What’s new in mesh Wi-Fi?

The latest crop of mesh Wi-Fi products are helping a lot of people get better Wi-Fi coverage in their homes. We’re fans of using mesh Wi-Fi when you don’t have or it doesn’t make sense to run network wiring for a wired network. The new generation of mesh Wi-Fi makes it even more compelling with better stability and coverage.

Mesh Wi-Fi networks

Mesh networks are made of nodes that talk to each other to create a network. Here the mesh networks use Wi-Fi itself to bounce Wi-Fi to parts of your home. Since your Wi-Fi router is often stuck in the basement or on one side of your home, the far reaches of your place may live in the darkness of no Wi-Fi. With these nodes, you can place them where the signal is still strong enough, and it will extend it further out. You can keep installing nodes until you have the coverage you want. Consumer mesh Wi-Fi devices have apps that help you figure out if the placement is good, or if you need to find another spot.

The next generation

The last generation of mesh Wi-Fi was pretty good, and the latest generation is getting better. Their speed, stability and coverage has improved. Google has its new version, Nest Wifi, and we’ve had great success helping people with eero Pro extenders. They use three bands of Wi-Fi to help spread Wi-Fi goodness in your home. They also offer automatic software updates and network control (perhaps, for example, you’d like to pause or limit Wi-Fi for your children).

So much that we do in our homes from working to media streaming to smart home automation requires good Wi-Fi. Without good Wi-Fi, often everything becomes an effort in frustration. Mesh Wi-Fi can make the whole experience so much better – perhaps its even a great holiday gift idea!

 

CEDIA 2019 home tech highlights

We follow the CEDIA trade show, as its where many manufactures strut their new home tech stuff. Earlier this month, this year’s show was full of home technology wizardry. Here’s what caught our eye.

TVs, TVs, TVs

TVs are always a big part of these shows, and the likes of Sony and Samsung showed off their fancy TVs. Sony joined the 8K TV push this year with their TVs like the A9G and Z9G series. You can future proof as much as possible for 8K and get a dazzling TV that you can enjoy today. It might be wise to wait until prices drop a bit though, especially if you’re interested in their Crystal LED Display video wall (scalable from 109 inches to 65 feet!) The amazing 219” one they demoed (yes, that’s 16 feet x 9 feet) is available for a mere USD877,000. Although LG’s transparent OLED screen is focused on commercial installations (like digital signage), we can see this trickling into homes in the future for art and control screens.

Short throw projectors

Speaking of TVs, short throw projectors were also literally shining bright. Short throw projectors are designed to be placed very close to your wall and projection screen. For example Epson showed a package of a short throw laser projector with an ambient light rejecting screen. Laser projectors can produce bright images and don’t need their bulbs replaced. An ambient light rejecting screen will do just that – not reflect the room’s ambient light but allow the projectors light to get to your eyes. The Epson LS500 Laser Projection TV will be available in 100″ or 120″ screen sizes that you can watch with the lights on.

Other notables

A few items that will help fill specific gaps in homes were the Luxul’s Epic Mesh, Sonos Move outdoor speaker and Lutron’s LED+ dimmer. For homes where it doesn’t make sense to re-wire, Luxul’s Epic Mesh system should provide another option for better Wi-Fi. While the Sonos Move isn’t the last word in portable outdoor speakers, it is the one that works with a Sonos system. You can use in your yard and take it to the beach as a Bluetooth speaker. With the Lutron LED+ dimmer, Lutron makes it easier to match a smart dimmer with lightbulbs and LEDs lights. While not effecting home owners directly, this dimmer should make it easier for professionals to help clients.

The CEDIA trade show is focused on home tech professionals, but its really is about sharing interesting products that we can then help get into people’s homes. Some may be pricy today (we’re looking directly at you Crystal LED Display), but prices will eventually drop. Others like mesh Wi-Fi and portable Sonos speakers are affordable today. Either way, its a home tech win.

 

Why not stream art or photos on your TV when not watching it?

Many of us have a TV screen in our living rooms and other living spaces, but often it’s left as a black void when we’re not watching it. Today’s 4K TVs are thin, have very tiny frames and consume less power, so they open up other possibilities. For those who have Samsung’s Frame TV, they may already have photos or art showing on it, but what can the rest of us do to stream art?

Devices to stream art

If you have an Apple TV or other streaming device like a Roku (available both as a separate device or pre-installed in some TVs), then you have options to show photos and stream art. For example, Apple TVs have built in photo viewing for your photos and cool aerial screensaver videos. Otherwise, you can look for other services to let your arty side show.

