Continuing my smart home makeover, I was contacted by someone who was looking to hook up their house with cameras. I basically had an unlimited budget, but I was the one who had to troubleshoot it. There are other details I’m leaving out for privacy reasons, but I needed it simple. I’m going to be limited on pictures (and may take stock photos) due to privacy and accidental information leakage.
When I think of a video doorbell, I think of the gated communities or apartment buildings where you push a button, someone can see you, talk back, and buzz you in. I’m a little shocked that is has taken this long to get someone to mass market. An added feature I found out that I should have is motion sensing. I decided to choose the Ring video doorbell. There was the Skybell doorbell as well, but I chose Ring ultimately because 1) It had a security flaw that the properly disclosed and fixed. 2) It looks like a doorbell. As stupid as that sounds, people are not yet accustomed to new types of doorbells.
Ring has two models, the standard, which is battery powered and less feature filled, or the pro which must be hardwired.
The way the doorbell works is that it alerts you for two activities, 1) Sensing motion, and 2) Doorbell rings. The motion sensing is completely customizable, and is not as obnoxious in alerting you as the doorbell ring. The doorbell ring is loud, distinctive, and rightfully so. You obviously you want to know when someone is at your door. People say that the motion sense is generates too many false positives. It does if you don’t tweak it. Just like any new electronic, you have to spend the time reading all the settings.
When someone pushes the doorbell it generates the chime (if hardwired), and rings your phone or tablet. We found the delay to be impressively minimal. It was less than a second over a data connection. Time is very important on a doorbell push because obviously, someone is at your door. When you get the alert you can either dismiss it, or answer it. Answering it takes 3 to 4 seconds, and immediately takes you to a full size horizontal view of the camera image. You can then either talk to the person, or just watch. The sound quality is acceptable, but it can only talk or hear one person at a time. The delay is minimal, but the volume is low. I wish the volume was much louder.
In regard to the chime, you have a couple of options.
- Mechanical Chime
- No Chime
- (Sold Separately) electronic chime
Out of the two models the professional is clearly the one to buy. The feature I used the most was the live view, that the battery one does not have. I wish the option for live view was there with a clear warning that it will deplete batteries much faster, but decisions were made. The pro is more aestically pleasing . The battery powered model does not come with a chime, so you will have to buy one at $30 for the standard one or $50 for the wifi enabled one.
Which one should you buy? Well, if you have a hardwired doorbell, absolutely buy the pro model. If you are renting, travel alot, or have a different edge case, buy the standard model. A non chime doorbell is sometimes wanted.
Currently Ring integrates with IFTTT, SmartThings, Wink hubs. Locks include: Kevo, LockState, Kisi, and Lockitron. It does NOT have support with Nest. As a point of order, I would stay away from all smart locks.
Is it necessary?
You know what? Yes, now a days something that monitors your front door is necessary.
In a given day, I have had 4 to 5 people approach my door to leave packages. My mail sometimes doesn’t come on a given day, so the mail-carrier makes a morning (1) and afternoon (2) run. This is different than the standard USPS morning package run (3). Then UPS (4) and FedEx (5) drops Amazon packages off. With Amazon starting independent shippers, I sometimes get two independent drivers dropping off (6 and 7). While I’ve never had 7, I have had 4 many times. Oh, I forgot the coupon mailer person.
The independent Amazon shippers scare me. They are hired by Amazon to deliver packages. They have a set amount to bring, and sometimes they stop by real early, and real late (sometimes afer dark). The USPS, UPS, FedEx people are assigned to an area, so you generally know who they are. In the few months of noticing, I have not seen a repeat Amazon delivery person.
To impersonate an Amazon person is trivial to do. Having something like ring that senses motion does give great piece of mind. Plus, having motion sensor will be able to at least record the person stealing your package to help the police.
Ring wants you to purchase their cloud recording. $3/month per device, or $30/year. They give you a month free. When that month is up they delete all old cloud recordings, and “gently” remind you to buy a subscription. I would not pay for it. I don’t need a log of all doorbells and motion. If something suspicious happens, I can easily download it right away.
With Ring Neighborhoods, you can share Rings with your neighbors. I have not tried this feature, but it is a neighborhood watch type program.
Is it simple to use?
Installation was very simple. I installed it at a friend’s house on the spot with no issues. The included screw driver was not the best, but no real complaints. Instructions were via a YouTube video in the app. It walked you through every step of the way.
It did have an update once connected. The app (on Android) was simple to use, with no real usability issues. I won’t knitpick at UI/UX choices, but there weren’t too many surprise menues.
Setting the motion areas was simple. You are presented with the live view from the doorbell and a box. You drag the corners to what you want to capture, and sensativity setting, and you are ready to go.
