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.

What to look for in a smart doorbell

smart doorbell with smart phone app

A smart doorbell can smarten up your home with convenience and security.

With a smart video doorbell you can be notified of a visitor via a smartphone app. You can then see and talk with them using the camera and two-way audio. There’s lots of different features available, so here are some features to consider if you’re shopping for a smart doorbell.

Basics – There is no point in looking much deeper into features if the basics of a particular doorbell won’t work for you.

  • Power: If you have existing doorbell wiring (two wires) at the right spot, then you’ll probably want to look at ones like that use them. Battery powered options are convenient up front, but they’ll need charging or replacing batteries when they die out. If you choose one that is powered by a wall power supply, then you’ll need an outlet nearby and have to deal with a power cord. If you’re building or renovating, also consider one that allows to be powered by POE (Power Over Ethernet).
  • Aesthetics and fit: Assuming you like the looks of the doorbell for your home, you’ll have to make sure it will work in the space. Some have different August Doorbell Camface plates, while others like Ring Video Doorbell, August and DoorBird have different coloured models. Your smart doorbell will need to physically fit near your door. Once you have sizing confirmed, you can determine how it will be installed. Many doorbells can be retrofitted by surface mounting on a wall, while others can be recessed into the wall. Ones like DoorBird have both options available.
  • Communications: Many of smart doorbells use Wi-Fi, so if you’re going that route, you’ll have to make sure your Wi-Fi is strong at your door. If building or renovating, then consider running Ethernet cable to optionally use doorbells that support wired connections. This will not only avoid possible issues with Wi-Fi, and you can also use POE for power (as mentioned above). Some are also some compatible with Bluetooth, Z-Wave, ZigBee and Cellular, so if your other devices are compatible with these, they may work for you.

Specs – Once the basics are covered, dig into the deeper features of the devices to compare various models specs

  • Camera: You’ll want to have adequate video quality for your coverage area to clearly see who’s at your door. Smart doorbell cameras range from 960H to 1080P video. Higher resolution helps you see more detail. If you have a security event, the camera-resolutionsdetail may also help you better identify the person. You will also want to match the camera’s field of view to cover your front entrance. Also consider other areas like your sidewalk and gate. Unless you have a tight space to view, look at ones with a 180 degrees viewing lens. For low-light or night-vision video, check for low light and/or Infrared LEDs.
  • Motion sensor: Some smart doorbells have Ring Video Doorbellautomatic motion sensors that can record video or notify you even before someone rings your doorbell. This can be handy or vital for security.
  • Intercom and audio quality: For smart doorbells with intercom support, ensure that it has a good microphone and speaker, so that both you and and you visitor can be heard properly.

Deeper features – If you’re looking for a more capable smart doorbell, you’ll can look at other supported features

  • Usability: If you want to go beyond using just your smart phone, you can check other options are available. Some have support for Apple’s HomeKit or can talk to other smart devices. For example August’s doorbell will work in tandem with their lock.
  • Integration: If you’re looking for integration with DoorBirda custom home control system like RTI, then you’ll need to look at doorbells like from DoorBird. Some doorbells also have relays to control parts like gate openers or door strikes. Some also supper features like ONVIF to ease the integration with a surveillance or security system.

If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, you’ll probably want to keep it simple.  Look at a model that you can use your old doorbell’s wiring, Wi-Fi and the native smartphone app. For deeper smart home magic, you may want to reach out to a technology consultant for assistance. Either way, you’ll be ready when someone’s at your door.

Holiday home tech gift ideas

tech gift ideas - wireless speaker

 

The holiday season is upon us, so its a good time to review some home tech gift ideas. While some home tech comes with big ticket prices, many devices can be had at more moderate costs. From 4K TVs to home automation, let’s take a look at some of our favourites.

