Remote controlled curtains have been around for ages but only recently has that same technology been translated into a smart product. Much like blinds and shades, most of us have at least one set of curtains in our house and depending on where they’re located, you may want to automate them. Opening and closing of curtains can have an impact on both the climate and light in your home, but the primary function is to block nosey people from looking into your room.
The first time I learned about smart curtains was from SwitchBot who I believe was one of the first to market with a smart-assistant controlled curtain controller. Originally they were priced too high for what I wanted to spend, and like a bunch of other products, were only geared toward the Alexa/Amazon smart ecosystem. Even still as I write this today they don’t support Apple Home (fka Apple Homekit).
The smart curtain controller is simple. It rides along various types of curtain rods and rails and pushes or pulls your curtains. The drawback is that if you have two sets of curtains on a window, you need two controllers to push/pull each side. This doubles the cost as most controllers are sold in singles. The controller either connects to the track of your rail or rides along the rod like suspended roller coaster. There is also the compatibility of the type of rod or rail you have for your existing curtains. The compatibility varies from manufacturer and most can’t do a telescoping rod as the wheels can’t overcome the height differences.
When Aqara started selling their curtain controllers I was immediately interested. They’re product connected to my already existing Aqara camera hubs and that connected to Apple Home. They were discounted on Amazon during their initial launch so I thought I would give them a try, and if it wasn’t something I wanted or didn’t work right, I could return them. They arrived pretty quickly and while bulky, they were easy to install.
I have a bay window in my living room that lets in a lot of light throughout the first half of the day, but also faces the street I live on. This window has your traditional dual curtain rods with a shear set covered by an opaque set of curtains. Putting four controllers on each set of curtains wasn’t cost effective for this setup so I opted to buy two controllers for each side of the inner-most opaque curtains, while leaving the shears to manual adjustment.
The Aqara controllers work well and have yet to fail in the two months I’ve been using them. One odd thing about the Aqara models are that I needed to group them as one accessory in the Apple Home app to get the two controllers to work together. They’re exposed as left and right modules to Apple Home allowing you to operate them individually, but I have no use case for only opening one side. I have not yet needed to charge the batteries and as of writing this they currently sit at 80% so they should last about a year before needing charged.
Controlling them from the Apple Home app or by using Siri is very easy. Usually I just shout into the air, “Hey Siri, open the curtains” and within a second or two they start moving. I currently only have one automation set on the curtains and that is to close them in the evening. In the Apple Home app I have the automation set to: 15 minutes after sunset, close the curtains. This allows the most amount of light until the sun fades and then closes for privacy. In the winter months I can see having a schedule automation to open the curtains in the morning when heat is less of an issue.
While having smart curtain is great and convenient I don’t think it’s yet cost effective to have it on every set of curtains in your house. It’s nice on one or two, but there may be no need to automate curtains that are rarely changed or within easy reach. The smart curtain controllers are a great example of retrofitting smart objects on existing dumb things to make them better. Having a robot push or pull curtains open is a glimpse into the future of how tiny machines can make everyday items better.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Home2022 entry where I go over smart speakers.
The latest product from tech giant Apple is their own take on the very popular “lady in a cylinder”. The HomePod aims to fill the gap where the competition lacks in areas such as sound quality, ease of use, and aesthetics. I’ve spent the last month with the HomePod, testing everything I could.
It Packs a Punch
The Apple HomePod is a small cylindrical device that is about the size of a two liter soda bottle, with the top cut off. It’s covered in a thick mesh that feels soft but also sturdy at the same time. Inside, the HomePod packs a large upward facing subwoofer and seven tweeters around the bottom circumference. In between those there is a six microphone array for hearing your voice as well as to fine tune the sound based on the surroundings. The speakers and microphones are controlled by a stripped-down version of the fourth generation Apple TV. The processing power allows you to shout anything at it and it responds very quickly.
I don’t consider myself an audiophile, but I enjoy high quality music when I can get it. When I listen to music over bluetooth in my car I can hear the lower quality compared to playing over USB. That’s about the extent of my sound quality identifying experience. The HomePod does a great job of producing great sound in a small package. It sits next to my forty-eight inch, nine speaker sound bar, and the HomePod has noticeably better sound. [perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The music stopped and I thought “there’s no way she heard that.”[/perfectpullquote]The sound output fills my living room with high fidelity music so well that you would think I have a 7.1 surround sound system setup.
