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.

Flic button review

Last week, I had a delivery of a set of Flic buttons.  They're simply small, low-energy bluetooth buttons that can be used to control... well... almost anything you like!

The form factor is really nice - they're about the size of a stack of 4 US quarters, come with a sticky back and are covered in nice, soft silicon in a range of colours.  You can also additionally add a clip to the back so you can wear the button on clothing or clipped to a bag.  The production values on them are really good and they feel like quality buttons.  They have a pleasing LED red light inside them that glows through the inset text when they're being configured and the button press feels responsive and "pleasingly pushable", if you know what I mean.

To try them out, I set up a button for my husband.  You see, in our bedroom, I control all the lights via a small remote (the Aeon Minimote), however I often fall asleep first and then my husband grumbles that the remote is "all the way" on my side of the bed and he has to fumble with his phone, find the app, turn everything off, blah blah. 

So, I gave him the first Flic button to do the same things on his side of the bed - the button is stuck to the side of his night stand.  A single press turns off all the lights, a longer press turns the night stand lights on.  It took less than a couple of minutes to set up the whole process, including creating the IFTTT channels to talk to SmartThings.

The buttons took seconds to pair with my phone (Android Marshmallow, Nexus 5x) and the app itself is nicely designed with lots of ready-to-use options, plus having IFTTT and a HTTP channel means that if you're into DIY/coding you've got an even wider set of options.  The app has some cute details including wobbling the buttons in the app as they're pressed in the real world.

Conclusion

The buttons are nicely made, easy to use and convenient for shortcuts.  They take normal coin-cell batteries and should last a good long time.  They do however need to be within 50 metres of the paired phone, so if you want to set them up to work when the connected phone is not in range, you're out of luck. 

The cost is somewhat prohibitive.  They're $34 each!  I bought my on pre-order way back in July - getting a set of 3 + clip for $99 + $10 shipping. They're currently selling packs of 4 for the same price ($99 + $10), so given that I pre-ordered and waited 6 months for them, I'm not exactly over the moon that they didn't give me the option to change my order to a pack of 4.  If you're looking for buttons to control a z-wave system, the Aeon Minimote is less than $30 and has 4 buttons with multiple modes and doesn't requite a permanent phone connection.

If you don't mind the money and you intend to use them as a companion to your phone's presence, the buttons are sound, nice to use and the software so far is good.  I've heard on the grapevine that iOS users are having trouble getting them paired (the Amazon reviews are certainly leaning that way), so you might want to check on that before shelling out, however.

Amazon Dash button review

Amazon finally worked out that I didn't want to spend money to have a button that helps me spend more money, so they are currently offering Amazon Dash buttons for $4.99, but giving you back that money on the first order.  Better than nothing and the excuse I was looking for to try them out on things I'd have to buy sooner or later anyway.

Amazon has a range of nearly 30 branded buttons now available.  I picked two buttons - one for ordering Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and one for Cottonelle.  Arguably, I probably should only have got the latter, but I've had a soft spot for Kraft MnC since I met my American husband.  My motherland would never have created a thing of such luminous cheesiness.

 Minimalist packaging for the buttons.

Minimalist packaging for the buttons.

 Cottenelle and Kraft buttons.

Cottenelle and Kraft buttons.

 The blue strip is the sticky backing.

The blue strip is the sticky backing.

The buttons are a little larger than I expected - surprisingly thick and heavy - but I like that they can be stuck to a surface or hung somewhere, as they come with a removal black outer shell.  You could feasibly put them all on a keychain or some such, but they're bigger than most modern electric car-keys.  I've stuck mine to the inside of the doors that house the products for optimum clickability.

 You can choose from a range of appropriate products during setup.

You can choose from a range of appropriate products during setup.

 Multiple-item ordering is off by default, preventing over-ordering.

Multiple-item ordering is off by default, preventing over-ordering.

Setup is super fast and easy using Amazon's shopping app. You press the button to put it into pairing mode (blue light) and the app does the rest.  During the process, you're able to select the specific product type and quantity you want the button to order as well as confirming delivery and payment details. You can also enable multiple orders, allowing the button to send for more of the product even if one order is already in progress.  

The button LED flashes green for a successful order and red for a failed one (presumably when it hasn't been able to connect to the service).  If no order had been made for that item, or you had allowed for multi-orders, then the order just goes through without interaction, but the app will let you know it happened (you can turn the notifications entirely off, too, if you'd prefer) so you can change your mind before the order is processed.

