A short romance with Pebble

I picked up a Pebble Time Round cheap on Amazon after seeing a friend sporting one recently. Finally, a watch that's lady-wrist sized! It's pretty and e-paper! It's notifications work and they have adorable animations! It's developer friendly! I love this thing.

Pebble has built-in activity tracking that I'm syncing out to other systems like Google Fit and Fitbit

Pebble has built-in activity tracking that I'm syncing out to other systems like Google Fit and Fitbit

My GadgetWraps strap matches my keyboard. Swoon.

My GadgetWraps strap matches my keyboard. Swoon.

The evening it arrived, the rumours started that Fitbit had acquired Pebble and Pebble would be no more. Uh oh. Did I jump in too late?

So slim. This thing actually just looks like a regular watch.

So slim. This thing actually just looks like a regular watch.

Even with the backlight off, the e-paper displaying my minimal watch face is easy to read at a glance

Even with the backlight off, the e-paper displaying my minimal watch face is easy to read at a glance

Today, Pebble confirmed that the company did indeed get acquired, along with all of it's IP and some of the team.  Pebble is dissolving, and the hardware is no longer being manufactured.

Bummer.  At least I know why it was cheap now.

I'm not returning it. It's a nice device and it's not going to stop working overnight and really, what are the alternatives for a slim watch that doesn't look like you strapped a circa-1999 Nokia to your arm? The Time Round is arguably the only feature-rich wearable that appears to have not been exclusively designed for chunky white guys. 

There's an alternative operating system for the watches, called GadgetBridge, that I may have to look into but honestly, given that most hardware these days seems destined to return to the sand it was once formed from within a year or two, I didn't believe this was a forever deal anyway.

 

Braun Oral-B 3000 Bluetooth toothbrush

Getting a bluetooth toothbrush was never my intention.  A third Philips Sonicare died in our household in 18 months, so I felt it was time to give the competition a go and that's just what I ended up with for "free". Why Braun hasn't branded these models BlueToothBrushes is anyone's guess. My marketing consultancy rates are reasonable, FYI.

Let's be clear - the bluetooth aspect of this toothbrush is useless - but, like Gillette and the endless blades, they've got to innovate somewhere, right?

It's so overwhelmingly stupid that I can't really be bothered to write much about it.  The app only lets you set up one user, so if you're in a household that uses one handset with multiple heads - well, you're gonna get bonus fake brushing points.  It might have made sense if it was to encourage kids to brush their teeth, but the application is clinically boring.  To quote Dr Ian Malcolm, "Your Scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."

It doesn't even tweet.

Amazon Echo Dot 2nd Generation

We're taking our first proper foray into the voice-activated side of home automation with the new Amazon Echo Dot 2nd Generation.  This is the first Dot you can order independently from the Amazon Echo - previously, you could only order a Dot via the original Echo device. This one also only cost me $50, instead of the $179 for the full Echo (I tried to get one of these on Amazon's big black friday sale thing - but their website crashed. Poor me.).

It's going to take a few weeks to really get a feel for it, but here's a couple of immediate reactions to the device after receiving and unboxing it yesterday.

It's tiny!  

This thing is literally palm size and about as thick as a stack of coasters.  Given the quality of the sound that comes out of it and how well Alexa picks up my voice - I'm really impressed with the hardware.

It's confusing to set up.  

The Alexa app already knew that I'd bought the device and gave no prompts on it as to where to go to get the wifi set up.  We had at least 2 minutes of Alexa loudly complaining that it didn't have an internet connection.  Software usability definitely feels like the weaker side.

Alexa is not totally comfortable with my British accent. 

I'll be back with more on Alexa after she's settled in a bit.

MySmartBlinds review

Back in October of 2014 I backed my first kickstarter project - a set of devices to make blinds "smart".  A little earlier this year, the fruits of this particular project started to arrive and now that I've been using them for a couple of months, I'm ready to show you how MySmartBlinds are working out.

MySmartBlinds are exactly what they sound like - they're devices that you put into your slatted blinds to make them controllable via a mobile device. I've got 3 sets installed - 2 in the bedroom and one in the office.  They require no hardwiring, but do require a bluetooth compatible iOS or Android device for setup and control.

