Ten years ago I wrote my first Holiday Tech Toys article. Looking back, it is fun to look at the evolution of technology during those 10 years. This year, I decided to focus my tech toys on the rapidly emerging field of home automation. I predict that home automation technology will be one of the hottest tech markets in the coming years and it is poised to make a splash this holiday season. So to help you all out, here are some great home automation products.
Voice Assistant Devices: Amazon Echo Dot, Google Home Mini
I’m sure you’ve seen the ever increasing number of commercials on TV showcasing the Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant services. You just ask your voice assistant device a question and it gives you the answer! Or you tell it to turn on some lights and it magically obeys your command! Yes, when properly set up a voice assistant can seem like magic. The great news is that Amazon and Google have created small versions of their voice assistants with similarly small prices (especially now during the holiday shopping season). The Amazon Echo Dot and the Google Home Mini each tie into their respective services and with holiday sale pricing both cost just under $30. Apple was set to join the game with their HomePod speaker/voice assistant device but the ship date for that product has slipped to early 2018 and it was also set to cost $399. However, if you have an iPhone, you can use Siri to control your home automation devices just the same. More on that later.
Ring Wi-Fi Smart Video Doorbell
One of the more practical “smart” product lines getting some attention recently has been the video doorbell. It is basically a doorbell with a video camera that can be accessed remotely through your smartphone, whether you are at home or away. It is basically a high-tech peephole that lets you see who is at your door or who may be hanging around your porch area. But you can also communicate with them, which can be very useful if you are not at home and are waiting for a package or if you want to talk to whomever is at your door. You may have heard stories, especially around the holiday season, of people scaring off potential package thieves by interacting with them through their video doorbell systems. The Ring is one of the more popular models and it is currently on sale from most vendors.
ecobee4 Wi-Fi Thermostat with Room Sensor
Smart thermostats were one of the earliest examples of the new generation of home automation devices that included Wi-Fi connectivity and smartphone integration. The Nest was the device that kicked it off and is probably the most well-known example of the smart thermostat, but there are others that are worth strong consideration, especially if you are an Apple device owner. I like the ecobee4 because it integrates with Apple’s HomeKit platform (along with Alexa and Google Assistant) unlike the Nest which currently excludes HomeKit integration. But also the ecobee4 also has built-in functionality to set up room sensors around the house which help the main thermostat more accurately control temperatures, saving money in theory as compared to a device that can only measure temperatures in one location.
iHome iSP6 SmartPlug
One of the simplest ways to begin automating a home is through the use of smart outlets, such as the iHome iSP6. These devices simply plug into the wall and then any supported device can be automated. Common types of devices include lamps or fans. The iSP6 can control small home appliances up to 1800 watts. I like the iHome iSP6 SmartPlug because it is relatively inexpensive (under $30 per unit, especially with holiday sales), yet it supports the three major home automation platforms (Apple HomeKit, Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant). Other companies are deploying smart outlets are coming into the market that offer similar functionality at similar price points.
Insignia Wi-Fi Smart In-Wall Light Switch
As I just mentioned, more companies are starting to jump into the home automation market with low cost yet full functioning modules. Best Buy with their Insignia brand are one of those companies. As an example, their Wi-Fi Smart In-Wall Light Switch allows one to replace a regular switch with a smart switch that can be controlled by the three major home automation platforms at a price point under 30 dollars (with holiday sales currently). Smart switches like these can be a great way to automate things like lights without needing to replace every light bulb in fixture, saving money in the long run.
Chamberlain B970 Smart Garage Door Opener
Garage door openers are a very convenient and safety oriented device to have automated. I can tell you from personal experience that it is nice to be able to open or close my garage door from anywhere in the world and also receive alerts if it is left open for a certain amount of time. The Chamberlain Model #B970 is a great example of a fairly low cost garage door opener that has built-in home automation features including Wi-Fi connectivity out of the box. There are also adapters available for existing garage door openers such as the Chamberlain MyQ Smart Garage Hub that offer very similar functionality.
