A Smarter Crib

Over the last couple of years my home has slowly been getting smarter. It started in the fall of 2014 when Amazon provided an offer to Prime subscribers to buy the Echo at a discount. At that time Echo was really just a voice activated speaker for music from Amazon.

Philips Hue

During 2015 Amazon added features to Echo, and most significant being the ability to control Hue lights. Philips had been selling the wireless light bulbs for some time, but the ability to control them by voice was the incentive for me to buy a starter kit including a hub and two white light bulbs.

I installed the light bulbs in lamps in our basement, which is where I had the Echo, set up the hub, and then configured the interface between Alexa and my Hue account. Soon, I was able to say “Alexa, turn on basement lights” and “Alexa dim basement lights by 25%”. My home, or at least my basement, became a little smarter and the Echo became a little more useful.

Over the course of the year I bought one Hue color light and one more white light, put the color light in the basement and placed one white light in the living room and another in the bedroom. I also bought a dimmer switch from Philips to control and dim the bedroom light.

I found a If This Then That applet (back then they were called recipes) to automatically turn on the living and bed room lights at sunset and configured the Hue hub to turn the lights off at specific times each night. Now my house had become smarter.

In the spring of 2016 we had flooding in the finished basement of our home that was caused by the fact that our sump pumps failed during a huge rain storm. After significant repair and remodeling of the basement I set out to find a sensor that I could place in the sump pump to provide an early warning if the pit was filling up.

After some research, I found a moisture sensor from Lowes that had a cord long enough to go down the pit by as much as a couple feet. The sensor connects to a base that has batteries and the wireless radio so that it can communicate with devices on our home network.

SmartThings

Unfortunately, while the Hue hub supports the same protocol, it does not support the moisture sensor so I bought the SmartThings hub. Here in lies one of the not-so-smart things about the current state of the “Internet of Things” that make homes smart, there is incompatibility between products, which mean that you may end up with two or more hubs. Worse, most of these hubs require a wired connection to a network, which means that you will need enough network ports on your home WiFi access point.

You will find on SmartThings’ web site that you can use the SmartThings app to control Hue light bulbs, but to do so you must have the Hue hub/bridge. The SmartThings app talks to its hub, which in turn talks to the Hue hub to send commands to the light bulbs. You can replace the Hue app with the SmartThings app, but not the hub. Echo and Google Home are both capable of controlling SmartThings as well as Hue.

Many more devices are capable of working with the SmartThings hub than Hue. Over time I bought a motion sensor, which I placed in the basement to automatically turn on one of the Hue lights whenever I enter. I have a presence sensor in our car, which sends me a notification when the car enters the range for the sensor to connect to our WiFi network. If the car returns late at night, the SmartThings hub will turn on the living room light.

Fairly inexpensive sensors are available to place on doors and windows, making for an inexpensive home security system. You can buy sirens that will go off if you have “armed” the system and motion is detected on any of these sensors.

Logitech Harmony

A happy consequence of the flood in our basement was the purchase of a new Samsung TV, which also led to the purchase of a Yamaha soundbar, and of course there is also the Comcast HD set top box, all of which have their own remote controls. I bought a Logitech Harmony hub and remote control to consolidate all of the different remotes of our home entertainment system, and the Harmony hub also interfaces with SmartThings.

The interface between Harmony and SmartThings enables me to control the TV and lights with the Harmony remote and Echo and Google Home. For example, I have a movie mode configured on the remote that turns on the TV, starts Netflix, turns on the Hue lights and dims them to 50%. The same function is accessible to Echo, so I can say “Alexa, tell Harmony to turn on movies.” I’ve also been able to configure the Harmony app with the Comcast’s channel listings, which Echo can access and with that I can say “Alexa, turn on ESPN” and the TV turns on, changes channel to ESPN, and then the Hue lights are turned on. If I wanted, I could configure the motion sensor to trigger this action, but my wife thinks that is taking the home automation a step too far. For some reason, she doesn’t want the TV turned on to ESPN whenever she walks in the basement!

As I noted in my article about Google Home, with Chromecast you can use Home to access specific movies or shows on Netflix. To do the same thing with Alexa you need to add a Fire TV stick to your television. If you have Chromecast then it may be worth considering Google Home, but you can get by spending much less money with a Dot and Fire TV stick.

