Saturday, February 2, 2019

Smart Home — Ecosystems

Apple Home.Elgato Eve.This is going to be a long post on my foray into smart home and automations. This venture has started soon after we bought our home — about 6 months in now — and I was finally able to do things that I couldn’t while living in an apartment.

I was fascinated by this for a long time — ever since Nest thermostat came to the market and by what Philips was doing with its Hue series. Those two products were something that I wanted to do as soon as I had the chance.

I had never really explored it any further and had no idea how quickly this hobby could suck in a lot of time and money, none of which I regret in the slightest.

I have decided to split this post(s) into several parts — general introduction into our ecosystem, overview of types of devices and specific devices in those groups that I’ve used and my impressions of them, room by room setup in the house and automations that we use.


At first I didn’t give this much thought, but very soon after I’ve started to realize that I need to figure out what I want to use as a core of my system.

Amazon Alexa.Vendor apps.The biggest players in the market would be Amazon Alexa, Google Home and Apple HomeKit. The idea is that you want ALL of your smart devices exposed in one place in order to be able to do complex automations evolving multiple products and brands.

Amazon Alexa

Before I considered this all and since I had a mild fascination with Alexa for a while that’s what we started with, but eventually went in a different direction.

Amazon Echo.Amazon’s system is generally a very safe bet. Vast majority of smart devices support it. One huge plus that it has going for is the range of products available — starting from $30 Echo Dot all the way to $230 Echo show. And then there is a ton of 3rd party products with Alexa integrated. This is very convenient for voice control.

I bought a pair of Amazon Echo devices. Standard Echo lives in our kitchen and Echo Spot lives in our bedroom on my bedside table.

Alёna uses the kitchen one for audio books and music listening. I use Echo Spot as my alarm clock — and a great one at that. It automatically goes into night-mode during the night where its display produces practically no light and shows the time in non-disruptive red color.

The smartphone app generally does its job, but I’m not a huge fan of the way it handles device grouping and automation in general. Automations specifically is quite a weak spot for this system in my opinion.

Amazon Echo Spot.As I mentioned before I decided against using it as our core system, although we still have our most used scenes and devices replicated into the Alexa system for easily reachable voice triggers.

Beside the pair of Amazon devices we have a Sonos One speaker and a thermostat of all things with Alexa built in.

Thermostat Alexa is disabled and Sonos speaker Alexa implementation is not stellar. I have much higher success rate with voice triggers on Amazon’s own devices. Though Sonos does provide great sound for music playback.

Apple HomeKit

Each vendor of smart home products ships their own application to manage the accessories. The more different vendors you end up using, the more messy managing it all becomes. That’s why having one single place that unifies everything is important for not only managing your devices, but stringing them up together in automation.

HomeKit emerged as a natural choice for us since we’re heavily embedded into Apple ecosystem. We have numerous iPhones, iPads, Apple TVs and Macs. As such I really have no experience with Google Home, but I imagine it’s a good choice for Android families.

Apple HomePod.There are downsides and upsides to HomeKit. The choices of accessories is more limited because Apple has stricter rules for HomeKit certification. To counter the negative part of that you end up with a more secure system. And since we, as Apple users, have to pay the price for Siri voice assistant that is not using all the data given to it to improve, we end up with a company with a very high focus on privacy.

I imagine Google collects a lot more information on your usage. I imagine Amazon does its share of this as well. And you have to be insane to even consider putting Facebook’s device with a camera and a microphone in your home. HomeKit is a big winner in the category in my opinion. I actually wouldn’t mind sharing more information with Apple if that would mean staying ahead with such things as Siri.

With regards to the main app to control your accessories once they have been added to HomeKit you have numerous options. First of all there is Apple’s own Home app. It’s clean and good looking, so we use it as our primary hub for most day to day things.

However HomeKit protocol in itself is just a back-end database which can be managed by any app. And there is a multitude of them. Elgato Eve makes a beautiful free application which lets you manipulate HomeKit’s database to a much higher degree than native Home does. It exposes a lot of controls that you wouldn’t know existed if you were only using Apple’s Home.

Sonos One.Another great application that I use for configuring complex automations is a 3rd party app named Home 3 by Matthias Hochgatterer. While it’s not very pretty, the Trigger — Condition — Action automations are invaluable as is a granular control of your accessories.

And then there is an open-source project called Homebridge, which I’ll provide more details on a little bit later.

HomeKit voice control is a mixed bag. Siri at its release was completely useless to me because of my accent. With years the voice recognition has improved SIGNIFICANTLY. I have a very high success rate with it. It’s very much on par with Alexa if not better.

