Make WiFi Great Again!

What gives? Did something change?

Yes, tons has changed! A long time ago when modems stopped beeping, and broadband was a thing, there still weren’t many devices in people’s home. Maybe a laptop was using wireless, still, more commonly smartphones didn’t exist. Fast-forward to 2007, smartphones and other WiFi-enabled devices were showing up in the home. These broadband data sucking vampires were relentless on our poor old WiFi access points. They all expect to hoard data; our home WiFi networks were starving, data was suffering the most. Bits were dropped left (☚) and right ( ☛), things were crazy for awhile. Fear not, WiFi software has evolved to support Multiple Users with Multiple Input & Multiple Output (MU-MIMO), I’ve found an article that explains this in human terms. In very basic terms with all the new access point technology, you will not have to worry about slow WiFi for your 100+ WiFI enabled devices in your home.

WiFi all the smart things

I started to write this blog when I learned my current WiFi solution is planned to be left in the dust by one of the largest software & hardware companies in the world 🙁

Before Apple disbanded their Airport engineering team the choice for a great wireless solution in your home was easy, just buy the AirPort Extreme Base Station, maybe even get two! But after this disappointing news why not check out all the companies that are innovating in wireless connections for all the devices you have at home.

It seems like there has been an explosion of options to blanket your home with WiFi. Having connectivity without dead zones is a theme that is popping up in social media feeds and even hallway conversation. There are too many options for me to afford and test out one by one, so I am pulling together information I have gathered from friends, and articles online.

  • Orbi – Multiple friends say this is the one to get. This device comes from veteran NetGear; they’ve compared themselves to a couple of competitors.
  • Netgear Nighthawk -Netgear makes more than one 🙂 Has Voice-command controls (seems like a gimmick)
  • Starry Station – Features seem fun, and in many cases useful. This device even recommends when to place a device on 5GHz versus 2.4GHz.
  • eero Home WiFi – Eero has a great blog, and they don’t compare themselves to others, Eero seems like it is comparable to Luma, but without some of the features.
  • Luma Home WiFi – Luma has a chart on their homepage that gives a comparison to the “big” guys. It is quite compelling, and currently my top runner if I were to buy new WiFi access points.
  • Google home WiFi – They are new to the game, but Google has an ability to update the software with ease. I’ve not heard too much from friends on this one, but it is worth considering.

I’d love to hear from anyone else out there who is making the jump into modern WiFi technology!

 

Say my name! “Ok Google?”

The battle for the smart home assistant

Smart home assistants
Smart home assistance, Amazon Echo Versus Google Home

While this is not a David versus Goliath battle, Google entering into the smart home assistant space with Google Home will drive a better experience for smart home assistants. Obviously comparing Google’s device Amazon Echo is the right thing to do! Both of the devices are vying for a place in our homes and hearts.

Spolier alert! The Amazon Echo is still the better option, and if you factor in the Echo Dot device remains cheaper for outfiting an entire house with a smart assistant.

This post is intended to talk about the experiences these devices bring to smart homes. While there will be some comparisons between the devices, I am not focusing on this as a product review for the Google Home device. I  did write about my homes Amazon Echo integration and focused on some common scenarios with NUI. While I don’t think Amazon is worried about Google’s new device yet, it interesting to note that you cannot buy one on Amazon, in fact, if you search for “Google Home,” Amazon’s result presumptuously return Echo devices as an option.

While Google could have chosen not to list the product themselves, many of Google’s smart home devices have been selling on Amazon for awhile.

What did Google Home get right?

From a smart home perspective, the device supports the Samsung SmartThings hub, the Philips Hue hub, IFTTT, and of course the Nest Thermostat and Google Chromecast.

“Ok Google,” this is much more limited than Alexa namely due to the time on market and the fact that Amazon lets third-party developers build skills. Alexa currently lists over a hundred skills in the Smart home category, Google only has the six I listed, however, they did pick a good list to start. The SmartThings hub integration made it easy to get all my smart switches, outlets, and bulbs up and running on with the Google home device so that I can control my lights with voice!

Where does Google need to focus?

Personify your assistant

Give the assistant a name! Saying “Ok Google” is not natural and makes it less likely other people in my house will use this assistant over Alexa, you’ve thrown an extra syllable the pronunciation for no good reason.

Fix the performance of your iOS app

I have thirty-six devices in my home the UI in the Google app is slow and takes about 15 seconds per device to associate with a room. That’s 9 minutes just to get all my smart switches and outlets added. If this is a native iOS app, someone needs to get their money back, the Amazon app seems to be driven off of a website and is so much faster.

