Amazon Echo (and why I like it alongside HomeKit)

Amazon Alex (Black)

Whilst I don’t class myself as an Apple fan-boy I do buy into their platform heavily, mainly due to the fact that I have been burned so many times as an early adopter that I just wanted a phone that not only worked, but that did what it said on the packet, but was reliable. Apple’s products work flawlessly (although not always cutting edge).  I decided late last year that I would buy into the Apple HomeKit eco-system mainly due to having iPads, iPhones, Apple Watch and a 4th Gen Apple TV (that acts as a hub and bridge to the control devices external to the house). Just as Santa was delivering my first shiny and pristine HomeKit compartmental smart socket and a Philips Hue Starter Kit a relative purchased the Amazon Echo. I am not ashamed to say it laid in it’s box for a week whilst I was playing with the HomeKit compatible devices. Then I finally got round to tinkering with the Echo…. what fun!

Calling out “Alexa”….  (you can change  this to Echo or Amazon) enables you to do many things with an Echo that are, in the part are trivial, such as:

  • “Alexa, Tell me a joke”
  • “Alexa, volume 11.” (caution: very loud)
  • “Alexa, beam me up.”
  • “Alexa, sing me a song.”
  • “Alexa, random number between “x” and “y.”
  • “Alexa, heads or tails.”
  • “Alexa, roll a die.”

to the more useful:

  • “Alexa, do I need an umbrella today?”
  • “Alexa, set a repeating alarm for Tuesdays at 8:00 a.m.”
  • “Alexa, set a timer for 10 minutes”
  • “Alexa, play music” (from your Amazon Music Library)
  • “Alexa, play Radio 4 on TuneIn
  • “Alexa, How is traffic?”
  • “Alexa, What’s in the news?”
  • “Alexa, Turn on the kitchen lights”
  • “Alexa, Spotlights colour blue”
  • “Alexa, Dining Room 50%”
  • “Alexa, Connect my Phone”
  • “Alexa, add coffee to my shopping list”

The playing of music (never got round to having a sound system in the kitchen) and controlling of lights is by far the most used features of the Echo and I am surprised at how capable it is at hearing and understanding commands from over 30ft away whilst the TV is on and the kids and making a noise. We can easily control lighting from the lounge even though their is the dining room between us and the Echo. The Echo is constantly having small upgrades, early on in the year you had to use the IFTTT service to turn on a predetermined colour for Hue lamps, now Alexa can do it seamlessly on her own and you can request colours without presetting. Addition of “Skills” (think of as an app for your Echo) allows for integration with other devices such as Plex Media Server where I can ask “Alexa, Ask Plex to play Spongebob the Movie”, a go-to-kid-pleaser!

Now admittedly we lag behind the US for features (but as ever they work extremely well when they come over to this side of the pond). But such features as being able to play the same music multi room synchronicity, texting of voice calling your Echo for reminders and  two way comms between internal and external devices are sure to keep the platform fresh and innovative, as well as giving the rival a real run for their money. I am not afraid to say that it is favoured over using the Siri button on the TV remote or lifting my apple watch for a Siri command – it’s already listening for me and is quicker to react – just as long as I am in ‘ear-shot’ and other family members are not being disruptive (my eldest loves to either beat me to a request, confuse Alexa or countermand me – much to his own amusement).

In relation to learning they show a level of interaction that can be a real advantage to learners (although I don’t fancy taking mine into work just yet!), an always attentive support assistant that can help with definitions of terms, perform calculations, set timers for activities, set reminders, read audiobooks, play music (or audio files), request spelling of word, synonyms and even translate phrases into other languages. These are available right now so who knows what the future might bring?

For a device that’s been available in the UK since the 28th of September 2016 that was fun from the start and has constantly evolved I would recommend a purchase, definitely as a solid entry in home automation and the fact they are heavily discounted on occasion and can be over 30% off. Would I buy another? I can’t see why not, I am just holding out for the expected V2 rumoured to launched later in the year to compete with the impending Apple HomeHub. With improved Audio and styling.

Do you have an Echo or Dot? What do you use your for?

