Google Home Review – what a digital assistant can do for you

Typing is for chumps.

Savvy techies today are talking to their devices, using their voices to interact with technology, rather than typing commands into a web browser online. You’ll see it in a series of new smart home digital assistants; Amazon’s Echo (not yet available in Canada) Apple’s soon-to-be-revealed Home, and of course Google’s Home device is now available in Canada. Continue reading “Google Home Review – what a digital assistant can do for you”

How to set up smart lights & home control with Google Home

Google Home is a super smart home automation portal that works with just your voice commands. While it can play music and answer trivia questions, and much more (Read Erin’s review of the device here) it can also be used to automate and control smart home gadgets. Here’s how to get smart home devices connected with Google Home. Continue reading “How to set up smart lights & home control with Google Home”

iRobot improves app, adds mapping & Amazon Alexa integration

Regular readers and viewers know I’ve become pretty attached to my iRobot Roomba vacuum. (Read my review of the newest iRobot 980 here, or the BraavaJet 240 mopping robot here to see why.)

This week iRobot announced it was making some pretty serious upgrades to the cloud connectivity of the iRobot app. You’ll remember from my Roomba 980 review that in the newer generation of robots you could control the vacuum from outside the home via the app and cloud, and that it has better ‘sight’ to find its way around your home and obstacles. Now the 900 series devices have mapping capabilities so you know exactly what’s getting cleaned and what’s not. Continue reading “iRobot improves app, adds mapping & Amazon Alexa integration”

The Nanoleaf Aurora smart light is really amazing

nanoleaf-4First we had fire, then electricity. Tesla, Faraday, and Franklin pioneered the technology behind electricity, and then Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb. The way we light our homes really hasn’t changed much since that auspicious day in 1879. The lightbulb is round, it screws into a fixture, which requires a tradesman to install; electricity is dangerous for the uneducated.

Forget the bulb, there’s a whole new way

But now, a Canadian company has really, actually, reinvented the way we light our homes. Nanoleaf, based in Toronto, has invented lightweight, flat plastic panels that fully illuminate, change colour, morph and swirl. They’re bright, responsive and fully configurable, both in terms of how you place the lights, and how you operate them. This lighting system is called Aurora, and yes, it’s deliberately named after the Northern Lights phenomenon known as Aurora Borealis. Continue reading “The Nanoleaf Aurora smart light is really amazing”

New Philips Hue lights & accessories review & how-to

img_6004As the days grow shorter, it’s a perfect opportunity to take a look around your home and assess whether your lighting can use an upgrade.

Philips has recently announced several new products and accessories in its smart lighting kit lineup called Hue.

I recently had a chance to test out some samples of these new lights and accessories. Regular readers, or viewers of the monthly CTV Tech Talk know I really like smart lighting for its versatility, colour changing abilities, ease-of-use, and low energy consumption. So anytime I have an opportunity to test new product, or see upgrades that have been made, I love to educate readers and viewers about what’s new, what they can expect, and if these gadgets work as they should in the home environment.

What’s new with Philips Hue

The new additions to the Philips Hue kit I tested included a motion sensor, LED adhesive strip lighting, and new more saturated coloured light bulbs. We’ll look at each piece of the kit, what makes it unique, different, or new and improved, and how well it works.

I should note right off the bat, that all of the accessories and lights in the Philips Hue kit require the use of the Philips Bridge to connect all the devices together, and  to connect your smart phone via your Wi-Fi network. A great way to join the smart lighting club is to purchase a starter kit, which comes with three bulbs and a bridge.

You will also need to the Philips Hue app, or other third-party app to control your lights and get the most from them (More on those below). With the Philips app you’ll be able to set timers and alarms, control colour changing, set scenes or moods, and group certain lights together to turn on or off in sync.

Philips Hue – Reviewing Lightstrip Plusimg_5897

Philips Hue Lightstrip plus is a flexible length of LED lighting. It will display both white or coloured light in just about any situation you could imagine. The light strip plus is completely bendable, so it can wrap around anything from a mirror frame, to a window, a headboard, or even your television.

For you feature geeks out there, the light strip plus emits 1600 lumens at 4200 Kelvin and uses AC power. Extensions to the kit are available but are sold separately.