They're pretty basic, but they do what they say on the tin.  My concern with them comes from my experience with a similar Amazon service; Subscribe and Save.  Instead of a button, you can ask amazon to regularly send you items you need, but I've found that I use the service so infrequently, that every time it comes around to the week it wants to send me something, the original item I chose is no longer available and I have to go and manually select and order the item anyway.  

If the same proves to me true for the Dash button orders, then the system may just become a "press the button to remind me to order that thing", but we shall see how it goes.

Sleep data - Comparing Hello Sense, Fitbit Charge and Bellabeat Leaf

Thought it might be fun to run a comparison of sleep logging on a few of my devices.  

For reference, I wore the Fitbit Charge on my left (non-dominant) wrist, the Bellabeat Leaf clipped to the neckline of my night vest and the Hello Sense is of course clipped to my pillowcase. I sleep primarily on my side/smushed partially face-down and I'm quite a light-sleeper.

In terms of data points I've recorded, here's a break down:

  • Sleep score - This is a number the software gives, generally a percentage of total sleep time.
  • Total sleeping time - The time the software said I was asleep in some way (with caveats, see next item).
  • Deep sleep - This seems to vary by system, some counting what I presume they're inferring to be REM time, but it looks like Fitbit is counting this as all the time I was "asleep" with "total sleeping time" being time in bed total, asleep or not.
  • Times woken - Exactly what it says.  I wake at least once a night, every night, for sure.
  • Fell asleep - The time the software believes I, well, fell asleep.
  • Wake up - The time the software believes I was first awake in the morning.
  • Out of bed - The time the software believes I physically got out of bed.
  • A ? indicates - The software doesn't offer a value that fits the category.

So, let's have a look at the numbers!  

I've got 3 full days of data, and one partial. Why so little? I forgot to record the Sense data each morning for a few days and it turns out you can't go back and look at previous nights.  Major fail for the Hello Sense right there.  I'm also missing a night of the Leaf's data because I forgot to put it on. Update: The friendly Hello Sense people just emailed me to let me know I can go back and see previous nights data! The gesture was a little non-obvious - but a slide right will go backwards. 

 Fitbit ChargeHello SenseBellabeat Leaf
MondaySleep score96%77-
 Total sleeping time7h54m6.7h-
 Deep sleep7h2m2.5h-
 Times woken20-
 Fell asleep23:560.31-
 Wake up07:5607:12-
 Out of bed?08:35-
TuesdaySleep score93%8197%
 Total sleeping time10h11m8.9h9h24m
 Deep sleep8h49m2.7h?
 Times woken201
 Fell asleep22:4123.5823:07
 Wake up08:518.5208:42
 Out of bed?8.48?
WednesdaySleep score97%7898%
 Total sleeping time9h36m9.9h8h58m
 Deep sleep8h56m4.8h?
 Times woken302
 Fell asleep23:3923:1700:19
 Wake up09:1409:1309:39
 Out of bed?09:24?
ThursdaySleep score95%8176%
 Total sleeping time10h7m7.6h5h32m
 Deep sleep9h35m3.1h?
 Times woken200
 Fell asleep22:4323:0601:36
 Wake up08:4906:4207:08
 Out of bed?09:01?

 

On Wednesday, the Sense alarm failed and didn't wake me up, so I overslept and on Thursday only 1 of two Sense alarms went off (I reported the outage, and I think they know what it was and fixed it). Thursday night I *definitely* got up at least twice.  I had a Leaf alarm set every morning, and although I felt it go off once (because I was already awake), it was never the thing to wake me up. The Fitbit alarm works well and has yet to not wake me up when used.  For reference, my first alarm in the morning goes off at 8:00am (lucky me) and then a second to get me up at 8:25 if I haven't shifted by then.

Which feels more accurate?  

Based on what I know about my own sleep habits and routine (don't judge my lazy ass), the Fitbit Charge data fits best and I'd take that one as feeling most accurate - not having any proper professional equipment strapped to me, I can't be certain, of course.  

Comparing the BellaBeat Leaf to the Fitbit data, it does seem to be pretty far off the mark - often not noticing that I've fell asleep until after the other systems.  It was also the weakest in terms of the amount of data and breakdowns in the 3 systems. 

The Sense seems intermittently accurate and is prone to believe I'm awake a lot earlier than I generally am.  I'm very surprised that the Sense hasn't noticed when I've been out of bed at night, but I wonder how much bed sharing effects that (it often just notes "you and your partner were both restless" at certain times that I suspect may be when I've been up or awake).  

Having said that, I don't think any of them are accurately recording how much time I spend in quality sleep, but I don't particularly expect a system that relies solely on tracking movement to be able to do that.  Make of this data what you will , but the bottom line on sleep data by fitness trackers should probably be to take what they tell you with a large pinch of salt.