They can make our lives easier and more fun. That’s why I love finding cool new apps. Check out these five picks that I’ve downloaded to my phone this month.
Cool apps to check out
Cool apps – Steller Stories
This really cool storybook/storytelling app lets you create multi-page visual stories using photos or video. With customizable layouts, different page formats and the ability to add text, you can easily create beautiful online ‘books’ inside the app.
Surf the Steller feed to take in other peoples posts on everything from fashion, to photography, travel, food and more. Once you find a story you like, click into it to swipe through the virtual pages and read short captions.
Warning, it’s a beautiful rabbit hole and heading down it means you’ll no doubt get sucked in and want to stay awhile. It’s like Instagram only with more depth, more curation and lovelier presentation.
Apple mail users rejoice! Get more tools and smarter functions with Spark. Spark lets you group email together in your inbox; unread mail, newsletters (if you want) plus you can search better, and remind yourself about an email that needs a response. Tired of having that email stare you in the face in your inbox? If you can’t finish a task you can swipe your email to snooze for tomorrow or another day, and even adjust Snooze times to your liking, such as “This Weekend” and “Next Month” if you wish.
Use one email account or load them all. Spark works with Gmail, Exchange, Yahoo, iCloud, Outlook or any other IMAP email server without worrying. The nice tidy interface keep things easy to look at and well organized. There’s also a Mac desktop version too.
A reader recommended this neat animated weather app to me. The pretty graphics change constantly depending on the weather in your area. You’ll get the day forecast, plus medium and longer term outlooks in a more interesting format.
You can swipe across the graphics to see the weather changes over time.
Sometimes sitting next to people on planes or public transit is enough to drive you nuts. The loud talking, kids fussing, or just noisy chewing… that’s when I break out a pair of headphones and the relax Sounds App. Loaded with soothing presets for sounds like Traffic, Tibetan Bowl, Wind Chimes, White Noise, Birds, Rain and Ocean there’s something that will please everyone. The nice photographs that accompany each sound effect make using the app a pleasing experience too. There’s even some novelty sound effects like Darth Vader and Tribal Drums if pounding beats or heavy breathing are what you need to thrum you into a zen state.
One other aspect that works for me; I can leave the app and the sounds continue playing, unlike other relax apps where you lose audio if you switch apps.
Look for the download in the app store or on Google Play. or get more info here.
Cool apps – Blur Background + Blur Photo
These handy apps are two of the easiest blur tools I’ve found. Easily hide license plates, street numbers or personal information from photos and documents with a touch. Save and share photos instantly and for free afterwards. A must have for those who want to keep on top of internet privacy.
Get Blur Photo here on the app store, or Blur Background here.
Have you got an app you can’t live without? What app are you loving? Let me know in comments below.
Can BEDDI Glow smart alarm clock help me wake up better?
There are few sounds that irk me as much as the screech of my alarm clock. It goes off each day at 2:50am so I can snooze it a few times before I finally crawl bleary-eyed and groggy from my warm covers at 3:30 to head to work. Believe it or not, snoozing like that actually helps me feel like I got ‘extra sleep’. (Does anyone else do that?)
I’ve always hated the sound of ringing alarms. I use the radio sometimes, but I find it disconcerting to hear people talking in my room before I’m fully conscious and know what the hell is going on. It’s all the more unsettling when I realize the radio is tuned to Coast to Coast AM and they’re talking about a phenomenon of people waking up with the demonic Hat Man shadow-person standing over their beds. Shudder.
Better, more gentle wake up?
There has to be a better, more gentle way to wake up, and I think I may have found it.
I was recently sent a BEDDI Glow smart alarm clock for testing and review. BEDDI Glow allows you to wake with a simulated sunrise light, your own music, or FM radio. It’s also got a host of other neat features that makes it pretty handy.
As 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 Plus
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.
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
The 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 bulbs
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.”
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 Doorbellis 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.
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 herefor my how-to.
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.
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.
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
Most of us have heard of “smart” home technology, and most of us know that means many new appliances and products from dishwashers to light bulbs will have some degree of automation. While home automation is really handy, it’s limited by the software each manufacturer supplies with it. Maybe you don’t want your lights to just turn off and on, you want them to come on at a low level of brightness to gently wake the kids instead. Take it one step further; you want the lights to come on gently, and as they do, you want the coffee maker to turn on and start brewing your coffee, maybe even have the radio come on softly too. That’s where IFTTT technology comes in; it lets YOU decide exactly how your connected appliances, accessories and devices work by creating simple and easy to use shortcuts.
What is IFTTT?
The acronym stands for “IF This Then That”. Simply put it translates to, “IF I do This (your choice of activity), Then That (your selected result) happens automatically. IFTTT (pronounced to rhyme with ‘gift’) is actually a website where you go, create a free user account, and start automating your life. Still not sure what it can do? Let’s look at some examples of things it can do. One of IFTTT’s life fixes is, “IF it calls for rain, Then send me an email to let me know.”
Apps and services that work with IFTTT technology are called Channels in the IFTTT website. They range from social media apps like Facebook and Twitter, to your online email accounts like gmail, weather services, even YouTube, calendars and productivity helpers like Evernote. Not to mention WordPress (for blogging), Etsy (handmade marketplace), Fitbit and Jawbone fitness activity monitors, and Nest home automation thermostat all also support IFTTT.
How Does it Work?
Creating IF This Then That programs are called making “recipes”, and some other examples include, “If the temperature drops below zero, Then turn my Nest thermostat up 3 degrees,” “If there’s a flight deal (to a certain city), Then notify me on email,” and even, “If the pollen count is high, Then remind me to take allergy medicine,” and “If the current weather condition changes to rain, then change my Philips Hue light bulbs pastel blue.” The possibilities are literally endless, and while you can create your own custom recipes, you can browse and use the recipes others have made on the IFTTT website too. For a look at the full list of apps and services, or Channels that work with IFTTT, click here.
Recipes & Do Button
“Recipes” work automatically, but IFTTT also has another helper option called the “Do Button.” Downloading and using this app allows you one-touch access to tasks you perform every day, and those actions are only performed when you hit “do”.
A cheeky way to use “Do” it is to set up a quick button that will make your phone ring when you press it. Great for getting you out of boring meetings and awkward dates. You can also make and use a Do button to turn your Nest Learning Thermostat up or down instantly, or to turn all the connected lights in your house on at once. But you may be asking, ‘why bother, when I can already control my devices via the app on my phone or tablet’?
As Tech Crunch describes use of the “Do” functions, “the idea here is that, yes, you can already do all of this — but in individual apps. Now you can do it in one place, and even simplify that further by adding a Do Button widget into an Android home screen or into an iPhone Notification Center.”
How Can IFTTT Technology Work for You?
What if one single post to Facebook or Twitter could automate all across your various social media platforms? What if, instead of worrying about whether you left the curling iron, or space heater on, you could automatically kill that switch as soon as you drive out of the area? What if you had a better and more specific heads-up on the weather so you could remember to pack raincoats and umbrellas? What if, as you pull onto your street on a dark night, the lights in the house could come on? Well, in short, all of those things are possible using IFTTT, with the products and partners that support the software.
What Will IFTTT Do for Me?
IFTTT saves time & effort – you now no longer need to spend extra time duplicating social media content, for example. This is a huge time-saver for small businesses, who may want to access all their customers’ favourite platforms, without having to spend all day copy and pasting. You can also use it to automate yearly holiday posts and greetings across social media, meaning you don’t need to panic the day before Valentine’s Day, for example, if you haven’t already given clients notice of a special. Set up all the different holiday-related posts at once, across all platforms and never worry about it again. It can also save you time and effort, by saving you a return trip back home to check that curling iron.
It saves energy & money on bills – Leaving lights on all day, or appliances running, is an energy waster that does cost you cash each year. With IFTTT, you can automate light bulbs, switches, or power bars, and from there, the appliances that you plug into them (using a set up like the WeMo home automation system). Running appliances and lights only when you need them costs you less, and of course the longer your smart automation via IFTTT runs, the more you save. You can also use IFTTT to automate them to turn on or off when you enter or leave a geographic area, or even at sunrise or sunset in your local area (updated daily of course!)
It makes you more productive – IFTTT will allow you to do things like back up your contacts automatically, so that if you ever do lose your phone, tablet, laptop or device, you can easily have a secondary backup. (Especially handy if someone breaks in and steals both your phone and your computer!) The Android app for IFTTT also has some unique talents. Activate this channel and your Android phone will text anyone who leaves you a voicemail—and you can have the text tell them you don’t like checking your voicemail, and they should email or text you instead. No more wasted time slogging through those lengthy voicemail messages, “Ummm, hi. It’s, ummm, me. Ahhhhh, oh jeez, I forgot now why I was calling…”
It can save you money in other ways too – with recipes like “Alert for Free iTunes Tunes” or New Free MP3s on Amazon, or emails when flights are on sale. When things (nearly anything you may be interested in) get cheaper, you can have that news delivered directly to your inbox, Facebook messages, or via text.
What Products Work with IFTTT?
I’ve touched on some of the home products above, and how they work, but to reiterate, things like the Belkin WeMo system of light bulbs, and connected switches, including the energy-monitoring Insight switch all work with IFTTT. Just install them, get your IFTTT app and then download or make your recipes for automation. Using the WeMo motion detector, you can also set up a recipe that will text your neighbour to check on the house if the detectors are set off when you’re away.
Similarly Philips Hue colour-changing light bulbs can also be automated though IFTTT. With Philips, you can have your bulbs change colour, depending on a situation. Is it Valentines’ Day in your calendar? Have you Hue bulbs turn pink and red for your sweetie.
The Nest Learning Thermostatalso supports IFTTT and the “Do” button, allowing you to further automate an already great system.
Want updates on whether you’re hitting your fitness goals? Use IFTTT with your Fitbit or Jawbone activity monitors to send you a reminder to take a walk if you haven’t hit your step goal near the end of your day. You can even automate printing of photos or documents using HP Envy printers.
Figuring out IFTTT is as easy as downloading the free app, and then surfing the site to see what apps, appliances, and services it works with that you may already have. Check it out, and if you’re already using IFTTT to run your life, let me know what recipes are working for you!
This blog was originally published on the Future Shop Tech Blog, which has since merged with Best Buy. Click hereto read all the latest tech news on Best Buy’s Plug In blog.
Need your gadgets and devices to do more for you? I have a new trick that helps me keep ahead of bad weather; my smart light bulbs in my living room turn bright blue when snow is in the forecast for the following day. So how can you get this kind of personalized heads up, and not need to constantly keep checking your weather app?
You’ll need two things: a Wi-Fi enabled smart bulb with colour-change abilities, such as Philips Hue or LIFX, and an app called IFTTT.
The acronym stands for “IF This Then That”. Simply put it translates to, “IF I do This (your choice of activity), Then That (your selected result) happens automatically. IFTTT (pronounced to rhyme with ‘gift’) is actually a website where you go, create a free user account, and start automating your life.
One of the ways you automate things is by using or making “recipes”, such as “if the temperature drops below zero, Then turn my Nest thermostat up 3 degrees,” “If there’s a flight deal (to a certain city), Then notify me on email,” and even, “If the pollen count is high, Then remind me to take allergy medicine,” and “If the current weather condition changes to rain, then change my Philips Hue light bulbs pastel blue.” The possibilities are literally endless, and while you can create your own custom recipes, you can browse and use the recipes others have made on the IFTTT website too. For a look at the full list of apps and services, or Channels that work with IFTTT, click here. My IFTTT recipe: IF snow turn LIFX bulbs blue
I have some LIFX bulbs in a living room lamp, so I went to the IFTTT app and created a recipe that uses the local forecast in my area, to tell the bulbs to turn blue when snow is coming, and I also get an alert sent to my cell phone (click here to access my recipe). Now I get a super helpful 24 hour advance heads up about inclement weather. In the summer, I create a new recipe to warn me of rain. Another similar recipe on IFTTT will turn your LIFX bulb cyan and slowly blink them.
It’s worth getting to know IFTTT technology. It’s easy and fun to automate life’s tasks and get your devices working smarter.
There’s so much we can do to get our homes running smarter. There’s any number of products that will do things for you automatically, or examples where once inaccessible technology can now be yours at home. Everything from automating your lights, to remotely locking your doors, checking the weather on demand, or even testing your food for impurities… it’s all possible now inside your own home.
I recently had a chance to run tests in my home of several “smart” gadgets, and we showed them off on CTV Morning Live (watch HERE). Here’s a bit about each one, and some testing notes.
The Wink hub is kind of like a nerve centre of home automation. The hub connects to your home’s wifi, and drives the Wink app on your phone. The app then allows you to control any number of add-on devices. I did have some initial trouble getting the hub working, but Wink/Quirky was quick to replace what was likely a defective unit and I was up and running again quickly. Once the hub and app were in sync, I was quickly able to set up GE Link light bulbs, which allo you to use your phone to turn the lights on and off and to dim them. I tested the soft while light bulbs, which was great, but it would be even better if the LED bulbs had colour options like LIFX or Philips hue bulbs I’ve reviewed previously. That said, you can actually run Philips hue bulbs on the wink hub, but you do still need the Philips hub or starter kit, so it’s kind of redundant.
I also tested the Quirky Pivot Power bar along with the Wink hub. It’s a wifi-enabled power bar that allows you to turn some of the outlets on or off remotely. The Pivot also curls and pivots (hence the name!) and allows you to plug in large size plugs or transformers with ease.
The Wink system has been easy to use and program, and one of the only downsides is the large size of the hub. I also know some reviewers have had trouble with getting the system set up initially, as I did, but the Wink/Quirky customer service folks handled things very well.
By comparison to Wink, the WeMo hub is tiny; it fits in my palm. This was by far the easiest set up I’ve had lately; the hub conected instantly and without trouble. I set up WeMo light bulbs first and they too connected instantly. I did have some confusion setting up the add-ons like the WeMo Insight switch, but I figured out after a few minutes that the WeMo app actually has 2 screens that look like the set-up screen. I was using the wrong one. Once I figured that out, and got into the right one, the plugs connected easily. Once everything is connected, you can use the WeMo app to set timers for lights, or your heater, fan, you name it. I wake for work well before the sun is up, so being able to set the lights to slowly come on, or the fan to warm the room before I get out of bed is a treat. The WeMo system is available at Best Buy, Amazon.ca and Future Shop.
What’s a Personal environment monitor? The Lapka kit contains 4 sensors which measure radiation, electromagnetic fields, humidity and how organic your produce is. It connects to your iPhone and the Lapka app and displays its readings on your phone. I tested my home for radiation and electromagnetic fields, and it came up fine. I also used it to test some fruits in my pantry for the presence of nitrates (from fertilizer). My biggest beef with the Lapka is that there’s not a lot of information either in the package or online about what you’re testing for, or why. I felt like I needed an advanced degree to know what I was doing with the PEM.
I really love this product, both because it looks like the most futuristic humidifier you’ll ever see, and because it was easy to use, and ABSOLUTELY QUIET. I have a humidifier at home and it’s so noisy we need to keep it on the other side of the house from the bedroom. The Roolen is silent. It emits a cool mist that humidifies your home and in “automatic” or smart mode, it will automatically shut off when your home hits optimal humidity. Simple, easy and smart. A full tank will also last almost 18-24 hours, so it only needs filling once per day. You can get one in Canada on Amazon.ca
The Netatmo weather station is a neat idea for weather geeks. One of its brushed aluminum cylinders sits unobtrusively in the home, the other goes outside, and you access their info via an app on your phone. It measures temperature, of course, but also humidity, and noise levels indoors. it’s also equipped to send weather alerts to your phone, but I found they didn’t work in Canada. A neat idea for a gift if someone you know loves weather. Add-ons include alternate temperature sensors and a rain gauge. You can read my full review of the Netatmo on Future Shop’s Tech Blog or get one on their website.