Smarter Home 2022: Smart Lock

nest x yale smart lock

Recently I made a change to my daily driving vehicle, read about it here. My new vehicle doesn’t allow me to park inside my integrated garage which changes how I enter/exit my house. Previously, after parking in the garage, I could enter the house through the interior door to go inside. Now, I have to park out in the weather and go through my front door. Because of this change, I had to take a long hard look at the current smart lock on my front door.

When moving into my current house I purchased a smart lock that was the best available at the time. The Yale Assure SL had all the bells and whistles including HomeKit integration (via August), touch keypad, guest accounts, no key access, etc. Since then, I’ve had nothing but troubles with this lock which mostly was how fast the batteries would drain. The 4 AA batteries lasted between 7 and 21 days and more times than not, the door would be unlocked with dead batteries. When I was only parking in the garage, and not entering/exiting through the front door, this really didn’t impact me. At one point about year ago, I contacted Yale about the battery draining issue, and they sent me a new lock. The replacement lock didn’t help the issue and I was back to always having dead batteries.

Frustrated by this and using the front door more than ever, I set out to fix the problem. The latest and greatest technology for smart locks involves a new wireless standard called Thread but also a way to a better way unlock the door with your phone called Apple home key. The only available lock with this technology is the Schlage Encode Plus. Of course this lock cannot be found in stock anywhere and is not available to order (it’s also ugly). I needed a solution I could implement now and not wait for something to be manufactured.

I decided I would try a similar lock to the Yale Assure SL but had Google/Nest as the integration/backend. I went to my local Best Buy and picked up the Nest x Yale – Smart Lock with Nest Connect. The install and most of the parts were similar to my outgoing Yale lock so that made install a breeze. Setting up the lock in the Nest app was very easy and I was up and running within minutes, unlike the August implementation.

Door sensor with custom 3D printer bumper.

A couple of missing features that I was accustomed to on my previous lock were auto-unlock and a door sensor to detect if the the actual door was ajar or not. The August integration of the previous lock used your phone’s GPS to determine when you left or arrived your home, then lock or unlock your door. The idea behind this was great, but regularly failed. When the lock had battery power, upon arriving home, my door wouldn’t be unlocked. Due to the nature of Bluetooth and WiFi, my phone would also struggle to unlock the door, standing directly outside of it. That being stated, I was motivated to get these two features back, in another way.

The door sensor was pretty easy. I already have an Aqara Zigbee hub on my network so I can easily add their cheap sensors. I purchased a Aqara Door & Window Sensor and added it to my network and Apple Home. The sensor has two parts, one that goes on the moving object, in this case the front door, and the other piece goes on the static object, the interior wall. When the two pieces get close enough for a magnetic attraction, the sensor detects that it is closed. Upon installing the two sides on my door, I realized the door-side sensor was too far from the other sensor when closed. After a couple hours, I designed a 3D printed extension for the sensor, and now it lines up perfectly.

Next I had to tackle the auto-unlock feature. The Nest lock does have an auto-lock function, but it’s only time based. Once the door is unlocked, it will auto-lock in 15 minutes, or a preset time duration of your choosing. It doesn’t know if the door is open or closed, so if you leave the door open, it will still lock.

Previous to getting this lock, I purchased a Starling Home Hub that smartly integrates (almost) all Nest products into Apple Homekit. This is a much better solution than running a Nest plugin in Homebridge, plus you get a few extra features. When I added the new lock to my Nest account Starling Home automatically added it to Apple Home and I was able to control it immediately. This led me to using Apple Home and Apple Shortcuts to achieve my auto locking and unlocking goals.

First, I had to setup a plugin in Homebridge to allow me to have a dummy switch (read about why here). After that, I setup another dummy-type switch in Homebridge that triggers on a set time duration. This allowed me to constantly check if the door was open or closed, then act on it. All of this is done in Apple’s Home app with their built-in automation. It allows you to trigger actions based on your phone’s location, which is perfect for when I leave or arrive at home.

Name: ”AutoUnlock”
{
     Condition: ”When I arrive home”,
     Action: ”Trigger $DummySwitch”
}
Name: ”DummySwitch”
{
     Condition: ”When $DummySwitch turns on”,
     Action: ”Unlock $FrontDoor”
}

This unlocks my front door when my phone detects that I’m within range of my house. This usually happens as I’m pulling into the driveway.

Name: ”AutoLock”
{
     Condition: ”When I leave home”,
     Action: ”Trigger $DoorChecker”
}
Name: ”DoorChecker”
{
     Condition: ”When DoorChecker turns on”,
     Action: ”Run Shortcut”
          {
               If ($DoorSensor = ‘Closed’) {
                    Lock $FrontDoor
               }
     }
}

This locks my door when my phone detects that I’m out of range of my house. The DoorChecker automation also checks if the door is open/closed. If it’s open, it will not lock the door. In addition to when I leave my house, the DoorChecker automation runs every 15 minutes to ensure my door is always locked when closed.

Check out my other Smarter Home posts!

I Sold My Car to Driveway.com

Spoiler: They picked it up in my driveway!

The used car market is at an all-time high and I did what any American would do and tried to take advantage of it. My daily driver has been a 2018 Jeep Wrangler (4-door) for the last 46 months. While I always like to shop around for my next vehicle, there hasn’t been much I was excited about. I usually keep my vehicles for two to three years before I get bored and trade them in on the new hotness. This Jeep has been an exception and might be the longest I’ve ever driven one continuous vehicle. Selling to Driveway wasn’t my first choice, but they were the highest bidder.

I made a YouTube video on the top 10 reasons why I’m selling my Wrangler.

You’ve probably seen all the online companies emerging that want to buy your car and pick it up for you. The popular ones being Carvana, Vroom, and Carmax, but I decided I was going to get prices from all of them. It’s an easy process to get a quote on selling your car. You just give them information about it and they give you a price instantly. Most of the time they honor that initial price throughout the buying process.

Last year I saw the announcement of the Ford F-150 Lightning, all electric pickup truck, and I was immediately enthralled with an electric truck. Ford took “pre-orders” of the Lightning models only to announce later that they wouldn’t be able to make that many quickly. Recently this year, Ford let me know that I won’t be getting a Lightning in the next 12 months. While sad about that, I was excited by the thought of having a truck, so I started looking at my options. All the while I was keeping an eye on what the value of my Jeep was. I never thought that I would sell it to a 3rd-party, but more likely would trade it to a dealer on a new car/truck.