I’m not asking Siri of any complex inquiries and it follows smart home informational request and scene and accessory setting commands easily.

The negative part is that while pretty much all Apple devices have Siri built-in using your phone is far from convenient for voice triggers. It’s better on the watch, but still not ideal.

The one and only option right now is HomePod. And at $350 retail price you won’t get far without breaking the bank. We have one that we got for $250 on a big sale from BestBuy.

We placed it centrally in our living area and the performance of it is superb. Microphones are very sensitive so I can reach it easily from the kitchen, living, dinning and family rooms. And the sound it produces for music playback is the best we have in our house.

However music playback is my least needed feature and I’m saddened by the fact that Apple chose that as their focus. What I’m really looking and hoping for is that there will be additional choices of cheap(er) Siri devices that I can place in other parts of the house.

As far as hubs go, which are required for remote control and automation, HomeKit can use Apple TVs, HomePods and iPads. Since we have a pair of Apple TVs and one HomePod we use them as hubs. iPads should be used as hubs as a last resort only, in my opinion, so we do not do that.

3rd Party Apps

As I mentioned each manufacturer of devices also ships an app to control those products. In vast majority of cases I use those to only go through an initial product setup and rarely visit them afterwards.

Some of those offer additional controls that are not exposed in HomeKit and you need to use those apps for firmware updates. However I rarely have a need to revisit those apps.

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Thursday, November 25, 2010


KindleOne of the things I wanted for my birthday was Kindle. We were planning to order it as a gift from Danya after my birthday party celebration with the family and friends. Well, it turned out that Maruks thought that I’d enjoy having a book reader, the only difference was that they picked a competing product — Nook. Since they are very close friends (and I really had my mind set on Kindle) ) I felt comfortable asking them if they can return Nook and get me a Kindle instead. They were very kind to do just this (well, they actually gave me enough money to buy a Kindle, a nice high-end case for it and a few books). Thank you, Maruks!

Book in KindleI’ve got everything in the mail yesterday. So far I love the product! The thing which makes it especially great is a built in dictionary — all you need is just to put a cursor on a word, and the explanation will pop out either on top or at the bottom of the screen. Isn’t it awesome — especially for us, ESL people? I also love the case, which is made from quality pumpkin colored leather and has a little flash light which is powered by Kindle itself and does not require a battery of its own (so I don’t need to have any additional light to read when it is dark).

KindleKindle itself is very light-weight and I can easily hold in with one hand (while the other one is occupied — for example when I am feeding Arosha), and not having to turn actual pages also makes it so convenient to handle. I think that I’ll be able to read much more than I currently do. Good job, Amazon! )
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Friday, September 25, 2009

Blu-ray Player

Blu-ray player hooked up to our TV.On Sunday we finally decided to make the next leap in the realm of home video entertainment. We were in a local BestBuy and almost bought a Blu-ray player. I’ve been thinking about getting one for a couple of weeks already and the main reason was the falling prices of Blu-ray movies.

You see, we tend to add movies that we liked to our collection from time to time. Originally, when DVDs used to cost around $15 for the movie and BD would cost $50 there was no interest. But when BD came down to $18 for the same movie I started feeling that buying a DVD was becoming silly to save $3.

LG BD390 in a box.Of course to make that argument work one needs to have a player that can play said BD movies. My research led me to 2 top players from LG and Samsung — BD390 and BD-P36001 respectively.

For some reason I was leaning towards LG, although I think Samsung is equally good. Of course thanks to my iPhone I checked the price2 on Amazon. So after running around with LG box around the store, we put it back where it belongs, went home and placed an order online.

Contents of the box.It was delivered yesterday and I was eager to hook it up. Even though our TV is over 10 years old it still supports 1080i playback, but that’s not really the most interesting thing. One of the main reasons of us getting this player is of course Netflix.

It took us only a few minutes to set it up and to get a movie from Netflix to play on our TV. I couldn’t really tell a difference between this and DVD quality-wise.

LG BD390 Blu-ray Player.This is the moment when I had an epiphany — why would I want to buy a disk now if I can just play anything whenever I wish from Netflix? Never quite felt this as profoundly as at this moment. Of course the answer right now is that Netflix doesn’t have everything for instant watch, but for how much longer will that be the case?

  1. Although Samsung has a higher end BD-4600 it has a really weird form factor and doesn’t really add any benefits for the added cost. []
  2. BestBuy had it for $349 + tax, Amazon had it for $285, no tax, free shipping. []
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