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Jun
25

Amazon available to all, Google has free music

Posted By · June 25, 2015 at 10:05 am

People have been snapping them up since November, when they first went on sale by invitation.

I’m talking about the Amazon Echo, a combination of blue-tooth speaker, list creator, weathercaster, sports information officer and other abilities.

As of June 23, the Echo is on pre-sale to everyone in the United States. The Echo page on Amazon already has almost 20,000 reviews with 66% of them giving the device five stars.

It’ll be interesting to see how long it now takes Amazon to provide apps that developers have created since the SDK came out. Alexa, how do I make mashed potatoes? Alexa, turn on my living room lights. Alexa, how do I make a gin and tonic?

The device will be in stock on July 14 with a price tag of $179.99, without a remote.

Also, on June 24 Google launched a free music service. It includes play lists based on the music you like, and also on your mood (yes, your mood). Some of those mood choices are Hosting a pool party, Working out, Unwinding and Having friends over.

You can access this service by logging into your Google account and going to music.google.com.

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May
20

Your family’s personal assistant may have arrived

Posted By · May 20, 2015 at 1:09 pm

Much has been written about Amazon’s Echo, a voice activated personal assistant for the home. You can play music of your choice and create to-do lists and shopping lists just by talking to Echo.

Echo is always waiting for the awake word. Right now there are only two options for this word, Amazon or Alexa. Most people choose Alexa, but if someone in your home happens to have that name you may prefer to use Amazon to avoid confusion.

Echo came out last fall. At that time it could create lists; play music from Amazon Prime (Prime membership is required), Amazon Music Library, IHeartRadio or TuneIn; answer some questions using Wikipedia as a source; set a timer; set an alarm; give you a news digest and tell you the weather for anywhere.

Since then Amazon has added more functionality, updating the device multiple times. Now you can get information about sports teams (Alexa, what was the score of the St. Louis Cardinals game?); traffic (only for preset start and end points); music from Pandora and news from NPR, BBC, ESPN and TMZ. Echo can even control some WeMo and Hue connected home devices.

The last update allows you to reorder items you’ve previously ordered from Amazon using your Prime membership account. Just tell Echo what you want to reorder and it will tell you the price and ask if you want to place the order. If the item isn’t available Echo will give you some options to order instead. The ability to place an Amazon order by talking to Echo is a feature most people have been expecting.

For about one month Amazon made the Echo SDK available to developers. The hope is that people will create apps for Echo, increasing its capabilities. One person wrote a program that allows Echo use a Wink connected home to turn lights off and on and also control his Nest thermostat. Right now this only works on the developer’s Echo.

echo

Echo’s abilities come from the cloud. Therefore any updates are made and accessed through the internet. There’s no need to replace the device itself in order to get the latest updates, which happen automatically. When there is an update, Amazon sends an email to Echo owners describing the new feature.

Echo looks like a black tube about three inches wide and about nine inches high. It has seven microphones on top, allowing the device to hear you from any angle without yelling at it. The speaker is the bottom half of Echo. The sound quality is good for most people. If you’re an audiophile you probably won’t be happy with the sound. Echo’s only power source is an electrical plug, no batteries. Echo is not meant to be portable. It uses Wi-Fi for its connection and moving it to a different Wi-Fi system means resetting the connection.

Personally, I use Echo to listen to music, give me weather reports for my area and where my son lives and give me a traffic report right before I leave for work.

UPDATE: Amazon has recently updated the Echo again, giving it the ability to tell you the score of any MLB, NFL, NBA or NHL game as well as when your team will be playing again.

What I’m really waiting for is when Echo can communicate with my Wink connected home. Then I’ll be able to turn lights on and off or change my thermostat with my voice, like the person who already wrote a program to do just that.

Because Echo is technically still in the beta stage, to get one you must go to the Echo page and ask for an invitation. Those invitations take weeks or months to get once you’ve requested it. Then you have to actually order it, and delivery will take three to five months. For Amazon Prime members the price is $149, for non-Prime members it’s $199.

What really makes the Echo worth the investment may not be what it can do now, but rather what it will be able to do in the future.

