Is fibre optic cable needed in your home?

Fibre optic cable is becoming more mainstream – Internet providers are even marketing it as a differentiator for their service. We’ve touched on fibre optic cable in the past, but now is a great time to delve into it more. So, what is it all about, and should you use it?

Pipe for light

Fibre optic cable is a solid ‘pipe’ of glass (or plastic) that allows light to travel down it. It’s actually a glass core surrounded by a cladding layer of another type of glass. This layering arrangement helps the light bounce nicely off the sides of the core as it travels down the cable. Technically this is called a strand of fibre. Each strand of fibre is slightly thicker than a thick human hair. One or more strands are wrapped with Kevlar or similar (for durability for pulling through walls, etc.). These are then protected by a plastic cable jacket.

You can’t see it with your eye, but fibre optic light is turned on and off very quickly to create light pulses. These pulses carry data that can include Internet, phone and video. If you use the right fiber (multi-mode), you can also send different frequencies of light (basically different colours of light) for more signals over the same fibre optic cable.

Fastest way to move data (i.e. video data)

Yes, fibre optic cable is the best way to get Internet and video to your home and around in it. Phone company Internet providers need something better, as their old technology, two wires, is maxed out. (It’s really quite impressive how much stuff they were able to put over those two wires though – phone, internet and TV!)  Alas, two wires just can’t provide 100 Mbps or faster internet, let alone 4K video. They’re the first to roll out fibre optic, as they had to to keep up with cable companies. (Cable companies can push cable TV wiring a bit more, but they’ll have to go fibre optic eventually.) That said, you might not need the fastest Internet service available though and will be fine with non-fibre service.

Video is the hungry data hog in your home. Regular HDTV is bad enough, but full 4K TV can use up to 18 Gbps. (That’s a lot of data, and much more that copper wires can handle over any longer distances.) Tweaks can be made to make metal (usually copper) wire mostly handle this large amount of data over shorter distances, but fibre optic cabling is the right cable moving forward. If your 4K TV isn’t close enough, you’ll need fibre just to get a 4K signal from your TV gear.

Fast, plus now quite strong and bendy

Fibre optic is best suited for faster data and longer runs as the light pulse can travel far (up to Kilometres, depending on the fibre cable) and still be bright enough at the end. It also doesn’t suffer from issues like impedance (resistance, capacitance and inductance) that metal wires do. Impedance can be a signal killer by simply making it too weak at the end of the cable or make it impossible to move an electrical signal fast enough down the cable. Even with a whole bunch of engineering wizardry, those wires just can’t handle anything faster.

Fibre optic cable is also immune to electrical interference. Metal wires are effected by magnetic forces that are around electricity wires (e.g. power wires). This interference can make data harder or impossible to run though a metal wire.

The knock against using fibre used to be its price – it was very pricey to buy and work with, but that is quickly changing now. It’s increasingly easy to work with and has improved costs of cabling and putting plugs on the ends. Fibre optic cable is also not as fragile as it used to be. It’s often easier to install since it’s thinner and can be bent and pulled as much as or more than metal cable. (It will break though, where a metal wire may still barely work, sometimes sporadically, when kinked or bent too far.)

What should you do?

If you’re building or renovating a home, consider running fibre optic cable. Running to/from your network hub (i.e to/from the street) and TV/media areas are the first places to consider. Next, think about other areas that could use a lot of data, e.g. den. You can consider pulling it to Wi-Fi access points too, as when Wi-Fi data rates increase, fibre can feed it. You might not use your new fibre cable for a while, but it’s likely you’ll leverage it when 4K video hits the mainstream. Its a whole lot more affordable and less messy to install wire in the walls at build time than trying to do it later when your walls are all finished.

Our current minimum recommendation is duplex (two cables together) multimode OM3 (up to 100 Gbps) fibre optic cable, as current fibre equipment expects duplex, and its fast enough for the foreseeable future. The cost of fibre and related equipment will only come down. Sometime in the future when you’re setting up a new 4K TV system (or 8K TV!) or other data hogging gear, you’ll be happy you have your fibre optic cable ready.

Home Tech Updates

Fall is a big time for home tech updates, as there are two tech shows that companies use to launch products. This year’s IFA in Berlin and CEDIA in San Diego revealed some great products. Here are some highlights that we thought were good additions to the world of home tech.