The main app has 4 tabs - All Activity - Rings - Motions - Live View (If pro model)
It tells you the time, and lets you see a clip of the activity. It will let you download, share, or delete the motion/ring. When a doorbell push is selected, you have the ability to talk back. Most people should have no problems managing this.
The the use becomes too complicated, no one will use it. When was the last time you checked for updates on your smart TV? Just like the blinking 12:00 on your old VCR, products should be helpful, and not overly complicated to set up and use.
Is it secure?
This is a big sticking point in my recommendations. Did the company just slap on some random sticker that says “Military Grade Encryption.” The last thing you want is a device being compromised, and being used to steal your traffic, or other credentials.
To date Ring has had one security issue, and in my opinion, handled it real well. Ring doorbells automatically install updates. You do not have to remove your doorbell, connect it to a computer, and flash firmware. Here is the issue. TL;DR, someone was able to extract the wifi password. Ring handled it very well, disclosed the issue, and issued an update.
Can it be used by other members in the household?
Yes, Ring can be shared with many people. You have a main account, and you delegate access. The main account has more features and settings, while the delegated accounts have the main functionality. It allows you to view motion, and doorbells. The appeal of separate, but shared accounts is always a nice thing (and necessary). My friend has the main credentials, but yet, I have most functionality as a guest. The only gripe is that the others have to register for an account.
I’ve had the doorbell for over a month now. I think the picture is very clear, and wide. I can see the entire front of the house crystal clear, even at night. If you just need your front door (and back door) monitored, this is the device. It is simple enough to set up, the picture is clear, and it works.
Recently, I was contacted by Hue to review their Hue Go Light, a portable light that can be also controlled from an app.
Because I’m interested in IoT devices, I also have the Hub, and a few more lightbulbs. I’m reviewing the HueGo, but most of this review is can be also said about the Hue light bulbs.
In the box comes a Hue Go light, a salad bowl looking light, and a power plug. The light can be oriented any way you want, and it has a way to stand it on its side to get more directed light. It has a 3 hour battery for portability.
The Hue Go comes with 7 preset colors that can be cycled through the back button. The back button is the only user controlled input on the device itself. Anything else needs to be done through the app (more on that later) I found those 7 colors to be enough for a stand-alone device. If you double tap it (second time hold) it cycles through all the various colors. You can get any color you want that way.
- dim warm
- bright white (daylight)
- Cozy Candle (orange)
- Sunday Coffee (faint pink)
- Meditation (sky blue)
- Enchanted Forest (green)
- Night Adventure (deep purple)
In fact the only presets I really liked were the dim warm, bright white and the cozy candle. Not that the others are bad, I’m not a color person.
The light is both wired and battery operated. The box says about 3 hours. I had it unplugged for about 2 hours, and it was still going. I wish the plug was in a different spot because it is right where the feet are, and it makes it difficult to stand up. To save battery, when unplugged, the light will only use 40% of its brightness, which in the dark is fine.
Where the light shines (no pun intended) is when connected it is to the hue bridge. The hue bridge is the mechanism that connects the lights to the app. That lets you control it from your smartphone, or in my case Alexa or any other ZigBee enabled hub like Smartthings, Wink, Homekit, or Google Home.
As a portable light $70 is pricey. I wish it was offered standalone, or $100 for the light and the hub. To have to spend another $59 for the hub, is getting too expensive for the feature set. My recommendation would be to get the starter set listed above. If you have the hub, then $70 is the average cost for a lightbulb that can change colors.
Is it necessary?
No, it is not necessary, but I can see the use. The use is in the smartphone app. The app lets you control it, from both inside your network and remotely. The app also lets you set up schedules that can be helpful. The first thing you need to do is connect the light. For the most part this is straight forward. It involves clicking “Add new light,” and let it search. I never had any problems adding the lights.
In the app is where you do everything.
Can see the light name, the type of light, the color, and the brightness. If you click on the icon for the light, it brings up the color wheel.
You can choose the color, the type of whites, or a “recipe.”
My personal take is that the colors are nice, but completely unnecessary. I don’t understand what need is there for the room to be green, or blue, or orange. If you want to just show your friends, or you have a specific need, then maybe. For me, the ability to choose the whites was fine. I would take a price drop for removing the colors.
The Achilles heel of smart bulbs is you can only use them when they have power. Turning off the device or using a mechanical light switch (in the case of the light bulbs) makes them dumb.
The app will let you set a schedule by clicking on routines
What I found out is that you you should only rely on the “My Routines.” The rest I found to be completely unreliable. Actually, let me take that back. The location based ones are useless because my wife and kids are home when I leave, and I don’t need the lights to all turn on or off when I leave the house. Wake Up / Go To Sleep didn’t work. I tried over multiple days, but at the end of it, didn’t work.
