Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Ecobee Smart: Why a 5 Year Old Smart Thermostat Design Was My Choice

As we began our renovation project, something that was important to me was the selection of our thermostat. I know most people don't put a lot of energy into that selection, but it was something I wanted to get right. The obvious hipster solution would be the Nest Learning Thermostat, and the first part of this post is going to tell you exactly why I didn't make that choice.

The Nest, because its developers worked at Apple on the iPod, has the obvious benefit of making one cool.  I mean, they sell the nest at the Apple Store, and without a doubt, at introduction, the Nest was the most attractive thermostat on the market:

Nest Thermostat
The Nest is Attractive
The first generation Nest was introduced at the end of 2011, but had some important limitations, like the fact that it couldn't control 2 stage air conditioning systems. The second generation Nest, introduced about a year later, was a more powerful device that could control modern multi-stage systems (2 stages of cooling and 3 stages of heating).  The 2nd generation device even got a software feature that my $60 Honeywell thermostat had in 2003: "smart recovery" (Nest calls it "Early-On"), which basically means that instead of just having a schedule of times to change temperature set points, when it's been offset (turned warmer while you're gone in the summer or cooler while you're gone in the winter), it will achieve the desired temp at the requested time.

Basically, with cheap programmable thermostats (and expensive 1st gen Nests), if you know you get home at 6:00 pm every day, you need to set the thermostat program to a lower temperature sometime before 6:00 to be sure it gets to your temperature by 6:00, and if you want to be SURE it will get there on the hottest days, you need to set it pretty early, maybe 4:00 just to be sure.  With smart recovery the thermostat control logic determines load vs. capacity for your system dynamically and predicts how early it needs to start running to achieve your temp at 6:00.  Some days it might be fine with 5:45, while other days it might have to come on at 4:30.  This is a really important feature if you want to confidently offset your temperature significantly while still being comfortable when you're home.  Without smart recovery you're less likely to offset significantly, and you're going to reap smaller rewards from offsetting because you're going to program to start recovering too early.  It's a basic enough feature for a premium thermostat that it's embarrassing that it wasn't included in the first generation product.

The big selling point of the Nest is that it figures out home usage patterns by using motion sensors to determine when you're gone, allowing it to determine your schedule for you, and addressing the biggest problem with programmable thermostats: people don't actually use them to offset.  The nest starts offsetting for you and learns how much it can get away with before you start adjusting it.  The more it gets away with, the more little green leaves it rewards you with to let you know how it's saving you money.  I'll be honest: this is the point where my eyes glaze over on Nest.  I'm not an idiot, and I don't need an idiot's thermostat.  My thermostats have always been programmed, and, unlike the first gen Nest, they've always included smart recovery capability.  For me, comparing the Nest to a sub-$100 Honeywell thermostat from Lowe's yields: Nest has wifi (that's good), nest is pretty (sure), next costs 4X more (uh, why?).

So what did I pick?  I picked the HVAC engineering nerd's ultimate thermostat: the ecobee Smart Thermostat.  The Smart, introduced in 2009, falls short of the hipster choice in a couple of areas.  First off, let's get this out of the way, it's not as attractive:

ecobee Smart Thermostat
The ecobee Smart Looks Like it Was Designed in 2009

In addition to not looking as pretty, being a relic from 2009, the wifi support is 802.11g, not 802.11n, which is a bummer for some technical reasons.  The Smart's interface is also a resistive touch screen instead of a capacitive touch like the Nest's.  In layman's terms, capacitive touch is what has made smartphones so responsive and what made the iPhone so different, as it was the first big product to use capacitive touch.  Finally, the Smart wasn't available at the Apple Store.

Now that I've gotten that out of the way, here are all the reasons why the 5 year old Smart was my choice in May 2014:
  • Smart is more than a name.  The Smart's software includes all the basic things you expect a any $250 thermostat to do.  Smart recovery, humidity control either using your existing air conditioner or a dehumidifier and humidifier, smartphone integration, home automation integration, consideration of current weather and forecast in scheduling, etc.
  • Web programming.  For whatever reason, maybe the same one so many VCR's used to flash 12:00, many people don't program their thermostats, but the Smart makes it really easy to do.  You can basically get as sophisticated as you want and it's really slick and easy to do just by dragging with your mouse.
  • Reporting.  The online reporting with any ecobee is really slick, but if you want you can download all the data from the system into a spreadsheet and analyze it.  Basically you can see exactly what your thermostat was doing in 5 minute intervals for as long as you've owned it.
  • Multiple inputs and outputs.  This is what really sold me.  With the Smart you have discrete inputs and outputs that can turn things on and off or monitor whether things are on and off, and with the optional Remote Temperature Sensor Module you can hook up extra sensors for different rooms of your house, or OAT, or attic temperature, or whatever.  Now things are interesting.
For our house, we added two Honeywell C7189U1005 Temperature Sensors, one in the master bedroom, and one my office.  That way, at night I can control the temperature of our house based on our bedroom temperature, and during the day, when I'm working from home, I can control the temperature of our house based on my office temperature.  This is the killer feature that every home should have, and for me it was worth not getting rewarded with green leaves and having a less attractive device on my living room wall.

After I made the decision, Honeywell introduced the Lyric WiFi-Enabled Thermostat, which gave me pause. The Lyric looked attractive, modern, and had some functions that didn't exist in the Nest or Smart.  I really liked the idea of their "Fine Tune" feature, which adjusts setpoint based on things like "is it particularly cold outside?" or "is the humidity running a bit high in your house right now?"  In the end, while the Lyric promised to be better than the Nest, sensors in all the important rooms was the killer feature, and I stuck with my 2009 thermostat, and I'm pleased with the selection.  There's really no substitute for controlling the temperature in your actual location.

