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Make your home smarter

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This post was originally published December 1, 2015 by the Southwest Journal.

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Hello, Southwest Journal readers! Gadget Guy here.

These days, smartphones are virtually ubiquitous. People across a wide range of age groups depend upon their smartphones for communication, entertainment, education, navigation, and more! But there’s also a new “smart” solution that’s emerging with greater popularity — the “smart home.”

Smart homes, or smart home devices, allow people to automate and control home functions such as lighting, heating, and electronic devices remotely from your smartphone or computer.

Some smart homes can be incredibly advanced with “intelligent” feedback systems. For instance, a smart home’s fridge could inventory contents and order additional items as food is used up. But there are also a lot of small steps that you can take to make your home more connected to your environment and, therefore, smarter. Here are smart home solutions that can give you greater control of home functions. Also, some of these examples can actually make your home safer as well.

— Connected thermostat: The Nest thermostat is a great example of a WiFi connected thermostat that can be controlled by a smartphone or computer. It is a learning device that will learn habits and patterns to create efficiencies in temperature and temp control. Nest and other connected thermostats can be connected to other safety, security and comfort and entertainment feature-enabled devices as well. These devices include door and garage sensors to know when you are arriving and leaving, automatic lighting, wearable devices that can tell your thermostat when you are waking up, and more.

— IP cams: IP cams can be used for security to simply keep an eye on your home, inside or out. However, they can also be great for those with kids and/or pets. With an IP cam, you can login from your connected device (smartphone, tablet, computer) and check in on what is happening when you are away, or just peek into different rooms in your home to see if your kids (or pets) are getting into trouble.

— Smart lights/bulbs: Smart lights can be as simple as a light bulb that is WiFi connected and plugs into an existing socket. With smart lights in your home, you can turn on lights when you are out of town or simply turn them on from a different room. You can set them to turn on or off at certain times and even to turn on as an alarm clock with a light bulb-enabled sunrise.

— Sensor lights: These are more commonly used for outdoor security lighting that is triggered with motion, but there are sensor lights that are designed to be installed indoors and can be used for safety to turn on lights as you enter the room or turn off lights when no one is present. These lights are great for kids and seniors to turn on room lights automatically.

— Floor lighting: Simple LED light strips can illuminate dark hallways for safer walking at night and can be added to either a simple timer switch, automatic brightness sensor, or other connected devices. This can make finding the bathroom for guests in the middle of the night a much quieter affair.

— Amazon Echo: This is Amazon’s new home “computer” for connecting with other devices and services through your home. Using voice commands, one can ask it questions, instruct it to play specific music, and add items to your shopping list and even do the shopping for you.

— Sonos and Chromecast Audio: With both of these devices, you can wirelessly send music anywhere in your home. Sonos has multiple wireless speakers available and Chromecast Audio connects to existing speakers. Both can make it easy for your music to follow you from room to room.

Some of the above are quite simple and some take a bit more time and effort, but they are each worth exploring. Minnesota Public Radio recently aired an NPR episode of All Tech Considered called “What Happens When Your Lights, Appliances Are Connected To The Internet.” One of the biggest issues raised on the program was around security; once all of your devices are connected to the Internet via your wireless router they can see what other devices on your network are doing and are susceptible to being hacked. This emphasizes the importance of having wireless security with an encrypted router and a strong password. The likelihood of you being hacked is pretty small, but the more connected devices you have, the more possibilities exist for weak security within one of your devices.

Another issue may arise if you want to connect all your devices together. In which case, you are working with disparate systems and they may not communicate with each other. It is getting easier with both Apple and Google coming out with kits to be the hub for your home, but there is no single, universal solution yet. And some devices work with only some hubs while others may work with another hub. Make sure and do your research before buying a bunch of separate devices simply hoping they will work together.

Please share with me some tricks you have used to make your home smarter at paul@gadgetguymn.com.


Paul Burnstein is a Tech Handyman. As the founder of Gadget Guy MN, Paul helps personal and business clients optimize their use of technology. He can be found through www.gadgetguymn.com or email him at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

home technology help

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Seniors and Tech

Senior and his tablet (tech)

A little over a decade ago, I received my master’s degree in gerontology and long-term care management and have worked as a gerontologist on the administrative side of independent and assisted living communities, in-home care, a national association for long-term and post-acute care (LTPAC) providers (on their aging services technologies side) and even as a product manager for a long-term care electronic health records vendor. From the very beginning I looked at how technology could improve the care provided to seniors. For the most part, I was involved in technology that was for the LTPAC providers to improve their care, but I have also enjoyed the ability to help seniors directly.

