Category Archives: Uncategorized

Smart Lights, Outlets and Thermostats

It seems like the electrical industry is trying to catch up with the electronic industry.

Technologies like those mentioned in my last two articles (Logitech Harmony and Google Home) are part of the slow movement toward home automation. I says “slow” because home automation has been a catchphrase for decades … a technology that seems perpetually “on the horizon”.

Now that we have smartphones, smart TVs, smart speakers, smart thermostats, and other smart devices, the next step is smart lights, outlets, and thermostats. Oh, they’re out there now, but their price will have to reduce substantially to make them affordable enough to entice you to replace their “dumb” equivalents.

With smart lights, you currently have a couple of choices:

  • you can get smart light systems that includes a “bridge” that wirelessly connects each smart bulb to your home network
  • you can get smart light switches/dimmers that replace your existing switches/dimmers and wirelessly connect to your home network

With smart outlets, you simply plug a wifi-enabled outlet into an existing outlet and join it to your home network.

The going price for smart light switches is around $50/switch, and smart outlets are around $40/outlet. Philips has a smart light system called “Hue” that needs their bridge, but you can control up to 50 of their smart lights with that one bridge. Their starter kits (that start at $70) come with a bridge and 2 or 3 smart bulbs. Philips Hue lights have the added bonus of colour and dimming control.

The beauty of smart lights/outlets is: you can control them locally or remotely using a smartphone app, you can control them by voice by using Google Home, or you can program them to go on/off on a timer to make it appear that you are home. Some will even monitor the amount of power you are using with connected devices.

With smart thermostats, you can put one in place of an existing thermostat and connect it to your wifi. From that point, you can wirelessly/verbally perform the functions you would manually, including adjusting scheduled temperature changes. These devices are still in the $220-$320 range.

“OK Google, submit article.”

Smart Speakers

We live in a Star Trek world.

  • Early flip-phones looked surprisingly like Star Trek communicators
  • Virtual Reality is here (future article) … with similarities to Star Trek’s Holodeck
  • China reportedly teleported (“beamed up”) particles 500km into space earlier this year
  • And now, we can speak to “smart speakers” the way they speak to the computer in Star Trek

For a while now, you have been able to ask Google or Siri questions verbally on your computer/tablet/smartphone and get verbal responses. A few manufacturers have now put that technology into standalone devices that require only power and a wifi Internet connection.

Think about it. Instead of typing your question into a device and reading the response, you can speak it and get a verbal response! So far, there are a lot (but limited) number of questions that these devices can respond to, but something they do very well is offer verbal control of music. Both their hearing and their fidelity are very good … they can even “cast” to connected audio/video systems!

The only smart speaker product currently available in Canada is the $179 “Google Home”. (Amazon has similar products, but they’re not available in Canada yet. Apple plans to release the HomePod in US/UK/Australia in December, and the rest of the world in 2018.)

I have been playing with the Google Home for a few weeks now, and I like the functionality … even at this early stage. This doesn’t seem to be a ploy to sell more products and services, although the Google Play Music service ($9.99/month) does integrate nicely.

How these smart speaker products tie into my recent series of articles is that these devices can theoretically control other smart devices in your home. (I say “theoretically”, because this feature unfortunately isn’t available in Canada yet.) With a Logitech Harmony remote, you can ask Google to “turn on the TV”. With a ChromeCast, you can ask Google to “play my kitchen playlist on the kitchen speakers”. With certain lights, thermostats, or door locks/openers, you can ask Google to turn them on/of, up/down, lock/unlock.

But even without any other smart devices, you can ask Google to turn the music up/down/off, ask it to remember/recall something (like calendar entries), ask it facts, and even play trivia games with it.

Beam me up, Scotty!

Next day update: As of this week, Google Home can make phone calls to/from USA and Canada.

Harmony

The next few articles will keep on the general topic of multimedia and home automation because it is such a fast-changing area. This article will focus on the Logitech Harmony line of universal remotes.

There are few devices that compare with the Logitech Harmony. Introduced in 2004, one of these remotes can replace a handful of remotes on your coffee table, and even simplify the process by grouping multi-step operations into just a few simple activities like “watch TV” or “listen to iTunes”.

The biggest drawback of the early versions, especially for the longer sets of instructions, is that you had to keep the remote pointed at your devices when controlling them … failing to do so could result in only some of your instructions being received.