In February of this year I told myself my next vehicle was going to be a truck, so I decided to actually keep tabs on my Wrangler price. Since then, the prices haven’t changed much, but I was pretty much going with the highest bidder. I found the prices to be all over the place and didn’t expect Driveway to be the leader. When I got quotes from each of these vendors I used the same information and options to make it fair across the board. I also used fake contact information because I didn’t want bothered and just wanted to see the price.

ServicePrice
Driveway$40,477
Carmax$38,500
WeBuyAnyCar$37,045
KelleyBlueBook$35,550
Carvana$33,280
Vroom$32,479
CarBrain$26,730
Peddle$18,745
My price tracking from the nine services I contacted
driveway promo image
Promo image from Driveway.com showing how easy it is to hand someone your keys

You can see how close the big names are, but hilariously CarBrain and Peddle are very low and not sure who would actually take that price. In my research I also learned about all the different companies that will offer to buy your car. Prior to this I didn’t know Carmax and KBB did the online buying thing. Additionally I also learned about services I’ve never heard of like CarBrain and Peddle.
There are some out there that I didn’t bother looking at mainly because they didn’t offer instant quotes online without talking to someone. My time is worth more than what you’re probably going to offer me. Initially I thought Vroom or Carvana would be one of the companies buying the Jeep, but Driveway surprised me.

I recently got word that my truck of choice was on it’s way from the factory to a dealer near me. This meant it was ‘go-time’ for me to sell the Wrangler to Driveway. I went through the online quote process with my real information and somehow it was lower (by $1,000) than the previous number I had. This was fine so I completed all the additional information requested. Shortly after, I was texted by a person from Driveway confirming details. Here’s where it starts to get shaky… this is the timeline of what happened next.

Thursday March 31stText conversation from John at Driveway: “Hello Ben, this is John from Driveway.com. I’m reaching out regarding your 2018 Jeep All-New Wrangler. We sent you an offer of $40,477. Are you interested in moving forward with selling that vehicle?” Why yes John, I am. “Can I call you to explain the process?”
Over an hour later John called me and talked me through what would happen next. I had made an appointment online for the next week to meet someone at a dealer near me to inspect the vehicle. Then they would schedule a date to come pick it up later. I asked a few questions about logistics and timing because I didn’t yet have a replacement vehicle. He assured me they were backed up and it would be 1-2 weeks before they came to get it.

“So… the person we had scheduled to pick up your Jeep next week can’t drive a stick shift”

Friday April 1st – Phone call from Jamie at Driveway: “We need to get approval from you, for your bank to release the payoff information on your car loan.” I was on the phone with Jamie for a while before we concluded that the bank might be closed for the day so we’d try again next week. Jamie also informed me that it might be too soon for them to get me a check for next week’s appointment. This is when I found out that the “inspection” appointment I made was the pickup my vehicle and take it away, appointment. I told her this was too soon and I needed to reschedule. So she was able to get my appointment rescheduled for the week after next.

Monday April 4th – Phone call from Susan at Driveway: “So… the person we had scheduled to pickup your Jeep next week can’t drive a stick shift, so we need to schedule someone who can drive a stick shift.” Susan even made me chuckle by calling it a “millennial anti-theft device” and I agreed, even though I’m a millennial.

Tuesday April 5th – Phone call from Susan again: We rescheduled the pickup and I had some more questions answered, because at this point basically everything changed. We scheduled the pickup on Monday April 11th and instead of it being at a nearby dealer, it was at my house. I told her that previously I thought it was somewhere else and she didn’t have record of that same information. No big deal, home is better for me. I asked about the payoff information and she said it looked good. She told me that they would provide me a check on Monday with the difference between the purchase price and my loan payoff, even though I thought I was getting a wire transfer. I also asked her to confirm the price. Susan said they had a lower price than my initial offer, but she was able to see that John mentioned the higher one, so they were going to honor that.

Tuesday April 5th – Phone call from Susan again: “Hi Ben, I have the bank on the line to confirm your information.” I talked to a representative from the bank I financed the Jeep through and confirmed everything. So now maybe we were actually ready and set for Monday.

Sunday April 10th – I received a reminder email from Driveway about my appointment on Monday. This was the first time I had an official appointment notice for the updated day/time. It was nice to know it was still happening. The email stated I needed to have my driver’s license, registration, keys, and all persons named on the title/registration needed to be present. Luckily that’s all me so I was ready.

I did some last minute gathering of all my personal belongings and left a few presents behind for the next owner. I didn’t bother cleaning the interior or exterior of the Jeep. I learned a long time ago that spending your own personal time cleaning a vehicle for trade/sell doesn’t actually return any additional value. I also left all my stickers/decals on the exterior. They can remove those.

I learned a long time ago that spending your own personal time cleaning a vehicle for trade/sell doesn’t actually return any additional value.

Monday April 11th – I got a call around 10am from Brian at Driveway. He was confirming some details and times. I told him I was able to meet earlier and so we planned for 11am. Shortly after 11, he arrived via Uber and greeted me.

The entire process took less than 15 minutes. He started the car, took some photos, looked around, and then gave me the check. He opted not to do a test drive since he was happy with what he saw. I had to sign some power of attorney documents (standard for vehicle sell/trade) and the sales documents. He removed my license plate and attached a dealer plate, then drove it away.

That deal is now done. They’re going to payoff the remainder of my loan and deal with my bank directly. The check I received is a difference between the sale amount and the payoff.

I had a lot of hesitation going into this process as I’ve never sold a car to anyone but a local buyer or dealer. Selling your car to an online service can be scary, but Driveway made it mostly easy the entire time. There were a few hiccups of scheduling, pricing, and information, but in the end it worked out. I can honestly say I would do this again tomorrow if I needed to. The only thing I lost in the deal was the tax benefit of trading in the Jeep at the same time of buying a new vehicle. The tax savings was about half of the difference Driveway offered, so still worth it to me.