4K TVs: One of the bigger ticket themes that is very popular this year is 4K TV. With good reason too – there are some really nice 4K TVs available at reasonable prices. For example, you can find a name 4K TVbrand 40” 4K TV on sale for around $500-$600. While there is still a premium over HDTV, the cost difference is narrowing quickly. This way you can get great picture quality for HD and 4K content. When shopping for a 4K TV (or any gear for that matter), keep in mind that you get what you pay for. If a certain TV seems wildly cheaper than similar models, then perhaps its lacking in quality and performance.

Wireless speakers: Wireless speaker systems like Sonos are great tech gift ideas and an easy way to add music in a home. These systems allow for playing music from multiple speakers in various rooms – vs. small wireless speakersingle room solutions like Bluetooth. While you may have heard of Sonos, there are others from Denon (Heos), Paradigm and Bluesound (for audiophiles on your list). Most people just use the standalone speakers (starting around $250). There are also amplifier units that can power existing stereo speakers or built-in speakers as well.

Media streamers: If you want to smarten up someone’s older TV, or they aren’t a fan of the smarts that came with their TV, you can get them a new media streamer. Streamers start at about $40. The goto ones are the Apple TV, Roku and Chromecast. An Apple TV is a good Media streamerchoice if the user is an Apple fan, and the Roku and Chromecast will work for all. If you’re looking for a 4K option, then choose one from Roku or Google’s Chromecast Ultra. The Apple TV and most Rokus come with remotes, but Chromecast works best with a device like a smartphone or tablet.

Universal remotes: Speaking of remotes, most people would love to replace their pile of remotes with a single, simple-to-use one. Expect to pay about $300 and up for a decent universal remote. A simple-to-use remote controlLogitech Ultimate or Ellite remote is a solid consumer remote. If you’re looking for something more customizable, then you can talk with technology professionals like us to help with affordable solutions.

Home automation: As mentioned before,lighting home automation affordable home automation options are now available. Products like Lutron’s Caseta, kits start at $120 to allow for an affordable dabble in automation. Increasingly they’re compatible with other manufacturer’s products. For example Lutron, in addition to their lighting and shades, can now control Sonos speakers as well.

There are tons of great tech gift ideas for the techy on your list. The right home tech works well for non-techy people too. Well chosen tech gifts keep giving long after the unwrapping. If you’re buying for someone in your home, then you get the benefit of the gear as well – ah, we mean its all who you’re buying for though, right?! 😉

Tips for planning home tech

Integrated home tech
The perfect time to include some affordable home tech touches is when you’re building or renovating your home. Home technology adds to your comfort and lifestyle, and with some thought it doesn’t have to greatly impact the aesthetics or floor space in your home. Here are a few tips for great home tech.

Hide your media room in your living space

A family room or living room is often a home’s entertainment focal point. It can be a great place to connect with your family or provide a safe hangout for your kids and their friends. With some forethought, your space can service all these needs without tech clutter and still provide an engaging media room. The incremental costs can be low, but you get a big payback when your tech isn’t an eyesore.

  • Think about your seating and TV location. You can wall mount and/or hide your TV screen with creative cabinetry, e.g. behind cabinet doors or a sliding panel. If you’re planning to use a sound bar with your TV, make sure you plan its placement too. There are also affordable options for projection systems with retractable screens.
  • In-wall and in-ceiling speakers are available right up to audiophile grade, so they are a Music in the Dengreat way to get impressive sound without impacting the aesthetics of the room. Think about speakers in the other rooms where you’d like to listen to music as well. Bass can be a bit tricky though, so plan out the acoustics of your room when using in-wall subwoofers.
  • Plan cabinetry to hide equipment like TV cable boxes, media players and AV receivers, and then you can use a control system that operate these behind cabinet doors. (As a bonus, you’ll have one easy to use remote instead of a coffee table full of them!)
  • Build recessed wiring boxers, cabling or conduits into the walls to hide the cables to the TV and gear. Where possible, plan for wiring to allow for the transition from current HDTV signals to 4K TV, 8K TV and beyond. In addition, don’t forget to ensure there is plenty of power and ventilation for all your gear.

Consider smart home products

A smart home doesn’t mean a complicated or expensive home. There are great products available that provide positive impacts in our lives. Here are some of the more popular ones.