Each of the individual items that I have described are pretty inexpensive. At $179 the Echo is the most expensive, but you can now buy a Dot for $50 and for the same amount as an Echo put a Dot in each floor or major room in your house. In fact, I did add a Dot in the living room and connected it to our Bose Bluetooth speaker to stream music from Spotify. The Dot has access to all of the functions I have configured in Alexa over the last couple of years.

Earl Gray, Hot!

To be honest, very little of the home automation that I have set up is really necessary, except for the moisture sensor in the sump pump. What I have is based on components that I bought over a couple of years, mostly just to try out. My smart home set up does make my inner geek happy, and that kicked up a notch when Amazon enabled “computer” as a wake word for Echo. It now feels as though I am on Star Trek when I am in the basement, all I need is a replicator!

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Google In Da House

In preparation for a podcast that I will participate in this weekend, I am thinking about my experience with Google Home.

I am early adopter of the Amazon Echo, which I use to control my Hue lights, SmartThings, and Harmony Hub. We have an Echo in my home office (the basement), and a Dot in our living room.

Google Home does not have much that is better than Echo, which isn’t too surprising given Amazon’s year+ lead over Google. Home excels in Internet search, as you would expect, so it is a bit better for finding general information.

Another way that Home is better than Echo is its ability to control Google Chromecast. First, Home automatically finds Chromecast devices on your home network, whereas you need to explicitly set up other home automation devices like Hue and SmartThings.

Once you get Home connected on your network, you can say things like, “Ok Google, show pictures on basement TV” and Home will start a slideshow of your Google Photos on the Chromecast called basement TV. You do need to have the Chromecast running on a TV before seeing the pictures, Home will not turn on your TV unless you have it integrated with other home automation devices.

The speaker built-in to Google Home is slightly better than the one in Echo, but both are pretty good. Neither are as good as the Yamaha soundbar I have connected to my Samsung TV, so I enjoy telling Google to play my favorite music on my Basement TV Chromecast, which of course sends audio to the soundbar.

I have Google Home and Echo connected to my Spotify account. Of course Echo plays music from Amazon Prime as well as any music that you own and associated to your account. Google Home also plays music from Google Play, where I happen to have uploaded all of my personal music that I ripped from CDs over the years.

Home also is integrated with Netflix, so you can say “Hey Google, play Supergirl on basement TV” and it will start streaming via Chromecast to your TV. I can configure Echo to turn on Netflix via the Harmony hub, but I cannot direct it to a specific show, although I can tell Harmony to turn on specific cable TV channels via Harmony.

Alexa, which is the brains behind Echo, has a ton of skills that add add functions, ranging from the silly, like telling jokes, to requesting an Uber. Amazon has a pretty good developer network and seems to be releasing new skills for Alexa every week.

Home has services that add functions, but only a few are currently available. Most services are basically a form of a web search but there are services like Uber, Todoist, and Kayak that provide specific functions.

Echo and Home both work with If This Then That, so you can use them to trigger applets that work with other smart home devices or web services. I am surprised that there is no real integration between Android and Google Home, but you can add it with Tasker and AutoVoice, which are automation tools for Android.

Google Assistant is the brains behind Home in the same way that Alexa is the brains of the Echo and Dot. Assistant is also available on the Google Pixel phones, while Google Now is a similar, but not the same, assistant on all other Android devices.

Google Home ought to be able to recognize Android devices just like it does Chromecast, and likewise Android should know about Home. Here is a an example of where the lack of integration causes a problem.

I have Google Now configured on my Nexus 6 P to wake up whenever I say “Ok Google” even while I have the phone turned off.  When I am in my basement and say “Ok Google” both Home and my phone acknowledge the wake word. The phone should recognize there is a Home nearby and defer to it, just as it does with Android Wear, but it does not.

Even more maddening is the integration with Keep, Google’s notetaking and list making app. Home/Google Assistant creates a item in Keep called Google Assistant shopping list, and you call say “Ok Google, add milk to shopping list” and Home will add milk to that shopping list note.

Say “Ok Google, add bread to shopping list” to your Android phone and it will add bread as an item to another entry in Keep called Shopping List, which means you end up with two shopping list areas in Google Keep, one controlled by Assistant/Home and the other controlled by Google Now. How hard would it be for Assistant to add items to the Shopping List entry that Google Now uses?

Oh, and by the way, Echo also has a shopping list that is of course directly connected to Amazon so Alexa can automatically order stuff on that list, where as the Google’s shopping list is more traditional.

