Recently Google added an interesting feature to Google Home devices that can be super helpful for those of us with children. If you were to say “Okay Google, let’s read along to Disney” and happened to have a compatible story your Google Home can now play ambient music and sound effects that go along with the stories being read.
I was pretty skeptical about this feature actually working the way it is designed so I did not write about it initially as I wanted to try it. As many of you will know I am not the biggest fan of Google’s Voice Assistant and very much invested in the Amazon ecosystem but I must say after using this new functionality with my three-year-old I now have a Google Home Mini in his bedroom sitting next to an Amazon Echo Dot.
Currently, there are not a ton of compatible books but Google says more will be available by the end of the year. My three-year-old loves Mickey Mouse so I went out and got a copy of Mickey’s Christmas Carol to test because well you know, Tis the season. I have to say I was very impressed. The background music fit right in with the story and the sound effects were spot on and my son loved it.
Now as much as I liked the new feature of the Google Home and it will certainly have me using it more I would love to see this improve. How cool would it be if the Google Home could control my Phillips Hue Lights and sync the colors to the story? I can see this coming in the future as it just seems to me like the next logical step.
Now I have a question for Amazon, Your roots are in books, why does the Amazon Echo not have this functionality?
Have you tried using your Google Home to enhance story time in your house? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
In September Amazon announced a massive amount of new devices. Some new Echo and Fire TV Devices and a few well less traditional devices. One of these less traditional devices was the AmazonBasics Microwave which had Alexa built-in. Well, the time has come and the AmazonBasics Microwave is now available for purchase.
The AmazonBasics Microwave is the first smart-kitchen appliance that Amazon has released. Sure companies like GE have built Alexa into kitchen appliances in the past and Amazon has the Amazon Dash Wand which can be considered a kitchen gadget but the AmazonBasics Microwave really is Amazon’s first attempt at a smart appliance and could open the door for many more smart appliances.
It should be noted however that the AmazonBasics Microwave does not actually have an Echo built in, it only has the ability to use the Alexa Voice Service of a connected Echo.
I am struggling a little bit at seeing the usefulness of the AmazonBasics Microwave but none-the-less I will be trying it out soon enough for your benefit and will let you know. What I am excited about however is to the potential of future Alexa enabled smart appliances and if that means I need to suffer through some less useful one I am okay with that.
What do you think about the Alexa Enabled, AmazonBasics Microwave? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
In another new product release from Amazon announced back in September, the FireTV Recast is now shipping. The FireTV Recast is a DVR that you can get with either 2 tuners and 500GB of storage or with 4 tuners and 1TB of storage that connects to an HDTV Antenna and allows you to record live TV. The FireTV Recast allows you to watch live tv or recordings on your phone, an Echo Show or a FireTV and included Alexa voice control. Now the FireTV Recast does not have an Echo built in so you will have to issue these commands either in the Alexa App or an Echo nearby.
My wife and I have been thinking really hard about saying goodbye to cable the last few months and I think the FireTV Recast could be a good solution for me to still watch and record some live television. It is a bit disappointing that Amazon did not bundle the FIreTV Recast with an HDTV Antenna but I can overlook that as I see a big benefit.
What do you think, will the FireTV Recast help get people who are on the fence about cutting the cord up and over? I think it will but let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
So this is pretty exciting, Amazon Echo Buttons Can Now be used in Routines! Amazon kind of buried this added functionality in one of its “What’s new with Alexa” emails but thanks to Kerry Clendinning over at the Smarter Home Club for pointing this out I was able to test the functionality and see it working in action.
This is a feature I have wanted since the Amazon Echo Buttons were first released and something I assumed would be added at some point. Sure the wife and I like to use out Amazon Echo Buttons to play games from time to time (which I always lose, because I have to) and they are fun and all but I always thought these could be so much more useful if I could use them to control things. For the price of the Amazon Echo Buttons, they are arguably one of the cheapest control buttons available for home automation and for the price of them I can get over the size of them for this application.
Setting an Amazon Echo Button up to trigger a routine is pretty simple. From the Alexa App, you will see a new option when setting up a routine that says “Echo Button” in the “When This Happens” menu. Selecting “Echo Button” prompts you to press the Echo Button you want to use and them inserts that as the trigger of “When” in your Alexa Routine. You can then choose from anything you have in the “Alexa Will” section for your action, this can be to control a device or give you information from a connected service. With everything set up you can now use your button to control your routine, it really could not be simpler.