Logitech’s solution for that has been their hub: a small puck that stays within reach of the devices you wish to control. The hub also gave rise to the Harmony App, from which you can control the hub with your phone or tablet instead of (or as well as) a dedicated remote … effectively giving you multi-room control of your devices.

Logitech wasn’t content with controlling just your audio/video equipment, so now you can use one to control your home-automation devices such as lights, garage doors, door locks, and thermostats. To accomplish this, they have added Bluetooth and Wifi control to their basic Infrared controllers.

You can learn more at www.myharmony.com/en-ca/

A future article will introduce the “smart speaker” … a device that will (among other things) allow you to control the hub with voice commands.

So cool.

Cutting the TV cord – Part 2

Since writing last month’s article about cutting the TV cord, I have come up with two more technologies that may make your choice even easier. These are not new technologies, but you may not have heard of them yet.

The first is over-the-air (OTA) programming. This is not the old “rabbit-ears” analog TV that they stopped broadcasting in 2012 … this is the free digital OTA television mandated by our own CRTC. All you need to pick up the signal is an OTA receiver ($10 and up), and maybe an antenna … with no ongoing fees.

If you want to read more about OTA, simply google “digital OTA TV“.

The second technology has been around for over 10 years, but is even more applicable today than it was back then. Slingbox was the first device I saw that could rebroadcast your TV signal so that you could watch on a device in another room, or in another country, with no extra fees.

And, there are devices that combine those two technologies … allowing you to receive free digital HD OTA TV and rebroadcast to your phone, tablet, laptop, desktop, SmartTV, etc. Two such devices, from a company called SiliconDust, are the HDHomeRun Connect (~$150) and HDHomeRun Extend (~$230). These two products each have two tuners, so you can watch or record two different programs at the same time. The Extend model simply has a better “compression engine” so the resulting video can run smoother. Also note that the newest SiliconDust model, HDHomeRun Prime (~$230) does not do OTA.

With an antenna, you have a chance of picking up more of the channels broadcast from your local broadcaster (43 emanate from our local Mount Seymour). With a computer or a NAS, you can record shows to watch later. QNAP (mentioned in previous articles) just announced support for these devices for recording and playback, which prompted this article.

With an HDHomeRun Extend and $35 antenna now in stock, I can report that setup is quick and easy. Viewing streaming TV from any device on your home network is also very slick. Recording can be done for free with a bit of effort, or for a fee (US$35/year) quite easily. I have not yet determined how to view from outside of your home network, but that should also be possible.

Unfortunately, you can only receive a few channels in our area (Southern Vancouver Island): 5 with an antenna, 10 with a $30 “booster” antenna, and potentially more with a very expensive antenna. The selection is limited, but if want free “local” TV or you like shows from the 60s-80s, then this OTA technology may be a good option for you.

Cutting the TV cord – Part 1

Most of us are tired of TV. Tired of its high cost. Tired of its limited selection. Tired of commercials. Tired of having to buy “packages” of channels to get the one or two we want.

So we have come up with the term “cut the TV cord” to refer to the ending our cable TV service altogether. The author of this article cut the TV cord, more than 10 years ago, with no ill effects: I have always felt current on news and entertainment options, with a high degree of control, and little effort.

Now, with the incredible Internet speeds available and the plethora of media service and device options, it is even easier to cut the TV cord. Most of us enjoy 15Mbps-or-more download speed, which is enough to have one or two high-definition video streams running. Many of us subscribe to Netflix or similar services where we can choose from hundreds of shows and movies.

And the selection of devices keeps growing: computers, smartphones, tablets, smart-TVs, and media players can all link into today’s TV alternatives. You can choose to stream to your small screen, or “cast” to a larger screen … or enjoy directly on your smart-TV or connected media player.

Most of these devices follow the “app” approach to media. You want access a particular media source? Download the app and connect to their service. Some services are free, while some are paid. The selection varies depending on the device you are on, but the general approach is the same as your smartphone or tablet.

Most game consoles can also act as a media player, but not all of us are into games or the cost of these consoles. Smart-TVs have some nice features, but have a hard time keeping up with the rapid changes of the industry and the demands of ever-improving apps. This is where a media player can fit in: it can make your dumb-TV, or not-so-smart-TV, into a real performer for (roughly) $40 – $240.

One media player that stands out for me is the Minix Neo U9-H. Release in Feb2017, it is currently the one to beat for price/performance. It comes in a few configurations depending if you want no remote (i.e. control it with your phone), simple wireless remote, or one of a few fancy wireless keyboard remotes.