The duplicate shopping list scenario is the type of thing we see with first generation products like Google Home. I expect Google Home to get much better as Google improves Assistant, which I think will ultimately replace the Google Search web page. In the mean time we will have to wait and see whether Google Home will surpass Amazon Echo.

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What I Use: Tablets

What I Use:
– HTC Nexus 9
– Microsoft Surface 3
– Apple iPad Mini 4

Tablets are the most maligned category of personal computers, it seems you either love or hate them. I am in the love camp, and I use one or more tablets every day. Right now I am writing this article using my Surface 3, which is a 2-in-1 that I consider a tablet rather than a notebook computer. In my bag is a iPad Mini 4 and at home I have a Nexus 9. Each of these tablets run different operating systems (Windows 10, iOS, and Android) and have different screen sizes (10.1″, 7.9″, and 8.9″) and are used for different purposes.

first-htc-nexus-9-camera-samples-pop-up-125x125The Nexus 9 is my oldest tablet, I bought it in November, 2014, and at the time it was Google’s flagship “Nexus” tablet. In my opinion screen size dictates how you will use a tablet, and I think the Nexus 9’s 8.9″ screen strikes a good balance between holding in one hand to read and connecting to a keyboard to write. For a while the Nexus 9 was my only tablet, and I wrote a good number of blog posts using the Folio keyboard.

The fact that the Nexus 9 is my oldest tablet says something about Android tablets. Google did not produce a new tablet in 2016, the Pixel C remains the flagship Android tablet and it was announced in September 2015. I recall being put off by the price of the Pixel C, which still costs $499, while I only paid $278 for the Nexus 9 by using some credit card reward points on Amazon. I believe the retail price was $400.

CNet includes the Pixel C in their list of best tablets of 2016, even though it is a year old. Fact is, even though it has some quirks, the Nexus 9 is still a good tablet and it runs Android 7.1.1, which is the latest version of Android. Soon Google will stop providing Android updates to the Nexus 9, at which point I will have to decide whether I need another Android tablet.

One tablet-related development from Google during 2016 is that it has made it possible for Android apps to run natively on Chrome OS, which means you can now run full apps on a Chrome OS device and that newer Chrome OS notebooks will have touch screens. I expect more Chrome OS devices, capable of running Android apps will come to market during 2017, the real question is whether Google will launch a Pixel Chrome OS tablet or notebook. It’s possible that Google replaces the Pixel C with a Chrome OS-based 2-in-1 or convertible during the year and abandons stand alone tablets. Keep an eye on the price of the Pixel C during the spring, if it is to be replaced Google will likely start discounting current units before announcing a replacement.

120px-surface_pro_3_kickstandI bought the Surface 3 in the spring of 2015 to be my prime work tablet, mostly for its 10.1″ screen and the ability to handwrite notes in OneNote. During the day I use the Surface in portrait as my notepad during meetings, and all of my notes in OneNote synchronize with my corporate Office365 account. While I expected the Surface 3 to be a great tool for work, and it definitely has been that, I did not expect to use it as much for leisure as I have, mostly because of its kickstand.

The Surface 3’s built-in kickstand puts the tablet in three viewing angles, which makes it really useful for watching videos. I’ve watched many baseball games with the MLB At Bat app on the Surface 3, along with my favorite TWiT netcasts. I find Windows 10 works really well on a tablet oriented in landscape, and frankly if Microsoft had produced this tablet instead of the Windows RT tablets back in 2012, Windows 8 might have not been as much a failure as it became.

Microsoft no longer sells the Surface 3, although HP, Acer, and Asus all sell equivalent 2-in-1 tablets. The model of Surface 3 I bought has 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage, and I expect that it will continue running Windows 10 for a while. Even if Microsoft never released an update of Windows 10 that worked on the Surface 3 again, I think it would still be useful to me as it currently exists. Some people have complained that the Surface 3 is too slow, particularly in accessing local storage. I think the Surface 3 runs fast enough for me, which may be due to having 4 GB of RAM and that I mostly just use OneNote, I don’t need it to run Photoshop.

81px-ipad_mini_3_goldThis summer I bought the iPad Mini 4 after I realized that the 3rd generation iPad I own will not run iOS 10 and I needed a device running iOS 10 for work. I found a refurbished Mini 4 with 64 GB of storage on Gazelle for $325 and I’ve been really happy with the purchase. I am not a fan of iOS because I like the multitasking and sharing features of Android, and I dislike the grid of icons that iOS still uses for its home screens. Moving icons around in iOS is the absolute worst user experience of any mobile device.