I set up this light in a couple of ways. Though the light strip plus comes with an adhesive backing, I rigged up a temporary set up so I could move the lights from location to location in my home. I tested them under the kitchen cabinets, then underneath a sideboard in the dining room (there’s a photo at the top of the page). My final test was to wrap the light strip around our 50 inch TV in the media room.

The light strip is very versatile and easy to use with the Hue app. Though the app is not as intelligent or interesting as it could be, it works just great, allows you to use all the basic functions, and is very responsive. Several third-party apps add more fun and functionality to the Philips Hue kit, but the basic app works just fine.

I very much enjoyed having more available task lighting that I could place exactly where I needed it. I also really love the look of using it underneath a piece of furniture to create less harsh lighting in the room, and more of a soft ambient glow.

Try ambient lighting in your media room

I’ve done some reading which suggests ambient light around or behind your TV can help combat eye strain. I decided to try to add the Philips Hue Lightstrip plus to the edge of my 50″media room TV. Though the set up was only temporary and didn’t look very attractive, it’s easy to get the idea of how this would look in a permanent installation.

I played with several different settings of colour and brightness during a movie. The subtle back late was a nice change of pace from the normal stark blackness of my media room.img_5988

While there are special apps that claim to be able to adjust the colour of your lights to the program or movie you are watching, the Phillips Hue app itself does not do this. So while you can adjust the general ambient colour or brightness, you can’t customize the experience; not without paying for an extra app. This is something I’d like to try down the road, but for this review, that’s kind of secondary.

Bottom line; this light strip works well, has good strong colour saturation, is very versatile, and if you rig up temporary adhesive (like a 3M command strip) you can move it as you need to.

Philips Hue Motion Sensor 

img_5896The addition of a motion sensor was a big deal for Philips. The small 2-inch square motion detector is light and compact with an adhesive back. If you don’t want to install it permanently, you can tuck it nearly anywhere, from a counter, dresser, even on top of a painting or frame; wherever you need it to detect motion. The motion sensor is powered by two AA batteries, meaning it’s completely wire-free, and with regular use those batteries should keep the sensor powered for  two to three years.

It won’t blind you at midnight

The motion sensor adds a lot more versatility and new functions to the Hue lighting lineup. More than just turning the lights on and off, this device gives you many new options. For example, using the Hue app you can set the lights to come on at different strengths or colours depending on the time of day or night;  you can set a night light function, so if someone in the house wakes up in the middle of the night, and goes to the bathroom, the Philips Hue lights will turn on, but only dimly to light the way.

Motion detected instantly

The sensors have a great range, and can see about 100° in all directions. Indeed, I have the sensor in my dining room, with a direct line to a hallway about 18 feet away, and when I walk past, it’s still able to see me.  The lights fade on in less than a second; there’s really no lag from detected motion to lights-up.  I was actually quite impressed with the responsiveness.

New version Philips Hue bulbsimg_5997

While the Philips Hue kit is very easy to set up and use, if I had to find fault with one aspect of it up to now, it’s been that the light bulbs aren’t super colourful and aren’t as richly saturated as some other bulbs I’ve tried. (Namely Lifx and Osram WeMo).

That’s all changed now with the re-issue of new bulbs from the company. They look identical but it’s the guts inside that now produce deeper richer colours. I did notice that they do appear noticeably stronger and more saturated, allowing you to use them to decorate with light for holidays like Christmas, Halloween and Easter, or to just enjoy relaxing or invigorating colour scenes at home.

Philips has also added some new bulbs to the Hue line; the GU10, popular in Canada (for halogen fixtures) and the BR30 spot light.

I have lights… why do I need SMART lights?

It’s a fair question; why upgrade to (often more expensive) smart lights when you can get illumination the old fashioned  way? To answer that question, I present, “5 COOL things you can do with Philips Hue lights.”

