It’s back home for the holidays in consumer electronics this season. We’ve come full circle: not so long ago the industry was built on big boxes in the living room (big-screen TVs, cable boxes, VCRs, and DVD players), but the excitement over the past decade has been in the explosion of portable devices like smartphones and tablets. And now the focus is coming back into the home and making it “smart,” with small devices that also integrate with our portable devices, including thermostats, lightbulbs, sensors, and cameras. These home devices also are returning to the living room, bridging the online content that we view on our devices onto the big-screen display.
So this year we will focus on holiday tech for the home — including using wireless speakers to jingle bells around the house, digital assistants to remotely deck the hall lights, and wireless cameras to record video of any late-night visitors that come down the chimney with a bound.
So what is this “Smart Home” thing all about? Actually, it’s really more about the profusion of smart devices that you place in your home and then can control from your portable device.
You can think of these in several categories:
Convenience and comfort. You can monitor and control lighting and heating remotely, to automatically turn on the lights at dusk, or to have the lights change randomly while you are away. A smart thermostat can learn your schedule and reduce your energy usage, in case you want to keep your fireplace clear.
Entertainment. By connecting to online services, you can greatly expand your options for listening to music on wireless speakers and for watching Yule log videos on a connected television.
Security. You can monitor your home, while there and while away, with a variety of sensors, including motion detectors, door and window sensors, and leak/smoke detectors. These can report status and send immediate alerts when triggered. And you can use indoor and outdoor video cameras to keep watch over the baby or the pets, and also capture video clips when someone comes to the door or when there are reindeer on the roof.
The good news here is that you can start small with just a single device to try out. You do not need to immediately buy into a big system, or lock into a particular format. Over time you can add in other devices, of different types, and from different manufacturers, and even build up to a whole-home security system.
These devices connect to your home Wi-Fi network, so you can control them from devices in your home, or remotely when you are away. You can control the individual devices directly from your smartphone, and also link them together in various ways, for example, by having the house lights turn on when the garage door opens (through a simple protocol wonderfully called IFTTT — If This Then That).
One interesting aspect of this developing smart home market is the strong efforts that the big Internet companies are making to carve out their own domains, including Amazon, Apple, and Google (Microsoft was stuck in a snowdrift). This is driven by the development of “digital assistants” that you can access through voice commands: Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, and Google Assistant. You then can talk to your smartphone — or a voice control speaker to control your smart home devices — to turn on the lights or to watch a live feed of the plate of cookies.
These companies have different approaches, but each is building a system built around their voice control and home automation protocols that supports families of products from third-party vendors:
Amazon Alexa. Amazon sells the Echo line of voice-control speakers, and is happy to assist manufacturers in integrating with its Alexa voice control (to further embed it into your life). And, of course, Amazon has a store that then sells the resulting products.
Apple HomeKit. While Apple does not sell smart home devices, it is developing its HomeKit platform to control smart home products with iOS apps and Siri voice commands. The available HomeKit-enabled accessories are categorized into alarms and sensors, heating and cooling, lights and switches, and video cameras. These also integrate with Apple’s push into home entertainment, including the new HomePod Siri voice-control speaker ($349), the Apple TV set-top box ($179), and the AirPlay protocol for audio accessories.
Google Home (Nest). Google entered the smart home market through its purchase of Nest, which makes the smart Learning Thermostat ($249). It has since added sensors like the Smoke + CO Alarm ($119) and indoor and outdoor cameras ($119 – $349). Nest also is packaging a full Nest Secure Alarm System ($499) that includes keypad and window/room sensors, a tag for remote arm/disarm, plus the option of backup communications through the cellular network ($5 a month).
Belkin WeMo. Belkin was an early entrant in the smart home market, and developed its own WeMo family of products. These include Smart Plugs to turn appliances on and off and monitor energy usage ($29, $49), the Smart Light Switch ($39) and Smart Dimmer ($79) to control your lighting remotely (or on a schedule), and the NetCam HD+ Wi-Fi Camera ($99) with night vision. Belkin is system agnostic and integrates with Amazon Alexa, Google Home (and Nest), and now Apple HomeKit, and can use IFTTT commands.
