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Smart as a doorbell

Doorbell

This post was originally published in the May 19, 2017 edition of the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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I recently had the opportunity to test out two products available from Verizon Wireless, among other locations: the Canary security system, a video camera with motion alerts, and the Ring Video Doorbell, which is a one-way video, two-way audio doorbell system.

Canary has been on my wish list for quite some time, so when Verizon Wireless offered for me to try it out, I was looking forward to it. I already have a couple of IP cameras (wirelessly connected cameras) in my house, but the Canary is a security device, not simply a camera.

The Canary requires Internet connection. It has the usual HD camera with night vision and a 147-degree viewing angle with three times digital zoom.

Where the Canary begins to differentiate itself from other cameras is the built-in, 90-decibel siren and that it also tracks temperature, humidity and air quality. I could not pull that information to my Amazon Echo, so it appears to simply be useful information to know.

The Canary of course has native apps for both iOS (Apple) and Android smartphones.

What does it do? When I talk about it, I talk about it as a security system, not a camera system.

When opening the app, it does not automatically open to a live view of what the camera sees but rather a home page listing the environmental settings (temperature, humidity, air quality) with options to view live or view your timeline.

The timeline is pretty cool. Canary is set up to chirp at you (via your smartphone) when there is activity or motion in front of it. Other IP cameras can do motion detection, but they generally require some setup to enable that functionality. It also records a snippet of video around that notification so you can view, via your timeline, the video associated with the activity the camera saw.

Canary is a learning system and is supposed to have the ability to learn your schedule and automatically adjust the mode to home or away, but I have to admit it never thought I was home, so every movement in front of the camera triggered a notification. I have read that pets can trigger motion detection as well.

I had set my settings for when I was home to be private and not record video or give me notifications, but again, this didn’t work as set up.

According to Canary: “When set to private, Canary’s camera, microphone, and motion detection capabilities are fully disabled. Only temperature, humidity, and air quality information are uploaded to the Canary Cloud.”

Without membership, you get 24 hours of recorded video. With membership, starting at $9.99 per month, you get 30 days of stored video and reimbursement of your homeowners or renters insurance deductible up to $1,000 in case of a burglary, plus an extended two-year warranty for your Canary.

Unlike the Canary, the Ring Video Doorbells is meant to be installed at your front door. Ring Video Doorbell had never really interested me in the past, but I wanted to at least test it out.

I was very impressed. It is the product that I didn’t know I wanted or needed.

What does a video doorbell do, you may ask?

When someone rings your doorbell, you are notified on your smartphone (Android and iOS) and have the option to view the ringer through the installed HD camera in the doorbell. It also provides two-way audio so you can ask them what they want if you don’t recognize them.

Mind you, you do not even need to be home to answer the ring. I could be out and my kids alone at home and the doorbell rings; I can answer it, send the ringer away and notify my kids via phone that they should not answer the door.

You can turn on motion detection and get a notification each time there is movement in front of your doorbell, and you can always look in live.

With a paid account of $3 per month, it provides the ability to have all of your alerted events recorded and viewable in a cloud account for up to 6 months, plus a one-year warranty. You can even download or share the events — useful if it recorded an activity outside your door that you’d like to share with police. The free account simply doesn’t record anything.

You need to spend an additional $30 for the Chime accessory if you want it to ring a sound in your home. It’s free if you just want the ring on your smartphone. However, it is fully compatible with the doorbell you may already have wired, and it can use that doorbell for inside notification.

One drawback that I found with Ring was that it needs charging, even when hardwired.

If it is hardwired to your existing doorbell chime, that will hopefully keep it charged. But there is the following message on Ring’s website: “Note: Depending on usage and temperature, the power from the doorbell wires may not be enough to keep your Ring charged, and the battery percentage may drop slightly over time.”

From the forum posts I read, it sounds like you will have to take it inside to charge every once in awhile. Ring provides a proprietary screw and driver so that it cannot simply be removed by anyone who wants to steal it.

Unless you don’t mind a lot of false-alarm beeps, I would hold off on the Canary for now. But give the Ring Video Doorbell a try. It provides a fun, new experience and added security to your front door entry.

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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 gadgetguymn.com or via email at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

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Troubleshooting home Wi-Fi

Wireless RouterThis post was originally published in the April 6, 2017 edition of the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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“My Wi-Fi doesn’t work.”

I hear this quite a bit. Wireless networks can be finicky and there are quite a few things to look at to ensure your network is working properly and to its fullest potential. Without getting into the deepest of technical details, the following are basic things to look at and correct when trying to improve your home wireless signal and coverage.

The first thing to do in troubleshooting is to connect a computer directly to your router via ethernet cable. This rules out that any connectivity issues you have are due to your internet service provider (ISP) such as US Internet, Comcast or CenturyLink. If you have a strong signal while connected via ethernet, then it is time to look at your router to see if you can fix the problem with the wireless signal that is being spread through your home.