  1.  Get your lights to flash when the doorbell rings. You’ll need a video or connected doorbell for this one, and the free IFTTT app. (What’s IFTTT? Read my explainer here) Using IFTTT, you create an ‘applet’ (formerly called a recipe) that tells your lights to flash when your doorbell, like the Ring Video Doorbell is pushed. In simplest terms, you allow IFTTT access to your doorbell and your Hue hub, and the app gets them to talk to eachother, even though they don’t normally work together.
  2. Get lights to change colour according to the weather. This is a feature I love.  Use IFTTT again to get your local weather info to send alerts to your light bulbs.  Have them come on bright orange when it’s going to be a scorcher, or turn blue for a snow day. Click here for my how-to.
  3. Turn on lights inside when motion is detected outside. Another applet function from our friends at IFTTT; use a dedicated connected motion detector, or camera like the on on the Ring doorbell, and then have it communicate with your lights. When it detects motion at your door, day or night, that action triggers the lights to turn on to make it seem as though someone is awake or at home. The applet can be found here.
  4. Sync a light show to music. If you have a connected speaker like Sonos, you can get it talking to your Hue lights. Get it to create you a light show that complements your music.
  5. Use a Hue go lamp to wake you with warm light:  Not new, but also worth mentioning as part of the Philips Hue kit is the Hue Go lamp  which I’ve written about previously; it’s actually the light I use to subtly wake me up at my 3am alarm time. Using the Philips Hue app, I have it set to slowly fade on about 15 minutes before my alarm goes off, to a soft sunrise pink-orange. By the time my alarm rings, the room is bathed in soft light for a gentle wakeup.

What would you do in your home with new smart lights and accessories? Let me know in comments below. The new Hue motion sensors sell for $39.95 (CDN or USD). The Light strip is $89, and the starter kit of bulbs is $179-$199. Check out the whole line here.What

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Home Automation with WeMo! Review

wemo-img-overview-3Home automation used to be the stuff of mansions, tycoons and futuristic films and cartoons.  No more.  Now it’s easy and relatively inexpensive to adopt easy home automation features into your house.

What can you do with home automation ?
From controlling your thermostat, door locks, light bulbs, light switches, sockets or plugs and even a power bar, manipulating the devices in your home for security, convenience or money savings has never been more possible.

Testing out Belkin WeMo
Enter the WeMo system by Belkin, just one of several home automation hubs.  I recently had a chance to review and test several products in the WeMo line, from lights to plugs.wemo kit

Set Up
WeMo was easy to use right out of the box.  I started my testing with the Lighting Starter Kit ($99), which comes with two LED light bulbs and a hub or the “Link”. Getting things going was as simple as downloading the WeMo app (for smartphones or tablets), plugging the Link into a wall outlet, and screwing in the bulbs.  The Link connects to your homes existing wifi, and uses that signal to control your bulbs.  Once the bulbs were installed and turned on, the app found them immediately by doing a scan. Once they’re set up, they’re set up for good, even if you remove them for a time.
The app walks you through the set up, making it foolproof.

One plus of this system for me is the Link hub is tiny compared to other hubs I’ve tested; it fits in the palm of your hand, and easily blends into the wall so you don’t notice it.  It’s important to note that while you need the Link hub for the bulbs, other WeMo devices connect on their own, and need no external hub or Link.  In fact a WeMo staffer pointed out to me, “most of the existing WeMo product line doesn’t need a hub at all: the WeMo Switch, Insight Switch, Light Switch, Netcam, and Crock Pot connect directly to Wi-Fi.”
IMG_1109So why do the bulbs need one?  Simply put, the technology to connect to the wifi takes up space.  Some bulbs I’ve tested, like the LIFX system, are much larger and heavier than the average bulb.  So while those bulbs do not need an external wifi link, they do not fit in every fixture.  The WeMo bulbs do, but the tradeoff is the small Link.

The WeMo bulbs are white light bulbs only.  I’ve written before about the fun of colored LED bulbs that you can change, but for now, the WeMo bulbs are traditional.  Maybe that will change soon; having a colour option is really fun and allows you to really customize your home.

IMG_1107
Don’t use “WeMo Setup” to set up, click on “Add WeMo link Devices”

Setting up the WeMo plugs or outlets was a bit harder.  There are essentially two set up screens within the app, and for the first few attempts I was apparently using the wrong one.  I kept connecting to “WeMo Set Up Instructions”, but I needed to be using “Add WeMo Link Device”, as seen in the screen grab.  It seems like an easy mistake to make, and I figured out the error quickly enough, but I could see this being confusing and frustrating for others too.

