enautomate https://enautomate.com ...your hub for Smart Home information Fri, 26 Jul 2019 17:20:52 -0400 en-CA hourly 1 https://enautomate.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2019/05/Enautomate-Gear-150x150.png enautomate https://enautomate.com 32 32 112112545 15 Ways To Get Started Using Alexa https://enautomate.com/2018/03/17/alexa-skills/ https://enautomate.com/2018/03/17/alexa-skills/#respond Sat, 17 Mar 2018 19:14:36 +0000 https://enautomate.com/?p=1865
You have set up your new Alexa device and now it’s time to figure out what Alexa can do for you.  Alexa has over twenty five thousand different skills so there is lots of room to experiment.   Before taking a deep dive into all the possibilities, here’s some suggestions for the first 15 things to try that Alexa can do natively.

1. Timers & Alarms

Timers and alarms can be used to make a sound at a particular time or a set number of minutes or hours from now.
Sample Voice Commands:
To set a timer:  “Alexa, set a timer for X minutes” – great for in the Kitchen!
To set a sleep timer on music:  “Alexa, stop playing music in 90 minutes”
To set the default alarm:  “Alexa, wake me at 7 am”
To set an alarm to music:  “Alexa, wake me at 7 am to x playlist”

2. Measurement conversions

Conversions can be used with recipes, crafts, renovations or any time you need to convert one unit of measurement to another.  Alexa can convert measurements of liquids, mass, weight, or dimensions.
Sample Voice Commands:
“Alexa, convert 1/4 cup to ounces” – great for working with recipes
“Alexa, how many kilograms is 120 pounds?”
“Alexa, how many feet in 75 inches” – works great during renovations or in the garage

3. Jokes to have a laugh (or a groan)

Sometimes you just need a laugh and Alexa is always there to provide a short and sometimes groan-worthy joke.
Sample Voice Commands:
“Alexa, tell me a joke”.
If you are more adventurous, you can ask Alexa to get way more specific than that.  Try things like: “Alexa, tell me a superhero joke” or “Alexa, tell me a ‘insert holiday here’ joke” for fun seasonal hijinks.

4. Interface with your home automation

Alexa really starts to shine when she can take small tasks off your hands or more importantly, do them when your hands are full.  Things like locking the door, turn an appliance on and off, turning on or off the lights, or changing the temperature.  If you have any additional smart devices in your home chances are that Alexa can control them.
Sample Voice Commands:
“Alexa, turn on the living room lights”
“Alexa, make me a cup of coffee”
“Alexa, set temperature to 71 degrees”

5. Define or spell words for you

If you are playing Scrabble, writing a report, or need to know the meaning or spelling of a word, Alexa can help!
Sample Voice Commands:
“Alexa, spell beige”
“Alexa, define antidisestablishmentarianism”

6. Reminders & Calendars

Never forget an important date or task again!  Before you use these skills, make sure you go into the settings in the Alexa App and set up a voice profile so that she can learn your voice.  Otherwise, the reminders will go to the default profile.  Alexa can’t currently schedule recurring events, but hopefully that will be coming in a future update.  Alexa will read your reminders and it will also pop up if you are using the Alexa App.
Sample Voice Commands:
“Alexa, remind me on Tuesday to call Jack at 10 am.”
“Alexa, how many days until Christmas?”

7. Games

If you have some time to spare, try out one of Alexa’s games.  Examples of games that come with Alexa are 20 Questions and Heads Up.   There are thousands of other games available and you can search in the Skills site to enable other games like Match Game, Guess The Celebrity, Jeopardy.
Sample Voice Commands:
“Alexa, play a game” and Alexa will offer games one at a time.  If you know the game you want to play, say
“Alexa, play 20 questions”

8. Shopping

Alexa can help you with both shopping on Amazon or creating separate shopping lists in the Alexa App.  To shop on Amazon, just ask Alexa to add items to your cart.
Sample Voice Command:
“Alexa, add toilet paper to my cart”
You can also ask Alexa to populate a shopping list in the App that you can use to keep track of your needs or search for on Amazon.  The default list is called “Shopping List” but you can create more lists, like Groceries or For the Kids.
Sample Voice Command:
“Alexa, add cookies to Groceries”

9. Weather

If you’re looking for the weather in your home location as listed on your profile, you can just ask for the weather but you can also ask for the weather in other locations.
Sample Voice Commands:
“Alexa, what is the weather like today/tomorrow/this week”
“Alexa, will I need an umbrella on Tuesday?”
“Alexa, will I need a jacket tomorrow?”
“Alexa, what is the weather forecast for Las Vegas”