Introducing: Double B Garage

Working From Home – Two Years Later

Shallow Focus Photo of Woman Using a Laptop

On this day in 2020, my company sent out an email with details on alternative work strategies for the next 14 days. This meant we were being kicked out of the office and forced to work from home. The CDC and our local government were issuing guidance surrounding the impeding COVID-19 global pandemic. Two weeks was the average timeframe floating around for the lockdown. We had originally planned for a technology test day where most people would work from home to test the strength of our remote infrastructure. At this point, we weren’t a heavy work from home company and more of a in the office everyday type of workforce. This technology test day never happened and we were thrust into the work from home life for the next two weeks. As you probably know, it didn’t last two weeks. In fact, my company has still yet to define how the future of working will look, whether that’s full-time work from home or a mix of in-office and at-home work strategies. Over these last two years I’ve learned a lot about me, how I work, and how I can do my job from anywhere.

Shortly after starting to work from home, the two week estimate grew into “TBD” and we started to settle in. I posted an article (Working Whilst Home) and also shared it with my company. This was my take on effective time and space management working at home coming from a previous telecommuter. This article still holds true two years later and I’d encourage you to read it before we dig into what has happened since.

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Smarter Home 2022: Lights

Many years ago I wrote a piece titled The Future is Not Here and complained about how, in that point in time, we still weren’t at the technological future we had been reading about. That same year, 2015, I wrote another piece about how smart my home was. Looking back on those two pieces of work makes me happy and sad at the same time. Sad that not much has changed in almost seven years, but happy that one thing is better; most of our homes are “smarter” than they were before.

When I wrote about my smart home several years ago I only had one smart device to brag about. Thanks to Google’s lack of innovation I’m still using the same 3rd generation Nest thermostat. While it’s the oldest device in my home’s technology package, it’s also the most reliable. Much like your home appliances, reliability is something we want out of our smart devices. What if, for some reason, the thermostat crashed and I couldn’t turn on the heat? Thankfully, that hasn’t happened to me while I’ve owned the Nest thermostat.

Along with the smart home market, the Beard Blog home has exploded with new gadgets and internet connected widgets. WiFi light bulbs, smart assistants (lady in a tube), garage door controllers, game consoles, TVs, fans, doorbells, cameras, door locks, refrigerators, outlets, blinds, and light switches are just some of the things I’ve integrated into my home life over the last four years. Throughout this series, I’m going to dive into my favorite devices and how I’m using them to again, make my home smarter.

Hubs

Before we go too deep, I have to mention hubs or little boxes required to bridge some devices to your internet connection. These are usually included with a starter kit or part of the main device in the product’s offering. While we still haven’t settled on a standard smart home protocol (Bluetooth, HomeKit, ZigBee, Z-Wave, Thread, Matter), it is getting better. Some devices have been receiving software updates or hardware revisions to eliminate the hub. Even Apple HomeKit requires a hub if you want to access the device from outside your home. When I describe each device or system, I’ll be sure to mention if it requires a hub or not, which some people may not be fond of.

In addition to hubs that are made by the manufacturer, there are also third-party hubs to help bridge different protocols together. I’m going to deep dive into some of these hubs/bridges in a later post.

Smart Lights

Light bulbs are all over our homes and making them “smart” is the easiest and most useful entry into having a smart home. You can easily swap a regular light bulb with a connected one and have the ability to control it from anywhere. We now live in a world where there is a wide variety of smart bulbs available at almost any retailer. Some are direct phone to bulb connections, while others attach to your network to enable multi-bulb control.

smart home Philips hue
Philips Hue color light bulbs

I got my start with smart lights from probably the most popular line since the smart bulb inception, Philips Hue. Some years ago I sprung for the Philips Hue color starter kit which included three color bulbs and a Hue hub. I quickly replaced three lamps in my living room with these bulbs and played with all the color combinations, much to my wife’s dismay. While the Hue bulbs are great, and have been updated over the years, they’re using old technology. The individual bulbs connect wirelessly back to the Hue hub over a proprietary Z-Wave connection. The Hue hub has to be hard-wired to your home network which then allows the bulbs to show up in Apple Home. The hub also allows you to control the lights when you’re outside of your home network. Newer light bulbs have emerged that are independent and use Thread to communicate with your network, providing you have a Thread router, like a HomePod mini. I have two Thread bulbs currently in my home, one of which replaced a malfunctioning Hue bulb from my original starter kit. Out of my 11 Hue bulbs that are six plus years old, I’ve only had one fail.

In addition to smart bulbs I have some other types of connected lights that I like even more than the bulbs. In my office, I have a three-pronged light attack that I mostly use on conference calls. First, there’s a Nanoleaf Essentials light strip on the wall directly in front of me. This works to illuminate my face and reduce shadows on my video calls. Behind me on the wall is an array of Nanoleaf Shapes. These panels change colors and create a neat light scape behind my head. Lastly, in the Ikea Kallax furniture piece behind me on the floor, is a Govee RGBiC light strip. This light strip can change colors independently in sections creating a cool effect inside the cubes of the Kallax. All three of these light setups, have independent controls and are able to be controlled from anywhere. The two Nanoleaf devices have the native ability to connect to Apple HomeKit, but the Govee strip does not.

smart home Nanoleaf shapes
Nanoleaf Shapes

Where I cannot have smart bulbs or light strips, I have connected light switches. This allows me to control lights connected through traditional electrical lines and not need any special bulbs or fixtures. We recently remodeled our finished basement and instead of going with smart fixtures we opted for a TP-Link dimmable smart switch. This dimmable smart switch controls the track lighting on the ceiling and can dim them to several brightness levels. This is ideal for a well lit room, where we may never use the full power of the LED lights.

On our back patio, we have a smart switch just inside the sliding door. This is a unique situation as the switch has two rockers on it to control two different lights. Then, to make it more complicated, I’ve added an outdoor smart outlet with two outlets on the one light switch. The internal switch controls the spotlight for the backyard, while the other switch turns on the outdoor outlet. That outdoor outlet controls a patio fan and overhead lighting. While it sounds complicated, it’s actually pretty simple when controlling them using physical controls, automations, or smart assistants. One gang, two switches, three devices.

