Month: February 2015

Broke Shrugs-N-Harmony

21 years ago, I received a “smart” watch for Christmas: the Casio CMD-40. A bulky watch with fiddly buttons that could control your audio and video equipment from your wrist. I often dreamt of messing with the TVs at school to confuse the hell out of my teachers and be a playground hero. I never had the balls to do it obviously.

Nowadays, I rely on a universal remote to control the stupid amount of devices under the TV. Up until a few months ago, I had the trusty Harmony One. Then one morning I found the remote on the floor with a smashed screen, rendering it useless.


I sought out an alternative after I discovered Logitech discontinued the One and settled on the Harmony Ultimate Home. I was able to trade in my One for a $100 discount which was great because the Ultimate Home costs a crazy $350 (although you can find it on sale for $300 right now). Even with the savings, that’s still an insane amount of money but I figured was worth it for what it offers.

Who needs remote control?
The Ultimate Home allows you to control your entertainment devices and also control your home with integration through products like SmartThings, Philips Hue and Nest. As an owner of all of the above, this felt like a good fit for me.

First things first. You’re going to need to set up the Harmony hub. The hub converts RF to IR so you don’t need to point the remote at the TV to execute commands. This also means you can hide it and other devices out of sight.

Set aside an afternoon to evening to set this thing up. When I finally got everything up and running, I lamented the loss of my Saturday. It really took that long. In part, it was because of the number of devices I wanted to add but also, this thing is not intuitive. Be prepared for extreme frustration.

Don’t worry though! That frustration will continue as an owner of the Ultimate Home.

The first thing you’ll notice how cheap it feels. It has no heft to it and immediately makes you question the price tag. The base is rounded like a Weeble. Unlike a Weeble though, it’ll wobble and sometimes fall down. Although, I’ve found it to be pretty durable in a house with two cats that like to knock everything off the coffee table.


If you’re used to the retina display of your phone or tablet, lower your expectations. I have old Blackberry from 2007 sitting around that looks better. The high resolution photos on the box very much do not represent what you’re actually going to get. You can customize it with your own photo via a very cumbersome process but every photo I tried clashed with the button labels. I ended up picking a flat grey as this helps the buttons stand out.

It won’t take you long to realize how grossly underpowered the Ultimate Home is. In its defense, it is trying to do a lot of things at the same time but when I tap the device menu, the remote is unresponsive until SmartThings, Hue and Nest load up.

The button layout is also slightly confusing. The touch screen resides in the middle and unlike it’s little brother, the Harmony Home, there are no number keys. Additionally, on the touch screen-less sibling the transport buttons (play, pause etc.) are placed in the middle allowing easy thumb access. With the Ultimate Home, it’s hard to get at those buttons without moving the position of your hand.

So why go for the Ultimate versus the $150 Home? The Ultimate controls 15 devices while the Home controls 8. 8 is probably more than sufficient but it doesn’t allow as much control over home automation devices. As I add more home automation to my house, I figured the upgrade would be worth it over time.

Home Is Where The App Is
The Nest integration is pretty sweet. When it finally loads, you can easily change temperature or set Nest to away.

SmartThings integration is a bit more complicated. Every time you add a new “thing” to your setup, you’ll need to add it manually through the Harmony app. Although, it’s rare that I want to turn off a single switch on the remote. The best advice I can give is to create virtual switches on the SmartThings side to control Hello, Home or mode changes.


The Hubbub
Another option is to purchase just the Hub for $100. The older Harmony remotes execute a string of commands one at a time so if you hit “Watch TV” triggering the TV, receiver and cable and you put the remote down or point it away from your devices, the action won’t complete. The hub mitigates that since it communicates via RF.

If you have just the hub, you’ll need to use the Harmony app in place of the remote. Most people in your household probably have access to a smartphone or tablet. But picking up a smart device, unlocking it and navigating to the app every time you want to change the channel away from “Two and a Half Men” — like the jokes — gets old fast.

The app does look good though. It matches the crisp vector graphics you see on the promotional material for the Ultimate, however, it is a major battery suck. I used it on and off when I was setting the remote up and my battery dropped 20% despite limited activity.

Logitech had the “ultimate” chance to release the best home entertainment and internet of things remote but it’s an expensive investment and could use way more horsepower.

Maybe I should trade it in for a trusty CMD-40?

Is There An Echo In Here?


IMAGE: Amazon

When Amazon gave me the opportunity to purchase their new voice command-activated device, Echo, I very impulsively hit the “buy” button.

Three months after I ordered it (I’ve read others were given shipping dates of June or July), it arrived in a nondescript, matte black box, about the size to contain a single shoe. Inside was the Echo itself, an Amazon-branded power supply, and a remote control identical to the one that ships with Fire TV.

Setup is performed via the mobile app and is pretty straightforward. You interact with Echo using a safe wake word, which, somewhat counter-intuitively, is not the word “echo.” Currently you can only say “Amazon” or “Alexa” (Amazon’s homage to the library of Alexandria, of course), who is Echo’s answer to Siri. But more wake words are promised for the future.


IMAGE: Amazon

It’s a tall, 9.25″ characterless cylinder. Characterless until you interact with it. During setup, the LED on top glows orange and after performing the wake word, the light ring animates a very satisfying blue. It’ll also glow white to indicate the volume level.

Ring of Fire

When I ordered the device, I immediately regretted my decision because I wasn’t convinced I really needed it, but ultimately figured I’d give it a chance. A few days in and it’s actually pretty awesome. The voice recognition is pretty remarkable and beats the capabilities of Kinect and Siri by a mile. Maybe it’s because of my screwed up Scottish-living-in-America-for-10-years-accent but I haven’t always had a lot of luck with other voice command devices. Echo is different. Alexa — unlike Kinect and the ladies of my youth — understands me.