TP-Link. This is another manufacturer of smart home devices that features a wide selection of options, including smart plugs and light switches ($29 to $39). It also has a broad line of smart light bulbs that can be dimmed ($19, $24), tuned over a broad range from soft to daylight ($34), and adjusted to change colors ($44, $49). The TP-Link Kasa app works with Amazon Alexa.
While you are looking at smart home products, you also may want to think about a Wi-Fi extender, which can help bring a stronger Wi-Fi signal to the edges of your house, where the signal from your home router may not reach. And when you are travelling, you even can bring your own personal Wi-Fi network with MiFi products like the Verizon JetPack MiFi 7730L Mobile Hotspot ($199). This has a built-in cellular connection so it can become a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, allowing you to connect up to 15 Wi-Fi devices to the Internet at once, in places where there is limited or no network connectivity. These do require a separate monthly plan for the cellular connection and are not appropriate for streaming video because the huge video files would eat up all the available bandwidth.
Today’s Wi-Fi smart cameras have a big part in the smart home and home security. You can watch live to see when the baby is sleeping in the nursery, or watch out front to know when the package delivery truck arrives, or just to enjoy the winter wonderland as the snow lies ’round about. And these cameras have built-in sensors to detect motion, so they can send you alerts and post video of events for you to review.
These cameras also are getting ridiculously small and trivial to install — you can just plunk down a battery-operated wire-free camera anywhere — looking over the front porch, or watching for the kids at the back door — and it can alert you over Wi-Fi and show video when it detects motion.
There are a growing number of these portable cameras with different trade-offs of features versus low cost and small size:
Blink Cameras. The Blink Indoor Camera ($99), for example, is very small (around 2 3/4 x 1 1/3 inches), and runs on batteries for up to two years with typical use. It has a passive IR sensor that detects heat in the vicinity, which then triggers the camera to record video and audio. It also has an LED illuminator for low light conditions. The separate Blink XT – Indoor/Outdoor Camera ($129) is also wire-free, and is waterproof, with IR night vision. The cameras work with a small Sync module, which can support up to 10 cameras each. The Blink app also can control multiple cameras.
The limitations of the small camera, however, mean that the cameras lean on the Internet cloud for their operation, and for the video storage. The live feed is not continuous, but cuts off after 30 seconds to save the battery. Similarly, the captured videos are restricted to 5 to 60 seconds in length. Also, while there is no monthly fee for the cloud storage, it is limited to a total of 7,200 seconds, which you could consume quickly even with bursts of 10-second events a day.
Blink also integrates with Amazon Alexa voice control. And Blink is preparing a full home security offering, with a smart entry keypad, entry and water sensors, siren and 911 alert, and 4G cellular and battery back-up (in case your power and Wi-Fi go out). For an additional monthly fee, you also will be able to sign up for a 24 x 7 third-party professional monitoring service.
Ring Video Doorbell. As seen in TV commercials, you can install the Ring Video Doorbell by your door, either as an addition or using your existing doorbell wiring. Then you will be sent alerts when someone approaches the door or rings the doorbell, so you can use the Ring app to check who is at the door, and even talk to them — whether you are at home in another room, or somewhere else away from home. Beyond the basic Video Doorbell ($179), the Video Doorbell 2 ($199) upgrades to full 1080p video quality and improved night vision. There also are professional models with slimmer designs. Ring also has external cameras, including with built-in spotlights and siren ($179 to $249).
However, the Video Doorbell product does not provide any video storage — you only can watch live when you get an alert. To store and access and share video, for up to 60 days, you need a Ring Protect Plan (Basic for $3/month or $30/year per camera, or Plus for $10/month or $100/year for unlimited cameras).
Google Nest Cameras. The Nest cameras from Google also connect to the cloud for storage and intelligence. The basic indoor and outdoor cameras ($199) provide live steaming with two-way talk, and motion and sound alerts. The IQ Indoor ($299) and IQ Outdoor ($349) models add alerts when a person is seen in the view, along with high-resolution imagery.
However, the Nest cameras only store a three-hour history of video in the cloud. Additional storage requires the NestAware Service (Basic for 10 days of video history at $10/month or $100/year, or Extended for 30 days at $30/month, or $300/year). The NestAware Service also performs intelligent video and audio processing on the camera feeds, to provide alerts when a person is seen or heard talking — and can even be set up to perform facial recognition for familiar faces.