Finally, a bit of a spoiler for a future post.  If I were choosing today, I wouldn't choose the Smart.  In September ecobee introduced the ecobee3 Wi-Fi Thermostat with Remote Sensor.   Unshockingly, they reached the same conclusion I did with regard to what the killer feature was for a thermostat: controlling the temperature where you're at, not where the thermostat is mounted to the wall.  The ecobee3 supports wireless sensors basically wherever you want them, and uses motion sensing to follow you around your house.  Their slogan is "For Homes With More Than One Room."  I have one sitting on my desk for a customer's home and will write about it soon.  The ecobee3 is attractive, modern, oh, and for you hipsters, it's now sold in the Apple Store.
Ecobee 3 Thermostat and Remote Sensor

Products referenced in this post:

Friday, December 19, 2014

Amazon Fire TV Stick Part 2: Watching Video

If you're looking for information on playing games, particularly RetroArch, on your Fire TV, I created a new web site that includes the RetroArch guide as well as a lot of other stuff. I hope you like it. For the most current information go to:

This is the second in a series about the Amazon Fire TV Stick:
  • Part 1: Setup
  • Part 2: Watching Video
  • Part 2.1: Miricast Revisited
  • Part 3: Playing Games

  • In my last post I talked about the Fire TV Stick, the product category and competition, and how the initial setup went.  Today it's time to get down to business and watch some content from some different sources.

    Amazon Video

    First off, as I mentioned before, Amazon is going to push their own content, so rentals/purchase from Amazon are right up front.  If you're an Amazon Prime member, you're going to get a healthy dose of Prime Instant Video.  While we are Prime members, we haven't really spent a lot of time using their content.  TiVo has never supported Prime Instant Video (it does support the digital purchase/rentals, which we have used at times), so before our recent TV upgrade, using Prime Instant Video meant switching to our Blue-ray player's Amazon app.  Combine that inconvenience with the fact that early on there wasn't a lot that we wanted to watch, especially compared to what was available on our Netflix account, and we just haven't had a reason to pay much attention.  The 2014 announcements of HBO's older catalog of shows and 4k content has had my attention, and with our 4k Smart TV purchase supporting the full gamut of their content, I've been intending to dig in, but I'm still not actively watching anything inside their ecosystem.

    Out of the gate I jumped into It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.  It's a show I've always watched in bits but never from start to finish, and Amazon tossed it up in my recommended list.  I jumped in with Season 1, Episode 1.  Out of the gate the first thing I got was an HDCP error.  HDCP stands for "High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection" and is basically the copy protection scheme used to keep you from copying digital video from your HDMI cable.  Apparently the Fire TV Stick didn't handshake properly with my ancient HDMI 1.2 (I think?) TV.  I solved the problem by unplugging the device from the HDMI port and plugging it back in, which would, of course, be a horrible solution if the TV were mounted on the wall.  We will see if this is recurring, but I'm willing to give the Fire TV Stick the benefit of the doubt at this point because I've had some issues with this TV switching between sources in the past.

    While I was diagnosing this, I managed to figure out that a software update had been installed overnight after the initial install and that the time zone was set for PDT instead of CDT, which was easily corrected in the settings menu.  I puttered with the various settings but it seemed like the defaults were, in fact, correct.

    Playing S1E1 of Always Sunny went as expected.  It was from 2005 and in SD, so I hopped forward to S5E1, which Wikipedia reports to be in 720p.  The video was 16:10, but relatively low quality, which is probably a function of Amazon's compression level, or maybe the original source material.  My TV reported it coming through in 1080p, and I don't think that the clarity issue looked like anything related to scaling up.  Jumping forward to S6E1, 1080p per Wikipedia, improved the quality quite a lot.  Now we were clearly dealing with a decent HD stream.  The quality differences seem to be all about Amazon's encoding, and not about the Fire TV Stick, which seemed to do its part of the job just fine.  Switching between the episodes we smoothly.  I'm not sure if this happened because of their predictive downloading -- Amazon calls it ASAP, or "Advanced Streaming and Prediction," and says that the Fire TV products will guess what you're going to watch next and download parts of shows in advance so that you don't get a buffering message at beginning -- or if it was just because everything was going particularly smoothly with Time Warner Cable and Amazon's CDN (Content Delivery Network).  Good times.

    Netflix and Controlling Fire TV

    Next I hopped out of Amazon's content and selected the "Netflix" logo under "Apps and Games."  As I mentioned in the last post, everything but Amazon's content is supported by downloadable apps.  This actually isn't all that much different from any other similar device, but the segmentation of the interface is made more apparent.  Amazon content is front and center, and everything else is elsewhere.  Some reviews I've read have also mentioned that the search features don't search everything, which isn't really surprising once you see that their apps are the only ones truly integrated.  I confirmed this today.

    The first thing I had to do was download the free Netflix app, after which I could open it and get the opportunity to sign in.  And...  No.  I'm not doing this.  I can accept pecking through an onscreen keyboard with a remote control for a wifi key, but I'm not doing it again.  I haven't done that since, well, at least since TiVo's iOS/Android apps became tightly integrated and allowed me to use my iPhone/Kindle Fire/iPad as my keyboard, and that was several years ago.  I could probably pair a Bluetooth keyboard, but I don't have one.

