Automating my home: Whole house audio with Chromecast Audio

One of the most challenging issues I have been working on for some time is whole house audio.  The largest challenge has been keeping cost low, and my family adopting the solution.  I first considered wired surround sound, but that turned into too large of a challenge, Sonos seemed like a great fit, but the cost placed that out of reach for our needs.  After significant trial and error, the latest version of the Chromecast Audio seems to have solved my concerns.

From a hardware perspective, I started with a Vizio SB3851-D0 38″ 5.1 Channel SmartCast™ Soundbar 5.1 System.  This worked well with the television, but doubled as a chromecast audio speaker.  It was good, but only in one room, and so it did not get much use for music.  Frustrated with my lack of progress, I decided to take a chance on purchasing 2 Chromecast Audio devices, with the assumption they would not work properly and I would return them.

The setup was pretty simple, I followed the instructions on the Google Home app on my iPhone.  Once the devices were joined to the network, and speakers were connected via the 3.5mm analog port, I tested them individually with Pandora, finding the sound quality acceptable for what my families needs.  This lead me to the reason for the purchase, multi-room audio.

The grouping was incredibly simple, in the Google Home App on my iPhone, and opened the device tab.

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This displayed the three devices available as individual devices.

 

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To create a new group, I simply selected the three dots on the top right of one of the devices and selected Create Group.  I selected the devices to add to the group, and now I had a new virtual chromecast audio device to send audio to.

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In my case, I have 2 groups, one for the house, consisting of the living and family rooms, and one for the house + master which brings in the master bedroom.  Future plans include outdoor speakers on our back deck, garage speakers, and possibly something upstairs.

A few notes, this is great because I can keep adding more devices and creating more configurations.  The main downside is the limited number of music services, I don’t use google music or youtube red, and my spotify account is the free tier, leaving me with Pandora for the moment.  This has also lead me to think about adding a Google Home, although with an Amazon Echo and an Amazon Echo Dot, this is a tough sell at the moment just to bypass the phone for home audio.  All in, this is an inexpensive and powerful solution, provided you are not looking for some extreme high end whole house audio.

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Automating my home: Whole house audio with Chromecast Audio

Automating my home: Ring Floodlight Cam

After installing the Ring Doorbell Pro, Automating my home: Ring Pro Video Doorbell, I wanted to mount an outdoor camera on the front of my house to get complete coverage.  My wife was ok with it, provided that it didn’t look like a camera, or was well hidden.  After some fuming about how challenging that would be, I found the Ring Floodlight Cam.

I just so happened to have a motion sensor floodlight on the front of the house, so I bit the bullet and expanded my security footprint.  The biggest challenge on this was the 110 volt connection, or more specifically the fact that the wiring was 18 feet above my driveway.  I am a fairly good handyman, but I do not like heights, so it was not fun to install.  Once I finally found the correct breaker to turn off the power, it is on my list to label them, the install was pretty straight forward.  It was literally as simple as disconnecting the old light, and connecting this one, ground, neutral, and hot, then the screws to attach it, and power back on.

I thought I was done, until I tried to setup the wireless for the camera, which showed me that my single Unifi UAP AC Pro access point wasn’t quite enough for the house.  Amazon prime will have the new one here soon, but in the mean time, I used an old airport express and connected the Floodcam to it.

The only real complaint is the alerts, my wife is going to be turning off all the motion sensor alerts, I prefer to get them, I adjusted the motion area to cover my driveway only.  The adjustment from our perspective is when someone walks up our drive way to the front door.  The Floodcam alerts, then the doorbell, and if someone rings the doorbell, well that is three alerts.  It is not bad, but it does take some getting used to.

After this latest install, I have to be honest, I am a bit of a fanboy.  These have been the easiest products to install and maintain, and the performance is incredible for the size.  With live view, I can check in on my house and neighborhood when I am away from home, and with the cloud storage, I can provide the video to law enforcement if there are any suspicious people near my house.  I am still waiting on the Ring Stickup Camera to come out in 1080p video, then I will likely go with an all Ring system.  I can’t recommend these enough, by far my favorite security and camera products yet.

Automating my home: Ring Floodlight Cam

Automating my home: Ring Pro Video Doorbell

I have been very opposed to video doorbells for sometime now, it just seemed like an odd place to put a camera, and I couldn’t find one with live video stream, most operated based on the doorbell being run, and more recently on motion, but I wanted to be able to use it as a traditional camera.  I was also a little concerned by the original model requiring recharging and whether I would remember to actually charge it. Recently, my wife mentioned that she was surprised we didn’t have one, and it seemed like a good idea.  With the release of the Ring Video Doorbell Pro, and the live stream update, I decided to jump in and give it a shot.  The worst case I could always return it, but I had high hopes.