DO you have any Amazon Echo Buttons kicking around? If so give it a shot and let me know what you think in the comments below.
With the holiday shopping season upon us the deals are coming in fast and furious. Today we have a nice deal on an Arlo Pro 2-Camera System which brings the price down substantially to near the lowest price ever offered on them.
Arlo makes hands down the best completely wireless cameras and although not cheap they are certainly worth the price so if you are looking for some you may want to jump on this deal.
Once upon a time in a home automation galaxy far far away I used Iris. Iris which for those who do not know is a home automation platform from Lowe’s Home Improvement. I have always thought the approach of selling home automation through a home improvement store was a great idea, sadly finding someone who can answer any type of question regarding these products in a store the size of a Lowe’s is not easy thus they do a poor job selling it. Sales aside it is nice to see Lowe’s continuing down this path and giving its Iris line a refresh for the holiday season.
About a month ago I was in my local Lowe’s and I always look at the home automation stuff, I spotted an Iris Hub that was round and I had never seen before. Being pretty happy with my smartThings lately I did not purchase it as I really have no need but I did try finding some information online but could not find anything. Fast forward until the other day and I get an email from Lowe’s about Iris product updates talking about the new Hub I had seen in the store.
The Iris Wi-Fi Smart Hub is the upgraded Hub offering which now supports Wi-Fi which is nice but not something I am interested in as I believe something as important as the hub that runs your automation system should have a wired network connection. Aside from Wi-Fi, however, the Iris Wi-Fi Smart Hub now has an LED Light Ring which can give you visual alerts as well as a built-in speaker for audible alerts. This is a nice addition if your hub is in a place where you can see and hear it (but it shouldn’t be). The best addition to the Iris Wi-Fi Smart Hub, however, is that it now has a rechargeable backup battery which is a huge feature and one that all hub manufacturers should implement.
Lowe’s has also released some new Wi-Fi Smart Plugs in both the indoor and outdoor variety. While I am not a huge fan of WI-Fi connected automation devices it is nice to see more device options in the Wi-Fi flavor and I think people will appreciate the fact that it is yet another device where you will not need a hub. The design of the indoor plug is very nice and they actually thought about the other outlet in you receptacle by making it horizontal allowing for plugging in a second one into the same receptacle or just plugging anything you want into the other outlet.
The biggest thing announced, however, is the new Iris Wireless Security Camera. It is a battery powered 1080p camera that looks a lot like an Arlo Camera. I actually will be picking one of these up when they arrive at my local Lowe’s so I can compare it to Arlo. I did notice something though while reading the Iris blog post about the camera, the image file was named “Swann-Camera” which is leading me to believe the Swann is making the camera for Lowe’s which is not a bad thing at all as Swann makes some rather nice cameras.
On top of these major changed Lowe’s has also put a fresh coat of paint on the rest of the Iris branded products. The Iris Keypad now has a more rounded vertical design which is very nice looking but the Iris Motion sensors have now almost doubled in size and look rather ugly. That is pretty disappointing as I have always like the Iris Motion Sensor.
If you are one of the eight people who use Iris, let me know what you think of these new updated product offerings in the comments below.
Amazon and Microsoft have been getting pretty chummy in the digital assistant space for some time now and Alexa has an official Windows 10 App.
I have been using Alexa through Cortana on my Windows 10 machine at the office for a while now and have generally liked the experience but having a Native Windows 10 App makes it that much better.
Installing the Alexa Windows 10 App is as simple as downloading it from the Microsoft Store and signing in with your Amazon Credentials. Upon launching the Alexa Windows 10 App you are asked if you want the Alexa App to launch at startup which I do so I quickly said yes to that.
While I am overall happy with what the Windows 10 Alexa App brings I would love to see the full Alexa app like we have on iOS and Android come to Windows and would love for a way to replace Cortana with Alexa completely.
If you are in the Alexa ecosystem give the Alexa Windows 10 App a shot and let me know what you think.
