Thursday, March 9, 2017

Not the Sounds of Silence (A Sonos Review)

There are many wireless speaker systems out there. The most recent ones that have been gaining popularity are the Amazon Echo and Google Home systems. These are a new breed of smart speakers that offer more than just music playback. But that's for another blog entry. Today will be for a more traditional wireless audio system, the Sonos. Specifically, the Play 1.

Sonos has been around for quite a while. And their product lineup hasn't really changed much. It offers less functionality than smart speakers, but the multi-room capabilities and the simplicity of the app are what really make it shine. Their app came at the heels of people playing music locally (stored on your computer or local hard drive) mostly through iTunes. But now that streaming services are more popular, smart speakers have become the weapon of choice for most people. Why should you still pick Sonos over the others? Two main reasons. Simplicity and Multi-Room capabilities. Sonos isn't the only one with this capability. Bose would be the closest match, but I didn't like their app interface. Then there's Google Chromecast Audio which can do something similar but not quite and still relies on streaming services.

Playing music in separate rooms isn't a simple task. Wiring up your home to a central amp and music server takes time, planning, and a lot of work. Doing it the wireless way isn't that simple either. Synchronizing playback and centralizing your source isn't for the average user either.

Sonos does this quite simply and elegantly. My main consideration for the Sonos was "How easy would it be for anyone in my home to access my music and playback what they want". I needed something that could easily access my local music library as well as streaming services. Something that wouldn't be crippled if my internet connection went down (this is always a consideration of any tech I invest in). No other system offered ease of use like Sonos did.

And for those that actually care about sound quality, Sonos sounds great. Disclaimer on my statement, it is NOT meant to be a listening room system. It is also not meant to be the solution for just a single room (there are others that can fulfill that need at a lower price point). It is meant for whole house, multi-room music. And it does that job extremely well. Even against larger more traditional systems, the Sonos Play 1 can hold its own. It's very easy to conceal, and it's also moisture-proof if you want music in your bathroom!

Sonos is supposedly working with Amazon to integrate Alexa into their control UI, that would be an excellent combination and one that would bring Sonos back up to the front of the smart speaker pack. But even without it, Sonos is still one of the better multi-room systems available today. The ease of use and audio quality make it perfect for anyone in the home to enjoy great sound. It also helps that they have a wide array of products to suit your specific needs. From the easy to conceal Play1, to the Sound bar and wireless subwoofer for decent movie audio, Sonos is a great product family all around.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Lock Up and Throw Away the Keys! (A Kevo 2nd Gen Review)

Building a smart home has become a recent obsession of mine. Anything other than builder's grade deadbolts is better. There are a ton of smart locks out there, from replacements, to upgrades that convert your existing lock to a smart one.

My list boiled down to two, the Schlage Connect, and the 2nd Generation Kevo. Although the Schlage has gotten better security reviews (Grade 1) vs the Kevo (Grade 2) what ultimately got me was the convenience of the Touch-To-Open feature of Kwikset's offering.

First up, installation. The Kevo is a breeze to install. Even for someone with my limited handyman experience. My only complaint is that the install instructions are online only. Which made it take longer for me since I had to keep referring to my phone and flipping pages. But realistically, if you've ever installed a regular deadbolt, this is hardly any different other than connecting the front and back with the cable.

Next, functionality. It's pretty awesome. Initially had issues but the most recent update seems to have addressed most of them. As long as you have your phone in your pocket (front works better than back, and women's bags are more reliable than men's pant pockets) just touch the side of the Kevo with any part of your body and it opens!

Why is this such a big deal? Over the keypad of the Schlage Connect, it is a lot faster to get in your home. People with physical disabilities will have an easier time. Specially with the key fob, which is an optional purchase [BOO!] is more reliable than the phone. Another scenario is when you have your hands full (of groceries for example) and being able to unlock your door with your elbow.

Wintertime can pose a problem with gloves. Capacitive gloves seem to work ok so those of you with gloves that are Smartphone compatible need not worry. But for those of us that use regular gloves, you can exhale onto the lock while simultaneously tapping it. For whatever reason, this worked for me. Another option which I have used is my nose. Hahahaha. Yes, my nose. But the risk of getting it stuck to the lock when the temp is well below freezing made me discover the exhaling method. But either way worked for me.

The most recent app update has also added one of the best features of the Kevo. UNLIMITED eKEYS!!! Originally shipped with only 2 eKeys and the option to purchase more for $2, the high cost of the Kevo made the purchase of virtual keys feel like a rip-off. Thankfully Kwikset changed this. There are 4 different types of eKeys, Owner, Admin, Anytime and Scheduled. The Owner key goes to the first person who registers the Kevo with their account. I think there can only be one Owner key. Then next option is the Admin key. These function just like the Owner keys and can give out eKeys to anyone as well. The third type is the Anytime key and this allows full access to the lock but doesn't allow the user to give out keys. The last type, the Scheduled key is great to give friends, relatives, guests, service providers, etc. It can be made to never expire but access is restricted to certain times only, or access anytime but has an expiration date, or limited access for both time and date. Very handy for rental places as well. No need to re-key. Which is another feature too but not as ground-breaking. The Kevo features Kwikset's SmartKey tech which allows end users to rekey their locks without a locksmith.