The packaged arrived, and of course I could hardly wait to get it opened and take a look.  Installation was a little disappointing, only because it was so simple.  My youngest son removed the old doorbell, and we took off the 24v wires, connected them to the new doorbell, and attached it to the house.  The app walked me through connecting the device to wifi, and we tested it.  The only problem we found was the mechanical chime only rang once, rather than twice as before.  Reading the directions quickly, it appeared that there is a “pro power adapter” which we needed to install in the chime itself.  Again this was almost disappointingly simple.  Once I wired it in, everything just worked.

It has only been a few hours, but I am impressed with the quality of the video, the ease of use, and the simple integration.  I have invited my wife to create an account, so her testing will be important to make sure it is successful.  I also dug out an old iPhone 5 which I locked down to basically the Ring App.  I am planning to mount it in a common area, so we don’t lose functionality.  I would love to see an Apple TV and Roku apps, but those would be tough since it is there is no way for two way audio yet.

Installing this has me considering the Ring Stickup Camera.  The simplicity of the app, and the impressive web interface would make it a perfect fit.  My two hesitations are the 720p camera, and again the battery.  On the cameras, I could deal with the battery, but to replace my 4 Samsung Smartcam HD I want 1080p video.

This is an absolutely impressive product, I am looking forward to seeing what more Ring brings to market.  I am going to experiment with Stringify or IFTTT next to see what new integrations I can do.

Automating my home: Ring Pro Video Doorbell

Updating the Raspberry Pi Unifi Controller to 5.4.16

With the recent release of UniFi’s 5.4.16 controller software, the Java version has been updated to version 8.  On the Raspberry Pi controller, this causes the controller to fail to start after the upgrade.  After some digging on the forums, it seems to be a common problem, but easily resolved.

Upgrade:

To upgrade, it is a simple update command if you followed my previous post on Building a Unifi Wireless Controller with a Raspberry Pi 3.  The upgrade is simply as follows.

sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get upgrade -y

Fix the issue:

To resolve the issue with java, you will need to first make sure you have Oracle Java 8 installed.
sudo apt-get install oracle-java8-jdk

Then make sure the new version is set as default.

sudo update-alternatives --config java

Select Oracle Java 8.

Restart the service.

sudo systemctl restart unifi

This is a very simple fix, but hopefully this saves some frustration on configuring your Raspberry Pi 3 UniFi controller.

Updating the Raspberry Pi Unifi Controller to 5.4.16

To home lab or not to home lab

As I often do, I am again debating my need for a home lab.  My job is highly technical, to take technology architecture and tie it all together with the strategic goals of my customers.  Keeping my technical skills up to date is a full time job in and of itself, and begs the question, should I build out a home lab, or are my cloud based labs sufficient.

One of the perks to working at a large company is the ability to use our internal lab systems.  This can also include my laptop with VMware Workstation or Fusion product which affords some limited testing capabilities, mostly due to memory constraints.  Most of the places I have been have had great internal labs, demo gear, etc, which has been nice.  I have often maintained my own equipment as well, but to what end.  Keeping the equipment up to date becomes a full time job, and adds little value to my daily job.

With the competition in cloud providers, many providers will provide low or no cost environments for testing.  While this is not always ideal, for the most part, we are now able to run nested virtual systems, testing various hypervisors, and other solutions.  Many companies are now providing virtual appliance based products which enable us to stay fairly up to date.

Of course one of my favorites is VMware’s Hands on Labs.  In fairness I am a bit biased, working at VMware, and with the hands on labs team as often as I can.  Since a large majority of what I do centers around VMware’s technology, I will often run through the labs myself to stay sharp on the technology.

While the home lab will always have a special place in my heart, and while I am growing a rather large collection of raspberry pi devices, I think my home lab will be limited to smaller lower power devices for IoT testing for the moment.  While always subject to change, it is tough to justify the capital expenditure when there are so many good alternatives.

To home lab or not to home lab

Google Project Fi: Goodish…

I recently returned from a trip to El Salvador with my Church to do some mission work.  The last time I was there I relied on wireless calling, and messaging protocols.  Due to less than ideal infrastructure, the experience was not great.  This trip I decided to take advantage of google’s Project Fi, mostly out of curiosity.  The basic premise is you purchase a phone which they support, and the service is based on actual data usage.  They use local providers in around 135 countries including the U.S.

Before I go further, I do need to be clear, I have been an iPhone user since 2009, this was my first android device, other than a brief period with a 7″ android tablet.

Device

I chose the cheapest device I could, the Nexus 5x.  I liked the touch id being on the back of the phone.  It was far more accurate than my iPhone touch id, and the positioning was much better for my use.  The metal case was nice, and felt like a quality design.

The android operating system itself was interesting.  I liked that the phone comes with a pretty clean android image, most of the applications that were installed were the native google apps as one would expect with android.  The setup was pretty quick and painless.