    Fire TV Commercial Screenshot

    Wait, remember Gary Busey talking into his remote control?  I don't watch many TV ads and I recall those...  You don't get that remote.  Sure, you can buy it for $30: Voice remote for Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick.  Uh, no, I'm not spending another $30 to be able to talk to my remote.

    That's OK.  This is 2014, and there's an app for this.  Right?  Well, if you're a strictly iOS household, the answer to that is "soon."  I have faith that Amazon will deliver on soon, but for now, our iPads and iPhones are useless to control the Fire TV Stick.  Here in The Lab there are alternatives.  We actually have 3 different Kindle Fires: a 2011 Kindle Fire (the original model), a 2012 Kindle Fire HD 8.9, and a 2013 Kindle Fire HD 7.  This is actually a good selection, as it includes all 3 versions of the Fire OS Android fork.  The 1st gen was never updated past the original OS based on Android 2.3, the 2012 Fire HD still runs the 2nd generation Fire OS based on Android 4.0, but the 2013 Kindle Fire HD 7 is actively being updated and received an upgrade to Amazon's latest OS version a few months ago.

    The old 1st gen, 2011 Kindle Fire is just hanging out being used for occasional bedtime stories, so I figured I'd try it out first.  Finding something useful for it would be nice.  Unfortunately, the Fire TV app isn't available for this device.  It still runs an Android 2.3 fork, and, while Amazon released a 2nd gen version of the device running their Android 4.0 fork, they never updated the early devices.  I won't rant further.  Maybe the 2012 Fire HD will work?  BINGO, Fire TV app in the Amazon app store for this device.  Of course, this adds insult to injury on the lack of update for the 1st gen Kindle Fire... No, I said I wouldn't rant.  Basically, any Kindle Fire except the very first one they ever sold should support the app.  Except, wait, the 2013 Kindle Fire HD DOESN'T support the app?  I have no idea why.

    I fire up the app and it searches and finds "Colin's Fire TV Stick" to pair with.  I select it, 4 digits pop up on the screen, I touch them on the Kindle Fire screen and I'm in business.  I get a little tutorial and a "start" button.  One tidbit from the tutorial is that with the app I CAN be like Gary Busey and talk to this thing.  Do I want to?  I hit start and navigate to the Netflix App, which is now in the "recently used" part of the interface.  Now I can use app for the keyboard interface, and after entering the wrong password only one time, I'm logged into the Netflix app that looks pretty much like all the current iOS/Android/SmartTV Netflix apps.

    I kind of dig the app's remote interface.  It's basically a big touchpad and you touch and drag to move around.  The TiVo app has an interface option like this and I've never bothered.  Note to self, bother.  This is really intuitive. Oh, nearly every time I reopen the app I have to select "Colin's Fire TV Stick" again.  Not so intuitive, Amazon -- there's only one on my network.  I jump into my Netflix profile, and the last thing I watched was one of their 4k demo videos.  I start it up and get another HDCP error on the screen.  I cycle TV power and the video is playing.  This thing is going to make me pay for the quirky old TV, but it's probably not really Amazon's fault.  Maybe they can figure out how to be more forgiving?  I used to only have issues when I changed between certain devices, but it looks like this is going to happen a lot.  Maybe not since the problem goes away when TV power is cycled, maybe it's just happening because the TV has been on continuously while I've been in and out.

    As I ponder all of that, pretty trees and rivers slide by to violin music in 1080p.  The Netflix app gets a thumbs up, as expected.  What now?  There are a bunch of other streaming apps that are supported, and I use exactly none of them.  HBO Go ISN'T supported yet, but will be early in 2015.  Hopefully in time for Game of Thrones.  What to test next?  I ordered an Amazon Fire Game Controller, but it hasn't arrived yet, so I won't hit up gaming, where I'll admit that my expectations aren't high.

    (Edit: The HDCP error hasn't happened again in the last 24 hours while writing the remainder of the review, and while my son watched a fair amount of Netflix on it.  I don't think it's going to be a frequent occurrence.)

    My Media

    Along with Netflix and Prime Instant Video, playing my personal media is the most important thing to me.  We have a Synology Rackstation with 10+ TB of storage, and I want to be able to play video from this storage device.  The Rackstation is a DNLA (Digital Living Network Alliance) device and my Samsung smart TV, for instance, has no trouble playing media shared through its media server. The Fire TV Stick, on the other hand, has no built in support.

    I get online and start looking for how people are solving this problem, and it's basically a hot mess.  There are some apps that people suggest trying, some of which also enable screen mirroring with Apple devices via AirPlay, but nothing solid.  That's just not cool at all, Amazon.  I know you want me to use your content services, but it's 2014, and not having a canned solution for playing content from a DNLA media server just isn't cool.  I know it's a $40 device, but there's no good reason for this functionality not to exist.  Even Apple, who is the king of keeping people inside their ecosystem, gives you some functionality here on their Apple TV.

    OK, so my Rackstation also has a Plex server capability, so you can shell out $5 for the Plex app and be OK, plus if you buy the app you have it on any Kindle Fires or other Android devices you link to the Amazon App Store, as well.  It just shouldn't be necessary.  Plex is nice, but Amazon needs to step up and fix this.