Warren Mills is the webmaster for WTHR-TV. He has been building and working on web sites since the mid-1990s.

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May
15

Smart homes, how far do you want to go?

Posted By · May 15, 2015 at 9:16 am

Smart homes are becoming more and more prevalent these days. But how comfortable are you with this new technology?

Today you can use the internet to turn on your lights at certain times of the day or at sunset or sunrise. You can turn off your home’s coffee maker from your work place. You can even have your door unlock and your garage door open when you get close to home.

But some will probably want to draw a line regarding what they can control remotely and what they can’t.

If someone hacks into your smart home and they can control the thermostat, is it really a problem if they change the temperature in the house? Are you afraid of someone unknown to you turning on your lights? That’s what each person needs to figure out, what is their comfort level with smart home technology?

In a report by Eyewitness News Reporter Jennie Runevitch, Dr. Marcus Rogers, director of the Cyber Forensics program at Purdue University, explains that even if you’re only controling your coffee maker and thermostat remotely, “A bad guy could get this information and figure out, ‘oh look! They’re never home between noon and 4:00, or someone’s working night shift this week.’ Then they have a four hour block they can come in and do things. They can rob your house.”

To help keep someone from hacking your system, the report says “Dr. Rogers recommends creating a unique and strong password for each automated device. Don’t use the same one for all of them. Make sure each password is at least ten characters long and change them every three to four months.”

The convenience of being able to control your thermostat and lights may outweigh your concern about security. But what about your ability to control the locks on your home?

Everyone is going to have their own comfort level, and that’s what you need to decide before you jump into the smart home devices.

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Jan
21

On the path to home automation

Posted By · January 21, 2015 at 10:40 am

People have been talking about home automation for decades. Recently the name for it has been “smart homes.”

But for most of this time it’s been a dream or a partial reality for the wealthy. Now this is changing as prices come down and technology improves.

A couple of years ago I took a minor step in this direction with the Nest thermostat. It works independently with a connection to the home wi-fi. With the Nest app I can change the temperature from anywhere in the world with an Internet connection. The thermostat will learn my schedule if I ask it to. It will turn off when it detects no one is home and keep the temperature within a range I specify. Once it detects I’m back home it will go back to the set temperature. This is great when leaving town for a couple of days, saving money and energy. Now, if only my wife and I could agree on a temperature.

But now I’ve taken a major step toward home automation.

I purchased a Wink hub. This is a device that talks to “connected” peripherals. Some are made by the same company that makes Wink and many others come from other companies. This is what made me go this route.

The price also helped. Most automation hubs cost $100 or more. At Home Depot I was able to get the Wink hub for $20, list price of $50, with the purchase of two GE Connected LED light bulbs at $15 each. So for $50 total I got two bulbs that I can set schedules for, turn on or off or dim as well as control from anywhere in the world. The hub will also connect to many other devices.

The setup for the Wink hub was easy, although I have read about others who had issues with the setup. However they all say that the tech support was very good.

Once the hub is plugged in, there is no battery and it is powered through a wall outlet, I downloaded the Wink app on my phone, told the app to add a new device and chose hub as that device. It connected to the hub and asked for my security code for the wi-fi. Once the hub made the wireless connection the app told me the hub needed an update. That took about five minutes. The only way the hub can communicate is through the color of a light and the app. Various colors mean various things.

When the app told me that the hub was connected it was time to add the first light bulb. I turned off a lamp and screwed the bulb in. Then I told the app that I wanted to add a new device and turned the lamp on. From a list I chose the GE Connected bulb. There was a three-step process for connecting the bulb to the system. I then repeated the process with the second bulb in a differnt lamp.

Now it was time to set my schedules. Since both lights are in the same room and neither one is a primary light that we use I scheduled them to turn on when we get up in the mornings of Monday through Friday and turn off around the time the sun is coming up and we’re usually leaving the house. I set another schedule for the evening.

That night they turned off when they should and the next morning they turned on when scheduled to do so.