Apps

The applications on android were a little disappointing when compared to my iPhone.  While I could get most of the same applications as I had, they felt like cheap knockoffs.  There were some basic functionality issues, and the look and feel was not quite the same as my iOS apps.

I was surprised however by the number of applications for testing wireless signal.  For tools, it seems that android has done a much better job, or perhaps just has a more open policy on applications.

Calling & Data

The calling and data is where the phone really fell down.  In the U.S., it seemed to send me to the lowest quality carrier wherever I was.  The call quality was pretty low, although the data was pretty reasonable from a performance and latency perspective.  The biggest issue was when I was in airplane mode while flying.  Picking up a cell signal took several restarts and 5-10 min of waiting for the system to pickup.  It was highly frustrating.

When I landed in El Salvador, it was even worse.  Waiting on the system to pickup a local cell signal was painful.  Unfortunately it seemed to continue as I traveled around the city of San Salvador.  I would randomly lose signal, and the carriers were intermittent at best.  When I was trying to make calls from Wifi it would often kick me over to cellular and charge me $.20/min.

 

As an apple user in almost every aspect, I am probably the worst person to review this project.  If the sim would work with my iPhone, I would likely have been more forgiving of the lack of functionality on the calling side of things.  The lack of cell & data quality was really the nail in the coffin though.  I chose Project Fi to support international trips, and I have to say it was not a great experience.  I will continue to use it during international travel with the hope it improves however, the fact that I can turn it on and off, and port my google voice number back and forth is the one true saving grace.  I would not recommend it as a replacement phone, but it is not a terrible secondary phone for traveling to foreign countries.

Google Project Fi: Goodish…

Cutting the cord for fun and profit: Smart TV’s and Streaming Devices

As a child I remember going to my grandparents home.  They had cable television, which was a big deal at the time since we had 1-3 channels depending on the weather and the placement of our homemade antenna.  I remember the box that sat on top, you would push down the buttons for the channel you wanted, it was amazing to have so much to watch.  I loved Saturday morning cartoons, and occasionally talking my mother into an evening cop show when we visited.

Apple TV

For our purposes assume this refers to the Apple TV Gen 4, the first with an app ecosystem.  With the exception of Amazon Video, thanks to a rumored disagreement between Tim Cook and Jeff Bezos, this is probably one of the more comprehensive ecosystems in the space, with new apps released fairly regularly.  From a user experience perspective, this is likely one of the better systems, in typical apple fashion, with an ecosystem of streaming services and games.  The biggest complaint on this device is the remote.  While it is larger than previous remotes, the touch remote features, while intuitive, it is tends to get bumped, and can be a pain to use with precision.

Roku

The latest Roku models are quite well done.  With a number of form factors, and quality levels, Roku strives to be all things to all people.  The comprehensive app store experience is good, as is the remote.  It is the right size for your hand, with a minimalist feel on the buttons.  One of the biggest features that made me really like this device is the headphone port on the remote.  On the subject of the remote, these generally use a proprietary wireless technology for the remote paring rather than IR, which is great if you want to hide the device, or just don’t have great line of site.  My biggest concern with the Roku is they are not backed by a large content company such as Amazon, Apple, or Google.  They do seem like an easy acquisition target, or possibly a company which could evaporate in the shifting ecosystem.

Smart Televisions

I want to like smart televisions, I really do.  I even purchased one, with a Roku built in.  My biggest concern is the processor speed.  In the several systems I have tested, my experience has been a little laggy.  Of course we are stuffing a mini computer inside an already thin TV system, but the user experience is critical to solidify adoption.  For most users this is probably a technology which is good enough, but still has a bit to go.

Chrome Cast, Fire TV, and open source

There are always other options, Google’s Chrome Cast is probably one of the more popular choices.  It is great except that it is simply a receiver.  A phone or computer becomes the remote control for the device, although content is streamed directly from the internet.  Amazon’s Fire TV is a good product as well, but it is very amazon centric.  As an Amazon Prime subscriber, I love all things Amazon, but this just doesn’t quite get my attention.  Kodi, and other open source systems promise to enable you to build your own, with their TV style interfaces, using a Raspberry Pi, or even a PC.  Again not bad, but this is probably one of the few areas I do not want to do it myself on.

 

The biggest issue with most of these devices is a lack of standards.  Developers have to choose what platforms to write apps for, and consumers may end up with several interfaces.  It really comes down to use case, and what apps do you anticipate using over the long term.  It will be interesting to see how many of these devices become a part of televisions, how many become a centralized device that streams to all screens in the house, and whether the television survives a generation more and more inclined to watch on phones, tablets, and computers.

Cutting the cord for fun and profit: Smart TV’s and Streaming Devices