The HomePod only knows one music service and that’s Apple’s own Apple Music. That means the HomePod cannot play music from Spotify, Tidal, Google, or any other music service out there. You can play songs from Apple’s giant library, your own iTunes library, or songs you’ve previously purchased from iTunes, so there is a lot of variety. If that is not enough for you, you can still stream whatever you like from an iOS device to the speaker, just like you AirPlay to an Apple TV. The benefit of using Apple Music on the HomePod is you don’t need your iPhone or iPad to play it. In fact, if you turned off all your devices, it will still be able to play music from Apple’s streaming service. If you’re thinking of getting a HomePod, switching to or signing up for Apple Music is definitely worth it.
Beyond playing great music, the HomePod packs the same helpful assistant as iPhones and iPads. Her name is Siri and she is very willing to help you any way she can. The HomePod doesn’t have a screen or a way for you to interact with anything, so Siri is limited. Speaking “Hey Siri…” into the air turns her attention towards you as she hangs on your next words. I’ve had moderate success with asking Siri random questions. I’ve been using Siri for a long time so I know how to ask her things and what she can and can’t do. Here are some things I asked my HomePod that resulted in the correct answer on the first try: What is 60g in oz?; What is the scientific name for a sloth?; How many tablespoons are in 20oz?; Who is Michael B. Jordan?; Who sings purple rain?
Contrary to your iPhone, Siri on the HomePod doesn’t know who you are. Whomever sets up the HomePod initially can choose to allow some details to be passed through the Apple account, but it’s still very limited. The nice thing about this is anyone that can yell “Hey Siri!” can control the HomePod. This can also cause some disagreements between people who want to hear two different songs.[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]One of my favorite HomePod activities is when I wake up with a random song in my head, I can shout out loud and have it played[/perfectpullquote]
One place where the HomePod excels over the competition is how well it can hear you. Even at whisper with music playing the HomePod picks up the “Hey Siri” command. I was in my kitchen cooking with the exhaust fan on, the HomePod was about twenty feet away with a wall between us. The HomePod was playing something from Apple Music when I said “Hey Siri skip” at a volume that a person next to me would struggle to hear. The music stopped and I thought “there’s no way she heard that.” The next song began to play and I was taken aback by how well it could hear my over all the noise.
The Kit of Home
Another way Siri on the HomePod is helpful is by controlling HomeKit devices. These are smart home devices that are compatible with Apple’s home ecosystem. I have structured the smart devices in my home around this ecosystem allowing me to take full advantage of Siri for automation and control. By shouting at the HomePod I can close my garage doors, turn up the heat, turn on/off lights, and trigger scenes I have setup. The HomePod also acts as a HomeKit bridge that allows you to (if you don’t already have an Apple TV) access your HomeKit devices from outside your home network.
Who should buy one?
If you’re deeply invested in Apple’s ecosystem (which is easy to do) with a subscription to Apple Music, HomeKit compatible devices (Philips Hue bulbs fit this bill), like listening to music in your home, and use an iOS device; the HomePod is definitely for you.
It’s going to be hard to find a lot of people that meet those criteria, which is Apple’s fault, but at the same time it helps get more people into their ecosystem.
One of my favorite HomePod activities is when I wake up with a random song in my head (which happens almost every morning) I can shout out loud and have it played, and it sounds great!
Measuring the Competition
Apple is late to the “lady in a can” game, which seems to be their modus operandi as of late. There is plenty of competition in this space and surprisingly the first mover here was Amazon with their Echo line. Amazon has released nine products with their Alexa assistant before the HomePod shipped. Google now has three different types of devices that use the Google Assistant for your home. Amazon, Google and Apple’s devices all have the same functions; play music, control smart devices, and try to answer your dimwitted questions.
Which one is the best? That’s a hard question to answer for everyone, and each person you ask might have a different answer. The best one for you is which system you’re invested in. Do you have Apple products throughout your home or are you more in the Google ecosystem? Amazon has the advantage of being the cheaper solution and throwing their products at consumers every way possible. It’s more likely you know someone with an Amazon product in their house than the other two.
Apple’s HomePod is another great first generation product. A lot of people are comparing it to the the original Apple Watch, which is fair. Both of those devices are late entries to a new market for Apple and so far, both have been received very well. My time with the HomePod has been great and I don’t regret the purchase at all. I’m looking forward to the near future where Apple makes smaller/cheaper versions of the HomePod that I can stick in various places in my house.
In summary, John Gruber put it best when he wrote, “What AirPods are for your own ears, HomePod is for your home.”.
On my previous post I talked about smart home items and how they are the next big thing. Because I don’t like being left behind, I went ahead an purchased a set of Philips Hue lights. These are internet-connected LED light bulbs that contain 3 different color LEDs inside so that they can produce thousands of different colors. As I’ll explain after the break, using the bulbs together to create a scene is a lot better than using the bulbs alone.