CES 2016 home tech wrap-up

stack responsive

The Consumer Electronics Show, or CES, is North America’s big electronics show. Its the event where companies show off their latest and greatest products. It wrapped up on Saturday, and as in past years, there was an overwhelming amount of gadgets from wearable tech to drones to car tech (all of which created their own buzz). With so much going on, we’ll narrow our focus to a couple home tech related themes; 4K TV and smart home products.

Like last year, 4K TV was hot at CES. This year though it looks like 4K TV is heading quickly towards the mainstream. While 4K TVevery TV manufacturer showed of their latest 4K TVs at CES, manufactures like Hisense and Sharp announced more affordable sets. They may skimp on some features and quality, such as back lighting and HDR, but they may be satisfying for the price.

TI also announced a 4K chipset (the devices manufactures will use to build projectors with) that should bring more affordable 4K projectors to the market sometime towards the middle of the year. Many also announced 4K UHD Blu-ray players. There looks to be 4K UHD Blu-ray movies on the way as well this summer, but we’ll see if people will still choose physical discs over the convenience of streaming 4K TV from services like Netflix.

Although there was a fair amount of “smart home” gear, there weren’t really new complete solutions that solved pain points. For example, Samsung and LG had ‘smart’ refrigerators, but likely the best feature was that the Samsung took picture of what’s inside your fridge. Perhaps handy to check if you need to pick up milk on yoursmart fridge way home, but maybe not worth the $5K US. Whirlpool also has some appliances including a smart stove that is controlled via a phone app. While it will also work with a Nest thermostat to send alerts when the oven is on while the the Nest thinks you are away, it really should have the smarts to know when someone has completely forgotten a pot heating on the stove. This could save a forgetful or elderly person from a common danger.

There were also products like NanoLeaf and Stack’s responsive lights that make lights smarter. NanoLeaf integrates with Apple’s Siri. Stack’s can turn themselves off when you leave the room and adjust colour of light for the time of day. The idea is that it provides more natural lighting based on environmental conditions and time of day. Cool ideas, but the average home owner would have a patchwork of apps to control them with other home tech vs. simple whole home control. In general, its good to see that manufactures are trying, so hopefully they’ll move towards products that are simple to use and solve pain points.

The main takeaways from CES 2016 for the home were the solidifying of 4K TV and that homes will continue to get smarter. The good news is that great 4K TVs are getting to price points so we can all enjoy 4K TV, and there looks to be an increasing interest in making home tech products that improve our lives.

Help your Wi-Fi – how to build a great wired home network

robust network equipment

It seems that everything we do these days from checking Instagram to streaming Netflix relies on good network connections within the home and to the Internet. We talked about how to build a great home Wi-Fi network, but there is a lot more to the story for a home network – its the wired network that does the heavy lifting. A great wired home network requires proper cabling in the walls, planning where to run the cabling, and the proper equipment.

The first part to get right is what cabling to put into your home’s walls to get all your data moving around with ease. Our go to is Cat 6 networking cable, as it offers good data rates, reasonable cost, and good workability for electricians to pull through a home. It offers 1 Gbps data rates (current top speed of consumer gear), and for lengths of up to around 30-50 meters, it should be able get up to 10 Gbps. The next step up in network cabling is Cat 6a. It allows up to 10 Gbps up to the max 100 meters. Cat 6a can run higher data bandwidths because its eight wires are twisted together with more careful spacing than Cat 6. But this makes Cat 6a more expensive, thicker and harder to install. These Category (“Cat”) cables can also be be shielded with aluminum foil to help keep electrical interference away. This ensures data rates can be as fast as possible. Cat 7 takes it to another level and cost. Its also worth looking atCleerline fibre optic cable fibre optic cable, as fibre can allow 10 Gbps, isn’t bothered by electrical interference, and costs are coming down. Fibre is also getting easier to work with as companies like Cleerline are making more rugged optical cable.

Next, you have to think about where to run cabling to. Run it to all the places that need data: AV media rooms, Wi-Fi access points, computers, printers, etc. Basically run to anywhere you would conceivably have home tech that can be plugged into the network. This way your Wi-Fi is left for devices like smart phones and tablets. Although running cables isn’t free, its way more cost effective and convenient to run wires during construction than after the fact. To mitigate costs and maximize future proofing, you can have a dual strategy: run Cat 6 as usual, and double up runs to places like AV media centres with something like shielded Cat 6 or optical cable. As devices like media streamers will likely be increasingly data hungry, especially with 4K UHDTV, this should help cover you for the future.