Last week Amazon decided it was time to add a little bit of depth and power to the Calendar integration available on Amazon Echo and Alexa enabled devices. Specifically adding features like Calendar Availability, Calendar, and Routine Integration and the new Reminders API. As this blog continues to grow I am always looking for better ways to streamline productivity and have begun using a calendar heavily so I figured why not integrate that calendar with Alexa?
First, let’s take a look at Calendar Availability. This feature allows you to ask Alexa when you have an opening in your calendar. You can do this in a couple different ways. You can ask for a specific length of time availability on a specific day or you can as a general question about when you have free time. Since this blog is a one-man band (for the most part) I do not typically have to ask myself what my availability is so that I can schedule a meeting with myself. Now I have been scheduling blog post lately as all-day events and now being able to ask Alexa what my availability is can give me a high-level picture of when I have posts set to publish and when I may need to add something.
The feature I am most excited about however is the integration between Routines and Calendars. You can now use your Calendar as an Action in a Routine. This can be something as simple as setting up a routine where Alexa will tell you what is on your schedule at a certain time to something more advanced like having Alexa return with your schedule when you turn on your computer to write (assuming you have a way for your computer to trigger). I am using this on everything now and have ti set that when I turn on the lamp on my writing desk Alexa will tell me what blog posts I have scheduled so I know what to focus on. I would, however, like to see this integration grow and the ability to add calendars as a trigger and not just an action.
The last feature that Amazon brought to the updated Calendar is the new Reminders API which will take developers to integrate but really is a great feature. With the Reminders API, Alexa Skills can now remind you of upcoming events. Currently, the Reminders API is only available to Kayak, the NHL and TV Guide so I tested with the NHL Skill and it is nice to get a reminder when a game I am interested in coming on. The Reminders API is also available in Alexa Blueprints so that could lead to some interesting developments. I am interested if I will be able to make use of it with the IoTRant Skill to alert users to new blog posts.
I have to say for something as trivial as a calendar it is nice to see Amazon putting some development time into making Alexa smarter with its integration and I have been pretty happy with the results.
Let me know what you think of the new intelligence behind the Alexa Calendar integration.
Recently Amazon announced and released the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4k and one of the big updates (aside from 4k video support) was an updated remote that could not only control you Fire TV Stick but also control your television and other audio video equipment through IR. I was pretty excited about this and was going to order one to replace a Fire TV Stick in my bedroom when I found that you could order the remote separately and it would work with the previous generation Fire TV Stick. This was big for me as I have a television in one of the bedrooms that only has a Fire TV Stick connected to it that my son loves to use to watch his Sunday morning cartoons. Up until now, I have always needed to keep a second remote around for the television to control volume as I had already been using a SwitchBot to control power through an Amazon Echo Dot. I preordered the new Fire TV Remote the first day it was available and patiently (who am I kidding, not so patiently) waited for it to come.
The day had finally come and my Fire TV Remote showed up at my doorstep. I quickly unboxed it and got it set up. I was concerned when I first looked at the instructions included as they appeared to only cover pairing the remote to your Fire TV and made no mention at all about how to configure it to control other devices. Connecting the Fire TV Remote to your Fire TV Stick is very simple, all you need to do is:
Press and hold the Home button on your new remote for up to 10 seconds.
I got a confirmation that the remote was connected and I could use it to control my Fire TV Stick but still nothing about configuring a television. My worry was for nothing as it turns out when you exit the “Add New Remote” screen I was immediately prompted to set up other equipment. The Amazon Fire TV Stick quickly recognized that it was connected to a Samsung TV and all I had to do was confirm that I wanted to set the Fire TV Remote up to control this television. That was it I confirmed that volume and power controls were working and I was happy.
With setup out of the way, let’s take a look at the Fire TV Remote quickly. At first glance, it appeared to be pretty much the same as the previous remote (with the exception of the new buttons) but when I put the new remote next to an old one it is obvious that the new Fire TV Remote is smaller which is nice. It fits in the hand very nice and feels good. The Fire TV Remote is not too small that you need to worry about losing it although I am sure it will get lost many times in its life at my house that is mostly because my wife loses everything.
Over the last few days using the Fire TV Remote, I have not had any issues with it. The IR window is positioned on the front and wraps around to the bottom of the remote. It appears to work very well as I was able to complete many off angle commands which with this being used in a bedroom can come in handy.