4K projectors

Projectors are finally catching up with TVs.  We’ve had great and affordable 4K TV options for a couple years, and now reasonably priced projectors are starting to appear. While Sony’s VPL-VW285ES cinema-grade 4K HDR projector isn’t cheap at $6,500, its an amazing projector for the price. Just last year you had to spend over $12,000 to get a Sony 4K projector! You should look at Epson’s PowerLite Home Cinema 5040UB is an ‘enhanced’ 4K (not really 4K but does a great job pretending it is) if you’re hoping for one for about $4,000. While these clearly aren’t bargain basement prices, they’re great value if you’re craving a 4K home theatre.

Lighting automation

There were all sorts of great lighting and automation announcements, but one that created a bit of a buzz was Lutron’s RA Select. Lutron’s Caseta is excellent value for small, simple projects, but you had to step up to the pricier RadioRA2 for more sleek controls and dimmer options. RA Select is designed to fill the gap with ready made scene keypads and dimmer options similar to RadioRA2. If RA Select delivers on Lutron’s reliability and functionality, it could be pretty interesting.

Aesthetic friendly gear

Another trend this year was finally tech gear that didn’t look like tech gear. There were speakers like Bang & Olufsen’s BeoSound Shape speakers that looked like wall art, but a show highlight was Samsung’s The Frame TV. Although announced earlier this year, they definitely made a splash at CEDIA. It can display art or your own photos. It fits close to the wall, goes into low power mode when no one is around, and has decor friendly frame options. Its a premium TV, but its within range of us mortals with the 55″ version starting at $2600.

IFA and CEDIA had lots of interesting gear and gadgets announced at these events. If you’re interested in checking out more, you should give them a Google. Perhaps some of these home tech updates will fit well into your home.

Home tech maintenance

Home technology is like many things in our lives, it needs regular maintenance to keep running smoothly. The good news is that most consumer home tech is quite serviceable, so most tech maintenance can be straight forward. Start by working on something that you’re comfortable with then expand from there. If you’re stuck, get help where needed. Let’s take a look at some tech maintenance areas that need attention.

Passwords

Passwords can be a tricky subject. In a perfect world, you would update your passwords every month using a random string of 20 letters, numbers and symbols. Of course, you would also use a different one for every account that you have. We know that’s not very realistic for us mere mortals.

While we do recommend a different password for each account, we try to use something more memorable in case you don’t have access to your 1Password or Apple iCloud keychain (if you don’t know what these are, you should look and use one or similar). A memorable short phrase with some letters swapped with numbers and characters is a good start. While something like “m3&Y0u” isn’t very secure, its infinitely better than “password” or “sunshine”. You can likely do much better than that with a bit of thought – check out some tips here.

While you don’t have to go crazy updating all your passwords every month, you should at least charge the defaults ones, the really easy to guess ones (e.g. phone number or kids name), or ones that have been anywhere near a security breach.

Software and firmware updates

You should regularly update all your software and firmware for your tech devices. We realize that this can cause an avalanche of interconnected updates, but its for your tech safety. Good manufactures keep up with the security issues and usually patch any deficiencies when possible. Plus, you’ll get any new features and services that they have added.

Network gear like Internet routers and network switches should be updated when the updates are released, but at the very least, try to check for updates every quarter. Absolutely make sure that all your network gear is protected with good passwords. The same goes for your Wi-Fi passcode. If you make it easy for someone to get onto your network, then they can cause all sorts of trouble and likely snoop through your computers too. Networking gear is an important tech maintenance focus.

The same basic tech maintenance rules apply to connected devices like cameras, smart doorbells, smart lighting, smart thermostats, etc. Although these devices are less important in the security food chain, they can be used for unscrupulous goals as well.

You can be a bit more relaxed about entertainment devices like TVs, universal remotes, streaming devices, Blu-ray players, etc. You will likely favour these ones though, as often these updates have fun new features like new streaming services or connectivity options. Entertainment devices often update automatically. If so, check that it has, and its up to date.

Smartphones and app updates

Aways try to keep your smartphone and tablet up to date with the latest operating system and updates. For example, Apple pushes out their updates and you get that little notification on your settings app icon. Updates can be a bummer when they change the way things are laid out or the way things work, but it often comes with some nuggets of goodness, and more importantly, any security patches. You can hold off a week or so to update for minor fixes or feature improvements until bug issues are ironed out, but you should install critical security updates asap. Apps are usually less security sensitive, so you can be more lax on these. That said, often developers make some cool changes and are constantly fixing bugs.