Advertisements

UK Light Switches and Home Automation

Lighting Diagram

Please note: there is no earth (yellow and green striped cable) show to simplify the diagram

There is a problem with (current) smart switches for lighting:

  • They are rectangular (not square) for the US market – so would need some retro-fitting
  • They seem to often require a neutral to function (is this a US thing?)

But there is a potential work-around it the UK ever gets decent Smart Switches that are square but still require a neutral. It seems that October is going to be a popular month for UK Home Automation devices so this post might be very timely.

  1. Rerun new cables to include a neutral – expensive, time-consuming and messy
  2. Use a gadget to create a neutral – these are best avoided because they are not effective
  3. rewire to create a neutral – the focus of this post!

This post should only be carried out by a competent person – if in doubt seek a professional electrician

The diagram at the top of the post show that a live (brown) and switched live (dashed red) are run to the switch
The lower diagram shows where recabling in the ceiling rose is required, then you can fit smart switch to the Live, Neutral and Earth
There are disadvantages to this – you will lose the physical switch at the location but you’re going to get that and more through the Smart functions!

 

Lighting Diagram Mod

  1. Turn off the power at the fuseboard
  2. You are going to move the two wires used for the switched live that powers your lamp (points A & B)
    • The blue cable that [should] be marked with a red sleeve to indicate a switched live move to the neutral block that has other blue cables. You could remove the red sleeve as will not be  switched live anymore.
    • The brown cable that is now not able to receive power, move to the permanent live block that should have other brown cables.
  3. If you have a tester you might wish to ensure you have 240v between your cables in the switch backing box
  4. fit smart switch
  5. Turn on power at the fuseboard
  6. Enjoy!

Interested in using Homekit in the UK? visit & join https://www.facebook.com/groups/homekituk/ 

Philips Hue Smart Lamps

Hue Hub and Lamps

Before we begin let’s start off by stating that the following is my own experience and not a recommendation, also this post is not going to talk all things ‘Hue’ but will focus on the ‘basics’ to get up and running. Firstly you are going to need a bridge (version 2.0 for HomeKit compatibility) this can be purchased separately but can be cheaper if bought as a starter kit – the Hue White and Colour Ambiance kit will effectively give you 3 lamps and a free bridge for instance in either BC or ES fittings, this is where I started and it is certainly fun to mess around with the colour options.

The following lamps, and hub, are your basic options (you can get light strips and desk/floor lamps but we will not be talking about those in this post directly). All devices are Energy Class A+ Rated.

  • Hue Bridge 2.0 @£50
  • Hue White and Colour Ambiance – 16.8 million colours, lamp temperature range of warm white (2200K) to cool white(6500K) light & dimmable
    • E27/ES or B22/BC (10W) @£50
    • E14/SES  (6W) @£50
    • GU10 (5.5W) @£50
  • Hue White Ambiance – lamp temperature range of warm white (2200K) to cool white(6500K) light  & dimmable
    • E27/ES or B22/BC (9.5W)  @£25
    • E14/SES (6W) @£30
    • GU10 (5.5W) @£25 (or x2 for £44)
  • Hue White – dimmable
    • E27/ES or B22/BC (9.5W) @£15

Why did I decide to upgrade to smart lamps? well curiosity and the fact that the E14 lamps I was using were costing me £6 a time and were blowing out at one-a-month and the cost of changing fittings and purchasing lamps would be cost effective – not to discuss the energy savings. Also smart lamps are a cheap and easy way to move into the Smart Home experience. The great thing about Philips Hue is that they are well established, are easy to expand beyond any initial purchase and fall into a number of Smart eco-systems – Amazon Alexa, Apple HomeKit and Google Home. So you can use or move between different control systems should you wish to.

So what lamps should I purchase? well let’s do a quick calculation based on fittings already downstairs:

  • Lounge: 3 x B22 ceiling / 3 x B22 floor lamps
  • Dining room:  10 x E14 ceiling
  • Kitchen: 3 x E14 ceiling
  • Utility: 4 x GU10 ceiling

Now given when I started this journey the E14 lamps did not exist until April 2017 so I was going to have to change the fittings in the dining room and kitchen but for the purposes of this post (if E14’s were available) the cost of upgrading to colour lamps would be £1,150 (23 Lamps x £50 = £ 1,150).