Linksys Velop Wireless Mesh Network
As homes become filled with more and more wireless devices, including home automation devices like the ones I feature in this article, the need for a robust and reliable wireless network becomes even more critical. In the past, some larger or older homes were very difficult to adequately cover with a strong wireless signal. Luckily in the last year, a number of newer generation wireless devices that use a technology called “mesh networking” have been introduced in to the market. Basically, mesh devices create a wireless network that uses multiple wireless access points instead of just one as most wireless routers do. Unlike the “boosters” many people have tried to deploy that generally don’t work very well, mesh devices are designed to create a unified wireless network that covers an entire building seamlessly. In my experience so far, mesh networks work far better than traditional wireless devices at covering larger areas. The Linksys Velop units have gotten very good reviews and I’ve had good luck with them on a handful of deployments recently.
Apple iPhone X
For many people, their smartphone is the virtual hub of their home automation system, so including the iPhone X on this list made sense to me. Of course, any iPhone will serve well as a home automation control device, but the iPhone X is Apple’s top tier phone at this time. One thing to note is that while Apple’s entry into the voice assistant device category is delayed, Siri voice control built in to every iPhone continues to work well as a mobile voice assistant. In fact, by using the “hey Siri” functionality, one may not even need a standalone voice assistant if they keep their iPhone near them most of the time. Apple Watch users will also generally have access to Siri on their wrist at all times too.
August HomeKit Bluetooth Deadbolt Retrofit Smart Lock
To wrap up my home automation Holiday Tech Toys list, I feature a smart door lock that can be retrofitted onto existing deadbolts. The August HomeKit Bluetooth Deadbolt Retrofit Smart Lock works with the 3 major home automation platforms and can be used to automatically lock and unlock your door. It can automatically unlock as you approach with your smartphone, or your can remotely unlock it using an app or with voice command. You can also assign virtual keys to other people such as cleaning people or pet sitters. Note that you may need an August Connect Wi-Fi Bridge in order to use the remote control features, unless you have an Apple TV 4th Generation device within Bluetooth range of the door lock.
Shop for Tech Gifts Smartly
My general advice for holiday shopping is to purchase from a place that has a good return policy, since it can be difficult to purchase the right technology as a gift. However, also make sure to NOT open the original packaging of a technology gift if there is any chance of it being returned. Once the original packaging is opened, unless there is a problem with the device, returning it simply because the recipient didn’t like it will usually incur a re-stocking fee.
Marcel Brown is the most trusted name in technology. If you need help or have questions about these or any other technologies, please feel free to contact him or post your question in the Q&A section of his website. You may also follow him on Facebook or Twitter.
As we wind down the year and enter into the holiday season, I figured that in honor of Thanksgiving I would share five technologies I’m thankful for this year. I’d love to hear what you think so comment below with your thoughts and any technologies you are thankful for.
Virtual Assistants: Technologies like Apple Siri, Amazon Alexa, and Google Home are becoming quite mature and robust when it comes to controlling various Internet of Thing devices such as home automation systems and smart appliances. I personally have all three types of virtual assistants in my home because 1) I’m a big geek, and 2) because I want to test them all to be familiar with them. They all work well with the fairly simple home automation setup I currently have and I honestly appreciate how they make my home life easier and more comfortable. Virtual assistant technologies will only continue to grow and evolve in the near future so you may want to begin investigating them if you haven’t already.
Streaming Live TV: This is the year that will go down as the emergence of streaming “live tv” services such as Hulu with Live TV, Sling TV, DirecTV Now, Playstation Vue, and YouTube TV. I can virtually see the crumbling of the old world of broadcast and cable TV before my eyes as I am now able to watch almost all my local channels, the sports teams I care about, and traditional TV channels streaming over the Internet, along with libraries of on-demand movies and TV shows. I will be cancelling my cable TV service shortly and I know other people who are doing the same with their cable or satellite services. The future of video content is streaming and we are seeing it take shape now.