Let third-party developer into your ecosystem

Creating a developer ecosystem is the most important thing you could do! Without developers contributing it will be difficult to make a dent in the Amazon ecosystem. I am hopeful your teams are hard at work on this.

What are smart assistants missing (IMO)?

Groups

update 11/7/2009

I overlooked the fact that a device has to be added to a room, and I can’t make custom groups. This is actually frustrating! I can ask Google to turn off all of my lights effectively. 🙁

Offline

Things still go offline, but using Z-Wave and other Radio Frequency (RF) standards can help provide basic home functionality when the internet is not required.

Local network

The power of the cloud is undeniable, but the responsiveness of my smart home is more important to me. Ideally, smart assistants would keep more of the logic local for controlling devices in my house and on my network. If you have designed around always relying on the network being available, you are missing a simple feature.

NUI integrating with traditional interfaces

While NUI is powerful, there are some simple scenarios I would love to see integrate with traditional communication interfaces. Why can I do things like this:

  1. “Ok Google, email me a recipe for Chocolate Mousse.”
  2. “Ok Google, text me the address for John Howie in Bellevue.”
  3. “Ok Google, open the address to the nearest Best Buy in Waze on my iPhone.”
  4. “Ok Google, call me at 8:15 p.m. in case I need to get out of dinner.”

Integrating with the traditional flows of communication will be a game changer for smart assistants, nobody is ready for an assistant to talk back, but many people would be okay with asynchronous integration into

The reviews are in!

Looks like many were waiting to review this product, or had been using beta versions and were ready for the release!

Review: Google Home

  • The Verge – Google shows promise, but still needs work
  • USA Today – In catch-up to Echo, but with promise
  • Engadget – Focused on the Google Home device
  • Engadget – Focused on the IFTTT integration!
  • Cnet – List of commands for Google Home

 

 

Turn me on! Switches, switches, switches

three ge Z-wave switches
GE Z-Wave Switches with Lutron Claro Cover Plate

Spending time to get the right switches was necessary for me, I felt like a switch should always be a switch. I mean that even if I didn’t hook it up to a smart hub, app, or WiFi, it should still work as a switch. I did have a concern with some smart switches on the market I’d be flooding my local WiFi network with too many devices, so I bought into the Z-wave concept, you don’t need to connect each Z-wave device to your WiFi router. Instead, a single Hub can coordinate the communication with the Z-Wave’s radio frequency (RF) network. With that said Z-wave is for people who like to tinker as well, you can get into the dregs and interact with some devices on a very intimate API level, but others are just designed to “plug-and-play.”

Controlling lighting is central to home automation, it seems so basic but provides a useful day to day experience. Pondering my top switch options:

  1. WeMo ($44.00 per switch) – relies on WiFi connection too much for my taste
  2. Insteon ($44.00) – Works great within the Insteon world, but not the best for interoperability
  3. GE Z-Wave (~$35.00 per switch) – The price is right, and the Z-Wave’s mesh network was a plus for me.

There are many other options, but these are the three I focused on for my switch investigation. After reading the reviews and looking at the price, and the technology the winner was GE Z-wave switches for my house. I didn’t buy and try other brands, but I have chatted with a few people who have, and when I gather some more data from my friends, I’ll expand upon this post.

WeMo is only an ON/OFF switch when you physically press the switch it will turn the light on and off but nothing more. The app that comes with WeMo does offer some more control, but in reality pulling out your phone to control the lights isn’t the best option.

While I didn’t list this in my top three for initial investigation, I have been looking at more Wink options lately. A few friends have bought a substantial amount of Wink equipment, and they enjoy the experience. With that said I don’t think I’ll be using their switches, but this Relay + Switch option looks interesting.

I am intrigued by the Wink Relay Touchscreen Controller switches – this necessarily equates to having a smartphone running the wink app permanently mounted to the wall. But I don’t see the Wink ecosystem quite as vibrant as the SmartThings, I am considering using the Wink Relay for a simple intercom solution, but there are other options I am considering. While this seems appealing, throwing down the money doesn’t make sense, most of the youtube video’s I’ve watched show a low-quality screen, and I don’t think the interface is that efficient. It feels like a SmartPhone mounted to the wall.

Still, it is appealing that you could get two of these for ~$150.00 and have a “cheap” intercom system.

How have I been using these switches?

I use these switches by a mix of 50% voice control, 40% using the switch, and 10% using an app. Most of this depends on having an Alexa device in a particular room.  I have 2 Echos and 2 Echo Dots, 1 in my living room, kitchen, bedroom, and office area respectively. So when I am in a room where Alexa is listening, I use voice control, unless I am right next to the switch when entering. I will go more into Alexa specifically in another blog post.