10. Music

Of course, your Echo is also a speaker!  Use Alexa to play from Amazon Prime, Pandora, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or you can  import your music collection into Amazon Music. You can also pair  your Echo with your phone or other Bluetooth device to stream music.
Sample Voice Commands:
“Alexa, play absolute Radio on TuneIn” – Alexa sometimes has trouble finding particular stations but adding TuneIn to the end of the request for a specific station often works.  If you have Amazon Music or almost any other music service you can integrate them with skills.  Alexa can also find a song for you if you know some of the lyrics. For example:
“Alexa, what is the song that goes I am loving you more”

11. News flash

Interested in a news briefing?  Set up your preferences in the Alexa App and any of the following voice commands will provide the news you’ve selected.  Choices include over 4,000 sources including CNET, CNBC, BBC, Fox News, CNN, The Tonight Show, People, Motley Fool, etc.  You can choose multiple sources and set the order that Alexa will provide them to you.
Sample Voice Commands:
“Alexa, tell me the news”
“Alexa, what happened today”
“Alexa, give me a flash briefing”

12. Play podcasts (from Tune In) and audiobooks (from Audible)

Alexa will play any podcast from Tune In and audiobooks from Audible.
Sample Voice Commands:
“Alexa, play the podcast Spark” – This will play the latest episode but you can also request a specific episode.
“Alexa, play Crushing It from Audible”

13. Sleep sounds

Having trouble sleeping or concentrating on your work?  Use Alexa to play some ambient sounds like oceans, birds, etc.
Sample Voice Commands:
“Alexa, play white noise”
“Alexa, play thunderstorms”
“Alexa, play nature sounds”

14. Trivia

Alexa is great at trivia and you can ask lots of useful things when you are bored or trying to settle an argument with a friend.
Sample Voice Commands:
“Alexa, when is the next full moon?”
“Alexa, who was the first person in space?”

15. Easter eggs

In addition to all the useful skills that are built-in when you purchase an Alexa device, there are some surprises.  Try any of the following!
Sample Voice Commands:
“Alexa, set phasers to stun”
“Alexa, speak Klingon”
“Alexa, I am your father”
“Alexa, are you Skynet?”
“Alexa, self destruct”

Enabling Other Alexa Skills

When you’re ready to enable additional skills, visit Amazon’s Alexa site and browse top skills or search by category to add skills to your device.

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Smart Switch vs. Smart Device https://enautomate.com/2018/02/28/smart-switch-vs-smart-device/ https://enautomate.com/2018/02/28/smart-switch-vs-smart-device/#respond Wed, 28 Feb 2018 05:21:28 +0000 https://enautomate.com/?p=1184
As you add more Home Automation you are sure to encounter one of the great automation debates: “Smart Switch vs. Smart Device”.  One camp claims it is best to control things from a switch the other directly from the device.  Both have strong opinions and there is no end to the arguments.  We are going to give our opinion about when each solution works best. First let’s look at what a smart switch and a smart device are:

Smart Switch

This is a switch, installed just like a regular light switch on a wall in your home, but with additional connectivity and control features.  Smart Switches range from ones that look just like a regular switch with basic home automation control software built in (see the GE Z-Wave smart switch) right up to switches with large touch screen displays and tons of features (see the Nubryte  (Amazon),  or Brilliant switches).

Smart Device

These are devices that are controlled remotely and often include additional features and functionality that go beyond ordinary devices.  One example is Smart Lighting.  What makes the lights ‘smart’ is that the bulbs can be turned on and off via an app and may have more advanced features like the ability to change colors, dim, join together in scenes, and a wide range of other options depending on the vendor and model of bulb.

The advantages of using  a Smart Switch include:

  1. Any device becomes ‘smart’ and can be controlled remotely or added to a scene
  2. Once they are installed you can change the device and maintain the automation without changing the programming in the smart home controller
  3. They are simple to use and basic versions are not threatening to non-technical people
  4. They are standardized and relatively straightforward to install
  5. It is easy to know when the device is set to on or off (unlike a smart device which is typically always on and only goes to sleep or into stand-by mode  when it is ‘off’) and you know that no power is being delivered to the device or devices connected to the switch.