For you Nest users out there, Nest hasn't really been accurate doing the whole Auto-Away thing lately. Kevo works with Nest. Link your account and once you lock your door, a notification will pop-up asking if you;d like to set your Nest to Away mode. Not perfect but handy. The Kevo also works with the Ring doorbell if you purchase the Kevo Plus hub.

Android Wear users are in for a nice bonus as well, you can pair your watch with your Kevo app. Your watch is specifically paired to your phone, NOT the Kevo lock itself. How this works is that the Bluetooth authentication is duplicated on your watch, and has an expiry date if your phone loses contact with your watch for a couple of days. This is automatically renewed for as long as your watch connects to your phone frequently. It works as a precaution in case you lose your watch, in that the eKey stored in it automatically expires. Came in handy a few times when I had to run in the house to grab something and forgot my phone in the car.

The cons? It is expensive. Considering a Grade 1 traditional deadbolt can be had for $40 or so, $200+ for a deadbolt may not be the first on your smarthome shopping list. It's only a Grade 2 lock. Not too bad, but for that price would've been nice to have a Grade 1 rating. The remote unlocking is not possible without the additional purchase of the Kevo Plus hub which is another $100. Boo! Considering that the hub only works with the Kevo and can only do ONE thing, I think $100 is too much. It should've been part of the Kevo 2nd gen package or at most $40. I'm hoping the 2nd gen Wink hub will work with Kevo but that might not be the case if Kwikset is pushing for the $100 single-purpose hub. It can be temperamental. It's benefits far outweigh the glitches, but there are times when it takes a while to detect your phone. Holding your phone CLOSER will NOT work. The proximity sensor of the Kevo uses signal 'weakness' to detect whether the phone is outside or inside. Holding your phone closer will fool the lock into thinking the phone is inside and not allow entry. This happens maybe once every 2 weeks or so, and highly dependent on what I'm wearing. Winter coats will interfere with the signal enough that you may have to try a few times to unlock your door.

But despite all the shortcomings of this relatively new product, the Kevo is pretty handy. I've gotten confident enough that I no longer brings the physical key anymore. In fact, I haven't used a house key in the last 4 months! Now, if only Kwikset would lower the price of the Kevo Plus... HINT HINT!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Time for a change! (Huawei Watch review)

I've had my Moto 360 for quite a while now, and it was about time to upgrade. I loved the Moto 360 and it's round screen (in spite of the flat tire) so I was looking to upgrade to the newer version.

But being Android Wear based, opened up my options to many more brands and models. And a lot of them have gotten really good. I was never a fan of the rounded rectangular watches. I loved the square Sony Smartwatch but no one ever seemed to follow that monolithic design ethos. So back to the traditional watch look.

Not having the patience to wait for Google to release a watch (look how long it took them to release the Pixel) I decided to go for the Huawei Watch.

And am I happy that I did. The one thing that the Moto 360 really let me (and other users down with) was the dismal battery life. 20 hours was generous, 12 was more likely, 8 was realistic. It would last my work day, then I'd have to leave it to charge after that.

The Huawei Watch is probably one of the most non-tech looking smart watches out there. And that's why I love it. Very few people have noticed that I actually wear a smartwatch until they see a notification come in and only then do they realize it's a screen and not an analog watch. Good job Huawei!

For a piece of tech, they did go the extra mile to make it feel very premium. From the box to the finish, it will pass for an equivalently priced analog watch.

The screen is OLED and looks great. One of the main advantages of OLED on a smartwatch is that anything black on screen is not using up battery power. The disadvantage is that OLED screens do suffer from burn-in (as evident in a lot of display models) so Huawei does have a trick for this watch. In standby mode the watchface shifts a few pixels in random directions every few minutes. Not noticeable unless you're looking for it. Kind of like the screensavers of the old days.

The great thing about the Huawei... battery life. I can go almost a full 48 hours (ok maybe about 36) without charging. Which brings me to the neat but odd magnetic charger. It's not as nice as the Moto's induction charger, but it is magnetic. But it doesn't quite snap into place as well as it should. The magnet is strong but doesn't always line up automatically. Sometimes (not all the time) you'll have to wiggle the watch around a bit to get the contacts to line up properly. Another trick is to let the watch hover over the charger and let the charger snap up into the watch. This is a surer way to get the contacts to line up better. I wish they didn't have the charging cable permanently connected to the charger, so it would be easier to bring around. I decided to buy a second travel charger for ease of use.

The speakerphone is a neat Dick Tracy/Knight Rider function and works decently in moderately quiet environments BUT it will disable your car speakerphone since the watch speakerphone takes priority over the car speakerphone. So you may not want to leave that function enabled until Google allows this to be customized. Some have found apps that work well, I have not. So I don't use the speakerphone function regularly, but it is convenient and does work well.

Because of the speakerphone, this also lets the Huawei have customizable ringtones. There are a few default ones and with a couple of apps (no root needed) you can upload your own short sound files to your watch as well.

Another nice things about the Huawei watch is that it accepts standard watch straps. Make sure you get the newer ones with quick release pins as this makes it far more convenient to change the look of the watch to match your mood.

One thing I do miss from the Moto 360 is also the one thing that made people hate its screen. The ambient light sensor housed in the flat tire section of the screen. This isn't a deal breaker at all for the Huawei Watch but it would've been a nice feature to have.

All in all, I'm loving this watch more and more. And with Android Wear 2.0 coming up, it's just going to get better!

Past Tech Gospels

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