D-Link Wi-Fi Cameras. In comparison to cameras that require cloud processing and cloud storage, D-Link is an example of a company that offers a large line of cameras in which the motion detection intelligence and the video storage is built into the camera, so there is no cloud interaction, and no need for monthly fees. More broadly, D-Link has an extensive line of products for home surveillance (cameras, video recorders, and baby monitors), smart home (smart plugs, smart motion/water sensors, and sirens), and networking.
The D-Link Wi-Fi cameras offer remote live viewing with digital zoom, camera-based motion detection and alerts, and scheduled recording times. Many provide 1080p HD resolution, full 180-degree wide angle views, two-way audio to listen and talk, both motion and sound detection, and night vision illumination.
This part of the D-Link camera line includes a basic Day & Night Wi-Fi Camera ($69) with motion and sound detection, night vision, and a built-in Wi-Fi extender; Full HD 180-Degree Wi-Fi Cameras ($139 to $159), Pan & Tilt Wi-Fi Cameras ($99 to $149), and an HD Outdoor Wi-Fi Camera ($179).
Besides home monitoring and security, smart home products also are enhancing entertainment in the home by bridging video and music from your online and portable device worlds into your living room and around the house, especially when the weather outside is frightful.
Smart TVs already have features that can connect to web video streaming and music services. But with the continued miniaturization of electronics, you don’t need a special TV or a big set-top “box” anymore, you can do all this in a small stick that plugs in directly to an auxiliary HDMI port on your TV. These devices connect to your home Wi-Fi network, so you can control them from other devices in the home, and then they can stream video and music directly from the Internet.
You can use a product like Roku to tap into a huge variety of channels, and products from Apple, Amazon, and Google if you are already part of their ecosystems:
Roku. The Roku streaming TV and media players exemplify the broad scope of these new entertainment sources, offering access to some 500,000 movie and TV episodes from over 5,000 streaming channels. These include:
Free channels, such as ABC, CW, PBS, CBSN, and YouTube.
Subscription channels, including Netflix, Hulu, Sling TV, ESPN, CBS, and HBO, among others.
“TV Everywhere” cable and satellite channels (if you have a current subscription), like ABC, NBC, FOX, HGTV, and USA.
Rent or buy channels, like Amazon Video, Fandango Now, and Google Play.
Music services, including Pandora, Spotify, and Sirius XM.
The Roku line ranges from the Roku Express with basic HD streaming ($29), up to the Roku Ultra with 4K HDR with ultra-high-definition/High Dynamic Range ($99). All support the Roku mobile app with voice search, casting personal media to your TV, and screen mirroring for Android and Windows devices.
Apple TV. However, if you are already part of the Apple ecosystem with the iPhone or iPod, the Apple TV is focused on delivering content from the world of iTunes and apps, and includes a remote with Siri voice search. It offers 60 video services including Netflix, Hulu, and ESPN, plus live sports (including NBA and MLB) and news (including Bloomberg and CNN). It also shows photos and videos from your iCloud libraries, plays music from Apple Music, and supports AirPlay so visitors can share their photos, presentations, and websites.
The Apple TV is available in two versions, the Apple TV for HD video ($149), and the Apple TV 4K / HDR ($179 to $199, depending on internal storage).
Amazon Fire TV. Or if you are an Amazon Prime customer, and using Amazon Echo devices, the Amazon Fire TV brings more than 500,000 TV episodes and movies to your TV, including YouTube and movies from subscription partners including Netflix, Hulu, HBO, SHOWTIME, and STARZ, plus live TV through subscription services including Sling TV and DIRECTV NOW to access channels including ESPN, AMC, HGTV, Comedy Central, and CNN.
Plus, your Amazon Prime membership also provides access to thousands of movies and TV episodes on Prime Video, and ad-free listening to millions of songs on Prime Music. And you can play movies and videos that you have bought on Amazon or uploaded to your Amazon cloud storage.
You manage all this content using an on-screen menu, which also provides universal search and suggestions from more than 190 channels and apps. The Fire TV includes a remote control with Alexa voice control, so you can search, play, and skip, as well as perform all the other Alexa commands. And, of course, you can control the Fire TV from your smartphone and other Alexa devices.