My main purpose for all this smart lighting is not to be cool and have connected light bulbs, but more for ease of use and automations. The main area of my house, some may call it the living room, has no overhead lighting, so we rely on four lamps to provide light. Having to turn these on manually would be a pain and wiring them up to a switch would be costly. With smart bulbs, I have them set to turn on 30 minutes prior to sunset which ensures the room is well lit as the natural light declines.

While I’ve upgrades every light in my house to LED, not everything is a smart light, bulb, or switch. The bathrooms, dining room, kitchen, hallways, and spare bedrooms are where a manual switch is just easier to control the dumb lights. My bedroom has a ceiling fan with four light sockets integrated. I have four Philips Hue white ambiance bulbs in this ceiling fan so I don’t have to pull the chain or get up to turn on/off the lights at the switch.

Recently, I implemented an automation in the living room to better enhance the light experience. My biggest complaint was on the days where natural light was hard to come by, the living room would be dark. I could easily turn on the lights with my phone or home assistant, but I wanted to explore an automation that can turn on the lights based on the light available. My first thought was using an automation that can detect when it’s raining, and turn on the lights. That was easily defeated as here in Pittsburgh we have a lot of overcast days with no precipitation.

The automation I integrated that I’m still using today consists of the following, try to follow along:
I’m using a Philips Hue motion sensor that also has a built-in light meter. When this light meter falls below 2 lux, it triggers an automation within the Apple HomeKit system. Because of the complexity of this, I have to use a Shortcut to run the commands. Also, I only want to turn on the lights during certain times of the day, so it doesn’t turn on in the middle of the night. HomeKit doesn’t allow a lot of triggers, so I’m using the motion sensor as a trigger to kick everything off.

Each time motion is detected in the living room, only during the day >
Run Shortcut 'Living Room Lights On' >
     Is light level <= 2 lux?
          Yes -> turn on living room lights
          No -> do nothing

What’s nice is this is a set-it and forget-it approach. Now when it’s gloomy outside, my lights come on.

Some other automations around lighting in my house
  • When the doorbell detects motion, turn on porch light, only at night.
  • When back patio door is opened, turn on patio lights.
  • Manually triggered ‘Good Night’ scene turns all lights off.
  • When a garage door opens, the garage lights turn on for 10 minutes.

Be sure to follow along for the next Smarter Home 2022 entry where I go over smart speakers.

Scanning Photographs in 2022

photograph collage

The Inspiration

On the latest episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Reconcilable Differences, John Siracusa explained his latest project where he was scanning old photographs. He recently acquired a new multi-function printer and while testing the quality of the scanner stumbled upon an in-depth project. That got me thinking, ”this sounds like something I might want to do.” John goes on to detail his process and all the drawbacks up to the point of questioning why he is even undertaking this large task.

What’s My Purpose

As a once professional and hobbyist photographer I’ve been taking digital photos since 2002 and have amassed an iCloud Photo Library in excess of 50,000 images. That being said, I do posses some non-digital photographs that I’d like to preserve longer than I feel that I can take care of printed images. For a graduation present, my mother made me a scrapbook of my life thus far through photographs. This is a priceless keepsake that unfortunetly uses original photographs. Again for my 30th birthday she flexed her creative muscles again by making a photo board of more pictures from my first 30 years. She used about 30 original photos on this board and I’ve kept the board around since, because I wanted to keep the photographs it contained. This board was the perfect starting point to test drive a scanning project similar to John’s.

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What is a Stream Deck?

You may have seen something like this on technology blogs (like this one!), YouTube videos, or even your favorite Twitch streamer, but what actually is this Stream Deck thing everyone is talking about?

I’ve always thought a Stream Deck was a command station for streamers and YouTubers that can control their streamy stuff and play stupid sound effects. While I wasn’t wrong, the Stream Deck platform is open and friendly to those of us who are into automation and scripting.

Like a lot of people, I took advantage of holiday season sales to purchase a Stream Deck by Elgato. The device is a very simple piece of hardware. At it’s core, it’s a USB keyboard that stands upright on your desk. The version I have has a five by three grid of clear buttons that each have an LCD screen under them. I opted for the mk.2 version that was released in the summer of 2021. (What are the differences?) The ability to have anything on the screen under the buttons make the Stream Deck very fun to play with and to use!

I’m going to go into very technical detail of how my Stream Desk is set up and what I use it for. Hold on to your butts!

The main page layout of my Stream Deck
Time and Date

The first button is a simple date/time display with my custom background color applied. No action occurs when this button is pressed.
Time plugin by Krabs.




Stock Ticker

Moving from left to right, the next button is a stock ticker display. Currently I have it set to show $AAPL. When you press this button it retrieves an update on the stock price, outside of its schedule update.
Stocks plugin by exension





Screen Saver

When I walk away from my computer, I want to just put up the screensaver until is goes to sleep. This button, when pressed, runs a custom AppleScript to start the screensaver. At the same time, the Stream Deck goes into screen saver mode.
Custom icon featuring a green iMac, by me.
RunAppleScript plugin by mushoo.

tell application "System Events" 
    start current screen saver
end tell
Lights On and Lights Off

The next two buttons are the same, except the left one is for on, and the right is for off. They both run an AppleScript that runs a Shortcut. The macOS Shortcut turns on/off the lights in my office I use for video calls. This consists of a Nanoleaf essentials light strip in front of my face, Nanoleaf shapes on the wall behind me, and a Govee RGBIC light strip on my Kallax unit behind me.
Custom lightbulb icons by me.
RunAppleScript plugin by mushoo.


--on
tell application "Shortcuts Events"
	run shortcut "Office Lights On"
end tell
--off
tell application "Shortcuts Events"
	run shortcut "Office Lights Off"
end tell
Start Working

The first icon in the second row is another AppleScript button that I call ‘Start Working’. This is usually the first thing I do when I start working from home. It opens all the URLs I like to look at (e.g. Amazon, BlipShift, Woot) and work related web pages. It also opens all the applications I use daily like Outlook, Slack, Teams, NewsExplorer, LastPass, and Music.
Custom briefcase icon by me.
RunAppleScript plugin by mushoo.



OctoDeck

The next button is another display only button that really doesn’t do much when pressed. This is called Octodeck and is a plugin that talks to my 3D printer server, Octoprint. This displays the percentage complete of an active 3D print job. I added a couple lines to the original creator’s code to include the time left, one line under the percentage.
Octodeck plugin by cpeuschel.