The disadvantages of using a Smart Switch include:

  1. Basic switches are limited to simple controls and only a few signals; often used for simple ‘on’ and ‘off’ control or a scene with multiple devices but still only with ‘on’ and ‘off’ functionality.
  2. Basic switches have limited feedback.  If they don’t work it takes digging into trickier and more technical backend systems to understand why.  To help with this some basic switches have a small light that will flash when a signal is sent and may even flash in a sequence or different color if there is a problem.
  3. If the switch stops working it usually means that something  major is not working and will impact routine functions vs. a Smart Device that is often an auxiliary or specialty device
  4. A Smart Switch will always start devices in a default state; either the last operating state or a pre-programmed startup state

The advantages of using a Smart Device include:

  1. More granular and flexible control often including remote control
  2. Typically Smart Devices offer increased functionality beyond ‘off’ and ‘on’
  3. Smart Devices can often be programmed to start in a custom mode each time to match the current environment and needs rather than starting in a default state

The disadvantages of using a Smart Device include:

  1. Controlling the device requires a special remote control (often a smart phone or tablet) that can require more steps and be more difficult than a traditional switch to operate
  2. If the power is turned off at the switch the device will not work
  3. The remote control may not always be where you need it, when you need it
  4. Additional functionality adds complexity and may results in more frequent breakdowns


We recommend that you use the following guidelines to determine when you should use a Smart Switch, a Smart Device, or both:
  1. Use a regular switch for safety systems or critical devices e.g. the light switch for a furnace or for lights going into a dark basement.
  2. Use a Smart Switch for anything that will be used regularly and by multiple people e.g. a light switch in a TV room.
  3. Use a Smart Device for anything that regularly needs custom settings changed or provides feedback that requires a response e.g. a smart doorbell, leak or smoke detector.
  4. Use both an advanced Smart Switch (with a screen) and a Smart Device if you have a complicated environment with multiple people using the space and complex scenes with a range of different tasks and needs.  For example at a main entry way for a smart home or in a multi-purpose recreational room.
These recommendations are not hard and fast rules and there are loads of special circumstances where one solution or another works better.  Let us know if you have different ideas or suggestions!
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Amazon Echo Buying Guide: Which One Should You Buy? https://enautomate.com/2018/02/24/amazon-echo-buying-guide/ https://enautomate.com/2018/02/24/amazon-echo-buying-guide/#respond Sat, 24 Feb 2018 23:21:34 +0000 https://enautomate.com/?p=1428
One of the best things about smart speakers is how quick and easy they are to get working.  You only need to have three things to get started with Amazon Alexa.

What Do I Need Before I buy an Amazon Echo Device?

  1. A wireless network
  2. A smartphone or tablet with the Alexa App downloaded.  An alternative to setting up Alexa with the app is to use the web browser a web browser to set it up on your computer here: https://alexa.amazon.com.
  3. An Amazon account.
As long as you have these 3 things, you are ready to go ahead with purchasing an Amazon smart speaker.

Which Amazon Echo to Buy?

As of early 2018, there are 5 categories of Amazon Alexa devices.  The chart below outlines the purpose and pros and cons of each type of Echo device:  
Device Best For Purpose Pros Cons Cost
Echo & Echo Dot Every day usage. Voice assistant and smart speaker.  The Echo provides better sound quality than the Dot but the Dot is better suited to smaller areas like a bedroom or bathroom. Inexpensive entry-level Alexa devices that provide access to all Alexa skills available through the voice assistant.   While you can use Bluetooth to connect any Echo to any other Bluetooth speaker, the Dot & the Tap are the only Echo devices that provide an auxiliary out to connect directly to non-Bluetooth speakers or receivers. The Echo Dot provides very basic sound quality.   No video options.   Only controls wifi-enabled home automation devices (e.g. Nest, WeMo, Ecobee).  Requires an external hub (like Samsung SmartThings) to control other smart home devices (Zigbee or Z-Wave). $99.99 US/$49.99 US
Echo Plus People who want to use many Zigbee devices but do not want to purchase an external hub. Voice assistant plus built-in Zigbee smart home hub. You can control Zigbee devices like Philip Hue bulbs, Yale locks and GE switches without requiring an external Zigbee hub (like Samsung SmartThings hub or a Wink hub). You would still require an external hub to control Z-Wave or devices with protocols other than Zigbee. $149.99
Echo Show & Echo Spot People who will use the video features. Adds video-calling, video streaming, and visual prompts and information to the basic Echo devices. Adds functionality with the video options.  Can integrate with your home security system with the purchase of an additional Amazon Cloud Cam. Video calling is limited to the location of the device – the Echo is not portable as it must be plugged in during use.  There is a significant additional cost for these devices so they are not recommended unless you will be using the video features. $229.99/$129.99
Echo Look People with an interest in fashion or those with low vision seeking guidance on outfits. Designed with a focus on personal style Only Echo that offers a “style assistant” to provide advice on outfits and help you build your own personal lookbook of photos and videos.   Provides fashion guidance for people  with low vision. Sound quality is equivalent to a Smartphone speaker.     $199.99
Tap Those who want to take the Echo with them. Mobile, Bluetooth speaker that functions the same as the Echo when connected to Wi-Fi. Portability – The Tap has a built-in battery and will function like any mobile Bluetooth speaker. Battery needs to be charged.   The sound quality is better than the Dot but less than the Echo. $129.99

And the Recommended Echo is…..