Computer tech maintenance

You should treat computers with the same concern as your smartphone. Good and bad, Microsoft now forces you to update Windows (usually at the worst time too it seems). Apple lets you control updates, but you should stay on top of them either way. The same goes for application software. Programs like MS Office and Intent browsers provide power tools that can be comprised by the wrong people if they have security holes.

Check on your network

Tech maintenance includes regularly checking on your network. You can run SpeedTest to keep you Internet provider honest. There are also LAN test applications (e.g. from Totusoft) if you’re nerdy and you’d like to check on your internal network. This may show that your network gear, e.g. router, is on its last leg. Yes, these things do wear or burn out, and sometimes its a slow death until it grinds to a halt.

Check on your router admin pages to see what and who is on your network (maybe your Wi-FI passcode isn’t as great as you think). Also look at your router logs to see if there are any weird errors (Google may be your friend here to help translate from nerd language to English).

Make changes

Its also a good time to check on how things are set up or programmed. Maybe you want your favourite channels on your remote updated with your actual favourite channels. Maybe its just to catch up your favourite channels after your TV provider moved all the channels yet again.

You can also look at things like smart lights and adjust programming like turn on time or add more lights or music to the ‘scene’ keypad button. You can also take advantage and clear up gear clutter – maybe its finally time to recycle that VHS player that hasn’t worked since the 90s.

Find a process that works for you

If you’re a casual user, don’t tackle this all in one sitting. Break up tech maintenance tasks over several sessions, so its easier on your time and brain. If its not your thing, don’t sweat it – look for some help or look at biannual, quarterly of monthly maintenance service (FYI, we’re happy to help). What ever way you address it, regular maintenance it all part of proper home tech hygiene.

Why we love remote power management (and our clients do too)

The other day I received an email from a client whose cable box wasn’t working. It turns out the cable box just needed a restart. Restarting cable boxes and other electronic gear is a common part of our modern world – from the most simple self-installed TV system up to mega smart homes. But what can you do to help people who aren’t comfortable with technology? You can use remote power management.

Please unplug your cable box

When you phone your cable or internet provider with an issue, the first thing they ask you to do is unplug and replug your devices. This is because resetting a device fixes the vast majority of issues. Since your cable provider isn’t sending your cable box to the moon, its just more economical (and therefore affordable for us consumers) to build cable boxes that aren’t nearly invincible. So, they need to be restarted from time to time.

I’ve restarted your cable box

To help my client, I restarted his cable box from my smartphone. I did this using a remote power management device. Within a few minutes his system was recovered, and he was able to watch TV. My client called me “a miracle worker!”, but I wouldn’t have been able to do this without remote power management.

Remote power management

Remote power management devices are basically really smart power bars. We recommend remote power management devices to clients who aren’t very comfortable with technology or just want to have more support available. Remote power management devices, such as WattBox and BlueBOLT, allow restarting individual power outlets. We can also schedule proactive restarts in the middle of the night for trouble devices like cable boxes. Depending on the smart power device, they can also offer auto reboot, surge protection, power conditioning, and energy monitoring. If clients are fairly tech savvy and comfortable with it, we can even configure a smart phone app to allow them to restart common devices like that tricky cable box. This way they can correct issues on their schedule.

It may not be a matter of life or death, but getting someone’s home tech back up and running quickly is pretty sweet. Everyone wins when this can be done without scheduling the cable company or a costly visit. Some clients can even have this support as part of a service plan. Remote power management can be part of great home tech solutions to simplify technology in your home.

Do you want voice control for your home?

Apple recently announced their wireless speaker with voice control. Yes, home voice control is available to today, and is growing in popularity, so Apple wants to get in on the action along with Amazon and Google. Let’s take a look at these voice control devices.

Let’s first look at the voice control speakers that are currently on the market. Although Amazon’s Alexa Echo speaker isn’t officially available in Canada, many Canadians are using it all the same. Amazon started with the Echo, and they have added the Echo Dot. The Echo is a voice controlled speaker, and the Echo Dot is a more affordable version (with minimal speaker). The idea is that you can just add an Echo Dot to enable voice control in a room. At US$49.99 US, its pretty attractive. They also recently added the Echo Show which includes a video screen and camera.