Burning an astonishing 1111 Watts for all the rooms main lights and table/floor lamps, mainly due to lack of natural lighting lights in the kitchen and utility are on throughout the day, I have now reduced it down to a highly respectable 97W and with utilising the smart abilities of the lighting through timers and sensors this should further reduce costs. The reduction in part was by needing to replace multiple E14/SES up lighter fittings with singular E27/ES downlighters. My cost for lamps ended up being a respectable £300, this may seem a lot but keep in mind the abilities of the smart lamps that I did not have before. I now have three colour floor uplighters in the lounge for those cosy movie nights, three ambience or the lounge ceiling and the rest as white only. We only (currently) really use the coloured Hue’s to set a movie night theme of blue, currently the ambience Hue’s are not fully utilised.

I learnt some important lessons along the way and would recommend based upon my experience:

  1. Only purchase lamps that give you the functionality you would really use, I’m not interested in turning my utility room into various shades of green or even having a cool white spectrum
  2. E27/ES (Edison Screw) fittings are a lot more common than B22/BC (Bayonet Cap) – You can purchase E27/ES to B22/BC  adapters but not B22/BC to E27/ES
  3. You can purchase splitters to convert 1xE27/ES to 2xE27/ES (but you would need room in any fitting for the extra lamp addition)
  4. Wait until  there is a special on the hue starter kit – they can go as low as £125, and the ambience have reached as low as £18. You don’t have to buy everything at once!

Interested in using Homekit in the UK? visit & join https://www.facebook.com/groups/homekituk/ 

The Automated Smart Home

Smart Home

This year I decided to delve into the world of the Smart Home and although it is relatively well established and there are many great products it is also a time of competition for the  big players that whilst pushing the boundaries that benefits the consumer by creating amazing products but may well hurt the individual in the pocket if they don’t choose wisely (as much as you can) and invest in an ecosystem that may be destined to fail against the competition.  Take for example Belkin’s WeMo Smart Switches , a stand-alone smart socket product in their own right with an App for both Android and iOS devices, they function happily with the Amazon Echo (for those that don’t know the Echo is a hands-free speaker voice controlled speaker that connects to the Google Alexa Voice Service to play music, provide information and control smart devices). Anybody investing in them heavily may have felt that their money may have been spent on the wrong product if they wanted to get involved with Apple’s HomeKit solution (fear not, for it has been recently announced that they are to be compatible through an additional hub). So although you may take a wrong turn, lose-your-footing or lighten-your-wallet or purse upon the journey to a smarter home the future is brighter and evolving all the time, especially from this current year onwards. Over the next year there will be a number of posts connected with the Smart Home and associated devices.

For my own set-up I have a number of considerations:

  1. Use of Apple’s Homekit Eco-system (due to having the Apple TV 4th Gen – this acts as a central hub for HomeKit and allows devices to be controlled away from the house via the web)
  2. Use of Amazon’s Echo Eco-system (due to having my in-laws buy us one at Christmas)
  3. Compatibility between the two prior mentioned systems (where possible!)
  4. Not to go too crazy (yet) as we are hoping to move house in the near future
  5. The lag behind the US, we only have a small amount of devices compared to the US. Try looking for a Smart Light Switch and you will quickly realise.

Of course all of this is likely to have implications upon education – using them in class as virtual tutors? upskilling electricians, engineers or technicians for installation? there is evidence of them creeping into more everyday life (a hotel in the US now has one Amazon Echo in all rooms, over 100, to offer information and ordering facilities as well as comms between rooms. So exciting times ahead.

Interested in using Homekit in the UK? visit & join https://www.facebook.com/groups/homekituk/ 

 

Shock Mount (Black Aluminum) for the Blue Yeti Microphone by Auphonix

Shock Mount by Auphonix

With the ‘fixed mount cradle’ for the Blue Yeti microphone having its limitations such as being bulky and often requiring to be propped up to get the positioning right (well mostly) I have been on the lookout for a decent shock mount for the Blue Yeti, but it has been a long time come and after many months finally a decent (£25) and affordable shock mount for the Blue Yeti found at http://amzn.eu/6bd69jp .