What do I enjoy?

  1. They easily add to my SmartThings hub
    • some people have seen problems, but for the large part I’ve not hit any of the described issues
  2. They are still switches! I mean nobody has to know they are smart
  3. They have a blue light, which is helpful in the dark and can also be configured to be off by default.
  4. Press and hold up or down on a dimmer and the lights dim, let go and they stay at that level
  5. The smart things app is easy to use
  6. I added them all to Alexa with one Skill!
    • I didn’t have to train anyone on how to use Alexa after they heard me use it once they were able to quickly navigate turning lights on/off and dimming them by just asking…
  7. Z-wave doesn’t need each switch to connect to my WiFi and take another IP address!

Anything weird?

  1. Getting the right LED bulbs is important
    • If you don’t go with LED, you’ll likely be using enough wattage not to notice issues I saw
    • Not all LEDs are of the same quality, I found my favorite so far, only before I bought three different brands.

What about the others?

Since I am not covering the other switches in detail, yet, I wanted to leave a few links to some great reviews:

  1. http://thewirecutter.com/reviews/best-smart-switch/
  2. http://www.toptenreviews.com/home/smart-home/best-smart-lighting-controls/

Let me know what you think!

Please feel free to leave comments, ask questions, or even suggest areas where I can improve. I don’t even mind the jab or two if you think I have wrong information 🙂

“Alexa, turn on my lights!”

"Alexa, turn on my lights"

Natural User Interface: “Alexa, please turn on my kitchen lights.”

By far the most fun and noticeable thing I have added to my home automation has been an Amazon Echo, in fact, two Echo’s and two Dot’s. A previous post mentions how you can add the Samsung SmartThings Skill; this allows for a very simple import of all the switches and light bulbs attached to the SmartThings hub. Alexa provides a NUI, using your voice to control lighting has been a welcome addition to the smart home.

My lighting use-cases:

  1. Hands full – When I have a baby and groceries in hand, turning on the lights is still easy!
    • “Alexa, turn on the kitchen lights.”
  2. Lazy – Sitting on the couch and realizing it got dark outside
    • “Alexa, turn on the living room lights.”
  3. Leaving for work – This is so handy
    • “Alexa, turn off all lights.”
  4. New Visitors – Really just a great way to demo
    • “Alexa, turn on all lights.”

Where do I place my devices?

Having multiple Alexa enabled devices in the house can be challenging, especially in our house where we have wood floors and a bit of an “Echo” :), however, this seems to have gone away with a recent update! Awesome job Echo Team on the ESP feature

While I am still playing with device placement a little bit, I’ve found that keeping them our of earshot of the other device is one key. Another key is to talk to Echo politely like you would a person who is standing in the room. I see when Alexa doesn’t understand the first time our natural human reaction is to raise our voice and speak slower.

If you place the devices far enough away, generally even if another Echo hears the keyword “Alexa” it doesn’t pick up the actual command and gives up.

What about people named Alexa?

Since I know a few people with kids named Alexa, can they not use the Echo? Amazon totally thought of this; you can change the wake word to be Alexa, Amazon, or Echo. This setting is on a device by device basis, so you want to be careful about having a whole bunch of different names. Personally, I like Alexa.

Helpful links I’ve found

Skills I’ve used

  • August Skill – At first I thought that this skill would be scary, but thankfully August Skill only lets you lock and check the status of locks.
  • SmartThings – Easy to manage devices via the Skill.
  • Automatic – I can check the fuel level of my car!
  • More to come – I’ll keep adding more here as I use them

How have I used Alexa?

The usage of Alexa continues to grow in our house beyond just lighting controls:

  • Handy for cooking – “Alexa, create a ten-minute timer.”
    • “Alexa, how much time is left?” – she answers in a very natural way
  • Top stories from around the world – “Alexa, what is the news flash.”
  • August keeps my doors locked, and allows me to let people in without physical keys – “Alexa, ask August if my door is locked.”
  • Automatic helps to get data from your car – “Alexa, ask Automatic if I need gas.”

I find that with the NUI people tend to try new things with Alexa, whereas with traditional computer screens people fear change! It is amazing to see what happens when you take away the screen.

The hub, the ability to choose your brain

The hub, the brains, the potential

Researching hubs took the majority of the time before purchasing my first smart device. I was concerned that getting the wrong hub would lead me down a path. Check out the unboxing video by Karl Conrad; he does a good job describing the entire kit.

