights and set their brightness levels to exactly what I prefer for reading or streaming video.

The rest of my family has no idea this extra command exists - it doesn’t confuse them, it doesn’t get in the way, but it is alway there available to me.  Similarly, I have set the “double-tap off” to turn off all the lights in all the downstairs rooms so no matter which room I am in, when I want to “turn off the house” I can just double-tap off the nearest switch.

And it’s not truly secret.  If a family member or visitor learns what the double-tap can do, I don’t mind. No harm, no foul, they are free to use it.

Are you going to add a back door to your smart home?  Let me know what you think.

 

Control Your TV Your Way

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

 

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Should You Get An Apple HomePod?

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

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

 

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


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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

  
Price War Anyone?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Using Augmented Reality (AR) to Improve Your Smart Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are Your Smart Bulbs Making Your Smart Home Dumb?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

 

DIY Security Cameras Technical Guide

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Light At The End Of The Tunnel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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