Here are some of the issued with this system. I have to leave the power to the lamps turned on at all times. It’s not pulling power when the lights are off. To turn the lights on or off at times other than what’s scheduled I need to use the app on my phone or tablet. This is why it important to give serious thought to where you want to place the bulbs. Getting out your phone to turn a light on or off isn’t as easy as flipping a light switch. Most of the lights in my house get turned on whenever we need it and turned off when we’re done. This is not conducive to a schedule since there’s more than one person living in the house. A schedule would work much better for someone living alone.

Again, one of the things I like about the Wink hub is that it’s compatible with devices from other companies. For lights you can also use the Cree Connected bulb, Philips Hue Lights and Leviton receptacle as well as others. For remote controlled blinds and shades you can connect to Bali and Lutron. Kidde and Nest smoke alarms will work along with the Dropcam and Kwikset SmartCode and Schlage Touchscreen deadbolt locks. You can even connect to your Rheem Connected Water Heater.

Personally I can’t see a reason I would want to connect to my water heater, but the option is there. My next connected purchase may be the deadbolt lock.

Before getting on the path to your own smart home, do your research and think, what do you really want to be able to control in your Indiana home while on your trip to London?

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Sep
04

Always behind the times

Posted By · September 4, 2013 at 4:26 pm

The telephone, for decades the only real change in the phone system and equipment was from a rotary dial to a button dial. Once you bought a telephone you didn’t need to replace it for years.

The television, for decades the only real change in the equipment was from black and white to color. Sure, we got remotes and cable, but the basic way to operate the system remained the same. And once you bought a television you didn’t need to buy another one for years.

Now things are different! You buy a cell phone, actually it’s more computer than it is phone, and six months later your equipment is out of date. You buy an HD television which gets replaced by a TV with internet apps which gets replaced by a 3D TV that requires glasses which will probably soon be replaced by a 3D TV that doesn’t require glasses (or something else we haven’t even thought of yet).

I’ve recently looked at new cars, my newest one being a 2004. I’m amazed at the electronics in it. I can play the music on my phone (make that portable computer) through the car speakers with a Bluetooth connection. I can also use Bluetooth to use my phone as a phone without touching it. I can get weather reports, gas station locations and even movie times on the color screen in the dashboard.

And how about my thermostat? It connects to the internet and uses less or more energy based on the weather. I can change the schedule for heating/cooling from my computer or my mobile device. And it will detect when no one is home and turn itself off.

How about the fact that I can set up a camera in my house and see what’s going on from anywhere in the world, as long as I have that internet connection.

Well, I don’t have the latest greatest mobile device, I don’t have a 3D TV, I don’t have a new car, I do have that thermostat and one day I did set up my web cam to keep an eye on the dogs just to see if I could do it. So, I guess that I’m one of those people who will always be behind the times despite the fact that I build web sites and am therefore, at least somewhat, a technical person.

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Sep
27

Galaxy S III

Posted By · September 27, 2012 at 1:09 pm

The Samsung Galaxy S III is one of the hottest new phones out there, the hottest if you believe the Samsung commercials.

I got one a couple of days ago and thought I’d give my first impressions.

My previous phone was the Motorola Droid X. I was satisfied with it. It allowed me to learn the Android interface and it got the job done.

The Galaxy S III is a phone I could fall in love with. It’s a little longer and wider than the Droid X, along with the screen also being larger. But the 720p Super AMOLED display is beautiful. Very crisp and clear. Some say that if you look extremely close you can see the individual pixels. I say, don’t look extremely close. If you look at the display normally it looks great.

The back cover comes off easy enough if you need to change the battery, but once it’s off you can see that it looks and feels flimsy. I would expect it to be more solid, whereas this one can flex.

I like the speed of the 4G network. I can see a difference when web pages load.

Apps

One drawback is how apps are listed. Instead of being listed alphabetically, they appear to be listed in order of when they were downloaded. That makes finding a particular app difficult.

However, once you find the app you want it loads quickly. And with seven different screens available, you can place your favorite apps and widgets on whatever screen you want. You can also open an app by telling the phone to do so. More on that below.

Moving from screen to screen is not only smooth, but when you get to screen seven, one more swipe moves you to screen one, and visa versa, so it’s like a rotating carousel.