Finally there is the networking equipment like routers and IP switches that actually enable your home’s network. As mentioned earlier when focusing on the Wi-Fi part of your network, cheap gear is, well, cheap. If you and you family use and value your home network for activities like work, streaming media, and playing video games, then there is likely a lot of data pumping through your home. Even an average family home uses more data and Internet bandwidth than most people realize. Imagine what happens when you layer on even more home tech like 4K TV content, lighting automation and video surveillance, This is why your network gear needs to be well thought out for functionality, performance and reliability. You need to choose all network routers and switches to handle your home data load without bottlenecks. Fast equipment like 1 Gbps is common now, but gear must also be trustworthy. It may be tempting to try save money and buy equipment that is less expensive, but you need gear that is designed to be robust and run pain free for years. You end up paying for it one way or another. Some professional home tech equipment allows for remote fixes as well – a nice feature so you don’t have to wait for a scheduled service appointed if something does go wrong.

Planning a home network may be a lot to think about, but the reality is that technology in the home is only growing and needs the right foundation. It will be well worth the cost and effort to get it right when you’re building or renovating – use the right cable, to the right places, and with the right equipment. As with anything in your home, from painting to hot water tanks, some maintenance is expected, but its minor when your network infrastructure is solid. With a well designed network, you and your family can just focus on doing the things you enjoy.

How to build a great home Wi-Fi network

Wi-Fi Access Point

Home Wi-Fi networks can’t be ignored. Not that long ago, you could go down to the local electronics big box store, buy a $99 Wi-Fi router, connect your laptop to the Internet, and call it done. These days most homes have a growing number of devices, and Wi-Fi networks are stretched extremely thin. You can apply the basics about how to get better Wi-Fi to help coverage, but if you’re building or renovating, you need to step it up to ensure your home will be fully functional now and the future. Let’s take a closer look at planning the wireless part of your home network.

You may think that there aren’t many Wi-Fi devices in your home, but sad wifiyou’ll likely be surprised if you count up your smartphones, tablets, laptops, Apple TVs, smart TVs, etc. It gets more complicated as people add devices like surveillance cameras, smart locks, smart thermostats and smart lighting. Pile on the fact that today’s devices are increasingly data hungry with the likes of HD video, and you’ll quickly understand why basic wi-fi routers and Internet Provider supplied gateways just aren’t built to take that kind of abuse.

Poor Wi-Fi coverage is the first thing that most of us notice with our smart TV Ethernethome networks. Perhaps its a bedroom where the Wi-Fi barely works or a TV room where the Apple TV takes what seems like forever to play Netflix. The first step is to plan to use wired connections wherever you can. For example, media players and smart TVs usually have an Ethernet port, so build in Ethernet wiring into your home to connect to anything that has an Ethernet (or LAN port) available.

The second step is to build your home to allow for additional Wi-Fi access points. Access points, like the Araknis Networks’ 100-series Access Point, are similar to Wi-Fi routers, but just have the Wi-Fi part. This will allow you to add ‘hot spots’ to expand your Wi-Fi coverage into dead spots. These can be tucked out of sight, such as in a closet, or discreetly on a ceiling. This way you don’t have to worry if your Wi-Fi router in the basement will reach to the top floor or if your home’s construction materials are blocking Wi-Fi signals.

The third step is to invest in good quality networking gear. A cheap Wi-Fi router from a big box store will give you a cheap experience – poor coverage and clogged data. If you have basic needs (one or two devices, no streaming media) and low expectations (don’t mind waiting), then a cheaper solution may work for you. Chances are though, that you’ll need several devices, including a Wi-Fi router, access points, etc. Invest in Wi-Fi networking gear that will provide good coverage and reliability. Better manufactures also provide high-end or business grade Wi-Fi wireless controllers that include allowing your devices to roam properly in your home. For example, this will connect your smartphone to a stronger access point when you move around in your home, instead of it holding on to a signal as you move too far away from it. Not only is higher-end equipment made to work well together, you can expect it to handle higher data and device loads. The right equipment will pay dividends in the future.

