Spring has Spring!
Now that we have swung full speed into Spring, it’s time to plan for re-planting the smart home garden of controllers, devices, and appliances.
Every Spring I take an inventory of where things stand, what needs to be fixed or changed, and what I would like to do.
It’s not necessary to change your home automation equipment frequently, but once a year it is worth a look.
Technology improves, prices change (usually downward), and new capabilities that were not even a glimmer in your eye become feasible.
You don’t have to wait for an actual sale to upgrade or grow your smart home. With careful selection of products and planned upgrades and migrations in a timely fashion you will save lots of money in the long run.
I know it may be cheesy, but the adage “time is money” also applies. If you speed up your home network and automate more functions in your home, you can give yourself the luxury of more time for other things and we all know time is the most precious commodity.
Is Your Crystal Ball Rusty?
A video doorbell? Nobody was even thinking about that before they were created.
An industrial grade mesh Wi-Fi network for great coverage everywhere in your home that doesn’t cost thousands of dollars? Nobody knew that was coming.
A control system built into your smart phone and free with an operating system upgrade? Nobody saw Apple HomeKit or Google Home Assistant coming before it did!
Not All Fun And Games
It’s not all exciting new tech (or toys) to play with. A lot of my annual Spring upgrades are really just scheduled improvements and evolution to my smart home system that have already been planned but are convenient to tackle during the nicer weather.
Much like kids that receive clothes and other needed items for Christmas, it may not be a surprise, but it is still welcomed nonetheless.
It’s Not You, It’s Me
I don’t know what you may need or want, so remember this is simply my take on what is interesting or worth considering. Everyone should evaluate for themselves what they need or wish to do when upgrading or expanding their smart home system.
Of course, if you would like assistance, either by telephone or in person, please don’t hesitate to reach out and explore if i can help you analyze your systems and make recommendations tailored to your own unique situation.
A Peak Behind The Curtain
I use a lot of different criteria to determine whether I consider a product a “hero” or a “zero”. It goes without saying that I actually purchase the product myself and test it extensively in my own network and lab environment.
I never rely on other people’s reviews or second hand information. I do take comments and feedback into consideration, but I like to get my hands dirty and try everything myself.
My Selection Criteria
Listed in no particular order, I review every product based on the following:
Uniqueness — “one of a kind” or “me too”?
Functionality — How well does it perform relative to similar products?
Design Details — Is the software and hardware refined or rough around the edges?
User Interface — Is it intuitive, easy to use without RTFM (reading the freaking manual)?
Compatibility — Will it work with X,Y, and Z? Does it get along well with others?
Standards — Fits into existing systems or a round peg squeezed into a square hole?
Life Span — “Flash in the pan” fad or does it have a long life span for many years of use?
Support — Telephone, email, forums — How fast is the turnaround and what is the quality of answers?
Professional features — Advanced programming/technical interfaces or only consumer grade?
Professional support — Dealer programs, technical training, VIP Hotline?
Price — Not whether cheap or expensive, but is it worth the asking price?
I Could Write A Book…But I Won’t
Evaluating every product against the selection criteria, ranking products in relative order, and providing nice descriptive details on each would be enough material to fill a book.
I’m not going to do that. My goal here isn’t to throw my hat into the ring and be yet another product reviewer. I’m cutting to the chase giving you my biased, personal (but professional) opinion and “short list” of recommended products.
The DoItForMe.Solutions Spring 2018 List of Recommended Smart Home Products
Amazon Echo Plus — This is the updated version of the incredibly successful Amazon Echo that brought intelligent voice control home for a very affordable price.
The Plus is the larger speaker so sound quality is very good for playing music — equal to or better than most casual Bluetooth speakers.
The Plus includes a built-in Zigbee hub so it is ready to control a nice assortment of smart home products such as LED lights, dimmers, switches, door locks, and more.
If you have no smart home system and want to dip your toe into home automation waters, the Amazon Echo Plus is a great place to start.
If you have a smart home but no voice control, any of the Echo products, including the affordable $49 Amazon Echo Dot is a great way to add another dimension of home control to your system.
Lutron Caseta — Many people get started with lighting control — turning lights on or off and setting the brightness with computer controlled dimming is easily understood and gratifying.
Lutron has a rock-solid wireless solution that works with Apple HomeKit, Google Home Assistant, Amazon Alexa, Samsung SmartThings, and more — basically everything!
The hardware and software is rock-solid — Lutron’s experience (they invented the modern dimmer, yes, not an exaggeration — they invented the dimmer and hold many patents) means they really understand lighting from top to bottom.
They have both in-wall and plug-in modules suitable for easy DIY installation. With a choice of starter kits getting started is affordable and expanding is cost effective.
*Prosumer tip:* If you have a larger home and need extended coverage, larger maximum system configuration, and additional module choices then the more advanced Lutron Radio RA2 Select product line may be the better choice.