My main goal was to avoid buying into a closed ecosystem where I’d have to invest in only one companies devices. Naturally found the Samsung SmartThings Hub (2nd Generation), I was tempted to buy the starter kit, but avoided the temptation as I didn’t want all Samsung devices for reasons I’ll describe later.

Here are the reasons why I picked the hub:

  1. Has an Alexa Skill
  2. Tons of devices supported with a growing list
  3. They encourage open development and sharing of code
  4. Works locally even if the internet goes out

Other hubs to consider:

  1. Wink Hub – Has Z-Wave and ZigBee support, but they recommend using Wink certified products. Wink Hub 2 is releasing soon, though.
  2. Iris by Lowe’s – Backed by a major retailer, more locked down
  3. Vera – Looks promising, but I didn’t find a strong developer story

What have I connected to my hub?

  1. GE Z-Wave Smart Switches ($34 – $38 per switch)
  2. Hue Bloom Light ($59.95 per unit)
  3. Hue Go Light ($50.00 used)
  4. Sengled LED Light Bulbs  ($17.99 per bulb)
  5. iPhone for presence detection (I already owned one)
  6. Bose Sound Touch 20 (I already owned one)

What did I learn?

  1. No need to buy the Samsung Arrival sensor since your phone works as one!
    • There are some other uses like finding your keys etc., in general, I had no need
  2. If you are planning on using smart switches in your house, don’t buy smart bulbs!
    • Smart bulbs are great for lamps
    • Over time smart bulbs cost more than a smart switch and a dumb bulb
  3. Adding and organizing devices is easy
    • Naming devices is the hardest part
    • Grouping devices into rooms is easy
    • Adding the SmartThings Skill to Alexa is pretty seamless

Now, what?

The reality of all this technology is that I only configured it once (well truthfully 3 times, more on that later), and I primarily use voice commands with Amazon’s Echo by saying:

  • “Alexa turn on the KITCHEN lights.”
  • “Alexa turn off ALL lights.”
  • “Alexa turn on the HALLWAY lights.”

I find it handy when I have my baby in my arms and carrying groceries having Alexa turn on and off lights is really helpful.

The SmartThings app is handy to be able to turn off lights when you don’t want to speak and wake up the baby too!

I will go more in-depth on the GE Z-Wave switches and all of the fun I’ve had with these in a separate post. But the thing I enjoy about the switches is that they work even if they aren’t smart, and even if they aren’t connected!

A smart house journey

Starting the journey

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end”

Ursula K. LeGuin

Taking the first step towards making a smart house began innocently enough. While remodeling our home, a simple scenario was identified by our electrician; the utility room is separate from our main house. In the dark having the outside light on while returning to the front door made sense, but how would I turn off the light?

This journey could have ended as quickly as it started, had we just installed a motion activated light this problem could have vanished. Motion sensor lights are autonomous and unable to work with other devices in general, plus they are not aesthetically pleasing. This event gently coaxed my mind down the path of researching smart switches and bulbs, and that is how the journey began.

Guiding the journey

Starting by researching all the gadgets can be overwhelming, but many simple common sense solutions can be applied. As we dive into the sea of gadgets to automate our lives. Developing a set of principles to test if the journey takes us towards an ultimate destination is helpful to focus where we invest our time, money, and intellect.

My principles for smart houses:
  1. Smart things should function even when they are dumb
  2. Smart things should create an experience, but rarely seen
  3. Smart things can be practical and ordinary
  4. Smart houses should do more for you, than you for them

With these basic principles, this blog will focus on providing useful information to help you think about your journey to make a smart house.

Getting started

Smart devices

Finding all the gadgets has been a boost to starting this journey, this is a fun area for me, who doesn’t like looking at gadgets? To get you excited here is a small list of devices to check out now:

Keep in mind this is a very short list of gadgets, but a good one to start on your journey of smart home gadgets

common sense

Implementing non-gadget solutions in a house still makes it smart; this area is one I am paying more and more attention to as I realize not all smarts are gadgets. A short list of these ideas look like:

Keeping in mind that smart ideas can be staring you right in the face, and not cost a few hundred dollars per device! Letting common sense drive design often results in a smarter house without all the bugs!

Reading this blog

Sharing this experience serves two primary purposes: first, a journal of my journey to reflect on and learn from, second, a beacon for new people thinking about creating a smart house. The experiences shared via this blog will provide information on real world usage from day one through at least a month’s worth of usage. I will share actual costs where I can, and talk about customer support for companies I’ve had to contact. I’d love to hear any and all feedback, as well as suggestions for gadgets and topics to cover.