Many issues exist for a decent shockmount purchase:

  1. Blue’s own offering is costly (and reportedly fraught with issues if loose clamps – especially for the price)
  2. The Yeti does have a standard fixing, so there are not many offerings (some bespoke offerings that have been flash in the pan’s)
  3. The Yeti is one heavy beast and there are numerous reports of any point that require tightening not holding out (see point 1)
  4. There are a reported batch of Blue Yeti’s that do have the 3/8″thread overcut by a 1/16″ (causing poor fitting to any mount, and not any issue with mounts themselves)

Now I purchased my Blue Yeti for a very handsome price of approx. £65 and there was no way I was ever going to purchase a mount in excess of that so point 1 is out of the question. I toyed with the idea of creating my own (point 2) and even drew up plans but never got round to it! Something specific needed for the yeti due to its non-standard fitting and needing to carry it’s weight (point 3) was also a concern for any attached boom (see later). The only solutions for an overcut fixing was either and new Yeti or as I have read on the web to use plumbing tape (PTFE) to ‘take up the slack’ and not have the Yeti drop off, thankfully I did not need this solutions.

The Auphonix offering was getting great reviews (a cheaper plastic and a reasonable priced aluminium offering were available) but I hesitated and lucked out on the silver aluminium @ £30, then a rather elegant black version showed up for £5 less! a result – and most Booms are black anyway. So now an accompanying boom was required to be purchased – I was conscious of the weight of the Yeti but on Amazon was the recommendation for under £12 the Tencro Professional Microphone Boom for Blue Yeti ( http://amzn.eu/g4CTVSO ), specifically having the key point of being heavy duty designed for supporting almost all microphones up to 4.4 pounds / 2KG.

Both are now fitted and I found that mounting my Yeti above the mount, rather than below, suited my rig better as I will be swinging my mic up and out the way often – kids can be too inquisitive! The difference between the original fixed stand against the dampening properties of the boom & shock-mount are excellent and given my setup prior to this purchase noticeably picked-up ‘shocks & knocks’ and caused me to be extra careful when recording to minimise disruption the cost @ less than £40 is a great solution and one that I cannot recommend myself if you want the best from your original audio recording with your Blue Yeti.

 

Speech Central: Web Text to Speech

Once upon a time I used an app called VoiceBrief, I loved it! But it was buggy, often crashing and it never got updated before finally disappearing from the App Store. I have recommended the likes of ‘Capti’ and ‘Pocket’ to learners to curate material and listen on the go (we always have places to go and listening on the go can increase productivity) but I have never come across any app that came close to VoiceBrief, certainly some could read web pages but I never found them able to read from social media and certainly not effectively. Fast forward a few years and I  am commuting more than ever and consuming so much audio media I have been finding it more difficult to access new content having exhausted most material. The app allows you to listen to key headlines and then, when interested, add the headlines as articles to read [out] in full later, with the app highlighting the tezt as it is read out. The app is straightforward and does not have a big learning curve, but what really appeals to me is how much you can customise the app – including the voice and controls.

The developer States that “The app is tested to be accessible by visually impaired users. It has many features specifically tailored to users with disabilities like integrated Bookshare service, support for DAISY books, dyslexia friendly font, many visual settings, keyboard shortcuts for the most of commands available (with various options to navigate the text) in the app and on the iPhone it can be controlled with headphone or Bluetooth hands-free buttons and functions of those buttons can be customized. Combined with the interactive web feature available in the app the latter may make the web much easier to access on the mobile device for a person with eyesight or related disability.”

The ability to skip and add articles via the remote is an excellent feature and really increases the usability of the app.  This is an app that I feel is going to really play a key role in my commute once I return after the summer break, or for anyone that can take the opportunity to consume content on the go and not just for the accessibility benefits the app offers.

Here are the app store pages for Speech Central:

The App Developer has provided me with this product for purposes of providing a personal review and I have received no payment for this unbiased review.

DESTEK V3 Virtual Reality VR Headset

DESTEK V3 Virtual Reality VR Headset

VR (Virtual Reality) is definitely on the horizon and one of the ‘next big things’ in the world of interactive entertainment and educational technologies. From exploring terrains or areas that learners would not be exposed to or the mountain of risk assessment alone making it impossible can suddenly transport your learners from differing perspectives such as helicopter rides over London to distant lands and the rim of a live volcano and onto an on-stage presence at gig or musical. Coupled with an immersive audio experience is one hell of a ride! but i shudder at this future and fear for the learners that will feel my pain – literally!