Additionally, I found the set up screen getting locked, and having to force-quit the app in order to try again.  Then, somehow, mysteriously, the device would be connected and working.
Now, while this was frustrating for me, a person who likes to understand what’s happening each step of the way, it wasn’t a deal-breaker for me. After a few tries, the WeMo system took care of itself and from then on worked just fine.  Since then, I’ve had absolutely no trouble to glitches with the system; it works reliably and flawlessly.
There have been rather frequent firmware updates required; not that it’s a problem.  In fact, I like companies who are constantly trying to keep software up to date.  But it’s good to be aware you may actually need to do the firmware upgrades before the app and devices will work properly.

wemo set up screen

Easy to Use Timers, Away Function, Auto-On
One of the easiest aspects of the WeMo system is how easy it is to set up what WeMo calls Rules.  It allows you to turn your bulbs, plugs or switches on or off at appointed times, which is great if you’re going away, or frequently get up before sunrise or get home before dark.
I’ve made some rules which turn on a light in my living room, softly at 50% brightness at 3am when I get up to go to work.  I also have the same lap set to come on at sundown, and turn off later at night.  Similar rule and timer functionality is also available on the plugs/outlets. More on that below.

IMG_1110
WeMo Switch.

Testing the WeMo Switch
One of the things I like about the WeMo Switch ($49) I tested is that it’s powerful enough for me to plug in a fan or heater. Some wifi-enabled plugs only have enough juice for a lamp, so it’s good to check the packaging or details before you buy and make sure the appliance you want to plug in to the switch (from any company you buy from) is safe to use. During my testing, I plugged a small space heater in, and set a timer rule to turn on about 30 minutes before bed so the room was warm.  I also set it to shut off automatically after an hour.  Another rule setting turns it on about 15 minutes before I wake up, and off again 30 minutes after that.  That’s it; it’s ‘set it and forget it’! I have all these items functioning for me, on the schedule I decide, and the best part is that it’s easy, so very easy to program with the free WeMo app.

The WeMo Insight – It gives you data
I tested another WeMo plug; the Insight ($59).  The WeMo Insight Switch will send notifications to your smartphone or tablet showing how much energy your electronics are using. Of course, you also have the ability to turn your electronics on and off and monitor their behaviour via the app.

WeMo-Insight-Wall-Plug-In
WeMo Insight

One of the limits of home automation systems has been that you need to be at home, on your wifi network to control your devices.  But now many companies, WeMo included, are adding internet connectivity or Remote Access to the mix, allowing you to access your bulbs and switches online, meaning if you forget to turn off a light, or the heater, you can do it from the office, or from the resort in Mexico.

Other WeMo Products
While I didn’t test these below, it’s worth mentioning some other neat peripherals in the WeMo lineup.  The Crock-Pot® Smart Slow Cooker with WeMo™ works with the app to adjust cook settings. WeMo says, “if you’re stuck at work or running late, you don’t have to worry. You can turn it on and off, change the cooking temperature, set timers and watch its status all with the simple, intuitive and free WeMo App for your smartphone or tablet. WeMo works over Wi-Fi and 3G/4G, so you can easily adjust your dinner schedule whenever you like, from wherever you are.”
The Belkin NetCam works with the WeMo collection of products so you can program home automation triggers like turning on your lights when you walk through the door.  WeMo is also adding to its home automation arsenal, announcing partnerships with OSRAM, the parent company of OSRAM SYLVANIA, and Jarden Corporation, maker of
Crock-Pot®, Mr. Coffee® and more, to bring home automation to more  products.

WeMo also makes a wifi-enabled Light Switch.  The company says it ‘allows you to turn lights on and off from anywhere–from across the house, from the backyard, or from the other side of the world. WeMo Light Switch replaces a standard light switch in your home and can be controlled remotely with an Android smartphone or tablet, iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. It works with your existing Wi-Fi® network and anywhere your smartphone or tablet has an Internet connection (3G or 4G LTE). Easy for most Do It Yourselfers.”

The Bottom LineIMG_1915
I thoroughly enjoyed the Belkin WeMo experience and I recommend it to others who may be looking to get started on home automation.  The system is easy to use and trouble free once it’s up and running.  Make sure to set up via the “Add WeMo Link Device” screen, and not the “WeMo Set Up Instructions”.  I’ll be watching to see when WeMo adds coloured light bulbs to its arsenal, as I’ve gotten addicted to those of late. And I’m interested to try the other products in the lineup too to see just how useful they are.
It’s worth noting that the prices I posted for these products above are recommended retail, but at the time of posting this (mid-February), there was a good deal on the devices on the Belkin website that may give you extra incentive to pick some up.  In Canada, WeMo is also available from Future Shop.