Radio RA2 Select is a dealer only product but uses the same software and apps as Lutron Caseta so it is really easy to use once installed. (For more info on Radio RA2 Select, please contact me.)
Eero Mesh Wi-Fi — Was the first and is still the best, consumer-grade whole-home mesh Wi-Fi system. Installation is really easy — everything sets up from your smartphone and you don’t need a PhD in engineering to get it to work.
A flawless Wi-Fi system is a crucial requirement for any home network — especially if you are using or expanding your smart home.
Stop limping along with consumer/retail store Wi-Fi or that ugly low-powered box “conveniently” supplied to you (free or for a monthly fee) from your Internet provider.
Stop the dead spots while speeding up your network to “ludicrous speed” wireless performance with an Eero system. You can start with a 3-unit Eero Home kit and add additional units if you have a larger home or need even more coverage.
Synology Wi-Fi Router — The router is the heart of your home network pumping data throughout the system and negotiating the flow between your devices and the public Internet.
Sadly most consumer routers are underpowered with very slow processors inside and only the basic minimum features needed.
Synology is a premium Prosumer brand mostly known for their network attached storage (NAS servers) but they make a kick-ass router. The Synology router has features normally only found in corporate or commercial equipment.
For me, the biggest draw is the ability to setup an incoming secure virtual private network (VPN). This allows access to your home network when you are away in a much more secure way than typical routers that use “port forwarding”, Universal Plug and Play (UPnP), PPTP, or other insecure methods.
Other advanced features include the ability to have two Internet connections at the same time, setup your own private cloud storage, and a super strong built-in Wi-Fi signal (traditional, not a mesh).
Synology has two models — the more expensive version has a much faster processor inside. If you decide to upgrade to a Synology router only get the higher-end model; you’ll need the better processor to take advantage of VPN or other features while giving you room to grow.
*Prosumer tip:* Eero Mesh Wi-Fi normally acts as both your Wi-Fi and your router, but it can but put into bridge mode and used only for Wi-Fi with a separate router.
Call me crazy (or a genius?) but I prefer running Eero in bridge mode with my Synology router handling all the “heavy lifting” for network management and control.
It’s the “best of both worlds”! Although a bigger initial investment, I like letting each product do what it does best — Eero for mesh Wi-Fi and Synology for routing & control.
Just like high-end stereo systems that have multiple components and not a single “home theatre in a box”, I prefer my networking gear a la carte too!
Sonos One Whole House Wireless Audio Speakers — Sonos has been around a while and has had it’s ups and downs, but with the new Sonos One it has hit a home run!
The Sonos One is the evolution of the widely successful Sonos Play:1 redesigned to have Amazon Alexa voice recognition and control built in.
Think of it like having an Amazon Alexa but with the sound quality of a high-end (well, mid-range really) audiophile speaker for only a little bit more money.
Sonos has the widest selection of streaming music services. Not just Pandora, Spotify, and Apple Music, but over 50 different streaming services are fully supported and the list keeps growing.
If you are astute, you will notice that the list includes Apple Music. Sonos is the only company, I repeat, the only 3rd party company that is allowed direct integration and control of Apple Music.
Through a special relationship with Apple, you can play your entire Apple iTunes, iTunes Match, or Apple Music (streaming service) directly from your Sonos gear. Every other speaker system on the market requires you to tether your iPhone over Bluetooth if you want to play your Apple music.
Sonos has got the Switzerland thing really nailed down. In addition to having Amazon Alexa built in, full support for Apple Music, and a wide range of streaming services including Spotify, Sonos has announced they will be adding Google Home Assistant support and Apple’s newer Airplay 2 upgrade too!
I must admit, when Apple introduced the new HomePod, I was tempted, but Sonos created a special promo (which may or may not still be available when you read this) where for the same $349 price as a single Apple HomePod you can purchase two Sonos One’s.
Place them in two different rooms or put both of them in the same place and they will connect to each other to give you full room-filling stereo sound perfectly synchronized.
Ok, actually, I did also purchase an Apple HomePod (gotta test everything). The HomePod sounds great but is too expensive for me to recommend. And for audiophiles, my pair of Sonos One’s, outputting true stereo, puts the HomePod in the dust!
*Prosumer tip:* The older Sonos Play:1 and the new Sonos One have very similar names/models. Be very careful when shopping to buy only the newer Sonos One. You might see even lower prices as a lot of dealers are putting the older Sonos Play:1 on sale to try and unload them.
You can mix and match Sonos One with the Sonos Play:1, or other Sonos speakers in multi-room whole-house systems, but *you cannot mix them to create a stereo pair*.
The Sonos One can only be mated to another Sonos One if you want a true stereo setup.
Robert E. Spivack, Smart Home Technology Specialist.
I design, install, & retrofit home automation solutions at www.DoItForMe.Solutions