Random Thoughts – Randocity!

Home Automation: The good, bad and ugly

Posted in Apple, botch, business, Philips Hue, wink by commorancy on December 17, 2017

You’ve just picked up an Amazon Echo with a Hue Starter Kit and you have decided to take plunge into controlling small devices in your home via Alexa. Well, here is what I’ve learned so far about this process. Take note, it’s not always easy to set this up. Keep in mind that I haven’t explored every system or every device. This article documents only my experiences with those devices I’ve tried. Let’s explore.

Smart Home Hubs

The first thing you need to understand is that many home automation systems still require a centralized hub to control the accessories (i.e., lights, switches, dimmers, and plugs). Systems like Wink and Hue are good in that a hub aggregates all of the accessories under a single logical device, these devices also have their own pitfalls. Some lights and plugs are WiFi only and do not require a hub, leading to even more consumer confusion, more apps and more logins and passwords.

As an example, Hue’s bridge (hub) comes in several versions (I’ll explain the reasons for this shortly). If the you stay within the Philips universe of devices, then you’ll be good. However, the moment you step outside of the Philips universe, just like with Apple’s products, compatibility takes a significant dive. It’s the same situation for Wink. As long as you wholly subscribe to the devices that are compatible with a Wink hub, you’ll be perfectly fine. If you choose to add in a bulb that isn’t compatible, your days will become far less happy. Worse, if you want to intermix devices from the Philips universe with the Wink universe, you’re asking for a world of hurt.

Intermixing Devices

So you’re probably asking, “why would I want to intermix devices?” It’s very simple. Cost. While the Hue color bulbs are spectacular for producing vivid colors, they aren’t so great for their brightness levels and they are substantially pricey. If you want to get a bulb that supplies higher than 50-60 watts of effective illumination, you have to jump out of the Philips universe. I don’t know why Philips is dragging their feet on 75 and 100 watt Hue bulbs, but they are and its frustrating.  That means you might end up over at GE or Cree or even looking at LIFX bulb.

Costs, Value and Brightness

Hue bulbs are also incredibly pricey. At around $60 per color bulb, changing every bulb in your home is likely going to cost hundreds or perhaps thousands of dollars. Even the ambient white colored Hue bulbs at $30 are still quite pricey because they can range their colors between cold and warm white. If you simply want a bulb you can turn on and off and dim, there are far cheaper options… like the Cree Connected (~$15) and the GE Link (~$20). These are quite a bit less costly than the Hue white ambience bulbs. However, Hue also makes a 4 pack of white dimmable bulbs that cost around $13 per bulb (note that this may be holiday pricing). However, these bulbs are simple on, off and dim only. They do not vary the color hue of the bulb. The color they are is basic warm white… same for the Cree and GE Link. You also have to buy these Hue white bulbs in a 4-pack to get this lower pricing. Otherwise, each Hue bulb will cost around $17 separately. This 4-pack is your best deal for low cost hue bulbs. However, they are also not that bright.

At the time when I purchased into the Cree and GE Link, Philips still didn’t make these less costly bulbs. These are relatively new additions to Hue’s line and likely came about because of the Cree and GE Link bulbs.

What that means is that I’m not about to abandon the two bulbs I bought just to go buy four replacement Hue bulbs. The GE Link bulb is also quite bright, brighter than the Hue bulbs even though it is supposedly a 60 watt equivalent. Clearly, some bulbs are brighter than others even when rated similarly. This is why it’s important to look at the bulb illuminated to see if you like the color temperature and the brightness.

Clearly, we want good quality long lasting and bright lights. Specifically, lights that are bright enough for the given fixture and room. You may only need a 40 watt bulb in some instances, but in others you might want a 150 watt bulb. Sad to say, there aren’t many 150 watt LED equivalent bulbs on the market. Even of you find one, it’s not likely to be a connected bulb (see WiFi plugs below). The brightest bulbs seem incompatible with being connected. I don’t know why that is, but few lighting manufacturers want to produce both a connected bulb and a bulb that’s brighter than 60 watts. 60 watts is incredibly dim by itself. You’d need at least 4-7 of them in a fixture to sufficiently illuminate a living room.

Why there aren’t any 100 watt bulbs to date? I have no idea. Philips, GE and Sylvania need to get right onto solving that problem.. and soon.