Next, power cycle your router. Unplug the power cord, wait 10 seconds and then plug it back in, giving it time to get back up and running. This generally solves temporary problems, but will not fix any bigger problems or long-term issues.

If that doesn’t work, review the router’s placement. Routers can be placed under desks or behind other electronics like a TV, and if you have problems, shifting that placement can help. It may be that, for your setup, the router needs to be in plain view in order to maintain adequate coverage.

The construction of your home can be a factor here, and what may work in one home or even one room may not work in another room with a similar layout. The material of your walls matters; brick walls are typically not good for Wi-Fi signals. As I understand it, wireless signals are stronger going up than down.

If you have ever tried to get into the administrative settings on your router (logging into your router), you can see that there are a lot of settings that you may have never heard of before. One of these settings is “channel.” The channel is not something you normally need to change, but there are ways to see if the same channel is being used by your neighbors and causing interference. If that is the case, you can look for a stronger channel and manually change it.

Another way to improve Wi-Fi in your home is to use a powerline adapter, wireless extender or both.

Powerline adapters are quite amazing. They connect between two units, the first one directly connected to your router and the second one connected to a device of your choice (i.e smart TV, streaming box, computer, etc.) via ethernet cable. Both powerline adapter units plug into your wall outlets and use your home’s circuitry to send the wireless signal as though it were hardlined. It is a great way to get wireless to a smart TV or streaming box.

If you have an older house with old wiring, the powerline adapter may not work as well. Both outlets you use should be on the same circuit for optimal performance, however I have seen them still work well regardless.

Wireless extenders are another way of getting your signal to spread farther in your home. They just plug into an outlet and then take your existing signal and boost it. They create a new network name — “mynetwork_EXT,” for example, with the “EXT” for extender. You can keep them the same name as your existing network, but then your devices may be connecting to the weaker part of a network rather than the extender.

Be on the lookout for the new, up-and-coming option of mesh networks, like Google Wi-Fi and the Netgear Orbi system. Supposedly mesh networks offer much better wireless speeds than range extenders and blanket an area in wireless to lose dead spots.

Hopefully this will help with some basic troubleshooting that you can do to improve your home wireless network.

 

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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 via email at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

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How to tap technology to make life at home easier

Robot Hand

This post was originally published in the August 9, 2016 edition of the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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As I wrote about in my last column, I am making a foray into smart home technology, using Amazon Echo as the hub for my “getting smarter” home. Now, I look at all of my plugs, switches, and everyday appliances and think about how I could automate them. Also, when I hear about friends’ frustrations with everyday household challenges, I notice areas where they too could use technology to simplify their lives.

For instance, a friend recently shared a frustration about lights being left on in the house. She said that when she comes home in the evenings, her family leaves lights on throughout the entire house. With a modest smart home integration, it would be easy for her to have household lights grouped together and then easily turned off all at once, or across specific groupings (such as upstairs or downstairs). A step further would be to use her Amazon Echo and just vocally ask Alexa to turn off all of the lights.

For my friend who has trouble remembering whether or not he locked his front door, a smart lock would be incredibly helpful. He could use a model that simply locks automatically when the door closes. Alternatively, he could use a lock that is connected wirelessly. The wireless lock can be monitored online through a smartphone or computer, so he could easily check his phone to verify the door was locked. There are smart locks and handles from traditional lock and key companies as well as market newcomers that focus on the deadbolt.

My parents, who are proud owners of two 60-pound boxers, would do well with a robot vacuum (like the Anker RoboVac 10 that I love, or a Roomba) to help complement routine floor cleaning. Also, a connected thermostat like Nest or ecobee3 would be a great device to help automate, control, and monitor usage of their heating and cooling in the home.

One of the newer sensors that I am using is a wireless switch, but it also can monitor the energy usage of any device connected to it. I use it in the master bedroom with a window air conditioning unit, and now have an idea of the monthly cost of keeping our master bedroom (a converted attic) cool and comfortable in the summer.

While recently traveling, I used wireless switches in my home and set up an “Away” mode which turned lights on and off at designated times. Plus, I was able to turn on some of the window air conditioners remotely and begin cooling my house to ensure our home was comfortable when we returned. It was reassuring while away to look at the app and see that my lights were on at the times that I had pre-programmed.

There are light switches, plug-in switches, sensors for windows, garage door sensors and switches, connected doorbells, and many more simple options make your home smarter.

For the most part, these smart home integrations are easy modifications. Though, in some cases, it does take time and planning to get all devices connected and set up; you have to consider how you want to control your devices and if they will all be connected through a hub or not. If trying to setup your own system, be patient and have fun.


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 via email at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

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Maximizing the potential of your Fitbit

Fitbit

This post was originally published in the May 19, 2016 edition of the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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You have probably heard about a wide range of devices that are now connected to the Internet — from smart TVs to thermostats and even coffee makers. This is often referred to as the Internet of Things. The Internet of Things is basically the ability to connect our daily devices to each other via the internet in order to simplify our lives.

