WELCOME TO a new round-up of what's happening in the world of connected home. What makes this slightly different to other review sections is that, rather than prodding things in a lab, we're using products in the real live environment of our writers' homes (mostly Chris) for extended periods, meaning we can tell you exactly what its like to use them, not just their potential and their manufacturer's claims.
To start with this month, we're going to look at the basic infrastructure for your smart home and the key products you need before any others.
The hub is what gets everything talking to everything else. And we've gone for the beast of all hubs. Homey was launched after a successful Indiegogo campaign, and has become a powerhouse of the connected home.
The secret lies in the fact that rather than running one system, it can control anything with Z-Wave, Zigbee, 433Mhz (IR), 868Mhz, IP, Bluetooth… and that basically means anything you can throw at it.
Now, there is caveat. Each products needs an "app" loaded into Homey to make it run. But the good news is, in addition to the team from Athom (the company behind the device) making a good core of software, the whole thing is open source, so hundreds of developers have been writing compatibility of their own thing.
One of the main advantages of Homey that sold it to us is its ability to use your mobile phone as a beacon - therefore as long as noone forgets their phone, it can work out who is in and who is out and act accordingly. Brilliant.
It also accepts IFTTT commands, something which opens up a world of possibilities beyond the thousands of devices it already controls. Plus, if you can't find the remote control settings you hoped for, don't worry, you can point your remote at Homey and teach it a button at a time how to control your obscure Hifi brand.
It's still a work in progress. Bluetooth support is in its early stages, and incorporating cameras is still not quite there yet, though there are a few exceptions and lots of "coming soon" additions.
We love the interface for controlling Homey, the downside is that the mobile app still needs a lot of functionality, so it's best to automate as much as you can.
We'll be talking more about Homey as we go through, for now, we'll leave it with its glowing ring, looking elegant on the sideboard.
Homey costs £269.00 on Amazon UK - localised versions are available for other markets
You may recall that a lot of the recent outbreaks of malware have been attributed to the "Internet of Things" (IoT), with IP cameras being singled out for specific attention.
As we start adding fifty, sixty devices to our network, that's more devices to become carriers of payloads, botnets and so forth. Fortunately, there's a solution - the hardware firewall. We're using Cujo, which is specifically designed to protect IoT devices, and has the added bonus of an extra layer of protection.
We should say that this isn't an excuse to get sloppy - the rule is, if you haven't changed the password from its default, find out how and do it. Now. If there's two factor authentication, do that too.
That said, Cujo, with its happy face (that gets grumpy if it goes offline) has access to a huge database of dodgy URLs and IP addresses and blocks them. You can override it in the app - for example if you want a particular device to have access to a particular IP that is in the list, you can do that, or even remove that device from protection altogether.
When we first got Cujo, it was a bit fiddly to set up, and didn't have any port forwarding options. We sorted that out with a mixture of a software update and the incredible tech support staff who, believe it or not, rang us proactively because we'd done several reboots and were still offline. Now that's service.
Cujo is available from the company's website for $249 all inclusive. The device is also available with monthly or annual subscriptions starting at $99.
Yes, it's not as simple as just a regular router. You need it to have good whole house connectivity. It needs to be dual-band as you'll want to use 5ghz as much as possible, but often IoT devices only work on 2.4ghz. It's also important that they are broadcast as two separate signals with different SSID (hotspot names). Quite often, if something isn't set up for 5ghz, it won't connect to a mixed SSID at all. We've had success with Netgear's R7800 and TP-Link's Archer AC2600.
There's also a work around. We've hooked up a signal booster using Devolo Powerline equipment that instead of rebroadcasting the same signal, instead broadcasts on a 2.4ghz frequency only and is only for use of IoT devices. Sometimes it's better just to fence them off altogether. It's working pretty well.
The final infrastructure point is a voice controller. Technically, you could argue that both Amazon Alexa and Google Home are hubs - and yes, you could use them instead of Homey, but they are nowhere near as versatile. Equally, Homey has a voice control option but its way behind both its rivals, so you're far better to use one of the dedicated voice assistants to trigger Homey.
The eternal verities of both have been discussed numerous times and so we will not burden ourselves with them here. Sufficed to say that in order to really get the best out of our smart home, at the moment, we have both. But it shouldn't have to be that way.
A NOTE ABOUT PHONES
Oh, one final thing. We're not going to turn this into a phone review, but we should warn you that for things like presence detection, make sure you have a phone that isn't working against you. We love the Huawei and Honor ranges, but their power management is often over-zealous and switches off apps that need to be running as part of your home control.
Even with the OnePlus 5, which we've found an excellent ally, you will need to turn off Battery Optimisation for certain apps to make sure you're not left assuming something is going to work that simply won't.
So that's our "infrastructure". Next time we'll be looking at security cameras. µ
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