Despite my dislike for iOS, I have to admit that the iPads are the most elegant hardware designs, and I have found the Mini’s thinness and 7.9″ screen perfect for reading. In the evenings while I am watching TV I usually have the Mini in hand to check Twitter, Facebook, review my RSS feeds, reading web content in Pocket, or eBooks using the Kindle app. I also have to admit that apps in iOS tend to have a little more polish that equivalent apps in Android, although I really dislike app developers who force their apps to landscape. Users should always, always, have control over the screen orientation on a tablet.

While small, the iPad Mini 4 is still too large for me to carry everywhere, my Nexus 6P remains always by my side as my most important personal computer. And though the 6-inch screen is big enough for reading eBooks, I still prefer the near 8″ screen size that makes it as comfortable to read as a paperback book. When I see tablets out in the wild, they are mostly smaller tablets, either from Apple, Samsung, or Amazon.

By now, you most likely have noticed a theme throughout this article, which is that with tablets, screen size really matters. Three years ago the focus seemed to be on 7-inch size tablets, so much so that Apple seemed compelled to release the iPad Mini. Now, it seems to be the focused has shifted to larger screens due to Microsoft’s success with the Surface Pro, which has a 12-inch screen, and that Apple again followed by releasing the iPad Pro.

Not only did Apple validate Microsoft’s 2-in-1 approach by providing a keyboard for the Pro and featuring the landscape-and-keyboard form factor prominently in ads, but it also provides a stylus/Pencil for handwriting on the screen. Back when Steve Jobs first introduced the iPad, and hence launched the tablets that we now know, he emphasized that for many, the iPad could be a sufficient replacement for notebook and desktop personal computers, and the iPad Pro seems to make that statement finally come true.

As I previously stated, I really like the 2-in-1 form factor but I am not entirely sold on tablets with screens larger than ten inches. If I had a 12-inch tablet, I am sure I would mostly use it as for my notebook computing use cases, but continue to use a smaller size device for my tablet computing use cases. Still, I think during the upcoming year new tablets will mostly fall in the 2-in-1 category, with lower tier companies continuing to provide smaller tablets at lower prices.

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Why I Like The Surface 3

Microsoft Surface 3

I regularly use two tablets, a Nexus 9 and a Surface 3 and I also own an iPad 3. We use the iPad primarily for watching streaming video, and the Nexus 9 is my primary reading and couch surfing device.

I’ve owned the original iPad, a Nexus 7 and an HTC tablet, so I have used tablets for a long time. Of all the tablets that I have used, the Surface 3 has been the most useful.

The Surface 3 is flexible enough to meet a wide variety of use cases because it runs Windows 10 and a vast amount of desktop software. Consequently, the Surface 3 is valuable for both work and play.

Because it runs Windows 10, I can connect the Surface 3 to my company’s email server and use Outlook. While I can also connect iPads and Android tablets to the same servers, you must use apps other than the version of Outlook that I regularly use.  I can use it to access corporate intranet sites via a VPN and desktop web browsers.

My main use case for the Surface 3 is taking notes in OneNote using the Surface Pen. The Surface’s ten inch screen makes it nearly as large as a sheet of paper, so I find it very comfortable for writing.

I like writing notes by hand, and studies show that handwriting helps to retain information. By using OneNote I don’t have to carry a bunch of paper, and I can quickly search for notes due to OneNote’s ability to index digital ink.

One way the Surface 3 has been optimized for taking notes is that clicking the button at the top of the Surface Pen, like you would a ballpoint pen, launches OneNote. The process mimics how you would pick up a pad of paper and click a pen to write. Double-clicking the Surface Pen button captures a screenshot and saves it in OneNote to annotate.

If you own a Surface 3 I recommend buying the new Surface Pen because the new tips make for a very smooth writing experience.

I think that Edge may be the best desktop web browser simply because it is really fast and renders pages beautifully. When I research information on the web, I can annotate a web page in digital ink and save a copy of that page in OneNote.

The 10.52″ x 7.36″ x 0.34″ dimensions of the Surface 3 make it the perfect size for a productivity tablet. In my opinion 12 inches is too large for tablets because they are hard to use while just being held in your hands. You are not going to comfortably carry an iPad Pro or Surface Pro in ways that you can carry a Surface or iPad.

While I expected to like the size of the Surface 3, I didn’t expect to find its built-in kickstand to be so useful. I prefer watching video on the Surface 3 rather than my iPad simply because I can stand it up in a good viewing position. I use the MLB At Bat, WatchESPN, and Netflix Windows Store (tablet) apps on the Surface 3.