The Amazon Echo (2nd Generation) is our overall recommendation.  It provides the best sound quality, fully functions as a voice assistant, and is reasonably priced.  If sound quality is not essential, the Echo Dot is great for a bedroom to function as an alarm clock or voice assistant.  Finally, if the video options are important to you, our recommendation is the Echo Show.
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Three new Amazon Echo….Echo….Echos…. https://enautomate.com/2017/10/04/new-echos/ https://enautomate.com/2017/10/04/new-echos/#respond Wed, 04 Oct 2017 18:45:07 +0000 https://enautomate.com/?p=1342
It seems like lately there has been a never ending rush of new devices being launched with Amazon’s Alexa AI assistant embedded inside and now, Amazon has added a few new options to their own lineup.  The new devices a focused on three different markets: high-end with a preference for the aesthetic, this who are looking for a device with a screen that is smaller than the Echo Show, and a more advanced version with improved technical features. Amazon Echo 2nd Generation The “All New” 2nd Generation Echo targets the high-end market with a range of fabric and textured exteriors, improved audio quality, and a price of $99.99 USD it takes aim at what is probably the most competitive portion of the market for higher end audio and classier design.     Amazon Echo Spot in White & Black The Echo Spot is the smaller, rounder sibling of the splashy Echo Show and is the second Echo device to include a screen.   It features most of the same functionality as the Echo Show including video calling, watching video clips, onscreen lyrics, and a custom clock face for when it is idle.  The Spot is to the Show as the Dot is the Echo – a smaller, cheaper (retailing for $129.99 USD on December 19, 2017) option.  It has only one speaker and a smaller (2.5″) screen which, if the Dot is any indication, shouldn’t be a deterrent to buyers.  We expect to see lots of these Spots flying off the shelves.   Picture of Amazon Echo Plus in 3 coloursThe Echo Plus targets the techie market with only the slightest nod to updating the look from the original Echo with some minor cosmetic changes and a few new colors.  The main attraction and reason for the ‘Plus’ is all inside.  Amazon has super charged the features and provided a built-in Smart Home hub with a ZigBee radio.  The addition of the hub means that the Echo Plus can now take on a more advanced role and actually directly control and integrate a wide range of smart devices.  When the Plus launches on October 31st, 2017 it will ship for $150 USD and will include a Phillips Hue smart bulb for no additional cost.
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Build Your Own Google Home box! https://enautomate.com/2017/10/03/aiy-voice-kit/ https://enautomate.com/2017/10/03/aiy-voice-kit/#respond Wed, 04 Oct 2017 00:44:44 +0000 https://enautomate.com/?p=1327
Voice Kit - AssembledOn the “this is totally cool” front for those of us who don’t mind  putting a bit of elbow grease and imagination into our Smart Home projects, here comes the $35 Google Home project built with Raspberry Pi.  The Voice Kit by AIY projects was a partnership between Google and Raspberry Pi launched in episode 57 of their MagPi magazine and it’s quickly  becoming a cult classic.
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Brilliant Smart Switch – Whole Home Control at your Light Switch https://enautomate.com/2017/07/04/brilliant-smart-switch/ https://enautomate.com/2017/07/04/brilliant-smart-switch/#respond Wed, 05 Jul 2017 00:03:42 +0000 https://enautomate.com/?p=1188
Here’s another brilliant idea!  Brilliant Home Technologies has created a line of Smart Switches to replace your single, double, triple and even quadruple switches.  The switches take the place of your standard switch, using the same wiring, and add a dimmable controller with touch screen display, occupancy sensor, ambient light sensor, Wi-Fi, and voice control. The Brilliant switches include both Amazon Alexa voice control integrated and Brilliant Voice control to directly control light specific actions.  They also provide video conferencing between switches and integrate with IFTTT. The original batch of products were available for pre-order early in 2017 however are currently sold out.  If you were not able to get in on that deal, Brilliant plans to have full production ready units available for purchase in late 2017. For those interested in the techy details here they are:
  • 120 Volt, 5 Amp light control, dimming compatible
  • Easy to use touch sliders – swipe up/down to turn on/off lights, or hold to dim
  • Motion sensor, ambient light sensor, and voice control
  • Amazon Alexa Voice Services built in
  • Camera with physical privacy cover, providing audio/video intercom capability between two or more Brilliant Controls