This can be along the lines of a refrigerator that adds eggs to a shopping list when you are running low, or a thermostat that cranks up the heat at home when you are leaving the office.

Jumping in with connected devices is not as difficult as you may think. IFTTT (which started out as If This Then That) is a simple app that allows you to create “recipes” that connect various apps and devices. The “recipes” automatically tell your devices to follow a certain set of instructions when a chosen action occurs.

This is not some futuristic concept. It’s here. And better yet, it’s totally accessible via an entry-level wearable — the Fitbit!

I have written before about my fondness for Fitbit, and here it is again — a great piece of technology that is a key to the Internet of Things. FitBits can easily track things like exercise, sleep and weight — and it can track your progress against set goals. With this information, and connecting through IFTTT, you can receive a weekly summary of your sleep or exercise activity in a Google spreadsheet, or you can automatically Tweet a message when you have reached your exercise goals.

What you want to track, how you want to be notified, and who you want to share the information with is completely up to you.

Anything that Fitbit can track — like walking/exercising, amount of sleep, total exercise time and more — can then be used in various ways across other apps and tools. For instance, you can use that info to share milestones via Twitter or Facebook, email yourself reminders related to your goals, or post data to a private or shared document. You can even set a reminder to go to bed early if your sleep log triggers a deficit.

Your Fitbit and IFTTT integration can even go beyond reporting and social sharing. Using IFTTT and a Wifi connected bulb, your Fitbit can automatically turn on the lights when you wake up, and it can turn off the lights when you have fallen asleep. You can also program the light to turn on once you’ve reached your sleep goal for the night. Think of this as a light-based alarm that only goes off once you’ve reached your sleep goal. While it may not be ideal for the work week, it could be a great option for the weekends.

You do not need to create your recipes from scratch —  there are many recipes already made and ready for you to use. You can also start fresh and create brand new recipes. The sheer number of Fitbit recipes are impressive to begin with and can help guide you in the right direction to think about and understand the options available and what future connected devices you may want to buy.

What do you think? Are you going to try out any recipes? Let me know how it goes.


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 via email at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

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Best Bets for Wireless Routers

wireless router problems

This post was originally published March 4, 2016 in the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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How’s your wireless router doing? Don’t you just love it? Do you even know where it is?

Most of us use the entry-level wireless router that comes with our broadband service. For many using Comcast, that is the big black Gateway device that serves as both your cable modem and wireless router. However, some of you even use your own router on top of Comcast’s, which is not a bad idea. With your own router you can gain more control over your wireless settings, although the newer Gateway devices from Comcast are an improvement of their earlier devices.

Understanding your various options to find the best router to meet your needs, well that’s a bit more complicated. First off, you have 802.11 standards, which are the universal standards for the transmission of wireless data. 802.11 started with “a” then “b” then “g” then “n” and now “ac.” The difference between them is the maximum throughput, so with streaming movies and the large photo and video files, newer standards will serve your purposes better. These days you should have a router that is either 802.11n or 802.11ac. Now you also have to make sure your hardware that is running wirelessly has the newer standards. The “ac” standard is much newer than “n,” so not as much of your hardware may have it, however routers tend to be backwards compatible, so you would still be able to use “n” on an “ac” router.

Next you have frequencies to look at. Most of us have a single band of 2.4GHz in our entry-level, older routers but newer routers come in dual band (there are even tri band, but we are going to skip those for now), which have by 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands included. The 2.4GHz is not as fast but has far reaching coverage, whereas the 5GHz is faster but does not have the range of 2.4GHz. However, by using both bands simultaneously, you spread out your Internet traffic and can reduce interference or your devices battling for bandwidth. An example would be to use the 2.4GHz band for your normal web traffic and then the 5GHz for your media streamer to watch movies and play videos.

Plugging your device directly into your router is the fastest connection you can get. Next, having your wireless router in the same room as your device is going to help you keep a clean connection. Beyond that, there are tools for testing router speed and looking for channel interference, but let’s look at simple fixes first.

The location of your router is important as far as the coverage you can get, so if possible, keep your router in the middle of your home. I have noticed that wireless seems to travel better upstairs than downstairs.

In order to get your wireless signal to those distant corners of your home, you can try wireless range extenders which help to relay your signal or powerline adapters which use your home’s existing electrical wiring to plug in an ethernet cable over distance without any additional internal wiring.

Of course there are quite a few tweaks that can be done to your router’s internal settings, but you can also cause some hiccups there too, so read up before your start working on the internal router settings.

Last, but definitely not least for today, is the reminder to setup a password for your router — do not leave it as an open access point for anyone who wants to jump on it. That is just safe behavior.

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.

Image by webhamseter via Flickr, licensed under CC BY

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Make your home smarter

Circuit Board

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.

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