So why the negativity? well a fact about me, I get physically sick when playing 3D games! Now this may seem daft, especially teaching (albeit in the recent past) game 3d engines. But I have never been able to get beyond it, this is a huge concern to the likes of the military that whilst saving a fortune by having their personnel train in VR environments there are those that still need the real thing due to suffering debilitating nausea. Something like 1% feels any ill affects withe 0.1% of those having physical reactions -its worthy of research to further make savings. I for one would welcome any solution (even in part). I am rarely able to play more than say 30 minutes before feeling queasy – often physically ill, and recovering for over 6 hrs+. To just be able to play Minecraft with my little boy would makehis day, and not have him feel guilty when I do play and have to stop due to illness. But there are other worse than me, even being set off by waterways and supermarkets (I kid you not – read the art5icle on the BBC – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-south-east-wales-38715719 )

So despite all the ill-feeling I splashed out on a reasonably priced  DESTEK V3 Virtual Reality VR Headset, it fits my iPhone 6 Plus (without case), is well constructed and has the Magnetic switch (a must in my opinion s  for low end, low cost VR goggles). Fantastic device, if a little uncomfortable at the bridge of the nose it has allowed me(and my six year old) to go ‘wow’ at VR. Don’t get me wrong VR is still in early days (we dare not mention the flash in the pan 3D TV) but for sub £30 its a worthy expense. Yes it makes me sick but to have a ‘go’ at VR that is although not matured is not exactly fledgling either and the price tag certainly does not make my blood boil when i suffer from ‘curiosity killed the cat’, here’s hoping that the earlier link bears some useful findings to support those like me.

So linking back to the educational aspect and all I hear about the fact that VR will play a part, well I am already seeing that I will be those in the minority and hope that ‘differentiation’ will be considered when there are not an insignificant amount of learners (and educationalists) that will break out in a cold sweat at the very thought of VR in an educational programme – beneficial or not! (there may be a surge in travel sickness remedies!)

Note: VR should not be something that you expose those under seven for any length of time!

Bag o’ Tech

portable gadgets

A number of weeks ago I was challenged to write a post about the tech I carry around with me, so here it is in order of least used to most…

Ultra book: This is only a work horse from work and the only thing going for it is that it is light. It’s more a necessity due to travelling around a lot and needing to access work related systems. It’s often dead the next day so it’s charger is always in tow.

Microsoft Bluetooth Keyboard: my go to kit when I need to write up a report quickly on my iPad or iPhone. It does not get used enough, it’s a great piece of kit, often I use the keyboard of the iPad.

USB to Lightening Adapter: an indulgence for connecting a USB microphone to the iPad or iPhone.

Lightening Charge Cable: for the iOS devices

Presentation Pointer: for when you have to give presentations but don’t want to be tethered to the front of the room

 

Now onto my must haves!

Samson Go Mic: A fantastic mic that is used regularly to add audio commentary to presentations to support learners with their online sessions.

Headphones: A pair of wired headphones for when I am recording audio on the go with the aforementioned mic.

iPad: my mainstay bit of kit, quick, light, versatile. Reports and emails in the main.

iPhone 6 Plus: need I say anything? My backup when the iPad dies. Messaging and audio in the most part.

Apple Watch: yes a new addition, the pebble has been relegated for DIY so as not to damage my Apple Watch.

Betron HD1000 Headphones

IMG_0881IMG_0882

I have reviewed Betron headphones in the past, three varieties of earbud, each of them performing really well and living up to a lot of their hype. In fact the Betron B850i’s (http://wp.me/pspi8-tC) are actually my preferred replacement headphones for my Apple earbuds. Recently I received in the post the Betron HD100 Headphones to review and I have to say these are a pretty awesome pair of headphones. According to Betron the following specifications exist:

  • Powerful neodymium magnets for stereo sound with powerful punchy bass
  • Extended frequency response for accurate, reliable sound reproduction
  • Increased sound pressure level (110dB) to handle demanding use
  • Rich, crisp bass response
  • Good attenuation of ambient noise
  • Lightweight & comfortable
  • Powerful sound reproduction
  • Optimised for portable audio including MP3, CD players, iPad, iPod, iPhone and mobile phones (iPad, iPhone and iPod are trademarks of Apple Inc., registered in the U.S. and other countries.)