Now Playing

This center button is kind of a playground of what’s possible. I was testing Keyboard Maestro and its Stream Deck integration and came up with this. In Keyboard Maestro I have a timed macro that runs every 1 minute and grabs the song info from the Music app and pushes it to the Stream Deck button. Also, if you press the button, it will update the info outside of the one minute interval.
Keyboard Maestro plugin by Stairways Software.




Album Art

Another mostly info-only button, displays the album art of the currently playing song in Music. When not playing it shows a play button that can be used to start playing music. This is a simple one, but I like having the album art displayed on my Stream Deck.
Apple Music plugin Elgato – available in the Stream Deck app.



Skip Track

The last button in this row, is a simple ‘next track’ button for Apple Music. When pressed this will skip to the next song when music is playing. I like having this button on Stream Deck as well as on my Apple keyboard.
Custom icon made by me.
Apple Music plugin Elgato – available in the Stream Deck app.




Sound and Lights Folder
Sound Effects

In the third row, we start with two folders. The first folder holding sound effects that can be triggered with the push of a button. I also have a button in this folder to switch to my Zoom profile as I’m usually triggering these sounds while on a Zoom call.

Light Control

The second folder is for all my lighting controls. I can go into this folder and adjust my office lighting as needed outside of my normal on/off functions on the main screen. In this folder I can change the scene on my Nanoleaf shapes, adjust my Govee light strip, and set all lights to red (when I’m angry).

Kallax and red icons by me, others by plugin.
Nanoleaf-Tiles plugin by fSoft ltd.
Govee plugin by me – release TBD



Slack

Another folder in the third row houses my quick access commands for Slack. All of these buttons use a hotkey command to make changes to text in Slack. The middle button with the slack logo, when pressed, opens Slack or brings the application into focus.

  • Phone – /callstarts a call in Slack channel
  • Giphy – /giphyprefix for sending a random GIF
  • ThumbsUp – ????????types and send thumbs up emoji
  • Quotes – shift+⌘+9formats the selected text as a block quote
  • </> – shift+⌘+Cformats the selected text as code
  • </> block – option+shift+⌘+Cformats the selected text as code block
  • Strike – shift+⌘+Xformats the selected text with strikethrough
    Custom icons by me.
    System Hotkey plugin by Elgato – available in the Stream Deck app
Mute Speakers

Next to last, is a mute button. When pressed, this mutes all sounds on the computer connected to the Stream Deck. I usually use this when I receive a phone call or need to quickly hear something not in my office.
Custom mute icon by me.
System Multimedia plugin by Elgato – available in the Stream Deck app.



Mute Mic

The last button is a microphone mute toggle. This is a system-wide button that when pressed either mutes or unmutes the computer microphone. Useful for when I’m using a video chat app that’s not Zoom or Teams.
Custom mic icon by me.
Mic Mute Toggle plugin by Fred Emmott.


Stream Deck Profiles

The Stream deck can support multiple profiles that will display specific pages based on the application you’re using. I’m using three profiles in addition to the default profile, outlined above.

Adobe Photoshop Profile

When I’m using Photoshop I like to have quick actions in front of me instead of trying to remember the keyboard shortcuts. As I use this profile more with Photoshop, I’m sure I’ll add more commands.
The icons used in this profile were provided by SideShowFX.






Zoom Profile

While on a Zoom call, I like to have a button to press to mute my microphone, as everyone should. (and remember to unmute it) I found a Zoom plugin that gives you more than just mute, but also camera control and some other useful buttons. The center button with the Zoom logo does nothing other than let me know which profile I’m in at a glance. The button in the very bottom-right corner switches me back to my default profile where I can access light controls and sounds. If I click out the Zoom app and then go back to Zoom, the Zoom Stream Deck profile reactivates.
Zoom plugin and icons by LostDomain.

Microsoft Teams Profile

Lastly, I have a Teams profile which is similar to the Zoom profile, but there is no plugin I’ve found as of writing this. I’m using hotkey buttons to trigger actions in Teams, like mute/unmute and show/hide camera. The Teams logo in the middle acts as a profile switch to go back to the default profile.







Should you buy a Stream Deck?

Overall I think the Stream Deck is a fun toy and can be helpful with repetitive tasks. Would I be lost without one? No, but I’ve already gotten comfortable with the buttons/display I have setup that I would buy a replacement if mine was stolen.

Youtube Twitch GIF by Elgato

Should you buy one? That’s a difficult question because everyone’s needs/wants are different. If you’re into tinkering, scripting, and/or automation I think you should give Stream Deck a try. If you’re not, you may struggle with what to do with your new Stream Deck. It can always be used to add a wow factor to your desk setup.

Things to Note

  • The Stream Deck currently only works on a Windows or Mac computer. The Stream Deck community has it running in Linux, but is not officially supported.
  • The Stream Deck device must always be plugged into the computer to work, there’s no wireless option.
  • In order to get the auto-switching profiles for specific applications, the Stream Deck software has to be running, but not currently have any windows open. If you have any Stream Deck application windows open, in the background or not, the automatic switching will not work. This is somewhat annoying and hard to determine on macOS as the application does not show up in the application switcher or dock.
  • The Stream Deck software has to be running for the device to work. If you quit the app, the Stream Deck goes into screensaver mode and does not function.
  • If you have more than one computer, you have to transfer/re-install your plugins, icons, etc. on each computer. Currently there’s no cloud syncing between devices. Same goes if you have multiple Stream Decks.
Stream Deck GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY
image from Giphy

Fun Tips & Tricks

  • You can set the icon of any button to an animated GIF
  • Any button can have a custom icon – you can make your own or download them
  • You can take a single image and chop it up into a grid and set that as your button icons
  • The mk.1 and mk.2 Stream Deck are vey similar with the exception of the mk.2 having USB-C (at the Stream Deck end only), longer cable, solid stand, and interchangeable faceplate (not included)
  • There are currently three sizes of Stream Deck, mini 3×2, regular 5×3, and XL 8×4
  • The Stream Deck SDK is very friendly and anyone can make their own plugins for free using Javascript, python, html, or c#
  • Elgato’s software is free and you don’t need a device to play with Stream Deck configurations

Let me know on Twitter if you also have a Stream Deck and the different things you do with it.