Apps to stream art

There are third party art apps, such as Art Authority, artcast, LANKA, loupe and Mochi. These range from classic museum paintings to modern art. Some are free, and some have ads or require a paid subscription to stream art collections. There are many options, so you can search for one that matches your taste and style. Currently it looks like the Apple TV has the most options, but some TVs like Sony TVs allow for these apps via the Google Play Store.

If you want stream art or show off your photos, then your TV might be just the tool you need. If you don’t already have a media streaming device like an Apple TV, you can add one relatively affordably. These devices consume power, but they’re low enough to guiltlessly stream art when you want to get arty.

Why do I need a smart home control system?

Smart home control systems are becoming more affordable and useful everyday. They allow you to simplify your world by streamlining the comfort and control of your home. But how do you know if you need a custom smart home in your home?

Replaces many remote and apps

Sometimes the trigger for a smart home control system is to simplify a TV system. You can go from many remotes to one unified remote that turns on and sets up the TV and related equipment with one press of a button. Sometimes its that you want to use one app vs. a multitude of apps to control your smart devices like your smart doorbell, smart lock or smart lights. Or maybe its both – you just want one system that you can control all your TV systems and smart devices.

Simplifies a complicated home

If you have many home tech devices in your home, then its tricky to get them to work together. For example, when you press the “Watch TV” button on your remote control, you might want it to not just turn on your TV system, but also drop the shades and dim the lights for better viewing. Maybe its a ‘Goodbye” button at your door that turns off all your smart lights, stops your music streamers and adjusts the temperature when you leave your home. You can also have device like your thermostats, lights and shades on schedules or based on sunrise and sunset to set them for you. Or check and close your garage door if its left open, or alert you there’s a water leak before you have a major issue.

A smart home control system can also bridge smart devices that aren’t inherently compatible with each other and have them play well together for your comfort and control. Increasingly homes have more and more complicated tech – these can be coordinated into one simple-to-use interface.

Provides flexibility

Life gets busy. You shouldn’t have to search around for the right remote or app to control or check on something. You should be able have control and be informed if you’re at home or far away. A smart home control system can coordinate hand-held remote controls, touch screens, and smartphone and tablet apps so you just use what’s within reach.

A professionally installed smart home control system can simplify your life. One simple-to-use system, can provide convenience and comfort so you have have more time to relax and enjoy your home.

What is Wi-Fi 6?

 

We need Wi-Fi in our homes, but the Wi-Fi people haven’t been very good at making it easy for us to understand Wi-Fi versions. Most people aren’t sure what the letters mean; is 802.11ac better than 802.11n? Now they’re trying to make it a bit more easy to understand.

802.11 a/b/g/n/ac Wave 2 – really, its not just random letters

The fundamental issue is that the non-profit Wi-Fi Alliance has been using the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 802.11 working group naming. While we really appreciate the Engineers work on the technology, their naming conventions are a bit hard to follow.

The Wi-Fi Alliance has finally figured this out. While we may have gotten used to names like 802.11n and 802.11ac, they decided a straight forward numbering system would be easier for non-technical people to understand. So, they have used simplified to generational names moving forward. 802.11n is called Wi-Fi 4 and 802.11ac is Wi-Fi 5. The next Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ax, is christened Wi-Fi 6. It will take a while for this to catch on, but it certainly makes it easier to understand that Wi-Fi 6 is newer and better than Wi-Fi 4. Maybe in the future, the average consumer won’t even know or need to know what the IEEE name is for a future variant of Wi-Fi.

SU-MIMO vs. MU-MIMO, what the heck are those?

While we’re waiting for the new naming to stick, the fine Wi-Fi folk have a second wave of 802.11ac (or Wi-Fi 5) coming out. 802.11ac Wave 2 has a theoretical speed of 2.34 Gbps. Of course theoretical speeds, are just theoretical, but your could be looking at about 1 Gbps when you’re in decent Wi-Fi range. In general, this means that 802.11ac Wave 2 will give you about double your network speed of Wave 1.