Other Windows Store apps that I use regularly are Mail and Calendar, which come with Windows 10, MyRadar, and the MSN Apps: News, Money, Sports, and Weather. The Surface 3 came with an Office 365 subscription and full versions of Outlook, Word, Excel, and Powerpoint 2016, but I prefer using the Word and Excel mobile apps with their simpler UI.

As I wrote earlier, I am a heavy OneNote user, and because of that I use the Surface 3 as a tablet more than in “notebook” mode. I did buy the Type Cover, but if you walked by my desk you are likely to find the cover disconnected from the Surface 3 more than not.

The Type Cover is, in fact, the source of my main problem with the Surface 3. For some reason Windows 10 seems to forget that the cover exists. Some times I see USB errors, other times the keyboard just will not work. I am sure there is a Windows 10 driver issue, ironic given the problem is Microsoft hardware working with Microsoft software. The solution is to restart the tablet, which is quick enough to tolerate.

I occasionally have a similar issue with the Surface Pen; I will try writing on the tablet and nothing happens, the pen contact with the screen is not registered. Usually this problem is fixed by unscrewing the cap to disconnect the battery from the pen, which effectively resets the pen. Fortunately pen recognition issues happen much less frequently than the Type Cover issue.

At the time Microsoft released the Surface Pro 3, their were rumors that Microsoft was going to release a Surface Mini that had a seven inch screen. Reports are that Satya Nadella cancelled the release of the Surface Mini on the belief it would not sell.

The Surface 3 may not literally be the Surface Mini, but for all practical purposes it is, and I think the 10.5 inch screen provides for more functionality than a seven inch screen would.

Given that the Surface 3 is now a year old, speculation will be whether Microsoft will release a Surface 4 and if they do what changes it may make. I imagine a Surface 4 could have a faster CPU, more memory, more storage, be thinner and lighter, but frankly, while all these would we welcome improvements I don’t find them necessary.

In my opinion, the single biggest thing Microsoft could do to increase sales, beyond more marketing, is to lower the price so that one could buy the Surface 3, keyboard, and pen for no more than the $499 price they charge just for the tablet. Competing products from HP and Dell have such all-in one pricing, and frankly, if it had existed at the time I bought the Surface 3, I likely would have bought the HP Spectre X2.

Bottom line, after a year of ownership, I am very happy with the Surface 3 and it continues to be important part of my personal productivity toolkit. If you are looking for tablet to increase your productivity, I recommend you consider the 2-in-1s like the Surface 3.

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Personal Computing

Personal computing is browsing the web, playing music, watching movies, playing games, reading email, writing email, and creating documents. In short, it is everythingdo for which a computer is the tool for getting done.

Smartphones, tablets, notebook computers, and desktop computers are all devices that I can use for personal computing; they all are personal computers.

Smartphones are about portability and have displays that are 6 inches or smaller. My smartphone is my most personal computer, I take it everywhere and it contains, or has access to, the information most important to me that I always need.

Tablets are about flexibility, and have displays that are between 7 and 12 inches. I could carry my tablet with me almost everywhere and it fits easily in my Waterfield Indie bag. Tablet displays are larger than smartphones so I can view more information, and small enough to be held and used while sitting or standing. Like a smartphone, a tablet can be used while only being held in your hands and does not require a surface.

Notebook and desktop computers are about large displays and inputting a high volume of text. Both require a surface to hold the device in order for it to be used. Between the two, I am unsure why one would buy a desktop rather than a notebook when the price is the same. Gaming is a niche that requires the highest performing desktop and notebook computers.

A person who needs to always type a lot of text, use large displays, or play games will not realize the value in the flexibility of tablets and therefore will see no value in them. Such people will point out that ultra-thin notebooks are as portable as tablets.

A person who values flexibility may prefer a tablet over a notebook computer. If they wish to, one can connect a keyboard to a tablet to input text in a growing number of adequate word processors. Many tablets can also be attached to large displays.

People who can afford to may own one or more of these devices, using each as a situation requires. At a minimum, almost everyone has a smartphone and adds to that additional devices as their budget allows.

Ten years ago everyone would start with a desktop or notebook computer and then add a smartphone, but today the order of priority has flipped, which is the big change in personal computing during this past decade. Consequently, authors of content and applications seeking the largest market for their work will target smartphones.

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