Shapes and Sizes

 

Personal computers come in wide variety of shapes and sizes. What started as a choice of one—the desktop—has become a broad spectrum that includes “stick” computers, NUCs, ultrabooks, 2-in-1s, and all-in-ones. This article will outline some of those choices, and point out some their strengths and weaknesses.

In the early 80s, IBM and Apple each came out with their ideas of the desktop computer. Even today, with all our other electronics, the idea of a non-portable computer isn’t dead. It is true that many of the functions of a desktop PC are now done by portable devices or purpose-built devices, but for some, there is still a place for the power and expandability of a desktop computer, in their many different forms. I’ll get back to desktops later in this article.

Shortly after the introduction of the desktop came portable computers, the earliest of which I like to call “arm-stretching luggable” (I still have mine from 1983). As technology advanced, these became laptops: portable computing power complete with screen, keyboard, and pointing device. These devices tended to have less computing power, and fewer choices for expanding … but they made up for it in their portability. Today, the power and price of laptops make them a strong contender against most desktops. Ultrabooks are simply fast laptops without the extra bulk of a CD/DVD drive.

Over the years, many attempts were made in the area of “tablet” computers, but it took a while to develop the screen and computing technologies required to achieve this goal. Initially, we were satisfied with the PDA, or Personal Data Assistant, but fast forward 30 years and we now have incredible power at our fingertips. A true tablet has no physical keyboard, so many of today’s tablets are actually “2-in-one”s … a tablet with touchscreen when “undocked” from the keyboard, but a laptop when you have a keyboard attached. This is currently the most popular computer form-factor.

Back in 1984, Apple transitioned to an all-in-one desktop design—called the Macintosh—that merged the desktop with the monitor. We now have the iMac, and many Windows all-in-one computers. The advantage of this design is “fewer cables” at the expense of upgradeability: generally speaking, it is more difficult to upgrade all-in-ones, and there is more to throw away as parts die or become obsolete.

Which brings us back to the desktop. They come in many shapes and sizes themselves. The smallest is called the computer-on-a-stick, or stick computer, that simply plugs into USB for power and HDMI for audio/video … they are hugely underpowered, but have their place in some cases. Next, in terms of size, is the NUC (which stands for Next Unit of Computing) … these can be very powerful, even game-worthy, so there’s a good chance this could be your next desktop computer. Then there are the SFF (Small Form Factor) desktops … these can often have issues around cooling and lack of standards, so beware.

Which brings us back to the good old desktop. Not dead. Only fading away.

How to recognize a scam

Scams have been around since the dawn of time … yes you millennials, even before computers! But computers, and the Internet, due to their complexity and universality, have given scammers huge opportunities to swindle us. And, I am sad to say, they have taken these opportunities and made them into big business.

I will identify some of the approaches that scammers are taking, and say how to recognize a scam.

We can encounter scams via email (spam), web ads (side-bars and popups), malware, cold calls, and support-centres-gone-rogue.

The hardest spam scams to identify are those that appear to be from legitimate sources. Watch out for typos, poor spelling/grammar, incredulous claims/offers, suspicious links, suspicious attachments, and combinations of the above. I got an email (actually 3) from CRA today that passed all the tests, except for the attachment: it had a Word document with active content that I was not about to enable. Suspicious links point to websites not reflected by the link text. Suspicious attachments are file types like ZIP, EXE (executable), JS (JavaScript), or DOC/DOCX (Word). Just opening files of these types can run malicious code on your computer.

Be wary of any phone call or popup that suggests your computer is infected with malware. You should only trust your antivirus (know its name!), or your local technician, to report infections. Do NOT call the number listed on the scam window … ignore the content of that window and either close it (End Task or Force Quit), or reboot to see if it reappears.

I feel I need to explain, again, that there are phone call scams—where they call you—and SCGR (support centers gone rogue) scams—where you called them but they aren’t who they purport to be. Please, please, please … Unless you are getting specific support for a specific issue from a known remote source, do not hand control of your computer over to someone you don’t know!

Please pass this on to your friends, neighbours, and relatives so we can reduce the proliferation of these scams.

Tracking your progress

There are many reasons, and several ways, to track your running or walking progress.

I suppose you could track your runs/walks with pen and paper. You could write date, time, distance on a calendar or in a ledger book. I’m not sure why you would, but you could.

Of all the new technologies we have seen in the past 20 or so years, GPS, or Global Positioning System, is one of the really cool ones. The US government put those 30-or-so satellites up there for their own use, but has made the system freely available to anyone with a GPS receiver. (Interesting fact: Did you know they can selectively turn it off?)