There’s also some fancy technology updates like improved channel use, but the other big Wi-Fi deal is MU-MIMO. MIMO, or multiple-input and multiple-output, uses multiple antennas on both side to get more out of a wireless link. Here the wireless link is a Wi-Fi connection. The MU part stands for Multi-User. Older Wi-Fi was a round-robin waiting game. You hand to wait your turn to ‘talk’ to the Wi-Fi router (ie Single-User). Of course this goes super fast, so it seems like you’re always getting a Wi-Fi turn. MU-MIMO allows for multiple users to talk at the same time – four at a time for 802.11ac Wave 2. This will be noticeable faster.

A few things about Wi-Fi 6

As you would guess, Wi-Fi 6 will be even better and faster. Its theoretical top speed is 9.6 Gbps, so even real world speeds should be impressive. It also ups the ante by being able to connect with up to eight users at a time. They’ve also worked to make Wi-Fi 6 better for low power devices like small smart home sensors, so their batteries should last longer. Wi-Fi 6 also bulks up the security to use WPA3, the next generation of Wi-Fi security.

Hopefully we’ll start seeing the terms Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 being used more often. While it will take a year or so until Wi-Fi 6 devices are readily available, it will help us keep track of what we should be looking for vs trying to remember that 802.11ax is better than 802.11ac!

What you need to know about 5G mobile wireless

5G is the next generation of the mobile network. As it starts rolling out this year, it will offer faster data speeds and more reliable connections for smartphones and Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Its being described as super fast, always connected mobile Internet, but that’s not quite the whole story. While theoretical data rates can be up to 10 Gbps, we’ll likely be getting 50 Mbps and up in the real world. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but we need to understand the limitations.

Really high data rates, poor coverage

One of the set of frequencies that 5G uses is very high: 28 GHz. Higher frequencies allow higher data rates. The issue is that the higher frequencies have physics to deal with. Higher frequencies don’t propagate very far, and they aren’t very good at going through walls, trees, etc. You may notice that deep in some concrete buildings, your mobile phone often doesn’t have coverage. This will be worse with the really high frequencies networks.

This means that there needs to be a lot more base stations (kind of like Wi-Fi routers, but for telecoms). Small base stations fill in coverage for today’s 4G networks in places like concrete buildings (e.g. malls, subways). Many mini base stations will be needed in a city to make a 28 GHz network work at all. We should be getting over 1 Gbps when things are set up properly – that’s pretty darn fast! Beyond being faster than home Internet, 5G is also designed to respond faster to improve network latency.

Good data rates, decent coverage

The 3.5 GHz frequency band for 5G, on the other hand, will have similar coverage to what we get today but with better data rates. This is partly due to a littler higher frequencies. It’s also due to 5G implementing better technologies like MIMO (multiple antennas working to get data to you) and beam forming (those antennas ‘pointing’ the signal to you).

While data rates will be faster than 4G, they will only be a bit faster when your smartphone connects to a mid band 5G network. Not a bad fallback when the super fast version of 5G isn’t available in the your area.

Low data rates, great coverage

The low frequencies bands are really good for their inherent coverage. While the data rates will be slower, the lower frequency band, 600 MHz, can travel farther. It isn’t bothered as much by pesky buildings, trees, etc. While perhaps not very useful for a high data user (e.g. someone watching Game of Thrones at 4K on a bus), it will be incredibly useful to little devices and sensors scattered around our world sipping on data. These IoT devices could be handy for home tech, but also for commercial and industrial needs.

5G might not be the perfect, super fast mobile network some describe it as, but it will offer a significant step forward. 5G can also be used as a short cut to a fast Internet connection for rural households without wires or fibre. It may also kick off some really useful IoT innovations.

For coverage and high data rates, we may need mobile network boosters in our homes. Otherwise we’ll need smartphones that switch over to Wi-Fi networks better. (It’s quite possible that you may already need a booster in your home to get coverage for our current 4G network.) In the end, 5G may leave us wondering how we lived without out it.

Convenience vs. smart device privacy

There’s no denying the conveniences that technology provides in our lives. There’s streaming services, social networking, voice assistants, and smart devices that are truly great. All of this often comes at low dollar cost or sometimes even for free. There are trade offs of smart device privacy that you should be aware of though.

What’s the real cost?

This often comes down to how companies make their money. Do they make their money from selling devices or services directly to you, or are they basically (or totally) giving it away and making money from data tracking for advertising or selling info about you? Or maybe its a combination of these.