The good

Firstly - they're a lot better than I expected.  After installation, they've basically worked without interference since. To me, this is a good sign - very few of the "smart" things I've put into the house have gone in without some amount of wrangling and debugging from the start. I also misunderstood from the pitch that they would require removing the tilt-wand - but this actually stays as part of the system and acts as a manual switch to the system - tugging the wand tilts the blinds a little in a cycle, so no need to pull out a phone to make a small change. The optional add-on remotes are nice for phone-free control, too.

I've set the blinds up so that they open in the mornings.  At a time that I'd like to be waking up, the blinds gradually open up over a 15 minute block.  It's a much more preferable way to wake than a blaring alarm or from up-dimming the interior lighting (I tried this for a while - the artificial light was just too jarring).  The blinds then close up again at night at a set time, which is nice from a privacy point of view on the busy road we live on.  I haven't tried it yet, but they also have a "sun tracking" mode, which does exactly what you think it does, enabling the system to adapt to varying light levels throughout the year.

The motors themselves are powered by a battery that lives in the top of the blinds, hidden away which are either charged over USB or with a solar powered add-on. Since I installed the blinds a few months back, I haven't had to charge them yet, and MySmartBlinds promise a rather vague 6-12 months of charge with "average" use.

The bad

Some caveats to that, however - the android version of the app seems buggy and I had issues using that to setup and control the blinds.  The iOS version seems to be a lot more functional.  I also had some difficulty updating the firmware on a couple of them, which necessitated removing and re-adding them to the app.

The app itself is rather amateurish looking and seems out of place along side more polished-looking apps on my phone.  I also, as always, wish it had a) a web-based version because it's 2016 and b) had outside application connectivity - this is yet another siloed system that can't communicate with my other IoT home devices. It means I can't change behaviour based on whether we're away or have guests, for example.

They're also loud. I mean, they're pretty mechanical, so of course they make a noise, but I didn't realise how loud they'd be.  It's not a deal breaker since opening and closing happens so quickly and mostly not when I'm right next to them. Here's a video, though, to give you a better idea of what the motors sound like, as well as latency between app and blind (which is actually pretty decent).

 

Conclusion

I love 'em.  I've still got one kit left that I haven't been able to use anywhere - but I would definitely get a couple more kits for upgrading all windows in the house when I eventually get around to replacing the roller blinds in those rooms.

Price points?  Well, the kits I have (enough for 4 windows, plus 2 remotes) cost me $249 via kickstarter.  I didn't get the solar powered option - I got the set that included some very long USB cables for each window.

The equivalent currently retails for $99 per basic kit (everything you need to control a window via your phone), $60 per remote, $14 for the long USB chargers and $45 for solar panel add-on. Of course, unlike Somfy, or another built-in system, they're restricted in regards to the type of blinds they work on but a Somfy system starts at around $270 making this is a pretty cost-effective, easily temporary, entry-level option.

Hidrate Spark smart bottle review

My phone did not truly capture the strong Win95 vibes this cap is giving me.

 

Taking dangerous steps into the land of We Put a Chip In It, I backed and just received the Hidrate Spark - a "smart" water bottle that tracks how much you're drinking.

I don't have a ton to say about it. It doesn't need charging (see below). It holds water, which you can later drink. You can pair it with bluetooth to an app on your phone that'll log the water you drink (or pour into your houseplants, as I've been doing).

Most "you must drink seventeen gallons of water an hour to not return to a feral state" advice is quackery at it's best, but since I subsist on mostly tea and gin, I figured I could stand to take in a little more of the pure stuff. The bottle glows from time to time to tell you to drink more water - that's the smart bit.

Thoughts about the bottle:

  • It's huge! I've never owned a water bottle this big. I didn't know everyone else was carrying around so much in a clean-water-available-in-taps country.
  • The soft silicone of the main compartment feels quite nice and soft (not sure why this matters) and the teal colour I picked is pretty cool and makes me think watery thoughts. However, the cap colour doesn't match and is more of a murky green Windows 95 shade in hard plastic.
  • Operating the button to flip the lid is noisy - but that's okay, because it's important to notify your colleagues that you're hydrating, so they know you're about to be more alert.
  • The glow is fun, but underwhelming.
  • The sync and glow smart features are disappointing since neither of those features appear to reliably work.
  • It holds water.