Our civilian use is accurate within a few meters, and helps us to navigate our streets, trails, and oceans. All you need is a GPS receiver with an unobstructed line of sight to four or more satellites for the system to triangulate your position.

Did you also know there is also a Russian system, called Global Navigation Satellite System, or GLONASS, that is also accessible? GPS receivers that combine these two systems have more satellites to choose from, which results in getting a quicker position fix.

There are purpose-built GPSes for marine navigation, street navigation, and trail navigation … but most casual users just use the one in our smartphones. That GPS, combined with any navigation app, can track your car trips, boat excursions, runs, walks, bikes, hikes, just about anywhere.

There are reasons to get purpose-built GPSes. Some are more rugged and more waterproof that your phone, like this one. Some have a larger antenna, like this one. Some are smaller and easier to use on the move, like this one. Some use the GLONASS satellites, like this one. Some have longer battery life, like this one. It is important to note that most purpose-built GPSes are more accurate than the one on your phone.

One question you may have is: Does GPS use data on my phone? The answer is: It depends on the app, and sometimes, how you use it. My wife and I travelled all over New Zealand in November, and I tracked most of it using a free app on an old phone without a cell plan. We had wifi on the bus we were on, so it just collected data and posted it when it had access to wifi. Incidentally, I paid about $3 for the app (GreenAlp Real-Time GPS Tracker) to store that data for 30 days so my family could track us, AND so I could download it all when I got home. IF you use an app like Google Maps, it will use quite a bit of data to load the maps as you move.

As I have mentioned, you can use your phone, or a purpose-built device like this or this, to collect your tracks. A track is a set of times and positions that are stored in a file. Your GPS will collect a position and time-stamp it every so many seconds, or every time you change direction or speed. In order to make the data these devices collect into information that we can use, you need an app or a service that will present it in a useful form.

Most purpose-built devices have their own apps and services that work well with their devices. Garmin, for example, has apps for loading maps onto the device, transferring the collected data to a computer or web-based service, displaying the data on a map, displaying the data in graphs, sharing the data online, and stuff like that.

Phones have a huge assortment of apps for doing the same sorts of things. Just look in the App Store for your iPhone, or Google Play for your Android phone, and you will find hundreds of apps. A few of the most popular ones are MapMyRun, RunKeeper, and Strava. These are great tools for storing, viewing, and analyzing your tracks to see just how far, fast, or high you went. The bonus with these apps are the social and competitive aspects: you can connect with others, see what they are doing, and even compete with them.

Here’s where I can tell you about my watch: Garmin VivoActive HR. I think this is currently the best watch out there, and here are my 10 reasons why:

  1. It is affordable. Some watches are $600 or more, but this one is currently around $300, although on Boxing Day sales last month, they were selling it for $199!
  2. It isn’t huge!
  3. It is waterproof to 50m!
  4. Its battery lasts me all week!
  5. It can track more than a dozen sports! (Ask me later “which sports?”)
  6. It has a heartrate sensor, step counter, stair counter, sleep recorder, and silent alarm!
  7. It can connect to my phone to show me calls, emails, texts, weather, and start/stop music!
  8. It can connect to a Garmin camera to tell it to take pictures or start/stop video!
  9. There are apps available to customize what it can do!
  10. It is really easy to use!

How easy?! Here’s how easy:

I’m going for a run. I press this button to see the list of sports. I press “Run”. I wait a few seconds for the GPS to connect. I press “Go”. While I run, I can view my distance/time/pace, swipe to view lap distance/time/pace, swipe again to view heart rate/HR zone/HR Avg, and swipe again to go back. I usually just leave it on the basic distance/time/pace. When I stop, I press “Stop”. At that point, I can choose to save or delete (or continue). I can review the track right then, or not. The next time I am within 10m of my phone, and my phone is online, it will upload my tracks to my free Garmin account, and I have set it up to also send it to my free Strava account.

That easy!

I have made my Strava account public. Anyone can see the routes I have tracked. If you are interested to see, maybe not what I have done, but what Strava can do … check out the post I put up on the SL TC10K Clinic page a week ago … it shows every run we did during the clinic last year.