Vizio stormed into the TV market by selling TVs at very low prices. It surfaced that they accomplished this in part by selling people’s viewing data to other businesses. Its well known that Google and Facebook make money by ads layered into their free services. While Google looks to be trying to fix privacy issues, Facebook keeps getting their hands slapped for their cavalier use of data including detailed user data that was shared with their ‘partners’. Recently we learned that Amazon provides employees with scripts of users interactions with their Alexa voice assistant. While this makes sense to improve the service, we don’t know how securely they treat these scripts.

What can you do?

You should educate yourself on what the privacy cost is for your favourite tech. Then it’s up to you if you want to take advantage of devices or services without paying the real monetary cost of these. By carrying around a smartphone, we’re giving usage data to the smartphone manufacture and our mobile carrier. Often we’re happy to make this trade off for the features and convenience of smartphones. Apple is making a push to point out their privacy policy. Great, but you should read it and make sure it aligns with your privacy goals.

You can also turn off certain features. For example, you can turn off Apple’s Siri voice assistant from always listening (but then you can’t just say, “Siri…” when you want help). Similarly, you can set Alexa to not always listen and instead require pushing a button to get Amazon’s voice assistant on their devices. Of course, disabling these make voice assistants less useful.

You can also use a tool to track them track you. For example, Princeton has created a tool to track smart devices in your home. Its a worthwhile exercise if you have concerns.

Are they keeping your data safe?

Unfortunately even with your best research, you may not know that some companies aren’t up to speed yet. Even a giant like Facebook (yes, yet again) recently admitted to having a bunch of user passwords in plain text – readable by anyone in the company (or a hacker) and not digitally scrambled. The good news is that reputable companies are stepping up. Also governments are starting to provide privacy requirements like GDPR to help keep their citizens digitally safe. (Hopefully Facebook will finally get the memo after so many missteps!)

These’s no blanket right or wrong answer for everyone

Smart device privacy might be the top priority for some. For others, they’re happy to give away personal or aggregate information to get great services on the cheap. Just remember that you’re paying one way or the other. With some research or getting help from an expert, you can find your balance of tech nirvana and privacy.

What you need to know about 8K TV

Ready or not, 8K TV is here. Samsung is shipping them to the masses, and LG and Sony will ship later this year. If you’re still a bit fuzzy on 4K TV, then here’s what you need to know about 8K TV and if you should get one.

Pixels, pixes, pixels

One of the main features pointed out by TV manufactures is the number of pixels, or the little bits of the TV that make the picture. There’s no argument that when we went to HDTV from standard definition TV that the picture got clearer and had more detail. Old standard TVs had about 640 x 480 pixels and 1080p HDTV has 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. Now we have 4K with 3,840 x 2,160 pixels and 8K touting 7,680 x 4,320 pixels. That’s lots of pixels, but what’s lost in resolution specs is what’s actually needed.

The human eye can only distinguish so much detail though. But before we get into that, there are basically two streams of thought for viewing TVs. For the movie industry (e.g. THX), they want a screen to fill your field of view; i.e. to immerse you into the video content. For most of us, we view much smaller screens; often from a living room couch.

Viewing distances

The fact is, if you’re far enough from a screen, it really doesn’t matter if you’re watching an 8K TV, 4K TV or even an HDTV. For an example 55” 8K TV, the ‘optimal’ distance would be 0.5m (1.7’). For a 55” 4K TV, this goes to 1.0m (3.4’). And for 55” 1080p HDTV, they recommend sitting 2.1m (7’’) away. Although everyone’s vision varies (and distances), it’s a safe bet to assume that most people are more than 2m away from their TV, so they could get away with an HDTV for this 55” TV example (in terms of pixels, anyway). Of course, for really large TVs and home theatre screens, the higher resolution (more pixels) might make sense.

To complicate things, the smart people at NHK (Japan’s standard setting broadcast company), show that with the right brightness and lighting conditions, 8K TV viewing distances need to be adjusted when you take ‘realness’ into account. Basically if you show people an object on an 8K TV compared to a real object, people notice the difference even when viewing farther away. You can read more, but it comes down that for realness, 8K viewing distances are the actually twice the distance vs. if you only take discerning pixels into account. Either way, it’s unlikely many of us will be sitting that close in a more casual viewing situation like our living room.

But that is not the full picture (sorry, pun intended).

Latest features

Like with 4K, 8K TVs will come with picture quality improvements. Since 8K TVs will be their flagship models, manufacturers will make them with their best colour reproduction technology and best brightness. They’re also using spiffy processors in their higher-end TVs that make all content look better. This is handy as there is little 4K content let alone 8K content to watch. NHK will be broadcasting the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in 8K, so we might get some if that content though.