This is not sponsored content. Elgato is not affiliated nor has influenced this post.

Cutting the Cord on Live Sports

If you’re a cord-cutter you probably already understand the frustration of trying to stream live sporting events or other live events like awards shows, press conferences, or concerts. The streaming world, even in 2022, is still not friendly to live events. Some organizations, like the NFL, have been really good about streaming games or selling streaming rights. If you’re a baseball or hockey fan, it’s a barren landscape. Sure you can buy the leaugue’s streaming package and watch probably every game but the one you actually want to watch. Why is this the case? Local sports teams make exclusive deals with local TV broadcasters which means the national streaming packages black out the team(s) in your local area. If you’re a fan of your local sports team, you have to watch that team on the TV network they signed the deal with, and that network only.

My favorite sport is professional ice hockey and my preferred team is the Pittsburgh Penguins and because I live close enough to Pittsburgh, streaming through the NHL’s provided streaming service will result in a blackout of all Pittsburgh Penguins games. In this scenario I have three options to watch a live Pittsburgh Penguins game.

Option 1 – Cable Subscription

The easiest and most straight forward option is to subscribe to traditional cable. This requires contacting one of the local cable companies (Verizon or Comcast in my area). The Penguins games are on AT&T SportsNet which could be a higher package than a basic cable setup. A package that let’s your select AT&T SportsNet through Verizon costs about $70/month, on top of my existing internet service. In addition to the monthly cost some cable packages require long-term agreements and equipment rentals, so this isn’t the preferred solution for something looking to cut that cord.

Option 2 – OTT TV Subscription

An over-the-top or OTT TV subscription is similar to a normal cable subscription, but it’s all internet-based. Instead of a set top box connected to cable, you can stream live TV to your streaming device of choice, including smartphones and tablets simultaneously. Every market is different with the OTT options and local sports stations, but luckily AT&T Sports Pittsburgh has partnered with FuboTV to bring their content to OTT streaming. This option is good for families that want to watch different programming on different screens at the same time. AT&T SportsNet is available on the base Fubo package, which is about $65/month, with no commitment. This is the perfect option for sports fans that may not want to commit to a year or multi-year cable subscription. It’s easy enough to cancel when you don’t need it and start it back up during the sports season.

Option 3 – Bypass the Blackout

Disclaimer: this option has a few more moving parts, is not for the non-tech-savvy person, and could violate the terms of agreements with your streaming and/or internet provider.

There are two parts to getting around blacked out sporting events. I’m going to speak specifically to my situation where Pittsburgh Penguins games are blacked out in my home region. The first part is getting a streaming service where you can watch the games. NHL hockey on ESPN+ is new for the 2021-2022 season, whereas before NHL.tv was the streaming provider. Thankfully, ESPN+ is a cheaper service than NHL.tv and can even be bundled with Disney+ and Hulu. You’ll need an ESPN+ subscription to watch Pittsburgh Penguins games in any market, but it also gives you access to stream almost every other NHL game as well as a large variety of other sporting events.

Once you have the ESPN+ streaming service and try to watch a Penguins game near Pittsburgh, you’ll get a notice that the game is blacked out in your area. Here’s where part two comes in.

Fire TV’s DNS entry interface

The easiest method I’ve found to bypassing these blackouts is using a DNS proxy service. This is another subscription you must pay for in order to use it, but it’s relatively inexpensive. You also need a device to stream the games on. Any device with a built-in GPS, such as smartphones and tablets. will not work with a DNS proxy as the ESPN+ app will use the GPS to determine your location. After signing up for a DNS proxy service like smartdnsproxy, you’ll be given one or two DNS IP addresses to input on your device. Most of the DNS proxy services provide per-device instructions that can show you specifics to your device. I use an Amazon Fire TV Stick to achieve this. When setting typing in the Wi-Fi password for my home network, there is an advanced button at the button of the on-screen keyboard. This will allow you to manually enter the IP details instead of automatically pulling it from your router. Entering the provided address from the DNS proxy and a reboot is all it takes to get it configured. The streaming apps will then see your location as the DNS proxy thus allowing you to watch blacked-out games.

Let’s see how cost effective this solution actually is:

ESPN+ = $70/yr
SmartDNSProxy = $48/yr
Total 1 year = $118
vs
Cable/Fubo 1 year = $840

That may sound simple and a no-brainer, but it’s not the whole story.
The new NHL TV/streaming rights are weird, so not every game is on ESPN+.
Here are the number of games per network for the 21-22 Penguins season:

  • 69 – televised on AT&T SportsNet and streamed on ESPN+
    • Games on AT&T SportsNet and ESPN+ can work with options 1, 2, and 3 above.
  • 5 – televised on TNT only
    • Games on TNT only work with option 1 provided you have TNT in your cable package.
      TNT is not included in any Fubo package.
  • 4 – streamed on ESPN+ and Hulu
    • Games on ESPN+ and Hulu only work with option 3 as you need a streaming subscription to watch these games.
  • 3 – televised on ABC only
    • Games on ABC only work with option 1 as even the ABC streaming app requires a cable subscription.
  • 1 – televised on ESPN only
    • Games on ESPN only work with option 1 as the base ESPN channel and ESPN+ do not overlap.
      You need an active cable subscription to watch ESPN.

As you can see, there is no one option that can make all games watchable. If you’re concerned with watching every single game, a combination of option 1 and 2 is the best bet.

Devices

Using a DNS proxy to bypass a blacked out sporting event works on most streaming devices that do not have a built-in GPS, like I mentioned above, with the one giant exception being Roku devices. Roku does not allow you to change the DNS server on your device as they use their own DNS servers and give you no way to change it. You could set the DNS server at your router/gateway level, but then every device on your network would be pointing to that DNS proxy. This is not recommended. I recommend using an Apple TV or Amazon Fire streaming box for best compatibility. It also works on Playstation and Xbox consoles, but be aware that changing your DNS on game consoles could impact online gaming.

I suspect that all of this confusion is somewhat intentional to make you just order that cable subscription and be done with it. If you’re an avid watcher of all local sports, I’d say a traditional cable subscription is best since you’ll be able to watch the most amount of games no matter what sport is in season.