S Voice

S Voice is Samsung’s answer to Apple’s Siri. Reviews say it’s not as good or accurate. My limited experience with it is satisfactory. I’ve opened an app with the command, Open (app name). I’ve also place a call by saying “Call Home.” When I asked for directions to a fast food restaurant the phone gave me a list of locations to choose from and then mapped to the one I tapped. In all instances I activated the voice command with the tap of an icon on my home screen.

Overseas the Galaxy S III has a quad-core processor. Samsung made the decision to have a duel-core processor in the U.S. The available colors are marble white and pebble blue.

One of the most publicized features of this phone is the popup video player. If you get a text while watching a video you can shrink the video so it stays on the screen and you continue watching while you respond to the text. A tap on the video brings it back full screen.

There are two cameras, one on the front and one on the back. The back camera is 8 megapixels. The phone has a burst feature that takes 20 pictures at once and then picks out what it determines is the best one.

Another nice feature is Direct Call. You can look up a contact, then just hold the phone to your ear and the phone makes the call.

While the Galaxy S III is not perfect, I doubt you’ll find any phone that is. The people who like and use all the latest bells and whistles (by the way, my phone whistles when I get a new alert) will find fault with this device. People like me who are casual users will find it an excellent choice.

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Sep
14

Proprietary connections

Posted By · September 14, 2012 at 11:40 am

The recent release of the IPhone 5 has brought to the forefront a problem that has been a pet peeve of mine for a while.

The IPhone/IPod/IPad have always have a proprietary connection, meaning it would only work on Apple devices and you had to have this special connection in order to use that device.

Now Apple has not only changed the connection, but changed it to another proprietary version. So any old connectors you were using for Apple now need a $39 adaptor. If you have a charger and a speaker for your IPhone and you don’t want to keep switching the adaptor back and forth, it’ll cost you $58 plus tax to continue using these connectors.

Apple is not the only company to do this. Personally, I have an Asus tablet which also has its own proprietary connection. So instead of being able to use a universal type of connector, i.e.: mico USB; I need multilple cables from Asus and/or adaptors.

My Droid phone charges and transfers data using a mico USB, why can’t all others? Europe has legislated that all phones use micro USB for charging. Since the manufacturers have to do this for their European products, why do they have to go out of their way to make special connectors in the U.S.?

Here’s my guess, money. One analyst estimates that more than 1.3 million IPhone 5s will be sold. If each person buys one adaptor at $29, that’s $37.7 million. Apple benefits, the companies that make the adaptors benefit and the stores that sell the adaptors benefit. The consumer loses.

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Aug
16

A battle looming?

Posted By · August 16, 2012 at 8:39 am

Could it end up being a fight reminicent of the VHS vs. Beta battle years ago?

A group of big-name retailers are getting together to create a method for people to pay for purchases with their smartphones. Wal-Mart, Best-Buy Co. and Target Corp. are three of the companies forming Merchant Customer Exchange, a company to develop a mobile application that would be available for almost every smartphone.

Mark Williams, president of financial services for Best Buy, said, “As merchants, no one understands our customers’ shopping and payment experience better than we do, and we’re confident that together we can develop a technology solution that makes that experience more engaging, convenient and efficient.”

The problem is that there are already at least six competing applications out there. Starbucks, which has its own system now, recently teamed up with Square to use its payment app. Google has one for some Sprint phones; Verizon Wireless, AT&T and T-Mobile USA have their own platform; Visa and Mastercard each have their own design and eBay even has a payment service.

Eventually there is going to have to be one platform that eveyone can use everywhere in order for this concept to succeed. But are all these companies willing to work together or is it going to be survival of the fittest?

Merchant Customer Exchange may have a good chance of being that survivor. Other companies that have signed on are 7-Eleven, Inc., Alon Brands, CVS/pharmacy, Darden Restaurants Inc., HMSHost, Hy-Vee Inc., Lowe’s Cos., Publix Super Markets Inc., Sears Holdings Corp., Shell Oil Products US, and Sunoco Inc. The group adds that even more members will be joing in the coming months.

Warren Mills is the webmaster for WTHR-TV. He has been building and working on web sites since the mid-1990s.
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