Often the technology I review is for Baby Boomers and seniors from the Silent Generation; I am a Gen Xer myself. There is a big difference in the general computer and tech use of Boomers compared to the Silent Generation. While Boomers may have not grown up with the technology as I did, even the oldest of their generation has had to use technology for work purposes and to keep up with their children. The Silent Generation on the other hand, has not had the same opportunities to utilize technology on a daily basis.

One of my major influencers to get into gerontology was a woman named Sylvia who was born in 1898(!). I believe she was 107 when she told me a story of how her great granddaughter had met her husband through the television (hmm?). I was trying to get more out of her as it didn’t quite make sense until I realized that she meant they had met over the Internet. The Internet was not something she understood, as even television had been invented within her lifetime.

Through Gadget Guy MN, I help seniors of any age learn some of the tools that can help “connect” them in the digital age. Tools like FaceTime, Google Hangouts, or Skype for video chatting with long-distance relatives. Facebook for keeping in touch with old friends and watching grandchildren grow up. Instagram and Pinterest to allow them to follow their interests and see photos of locations long remembered, but perhaps too far of a distance to travel to now. I have even helped someone looking for companionship set up her profile on a dating website…it isn’t for everyone, but if it is of interest, I want to help.

What I mention above are all social-connectedness technologies that are used for communication and can improve isolation. There are even computers and tablets that are specifically designed for seniors and those unfamiliar with technology. There are corded and mobile phones designed specifically for seniors with larger displays and buttons and even the current generation of smartphones have made it easier for seniors to use with their displays that are well over 5 inches. I was just speaking to a senior last week who had upgraded his older iPhone to the iPhone 6 Plus and he said he could now use email on the phone as it was much easier to type and read.

Additionally there are technologies that help seniors to live in their own homes and age in place, such as personal emergency response systems, various safety sensors, medication reminders and dispensers, and more. I will touch on these another time.

What technologies would you like to learn more about for a loved one? Let me know.

Thanks for stopping by!


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A Boomer’s Look at Yesteryear’s Technology

old technology

Hello Gadget Guy MN blog readers! Please allow me to introduce myself: I am Hannelore Burnstein, aka Mom to the Gadget Guy MN, Oma to my grandkids, just Hanne to my friends. OR, just go with all three at once: HanneOmaMom.

Paul, aka Gadget Guy MN, asked me to tell you a few things about myself that might resonate with some of you. First off, my birth year is 1946, which makes me someone from the very first year of the Boomer generation. As you can well imagine, my interest in technology is rather different than Paul’s.

Yes, both my husband and I were intrigued by the Texas Instruments (TI) computer that we got for free when we recarpeted our house in the late 70s. So, we even bought a little computer table to set it on and spent about two weeks trying to figure out how to program it using BASIC – then decided it was a useless contraption that quickly became a dust catcher in our family room. The next computer for our family was Paul’s Apple IIGS – I remember that when Paul asked if I wanted to see how it works, I immediately managed to wipe the entire hard drive, so we could not figure out why we were staring at a blank screen! The computer’s mouse presented a challenge all of its own – I simply lacked the coordination to use it. Being a lefty has never made it any easier for me to use a mouse!

Here is an example from about 20 years ago that will give you an idea of the fun our family had at my expense…

My son, Paul Burnstein, was about to turn 20 and was a student at the University of Southern California. He and my husband decided to have a little fun with our home computer. Little did I know, they added a command in Microsoft Word that automatically inserted the words “Cowboy Pete” whenever I typed “Peter.” And every time I typed Paul’s name, it was automatically replaced with “Boy Wonder.” I had no idea how to change it! And on top of it all, I was in the middle of writing holiday letters. Needless to say, holiday letters went out that year with mentions of “Cowboy Pete” instead of Peter, and “Boy Wonder” instead of Paul.

Speaking of gadgets, right about that time telephones were undergoing their own revolution. There were cordless phones (very convenient – no problems with those), pagers, and the first big, clunky cellular phones. Business answering services were replaced by electronic voicemail, which I resisted for a long time (why would I trust a machine to relay messages??). And Paul, aka Gadget Guy MN, loved being one of the first to own anything new. We did not object, as long as the gadgets were not abused (overused) and he paid for them himself. So he became the first in our family to own a pager, and eventually a mobile phone, also a so-called “black box” for TV, a much better sound system than ours, and the list goes on. It naturally followed that he became our “go to” guy for answers, repairs, and general enhancements.

I think I’ve rambled on enough! Let me know if there is anyone out there in cyberspace who wants to hear a “senior’s” experiences with technology… I’d be happy to oblige. ;>)

– HanneOmaMom

Image by Matt Jiggins via Flickr, licensed under CC BY


home technology help