Apple MacBook Pro 14-inch – Beard Blog Review

MacBook Pro keyboard

The biggest story of this #techtober has been the new Apple MacBook Pro notebook computers. When Apple made the MacBook Pro thinner, lighter, and only strictly USB-C, the “pros” complained. For five years, the complaining continued with only minor adjustments from Apple. They pretty much admitted the butterfly keyboard was bad (without really saying it) and eventually reverted to a traditional scissor switched keyboard.1 I liked the look and feel of the butterfly keyboards, but they were a magnet for debris and often caused typing issues.

Like Apple’s other notebooks, the MacBook Pro finally moved away from Intel to Apple’s own M1 chip. The M1 Pro and M1 Max are faster than the M1, but all are way faster than Intel at most tasks.2

This is the first HDR computer screen I’ve had the pleasure of using and all I can say is, wow! It’s definitely a change worth seeing in person as well as the still not fully implemented ProMotion refresh.

MacBook Pro ports

Apple decided it didn’t want to hear people complain about the lack of ports on the MacBooks Pro anymore so they brought back the HDMI port and SD card slot. They added MagSafe back to the notebooks in a new smaller/thinner design, but it comes at the cost of one of the previous four USB-C ports. I’ve read a lot of people complaining that the MacBooks don’t have a USB-A port. This is not an issue. We’ve had only USB-C since 2016 and the type A port is clearly a dying breed. If you somehow still have something that can’t be upgraded to USB-C, grab your dongle, plug it in, and move on.

If you want to read more about the processors and MacBooks Pro, check out Apple’s technical specifications.

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Which AirPods Are Right For You?

AirPods_hero

AirPods are completely wireless earphones that go in your ears to provide music or other audio from your Bluetooth device. Apple again revolutionlized music by making earphones that didn’t need wires and were super easy to use. They even went viral during their launch that made AirPods the trendy must-have accessory.

Five years later, Apple now sells four different versions of AirPods, and like some other product categories can be really confusing, especially when buying for others.

AirPods Max are a different kind of listening device and are more of a headphone than an earphone product.

I’m going to talk about the three white wireless versions of AirPods. These are always great gifts for the holidays and are still immensely popular with the younger crowds, but which AirPods are right for you?

AirPods (2nd-Generation)

The now iconic shape of wireless earbuds were refreshed in 2019 to offer additional features like “Hey Siri”, longer battery life, and wireless charging case. Other than the new features, the AirPods shape and design remained the same. It’s impossible to tell a generation 1 product from a generation 2 just by looking at them.

Like the EarPods that proceeded the AirPods, they were designed for a wide variety of ears and rest on the antitragus and intertragal notch. When they were first announced, everyone exclaimed that they were going to fall out of ears and get lost. Based on how EarPods always popped out, it was a hard sell. About 10 minutes after AirPods were in wearer’s ears, they were a hit. So much of a hit, they immediately faced a supply issue. I remember showing people my AirPods and they were in disbelief of the fact that they would stay in my ears, even while jogging.

AirPods Pro

With the success of the first generation AirPods came a lot of outcry that they just didn’t work in some ears. Additionally, the AirPods didn’t isolate sound and were basically useless on airplanes. About six months after the second generation AirPods were announced, Apple announced the AirPods Pro. These featured in-ear silicone tips that completely isolated sound and increased sound quality. Most people were familiar with earbuds that featured the same design, but Apple made the earbud a lot better. Noise cancelling, transparency mode, and increased frequency response were touted as the main features of the Pros. The biggest change was the shape. Gone was the long stem that projected out of people’s ears and was replaced by a stouter, less obvious version. The in-ear portion has silicone tips (in three sizes) to seal in the sound. The case was bigger and wider so the new style could fit in to charge magnetically like the original AirPods.

Apple will inevitably announce second generation AirPods Pro, but probably not until Spring 2022 at the earliest. The Pros being the flagship AirPods, they’ll probably receive new technology before it trickles down to the non-Pro AirPods.

AirPods 3

In October 2021, Apple announced what they’re calling the AirPods (3rd generation) but I’ll be referring to them as the AirPods 3 for confusion avoidance. This was the first time AirPods have changed shapes in almost five years. They look strikingly similar to the AirPods Pro by shrinking the stem and adding more speakers to the in-ear portion. The headlining features of the AirPods 3 are spatial audio, sweat/water resistance, and longer battery life. They also changed the controls to match the Pros by adding a force sensor to the stem so you can squeeze instead of jackhammering your ear. In a rare Apple move, the price also decreased from $199 to $179 for the wireless charging case.

Enjoy my ear as I cycle through wearing all three AirPods

Which AirPods Do I Want?

This is quite the subjective question because all ears are not created equal. The complicated answer falls into three categories to determine which AirPods are right for you.

  1. I want the cheapest AirPods, I don’t care about price.
    • AirPods 2nd generation are right for you, if you can find the 1st-gen, grab those instead
  2. I want to use my AirPods for working out and casual listening.
    • The added sweat resistance and comfort level of the AirPods 3 is great in this scenario
  3. I travel a lot and want to use my AirPods on planes, trains, and automobiles.
    • AirPods Pro offer noise cancelling and adjustable listening modes to aid you when traveling
Some caveats to those recommendations

AirPods (2nd generation) fit in most ears, while AirPods 3 are a bit larger and have trouble staying in ears with smaller openings. If you’re interested in moving from 2nd-gen to 3rd-gen, be aware that the AirPod is larger than the previous. My wife was able to wear 2nd-gen with no issue, but 3rd-gen do not stay in her ears.


AirPods Pro seal off outside noises and can cause you to hear internal noises while you’re ears a blocked. Think chewing and walking thumps. To me, this is the most annoying part of the Pros.