Robot Vacuums: Last summer we got new hardwood floors. We have two cats. Without our trusty Roomba I know our dark hardwood floors would show a ton of cat hair. It runs faithfully every day, keeping the overflow of feline fuzziness under control along with sweeping up the random junk that life brings in the house. Seriously, It does an amazing job of keeping our entire first floor clean and sparkly! I would really miss our Roomba if we didn’t have it.
iPhone X: I honestly didn’t expect to like my new iPhone so much. After all, I’ve seen a lot of technologies in my life and just how different could another iPhone be? Yet I have been pleasantly surprised at just how smooth and seamless my experience has been with the iPhone X. I really enjoy the fact that the phone is not much bigger than a standard size iPhone 6/7/8 but the screen is just as big as a plus sized iPhone (technically slightly bigger) because the screen is edge-to-edge. Face ID works nearly flawlessly for me, the screen is bright, crisp, and richly colored, apps are highly responsive, the phone feels balanced and solid in the hand, and the new button-less interface is surprisingly intuitive. Kudos to Apple for pushing forward the smartphone game, setting the bar everyone else is trying to reach even higher … again.
Wireless Mesh Networks: I’ve only have the opportunity to deploy a few of these new types of wireless network systems this year, but so far the results have been impressive. Basically, a wireless mesh network is just a Wi-Fi network but instead of one access point putting out a signal, they are multiple wireless devices (typically 2 or 3) that are specially designed to work with each other to cover an area as one big seamless wireless network. They are not your ordinary wireless “booster” that often seems to cause more headaches than they solve. With wireless mesh networks Wi-Fi dead zones may be a thing of the past soon, so if you have a troublesome Wi-Fi installation in your home or business let me know and we can discuss a if a wireless mesh system is right for you.
Again, I’d love to read your thoughts on these technologies and any technologies you personally are thankful for, so add your comments below! As well, if you need help or have questions about these or any other technologies, please feel free to contact me or post your question in my Q&A section.
2016 has certainly been an interesting year to say the least. I think many people are looking forward to the holiday break but first we all must get some gift shopping done. In order to help all of you make good technology gifting decisions, I present to you my 9th Annual Holiday Tech Toys list. This year I’ve tried to present a list of lower-cost items that are still great tech gifts and some can even work as stocking stuffers. Make sure to take a look at Holiday Tech Toys from years past as there are likely still many gifts that could still be good choices for this year.
I’ve been following home automation technology for a long time. Besides being expensive, the main problem in years past has been that most home automation devices were difficult to understand and devices from different companies rarely worked well together. Anyone who wanted to go beyond simple automation had to be highly technical or pay someone a good chunk of money to set up highly complicated systems. The good news is that in the last few years various companies such as Apple with their HomeKit platform, Google with their Nest platform, and handful of others including Amazon’s Alexa are bridging together formerly disparate home automation technologies into cohesive and simpler to use units. Unfortunately many home automation technologies are still a bit pricey. However I did find one inexpensive home automation device that can easily automate many electronics such as lamps and small appliances. The iHome SmartPlug iSP5 requires nothing more than a smartphone and Wi-Fi network to function. I’ve found it as low as $29 at Home Depot and it I’ve purchased several for my home over the last year. My family and I can control the attached devices with a simple app on our iPhones or by using Siri voice commands. Because I did not need to buy a “hub” or other proprietary controlling device, this makes setup very simple and less expensive. Another great thing about the iHome SmartPlug is that it works with virtually every current home automation platform. Note that the iSP5 model may be getting low on stock as the replacement iSP6 model begins to enter the market. The iSP6 is about $10 more expensive on average than the iSP5, but I expect that this price will drop over time.
Small Flying Drones
Flying drones have been a popular, albeit expensive, tech toy over the last few years. However, I am now starting to see small drones that are much less expensive, yet still have some of the capabilities that have made flying drones so popular. A quick search around a store like Best Buy will show many drones now under $200, with several under $150 and $100. If you’re looking for more of a “toy” flying drone, there are now many under $50, although you will sacrifice some features that more “serious” drones offer. Still, for under $50, it could be a great way to find out if you or your family have a real interest in pursuing the larger, more expensive flying drones.
