This year, for the first time in a hundred years, we welcomed the Spring season a few days early on March 19th.
With everything going on right now, it sure doesn’t feel like Spring!
Nonetheless, to keep things upbeat, here are my favorite tips for sprucing up your smart home this time of year if you’re tired of Netflix and Youtube.
Check And Update Firmware
Everything seems to need firmware updates these days – even the darn toaster oven!
Check all your devices – computers, smartphones, tablets and of course, of your Internet of Things (IoT) smart devices and make sure they have the latest firmware upgrades.
Proceed cautiously – read the release notes or upgrade notifications and make sure you understand what changes are included.
Better security and new features are good to have, but not if stable/reliable equipment becomes buggy and problematic.
The old adage “ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is tempting, but with proper attention to the details you’ll gain more by keeping your devices up to date with very little risk.
Time to go Marie Kondo and get out your label machine or markers and tape.
Label every network cable, serial cable, HDMI cable, and connector. It may seem tedious, but trust me, it is really useful when 6 months from now you are replacing a piece of equipment, upgrading, or just physically moving everything around.
Nothing saves heartache and hours of “What did I do?” or “What was I thinking?” that turns a simple task into hours of frustration.
My secret tip – use multiple labels as needed. Where appropriate label the type of cable, the type of connector, the port or connection used, and the intended use.
Example: I label all my Ethernet cables with the type of cable such as CAT 5E, CAT 6, or CAT 6A. For long runs I use mostly CAT 6 while short patch cables are CAT 5E because they are less expensive, easier to bend and tie off, and I have a lot of them lying around.
But in 6 months or a few years from now, if I’m wondering why a connection can’t handle the speed or has become unreliable, I won’t have any confusion about what type of cable I used and whether it is up to the job.
There is no “right” way to label cables. Some people like to label every Ethernet cable with the specific physical connection. “Office Switch Port 1”, “Office Switch Port 2”, etc.
Since all Ethernet switch ports are the same (I’m not using advanced port-specific hardware configurations), I prefer to label the cables with the device type “AppleTV”, “LG TV”, “Office iMac” along with the type of cable (see above) rather than the physical port identifier.
Label BOTH Ends Of Every Cable
Again, this might seem unnecessary, but i found exactly the opposite. Often identical types of cable end up in places where you can’t see both ends.
Looking behind your stereo receiver, multiple HDMI cables all look the same. If you ID both ends of the HDMI cable from your satellite or cable box, streaming media player (AppleTV or Roku), and BluRay player, when you are working in a tight cabinet or shelf upgrading your AppleTV it will be a lot easier to know which cable to unplug or replace.
Label Identical Looking But Different Cables
This one takes a lot of discipline, but again is worth the trouble.
One of the best things to come along for desktop computers, laptops, tablets, and smartphones is the standardized USB-C connector.
Finally, a cable that plugs in either-way and can be used for a lot of different things from charging to external storage and extra monitors/video displays.
Unfortunately, on of the worst things to come along is the standardized USB-Connector.
Now very different cables all look the same. Maybe you’ve already encountered USB 3.0, USB 3.1, Power Delivery (PD) USB-C, “High speed data” USB cables, and even Thunderbolt over USB cables.
These all use the same reversible connector, but are very different. You can’t mix and match them at will. Using the wrong cable type isn’t a binary decision.
Often the cable still works, partially and you may not even realize it. If you use the wrong cable, your smartphone or laptop will take much longer to charge.
If you use the wrong cable, your flash drive or external disk will take forever to copy even a small file.
If you use the wrong cable, your video monitor may only work at a low resolution or not at all.
Avoid Color Codes
My tip: Don’t rely on color coding your cables – or anything else for that matter.
At first, I tried to say white cables were for charging, black cables were for high speed data, and grey cables were for video.
I couldn’t always find the right cable in the right color, and so many products came with perfectly good cables of the “wrong” color that I gave up and just started labelling everything.
Once again, I put two labels on every cable. The first label is the technical spec of the cable such as “USB 3.1 Gen 1” or “USB 3.1 Gen 2” and the second label is the intended use such as “high speed iPhone charger” or “flash drive connection”.
The first label is the unambiguous technical designation that I can never keep straight, but I can look it up if I really need to the know. The second label is the intended or normal use that guides me when I need to grab the right cable quickly.
Most smarthome systems evolve organically over time rather than being installed all at once.
Some products may have been impulse buys, others may be the result of intensive study of competing features and specifications, while a few might even be a gift from well meaning family member or friend.
Keeping the name of everything straight can be a full time job. With the current state of smarthome software systems – hubs, controllers, apps, and firmware, the names are important.
Voice assistants such as Amazon Alex, Apple Siri, and Google Home require you to know the names of the devices you want to control.
“Alexa, turn on the couch lamp” is a lot easier to remember then “Alexa, turn on lamp 23”.
Having unique but easy to remember names helps even more. We are often tempted to use a logical naming scheme such as couch lamp, desk lamp, and floor lamp.
Saying “Alexa, turn on the living room couch lamp” is verbose and complicated, but would be necessary if we have three different couch lamps in our home.
Conversely, being able to say “Alexa, turn on the TV lamp” for the couch lamp in the family room and saying “Alexa, turn on the reading lamp” for the couch lamp in the dining room is much easier.
Yeah, one wouldn’t think of calling a lamp the “TV lamp” or the “Plant lamp”, but coming up with creative names that are unique and easy to remember really helps.
Make The Effort To Manually Synchronize Device And Room Names
In a perfect world, we would have one uber powerful home automation system that was perfect, did everything we wanted, was child’s play to operate, and didn’t cost thousands, or millions or dollars.
In the real world of today, we make a lot of compromises because the overall value (or fun!) is worth the trouble.
So most of us have at least two more more overlapping systems. We might have Apple HomeKit with Amazon Alexa voice control, or perhaps Google Home smart assistants with Samsung SmartThings hub or any other combination of multiple systems.
Each system has it’s own set of names for rooms and devices (don’t even get me started on routines, scenes, and automated sequences).
Although there are some links between some systems that try to synchronize the names, they are limited and can cause more trouble than they fix.
My advice is to bite the bullet and manually keep your multiple systems, hubs, controllers, and scenes in sync with each other as much as possible.
It’s painful work, but the payoff is a lot of peace of mind and easier upgrades or expansion as your system grows.
How To Keep Names in Sync
I haven’t found any magic bullet so I do everything manually.
I start with a spreadsheet or other list where I meticulously catalog every device and room in my house.
I then use columns to list each automation system or hub I have in use and confirm that I have entered or verified the same name is used.
Different systems has different rules on naming. Some don’t allow a mixture of upper and lower case. Others might allow a dash in a name but disallow spaces. Some allow other punctation marks like parenthesis but most don’t.
As your system grows and you keep synchronizing names, you’ll run into these quirks and have to redo your naming scheme once in a while.
None of us like wasting a few hours on a weekend or evening renaming a bunch of devices for the Nth time, but in the long run, it is worth it.
So many weird problems or things that just don’t work quite right can often be traced back to confusion with names, room assignment, and related “housekeeping” issues with your smart home infrastructure.