The base Fire TV Stick ($39) supports up to 1080p HD, and the Fire TV with 4K Ultra HD also adds HDR ($69). You also can get Fire TV bundled with an HD antenna ($74), to play off-the-air digital TV broadcasts.
Google Chromecast. Compared to these set-top box replacements, the Google Chromecast takes a totally different approach. Instead of being a gateway to entertainment, it has a much simpler role — it lets you take whatever you’re viewing on your portable device (or laptop), and then “cast” it to your TV so you can view it instead on the big screen.
You simply play your content as usual on your portable device, using the appropriate app — including Google’s YouTube and Google Play, and many third party apps including Netflix, Pandora, Hulu, HBO GO, and ESPN. But Chromecast-compatible apps also include a small Cast icon (typically on the top right of the display), that you can click to transfer your video to a Chromecast unit to view on the TV. The video then plays directly through the Chromecast device, so while you can still control it from your app, it is no longer draining your battery to play.
You also can cast the screen of an Android portable device, and cast from a laptop using the Google Chrome browser to view a browser tab, or the full screen, or play from Chromecast-enabled websites including Google Play Movie and Google Play Music. And you can set up the “backdrop” display when you are not playing, to show photos or Facebook, or news.
The base Chromecast supports HD resolution ($35), and the Chromecast Ultra supports 4K Ultra HD ($69). There’s also a Chromecast Audio that you can connect to speakers ($35).
#b#Smart Voice Control#/b#
Last holiday season demonstrated that consumers really like the idea of “digital assistants” that can get information, access entertainment, and control the home through voice control. Products like Apple’s Siri were already becoming interesting for use with smartphones, but Amazon in particular wanted to bring this idea into the home, and so developed the Amazon Echo — a small cylinder that listened for voice commands and talked back with responses. It turned out that this was a good idea — Amazon reports that the Echo Dot was the best-selling item on all of Amazon.com in the 2016 holiday season.
And since the device already has a speaker for voice responses, it only makes sense to also play music as well. And since you are playing music, it then makes sense to bulk up the device with a larger higher-quality speaker to become a home wireless speaker that also supports voice commands, instead of a little box that does voice and also can play some music.
As a result, Amazon, Google, and now Apple and Microsoft, have developed families of wireless voice-control speakers that support their voice protocols and can rock the night away.
These provide the same types of voice functions:
Get information. Time, news, weather, stocks, sports scores, movie times, and other Web searches, plus spelling and definitions, conversions, math, and translations.
Access entertainment. Search and play music, provide movie information, play podcasts, read books.
Travel assistance. Find addresses, directions, navigation, nearby stores, and hours open.
Take action. Make a phone call, video call, read text/e-mail, provide directions, set alarm/reminders, and change settings.
Have fun. Tell jokes, ask trivia, make animal noises, play Simon says, and other Easter eggs.
And while each company has very different motivations and strengths for their approaches, they are all entering the market with products that also integrate with the smart home:
Amazon Echo Speakers with Alexa. Amazon does not make smartphones, though it does have Fire tablets with Alexa voice control. Instead, it is working hard with other companies to integrate Alexa, to both support products for your smart home, and to provide additional services (so, for example, you can order a pizza from Domino’s). Amazon also uses third-party services for its Alexa information responses and travel information, so it can be less thorough than Apple or Google.
But the real focus for Amazon is the Echo voice-control speakers, which can populate your home with always-available Amazon services (including convenient voice ordering). You can start with the compact Echo Dot puck ($49), or step up to the taller cylindrical Echo with dual speakers to full the room with sound ($99). Amazon also is starting to move into video in voice-controlled devices, with the new compact Echo Spot with 2.5-inch screen ($129), or the TV-like Echo Show with 7-inch screen to also watch video ($299).
And there’s the Echo Look, “camera and style assistant” ($199). This is designed to assist you in building a personal “lookbook” of photos of your outfits, so you can browse and compare, share with friends, and use the Amazon Style Check automated service to offer second opinions on which of two outfits looks best on you.