You need to put a reasonable amount of planning and investment into your Wi-Fi networking design. In the future, we will look deeper into best practices for the wired part of your home network as well. This will propel your home network into a stable and enjoyable backbone for your entertainment, smart home and work devices. So go ahead, and turn that Wi-Fi frown upside down!

What is HDR, and should I get a HDR TV?

HDR example

TV shopping has always been tricky, with endless new terms and features such as today’s buzzwords of HDR TV and 4K UHD TV. We’re at the turning point where 4K TVs are coming down in price and becoming a viable option for everyone. To catch you up, 4K TVs provide more pixels and deeper colour palette for a more detailed picture. Mixed in with 4K TVs is the term HDR, and it offers a further improvement in picture quality.

HDR, or High Dynamic Range, offers more brightness or ‘luminance’ levels in pictures – you get more details in dark sections as well as light sections. High-end smartphones accomplish this by taking multiple pictures and then combining them into a more detailed picture. This way detail isn’t lost in shadows or washed out in bright areas.

HDR is the similar in video. Manufactures are starting to make HDR TV sets available with more dynamic range in the brightness, e.g. 10 times the luminance levels. This brightness range isn’t meant to be just bright, but more importantly, be better at displaying increments of Samsung 4K TVbrightness from deep black to bright white. This should translate into a more realistic, natural picture. For example an outdoor scene with HDR should allow us to see more detail in the shadows below a tree as well as the texture of clouds. With current HDTVs, this would basically be just darkness under the tree and uniformly white clouds.

HDR TV often gets mentioned along with 4K TVs, but it doesn’t necessarily need a 4K TV. Although 4K TVs offer more pixels and expanded colour palette, a HDTV would also benefit by having more brightness or luminance levels. Like most things, the higher end gets fancy new features first, and 4K TVs are the higher end right now. HDR could trickle down to HDTVs, but its unlikely as dropping prices and prevalence of 4K TVs will make this a moot point. HDR is a new technology and the standard is still being figured out, but good sets will apply processing to regular video to make it HDR-like. Streaming services like Netflix are working to provide HDR content, and HDR TVs should also be software upgradable when standards do get set.

Hopefully you understand HDR a bit more now, but the real question you may have is if its worth it paying for. If you have the budget for a new 4K TV, then the quick answer is yes. More and more decent, mid-level 4K TVs have some form of HDR, while the high-end models also include better processors to help regular video look better.

Aging in place technology

aging in place technology

Home technology can be fun and convenient, but its truly awesome when it can improve someone’s quality of life. As we age, technology can help extend our independence and make our homes more safe and easier to manage. Aging in home technology can help seniors with in-home conveniences, safety and monitoring, and entertainment.

Home control can make any home more convenient and should be considered for a senior’s home. This includes automated lighting and window coverings with keypads for simple control of many lights withsimple wall switch the touch of a single button. Overhead lights and even lamps with hard to turn switch knobs can be retrofitted. Automation can turn lights on at dusk and off at bedtime. Sensors can turn on lights when someone enters a dark room, bathroom or hallway, and then turn them off when they exit. A smart thermostat can keep the temperature comfortable too.

Home tech can go further and help with safety and monitoring without being invasive. This can include bed sensors to help check if someone has made it out of bed, motion sensors to monitor movement in the home, and perhaps cabinet sensors to know if a medicine cabinet has been opened. When you need to take a look, two-way IP cameras can provide instant audio and video communication into the home.

Well thought out home tech can also include entertainment for today’s seniors. A simplified remote can run the TV, music and radio. This can include speakers directed at seating to ensure sound is projected easy to use networkingtowards the listener and not just loud. For those who are connected to the Internet for apps like Facebook and news, their network and Wi-Fi should be rock solid as well. This can make it that much easier to video chat or FaceTime grandma or grandpa when you just want to say hi.

The great thing about home tech is that almost anything is possible. For the senior in your life, it can help extend their independent living in their own home. All of this can also be controlled from a smartphone, so you can help or check on a loved one whenever needed. Technology is always evolving, including aging in place technology, so let us know if you’d like to explore ideas.

Make your home tech work for you while you’re away

smart home tech away

Convenience and comfort while at home is often a first draw for home tech, but with summer vacation season upon us, it’s reassuring to use the away features of home tech. These home tech features include automation, monitoring and even remote control from your smartphone to check on your home.