Claiming to have a wider range of sound and enhanced clarity as well as lightweight and durable and comfortable whilst speaker build material dissipates heat and minimises sound leakage these headphones with a RRP of £79 that are currently selling on Amazon for £29 have a lot to live up to. (Current details from http://www.betronstore.co.uk)

Firstly I have to say that the packaging is excellent, in the first instance a minimal black box with ‘Betron’ and the model number ‘HD1000’ on the top I’m white lettering with a few specs that are outlined below on the side:

  • Driver Unit:  40mm
  • Impedance: 32ohms +- 15%
  • Sensitivity: 108 =-3dB
  • Frequency Response: 20-20Khz
  • Max. Input Power: 100mW
  • Cable Length: 1.7M (I actually found the cable to be 1.8M)

Inside the outer box is a ‘D’ shaped carry case in black nylon with carry handle and double zip that when opened up reveals the headphones sitting in a velvet-like interior that is shaped to hold the headphones snug.  Betron was off to a good start, especially as I only ever got a thin drawstring nylon bag with my SkullCandy Hesh headphones that I will be comparing these to!

At first sight the headphones look gorgeous and have a classy retro look to them in a  rich brown wood and gold effect styling. Getting to grips with the headphones themselves and the feel of the headphones is one that reveals some highs and lows. On the plus side the 3.5mm gold plug is one where the cable exists from the side of the plug at 45 degrees, with a high quality feel braided cable and gold splitter, offering tangle free cabling. The L/R indicators for each side are discreetly labelled inside the headphones above each earpiece, with a subtle branding on the outside. On the downside is the feeling of materials cheaper than they appear, especially around the area of the headband joining to the earpieces – but let me be clear that this does not mean they are not well build. Betron claim that there are no visible screws which there are none, however there are visible rivets.

As stated earlier Betron claim that the headphones are comfortable, cool and a clarity of sound with a deep rich bass. Upon the first point I can wholeheartedly agree, my current headphones of choice have been Skullcandy Hesh over-the-ear headphones and I have found them heavy and too hot after a prolonged use of anything over thirty minutes and I don’t like the feel of on the ear headphones such as the Skullcandy Lowriders as they are uncomfortable and unlike the Hesh model let in too much surrounding noise ( plus they slip off if you are doing anything beyond sitting still). The HD1000’s are a joy to wear, comfortable, lightweight, they don’t get hot ( and that has been in the recent 30 degree weather) and they reduce ambient noise far more than other on-the-ear headphones.

So onto the all important bit, the audio, and do these headphones live up to the manufacturers claims? Well I listen to a diverse range of audio – including podcasts, audiobooks, radio plays, music and a variety of video and films. I even listen to text to speech conversions when I need to listen to reports and I am travelling between locations (these are not the easiest to listen to) and always willing to allow for others opinions I even asked my wife to try them out, as a fitness professional and having to listen to a wide range of music that requires choreography I though her opinion would be valid ( The wife’s choice of headphone is the Skullcandy Lowriders that I am not a fan of – even less now I have used the HD1000’s). Overall I can report that the quality of the audio is superb with a rich definition to the audio that is not affected by the  increased bass.

The wife definitely stated that the audio was excellent and that the headphones were extremely comfortable in comparison to the Lowriders and I feel that the audio is actually compatible to the Hesh headphones.At the RRP the quality up close lets the headphones down but if you are looking for well priced, comfortable and good quality audio these are great headphones. At £29 they are an absolute steal!

Betron has provided me with this product for purposes of providing a personal review and I have received no payment for this unbiased review.

Omaker – 3.5mm Male to Male Stereo Audio Cable (3.3ft x 2, 6.6ft x 1)

Omaker Audio Cables

Needing replacement audio cable for my car stereo and my headphones I decided to give the Omaker 3 cable bundle a go and have to admit to being pleasantly surprised. Super slim connectors with a real high quality feel to the overall propuct. I cannot see where you vcould get such a quality cable for less than £8 especially for a 3 pack! I found them on Amazon here http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B018VVTMGW