Those of us who know (or remember) video game history will say that the Atari 2600 was the first popular home console system. But we also know that it was the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) that really brought home video gaming into the mainstream and we have never looked back. Now those us of that want a simple way to play several of the most popular NES games on our new-fangled HDTVs have an option in the new NES Classic mini-console. At $60, it is a miniaturized version of the original NES system with 30 built-in games, plus an HDMI port. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, it seems the NES Classic is so sought-after that it is out of stock almost everywhere. So if the NES Classic is on your shopping list, then keep your eyes peeled for any that might sneak into availability at your local stores.
Small Automated Robots
It seems that just as small flying drones are popular, small automated robots are also becoming very popular. One example of such a tech toy is the Sphero BB-8 App-Enabled Droid. This is a very small replica of the character from the movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens. However, it can be controlled by a smartphone and can also run autonomously. It is normally $150, but it was on sale for less than $100 recently so I would not doubt if that price point can be found again soon. Other similar robots allow the owner to actually program them, like the Wonder Workshop Dash. This type of robot might be more educational but either tech toy should satisfy a little one who is into robots and automation.
Car Dash Cameras
For a variety of reasons, car dash cameras are becoming hot items. One of the reasons may well be that the price of good quality dash cams has come down to reasonable levels. A model like the Thinkware F50 is less than $100, features a 140-degree wide camera with 1080p resolution, and will automatically save video 10 seconds before and after a collision is detected. Some more expensive models also allow you to attach an additional rear window camera as well.
Little toy robots might be fun to play with, but robots that can take care of household chores are much more useful! Robot vacuums like the Roomba have been around for years, but in the last couple of years the technology has improved greatly and the prices have come down significantly. It used to be that high quality robot vacuums started at $500 or more and you can still buy models that are in upwards of $900, but a model like the Roomba 650 sells for approximately $325 on Amazon. My family had new hardwood floors installed in our house this summer and I purchased a Roomba 650 to keep our first floor free of excessive cat hair and dust. I set it to run every night around 3 AM and it manages to keep our entire first floor noticeably clean. There are a few things to get used to when living with an automated robot running around your house at night, but other than a few minor adjustments, we haven’t had to do much to make sure the Roomba can do its job every day. Since it is a gift that keeps on giving, a Roomba might be perfect for someone on your list.
Bluetooth Headphone Adapters
With all the fuss made over the iPhone 7 (and some other less well-known phones) eliminating the traditional headphone jack, many people are considering options for using their favorite headphones with these newer-style devices. One very simple and inexpensive way to adapt traditional headphones is with a Bluetooth adapter. Simply put, a Bluetooth headphone adapter allows traditional headphones to receive an audio signal wirelessly. Simply pair the adapter with your phone, connect your old headphones or earbuds, and listen wirelessly! A model like the Griffin iTrip Clip is only $20 so this can make a great stocking stuffer for someone who has or will soon have an iPhone 7.
Imagine a computer that can fit in the palm of your hand and only costs $9. Well stop imagining because the C.H.I.P. is exactly that. True you need to add a monitor, keyboard, mouse, and put it in some sort of enclosure because for $9 all you get is simply a small circuit board. However, on this small circuit board is a full-fledged PC including a 1 Ghz processor, 4 GB of storage, 512 GB of RAM, and built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Now this may not sound like a lot of processing power compared to what you can purchase in a new traditional PC, but believe it or not the C.H.I.P. is capable of running a modern operating system and software. Now this certainly is a gift for someone who likes to dabble with technology projects, but for $9 it might create some technology curiosity in a young (or young-at-heart) gift recipient.