You can use the voice control to request tasks like playing music through bluetooth speakers, or turning on lights and setting the temperature with compatible smart devices. Many music services are compatible, so you can, for example, play your Spotify playlist just by talking to an Echo. You can ask for the weather, sports scores, news and more. You can also get handy info like how many millilitres are in 6 ounces when your hands are wrist deep in food prep. If you’re interested in Alexa, you can look through its growing available ’skills’ to see what it can do for you.

The Google Home speaker has similar features, and its even officially available in Canada. Its priced at $179.99, since its also a fairly decent sounding speaker for music playback. It can connect with your Chromecast media player so you can control services like Netflix as well.

That brings us to Apple. They’re planning to ship the US$349 HomePod in December in the US, UK and Australia. Canada will likely follow shortly after. What separates it from Amazon’s and Google’s offerings, is the HomePod is also trying to challenge Sonos in sound quality. (Sonos doesn’t offer voice control,.. yet.) Apple’s target is to provide home voice control with a good wireless speaker. Initial reports are that it sounds terrific. Apple’s ecosystem of both its devices and HomeKit, make it a pretty easy call for a home full of Apple devices.

If you think voice control would improve your life at home, then these are worth looking into. There are still some glitches to work out and not all systems are compatible, but voice recognition works quite well. But its always listening, so keep that in mind if you’re concerned about privacy or marketers hijacking it. (There are privacy settings, but having to walk over and press a button for it to listen takes away from fluid voice control.) As voice control develops, it will really show its power for those who want to operate their integrated home tech through voice commands. So if saying “OK Google”, “Hey Siri” or “Alexa” to your home sounds compelling, you can give them a try.

Sonos’s new wireless music toy

Sonos is known for their wireless music speaker systems. They make standalone speakers, streamer separates, and TV sound systems that mesh streaming music with a TV sound system. In general, if you’re looking for a music streamer system, Sonos is definitely one to consider. Their latest product is a sound base called Playbase. The Playbase is similar to their Playbar sound bar, but is meant to be placed under your TV stand.

Sound bases

Sound bases are speakers that go under your TV, but these products haven’t been overly successful. This may be because the shape doesn’t work with all TV stands or because its easier to get a wider sound stage from a speaker bar, but its most likely due to awareness and marketing. Sonos wants to change all that with their Playbase. The Playbase is similar to their Playbar in that it requires an optical output from your TV (most modern TVs have it) and sounds pretty darn good. While not for custom media rooms and home theatres, these products can work great for certain rooms and setups. Its definitely a great upgrade from a TV’s built in speakers. The Playbase improves on the Playbar, as it not only leverages Sonos’s latest technology, but the boxy shape helps get fairly decent low-end bass. It has incorporated side speakers that do a pretty good job filling the room with sounds as well. Its available in black or white.

Options for expansion

You can get good milage from the Playbase alone. You can always start with just the Playbase and add speakers for surrounds and sub in the future. Of course, you can always add more speakers for other rooms as well.

You can set up the speaker to work with your TV remote, and their music interface app is excellent when you just want to play music. If you’re a do-it-yourself-er, any of their speakers are somewhat do-it-yourself friendly. If you want to upgrade your TV’s sound system and get into wireless music players, then the Sonos Playbase is worth looking at.

Home tech upgrades for parents of teens and pre-teens

Teens and preteens can be complicated, but their home tech doesn’t have to be. There are some affordable updates you can do to make their lives more comfortable (and therefore more sane for you). Simple tech upgrades like Wi-Fi access points, wireless speakers, and smart locks can simplify life for everyone.

Good Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi is the life blood of a teen’s home tech – from Snapchat to music streaming. A well thought out Wi-Fi network using good quality equipment can keep the Wi-Fi signal strong. This will give your kids the social media connection they crave while allowing them to continuously stream Drake’s latest album. As a bonus, you can leverage the Wi-Fi upgrade to solidify whatever your technology rules are, e.g. acceptable usage times and no devices in bedrooms.