Here’s another feature of GPS tracking that you may not have thought of or known about. If you want, you can download someone else’s tracks and follow them yourself. (Fact: the standard format for tracks is called GPX.) I have done this to go on a set of trails I’m not very familiar with: download someone else’s tracks and follow them. There are even sites setup specifically for this, like WikiLoc.com

What the world needs is a good GPX editor. I’m sure they’re out there, but I haven’t found the one for me yet. What do you do when you forgot to start your GPS? You’ll want to add some points! What do you do when you forgot to stop your GPS? You’ll want to lop off some points! What do you do when your GPS lost signal or went off-course. You’ll want to edit those points. All doable, it just needs to be easier than it is now.

When I find time, I go to my Garmin or Strava account to bask in my stats. I like to see the routes I have collected, and what’s near them for next time. I like to see the elevations and speeds I have reached. I like to see the total time I have been active, and the kilometers I have put on my shoes or bikes (yes, you can track your equipment too). I like to see what others are doing when they are active, or see who else is tracking their activities nearby.

Here’s a question you may have about technology like this: Does it motivate you to walk or run more? The answer is: For some of us, DEFINITELY!

Jeff has enjoyed running for more than 20 years, but hasn’t missed a TC10K for the past 20 years. He also does a half-marathon or two every year. He has been helping with this clinic for the past 7 years. He is often seen running around this area with his wife, Kate, and/or his dog, Tiggin. He owns and operates his own local business called Teky Technical Services.

Email Clients

In my previous article, I described the different ways of accessing your email: via browser, email app, or email relay.

You can depend on your email provider for all your email needs and just use their web interface to send/receive email. Alternatively, you can use an email client to hold a local copy of those emails and contacts and let you read/write emails “offline”. There are advantages both ways, and it’s important to know how to go both ways should one method fail you. This article simply describes some of your email client options for different platforms.

In the Windows world, there are many choices for email clients … here are six:

  1. All Windows versions, except Windows 7, came with email clients … and some were good
  2. Microsoft also offers Outlook (paid) and offered Windows Live Mail (free, but now retired)
  3. Qualcomm Eudora used to be a solid choice, but was deprecated in 2013
  4. Mozilla Thunderbird (org/thunderbird) has always been, and still is, a solid choice … and, by far, my personal favourite
  5. eM Client (com) and OE Classic (oeclassic.com) have both free and paid versions, and are reasonable choices for those who miss the old Outlook Express

All these email clients for Windows are free, except as noted.

In the Mac world, people mostly use the built-in Mac Mail. You can install Thunderbird or others, but most people just don’t.

In the iOS world, most people use the built-in iOS Mail, although there is a Gmail app and a few others available in the App Store.

In the Android world, there are built-in mail tools and dozens of alternatives in the Google Play Store.

In the Linux world, there’s Thunderbird, Evolution, Sylpheed, KMail, Geary, Claws, and others.

There are two email servers I would also like to mention: one that runs under Windows is called MailStore (see mailstore.com), and one that runs on some QNAP NASes, called QmailAgent (see http://www.qnap.com/solution/qmailagent/). Both products act as a relay, or secondary, mail server … giving you secondary storage and alternative access to the email coming from your email provider. This is useful for businesses that rely heavily on their email, and are concerned about the dependability, accessibility, capacity, or security of their primary email provider.

Email

This month, I’m going to focus on the different ways to get your email.

Your email provider receives email on your behalf and you have two basic choices for how to view it: via app or via browser.

App: email apps (also called email clients) exist in Windows, OS X, Android, iOS, and Linux. They go by names like Outlook, Thunderbird, and Mail. At a minimum, they need to be configured with your email address, email password, and email server name, but sometimes you also need to know protocol (described below), encryption, and port numbers. They are easy to use once they are set up.

Browser: you can receive your email via any browser, as long as you know your email address, password, and webmail address. There is basically no setup, but it can be a bit more cumbersome to use.

A third approach is emerging for those who depend heavily on their email: configure a NAS or server to get your email, then use an app or browser to view it from there or directly from your provider. This way you have a consistent backup of all your email history, and multiple ways to view and organize it.

The common incoming email protocols are POP, IMAP, and Exchange. POP is pretty simple: it downloads email to your computer and optionally deletes it from the server after a given time (immediately, or delayed). IMAP and Exchange are a bit more complex because they leave all email on the server and just synchronize the local copy with it (which is handy if you are getting your email on multiple devices).

Check with your email provider to see which protocols they support, their server names/settings, AND how much email storage they offer. In many cases, you can combine these different approaches … it’s always good to know more than one way to do anything technical.

In my next article, I will list some email clients and a couple of email server approaches.