Smarter than the Average Home

Alexa, Google Home, Philips Hue, and more.

If you know me, you’ll know that I like my tech. I’ve worked in the sector for twelve years now (actually I think it’s coming up to thirteen … yikes) and have paddled in the seas of tech experimentation at various depths over the years.

After my abortive university escapade, I had my water-cooled custom-cased gaming rig, as well as my own Exchange and Web server. I cared about tenths of degrees of my CPU and GPU, how fast my RAM was clocked, and could tell the difference between a 5400 and 7200RPM spinning disk.

It’s not quite like that anymore.

As the years went on, life and circumstance played a role in the cooling of my tech appetite. For starters, I was working in the industry and, at times, the last thing I wanted to do after sitting in front of a computer for eight hours or more doing tech troubleshooting was to come home and spend even longer doing the same thing.

When I started out, if you wanted to do anything with a computer more than desktop work – home media centers or whatever – then you had to build it yourself; often that extended to the physical container for your machine.
These days, as technology has become ever more powerful and a handheld mobile phone is now orders of magnitude more powerful than anything I was playing with back then, integrated technology has become really good. It’s also become mainstream, putting a premium on good user interfaces and reliability.

The long and the short of it is that now, instead of spending a weekend sat in front of a workbench or computer trying to make something that will play my movies for me, I can buy a device from Apple, Google, or Amazon, and spend my weekend doing … well, literally anything else. Then when I do come home and want to watch a movie, I plug the device in and watch my movie. No ‘oh shit hold on, I just need to recalibrate this, give it 45 minutes and we’ll be ready to go’.

The other reality is that of space and cost. When I was living with my parents I had a big room and free electricity. My first move brought me to a room that didn’t even have a desk, so I immediately went from a running a desktop to a laptop. Over the following years I graduated from Windows to MacOS (née OS X) and steadily decreased my dependency on custom-built systems.
Even once I scaled my available space back up, I discovered that I was much more of a ‘regular user’ at home; try moving in with your girlfriend and then spending hours tinkering with rack mount switches and then explaining the stupid electricity bill at the end of the month!

After bouncing back and forth between houses and differing room sizes, I ended up here. America, where space is plentiful, apartments are huge, and – if Trump gets his way – we’ll all be guzzling down cheap coal-powered electric as we choke ourselves to death on smog and Florida disappears under water.

Sorry, got a bit sidetracked there.

Anyway, my point is that it would be easier now for me to get some sort of crazy setup going again but … I don’t feel the need. Professionally, whilst I may still be doing support, my interests are far more in strategy and direction of an IT department than poking and prodding at hardware and software, so by the time I clock out at 6pm every day I’ve had my fill of that.

However, I am still a bit of a geek. I’ve also always believed that technology’s main purpose on this world is to make our lives easier (until The Singularity when we become subservient to a machine master race). Smart Home Tech and Home Automation therefore, is a very interesting new thing. The whole ‘Internet of Things’ concept is something that massively appeals to me; the fridge that knows what products you have inside and can automatically remind you to buy milk, even order it for you – hello Amazon Prime Pantry,

Our first purchase was a FOSCAM R2 1080p security camera. This was actually for a genuinely important purpose; we started out with a Border Collie, and intended to have somebody come walk him every day during the week. The camera was important for us to be able to keep an eye on the dog in general, but also to check on having a stranger in our apartment – especially as we started to buy more things.
The camera offers two-way audio as well – something which proved quite amusing today when AJ’s sister came over whilst AJ was still at work and we had a little back-and-forth with the little black object on the shelf.

… does that sound weird?

Anyway, back to the smart home thing. The next purchase was an Amazon Echo Dot. This handsome little piece of technology gave us access to Alexa, Amazon’s virtual assistant. I’d been wanting to play about with it for a while, and the Dot was a cheap way in to the ecosystem.

To start with, it was pretty fun, but the novelty quickly wore off. It became useful in the mornings, allowing me to preset AJ’s route to work and our physical location, meaning we could check the weather and traffic for her whilst we got ready for work.

Both things are easily achievable via our individual smart phones, but when you’re busy getting ready (we often get up way after the initial alarms go off … oops) it’s actually very useful to have someone read the information to you.

