Archive for the ‘Home Automation & Entertainment’ Category

No more hide and seek.

November 4, 2007

Most people have many phone numbers these days, whether it’s the office, home, cell, etc.  Companies for many years have been trying to figure out a better solution for reaching a person than calling a list of phone numbers.  A company called Grand Central seems to have a good option.

After reading about this company in the newspaper many months ago, I signed up immediately.  Almost anything that sounds remotely useful and free, I am interested.  This company assigns a new phone number that automatically rings all of your possible phone numbers at the same time.  Whichever one you answer takes the call.

There are many other features that I like.  While the caller hears a ringing sound, you are given a few choices.  You can answer the call, send the call to voice mail, or listen in on the call as the caller leaves a message.  You can even cut in to the call during a message.  Once the caller leaves a message, the message gets mailed to your email address.  All the settings can easily be modified at Grand Central’s web site.

The biggest snag is that this product is in beta.  Who knows what the company will charge when it releases.  I would hate to give everyone a single number and find that in a few months or weeks I decide to give it all up.  Also Google has bought this little startup.  I have no idea how that will effect Grand Central.

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Netgear Home Server (SC101)

June 3, 2007

Like most people, I have collected an enormous number of files that I would hate to lose.  I could do a backup to DVD’s, which I do occasionally.  Unfortunately there are too many days between backups, which means I would lose too many files.  Everyone knows that hard drives will crash.  It is not a matter of if, but when.  I wanted a system to mirror two drives.  That means both drives would always have exactly the same data for that inevitable day when the drive crashes.  It looked like Netgear SC101 would be that product.  The Netgear solution is just a box and software.  The user buys and installs the drives. 

Hardware installation was rather straightforward.  I easily opened the box and connected up each of my 500gb drives.  Then I connected the server to my network using a standard Ethernet cable.  The software installation was not as straightforward.  Each computer on the network needed the new software.  That would be fine, but the software installed better on some machines than others.  I had to uninstall and reinstall the software on one of my machines a few times.  What bothered me more were the confusing options.  You could partition the drives and set up passwords for each partition.  I eventually got the server up and running.

Once I got the server working well and mirroring working, anything I put on one drive would be automatically saved on the second drive.  At least that is what I thought.  Each time the Network software is run, it asks to check for a newer version.  I routinely choose yes.  On one occasion, Netgear updated my software and I lost contact with my server.  Not only did that machine lose contact, but also all my machines lost contact.  I had to make an appointment with a Netgear engineer and have him connect into my computer.  In about 40 minutes, he was able to give me access to my hard drive.  What surprised me was that he could not reinstate the mirroring option.  To set up mirroring, I would have to start from scratch with the hard drives.  In other words, I could copy off all my data, set up mirroring and then copy my data back.  He also told me that mirror had not been working for weeks.  I could see the differences between the two drives.

Netgear seems to have missed the boat with this server.  What I wanted and expected from a server was robust mirroring.  When one drive crashes, I could replace that drive and the system would automatically reinstate mirroring.  With this system, I would not even know which of the two drives crashed.  Considering I own many good Netgear products, I am particularly disappointed with this one.

Wireless Weather Station

February 2, 2007

Many companies make weather station kits.  These can cost hundreds of dollars and take time to install the sensors.  I have owned a couple of these over the years with many problems.  At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) I learned about a new one from Oregon Scientific model  OSI WMS801.  Instead of requiring one to install sensors, it uses a service from Microsoft called MSN Direct.  Microsoft gets the weather information and broadcasts it over FM.

This weather station is one of the easiest products to use.  You just plug it in the wall and the unit automatically gets the weather information.  I know that MSN Direct does not work everywhere; so one would have to check the Internet to make sure it works in your area.  I used it in Manhattan, where it worked very quickly.  There are some confusing buttons on the outside, but once you figure out how to change the time zone, you are home free.

The MSN Direct booth at the CES demonstrated many products that use their service.  Most charge a monthly fee, but this one does not.  Once you buy the unit for $125 from Costco, there are no additional charges.  The representative from MSN also assured me the service would be around at least five years.