Google Home Speakers with Google Assistant. Google voice control grew out of its strengths in search and mapping. Google Assistant is available on Android smartphones, of course, and in some Google iOS apps. Google’s own Pixel phones feature the latest Google Assistant technology, with developing efforts to provide better two-way dialogs, instead of a single command and response.
The Google Home voice-control speakers then bring voice into the home, including information, personal settings in your Google account, and control of smart devices including the Chromecast. There’s the compact Google Home Mini ($49), the table-top dual-driver Google Home ($129), and the full-up Google Home Max with dual woofers and tweeters ($399).
Harman Kardon INVOKE Speaker with Microsoft Cortana. Microsoft’s voice control is focused on Windows 10 and Xbox, particularly laptops and convertible tablets, bridging your Windows information and services across multiple devices.
Microsoft is late to the game. But the new Harman Kardon INVOKE home speaker ($199) does bring Cortana into the home for voice-controlled music and other information services, plus Skype voice calls and reading emails. Microsoft is working with other third-party services and smart home companies to grow its capabilities.
Apple HomePod Speakers with Siri. Apple began with voice control as a feature for its iPhone portable devices, and has since demonstrated the usefulness of “digital assistant” interactions for hands-free interactions in cars as well. It also has used Siri in other products like the Apple TV.
Apple is now reaching onto the smart home with the Apple HomeKit protocol for third-party devices. The new Apple HomePod voice control speaker ($349) will now bring Siri into the home in a broader way, positioned, like other Apple products, as a higher-end product.
Sonos Wireless Speakers. But if you’re looking for great wireless speakers, Sonos has been developing “smart speakers” for more than a decade. The new Play One ($199) adds hands-free Alexa voice control to a relatively small speaker that still can more than fill a room. Sonos also makes even larger PLAY:3 and PLAY:5 speakers with 3 and 5 drivers ($299 and $499)
Voice commands are a key feature on Google’s own line of Android phones, including the new Google Pixel 2 — just squeeze to launch Google Assistant for real-time help. These are high-res phones in two models, the Pixel 2 with 5” screen and Pixel 2 XL with 6” screen, both with a water-resistant aluminum metal unibody and tough Gorilla Glass screens.
Both also feature the “highest rated smartphone camera,” with a 12.2 MP rear camera with impressive sharpness, color accuracy, and speed, plus an 8 MP rear camera. Google also promises unlimited online storage for photos and videos through 2020.
Google Pixel. The Pixel 2 ($749) and Pixel 2 XL ($949) are available from Verizon (pricing with 128 GB storage).
Apple iPhone X. Apple also has made a big splash for the holiday season with the latest iPhone X. It’s visually impressive, because the design is “entirely screen” — the bezel surrounding the 5.8-inch screen has been shrunk to almost nothing, although there is a small “notch” or protrusion hanging down from the top for the enhanced camera and associated lighting, sensors, and speaker and microphone.
The iPhone X also features a 12MP rear camera with dual optical image stabilization that captures up to 4K video, and a 7 MP front camera with Portrait Lighting. It’s available from Verizon and others with 64GB storage for $999, and 256GB for $1,149.
The flagship new technology feature for the iPhone X is Face ID — using your face as the “password” to unlock the device and authenticate you as the user. You no longer need Touch ID to touch the fingerprint sensor. With just a glance, you can access your finances and spend money at a store with Apple Pay. This works with much more accuracy then analyzing a photograph. Apple’s True Depth system projects 30,000 invisible dots to create a precise depth map of your face. (This also is used for Animojis — analyzing more than 50 different facial muscle movements in order to animate emojis.)
Apple designed the Face ID system to store data locally on your device, in a secure enclave, so it does not send data to the cloud. However, reportedly Apple also is allowing third-party app developers to access facial data, and also to upload it to their own servers for their own use, which can expose your facial “fingerprint” and your history of activity.
The good news is that these interesting developments in smart home automation and digital assistants and home security and monitoring can enhance your life by performing simple actions, and by allowing you to keep watch over your kids and pets and house. But not to be a Grinch, these also raise obvious concerns with computer security and personal privacy.
So digital assistants and smart home devices are here to stay and can be very helpful. But please do explicitly consider how you want to make the trade-offs in protecting your personal privacy and delegating to digital devices.
Douglas Dixon is an independent technology consultant. Visit www.manifest-tech.com.