Wireless speakers

Teens and music have gone together like chocolate and peanut butter for ages. To keep Chance the Rapper playing in their spaces, you can give them (or ‘lend’ them) a wireless speaker. With a wireless speaker, such as a Sonos speaker, you can avoid hearing every smartphone message beep and pop like from a Bluetooth speaker. You don’t need a smartphone nearby for them to work (so you can maintain a no smartphone in the bedroom policy, if you like). When a wireless speaker is in Wi-Fi range, it’ll happily stream music without being tethered to a smartphone. A wireless speaker like the Sonos Play:1 is also humidity resistant, so they can use them temporarily outdoors and get some fresh air. If they want more control, you can mate them with a remote like the Lutron audio remote. You can also subscribe to a music service like Deezer or Spotify, then they can maybe explore more music than the 20 songs all their friends listen to.

Smart locks

The days of the house key on a shoelace around the neck are gone. A smart door lock can allow your kids easy home access regardless of how good they are misplacing keys. You can choose models that open via smartphone or keep it simple with a keypad. You can also use it with a smart doorbell so they can see who’s at the door when they’re home alone. (And maybe you can watch your home’s coming and goings when you’re out, just saying.)

Parents of teens and preteens know that they can be a tricky bunch. These easy tech upgrades can improve everyone’s enjoyment inside and outside your home.

Planning outdoor music speakers

Adding music to your outdoor spaces can make those places more enjoyable. The trick is choosing the right outdoor music speakers. You want to provide the right sound level without blasting yourself (and your neighbours) with loud music, or making it look like an outdoor concert venue. Your wireless speaker may be okay in a single spot, but you’ll want a wired speaker system for better outdoor music coverage.

Your first step is to decide if you want to use a conventional system (like a home stereo) or 70V outdoor music system. If you’re only using a couple outdoor speakers close to your home, a conventional system may work. Otherwise 70V systems are often best for larger spaces as they are easier for multiple speakers and longer wire runs (you can brush up on speaker system differences here).

Regardless on outdoor music speaker system you’re using, there are many styles of speakers to choose from

  • Garden speakers: These speakers are intended to be placed along your landscape features. They come in brown and green colour tones to blend in with plants. Garden speakers are usually ‘mushroom’ or dome shaped. You can leave outdoor speakers exposed to the weather when installed properly.
  • Decorative garden speakers: Outdoor speakers are available in shapes like plant pots, statues and rocks. They can be more subtle when placed in visible areas – or it you prefer a whimsical conversation piece – you can choose something like a frog statue speaker.
  • Conventional cabinet speakers: If you want to mount your speakers under eaves or on poles, then cabinet speakers can work for you. These usually come in black or white, but some are available in various colours. The ‘box’ shape allows manufactures better control of sound quality, and are available over wide price and quality ranges.
  • In-ceiling speakers: Some in-ceiling speakers are weather tolerant for mounting under an eave. These speakers are available in a range of quality levels as well. In-ceiling speakers are limited to outdoor spaces that have buildings with eaves though. The speaker grills usually come in a white colour but are easy to paint to match with the colour of your eaves.
  • Subwoofers: If you’re looking for more bass, you can also choose an outdoor subwoofer. Some come in dome or box shapes to place in a garden or on a patio. To minimize visual impact, use a sub designed to be partially buried. Keep in mind though that outdoor subwoofers usually require their own dedicated amplifier.

When you plan your outdoor music solution, keep in mind that more speakers are usually better. Once you decide on speakers, your can figure out your amplification requirements and music source. You can mix and match speaker styles, but 70V systems likely make this easier. With more speakers, you can have individual speaker volumes lower while still hearing the music levels evenly throughout your space. This allows you to avoid loud spots or leakage to other properties. Your family and friends will be able to enjoy the tunes, and your neighbours may not even notice it.

 

Is mesh Wi-Fi right for your home?

Good Wi-Fi and wired networks are fundamental to home technology solutions. Our best practice is to ensure that all devices with an Ethernet port are connected to a wired network. Wi-Fi can then be used for devices like smart phones that can’t be wired to your network. But what happens if your home is older and doesn’t have a properly designed wired network? Maybe you just want to make your current home network work better without construction. Its possible that a mesh Wi-Fi network might meet your needs.