As mentioned earlier I have used many weather stations.  This one is probably the clearest.  The temperature and humidity are large and bold.  The forecasts for the next three days are in slightly smaller type with the barometric pressure trend, wind speed and direction.

For people who like to know more about the weather than just looking out the window, you cannot go wrong buying this product. 

Travel wireless router

December 7, 2006

Travel wireless routers are made for business people who want wireless access in a hotel room.  I recently had a guest who just plugged one into my home network to use a laptop computer wirelessly without touching my wireless settings.  I was very impressed how quick and simple the whole process took.  In my search for a travel wireless router, I found many options.  The cheapest was a Netgear WGR101 for $15 from Amazon.  At that price, it was worth a try.

Some of the Internet reviews were less than stellar.  People complained how hard it is to set up and configure with encryption.  My experience could not have been more different.  In about five to ten minutes, I plugged in the router to my computer and made all the necessary settings.  These included setting the SSID, encryption, and MAC addresses for my computers.  There is a slide switch that needs to be in the correct position during this process, but the instructions were clear enough. 

Since the original day when I configured the router, I have not had to make a single change.  All I do is plug the router into a wired connection and an electric outlet.  It is really that simple.

Washing Machine Flood Protection

November 21, 2006

Look at your washing machine hoses.  Do they resemble the same hoses you would use in the garden?  Since the water hoses going to washing machines are usually left under pressure all the time, the pressure and constant vibrations could eventually cause a leak.  Years ago a colleague had this happen and it made a huge flood.  Many people do use armored hoses for their washing machines.  That probably helps quite a bit, but I found something better from a company called Watts.

 

In addition to being armored, these hoses can sense a leak and shut off.  I was a little skeptical, but at around $32 for a pair, I thought it was worth the peace of mind.  That is of course if it works.

 

When the hoses arrived, I had to know whether they could really sense a leak.  I connected them in place of a garden hose and attached a sprayer.  The sprayer worked normally.  I proceeded to unscrew the attachment to represent a leak.  As advertised, the hoses shut off quickly.

 

Although I have no data on the longevity of this product, I was impressed and strongly recommend this Watts product. 

Verizon FIOS Service

November 3, 2006

There is a fight between cable companies and phone companies.  Cable companies are getting into the phone business and phone companies are getting into the cable business.  Until recently I received my Internet connection and cable from my cable company and my phone from my phone company.  Verizon is my phone company and offers a relatively new product called FIOS, which will ultimately include all three services.  Instead of having individual wires for each, Verizon puts all three on fiber optics.  I chose to take the plunge and move my phone and Internet connection to fiber optics.  Verizon does not yet have approval in my area for cable tv. 

Even though many cities have been wired with fiber optics, not too many individuals have fiber to the home yet.  My phone lines used to come in over copper wires.  Whenever it rained, I got static. One of the benefits I saw with making the switch was to get rid of the static. 

Although Verizon has a spotty reputation for customer service, the representatives for FIOS were great.  They answered all my questions and installed everything quickly.

The whole system has been in for many months with very few problems.  As I had hoped, the static is gone.  The Internet connection is a little faster than my previous Internet connection over cable.  Not everything is perfect with fiber optics.  Power failures can bring down the whole system.  Phone companies power their phones lines over their copper wires.  Since fiber optics are made out of glass and glass is not conductive, the system has to be powered by the homeowner.  In other words, when the power goes out, the homeowner is responsible for the battery backup.  A few weeks ago I lost power and my phone lines did not last many hours.  With the explosion of cell phones, this downside may become less and less important.

Kill-a-watt Energy Meter

October 29, 2006

I recently saw a posting for the Kill-a-watt energy meter at My Money Blog, a blog I often read.

I’ve had the Kill-a-watt meter for about two years.  The idea is quite intersting – it’s a nifty gadget.

You plug it between an electrical device and the wall outlet.  It will track your consumption for whatever period of time you choose.  It has a small built in LCD that tracks your electricity consumption through different methods.  However, you must have the discipline to actually check and take measurements.  You also need to contact your electrical provider to learn your cost per killowatt hour.