Echo is essentially a glorified, but decent-sounding Bluetooth speaker with seven always-on, always-listening microphones. Unlike other flawed devices, you don’t need to shout. You can talk at a regular volume and the microphones can pick up your voice from any direction – even a room away in my tests. It also has enhanced noise-cancellation so it can hear you over music.

Speaking of music, Echo gives users a couple of options. You can pair the speaker to your phone and stream over Bluetooth or you can use Prime Music, iHeartRadio or TuneIn. It’s pretty cool that I can say “Alexa, listen to The Current” and the radio station will immediately start streaming. Whether or not I have followed that up with, “Alexa, stop listening to Hozier” is another story.

You can also ask for weather and news briefings.

Here’s the best feature though: shopping lists. You can add items to a shopping list or to-do list and they immediately update on the Echo app. I placed the device in my kitchen so it has proven to come in pretty handy. It had no problem hearing me when I added “toaster strudels”. However, saying it out loud made me question why, in my 30s, I still eat toaster strudels.

Of course it has its flaws. It’s an Amazon device so obviously it heavily relies on Amazon’s services and while the shopping list feature is cool, you can only add one item at a time.


The biggest issue is how limiting it currently is. It just doesn’t do enough. Had they launched with third-party, out-of-box support for products like Hue or WeMo, it would be a much more compelling purchase. It would be awesome if I could use SmartThings to check if my garage door was closed or to lock my doors. They have put the call out for developers to email in their ideas but it really needs recognizable partnerships to get off the ground.

I’d also love to see more synchronicity with the mobile app. Last night, I set a 8-minute timer but left the room and didn’t hear it when the time was up. Emily has been using the shopping list feature a lot but unless I check the app, I’m not aware that she has added to it. I’d love to be able to be alerted to these via push notification.

Walt Mossberg criticized Amazon’s Fire Phone for being too reliant on the Amazon ecosystem and I fear the same fate could be in store for Echo. Echo could be ultimate Internet of Things companion but Amazon needs to make that their focus. In the meantime, “Alexa, does Amazon sell ‘toaster strudels’?”

Automatic For The Prius


I purchased Automatic over a year ago. It’s a little gizmo that plugs into the OBD port in your car and connects to your phone via Bluetooth. It gathers data that can warn you about issues with your vehicle (like telling you what’s really up when your check engine light comes on) and can improve your driving habits (Spoiler Alert: for me, it hasn’t).

Automatic’s launch was driven by a Kickstarter campaign but it’s now available at Best Buy and Amazon. Being obsessed with data, I backed it immediately. One year in and $99 later it’s cool, but not something I particularly need.

So what does it do?

Check Your Head
If a problem occurs in your car and the check engine light comes on, Automatic can decode the issue and tell you what’s up, potentially saving a trip to a mechanic. Thankfully, I haven’t had such a problem but it’s reassuring to know I could potentially save some cash getting an issue diagnosed.

Gas Panic
Automatic boasts that it can improve your driving habits by issuing you gentle alerts if you drive too fast or brake too hard – two traits that can cause greater fuel usage. For instance, when you go over 70mph, Automatic will beep at you. I turned that feature off after a few weeks. In theory it’s a good idea, but in practice it’s pretty annoying. Or maybe it proves that I drive like an asshole.

Day Tripper
I drive to multiple meetings every week and Automatic has been helpful in tracking where I go, so I always have the most accurate expense reports. In addition to the native app, they launched a website a few months ago that details your driving history. Handy if you want to track every burrito excursion.


This feature is pretty cool. Automatic is now supported in IFTTT so you can create your own recipes. For example, I have a Google Spreadsheet set up that tracks all my driving and is a much easier way to track business travel. You can also run tasks based on location. When I leave the office, I can turn my Nest on to ensure my house is heating up on my drive home. Or when I turn my ignition on within the geofence at home, I can make sure SmartThings has locked my house doors.

Here’s the thing though: it doesn’t always work. There is sometimes a significant delay between Automatic firing a trigger and IFTTT executing it. So if a recipe relies on location, you may be out of luck (in Automatic’s defense, this sometimes happens with other IFTTT recipes).

Another issue I’ve noticed is that Automatic does not always pair with your phone. I’ve noticed it’s particularly bad in the miserable Minnesota winters. So if you’re using it for any security features (like locking doors) make sure you have a backup.

One consequence I’ve found is that Automatic makes me question whether I even need a car. Considering my monthly car payment, it’s pretty depressing to see how little I drive in a typical week. Home. Work. Home. Work. Target. Home. Work. Chipotle Gym. Home.

The $99 price point is pretty hard to swallow but it’s a pretty cool gift though for the gadget guy with a penchant for tracking useless data or for someone who drives a lot for work.

Full Disclosure: I don’t drive a Prius but the pun drove me to write the blog.

All-New 2015 Ford Edge Showcases Technology, Design and Craftsma

New Look

You know that feeling when you wake up on a Sunday morning and you’re like, “I’m gonna redesign my website today”? That was me 3 days ago.

The previous site was focused on photography but I’m getting old and I’ve been spending less times at divey bars on Tuesday nights.

Don’t despair! I still love music (check out the new Frankie T single) but of late I’ve been more focused on my web work and I wanted my site to reflect that.

I admittedly rushed the site so don’t critique it for not working on IE8 or whatever. I doubt you’re looking at this in IE8 or whatever anyway. There’s still some bugs but I’m working on them.

I’m also going to be blogging more regularly.

Just. You. Wait.