Right now, I have a routine set to simulate the “Wake Up” routine. At 6:15am it gradually, over five minutes, turns on to the warm light. I had another routine that started the dimming process at 8:30pm for my son, but my life is very hectic right now that 8:30 was never goign to be an exact science. Again, I rather have a widget or IFTTT that would start when I invoked it. Start “Go to sleep” routine when I kiss my son goodnight.
Overall, I wish there was something that could trigger a scene easier than using your smartphone. I got an email recently that will let me use Alexa, but I haven’t found out how to do it. I’ve used the Hue skill, but it created a mess in my smart home list that I had to disable it. Not to mention that this light is called Night, and my lack of creative one word descriptors is limited.
I was initially going to say some really nasty things about the app, but I eventually found what I was looking for. I couldn’t find a way to change the light color. All I could find was connecting to Hue partners, which I won’t do. I did find it; you touch the icon of the light, and it takes you there. In fact, it is pretty good.
Hue Partners are apps that use the Hue API. I am not sure if they are vetted, or the process to be considered a partner. Most of the apps had small download numbers and from names I haven’t heard from. I don’t generally give access to third party apps. These partners are not to be mistaken for companies like IFTTT, Nest, SmartThings, Alexa, and so forth.
My problem is that you don’t always have your phone on you to control the app. I don’t know if this problem is solvable, but there needs to be other mechanisms to control your smart lights other than the smart phone app. I almost want a website that can do it. It can’t be that hard to put a portal on the hue site.
Is it Simple to Use?
Yes! It is a light with an on/off switch. If you take away the smarts from it, it is still a light. It still needs power, and still has a 3 hour battery. Nothing changes when you remove the smarts.
The smarts is where you spend the money, so you do want it, but it is completely independent. You do not have to use any smart capability. The portable light is pretty good, but sometimes I think it is too bright.
Is it Secure?
For the most part it is. It is has to work with open standards, and a variety of devices to be useful. If ZigBee is compromised, so is the light bulb.
Can it be used by other members in the household?
Yes it can. My son already has learned to not touch switches, and to ask Alexa. This being portable with one button, means anyone can do it. The app can only be used on one account, but a recurring theme is to be sharing your household password.
My wife and son, both have used it without my prodding, which is a good sign.
I like the product. I think it is a great portable light. The app puts it over the top. The only problem is the cost. I would like to see a white spectrum only light.
I will say that I wish it could be powered by USB, instead of a proprietary plug. I’m sure there is a technical electrical engineering reason, but maybe the next generation could have USB-C, or something more powered. Instead of taking its own power brick, it could be used with something more standard.
Be ready to buy both the light and a hub.
The first device I want to review is the Amazon Echo. I purchased it, I mean, my wife got it for me as a gift for my birthday last year. Having for over a year, I’ve come to use it everyday. In fact, when the released the Dot back in the spring, I bought one. This is the review of essentially both devices.
The Amazon Echo is Amazon’s foray into the assistant landscape. The speculation is this came from there their failed Fire phone, which had bit and piece built in. Remember, Amazon is not just a marketplace but an actual internet backbone, running a large portion of the websites (around 30%) off their servers. They can leverage those servers to do the heavy processing.
The initial goal for Amazon is to try and get you to buy stuff from them, afterall they are a marketplace. Any reduction in friction is a positive for Amazon. Using your voice to order things is probably helpful especially if you are like me, and forget to write empty items on the grocery list.
The Amazon Echo is $179, comes in black and white
The Amazon Echo Dot is $49, comes in black and white, and even in a buy 5 get 1 free.
Is it necessary or useful
No, it is not necessary, but it is extremely useful. If I didn’t have it, my day wouldn’t suffer. However, now that I’ve come to use it, it has been extremely helpful. The voice is very receptive. Usually the problem with these things is that the voice doesn’t hear you properly. Nine out of ten times the voice works picks up. There is a way to train it, and it does help. It can figure out most commands, but knowledge of the commands is a must.
As you can see, my son knows the commands, but his voice is not pronounced enough to invoke it.
Smart Home - The Killer Feature
I’m an Alexa fanboy with this. They made it work with the two competing standards Zigbee and Zwave. What that means is most likely, any smart home device with one of those capabilities will work. This is absolutely the killer feature, and the major use of my device. Being able to talk to adjust lights, temperature, and other smart home appliance, is the reason my entire family likes it. The other things are great, but this makes it worth every penny.
My daily routine is as follows:
- Alexa wakes me up in the morning with the alarm it has set. I could have it turn on the lights gradually, but my – wife doesn’t like that. It can play my “wake up playlist” if I choose.