For me the device does not work too well, as it sits blindly attached to a television for several months.  For others, it may be a great way to identify high energy consuming appliances, etc….

-gadgetology

Home Video Network

October 23, 2006

Who does not love their Tivo?  This is not an article about how Tivo has changed my life, nor is it about the new HD Tivo, though someday I would like to get one.  Imagine being able to control and watch Tivo all over a house.  Tivo makes doing this possible, but very expensive.  You can buy one Tivo per TV plus subscription fees and network the boxes.  That was unacceptable to me, so I looked for an alternate way and found it from CrossBar Media.  The product is called Avcast.

 

Many companies make a product called a modulator.  All this does is add a video/audio signal on to a coaxial cable.  I could take my Tivo signal and combine it with my cable signal in a modulator and the output will contain both cable TV and my Tivo signal on the selected channel.  By connecting that coaxial cable to all my TV’s, I would be able to watch the Tivo on any TV, but I would be missing control.

 

The product called Avcast fills in the gap with a self-contained video network for $116.  You can actually buy a smaller system for less.  The smaller system comes with the ability to control the Tivo from only one site.  I wanted more.  It is possible to have up to eight with this product.

 

Although this product comes with all the necessary parts, it is tricky to set up.  You have to read the directions carefully and put in filters and transformers in the correct places.  Even then, I am still having trouble.  Reception could be better.  I also find the Tivo remote does not work reliably.  The company is very responsive and has sent me a new IR sensor to see if that helps. 

 

My example uses a Tivo.  You could do the same with a VCR, DVD, satellite or almost any signal that uses RCA connectors.  By buying extra parts from the company, you could even have several signals running through the video network on different channels. 

 

Even though I am having some trouble getting my remote control to work reliably, I can see the value in this product.  With Avcast, you can add and control your own programming over existing coaxial cables.  I like products that can work without running new wires. 

 

Install your own biometric lock – or look ma no keys – or see what my finger can do

October 15, 2006

Biometric locks and security devices are beginning to pop up all over the place.  The most common uses a fingerprint sensor.  Even some laptops use a fingerprint sensor to start up.  Locks, especially ones that do not need keys, intrigue me.  Until now, the cost and unknown accuracy of these biometric locks kept me away.  Costco recently started carrying a door fingerprint lock on their website, model Q-See Fingerprint & Keypad Deadbolt Lock for $280.  Costco’s excellent return policy made it so I had nothing to lose but a little time.

 

Although I am handy, there was much I needed to know about buying a door lock.  This new lock comes in two flavors, a left hand or a right hand model.  It depends on whether the door opens in on the right or left.  Both the lock and the strike plate need to be correct.  My door was a little more complicated because my door opens out.  That meant I needed a left-handed lock and a right-handed strike plate.  Costco did not make this easy because you have to choose one or the other, so I arbitrarily choose the left-handed model.  I called the manufacturer a number of times to get the correct strike plate.  After multiple calls, the company finally sent me both strike plates just to make sure I received the correct one.

 

Since I had never really tried a fingerprint lock, I was eager to get the package and start programming in my fingers.  Unfortunately the process is nowhere near intuitive.  You have to start by making one finger the master.  That master finger can only be used to add and delete fingers.  I found the screen for the finger a little too large.  There are too many different ways to put my finger on the screen and the lock is very particular.  The lock allows for over 100 fingers, so instead of programming each finger in once, I programmed each finger over and over.  That made each finger more reliable.  Each finger programmed has to have a numbered slot in the software, so make sure to keep good track.  You cannot just record a new finger in a used slot.  The previous finger has to be deleted first.

 

The lock has been in for a few weeks.  Aside from the enjoyment of having an exciting new lock, it does work well for me.  Other family members are not as enthusiastic.  You have to have patients to make sure you can repeat the way you set your finger on the pad.  Sometimes the lock works on the first try and on others it takes a few tries.  There are other ways of opening the lock.  You could use the combination or a standard key.  The standard key would work in an emergency, such as a dead battery.  If you can put up with the headache of programming, then I would recommend this lock for people who prefer not to carry house keys. 

We look forward to reading your comments,

J