Compatibility

If you’re willing to stay within a single manufacturer’s universe of apps, plugs, switches and bulbs, then you won’t run into many compatibility issues. If you want to actually do something useful, like use the Amazon Echo or IFTTT or Google Home or any other third party product, that’s when you run into problems.

Amazon’s Echo is probably the single most compatible home automation platform out there. However, that said, I’d consider Amazon’s Echo to only be about 80% compatible with most products. There are still a lot of products that cannot be controlled by Alexa, even though they have apps. IFTTT fares far worse at about 50% compatible. Apple’s Homekit is about 30% compatible with most systems. Though, if you’re willing to stay in the Philips universe, Apple’s Homekit jumps up into the high 90% range for compatibility. On the other hand, Apple’s Homekit has very little compatibility with Wink. Supposedly the Wink hub 2 is compatible with Homekit, but apparently that hub barely even works.

To get a fully functional Wink system, you have to use the Wink hub version 1 which isn’t compatible with Homekit. You’re probably asking, what is Apple Homekit? Homekit is Apple’s built-in small device automation system which is compatible with Siri. If you want task Siri to turn on, off or dim your lights, that assistant uses Homekit to get the work done. If Homekit can’t see your lights or accessories, it can’t control them.

There are many devices that Alexa can see and manage that Apple’s Homekit can’t. Apple has just floundered around doing nothing to improve compatibility to other home automation and lighting systems. This means that clicking the home icon to control your lights may or may not work on iOS… and more likely not to work than work.

Multiple Hub Versions

Hue’s system comes in several different hub versions. So does Wink. So does Zigbee and WeMo and many other device makers. These upgraded hubs add new features, such as compatibility with Apple’s Homekit or Google’s system. Keep in mind that even if a hub says it’s Homekit compatible, that doesn’t mean it’s fully compatible. It may only offer iOS the most bare bones minimums such as lights on and off, dimming and possibly color changing. Hue, for example, still prefers you to singly control all of their lights through the Hue app rather than through Apple’s Homekit compatible controls. Hue adds such extra features as light scheduling, vacation randomization and proximity fencing. Proximity fencing allows you to program the hub to turn lights on when near or off when out of range. These types of services are not visible through Homekit.

Fractured System

So what have I learned then?

  1. Philips Hue system is great so long as you don’t stray outside of it. Philips own bulbs work perfectly. Philips Hue can also see and control Hue compatible, but primarily Wink bulbs. Hue will not update firmware on any devices other than Hue devices. This is not optimal or in any way secure especially since you can only pair a device to one hub at a time.
  2. Wink will update fully Wink compatible bulbs, but won’t update firmware on Hue bulbs. Upgrades for Hue happens through Hue’s system.
  3. It is possible to run two hubs controlling different devices, but Wink’s hub won’t talk to Hue and Hue’s hub won’t talk to Wink.
  4. To bridge these two systems, you’ll need something like Alexa that can aggregate unlike device networks into a homogeneous whole.
  5. Alexa can’t aggregate bulbs and devices that aren’t Alexa compatible. So, you always have to read the box to make sure. Even then, you’ll likely need a skill to make it Alexa compatible.
  6. With Alexa’s skills, you can have Alexa log in to manage any device that offers a skill. You can then aggregate these devices under Alexa groups to control unlike systems.
  7. Homekit is the least compatible home control system out there. Don’t rely on Siri to control your devices unless you are meticulous in ensuring all of your devices are 100% Homekit compatible. This is likely to be costly because Apple is only willing to integrate with companies willing to pay money for this. That automatically means that only those companies making significant bank will be willing to pay off Apple to that end.
  8. Hue’s motion control sensor triples as a light and temperature sensor. Oddly enough, the only way to see the light and temperature pieces is through Homekit. Philips Hue app won’t show these sensors. This means you have to try and piecemeal together a system from pieces here, there and everywhere.
  9. Alexa still cannot directly set the color of Hue’s color bulbs. This must be done via a predefined IFTTT applet.
  10. Homekit can set the color of Hue’s color bulbs directly via Siri, but is limited in many other ways… specifically in the exact wording of how to get Siri to control the devices.
  11. Updating firmware on devices requires the correct app or hub. For example, Hue will update Hue devices, but not third party devices. If you want to update your third party devices, you need the right app or hub. Leading to….
  12. A device can only participate in any one hub system at any one time. Because I wanted the latest firmware on my GE and Cree bulbs, I had to buy a Wink hub and pair them with that. That also means I can’t use my Hue motion sensor to turn off one of the lights in a bedroom any longer. Now I have to buy a D-Link sensor and use that… adding to the cost and more hassles.

