Google Wi-Fi now in Canada – My review

google wifiOne of the biggest complaints about making our homes smarter is Wi-Fi. After all, if you’re streaming TV, running lights, connected appliances, tablets, smartphones, computers and a host of other accessories, your Wi-Fi is bound to get bogged down. Not to mention getting decent coverage across the whole house can be a challenge. Making Wi-Fi better has often involved getting a new router, buying signal boosters, or chasing a signal by moving around the house. Now a new technology called mesh Wi-Fi has come onto the market to help improve speed and coverage. The new Google Wi-Fi, launching today in Canada, utilizes mesh Wi-Fi to improve your coverage at home.

Google Wi-Fi launches today in Canada, but I got my hands on an advance test kit for a review.

What is Google WiFi?

google wifi router single router problem
A single router or modem-router unit is a problem

Google Wi-Fi is a ‘mesh’ Wi-Fi system. It connects to your home’s modem or modem-router unit (also called a ‘gateway’) and spreads your Wi-Fi signal across the home (or business). Mesh Wi-Fi creates multiple connection points so you don’t get dead spots.

Google writes, “a mesh network is a group of routers that communicate wirelessly to each other to create a single Wi-Fi network that provides a blanket of connectivity. This allows you to have multiple sources of powerful Wi-Fi throughout your home, instead of just a single router.”

How does Google Wi-Fi work?

google wifi blanket mesh
How mesh Wi-Fi works.

Google Wi-Fi is not just a signal booster; it’s a whole new Wi-Fi system that takes the signal from your home’s modem, and spreads it all over the house. It creates multiple connection points in the house so under-serviced areas like the basement, top floor or distant rooms can get as strong a Wi-Fi signal as you can being near the router/modem.

Google Wi-Fi plugs directly into your modem. (The modem is of course the device that brings the internet signal into the home; it’s often hard-wired in to a cable in the wall.)

Google Wifi plugs into modem
Google Wi-Fi connects to your modem (gateway)

Usually your modem is connected to a router, and the router is what allows your internet to become wireless. The trouble with a single router is that it can only cover so much and extend so far; traditionally user complaints have been that some rooms are dead zones, or that top floors and basements can’t get a strong enough signal.

Google Wi-Fi addresses that by creating a series of connection points all over the house, wherever you need them. You can have as many Google Wi-Fi points in the home as you need (up to 32 Google tells me!) and adding Google Wi-Fi eliminates the need for a router.

“The system is flexible and scalable, so if you have a larger home, connect as many points as needed to get better Wi-Fi in every room (a 3-pack covers up to 4,500 sq. ft), says Google on its website, “Wifi points connect wirelessly, so you don’t need to run Ethernet cables throughout your house.”

So what does it do?

Since Wi-Fi is broadcast from each Google Wi-Fi point (and not just that lonely router in the basement laundry room), and each point connects seamlessly to each other, Google Wifi provides more coverage over a wider space.

What do you need to use Google Wi-Fi?

For starters, you’ll need internet service from a provider. (For many of us, you’ll get your modem that will bring internet into the home from the outside, and your bill is paid to companies like Rogers, Shaw, Bell or Telus.) Google says its Wi-Fi is compatible with all service providers and virtually all modems. You’ll also need a smartphone, or tablet (Android or iOS) and the free Google Wi-Fi app.

Setting up Google Wi-Fi

google wifi kit canadaI was not looking forward to setting up the Wi-Fi. My experience getting things like routers set up in the past has been that it’s tedious, difficult, and often requires tech support.

I opened the box and right away marvelled at the small card with set up instructions; just plug one of the Wi-Fi points into your modem with the ethernet cable, then download the Google Wi-Fi app.

The app will ask you to identify which of the pods is tethered to the modem. (There are numbers on the back of each of the pods and that’s how you will identify them.) Once you tell it which one is plugged in you’ll scan a QR code on the back of the device (Google says this is for security and encryption to make sure the devices are yours and with you).