Mesh Wi-Fi

A mesh Wi-Fi network is a collection of Wi-Fi network devices, or nodes, that work together wirelessly to provide more consistent Wi-Fi for your home. The Wi-Fi nodes are close enough together so they have strong WI-Fi connections to other nodes. This way they can pass your data along through each other. How close or far apart the nodes are depends on how easy it is for Wi-Fi to get around your home. You connect only one of the nodes with a Ethernet cable to your Internet router.

The number of these Wi-Fi nodes needed depend on your home. Remember that not just home layout, but also building material (like concrete and metal studs) impact your Wi-Fi coverage. Most kits start with two or three nodes, and you can add more as you need them. Manufacturer’s websites give you an idea of what you’ll need for your home, but like many things in life, milage may vary, and it may take some experimenting to get it right for your home.

Mesh Wi-Fi system features

Google Wifi isn’t officially available in Canada, but other mesh Wi-Fi devices like the D-Link Velop and Netgear Orbi are. Depending on the system, there are various features that help make good Wi-Fi:

  • Smartphone apps that help you configure your Wi-Fi and place the nodes in good locations for strong Wi-Fi coverage (this is the crucial part to get these systems to work)
  • Nicer looking devices, as they will likely be in various areas of your home (while ‘nicer looking’ is subjective, most of these easily beat out the usual Wi-Fi black boxes with random blinking lights and antennas poking out)
  • One Wi-Fi network SSID and passcode to make it easy to roam around your home without having to switch Wi-Fi network
  • MIMO (multiple antennas) and beam forming which help create strong Wi-Fi to devices
  • Convenience features like Wi-Fi pause (get to bed kids!), prioritizing certain data (e.g. streaming Netflix), and remote management

Nothing beats a wired network, but in lieu of wires, you may benefit with a mesh Wi-Fi system. They may stabilize your home networking without having to cut open walls to install network wiring. With careful research and setup, you can step up your home’s network.

CES 2017 tech trends

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is the big consumer electronics show in North America. It offers glimpses into current and future tech products for your home. There are nearly endless gizmos that get introduced at the show, but here are a few tech trends that caught our attention: LG’s ‘wallpaper’ TV, Sony’s Acoustic Surface TV and Sevenhugs Smart Remote. All have interesting features that could prove useful for homes today and in the future.

LG’s new ‘wallpaper’ OLED

LG’s Signature 4K OLED W TV is a very, very thin OLED TV. Its so thin (at 2.57mm), that its been nicknamed the wallpaper TV. While thin and offering top-notch picture quality, it has a dedicated sound bar for sound, power and TV connections. Unfortunately if you don’t like the sound bar, its the only way the TV is available. (They had to stick the bigger parts of a TV somewhere.) The screen and speaker bar are connected by thin ribbon wiring, so you will need use an in-wall conduit if you want to hide it. The TV will likely be more than $10,000 when available in Canada, so it will only fit higher-end budgets. That said, it should help make thin OLED TVs more available and affordable for everyone as they becomes more mainstream.

Sony also gets on the OLED train

Sony has taken OLED tech and put an interesting twist in their set: Acoustic Surface sound technology. Thin TVs don’t leave much room for speakers, so the Bravia XBR-A1E OLED screen itself vibrates like a speaker. The sound can also originate from the portion of the screen where the action is. Lower bass sounds require ‘regular’ speakers, so they are built into the TV stand. Using the screen itself for sound is a interesting idea, as many media rooms have auxiliary speakers in discreet areas already (e.g. in-wall sub woofer behind an end table). The feature will be available in their high-end TVs and requires the TV stand, but this could eventually trickle down to affordable TVs.

Sevenhugs is building a smart remote

One of the things that makes Sevenhugs remote smart is that it knows where you’re pointing it. For example, if you point it towards your TV, it operates your TV; towards your light it will control your light, etc. The goal is to be more intuitive rather than the user choosing what to control on the remote. You need to put their sensors on your walls though, so the remote can figure out which way its pointed. Users will still have to choose between TV gear like a cable box or Apple TV when pointing towards their entertainment system. (Good control systems currently know what equipment to use by activity, e.g. “Watch TV” will turn on the TV, change channels on the cable box and volume on a sound system). Its scheduled to ship this summer, and if useful for people, it could steer the way other control systems operate.

These products are interesting because they offer improvements and refinements on gear currently available. These tech trends should help move technology forward to create inviting homes to fit all of our lifestyles.