  • Brilliant mobile app (available at shipping for iPhone and Android)
  • WiFi connected, supporting up to 802.11n – Ability to connect to and control supported Wifi-enabled smart home products
  • Bluetooth (to connect Brilliant Controls if WiFi not present)
  • 5″ diagonal LCD touch screen with 720×1280 resolution that can display a clock, and customizable scenes: seasonal art, motion art, and photos you upload from the Brilliant mobile app
  • Over the air software updates happen automatically, using industry standard encryption
  • Ability to access the Brilliant Control through IFTTT or the Brilliant Alexa skill
  • 134mm x 80mm x 9mm (5.28″ x 3.15″ x 0.35″) from the wall out, subject to minor changes
  • A 120 Volt single switch gang box, wired to code with load, line, ground, and neutral wires correctly wired (this is what is in the wall behind a typical single light switch)
  • WiFi connectivity (for initial setup and connecting to other smart home devices – Brilliant Controls will control lights without WiFi)
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Samsung Connect Home https://enautomate.com/2017/06/26/samsung-connect-home/ https://enautomate.com/2017/06/26/samsung-connect-home/#respond Mon, 26 Jun 2017 21:58:14 +0000 https://enautomate.com/?p=1112
Samsung Connect Home 3 PackIf you have any interest in a hub to control your smart home you have probably already checked out one of the most popular options available today: the Samsung SmartThings hub.  We think that Samsung makes a great hub and it is our Stuff We Love pick for a home automation hub. The new Samsung Connect Home hub has the same features as the SmartThings hub, will control Bluetooth 4.1, ZigBee and Z-Wave devices, and adds the functionality of a router.  The new hub comes in two versions:  Samsung Connect Home (AC1300) and Samsung Connect Home Pro (AC2600).  The Pro version includes a faster processor to handle the enhanced Wi-Fi that boosts the performance from 866 Mbps on 5GHz and 400 Mbps on 2.4GHz to 1,733 Mbps on 5GHz and 800 Mbps on 2.4 GHz radios.  The non-Pro version comes individually or packaged in a set of three while the Pro only ships individually.  Both hubs will cover up to 1,500 square feet from a single device.  By combining the devices into a mesh (easily done within the app), the pack of three hubs can cover up to 4,500 square feet.  The system can be expanded even further adding up to five Samsung Connect Home devices for mesh network coverage of 7,500 square feet. The Samsung Connect Home will work with a broad and ever increasing range of devices.  However, it is designed to work with Samsung smart phones and devices and some functionality may not be available outside of the Samsung ecosystem or even with older Samsung devices and phones.  The Samsung Connect app that is used to configure both the Wi-Fi and the SmartThings hub was originally announced for the Galaxy S8 only and still may not run on all systems – make sure to verify before you buy. If you are looking for a new router AND a new smart home hub, this is a great way to combine multiple services into one solution that includes some of the best home automation control available with cutting edge home wireless technology.  If you already have a router and just need a hub, the SmartThings hub will meet your needs.
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Eve Degree – A Touch of Functional Elegance https://enautomate.com/2017/06/23/eve-degree/ https://enautomate.com/2017/06/23/eve-degree/#respond Fri, 23 Jun 2017 21:30:01 +0000 https://enautomate.com/?p=1136
What temperature is it on the balconyThe Elgato lineup of HomeKit-enabled Bluetooth low energy (BTLE)-enabled home automation gear has grown to include the Eve Degree.  If you are not familiar with the Elgato lineup of products check them out here.  Their products are all good picks for a range of basic home automation tasks in a simple, Apple centered home automation system.  The Eve Degree is a temperature and humidity monitor and the first Elgato product to include a built in display.  The Eve Degree is designed to be a display piece and you can mount it anywhere from a wine cellar to a balcony and see the current temperature at a glance.  You can also use the Apple HomeKit application on your iPhone or iPad to see historical trends as well as the current measurements.  You can also check on climate information remotely if you have HomeKit setup for remote access via your Apple TV or an iPad. The Eve Degree currently retails for $69.95.  Adding an environmental monitor is a great way to boost the comfort and improve the health of your environment.  If you haven’t already checked out the Elgato lineup of products the Eve Room (currently $79.95), Eve Energy (currently $49.95) and Eve Weather ($49.95) are also interesting environment sensors (minus the display) that monitor more variables than the Eve Degree.