In addition to being compatible with the last generation, Amazon Fire TV Stick to eh Fire TV Remote is also compatible with the Fire TV Cube and the Fire TV 4k. I tested the remote with my Fire TV Cube and had the same easy setup process and success in issuing commands so I do not have any worries there. I would however like the option to teach the Fire TV Remote commands from a remote for a device that it does not automatically discover. This functionality might actually be there but I am not able to confirm as all of the televisions I tired were recognized and worked with the default commands without issue.
While I am sure there is not a huge market for a stand-alone Fire TV remote and I am not sure a lot of people will see the need to upgrade it is nice to see that Amazon made the Fire TV Remote backward compatible with previous Fire TV generations. For me, the Fire TV Remote solves a problem and does so at a reasonable price so I am happy. It also makes control of my television easier which makes my wife happy so it is a win-win.
Do you have an Amazon Fire TV that could benefit from an upgrade to the new Fire TV remote? Let me know in the comments below.
Amazon Alexa is now 4 (in robot years) and to celebrate Amazon has a few deals (although they are being advertised as Early Black Friday Deals) available that can save you some money on Alexa. Check out some of the best ones below:
I know this is going to sound strange but I am kind of excited about the deal on the Echo Look. I don’t know why but I have always been fascinated by it and wanted to see just how well the AI in it works.
Anyways If you need some more Alexa enabled gear and don’t feel like waiting for Black Friday, now might be a good time to pick some up.
O Yeah and please remember to be courteous and wish Alexa a happy birthday!
Well now this is kind of exciting news, the Amazon Fire TV Cube can now be rooted (for now). Exploitee.rs has unleashed FireFU on the world so we can now get root level privileges on the Amazon Fire TV Cube. I have been pretty detached from the root world for some time now but up until the last few phones I had been rooting Android devices since I got my first one and I have to say I am kind of excited to root something again.
“FireFU is an exploit chain leveraging a read write primitive from the FireTV Cube and Pendant’s Amlogic S905Z microcontroller along with a heap overflow within the parsing of the devices RSV partition table allowing for the running of unsigned code.”
Looking through the process FireFU is pretty involved to flash and certainly not something you will want to try if you do not have any experience with such things. To Root the Amazon Fire TV Cube you will need:
Once you have everything you need to to first prepare your HDMI Breakout Board and your Arduino then you will be ready to root your Amazon Fire TV Cube. Exploitee.rs does a pretty good job of explaining this process so I will not get into it here but will say that you should have a pin out diagram of an HDMI cable handy before jumping in.
While I am not entirely sure why we need to root an Amazon Fire TV Cube or how long this will last before Amazon patches the exploit I will still be giving this a shot. Having a good amount of experience rooting and working with Arduino I do not expect many issues but I will be sure to let you know if I run into anything.
What do you think, Is it worth rooting your Amazon Fire TV Cube? Let me know in the comments below.
I am pretty sure I just recently posed a deal on the Arlo Q camera well today we have a new deal that brings the price of the Arlo Q down to just $99.99 which is a smoking deal on a pretty good camera. Sure the Arlo Q might be the redheaded step child of the Arlo bunch, you know with its wires and all but it is an excellent camera. At this price I can not really see a reason not to jump on getting an Arlo Q if you are in the market.
Back in late September, I read an interesting article titled the DIY Delusion of Home Automation written by Ted Haeger, Vice President of Education & Support at Control4. Just looking at the title and author of this article I had a problem with it as I do not think anyone who is in an executive level position for a major custom integrator target home automation company would have an unbiased view on DIY home automation and right from the title Mr. Haeger proves me to be correct. While I do not disagree with a lot of what Mr. Haeger writes in his article, it is done in such a condescending way towards DIYers in the home automation space that his points are overshadowed by it. Take the tile, “The DIY Delusion of Home Automation” which in-itself is condescending. Why is DIY home automation a delusion? How can it be a delusion when so many people have done down this path and have automation systems that they are happy with?