    Due to the Amazon's leveraging Android Open Source Project, and Google's commitment to make sure that all Android devices utilize as much proprietary Google content as possible, no Amazon devices have access to the Google Play versions of the various Google apps.  Because of this, I wasn't sure what to expect.  It appears that Google is treating the Fire TV products like smart TV's and the app looks a lot like what we have on our Samsung TV.
    If you haven't used the newer YouTube smart TV apps, you'll find that things have gotten very mobile friendly.  You can pull up the YouTube app on your mobile device and search through videos and then "cast" them to your TV.  I was able to do this from both my iPad and iPhone, but did find that if I was already in the YouTube app, the video wouldn't necessarily play correctly.  If I was in the main menu it would open the YouTube app and work correctly.  I assume that these rough edges in the YouTube app will get cleaned up.


    I pull up Amazon's music app.  For some reason I have some music in there, and it plays and keeps playing while I browse through the menus some more.  I could also play music from Amazon's Prime Music service, which competes with various music streaming services and comes with Prime.  Oh, I have to go on the website to set it up because I've never bothered.  I sign up and add a Christmas playlist.  It doesn't show up on the TV.  I go in and out of music while Frank Sinatra sings in the background.  No joy.  Finally after a few minutes Prime Playlists shows up in the music app and I start up the Christmas playlist.  Note to Amazon: this needs to work more like Pandora, Spotify iTunes Radio, etc. and less like iTunes from 2010.  I'm sure they're working on it, and it's not bad, but it could use work.

    I go into settings and turn on screen mirroring to try it -- and the Fire TV app stops working and I have to go find the physical remote.  Oh, it's at my desk, I haven't used it since I fired up the app.  There's a link to an Amazon web site on screen mirroring.  It turns out that the 2012 Fire HD doesn't support screen mirroring.  It looks like the screen mirroring uses Miracast, which requires Android 4.2 or later.  Fire HDX devices support it, according to Amazon's web site.  Our 2013 Fire HD runs the same OS, but doesn't support it, so I can't test it.

    [Edit: Things changed a bit here, see "Fire TV Stick Part 2.1 Miracast Revisited")

    While I'm trying to figure out this, I find Prime Music Ad-Free Stations.  So maybe there is something more like Pandora/Spotify/iTunes Radio?  I knew Amazon couldn't be that bad, but after a little digging I find that I can listen to the stations in a web browser, and that Kindle Fire tablets running the current generation Fire OS were updated in November to support it, including our 2013 Kindle Fire HD, but not our older Kindle Fire HD, which only lets you play from your library and Prime playlists.  The Fire TV products don't yet have this feature but are getting it "soon."  Fair enough, this is important to Amazon so I expect this to work soon.  In the meantime there is a Pandora app, but the Spotify app isn't a full blown version of Spotify, only a way for you to play music from your phone or tablet.  Meh.

    Pictures and Whatever Else Is Left

    Amazon gives you unlimited cloud storage for your photos with a Prime membership, so theoretically that would be appealing.  I haven't gone that route to date, so I haven't got a strong interest in the ability to browse a photo library from this device.  I put about 50 pics up on my cloud drive and played around with the functionality.  You can browse the albums and set them up as screensavers.  I've seen similar functionality on Apple TV, and it's a nice touch.  Maybe I will consider using Amazon's free cloud storage for my photos at some point...

    Beyond that, there are a bunch of apps that I can't really review because I don't use them, don't have accounts, etc.  My guess is that they mostly work pretty well, but if you have some specific app like Flixter or PBS Kids or NBA Game Time that is important to you, I'd check out the Amazon App Store reviews to be sure.  Also, take the reviews with a grain of salt.  The Watch ESPN app has terrible reviews.  Why?  You have to have a pay for a TV subscription that includes ESPN to use it, and apparently this has made a lot of people who thought they could order a Fire TV and get ESPN quite unhappy.  I had no trouble logging into my Time Warner Cable account through, pairing my Fire TV Stick Watch ESPN app and watching a live basketball game.

    Not Quite Conclusion

    I'll update this when I get the Amazon Fire Game Controller and publish Part 3 about games, but here's where I'm at so far:

    You'll like it if:
    • You have Kindle Fires
    • You're a Prime Member, particularly if you're embedded in Amazon's ecosystem
    • You just want to use it for Netflix and other supported apps
    You may be disappointed if:
    • You want to use it for Spotify without using another device
    • You want to stream your media without Plex
    • You're heavily embedded in another Ecosystem like Google Play or iTunes
    • You expect to be able to conveniently access all media without a cable subscription.  The world is moving that way, with HBO having announced that they will sell standalone subscriptions for an HBO Go like service in the future, but we're not there yet.
    On the whole, for $39 I think it's almost a really, really great product.  There is still some polish missing in some of the software, like YouTube videos not always starting when cast and a Kindle Fire remote app that regularly wants me to reconnect and isn't supported on my iOS devices or even on my newest Kindle Fire HD.  Also it is still short HBO Go, a full Spotify app, and a few other things.  The hardware seems solid, and I think this is important enough to Amazon strategically that much of the rest will likely be cleaned up over the coming months.  That said, as the owner of several of their devices, I'll say that Amazon doesn't have a perfect track record with software, so I won't be surprised if one or more of these holes remains 6 months from now.
    There are also games, but I'll be messing with them once I get the Amazon Fire Game Controller in a week or two.