Operating Range

-18 °C – 55 °C / 0 °F – 130 °F 0% – 100% Humidity 260 – 1260 mbar / 7.7 – 37.2 inHg IPX3 Certified


± 0.3 °C / ± 0.54 °F ± 3% Humidity ± 1 mbar / 0.03 inHg


CR2450 Replaceable Battery

Wireless Connection

Bluetooth Low Energy


54 x 54 x 15 mm / 2.1 x 2.1 x 0.6 in
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Smart Home Hubs – Which One To Buy? https://enautomate.com/2017/06/22/smart-hubs/ https://enautomate.com/2017/06/22/smart-hubs/#respond Thu, 22 Jun 2017 21:28:04 +0000 https://enautomate.com/?p=1126
A smart hub is the center of the smart home.  It is the glue that holds everything together, the brains that make things smart, and the translator that helps different devices work together.  A hub is not necessary for a smart home to function but it really does take it to the next level.

Types of Smart Hubs

There are lots of different types of hubs. We break them up into four categories:  virtual, basic, hobbyist, and professional.   Each type fits a different need and we think that most people will likely use some combination of a virtual hub and either a basic or hobbyist hub.  There are no industry standards that break hubs into these categories.  This is how we think of these hubs and while it isn’t easy to draw clear lines to define one category from the next, it’s helpful to understand some of the defining characteristics of each category.  Keep in mind as you are reading this that these categories are based on our opinions and you may not agree with our placement of the examples.  We accept that – it’s simply one way to group the types of hubs based on our experience.

Virtual (Cloud) Hubs

The virtual or cloud hubs are also known as Smart Home Automation Applications and they are so cool we have done an entire Stuff We love article for them on their own.  The virtual hubs are the most basic and do not have dedicated hardware.   There are several great reasons to use a virtual hub:
  • They are often free or low cost
  • They are usually very easy to setup
  • They have preconfigured rules created and maintained by community members that make setting up new services as simple as pointing and clicking.  The virtual hubs are simple brokers that collect information from one location and use it to trigger actions somewhere else.
There are also some drawbacks to using virtual hubs:
  • They depend on an internet connection
  • They can be unreliable
  • Their functionality is limited compared to more advanced hubs
  • They may be trickier to troubleshoot if you have problems
Taking all of the pros and cons into account these ‘hubs’ are still a great way to add functionality.   Whether you have a physical hub or not you should take advantage of adding a virtual hub to you smart home.  However, if you plan to go beyond basic functionality or are adding mission critical pieces to your smart home like home security or safety systems, a physical hub should also be added to your home.

Basic Hubs

Basic hubs are the entry point into a real, physical hub.  These hubs are either consumer focused and do their best to simplify installation and configuration or are narrowly focused on supporting one protocol or ecosystem of products.  Hubs that we classify as falling into this category include the Wink, Iris, and Insteon Hubs.  We also include other devices such as smart speakers with automation control like the Amazon Echo/Dot (Alexa), Google Home (Google Assistant) and Apple HomePod (Siri) as basic hubs. Advantages of using basic hubs are:
  • They frequently use a smartphone or tablet for setup and control and often have applications that will walk you through any changes you want to make.
  • The simple interfaces tend to be slick and easy to use with good, if basic, functionality.
The downsides to these hubs are:
  • They do not offer many options to expand their functionality.  You need to make sure they will control the devices you want them to, in the way you want to control them before you buy the hub.
  • Once you have selected a basic hub you should check before buying new devices to ensure they are supported in the ecosystem (unless you are willing to control them outside of that device).  These are the ‘walled garden’ type hubs that make things easy at the expense of advanced features, flexibility, and the ability to fine tune detailed settings or add fringe or niche products.

Hobbyist Hubs

Hobbyist hubs are for people who are not afraid to go out on a bit of a limb.  These hubs have nice interfaces but they tend to be more cluttered and crowded with options and flexible settings that can make them daunting to people who are not comfortable with technology.  These hubs tend to have a wider range of radios, features and options for expansion.  They are the high end for the amateur home automation enthusiast and include systems like Vera (MiOS) and Home Troller (HomeSeer) as well as (Spoiler!) our current favourite: Samsung SmartThings.

Professional Hubs

Pro hubs are amazing pieces of technology.  It takes a LOT of complicated hardware and software to make control seem so simple in so many ways from so many locations.  These devices from companies like Crestron, Extron, and Control4 are what the professionals use when they want bullet proof systems that can scale and handle any type of complicated automation.  These systems allow engineers to get into the guts and program interactions and design custom electronic solutions that can handle a huge matrix of variables.  These systems are expensive and often proprietary, they can take weeks, months or even years to learn to design and configure solutions.  If you are looking for this caliber of home automation, you probably have an engineering degree or the phone number of a professional installer on speed dial. If you are interested in this level of hub and want to do it yourself, we recommend that you seriously consider a high end hobbyist hub instead and look into Maker gear like Arduino and Raspberry Pi.  There is almost no limit to what you can do with a combination of Hobbyist and Maker gear and the cost and complexity are an order of magnitude more manageable than buying a professional hub.