Tech Specs Showdown

AirPods 2nd-gen
AirPods Pro
AirPods 3
Price

$129

$249

$179

Active Noise Cancellation

No

Yes

No

Spatial Audio

No

Yes
Yes
Sweat/Water Resistant

No

Yes
Yes
Battery Life

5 hours

4.5 hours

6 hours
Wireless Charging Case

No

Yes
Yes
"Hey Siri"

Yes

Yes

Yes

Controls

Double-tap

Squeeze

Squeeze

Size (weight)

1.59"x.65"x.71" (4g)

1.22"x.86"x.94"(5.4g)

1.21"x.72"x.76" (4.28g)

Read more about Apple Products on Beard Blog

Apple Watch Series 7 – A Beard Blog Review

apple watch series 7

The Apple Watch is a weird product because unlike the iPhone, it doesn’t have much utility outside of showing me information. Sure it logs health and activity data, but when you get a new watch you strap it on your wrist, it’s just there. No flashy features or cameras to test out, just an appliance waiting for you wonder what time it is. 

I’ve been wearing a watch just about every day on my left wrist for the last 12 years. I started out with ordinary mid-level watches and then got into collecting different types of movements, shapes, and sizes. The day that I got my first Apple Watch, all of that stopped. I no longer felt the need to change my watch based on my outfit or mood, I could now do that with a band. I still was wearing a watch every day, but this time for a different reason. If I missed a day of closing my activity rings, I felt like I forgot to do something that day. 

The best part about the new display on the Series 7 is the digital time is larger and easier to read.

Much has changed since the first Apple Watch both with my lifestyle (thanks COVID) and the Apple Watch itself. What started out as a fashion accessory that can run apps, slowly evolved into a health monitor that tells you the time. I’m overly pleased with where the watch has gone and shamelessly order the new model every year on day one. 

The Series 7 is different. Something is going on at Apple in the watch department. I can’t quite figure out what it is, but maybe in time it will be revealed. All of the leakers and rumor sites were dead certain that this year’s watch would be a complete redesign and it look totally different. What we actually got was the same watch, with a slightly different screen. It’s almost like this was the backup plan when ‘plan A’ didn’t pan out. That being said, Apple is able to manufactur and deliver a huge amount of technology during this unprecedented component shortage. I wouldn’t have faulted them for just skipping this year’s watch and make it up to us next year. Tim Cook loves selling widgets so here we are.

Not much is new on my Series 7 versus my outgoing Series 6, but if you’re curious, head over to Apple’s website to check it out.

I loved having a stainless steel watch for the better sapphire crystal, but I couldn’t pass up my favorite color being an available aluminum option. The green anodized aluminum looks almost black in most lighting, but in direct sunlight you can see the gorgeous green glow!

series 6 vs series 7 animated
Animating the differences in the UI elements and screen size on Series 7 vs Series 6

The Good

  • Bigger screen in same sized case 1
  • UI elements, like buttons got bigger
  • Every Apple Watch band made is still compatible
  • Fast charging is great for all-day watch wearers
  • Finally, a full keyboard we can use for text entry
  • Small iteration on already good formula

The Missed Opportunities

  • Color choices are very bland and too limiting 2
  • We were expecting a full redesign, has that been delayed?
  • Faster wireless communication should be addressed
  • Same proprietary “wireless” watch charger 3
  • The display is brighter in “wrist down” mode, but the UI elements still annoyingly move 4

The Bad

  • Still requires an iPhone to use
  • Watch faces are not very interesting, and stale
  • No third-party watch faces
  • Third-party app market is struggling
BeardBlog Score: 8.5/10

Maybe next year we’ll see a redesign and some noteworthy feature upgrades, but for now this remains a small iteration over last year’s similarly small iteration, the Series 6.

More Beard Blog tech reviews

iPhone 13 Pro Max -A Beard Blog Review

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max
Review

The iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max are all-new this year, again. Every year, like clockwork, we get new iPhones. Just like last year apple announced four new phones with a new number, 13. Last year’s all new design was a great departure from the rounded bars of soap we’ve had for six years. If you’ve been following iPhones for a while, you may know that they like to do what most people call an “S” year. Starting with the 3GS, then 4S, 5S, 6S, and XS, we’ve come to understand that an “S” year is less new design and more internal upgrades.

The iPhone 13 should have been an “S” year. Not sure why we didn’t see the iPhone 12S, but I was betting on it. Literally, bet lunch on it being named the iPhone 12S.

So in the iPhone 12S 13 we get better cameras, bigger batteries and a new processor. The Pros got 120hz display and even better cameras.

I opted to replace my iPhone 12 Pro Max with an iPhone 13 Pro Max. As long as they’re making giant pro phones, I’m buying them.

I’m not going to go into the new features or what Apple is marketing on the device, you can see that at apple.com/iphone.

The Good

  • The 120hz display makes motion buttery smooth, and I smile whenever I notice it
  • The camera upgrades while minor year-over-year, have a huge impact on everyday photos
  • Macro photos are fun and a game changer
    Beard Blog iPhone macro photography deep-dive
  • Same squared-side design that looks modern and still feels new
  • Sierra Blue is a refreshing take on a silver finish
  • OLED screen is brighter, which is useful in direct sunlight

The Missed Opportunities

  • Moving to USB-C should have happened this year
  • The camera / Face ID notch got smaller-ish, but it’s size still feels outdated
  • Same software limitations running on a super-fast SoC
  • Night Mode could be better with the new camera hardware
    Beard Blog iPhone Night Mode deep-dive
  • My phone shipped with eSim enabled, but I still have an ugly SIM card slot
  • The physical mute switch is great, but someday it’s gotta go
  • Speaker holes are still asymmetric

The Bad

  • Front-facing camera feels old and needs updated like other Apple devices
  • Rear camera bump is huge, more noticeable on smaller phones 
  • Telephoto (3x) rear camera has more reach, but less quality
  • Face ID hasn’t seen any major improvements since it was debuted on the iPhone X, while iPads can see faces in different orientations
  • The back face of the phone is still slippery and fragile

Changing to USB-C, upgrading the front camera, and making it more grippy, might make this a 10 / 10 for me.

We’ll see what next year’s iPhone brings, which I’m sure will be named iPhone 14. Will we see USB-C finally or just no ports at all? Stay tuned, here and only here, for iPhone hot takes.

The Best of 2020: iOS Apps

“There’s an app for that!”

Continuing my list of the best things from 2020, mostly what helped us get through the pandemic, the most obvious thing you use a lot is your phone. There are a lot of great apps I use everyday but the three I’m about to list are essential apps for entertaining me, staying connected, and getting me what I need. What are some of your favorite apps of the past year?

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