    Products referenced in this post:
    All posts on the Fire TV Stick:

    Wednesday, December 17, 2014

    Amazon Fire TV Stick Part 1: Setup

    If you're looking for information on playing games, particularly RetroArch, on your Fire TV, I created a new web site that includes the RetroArch guide as well as a lot of other stuff. I hope you like it. For the most current information go to:

    Breaking from the home automation topics, today I'm writing about something I ordered on a whim when it was on sale the day it launched, the Amazon Fire TV Stick:
    Fire TV Stick and Remote
    I've broken things down into multiple posts:

    Like many of Amazon's products, they didn't create the product category.  Roku launched the category in 2012 but it didn't take off due to issues with MHL (discussed below).  Google popularized it with their Google Chromecast last year, and Roku followed up with an improved stick earlier this year, the Roku 3500R Streaming Stick.  Similarly Amazon's own Fire TV box was already aimed squarely at the Roku 3 Streaming Media Player and the Apple TV boxes.

    First, a little background:  Roku and Apple both have both been in the streaming box market for a several years.  Apple's device, which has been through several revisions, has been a relatively nice device for people who really are embedded in Apple's iTunes ecosystem, but the current device is pretty long in the tooth.  Expect Apple to update it in 2015.  Roku has been the "every man's" streaming box for several hardware generations and even my parents, who were both born in the 1930's, have a Roku.  Both boxes have the downside of, well, being boxes.

    After Roku's first attempt at creating a Roku's stick, Google created the Chromecast, which is also a little dongle that plugs into an HDMI port and hides itself away behind your TV.  It has some pretty cool features, but is very dependent upon your using phone or tablet for interface.  Roku's "we can fit our Roku box into an HDMI dongle," like the Roku box, gave you a remote control, and the second generation product avoided the problems of the first gen product.

    That gets us to Amazon.  Earlier in 2014 they announced the Fire TV, a direct competitor to Roku.  Running a modified version of Android Open Source (like the Kindle Fire tablets that share the Fire name), the Fire TV was aimed directly at the streaming box market with a bit of a twist.  Amazon is trying to sell their own media services, including video, music, and their own Android app store, so they made their box significantly more powerful and included the option to buy a Amazon Fire Game Controller for playing Android games on your TV.

    Then in late October, they announced the Fire TV Stick, a less powerful version of the Fire TV aimed at the streaming stick segment.  When it was announced they had a 1 or 2 day pre-order special of $20 (normally $40).  We have located our original 47" LCD TV in our playroom, where it has about 5 generations of Nintendo systems connected through a switch box, and the Fire TV Stick seemed like a logical way to enable Netflix, Prime Instant Video, etc. for this TV.  I didn't hesitate.  They said it would arrive in January.  January came early:

    Fire TV Stick Unboxed
    What you get for $50, from Left to Right:
    The Stick Itself
    The RF Remote
    2 AAA Alkaline Batteries for the Remote
    A USB to Micro USB Cable for Power
    A 5W Micro USB Power Adapter
    An HDMI Extension Cable

    As you can see from the picture, there's quite a lot in the box.  There is the stick itself, along with an extension cable in case you are installing in a location that makes it difficult to plug in everything. There is an RF (Radio Frequency) remote that allows you to control the unit.  Most remotes use infrared (IR) so they require a sensor on the device to have line of sight to the remote.  RF gets around that at some expense.

    Finally there is a USB cable/wall adapter to power the device.  Amazon recommends (repeatedly) using their wall adapter.  As I touched upon a little in the Leviton USB Outlet post and the Better Car Charger post, USB power varies.  As you may recall, the base USB spec is 0.5A (2.5W), and 100mA (0.5W) before "digital negotiation."  There are USB charging ports that gets us as high as 7.5W (depending on the design) without negotiation, and then there are crazy things like current generation iPad chargers that go all the way up to 2.4A (12W).  Amazon is saying "we know our adapter is 5W, but we can't promise anything for any others."  That doesn't mean you won't be A-OK plugging it into a USB power port on the back of your TV like the one my newer Samsung TV has, but you should understand that things might not behave correctly and plan accordingly.

    Finally, I mentioned MHL and Roku in the opening.  You may not know about MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link), and I'll spare you the details, but MHL is a standard that is related to HDMI and includes sourcing power.  The first generation Roku stick used MHL and it caused all sorts of issues.  Most TV's didn't support it, and there are different versions which have different power levels (sound familiar?) and it was generally an unhappy deal for Roku as an early adopter.  The Chromecast, newer Roku and Amazon Fire sticks don't bother with MHL, and instead source power through the aforementioned micro-USB power.  Ironically, newer TV's are supporting MHL (my Samsung has MHL support on one of its HDMI ports) just in time for this abandonment.  It will be interesting to see if the USB ports become unnecessary in the future.

    Setup is super easy.  You plug everything in and turn on the TV, selecting the correct HDMI port.  The device discovers your wifi network and connects (you have to peck in your security code with the arrows on the remote and an onscreen keyboard), it plays a little intro cartoon and you are quickly to the main screen, where Amazon media sources are prominently displayed.  All the usual suspects are there, Amazon video purchases and rentals, Prime Instant Video, etc.  Beyond that, everything else, like Netflix, involves downloading apps.

    Products referenced in this post:
    All posts on the Fire TV Stick:

    Tuesday, December 16, 2014

    Another Roomba 780 Deal 12/16/2014 - EXPIRED

    OK, so this was a deal of the day on Amazon at $420 the other day, and I posted about it.  It's last year's top of the line model, and I thought $420 was a great deal.  Right now, if you go to the iRobot store and order directly, they're selling the same model for $399 with free shipping if you follow the URL below:

    You have to follow the link and add it to the cart to see the deal, and I think it's today only.  It's enough to make me consider ordering a replacement for our existing Roomba.