What We Love:

Samsung SmartThings.  Rather than choose a hub from each of the four categories listed above, we are recommending the SmartThings hub as the best all around hub. The functionality of this Hobbyist hub can be expanded with the use of a virtual hub such as IFTTT or Stringify.

Why We Love it:

SmartThings is relatively new to the home automation game and as a result they don’t have a lot of baggage they need to work around.  The folks at SmartThings built a good product and were bought by Samsung in 2014.  Since then, they have proven that they are able to do what many small startups that are acquired fail to do: continue to innovate and think like a smaller company while leveraging the synergies and influences of the larger parent company. The SmartThings hub falls closer to the basic hub camp than some of the other Hobbyist hubs.  It has a slick interface and lots of consumer friendly features.  It is relatively simple to setup and has a large connected ecosystem with loads of partner devices.  The hub and branded devices lower the barriers to entry and make setup easy and configuration less painful.  There is a SmartThings app that provides a nice, slick interface for controlling the hub and devices. Despite the fact that they keep things friendly, SmartThings also allows you to go wide and deep into a range of different home automation technologies and ecosystems. Although devices that are not branded to work with SmartThings don’t always work perfectly, they tend to work as well or better than many other hubs. Samsung has leveraged its position as a leader in a range of home technology products to build relationships and connect with other ecosystems.  Where solutions and connections exist or standards have been set, the devices usually work the way you would expect them to – unlike many other systems that may say they integrate and connect but do not have full or reliable functionality. It is the breadth and depth of functionality and the high level of polish and industry sway that made the SmartThings hub our Stuff We Love choice.  We believe SmartThings is the hub to beat and will be a major player in the consumer home automation space for years to come.


So we have just finished saying how smooth and easy to use the SmartThings hub is and how great the accompanying app are and here is where we say aaaaactualllllly…. <grin>.  There really is no perfect way to mix functionality and simplicity.  Compared to other hubs SmartThings is good.  Very good even.  That said it is not easy or simple to understand.  There are plenty of times we still get lost trying to add devices and configure settings.  There is a lot of redundancy and inconsistency with menus that change in the background with no warning depending on the page you are on. Also, finding help can be tricky.  There are great community forums and lots of documentation but it isn’t always easy to find what you are looking for. Pairing and setting up devices can be complicated and you may need to dig into sub-sub-sub menus or you may be able to pair from multiple locations which makes navigation confusing.  It takes a long time to become comfortable with the app and there are features that you find that you do not use frequently unless you are constantly changing your equipment so you will need to take time to re-learn them when you need them. As you might imagine Samsung and Apple ecosystems don’t mix perfectly (given the rivalry in the smartphone space).  There is a great iOS app for SmartThings and some HomeKit enabled gear will work with a SmartThings hub but for the best results you will find that staying in the Samsung ecosystem will make everything work more seamlessly and just a little more smoothly.

Works Best With:

Samsung gear!  Although the SmartThings roots run deep and cross into different platforms the integration with Samsung is becoming increasingly apparent.  Samsung has begun designing its other home appliances including, televisions, fridges, microwaves, ovens, washers and driers etc. to have home automation built-in.  It is not surprising to find that Samsung is giving preferential treatment to its own home automation hub and systems.  A perfect example of that is the release of the Samsung Galaxy S8 phone.  During the launch and immediately after there were Samsung Connect applications and a new mesh wireless router with an embedded SmartThings hub that would only work with the S8 phone.  The applications and hardware took advantage of new software and hardware embedded in the phone to provide home automation functionality not available anywhere else.  The functionality often eventually becomes broadly available but it can take time and a bit more effort.

Great For:

Whole home automation.  The SmartThing hub is a great way to grow a piecemeal or virtual hub system into a more robust home automation solution.  It is also a great solution to use as a foundation for building a modern home automation system that integrates with the current and future market leading home automation technologies.