- I ask Alexa to read me my news briefing, which I can customize.
- Alexa will tell me the weather
- I can ask Alexa for commuting info. I can ask it also for my daily schedule
- As I go downstairs, I ask Alexa to turn on the lights.
Shopping Lists and To-Do
Alexa is great for your lists. My next purchase is having a dot in the kitchen for exactly this. A simple command of “Alexa, add milk to grocery list” just works. The biggest problem is the ability for the shopper to have this list quickly. By going to the Alexa web site quickly brings up the list, and the ability to delete it off the list
Note: Amazon wants you to buy from them, so if you say the wrong command, it will take you to their ordering page. This isn’t a big deal, Simply tell Alexa to cancel.
You can ask Alexa to turn on any alarms in any weird combination. “Alexa wake me up on weekdays at 6am,” actually works. Or you can say “Alexa wake me in up an hour.” Snooze also works.
Recently you can connect to three music services, Amazon Prime, Spotify, or Pandora. Since I use Google Play music, you have to send it through your phone. Connecting to bluetooth is as easy as “Alexa connect phone.” The play, next, stop buttons all work in both cases. I really wish Google Play Music or Apple Music was supported, but this will be an issue in all smart devices moving forward.
On the Echo the speaker is fine. I’m not a huge audiophile, but I didn’t think the speaker was bad. Remember, it is only as good as the source material, in this case streaming MP3. The Dot doesn’t have a real speaker, but the speaker is adequate for voice commands, and playing music where quality doesn’t matter. On the Dot, you can bluetooth or 3.5mm cable it to your better speakers.
Note: Speakers need to be on in order for sound to work.
Audible feature works great. You can play all voice enabled books. Note, that there is a difference between kindle books, which has the mechanical voice, and the Audible books that has paid actor’s voice. Not that I want a mechanical voice reading me VIM commands, but I can.
TuneIn is used for podcasts. You can say “Alexa play [podcast name],” and if the service has it, it will play. I just realized my podcast is not there.
The main feature that Amazon wants to sell you is the ability to sell you things. You can say “Alexa, buy toilet paper,” and it will try to select the correct item. You can confirm a purchase with or without an authorization pin. I recommend the pin, just in case of an errant command. You do get an email to verify the confirmation that you can cancel. My two experiences have been negative, so I wouldn’t recommend using Alexa to order things. In general Amazon prices are not the best on durable goods.
Is it simple to use
Yes, absolutely, it is simple to use. Amazon has a great step by step walkthrough on how to set everything up. Basically, you connect to it using the voice guidance, then you finish the connection on your smartphone. No more having to hunt and peck the wifi password like on your TV. Changing settings is also very simple. You can even ask Alexa for help. Even if you don’t want the app, you can go to the web site to do the setup.
Every Friday there is a “What’s new with Alexa” email, that tells you the new features. This is one of the highlights of my Friday, finding out what new functionality I can now do.
Is it secure
The answer to this is time will tell. Currently, there have been no glaring security problems. Just like all IoT devices, you have to trust the manufacturer. In this case Amazon. Amazon has a vested interest in keeping things secure.
So a few privacy issues pop up. First it is always listening. It has to listen to the codename to activate, but it still listens. For a lot of people this is a deal breaker. Amazon has eased fears by having a mute button on the Alexa. When you push it the ring turns red.
Second, all your voice commands are being sent to Amazon. This is for training purposes. In the app itself you can thumbs up / thumbs down the voice transcription. If you thumbs down, the app will ask you to provide feedback.
Since Alexa doesn’t differentiate sound, any voice can activate it. You can have a bullhorn and roll the street saying “Alexa set alarm for 3am,” and it will comply. I don’t know if we have the voice recognition technology yet to address this. Also, if my wife wants to know what is on my calendar or music I was listening to, having the profile set becomes a privacy issue.
Alexa doesn’t stop other manufacturers from failing in their security. If a lock company wants to allow “Alexa unlock doors” that will be a problem.
Can it be used by other members in the household
Yes. Yes, it can. This is a major problem for most IoT devices. Alexa uses your Family Prime membership to address other members in the household. You can say “Alexa, switch profile,” and it will switch to my wife’s account. You will need to set this up online (not that easy the first time), but it does work. The command to switch is sometimes annoying, but until they can recognize voice, it is the only way. Switching profiles allows each member to have their own music, audible, news, calendar settings.
I really like the Alexa. Clearly, this will be a force to be reckoned with in the future. If you are thinking about smart home, the Alexa should be your main hub. Will Google Home, or Siri, take over? Time will tell, but Alexa is light years ahead.
If you found this helpful, can you please use the links in order to buy. It helps me monotize the site without putting ads everywhere.