It’s been said that the surface of most of our smartphones has more germs than a toilet bowl. I’m not sure that is true, but just to be safe it probably isn’t a bad idea to sanitize your phone. The problem is that most normal methods of sanitizing aren’t phone friendly. Either cleaning solutions present a liquid damage hazard to your phone or simply taking the time to clean your phone is a pain. Luckily for us, the PhoneSoap uses ultra-violet light to safely and quickly sanitize any smartphone (or anything you can put inside it). Basically, you put your phone inside the PhoneSoap device, close the lid, and 5 minutes later the phone is sanitized. At only $60, one PhoneSoap can serve your entire family. My family owns one and I can tell you that it does appear to do its job. If it saves someone just one illness, it is definitely a gift worth giving!
A lot of us enjoy having live plants in our home. But some of us aren’t so good at remembering to water our potted plants. If only there was a way to have a pot that would water our plants for us. Well now there is! The Parrot Pot is a “smart” pot that detects when your plant needs water and automatically waters at the right time. It can hold enough water for up to a month of watering, so you can be sure your prized plant will stay healthy even if you are away on a trip. Normally at $150 it may be a bit of a stretch for someone who isn’t a serious gardener. However, it is currently on sale for $99 so it might be a great gift for someone who enjoys their plants but isn’t a green thumb.
If you have any questions about these or any other technology gift, please don’t hesitate to ask!
Part 1: You’re Not the Problem. Old Technology is.
There is no doubt that in the last 10 years, technology has moved faster than ever before. For many people and business owners, this rapid pace of technology development has left them feeling confused and overwhelmed. I am very familiar with the problems that my clients have faced in the last several years trying to keep up with all the new technology. I have identified several tips for users who are looking to thrive and survive in The New World of Technology.
Stop Blaming Yourself
The very first piece of advice I have for you is to stop thinking of yourself as technology “illiterate,” technology “stupid,” or any other such derisive term. Technology should make your life easier, not harder. If you are having difficultly using or understanding your technology, you are probably using the wrong technology! One key trait of New World Technology is increased simplicity user-friendliness. In this day and age there is no reason to continue using frustrating technology.
If you want to thrive and survive in The New World of Technology, you must shift your mindset. Instead of thinking that new technologies are “too smart” for you, understand that new technologies are actually easier to use than ever before. Even though all this new technology is more powerful than ever, a great deal of that power is because it is much easier to use. That ease-of-use has led to many more people using technology than did in the past. If you continue to bury your head in the sand, you will be left behind and you will have no one to blame but yourself.
1990’s Technology? As If.
The year is 2015. You must stop thinking in terms of 1990’s technology. Yes, the Windows PC was the dominant technology for nearly 20 years. For many of us, we “grew up” with that technology so it isn’t surprising we base our world view of technology on this old standby. However, The New World of Technology is dominated by mobile devices and distributed data. If you think that you must sit down at a desk to work with a computer, you are stuck in the 90’s. The New World of Technology allows us to work with our technology and access our data from almost anywhere in the world. Instead of chaining us to our desks or even our offices, today’s technology allows us to be much more flexible with our lives. We can travel more to meet with clients and partners. We can work from home and still be connected with our coworkers. We can even be more free to take time off work because we know we can access data and respond quickly if something urgent comes up.
Getting away from a 1990’s technology mindset also goes hand-in-hand with the ease-of-use I was talking about earlier. A lot of people feel that they want to stick with the tried-and-true Windows PC metaphor because they think that learning new technologies will be hard. Once again, they base their view from their past experiences with technology. Yes, working with a Windows PC was frustrating experience! It still can be even today! But newer technologies are much easier to learn. The learning curves are much smaller. By trying to stick with familiar technologies, many people are doing themselves a disservice. They are inadvertently keeping their technology experience frustrating by not embracing The New World of Technology.
Free Your Mind
To sum up, if you want to thrive and survive in The New World of Technology, you need to stop blaming yourself and get away from old, confusing technology. I can offer many examples of people from old to young who have embraced New World technologies and no longer consider themselves technology “illiterate.” You could be next!
Once you come to grips that you can master newer technologies and let go of the past, come back to read the next article in this series, where I will offer additional tips and advice. As always, if you have any technology related questions, please do not hesitate to ask me anything!