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.

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.

Home Tech 101: What to look for in a router

home tech router networkWe’ve talked a lot about proper networking equipment for home tech lately, and its important to understand the equipment that goes into a network. Most people will know a ‘router’ as a Wi-Fi router as this is what most people have – either from a big box store or a ‘gateway’ (Wi-Fi router & modem) from their Internet Provider. A router is arguably the most significant piece of technology in your home, as all home tech activities from surfing the web to streaming media to home automation need a router to work. While all routers route home and Internet data (see below), amongst the long list of features, there are other ones like VLANs and remote management to look out for.

Routing & firewall: Although routing is what a router does, its worth reviewing what that actually is. A router is a device that connects data between two computer networks – in this case, your home’s network and the Internet. You need a router to do this because originally there wasn’t enough computer addresses available in the world to allow your home computers and devices to have their own unique addresses. Instead your home network uses a subset of addresses that can be re-used in all homes and businesses – their routers also translate the address between their networks and the Internet. Computer IP addresses are similar to home addresses – just a way for computers to know where data needs to go. (The world is now starting to use IPv6 that has lots of addresses, but that’s another story.) A Router can also implement a “firewall” that offers a level of security to help shelter your home’s devices from the big, bad Internet. Security features can include Stateful Packet Inspection (SPI), Denial of Service (DoS) prevention, WAN Request Blocking (blocks ping requests), and content filtering (e.g. block adult content).

Performance: We have nothing against consumer grade Wi-Fi routers for the right home application – its just that they’re often the wrong tool for the job. People demand so much from their network and often they’re not aware that they’re asking a lot from basic equipment that was never designed for heavy usage. Often basic equipment fails families even when they think they “aren’t really doing much techy stuff” at home. Proper equipment helps ensure that all of your home tech can do what you need it to do from Instagram to HD Netflix streaming. More and more people can benefit from commercial grade networking equipment that is built to handle the load that they need. A good router can also prioritize certain data and/or balance data needs within your allotted access to the Internet. While great Wi-Fi capability is extremely important, it doesn’t necessarily need to be built into a router. Often a router is stuffed away somewhere that doesn’t make sense for Wi-Fi coverage. In those cases, we look at putting Wi-Fi Access Points in central locations to provide the needed Wi-Fi coverage.

VLANs: A LAN, or Local Area Network, is the local computer network in your home. In a home network, a significant amount of data is broadcasted to all devices regardless if they want it or not. A VLAN, or Virtual Local Area Network, allows the network data to be tagged with an ID that separates it from other data. You can use VLANs to separate data even its on the same physical network – those broadcasts can be separated to only the devices that need them. For example, you can tag all of your entertainment devices for the same VLAN so they think they’re on their own network and not compete as much with other devices such as surveillance cameras. You can expand this with VLAN compatible IP switches to make a powerful and flexible network.

Dual WAN: For those who want to ensure their Internet is dual WAN portsalways on, you can use the dual WAN (Wide Area Network, i.e. the Internet in this case) to connect the network to two different Internet Service Providers and/or configure your WAN connections to load-balance and link failover.

Remote Management: Since we help people with home tech, remote management is a big benefit for both our clients and us. In the event something goes awry with a router, we can remotely check on the router, modify configurations, and restart it without having to set up an on-site appointment, etc. Very handy!

A router is the centre piece of the home network, so its important to use one that fits your particular needs. Regardless if you’re building or renovating, or if you’re looking for a stable network in an existing home, a bit of focus on the networking foundation of your home will pay dividends.

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.

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.

Home Automation Bonanza

Home Automation Control

You’ve probably noticed that just about everyone and their high tech dog has home automation products now. Products like Nest Thermostat, WeMo and Hue offer great functionality, but usually require their own app for control. Its much preferred to have simple, unified control for all your home automation products. There are three general categories of such solutions: do-it-yourself, basic control systems and full custom control solutions.

For the do-it-yourself types, there are options like Vera and Homeseer. These offer flexibility to automate nearly anything, but you need to have deep tech knowledge and understanding. For example, you need to understand physical limitations such as how close devices need to be to talk to each other. You will also need to spend a considerable amount of time and effort to get things going, so ensure that you’re the sort that will enjoy the journey if you go that route.

If you want something more ready to use out of the box, you can Logitech Harmony Ultimate Homechoose a basic control product like the Harmony Ultimate Home. The Harmony Ultimate Home builds on their AV universal remote systems and adds compatible home automation product control (e.g. Nest Thermostat, Lutron Caseta lighting, or Kwikset Kevo). It allows up to 15 devices and has decent control options. This product area will grow, and it will be interesting to watch as Apple, Google and Samsung hit their strides in this space.

Perhaps you want it all now – home automation with lighting, temperature and easy entertainment control. A professionally installed custom system can provide it all in a simple and convenient solution. There is the spectrum of custom solutions from modest to high end, so don’t think that they’re just for millionaires.

Home automation can be an incremental investment. You can start with a simple solution or just a room, e.g. media room, that can be expanded on later. Target simplicity, but don’t go too basic and paint yourself into a corner without an upgrade path. Regardless if you do it yourself or have an installer help out, you’ll make your home a little smarter and more convenient and comfortable. Happy home automating!

Retrofit your retro – lighting automation doesn’t have to be boring

Retrofit orange vintage lamp with lighting automation

A fun aspect of lighting automation is that you don’t have to sacrifice your style for functionality. You’re not just stuck with pot lights – you can use your favourite table and floor lamps too. Light control can be used in both new builds and existing homes, and it covers the whole gamut of home design. To get started, all you need is your imagination.

There are many solutions from do-it-yourself systems like WeMo, Philips Hue and INSTEON, or custom installer products like Lutron’s RadioRA2. Solutions include switches, receptacles and light bulbs that match the decor of your home. This gives you flexibility to use not only floor and table lamps, but also ceiling installed fixtures and pot lights.

INNSTEON lighting automation

There is a full range of functionality too. You can have standalone sensors like Lutron’s occupancy/vacancy switches, or deeper functionality like scheduling, mood setting and automated lighting to greet you when you arrive at your home. Lutron occupancy switchIf you’re looking for the more involved functions, you can include a controller like RTI’s XP6 to be the brains. If you’re taking that step, you can expand it to work in concert with window coverings, entertainment systems like music and home theaters, and more. This also plays into smartphone apps for full control when you’re away from home.

Start with a list of desired functions from simple timers and occupancy – to scheduling – to whole home integration. This will help you narrow down available products that match your requirements. If you need some help, feel free to contact us for some assistance.

RTI's XP6 control processor