I went to look up how to remove and change the battery and it looks like they'll be selling new batteries. Fool me once... But, I believe that without a charged battery, the bottle will retain all of it's water-holding abilities. I'll let you know if that isn't the case.

I got an early bird cheap-o price on the thing, but I believe they retail at about $50 + replacement battery once a year.

Conclusion: You can probably skip this one.

It's vital that the phone is really close

Location! Great! Now I'll know if I left it at the gym (only kidding)

This is where the magic happens. This wand houses all the smarts - but it can't go in the dishwasher.

Why yes, I am sporting the new FitBit Alta. Thanks for asking.

My go-to water bottle (kleen kanteen) for additional scale.

Keeping a smart home guest-friendly

Chatting last night with an out-of-town friend staying at another smart home I know in the city, he was recounting arriving off a long-haul flight and being unable to simply turn off the lights in the guest room. "I just want to go to sleep, shout at the system to turn the lights off, will you!", he apparently told his host while being also asked to download, install, sign-up and log into an app, half-asleep.

It's all very well having a smart home you can run from your phone, but it's not much use to anyone who just pops by or stays for a little while.  Asking them to download and sign-in to a system just isn't really practical (and that's assuming they have the compatible hardware/operating system in the first place).  

Keeping the house accessible

I keep a few techniques in mind when adding new features to the flat.

1. The house is progressively enhanced

In web development, we have this concept of progressive enhancement, which means that you start by building websites with the very most basic blocks - HTML elements.  Then you enhance those basic elements with CSS to make them look better, then you add JavaScript to make them whizzy - the benefit being that if the JS or the CSS fail to load, you've still go the basic usable blocks underneath.  I'm following this same principle in the house.  

The switch on the left is internet enabled, but both of these dimmers work as you'd expect when you press them, regardless of connectivity. Excuse the paint job.

The switch on the left is internet enabled, but both of these dimmers work as you'd expect when you press them, regardless of connectivity. Excuse the paint job.

At the basic level, my first-world house is 4 walls and a roof - without power, it generally keeps me out of the elements.  With power, I get to turn on lights and the microwave.  

If I consider that the house + power is the basic foundation of the house, then anything I add after needs to maintain the ability to use the house in that state.  As such, when I then add the internet enhancement (smart home) then the light switches need to still work manually even if I'm overriding them later on in other ways.  In short: if I turn off the internet, the house should still fundamentally work because anything other than that would be ridiculous.

2. Guest routines

Smartthings, and most of the other systems, have modes or routines to pre-configure your setup in some way - movie night, party, vacation, whatever - so I have a "visitors" mode.  This mode disables any of my own weird routines and essentially puts any switches that don't have easily accessible switches (behind tables, under desks) in the guest room in always-on mode, which means that the lamps and whatnot plugged into smart switches are always controllable by the switches on the device that a normal human would expect to turn off the light.

3. Spare keys with location tags

I could even make one of those twee welcome frames you see all over pinterest. 

I could even make one of those twee welcome frames you see all over pinterest. 

The spare keys to our home generally have tags on them, to let the system know when a guest is coming or going - especially useful when we're actually away but have let people stop over.  Our handyman has one of these, for example.  The arrival of one of these tags lets the system know we have a guest and to turn on the appropriate mode if not already enabled.

4. Web accessible dashboard

Instead of having to download a native app to use any enhancements in the house, I've got a web-accessible dashboard that gives access to special modes and functions available on a tablet in the kitchen, or I can give a guest the URL and password for it while I'm also letting them know the WiFi password so they can get online - I'm not a total control-freak monster, after all - giving them as much control as they'd like with none of the commitment.  

In short, I'm making every effort to make a silly smarthouse-hobby my problem only.  Plus, it's usability insurance for when the system inevitably breaks.