In the first sentence of the article Mr. Haeger writes “When I bought my modest 2,300-square-foot suburban home, I was pretty keen on the idea that I would automate it myself. Seriously, how hard could it be? Or, so I thought.” This sentence shows just how detached the author is from what DIY home automation is and also highlights DIY home automatons biggest issue. People get into DIY home automation thinking exactly the same thing, “how hard could it be” and when people get into this what that attitude they will surely fail because as I have written in the past they will not put the level of thought and planning that is needed into proper automation. When a home automation system, either DIY or professionally installed is not properly planned out there is no way it can succeed. But what I really want to do here is take a look at some of the problems that Mr. Haeger mentions in his article and see what we DIYers who actually put effort into our systems think.
The first issue that is brought up Mr. Haeger calls “The inscrutable interface.” Right off the bat I know where the writer is going with this and it is something I agree with but let us take a look at how he defines “The inscrutable interface.” Mr. Haeger defines “the inscrutable interface” as “that the only person who understands how to use it is the person who implemented it.” and also says that it is “One of the most recognizable aspects of a DIY smart home.” I get it every service has its own app and without proper planning and having a vision for your smart home and where it will go you are never going to have a cohesive system. Having used Control4 for myself for many years I can say Control4 has the same pitfall, every system has this pitfall. Once you make something smart and try and change human nature and the way people want to instinctively control something you have failed. Every system out there, be it professionally installed or DIY will fail as soon as your significant other try’s to use it and can’t figure it out. What is not mentioned however is that this is also an aspect where DIY can excel, again with some thought and planning you can find the correct devices and can find ways to make them work together no matter how many services you have to go through to do it. Right now I have thirteen “home control” apps on my phone, I use none of them regularly because my system is designed in a way and I have the flexibility to implement many different products that I give a level of control to anyone in my house, whether it be using one of the many wall-mounted touchscreen displays that can control every aspect of the house or a simple light switch, there are choices in every aspect of my home control system and this level of choice is only available with the DIY route. Again though I do understand what the writer is trying to say here and he is right when people half-ass their home automation implementation. The difference really is though if you have a custom integrator half-ass or not properly plan out your specific implementation you will either have no idea of how much better things could be and go on your merry way or you will have countless return visits from that integrator to fix there own shortcomings and their misinterpretation of your vision.
In Mr. Haegers next point, “The Dis-Integrated Home” he tries to make the point that there are so many different home control apps and you may have one to control your lights, one to control your thermostat and another to control your door locks. Again I absolutely agree with this point there is no consistency and no standardization and there needs to be. To me, someone who has these things set up and uses different apps to control them has not installed a home automation system but yet a home control system. Being able to control something from an app does not make it smart or does not make it “automated” it only makes it connected. Automation, on the other hand, comes in when you start using data to control things for you. That data can come from sensors, the weather or user habits and then learn to control aspects of the home based off of that data. Control4 has a strong advantage in this aspect but again lacks the interoperability with devices and ecosystems that the DIY route has. More-so for me “The Dis-Integrated Home” comes from when people do not finish what they start or do not truly know what they want. People may be perfectly happy with being able to control there lights or whatever from there phone but that should not be lumped in with home automation.
The next point “The Tyranny of Expediency” is another point that I do not disagree with. What Mr. Haegers is saying is that things come up and projects take a back seat to life sometimes, whether money or any other life event distracts you from any goal you will always have a hard time getting back on track. Unfortunately, Mr. Haegers focuses mostly on the money here and implies that people go the DIY route to be cheap so I will stick with the financial aspect. What Mr. Haegers neglects to point out, however, is the sheer cost of a Control4 system with professional installation and ongoing service. As a sub-point to “The Tyranny of Expediency,” Mr. Haegers points the deficiency finger at wireless communications protocols but again neglects to point out the Control4 uses wireless technology itself, they support Zigbee! That being said I am not sure I can put any value in that aspect of the writers point but I will agree that things will always come up that will sidetrack us, its human nature but from the DIY space you can work through this if you have a goal in mind and a plan for getting there. You can also change devices if you need to cut some costs and have the flexibility as most of the DIY ecosystems support such a wide range of products from manufacturers big and small.
The last point brought up by Mr. Haegers is “Failure of Imagination” and I just flat out disagree with this. I would even go as far as saying many Control4 customers who have integrates install systems suffer from this more than the DIYers. In the DIY space, you have to use your imagination and have to have a big picture in mind and is able to evolve as life changes and systems need to change. You lose this imagination with a system like Control4, yes it may be supplemented by a good integrator who can insert there own imagination but ultimately that is not the end users and may not be what the end user wants because a lot of the time in just about every aspect of our lives we do not know what we want.