You Might Also Love:

If you are looking for a more technical solution that may require more tweaking, consider the Vera or HomeSeer hub.  These and Insteon devices are where we cut our teeth learning home automation.  Both Vera and HomeSeer have long histories and offer a wide range of integrations, expansion options, nice(ish) dedicated apps, as well as less common functionality like: command line access, programming interfaces and scripting languages. If you decide you want to go with a Vera or HomeSeer hub and are trying to decide between the two here is how we think of them:  Vera is like Linux with lots of open source and free community development and sharing (and the associated bugs and community beta testing) while HomeSeer is like Microsoft (even though their control software will run on linux or windows) with loads of controlled development software, integrations and carefully documented partnerships.  With HomeSeer everything will cost you a few dollars to tack on but it will work as advertised and if not there is one throat to choke while you are working with them to get it fixed.  HomeSeer is what we would use if we were building a system for a rich friend (well, if they were rich they would probably be using pro gear with pro installers but lets just assume they are the wealthy barber – they guy with lots of money but still frugal and prone to tapping his home automation savvy buddies for a ‘friend discount’ on an awesomely automated home) who wanted to buy the best stuff including some crazy things that don’t work with SmartThings and still have some flexibility to hack away.  Vera is what we would use if we wanted to hack at something for ourselves and were prepared to deal with a few more conflicts, bugs and errors and nice meaty problems to work through at night when we are bored.  There is nothing like the amazing feeling you get when you figure everything out in the wee hours of the morning (or later that week or month <grin>) after hacking away at the problem.

Stuff We Really Like:

The Piper NV camera is an interesting option.  We like the camera enough that it is a pick on its own as a camera but it also includes a fully functional Z-Wave hub which would work if you only want to add Z-Wave devices or in conjunction with a virtual hub to support a home automation environment that wasn’t extremely complex. If you would rather not add another device to your existing home network there are a number of software solutions that will run on servers or in virtual machines.  There are a range of open source tools including one of our favourites LinuxMCE.  There are also proprietary home automation software packages that will run on Microsoft Windows (we would go with HomeSeer software for this) or MacOS (Indigo Domotics). There is another viable option:  No Hub.  If all the hub business sounds like a lot of work and complication you don’t need one to have a fully functional smart home.  In many ways you can use your phone or tablet as a central controller.  The downsides to this are that you won’t be able to control some devices when you are not at home or if your phone isn’t working.  You will also run into more problems when multiple people are using the devices. You will likely need to use multiple applications and possibly external signal generators to allow you to control devices with infrared or other protocols not supported by your phone or tablet.  If you decide to go ahead and not use a hub we recommend that you look into universal remote control applications for your smart phone or tablet to simplify the control interface.

What’s Not To Love:

There are really no significant deal breakers for the SmartThings hub.  It is not expensive, a second generation hub can be found for around $70 on Amazon, it covers a wide range of requirements, and does what it does well.  The reason you would choose another hub instead is if your needs fall so far to the extremes of either needing a very simple and basic setup that can be covered by a virtual hub alone OR you really want to ramp things up and get your hands dirty coding and cobbling together a complex or custom system. Consider your situation, experience and personal interest levels and pick the hub that best fits – we believe the odds are that you will discover the SmartThings hub will be a good fit for what you need.
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Our Take on the Apple HomePod https://enautomate.com/2017/06/21/apple-homepod/ https://enautomate.com/2017/06/21/apple-homepod/#respond Wed, 21 Jun 2017 17:45:05 +0000 https://enautomate.com/?p=1100
Apple HomePod from the SideIt is always interesting when a major tech company like Apple brings a new product to the market, even if it is playing catch up.  Apple announced HomePod, a smart speaker that will compete with Amazon Echo and Google Home speakers, at their World Wide Developers Conference.  While the speaker doesn’t create or define a new market, it is sure to turn up the heat in the smart speaker category when it materializes in December 2017. Apple chose to focus on audio and music integration with the HomePod; something that the other speakers do but maybe don’t do as well.  The speaker is designed to work closely with the Apple Music ecosystem and includes hardware to deliver high quality audio. The speaker has a built-in Apple designed processor that powers the ‘magic’ behind defining features like spatial awareness to tune sound to best suit the room, the ability for multiple speakers to automatically recognize each other and work together, and Siri artificial intelligence. The HomePod can also do many of the other things we have come to love and expect from smart speaker devices like tell us the news or weather, add items to our grocery list, and provide reminders.  It can also integrate with other HomeKit enabled home automation devices to control the lights, temperature and other connected devices. If you are interested in a smart speaker, our advice is to not wait until December for the HomePod.  If you are looking to buy a smart speaker, the Amazon Echo has a huge lead in this market and it’s our current recommendation.  It is a great device with new features being added all the time.  You can pick up an Echo Dot for $50 or the full-size Echo for about $180. If you are looking for the lowest cost option and you already have nice powered speakers that can be connected with a regular 3.5 mm headphone connector or Bluetooth, you can easily hook them up to the Dot and have amazing sound and great functionality for the cost of the $50 Echo Dot.  If you are already tied into multiple Google services and prefer the Google Home, it’s about the same price as the Amazon Echo.
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