The functionality sort of … stopped at that point though, and I started to listen to some colleagues who had purchased Google Home devices. I’m already quite involved with the Google ecosystem myself, having moved to G Suite a few years ago, and so rather foolishly listened without doing my own research as they slammed Alexa and talked up Google Home. When Best Buy came out with a Thanksgiving / Black Friday special – two Google Homes for the price of one and a half – I jumped on it and duly unplugged Alexa and set the Homes up.

The first thing I was dismayed to see is that Google Home doesn’t support Google’s own products. If you have a G Suite account, you’re fresh out of luck. You can’t add calendaring, email, or payment functionality. Given that I integrated my own calendar with Alexa just fine, this is a really poor show from Google. The issue was tempered slightly because of the way that we use calendaring at home; AJ setup a shared calendar under her (normal non-G Suite) account which we put all the house stuff into. As a result we’ve been able to add that calendar to the system and use it to query. Still, a very questionable functionality omission from a company that has made news for years now with … very questionable functionality omissions. Guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

Secondly, where Alexa has hundreds (or even thousands?) of ‘Skills’ to interact with all sorts of systems and services, Google … doesn’t. With Alexa, we could (and did) hook up Todoist (the shared ToDo list app that we use) to add reminders and such via voice. Not so with Google, you have to be using their service.

Thirdly, you can’t use Google to interact with Sonos. Or rather, you can, but only certain models of speaker which you have to plug Chromecasts into. Alexa could control Sonos devices natively (albeit not using Apple Music, which I use, but it did at least support Spotify which AJ uses).
Given that all our speakers are Sonos, with the exception of one bluetooth UE Boom device, this is yet another miss.

Both devices talk to our Roomba, but Alexa does the better job. Google Home takes the command, passes it off to the Roomba integration which then repeats back what you wanted in a very robotic voice. I’ve had a 50/50 hit rate with the commands too, which is not great.
Alexa meanwhile just said ‘Okay’ and got on with it. More on that a little later.

Another Black Friday deal was Philips Hue bulbs. I had been considering getting switches for the walls, but ultimately made the decision that Smart Bulbs were the way to go. I started out with just two – for the lamps either side of our TV – but ended up extending them to the whole living room (lamps) and the bedroom (replacing the ceiling lights).

Now these are cool. Not only do you name and group the bulbs as best fits your use case, but they are so controllable. Don’t have a dimmer on all your lights? No problem! With smart bulbs you now have a dimmer on every single bulb. Want to geofence your location so that the lights turn off and on whenever you leave and arrive home? Done. Want the lights to react around your house to … pretty much any external stimulus? As long as you have the requisite input (be it a motion sensor, temperature sensor, or weather reading service on your phone) you can tell them to do just about anything.

The best part is they can be integrated with Alexa and Google Home, and that brings me back to Alexa vs Google.

Simply put, Alexa does it better. The integration within the app is more logical and gives more control with Alexa. Voice-command wise they are about the same, but whereas I can say “Alexa, turn on the lights in the living room”, Alexa replies “Okay” and does it, with Google I have to say “Hey (or OK) Google, turn on the lights in the living room”. Google replies “OK, turning on four lights”.

Fourteen total syllables plays nineteen or twenty. It sounds like a small thing, but if you’re doing this regularly, talking to Alexa is just simpler and more natural than talking to Google, and her responses are far more succinct. You might think it’s a good thing to get full feedback about what Google is doing but really, after hearing it once and confirming that it does what you asked, do you really need to hear it every time?
It’d be like requesting something from a colleague at work and having them repeat the request back to you every time. Weird.

I’ve ended up plugging the Dot back in in our study – the Homes are in the lounge and the bedroom. Oh that’s the other thing – Alexa units can tell which one you’re speaking to, Google can’t. So in a relatively small space (i.e. our apartment) you often get them both going off when you say ‘OK Google’.

If I could return them and get more Echos I would, but Best Buy’s restocking fees mean I’d end up swallowing a chunk of that cost. I might see if I can find a buyer at work for them.

So, all of that was very ramble-y, but that’s our Smart Home adventure so far. The applications are somewhat limited in a rented apartment, but I can see how, in a house or in a fully-owned property, you could really do some cool stuff with it.

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