Samsung suggests that by getting their latest 8K TV you’ll be future proofing your system for, well, the future. That sounds good, but early buyers of 4K TVs got bitten when HDR and HDMI 2.1 got properly figured out after they bought their TVs. Early adopters are often at risk with technology.

What to do, what to do

If you have the money and need a really, really big TV, then it might be time to get an 8K TV or 8K projector. Like 4K, there may be updates in features and compatibly though, so there is risk. As 8K prices comes down, they will be become more common and accessible for all buyers. As with 4K TVs today, to get a better TV, you’ll soon likely be looking at a 8K TV. Even if the number of pixels isn’t important for your situation. For example we usually recommend 4K TVs regardless of viewing distance, as the overall viewing quality and features are so much better than HDTVs. The same will eventually be true for 8K TVs as well.

Sonos streaming music architectural speakers

Sonos has been pretty busy of late. They’re bolstering their streaming music portfolio with additional products. Last year, they released a more affordable TV sound bar, and recently they updated with their Amp. Now, they have announced branded architectural speakers.

Sonos architectural speakers

Sonos is already great when used with architectural speakers. People get great sounding streaming music, and the speakers don’t visually impact a room. Architectural speakers are passive speakers (they need a separate amplifier) that are installed in ceilings and walls, so there is no need to have regular bookshelf or floor standing speakers in the room. This is great not only for current modern home aesthetics, but they also save valuable floor space. Sonos has announced three speakers: in-ceiling, in-wall and outdoor speakers. Sonos partnered with Sonance, a respectable speaker brand, for these speakers. These ‘matched’ speakers make it easier for consumers to understand and select architectural speakers if they’re the DIY types. The Amp also enables Sonos’s Trueplay which allows for easy speaker sound optimization. Other speaker brands will continue to sound great with the Sonos Amp, but these will help make architectural speakers more mainstream.

Sonos has more to come

Sonos recently also showed off some product prototypes that they have partnered wth Ikea for. The intent is to make Sonos compatible speakers more affordable and widely available. Sonos also quietly stoped selling their Play:3 speaker, so we suspect an updated version may be on the horizon. While we’re fans of Sonos, they’re not the only great streaming music solution out there. These recent updates are great as it pushes all brands forward and provides more great streaming music options available for consumers.

New home tech from CES 2019

The Consumer Electronics Show is a yearly blast of technology from big and small manufactures. CES is a good barometer for all technology trends, now and in the future. While there was much that caused a buzz, here’s the new home tech that caught our eye.

LG rollable TV

Last year LG presented a prototype of a rollable TV. This year they showed off what they’ll be shipping later this year; a slick TV that rolls up into a box. There’s currently no pricing on it, but assume that it will have a very premium price. It also looks like it will only have one case option, but there is a stand if you don’t want to put it on a table or cabinet. Hopefully there will be more case options or even custom enclosures in the future to really hide it away.

Samsung Serif TV

Samsung showed off their updated Wall TV (at a measly 219” 😉) which is actually assembled with modular panels, but they are also offering interesting TVs that are much, much more affordable. In the same vein as their Frame TV, they’re adding the Serif TV. The idea is that the Serif TV is a statement in your home – why mask the TV when you can show it off? Perhaps the Serif is an acquired taste, but its great that Samsung is providing options more than another black TV panel for your room. We’ll have to wait on pricing and availability for Canada.

Wi-Fi as a home automation standard

It may sound like a no brainer to use Wi-Fi for home automation, but currently it’s not the right technology for home automation. The main knock against Wi-Fi is that, in its current incarnation, it’s not designed for low power battery powered things. (That’s one of the main reasons we have other standards like Z-Wave, ZigBee and Bluetooth.) Some manufacturers are indicating decent battery life, but we suspect actual milage may vary when relying on Wi-Fi. Then there are other issues including Wi-Fi coverage and typical consumer Wi-Fi routers will likely fail with too many devices on its network (e.g. over 30 devices). All that said, there are light switches and dimmers (at least they have a good power source) and locks available. Ordinarily we’re technology agnostic, but Wi-Fi as a home automation standard makes us uneasy. We’ll see if the market agrees.

CES covers all consumer electronics, from car audio to home theatre to widgets that are hard to put in a category. In terms of new home tech, TVs and audio/video gear have always been a focus. Its good that home automation is continuing to grow, as it will provide all of us with more options.