    Presence Sensing with SmartThings and Multiple iPhones

    After you set up your home automation (HA) hub, in our case, the SmartThings Hub, one of the first things you're going to want to do is automate things based on your presence.  You'll want to have the lights come on when you come home, offset the thermostat when you leave, etc.  With a little work, you'll have the house behaving much differently when you're home than when you're not home.  The real question of course is, "How does it KNOW?"

    The answer is that there are all sorts of ways.  If you're familiar with the Google/Nest Labs Nest Learning Thermostat (not a recommended product), you know that it uses motion sensing to know if you're in the room with it.  Of course that's a pretty limited way of doing things, which fits right in with the Nest, but we'll get to thermostats in another post and I'll explain why Nest is at least 3rd on my list of recommended thermostats.  There are better was, and the SmartThings software offers several solutions.

    The simplest way is directly interfacing with the app:

    Open the app and set the status to default "I'm Back!" or "Goodbye!" events and trigger whatever actions you've tied to it.  OK, let's face it, you're never, ever, ever going to do that.  What good is home automation if it's not automated?

    The most obvious automated way is the SmartSense Presence Sensor:
    This device utilizes your ZigBee Home Automation Profile mesh network to know if you're home.  Basically, if the device is in range, you are home.  You can buy as many of these as you want, attach them to kids' backpacks, keychains, etc. and know when people are home.  The reviews on Amazon are pretty hard on this device.  Complaints basically include:
    1. Short battery life
    2. Comes apart too easily (i.e. when keychain is dropped)
    3. Unreliable due to range
    #1 and #2 I am presently evaluating here in "The Lab," and #1 may be a real issue, since mine currently reports 75% battery after a pretty short stay:

    #3 is at least partially a sign of where HA technology and consumer understanding of it is at, and is why every time I talk about a device, I specifically talk about how it connects to your home network of networks.  ZigBee is a mesh network.  The devices are low power and also short range.  Because of this, all the devices on your network talk to each other and pass their various messages along through your house.  They connect to your main home network (the one your computers and other WiFi devices are on) through your home automation hub, but if the hub and the device are too far apart, there has to be another device in between to relay the messages.  With respect to the SmartSense Presence Sensor, that means that if you don't have many ZigBee devices (and remember, there are actually several different profiles of ZigBee that don't all talk to each other or SmartThings), and your hub is back in your nerd closet, it might not reliably know you're home.  Complicating all of the above is that there are actually different ZigBee profiles that don't necessarily talk to each other, so a ZigBee Home Automation device (like this one) won't talk to a ZigBee Smart Energy device, etc. You need to consider things like this when applying the device, and it's annoying.

    Beyond the SmartSense Presence Sensor, there are several other options.  One of the most interesting is simply using your phone to geofence your house.  Modern smartphones have "location services" that track the phone's location as you move around using a variety of methods (GPS, identities of in range WiFi networks, Bluetooth beacons, and cellular tower signals), and one of the applications that has been increasingly applied over the last few years is what's called "geofencing."  Basically is creating a "fence" around a location and triggering when the fence is crossed.  In this application, we create a fence around our home, and trigger a present/away event when we cross it.

    The first option for doing this is the SmartThings app itself.  When you set it up, it locates your home and lets you set a radius for sensing presence, and you can always modify this in the main settings for the app.  Now, from the main screen, or "Dashboard," we hit the big plus sign to add a device, scroll down to presence sensors, select our phone, and "connect now."  Easy peasy, lemon squeezy, right?  Now you go to your wife's phone, log in with your email and password, rinse and repeat, right?  BZZZZZT.

    Apparently SmartThings has decided that this isn't the way it should work.  When you take this path the app complains that there is already a device named "Colin's iPhone."  Never mind that I'm on Courtney's iPhone, no matter how many times you try, it complains of the same thing.  It turns out, you have to log into each device with a separate email address, which is "invited" from from main account.  Why?  I'm really not certain.  It's an irritating enough issue that on the SmartThings online forums, there is a thread titled, "Setting up multiple iPhones (separate linked accounts) as presence sensors for dummies."  Yeah, that's what I went and found when it didn't work the way I expected.

    Another method of presence sensing is through SmartThings integrating the Life360 app, which integrates with the SmartThings hub via "cloud to cloud" integration.  Life360 lets you do all sorts of things to keep up with your family, including sharing to-do lists, grocery lists, and tracking when family members come and go from your home.  You can leverage this tracking instead of using the built in tracking functionality.  I'll be honest, at this point I'm not sure why I would prefer one over the other, but I've verified that this method works.

    OK, this post has gotten pretty long, but presence sensing is one of the core inputs for home automation, so I wanted to get a thorough foundation, plus the SmartThings software didn't work as expected.  In the next HA post I'll actually talk about applying the presence sensing to make some things happen.

    Products referenced in this post:

    For advanced reading on home automation I recommend the SmartHomeHub forums.

    Friday, December 12, 2014

    Christmas Tree Control with the SmartThings Hub and SmartThings SmartPower Outlet

    In the last post we talked about tying together a bunch of Smart Home type Home Automation devices with a Home Automation Hub, and I told you I got a SmartThings Hub:

    I went with SmartThings for a number of reasons. It was one of several solid choices that would tie into a variety of the more popular automation standards, its smartphone app is less panned than some of the others in the online reviews, and, important to me but not necessarily everyone, or even most people, it has a strong developer community so that you're not stuck with limited support for various devices, but can install homebrew applications to let you do particularly gee-whiz stuff.  That's a technical term.  Also, SmartThings is kind of the original product in this category and was started by a "Kickstarter" campaign, which just kind of makes it cool, and they don't take themselves that seriously, as indicated by statements like "time travel is still in beta" in their FAQ.