Even simple home automation like lighting control can help it make it look like someone is home. If you have a room such as your living room with automated lighting control, your lights will go on and off on the same schedule as when you’re there. Same goes if you have automated window coverings – these regular scheduled events will keep working to give a lived-in look. You can even set up a vacation setting to use less lights but still give the same appearance from outside.

Smart surveillance cameras let you lookAxis dome camera for yourself that your home is ok. A smart thermostat allows you to check on the temperature or adjust it to save energy or make sure the temperature is within a safe range. You can also use other tech like water sensors to check for water leaks in bathrooms or from water tanks, etc.

Schlage Sense smart home tech lockSmart locks give you control to let someone access your place while you’re away. This can be for that friend that unexpectedly needs in or to let someone like a plumber in to service your home.

Smart home tech can extend convenience and comfort even while you’re away. This is one of the many benefits from of a well designed home tech solution.

Streaming music services update

Apple MusicA while back we looked at streaming music services like Sonza and SiriusXM, but since then Apple and Spotify have joined the fray. With extensive catalogues and reasonable monthly rates, its a good time to check out if any of these work for you.

Apple Music just launched on June 30 with the iOS 8.4 update.  The two pieces of good news are that it appears that iOS 8.4 is stable with no major bugs or issues, and Apple is offering a three month free trial of Apple Music. This way you can try out the service risk free. After Taylor Swift was about to pull her music if she didn’t get paid during the free trial, Apple stated all artists will get paid during the free trial (turned into quite the PR bonus for Apple!). The service is built into the Music app in iOS and iTunes. Its expected that Android users will get an app in the fall. One early knock against Apple Music is that it tops out at 256 kbps AAC vs others that offer 320 kbps MP3 quality for subscribers. Its also expected that Apple Music will be available to listen with Sonos gear later this year.

Spotify launched last fall in Canada and has gained a lot of users. You can try it out free for 30 days, and they currently have three months of their Premium service for $0.99 (what a coincidence). Its catalogue is extensive, but has some holes – for example Taylor Swift pulled her music last fall Spotify(she seems to be swinging at everyone). If you subscribe, you get access to their 320 kbps streaming rate, control in streaming devices like Sonos and Heos, and you can save music on your device for when you’re on the go.

Take a free listen to these and the others and see what works for you. Most of these services also offer a free option, but it comes with commercials and less functionality to save music or control it in devices like Sonos. Rock on!

 

 

Understanding outdoor speaker wiring

outdoor speakerWith the weather warming, its fitting to review options for landscaping and outdoor speaker wiring. A outdoor speaker system can compliment your outdoor living and entertaining. There are two types of systems that are available: conventional and 70 volt systems. The one that is right for you depends on your outdoor plan.

You might be familiar with conventional systems, as this is what is used in most homes. Conventional speakers and amplifiers are rated at different impedances, so take care that the speaker load (or impedance) is matched to the amplifier. If its implemented wrong, the amplifier can be overloaded and damaged. Often amplifiers will allow a range, e.g. 4-8 ohms, so you can use one set or two sets of speakers wired in parallel with no issues (wiring two 8 ohm speakers in parallel make them look like 4 ohms to an amplifier). Otherwise you’ll need to use multiple amplifiers. Amplifiers will specify rated wattage for each impedance, e.g. 50W at 8 ohms. For long speaker wires, like the ones used in large yards, the load of the wire itself adds up, so conventional systems are not suited when using very long speaker wires.

You may not have never heard of 70 volt (or 70V) systems, as they are usually associated with commercial buildings. (We use 70V in North America, but other regions of the world use 100V.) Don’t worry, as they don’t need to sound tinny like in a big box store. You can get great sounding 70V speaker systems – many restaurants and bars use 70V systems. The physics of higher voltages means that long speaker wires are much less of an issue 70V speaker tap settingsat 70V, so you can run very long wires if needed. The 70V is stepped down to regular speaker voltage by the speaker, and on most 70V speakers, you can choose the wattage. By setting the wattage, you set the relative volume at each speaker to manage how loud each is throughout your yard. You also need to be aware of overloading a 70V amplifier; its calculated by adding up all your speaker wattage settings and then adding 20% for good measure.

