Sunday, March 19, 2017

Intro to Smart Home Stuff

Last month I spent a few days at my dad’s house in Florida and was surprised by how much home automation he had in place. The front door would automatically lock after a couple minutes, the lights were on timers and the garage lights had motion sensors. I immediately felt like I was falling behind in the technology race with my own father. The good news for me was that most of his devices were programmable, but they couldn’t be controlled from another device like a phone or one of the “ladies in a cannister”. I knew once I got home it was time to start planning my first foray into the world of the “smart” home.

Since I am an Apple devotee I started by researching Apple HomeKit. It seems that support for HomeKit from various vendors has been very slow due to the hoops they have to jump through in order to get approved by Apple. On the surface this seems problematic, but I like to think the adoption is a bit slower because they have placed higher standards on the vendors to ensure a more secure smart home experience.

I also looked into Alexa because I knew it supported many more devices, but my impression was that there wasn’t a consistent platform for connecting devices. In some cases you have to use the Echo skills functionality for the specific device, and in other cases you have to leverage IFTTT to trigger devices. Apple on the other hand has created an additional layer on top of the individual device apps that helps give a consistent way of controlling all the different devices. Siri support helps provide a little more flexibility than you get with Alexa, as is outlined in this great article from CNET, Google Home vs Amazon Echo. It also seemed a safe bet was to get stuff that supported Apple HomeKit, because they would also support all the other platforms too.

Once I settled on HomeKit it was time to find a device to try out in my home. I started thinking about my daily routine and what parts of it would be made easier and bedtime stood out in my mind. After sitting in the living room each evening I usually shut a bunch of lights off downstairs, upstairs I switch on the light to the room so I can turn on my bedside light and then go back out to switch the bedroom light off. I focused on this scenario and started researching online.

I went to the Apple Store page and searched through the HomeKit accessories to get an idea about what products were available. My bedside table lamp is from IKEA so it has the small E14 bulbs, so I had to find a “smart” outlet for that part of my plan. I settled on the iHome iSP5 because it was on sale from Amazon and was shaped so you could still plug other stuff in above or below it. For the downstairs lights I went with a Hue Starter Kit because they were the most well known brand available right now. I went with this particular starter kit, because it included a remote switch so you didn’t need a device to turn on the lights.

The Hue Starter kit was the first thing I received so I quickly unboxed them and replaced the two “dumb” bulbs in the recessed light over the fireplace with the new bulbs. I plugged the Hue Hub into my router and downloaded the Hue app. The setup in the app was pretty easy and was happy to see that signing up for a Hue account was optional. Next I went to the app store to download the Home app because I had removed it from my iPhone. The home app set up was easy, I created a room and was able to group the two lights together so they would be controlled as a single accessory. Controlling the lights from the control center was great and the ability to dim them by using a 3D touch was a neat feature. The Home app was able to dim the bulbs, but unlike the Hue app I wasn’t able to change the shade of white for the bulbs. I am not sure if the API just doesn’t support this yet or if Philips just hasn’t implemented it. Sounds like a software thing so it can easily be corrected.

The last thing to set up was Family Sharing, which started out pretty well. I quickly added my wife and kids to our home and they received the notifications. At some point I received a notification that I needed to set up either an iPad or Apple TV in order to access HomeKit from outside of our home network. I followed the directions for setting it up on the Apple TV, but wasn’t able to see the correct setting show up. On my iPhone I looked for the Home setting that appears on the iPad and couldn’t find it so I tried logging out of iCloud and then logging back in, which caused meant my Photo library had to get reconciled. In the end there isn’t a Home setting on the iPhone and eventually my Home setup propagated to the Apple TV.

I am stilling waiting on the iHome plug, but in the meantime I have been able to play around with Scenes and set it up so I can say “Good Night” to Siri and the lights would turn off. It is taking a bit of getting used to, but so far I haven’t received any complaints from my family about not being able to use the regular switch.

To be continued…

Hue has three different types of standard “shaped” bulbs: Hue White, Hue White Ambiance, and Hue White and Color Ambience. Hue White, the cheapest of the bunch, costs about $15 each, and only supports a single shade of white. The Hue White Ambiance costs about $30 each and supports over 50 thousands shades of white. The Hue White and Color Ambience, costs about $50 each and supports 16 million colors.

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