As I mentioned in the beginning “The DIY Delusion of Home Automation” by Ted Haegers points out a lot of issues that face home automation as a whole and not just the DIY space. To many of his points think I have been able to counter which why DIY would have an advantage over a closed ecosystem where you are dependent on an integrator to make even the simplest changes. Home automation, whether DIY or don for you is a skill set and something that requires research. You can learn a lot online and you can learn even more from experience, through trial and error. Yes, this trial and error and experience may cost you time and money but it is worth it because, in the end, you will have a system that works exactly how you want it using the devices that you want. With DIY you do not have to make any sacrifices and you are not locked into anything. So if you are interested in home automation (if you are reading this you are interested enough) take a chance and try something, if that does not work try something else even if that is a custom professionally installed system, just make sure you research what you are doing before you do it and make sure you have a vision that is flexible for what you want.
August Smart Locks and Doorbells have been around for some time now and are typically a go-to for people who want an easy solution. I have played with August Locks many times but have always chosen to go a different route. Well, today August has announced a series of integration updates for Google Home, Amazon Alexa, and IFTTT which in my opinion really make August a contender for those of us looking to have the best possible experiences from our connected devices.
On the Amazon Alexa front, August has updated their skill to take advantage of the newer doorbell API available from Amazon allowing for visitor announcement from the August Doorbell Cam Pro. You can also use the motion sensor in the August Doorbell Cam Pro to create Alexa routines which are a nice little bonus.
August has also updated its IFTTT channel and added August Doorbell Cam Pro integration which allows us to use the motion sensor and the button as triggers in IFTTT recipes. I can see a lot of interesting possibilities with this.
The big update, however, comes to Google Home with August adding voice unlock functionality to Google Home via the August Smart Lock. I have never really been a fan of voice unlocking of doors but I do like that if you do say “Okay Google, Unlock my door” it will ask you for a preprogrammed security code before doing so adding a layer of security. In addition to this August is also adding the same visitor announcement functionality with the August Doorbell Cam Pro that it added to Alexa to the Google voice assistant. I am interested to see if like the Nest Hello the August Doorbell Cam Pro will announce the visitor’s name.
I guess now is the season of streaming media getting voice control. Yesterday I wrote about the Nvidia Shield TV getting Amazon Alexa support and today Roku is getting Google Assistant support. Starting today you can now add Roku as a “Home Control” service in the Google Home app allowing you to control your Roku from a Google Home. Now since there are a lot of Roku devices you will have to make sure you have a compatible device. The list below shows all of the devices.
Once you have added your Roku device as a “Home Control” service in Google Home you will be able to issue commands like:
“Okay Google, find action films on Roku”
“Okay Google, launch “Insert Channel Name” on Roku”
“Okay Google, mute on Roku”
“Okay Google, pause/fast forward/rewind on Roku”
“Okay Google, turn on Roku”
“Okay Google, turn up/down the volume on Roku”
Roku integration with Google Home brings us one step closer to controlling our lives completely by voice and I could not be happier as this is one less thing that I will have to search for a remote to be able to control.
Do you have a compatible Roku and a Google Home? Have you tried this integration? Let me know in the comments below.
Nvidia has launched an Alexa SKill enabling Shield TV users to control the company’s set-top box from your Amazon Echo. With the Nvidia Sheild TV Skill enabled you will be able to say “Alexa, Turn on my Shield TV”. The Nvidia Shield Skill does not stop at just on and off, however, you will also be able to change channels, control volume, and launch apps making it very useful. I would like to see the same functionality we just got on the Fire TV Cube (allowing us to navigate in apps) but I am sure Amazon, for now, is keeping that to itself.
On top of the launch of the Nvidia Shield TV Skill, you can also get an Echo Dot for free right now with the purchase of a Shield TV through Amazon so if you are in the market for a Sheild TV this might be enough to sweeten the pot for you.
Do you own a Nvidia Shield TV, and have you tried out the new Nvidia Shield TV Skill? Let me know your thoughts on the integration in the comments below.