To help even out music volume throughout your yard, you should use multiple speakers instead of a couple blaring from one spot. Rock shaped landscape speakersIts best to alternate left and right conventional speakers
throughout your space, so all locations get the full music. 70V systems are usually mono, so you don’t need worry about lefts and rights. Both systems have various speaker styles: in-ceiling, box, faux rocks, etc, and they even have sub woofers if you need more bass in you life.

Sound diffuses easy outdoors with even the wind changing performance, so its difficult to get precise sound outdoors. That said, either system will provide great background music. The cost and complexity breakpoint for implementing a 70V system is when you want many speakers, e.g. 5 or more, and/or have a large space that requires long speaker wire runs. Once you have decided on your outdoor speaker system, you just connect music regular music sources like Sonos players to get ready for outdoor tunes.

Choosing a sound bar vs. a sound bar (that’s not a typo)

media room speaker barWe’ve talked about the different options for improving TV sound which includes a sound bar (or “soundbar”). Unfortunately the term can mean different things.

Usually when someone talks about a sound bar for a TV, they mean a device that has speakers and an amplifier built together in ‘bar’. The device is designed to mount below a wall-mounted TV or sit at the base of a TV. Either way, its meant to improve the sound experience without greatly impacting your living space. Sony soundbarSound bars like the ones from Sony or Samsung may also include a wired or wireless sub woofer to improve low frequency sounds. They can cost anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to thousands depending on how good they are at emulating a full sounding, surround sound experience.

This probably makes sense to most people so far, but there is a curve ball. Brands like Triad and Episode use the same term to describe a bar that looks pretty much the same, but is just speakers. You need to use a separate amplifier or AV receiver with them. These types of speaker bars have one, two or three speakers built in depending on the model and need. You might think that these are inferior, but they are just another way of improving a media room’s sound. Often these are used as an alternative in higher-end solutions where larger front speakers would impact aesthetics. For example, a sound bar with three speakers can be used for the front left, centre and front right in a true Triad speaker barsurround-sound system. Then other speakers, such as ceiling speakers, can make up the side or back speakers to make a great surround-sound system. Its just too bad that they don’t use a different term – perhaps something like “speaker bar” – to at least help differentiate these.

Either type can be the right solution depending on goals and budgets. The first type may fit for lower budgets or limited space, but the trade off is not a true surround sound. The second type requires a bit more budget and space for other equipment (e.g. AV amplifier, speakers, etc.), and the benefit is improved sound. Hopefully this helps clear up some confusion and gives some ideas on what might work for your media room.

Water leak sensors aren’t boring

Winland WaterBug
A smart home isn’t only about controlling lights, window coverings, thermostat and door locks. Sometimes less exciting things like water sensors can offer real value to home owners, especially if their home is prone to issues like flooding or drain backups. They might even help save thousands of dollars of water damage.

There are many water leak devices to choose from, but to be considered ‘smart’, they should do more than beep when there’s water. You’ll want to be warned regardless if you’re at your property or not, as beeping away while you’re on vacation won’t do you much good.

For folks looking for something to retrofit an existing home, perhaps a wireless system like the Insteon water leak sensorWater Leak Sensor from Insteon will meet you needs. To get alerts to your smartphone, you’ll need to pair it with their Insteon Hub. As with anything wireless, you need to be cautious to use products within their wireless ranges and avoid wireless interference.

If your home is large or has lots of wireless blocking building materials (e.g. metal or concrete), you’ll need to look at wired systems for rock-solid reliability. Wired solutions like the Winland WaterBug don’t rely on the whims of wireless signals. When paired with a home control system, you can get alerts when Winland water leak sensorwater is detected. For very demanding homes or commercial applications, you can also use ’supervised’ sensors that when paired with a supervising console can tell when sensors wires have been cut. This adds a level of reliability to ensure you don’t miss an issue. The downside of a wired system is that running wires to where you need sensors likely isn’t easy unless you’re building or renovating.

Whichever system is right for your home, you can place sensors at trouble spots like hot water tanks, kitchens, bathrooms or flood prone basements. You then have the peace of mind that your smart home can let you know if there is water trouble – whether you’re home or on the other side of the world. Well ok, maybe leak sensors are boring, but not every bit of home tech has to be sexy to make your smart home better.