  • Lighting automation and control: Lighting automation may be something that might simple lighting automationmake you wonder how you lived without it. There are affordable solutions like Lutron’s Caseta that are accessible for new or retrofit applications. You can dabble with a room or two and build on it as you wish. You can start with setting up a lighting ‘scene’ (e.g. relax, entertain and watch TV), set your lights on timers, or have them automatically come on when you’re near your home. Products are also increasingly compatible with other products like Apple’s HomeKit and Sonos music systems.
  • Smart lock: Smart locks allow your family (and selected friends!) access to your home without physical keys. There are many options that include keypads, smartphone access, smart home control integration, or combinations of these.
  • Smart doorbell: Smart doorbells work with your smartphone to allow you to know when someone’s at your door regardless of whether you’re in your room, in the backyard or at the market. They give you a video feed of the visitor and often you can talk back. This can be good for deterring opportunistic intruders or even ignoring unwelcome solicitors. Some smart lock options can interact with your smart lock to allow you to let someone in as well.

Networking

While networking may not be as sexy as other tech like media rooms, streaming music and smart home gear, its the backbone of all that good stuff. Its important to give networking careful thought and attention so it can work for you.

  • Wire everything you can: Other than portable devices like mobile phones and tablets, most home tech gear can and should be wired to your network. Don’t make devices like TVs, Apple TVs, desktop computers, printers, etc. fight for Wi-Fi – they will work better when physically connected to a solid network. Think of the future too, as a few extra networking wires won’t cost much at build time, but will come in handy when and where you need them.
  • Ensure good Wi-Fi where you want it (inside or outside): Think about where you want to good wi-fiuse Wi-Fi and make sure you can put a Wi-Fi access point close enough for a good Wi-Fi signal there. For example, one router in a basement most likely will not cover a whole home. Consider a home’s layout and building material, and run network wire so you can install Wi-Fi points where needed.
  • Use professional quality equipment and cabling: A home’s network is no longer just for checking the odd email or cat video – its now major infrastructure asset for your entertainment, work, automation and more. When you consider how much you will use and rely on it, the investment is very reasonable.

Well architected home tech can add enjoyment and value to your home while still allowing it to feel like a home. Some up front planning can balance your home tech needs with your style and aesthetics.

What’s fast roaming, and how does it help with good Wi-Fi?

good wi-fi

These days, good Wi-Fi coverage seems to be as important as the air we breath. You likely need more than just a Wi-Fi router to provide a strong Wi-Fi signal throughout your home. This is especially true since since so many devices rely on good Wi-Fi. Great, so you decide that you’ll use multiple Wi-Fi routers or access points to improve coverage – the issue is that you may still find that your Wi-Fi performance is poor – typically when you move around. The reason is likely that Wi-Fi devices like mobile phones and tablets decide when to switch to a different Wi-Fi signal, but they usually don’t want to let go of a Wi-Fi signal unless its completely unusable. This is where fast roaming can come to your rescue.

You may not think you ‘roam’ around your home, but you likely move around enough that you’re not always close to the Wi-Fi signal that you started with. You get a wide range of Wi-Fi signal strengths to your devices as you walk around your home. This is not only due to size and layout of a home, but also due to building material (e.g. Wi-Fi doesn’t travel well through concrete or metal). Newer devices are usually compatible with fast roaming, but they need help. Better Wi-Fi access points have fast roaming as a configurable option. Fast roaming Wi-Fi equipment (based on IEEE 802.11r and 802.11k standards) negotiates handoff with the device. This way your mobile phone or laptop can be switched to a stronger Wi-Fi signal without you noticing, allowing multiple Wi-Fi access points to work together in your home to handle your Wi-Fi needs.

Make sure you or your tech architect designs your home’s networking to support fast roaming. Its not enough to put a bunch of Wi-Fi access points around your home, you have to make sure they’ll actually work in concert to give you solid Wi-Fi coverage that you’ll appreciate. Happy fast roaming!