    Along with my hub, I ordered a couple of SmartThings branded products.  They actually have a couple of starter kits that are good deals if you want everything in them, but I picked some items à la carte.  The first item I picked is the SmartThings SmartPower Outlet:

    A staple of home automation, the connected plug lets you do a number of things.  Obviously it lets you turn the plug on and off at will.  Additionally, this plug and many like it will let you sense the current flowing through it, so you can sense if a device plugged into the outlet is running, which may be used as a trigger for something else.  In this case, my first application for the SmartPower Outlet would be seasonal and simple: control of our Christmas tree lights.  It would do that by communicating with the SmartThings Hub via the ZigBee.  You wouldn't need to know that if you're using it with the SmartThings Hub since it's safe to buy any of their branded products, but as we add things that aren't SmartThings branded, knowing that we can use them is going to be a little more complicated, so it's worth learning to pay attention to the technology in use.  But wait, we have to actually set all this stuff up...

    Setting up the SmartThings Hub is pretty straightforward.  You unbox it, go to your nerd closet (you have a nerd closet, right?) and plug it in.  You then plug the included Ethernet patch cable into the hub and your network switch.  So, the first thing you need to know is that it requires a wired connection into your home network.  Next, you download the app on your device of choice and walk through the account setup and the rest of the guided setup.  I found that it didn't do a great job of finding several of the devices that I knew it could control, but I had no trouble at all adding them through the menu.  Different devices did require different actions to pair them with the hub, but they were all described on screen and easy to accomplish.  After adding a few devices you end up with something that looks like this:

    From there, you can browse into your things and select the settings box for the one you want, getting something like this (I added the Christmas Tree from the seasonal section when I configured the plug):

    From here, you can touch the big green circle to turn the switch on and off, and you can go into "SmartApps" to set up behavior.  I created custom apps named "Christmas Tree On" and "Christmas Tree Off" only to find an annoying limitation.  I could set the switch to come on based on any number of triggers, including the ones that would be useful in this case, like time, sunrise, sunset, etc., but for each of the time related categories you could only select one time.  The option was either to create "Christmas Tree On 2" and "Christmas Tree Off 2" or to set both a time and a sunrise/sunset trigger for on an off.  I chose the latter, with the tree coming on and off before and after sunrise and on and off at fixed times in the evening, but for other things you may have to set up multiple types of events.  If you want something to happen on the hour every hour?  Prepare to create 24 "SmartApps." That's a little less "Smart" than I would have liked.

    Once it was done, it worked like a champ.  You get a log of power usage in Watts every 5 minutes (this logging might be configurable, I haven't played with it) and a recording of every on/off event and why it was triggered.

    So, mission accomplished.  We've installed our SmartThings Hub, paired a device, and configured that device to do what we want.   As my son would say, "easy peasy, lemon squeezy."

    Products referenced in this post:
    For advanced reading on home automation I recommend the SmartHomeHub forums.

    Thursday, December 11, 2014

    2014 Smart Home Technology, The Basics

    If you've lived on the same planet that I have over the last few years, you've seen a steady onslaught of "smart" devices and are probably getting various flyers in the mail from alarm companies, cable companies, etc. about having a "smart" and "connected" home.  The future is now, and it's a future of flying cars, Dick Tracy wristwatches, and refrigerators that contact you via Twitter and Instagram when your milk spoils.

    The House of the Future

    Well, maybe it's none of those things, maybe it's a future of extra layers of poorly implemented computerization and networking integrated where it's wholly unnecessary.  Surely your blender needs an Ethernet port?  A trip to Lowe's or The Home Depot will bombard you with various gadgets, some of which are cool, some of which are almost cool, and some of which you should give a wide berth.

    So, what next?  First, some of the stuff that is home automation (HA) is pretty cool.  Second, let's face it, you probably don't want Time Warner Cable or ADT Security or AT&T to drive decisions you make beyond Internet/cable TV access and home security monitoring.  You probably aren't even thrilled with how they do their main jobs.  You want to do things that actually work and don't tie you to someone.  You also know that technology changes fast and you don't want to buy a bunch of expensive kit and integrate it into your home only to be embarrassed by it or find it unsupportable in 2 years.  So if you're going to dive in, you probably should have a plan, and to have a plan, it might help to survey the HA landscape, both past and present.

    The Past

    First things first, people have been doing this for a long time.  Poorly.  Or better said, people have been using the best technology available in 1975 in an attempt to automate homes.  By this, I mean that if you start digging you'll still see a lot of X10 protocol devices and other old technology.  X10 was hugely successful and widely supported, to the extent that such things could be hugely successful and widely supported in the 1980's and 1990's.  These aren't the devices you want, they're just things that are still out there, still using a protocol developed in 1975 with a bit rate of approximately 20 bits per second.  To put this in perspective, your iPhone 6 communicates at rates up to 150 MILLION bits per second.  Now, your light switches don't need to stream Breaking Bad in 4k from Netflix like your smart TV does, but there's no reason to be constrained by 1970's technology.

    The Present

    The present is still kind of the past, it's just a more recent past.  If you look at present smart devices, you find a complete mishmash of things.  You'll see Z-Wave products and ZigBee products and INSTEON products and Clear Connect/Caseta products (because a guy who makes light switches should probably lead the charge on this) and BLE products (Bluetooth Low Energy, aka Bluetooth Smart) and products that make you feel good by saying they use 802.11 (WiFi).  Hey, I HAVE WiFi...