I find these systems fractured and annoying. There is no standard at all. Philips does what they do. Wink does similar, but is not compatible with Philips unless you buy into the Hub 2 (which is apparently junk). Sylvania is doing their own thing. Many bulb manufactures are now choosing WiFi for their bulbs to avoid even needing a hub. This means many competing standards in the lighting control area.

Until Philips or other lighting manufacturers put together a consortium to better the home automation world, home consumers will suffer with many competing and incompatible standards.

Electric Outlets

Recently I have gotten into controlling some devices using small connected outlets. Obviously, the devices to be controlled are dumb devices like plain old lamps or holiday lighting. They can’t be dimmed or change their colors, but they can be turned on or off. Once setup for control, I can enable scheduling to turn them individually on or off at specific times. However, what I’ve found here is just as fractured and confusing as the lighting systems. These plugs don’t require hubs. They are straight up WiFi devices.

I’ve so far bought the following:

  1. A WeMo branded outlet
  2. Three Conico / Jinvoo controlled outlets
  3. One TP-Link controlled outlet

Each of these devices has their own app and requires its own username and password. WeMo’s outlet uses the WeMo app, Conico uses the Jinvoo Smart app and TP-Link uses the Kasa app. Three apps and three logins for similar kinds of smart plugs. Yet more garbage on my phone and more passwords to remember.

However, because each of these apps have Alexa skills, I can set Alexa up to control all of them via a single device group. I have two of them controlling my Holiday lighting strands. I have a third as a bathroom night light and fourth and fifth not yet allocated, but likely will control more holiday lighting. I can put individual schedules on each of these plugs and I can voice control them via Alexa individually.

Unfortunately, to set up schedules, I have to do this in the phone app. This setup cannot be done in any single place. This is why this fracturing of devices is so bad.

IFTTT

What is this? This acronym stands for ‘IF This Then That’. It’s a small simple type of programming language. For example, if I say, “Alexa, trigger blue bedroom”, Alexa will send the command to IFTTT.com that will then interpret the command and perform the programmed action. The action could be turn off a light, send an email, send me a text or any of a wide array of actions. It’s a 1 to 1 action. Something happens, something is triggered.

How is this a problem here? I talked about the motion sensor above. This Hue sensor is captive to the Hue world. IFTTT has no way to capture any of the Hue sensor data and act upon it. Hue’s developers have not exposed any of this data to IFTTT for triggering alternative actions. For example, I’d like to turn on some lights if the motion sensor is tripped. While I can do that from within the Hue universe of devices, I can’t turn on both Hue and Wink lights from that motion sensor. Worse, the only thing I can do with the Hue motion sensor is turn on a device. I can’t send an SMS or email or anything else like that. Even though IFTTT can control both my Wink and Hue bridge devices, there is no action to read from the Hue motion sensor.

Instead, I had to opt into buying a D-Link WiFi motion sensor that is IFTTT compatible. This means I can then capture the motion event, send it to IFTTT to trigger an action of turning on a Wink and Hue bulb. It is not possible to do this with the Hue motion sensor. At least, that’s the theory. I haven’t yet received the D-Link sensor, but based on its description, it should be possible.

Overall, the world of home automation of small devices is fractured and confusing. There are many competing standards that don’t help the consumer in any way. In fact, this situation is made worse because device manufacturers intentionally hobble their own systems to prevent use of third party devices. This leaves home consumers to fend for themselves while trying to find a way to get their home system working. While I can understand the profit motivation in creating a captive ecosystem, it doesn’t in any way make it easier for a consumer. Until there’s a standard that all manufacturers agree to follow, we’re going to continue to see device after device using its own standard and supplying its own app to control that device.

If you’re going to invest in a smart home system, I’d suggest staying within a specific manufacturer’s ecosystem if at all possible. However, smart outlets may not be available under all systems. I don’t believe that Philips yet ships any smart plugs that are compatible with Hue. Wanting to add controls for plugs or other devices might mean the need for outside devices. However, even then I’d suggest sticking with a single manufacturer. Even if you use Hue and WeMo, that’s better than buying plugs from all over the place and trying to integrate 5 or more systems together. You may have to pay a premium to keep the number of systems down, but it will help keep the confusion to a minimum.

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