The next step is to name your network and assign it a password. To keep everything straight, give it a new name and password. There’s also a school of thought that says you should name the network the same as you previous network and give it the same password so that you can fool your smart home devices, for example, into not knowing you’ve switched networks on them. In theory this would save you from having to charge all those smart devices to a new network (which in some cases means resetting them and starting from scratch.) Does this work? I’ve only had the system a few days, so I’m not sure yet.  I’ll try it and update this blog shortly — if you’re dying to know, post a comment here or message me on Twitter @ErinLYYC.

google wifi appOk, back to set up… after connecting the first Wi-Fi point or pod, you will then connect the other two Wi-Fi pods using the same process: identify them by their number on the back then name them according to where you’ll be placing them.

After that, launch the app and do a connection test. While you’re at it you can check things like the speed and test how fast the connection to your phone, tablet or computer is.

It’s easy… so easy

I can’t say enough how simple this set-up process was. The app made it absolutely foolproof, and the whole set-up went smoothly with absolutely no snags.  I test a lot of gadgets and seamless easy set-up is one of the features I give high marks to. In this case, I have no doubt even a child could get this hooked up in minutes. There’s no IP addresses to worry about, no calls to the internet service provider and no confusing instructions. I had the whole network up and running in under 10 minutes; it took longer to go up and down stairs and plug them in than it did to set up.

How fast is Google Wi-Fi?

google wifi speedI tested our home’s Wi-Fi with the existing dual band modem-router unit. On the 2.4 ghz band we were getting 27 mbps. On the 5g network we get 60 mbps. After we installed the Google Wi-Fi units, the speed went up to 68 mbps overall. That’s fast enough to stream data-heavy 4K video without buffering.

Where to place your Google Wi-Fi pods

Only you will know where best to place your pods. They should probably go to high traffic areas where people are often using their devices, or to known dead spots in the home. If you live in a multi story house and have typically have trouble getting a signal on a floor far from the router, that’s a good place to start. Similarly if you have a room that has notoriously poor coverage, place one of the pods there. While the starter kit I received came with three Google Wi-Fi pods you can add as many as you like, up to a total of 32.

What can Google Wi-Fi do for me?

Smooth connectivity, at all times, no matter where you are
Google Wi-Fi has something built in called Network Assist. This invisible genius is always working to put your device on the closest Wi-Fi point and fastest connection, so you can move around at will and not drop the signal.

The assistant also is constantly working in the background to keep you on the least connected channel.  What does that mean? Wi-Fi travels in our neighbourhoods on shared channels, which can get crowded (for proof, just open your phone or device’s Wi-Fi settings and look at all your neighbours’ networks that are out there).  All those networks are sharing ‘channels’ or bands. Network Assist works to ensure your  Wi-Fi points are using the clearest channels to connect to one another, and to your devices. Whether you’re using the 2.4GHz band or the 5 GHz, Google Wifi automatically connects your device to the band that will be fastest based on your location.

Priority Device
The Priority Device setting allows you to prioritize Wi-Fi traffic to a specific phone, tablet, computer or device. This works great in a house with several family members where everyone is often online at once. By prioritizing mom or dad’s phone or laptop, the kids can keep using the Wi-Fi, but the majority of data will go to the person that really needs it. That way everyone’s devices aren’t slowing down or stalling.google wifi schedule kids stop internet turn off bedtime

Family Wi-Fi – schedule pauses for dinner, homework, sleep
Family Wi-Fi setting allows administrators of the account, most likely parents, to control exactly who gets Wi-Fi time and when. Using this setting, you can schedule pauses in Internet use during homework time, dinner hours, or at bedtime. There’s no fighting over devices, or negotiating “just 10 more minutes”. You schedule the Wi-Fi to shut down, and it shuts down.

This setting also allows you to select specific devices and alter the times of use for those devices; your younger child’s tablet can shut down at seven, while the older children can keep on surfing until nine.

All of the settings and features are very easily controlled and adjusted in the Google Wi-Fi app.

Multiple account managers
Another cool feature of Google Wi-Fi is the ability to have multiple managers of your network. While the original account needs to be set up by one person with a Gmail account, it’s easy to add another person as an administrator simply by typing their Gmail address into the app.

Out of home connection
You can access your Wi-Fi settings, make changes, and otherwise adjust configurations even if you are not inside the home. The Google Wi-Fi app works no matter where you are.As you’re connected to the internet, you can manage things at home, and see who’s online.

Help out without hopping in the car
Having an out of home connection also means that if you’re the one in the family who manages mom and dad’s internet network, granny’s connection, or you’re always on call to help the neighbour or your sister, you can manage and access all your settings and even troubleshoot those networks, all from your phone if you get those folks a Google Wi-Fi kit.

Guest Wi-Figoogle wifi 3 home internet wifi faster
Another way to keep your home secure, is to enable the guest Wi-Fi feature. This allows you to create a separate network for guests, with its own password. This means that when kids have friends come over, or if you’re throwing a party, you can grant people Wi-Fi access without revealing the password to your private home network.

Is Google spying on me? – Security & Privacy

Been much written about Google and how much data the company has on each of us. Not surprisingly it raises the question for many potential customers about whether giving Google full access to your Wi-Fi, not just the Google search site, is opening the door for even more info to end up in the hands of a large corporation.

Google says it’s not getting any additional info from you by running your Wi-Fi.

“The information your Wifi points and the Google Wifi app collect helps us deliver the best Wi-Fi experience possible. Importantly, the Google Wifi app and your Wifi points do not track the websites you visit or collect the content of any traffic on your network. However, your Wifi points does collect data such as Wi-Fi channel, signal strength, and device types that are relevant to optimize your Wi-Fi performance.”

Read more on Google’s privacy policy here.

Overall Review – Google Wi-Fi

Overall I had a great experience with Google Wi-Fi. It improved my connection speeds, it was very easy to set up and manage and changing settings or adjusting the network for kids or guests was ultra easy. I’m still working with the kit and still learning more about it. If I find out more facts that should be shared, I’ll update the blog. Please post questions if you have them.

Google Wi-Fi sells for $439 for a 3-pack and additional pods are $179.

Fitbit Blaze Review

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The new Blaze (right) beside to well-worn Flex.

I’ve been a Fitbit owner ever since I bought my Flex. It’s been a staple for me, not so much because I’m a gym junkie, but because it sit at a desk for the vast majority of my day. I try to keep active and get in my 10,000 steps, and my Fitbit keeps track so that I can get in an extra walk, park at the back of the parking lot, or hit the gym when I get too sedentary.

I was excited to hear about the two new Fitbit models announced this year; the Alta and the Blaze, primarily because my Flex is starting to look a bit worse for wear, and because I feel like I’m ready for some new features. While I was instantly attracted to the Alta because of its slim profile and similarity to the Flex, I was a little less interested in the Blaze. It seemed big, bulky, dated-looking and boxy. Nonetheless I was willing to put it though its paces.

Getting started with Fitbit Blaze
To use the Blaze you’ll need the Fitbit App if you want to keep long-term stats. With the app downloaded, you pair the device to your phone.  While it took me a few tries to get it to connect to the phone, it was soon connected and ready to go.img_1456

The Blaze has an interesting configuration; it’s essentially two parts; the band (which is interchangeable, more on that below), and the tracker unit, a flat, square device just over an inch square and slightly thicker than an average watch.  The tracker pops out of the band to allow for changeover, and must be removed and placed inside a tiny box for  charging.

At first I thought this band would be heavy and bulky, but after less than an hour, I had already forgotten it was on my wrist. Really, it doesn’t feel any heavier or bigger than my original Fitbit Flex, despite the obvious size differences.

I also like that the tracker unit itself can be popped out of the band, and tucked into a sports bra, sock, or pocket. This was one of my favorite features of the Fitbit Flex; it allowed me to hide the tracker if I didn’t want to be wearing something obviously athletic and rubbery on my wrist for a nice night out or a formal event. While the accuracy of the device may not be as exact if it’s worn elsewhere since it’s been made to be worn on the wrist, in my experience it wasn’t off enough to throw my day out of whack. And besides, the better looking these devices get, the less likely we are to want to hide them anyway, right?

img_1454-1What Fitbit measures

Before we go too much further you may be wondering what a Fitbit will keep track of for you.

  • Sleep: both duration and quality
  • Steps, including number of steps and distance, and active minutes in your day
  • Activity: record activities from running to cycling
  • Weight: the app will chart your weight either manually, or automatically when paired with the Aria scale.
  • Calories: when paired with apps like MyFitnessPal, you can share food info and match it up to activity levels.
  • Water Intake: again, a manual input item but can help you keep track of if you’re drinking enough water
  • Floors Climbed
  • Heart Rate: Fitbit devices with heart rate monitoring will keep track of your resting and active heart rates.

Customizing your Blaze

Customizable watch faces are an option for the Blaze, but you can’t switch them up form the watch itself, like other bands. Instead you’ll need to do this though the app in ‘Account’ menu. Not intuitive but at least the feature is there. It takes about 15 seconds from the time you select a new watch face for it to update on the watchband.

By default your Fitbit Blaze adjusts brightness based on the ambient lighting conditions. You can change the default in the settings.

You can set the Blaze to light up when you turn your wrist towards your face. I found this feature didn’t work as well as I had hoped. If I was taking a casual look, sometimes it didn’t recognize the gesture. If I was more deliberate about turning my wrist over and pointing it at my face, then it seem to work. But it took about a second before the display would light up. My experience with this feature was hit or miss.

Who’s the Blaze for?

Fitbit wants you to be clear; the Blaze is not for an elite athlete. The Blaze is for an average consumer who wants to do basic monitoring of fitness statistics, sleep, and activities while not looking like a track star. The Blaze is fashion and fun, with a fitness core. Fitbit suggests the more seriously minded athletes pick up its Surge device instead.

Basic operation
Alerts
A great new added feature of the Blaze is its ability to deliver notifications and messages right to your wrist. While I very much enjoyed getting a subtle buzz on the wrist when a text message or calendar alert popped up, this feature does have limitations. While you can read incoming text messages, you cannot respond to them. (At least not using my iPhone.) similarly, you can accept incoming calls, but you must have your smart phone with you as well, or you won’t be able to talk. While this may seem very limiting, the price point of the Blaze is far less than Apple’s watch, so you’re getting what you pay for if messaging and conducting business from your wrist is something you’re after.

Menus
By pulling down across the watch face, you get a menu which will allow you to turn notifications on or off, as well as play music if it’s connected.
Swiping up gets you a list of recent notifications such as calls, text messages, calendar alerts and more. These alerts will stack up and stay in the watch until you clear them.

Swiping right to left across the band will give you a series of other menus:

“Today”: The today menu will show you your fitness stats; such as steps, heart rate, kilometres traveled, calories, and floors climbed. To return back to the menu list, you hit the back button on the watch band.

“Exercise”: this menu allows you to register different activities like workout, elliptical, treadmill,  weights, bike, and run. You tap the exercise you are about to take part in and the Blaze will connect to your smart phone’s app to register the activity. Push play on the watch face to begin logging the activity, then stop it when you’re done. While technically Fitbit already knows when you’re doing some kind of exercise, having this connection to the app allows you to keep watch in real time on your statistics, such as distance or time.  When enabled, the Blaze will also use GPS tracking to follow your route on a run or a bike ride for example.

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One of the FitStar exercises.

“FitStar”: FitStar is a series of guided exercises that the band will walk you through. You can do a warm-up, or a seven minute workout. The watch band shows you a visual example of each short exercise, and a timer counts you down through it.
While three workouts are included in your Blaze’s software, if you want more options, you’ll need to buy them from Fitbit for a $46 annual fee.

“Timer”:   This gives you access to a countdown or stopwatch function.

“Alarms”: Here you can turn silent alarms on or off. But adding or deleting them requires your phone and the app.

“Settings”: A very simplistic version of the settings menu, here you can turn the QuickView feature on or off, adjust brightness, turn heart rate monitoring on or off, as well as shut down the device.

Accuracy

As I’ve written about previously, I very much like Fitbit  and choose it as my preferred activity band, because I find it extraordinarily accurate.

I’ve tried numerous bands and compared them both with each other, and done testing to see if the band accurately matches my steps, strides, and activities. Part of this accuracy lies in the ability to calibrate the Fitbit to your unique stride length, which is key for accurate tracking. (For more on how to adjust your stride length with Fitbit click here.)
No surprise then that the Blaze was just as accurate as my old standby Fitbit Flex.

Styling Options for Fitbit Blaze

With the Blaze, you have several options for wristbands. You can stick with a more traditional athletic wristband (“Classic”) which is made of rubber attached to the metal watch bezel, or there are also leather options in brown, grey or black. These bands will cost you about $140 and that’s on top of what you’re paying for the tracker. A gorgeous metal link watch band will set you back nearly $180. So while there are stylish options for making your band look less like a fitness accessory, and more fashion forward, they are not cheap.

Overall Review of Fitbit Blaze

One of the things I like most about my Fitbit Flex, is that it’s very subtle and still contains all the major tracking features I want. The Blaze is a whole different type of gadget for me, because it’s much larger, and more like a wristwatch then I’ve been used to wearing. But since this activity band also features heart rate monitoring as well as time display, it’s natural this device would look more like a watch them like a traditional activity tracker. It is bigger than I’m used to, but as I noted earlier despite its size and boxy shape, I quickly forgot I was wearing it, and didn’t feel that it got in my way or was overly noticeable.

I enjoyed the additional features, and definitely found myself checking in on my heart rate through the day. Having a built-in watch was a great feature, as is the notifications option. It was nice to get a subtle buzz on my wrist when I had a text message or alert.

In short, while I didn’t think I would be interested in this band as my go to activity device, I found myself liking it more and more the more I tried it. I could definitely see adopting the Blaze in my future.

Fitbit Blaze is available at Best Buy and London Drugs for $249. You can also get it from Fitbit’s website, or find more info there.

In the next couple weeks I’ll be reviewing the new Fitbit Alta too, so check back for more info soon. Already a Fitbit Fan? Check out my Fitbit Apps you’ll LOVE.

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Charging your Fitbit Blaze

 

Going to CES!! (What the Heck is CES?)

img_8990It’s big and exciting news for me: I’m heading for the giant Consumer Electronics Show (CES) January 6-9, 2016 in Las Vegas, but some readers may be wondering, “what the heck is CES, and why should I care that you get to go to Vegas?”

Well, to put it simply, CES is a global consumer electronics and consumer technology trade show that takes place every January in Las Vegas, Nevada.

According to the Consumer Electronics Association itself, “the show is  the world’s gathering place for all who thrive on the business of consumer technologies… it has served as the proving ground for innovators and breakthrough technologies for more than 40 years—the global stage where next-generation innovations are introduced to the marketplace.”

CES is where tech companies, innovators and manufacturers — both multinationals and startups — come to get attention for their products and services. That attention may be from larger companies, retailers or even the media, depending what their strategy is.

The show unfolds at several locations across the strip, including the Convention Centre and several hotels.  There are booths set up at these locations, often with products and gadgets set up to test and try.  This is where electronics buyers can get hands-on with a product to see if it delivers on promises.  But one of the other main draws of CES is that it’s become a launch pad for new innovations, new designs and big announcements, meaning that by attending, you can really get on the cutting edge of what’s new and what’ll be trending in the future.

While an enormous volume of meetings takes place on the show floor, there are plenty of meetings going on too off-site. Many companies are opting to book a suite at a nearby hotel and do their behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing there instead.  Probably lots cheaper!

This is my first time ever at CES, and I have little idea of what to expect.  So wish me luck and watch for posts in particular on the Best Buy Plug In blog on the subject of TV and Home Theatre. But if there are questions you have or burning issues you want me to investigate at CES, feel free to post a comment below.

Follow my CES posts too on Twitter and Instagram, both are @ErinLYYC

 

What’s Meerkat? Why do you need it?

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By now you’ve at least heard of Meerkat and possibly wondered what everyone was so excited about.

In short, Meerkat is an app that gives you the ability to send live video to the world via Twitter. It’s like opening the curtains of your home and showing the whole neighbourhood what’s happening in your living room and your life. You’ve been warned.

Why would I want to do that?

Concerts, meetings and forums, or major public events, like parades and celebrations are all examples of things you can share via Meerkat.  Is it someone’s birthday, but some key family can’t be there?  Meerkat lets them take part and watch the festivities in real time. (Granted, so can anyone else who follows you on Twitter, so take note!)  Big car crash on the highway?  You (if you’re the passenger, of course) can Meerkat that crash to your feed and who other drivers what they’re in for, and give them a real time look at the traffic backup.  The possibilities are endless, and will probably also include tweens Meerkatting what they’re having for breakfast.

The original meerkat.
The original meerkat.

Amazingly this app is picking up serious steam, despite the fact it was only launched in February 2015.  Famously, Jimmy Fallon ‘Meerkast’ a rehearsal, and numerous public figures have used it to do live interviews with media. It’s unique in that once the stream ends, it’s over.  The stream ceases to exist, and that’ not unlike another app darling, Snapchat.  Something to keep in mind is that your cell phone bill may skyrocket using Meerkat.  Transmitting large amounts of video data over a cell network isn’t without its costs. In a recent Mashable article, the company said, “Streaming video from Meerkat uses about 4 megabytes of data per minute, while watching a stream uses 2.3 megabytes per minute.”

The Rules of Meerkat

Yes, Meerkat has rules.  Here they are according to the company’s website:

  • Everything that happens on meerkat happens on Twitter.
  • Streams will be pushed to followers in real time via push notifications.
  • People can only watch it live. No reruns.
  • Watchers can re-stream any stream to their followers in real time.
  • Scheduled streams will be distributed in the community by their subscribers.
  • Your own streams can be kept locally on your phone, but never on the cloud.
  • Everyone can watch on web.
  • Be kind.

The response to Meerkat has been amazing in the month since it started getting attention worldwide after making a big splash at the South by Southwest tech conference also known as SXSW. Yes, it’s getting major hype, but some are already expressing frustration with how it works.  It’s all too easy to click on your pal’s tweet of a Meerkast, only to find it’s already ended; a constant complaint. There are also complaints about the quality level of audio and video.  But inevitably, Meerkat will grow, improve and probably find ways to alleviate users complaints.  It’s going to be interesting to see where Meerkat goes in its next month of life, and beyond!

 

Would this house be big enough for you? Secret building project revealed

Would this house be big enough for you?

 

big-house-6 WMErin Lawrence, CTV Calgary
Published Wednesday, May 28, 2014 3:24PM MDT
Last Updated Wednesday, May 28, 2014 3:28PM MDT

It looks like a new hotel along a highway but this can’t-miss construction project turning heads just west of Calgary Alberta is a huge single-family home.

It’s been under construction for months on Highway 22, just north of the Highway 8 roundabout, and it’s so large that neighbours and people on social media can’t stop talking about it.

According to property records obtained by CTV Calgary, the two-storey home, set on 80 acres, will be 11,000-square-feet when it is complete.