    All of the above are communications protocols that have been developed in the last 5-15 years, and they are all, at some level, capable of doing many of the types of home automation/smart home tasks that most people are interested in.  Why so many?  Partially it's about getting the right standard.  The right standard has to be "appropriate," meaning fast enough but still low power, cheap to implement, etc.  In other words, 802.11 has been ubiquitous for a while, but was too high power and therefore completely wrong for this sort of thing until a new standard that may make it viable came out recently, adding it to the "we'll see" list.  Basically nobody has "won" yet.  40 years after X10, people are still waiting for this market to come of age.

    Most devices devices will have their own iPhone/Android/Windows app to control them, but let's face it, you don't want an app for every device.  So, finally, we get to smart home bridges, promising to integrate all of the junk from all the other vendors running all the different protocols with all their different radios and turn that collective mess into something useful that you can access through your home network and the Internet.  You might have also heard that Apple is going to solve it all soon and make it "Just Work" with Homekit.  If you dig you might also know that Google has an agenda with Thread (they bought Nest for a reason).  Everyone wants to be the leader, which means that nobody currently is, and tomorrow is uncertain.

    If you're smart, you'll be a little skeptical of all of the promises with their new NEW standards (ZigBee 3.0, Thread, Homekit, 6LoWPAN, etc.), you'll suspect that it will still be a mess in 2 years, though probably a slightly better mess, and you'll do a bit of research before starting down the path.

    What Next?

    All of that sounded scary, but the truth is, we're to the point where you can dive in and do some cool stuff if you're willing to do a little work, or find someone to do said work for you.  First off, you will have to pick one of the aforementioned bridges, because you're not going to be using only one protocol, and something has to tie it together for you.  Second, you'll want to start picking products carefully to go with it.

    I did a little research and picked one of the current favorites for my bridge, the SmartThings Hub, and in upcoming posts I'll tell about it, what's good, what's not so good, what I've got it doing so far, and what I plan to do down the road.

    To be continued...

    Products referenced in this post:
    For advanced reading on home automation I recommend the SmartHomeHub forums.

    Thursday, December 4, 2014

    Leviton USB Outlets

    These days we all have a lot of things that charge from a USB style charger.  Most of us have a collection of car chargers (see the previous post on better car chargers) and a bunch of "wall wart" chargers that convert 120VAC to 5VDC for charging and regulate charging current.  Five years ago, many of these chargers were all in one, but it's much more common these days to have a cable and separate power supply.

    The next obvious step is to get rid of the wall wart clutter, right?  There are plenty of options out there, but I went with the Leviton T5632 in our home.  This particular outlet has a number of advantages over the other products I considered.  The first nice thing about this outlet is that it fits 2 standard 15A AC plugs in with the 2 USB plugs in a single gang, decora switch/GFI outlet form factor.  Many of the other options gave up an AC outlet.  Second, and more importantly, it can drive 3.6A to the two USB outlets.  This isn't quite the 4.8A that two iPads might draw, but it's close, so it will charge most combinations of devices at high speed.
    We installed one of these next to each night stand in our bedroom, one at the bar in our kitchen, and threw all the wall warts in a drawer.  We may get a few more soon.  Let me know if you see something better.  Right now on Amazon there is another brand that advertises 4A, but the install looks a little less standard than the Leviton.  I'd say the Leviton is still the best option.

    Like all USB chargers, make sure you get the correct part number (I've provided direct links), as there are lower power versions available.  Also, some of the Amazon reviews mention trouble fitting the plugs into boxes.  If you have an older home or remodel wall boxes, depth might be a problem, so I might try one before I went crazy and ordered 3 or 4.  This won't be a problem for your electrician in a new home, of course.

    Products referenced in this post:

    Wednesday, December 3, 2014

    Something to Help Control Humidity

    I just posted that the biggest problem with your A/C system is probably that it doesn't control humidity well. We will get back to HVAC in some future posts, but a sort of offshoot topic from the last post would be "how can I reduce the amount of humidity that my A/C system needs to remove?"

    Many of the sources of humidity aren't going anywhere. You are major source through respiration and perspiration, cooking dinner, washing dishes, etc. are also major sources. Nobody is going to stop doing those things. Finally there is showering. Obviously (I hope) nobody is going to stop showering in the name of reducing indoor humidity levels, and you probably even realize that your bathroom has an exhaust fan in it, as required by building code. One of the two reasons bathroom fans exist is to exhaust moisture, but my experience is that people don't tend to use their fans as much as they should. One reason is that the fans tend to be pretty cheap and are installed "just well enough to meet code", but that's a subject for another day. The second big reason is that there's nobody to come in behind us and shut the fan off.

    We considered several options for our new home, and ended up installing a Lutron MA-T530G Maestro eco-timer switch for each fan:

    The switches we selected from Lutron fit into a "decora" style switch plate and allow you to easily select a run time for the fan. Each time you press the panel, the fan will come on for the last selected run time, so for instance, in our master bath, I can walk in in the morning, hit the switch, and the fan will come on for the next 20 minutes, allowing me to shower and allowing time for the fan to run after I shower. In our powder room, where humidity removal isn't the purpose, you can run the fan and then easily select an amount of time for the fan to run after you exit.

    Besides the obvious ability to set the timer, the LED's on the side show how much time is remaining as the timer counts down and, when it hits the one minute mark, there is a slight pause to let you know that the fan is about to turn off.  It's definitely a nice product that works well for the purpose that we intended, and it would be easy enough to retrofit into any bathroom.  We put them in all of ours.

    Products referenced in this post: