Friday, December 20, 2019

Alexa still not an entry level hub replacement

I was writing up a response to someone about IFTTT and Alexa / Wireless Tag integration which will probably but useful later so I'm saving it here as it reflects on Alexa's poor support for sensors. Note Alexa's home automation interface is still better than Google's almost non existent one. (See compare below.)

Why go through IFTTT when you can integrate Wireless Tags direct with Kumo? As in as in my fridge / freezer monitoring setup which updates values as they change in my Homeseer instance which then can trigger any action Homeseer can perform. Which is just about anything. Plus IFTTT was become very unreliable this year.

Alexa Wireless Tag integration sort of works. I can ask the temperature of a sensor for example, "Alexa, what is the temperature of the freezer" and it tells me the reading from my regular sensor in the freezer. Though oddly in the device list I only see motion values for the regular tags and what appears to be temperature for the soil moisture tags. (Not all my soil moisture tags are dead.) Again oddly you can't use the sensor values in routines. Though finding anything in the Alexa device list is almost impossible since it is designed for people the just have a few things. Even stranger:

  • You can sort the device list in the web interface but not the android one. 
  • The web interface does not let you do anything with the devices on the list other than forget the device.
  • Routine management is missing from the web interface.
  • The android list interface does have some groups to narrow down the list but way to few. For example, the only way to see a list of the 12 of my 348 devices Alexa sees as "sensors" is to try to create a routine with one. 
  • My Homeseer sees 3137 "devices" as I write this. (Note a "device" is data stream or parent. As in a Hue Sensor would be seen as 5 "devices". A parent and 4 sensors, light level, temperature, motion and battery level.) Alexa only sees 348 of those (note some of the 348 are Alexa devices not in the Homeseer count) and only 12 of those as sensors from SmartThings, Wyze, Ring and Hue so far. Even then for example the Hue sensors report motion, temp and light gut Alexa only sees motion info.


When you have 348 devices (that Alexa sees) like I do, it is almost useless. Amazon REALLY needs to improve their interface so it can scale if they want people to use their routine framework for any logic. So while it would be nice to have Wireless Tags usable as sensors in Alexa to, for instance, announce the fridge is too warm, I do not really see it as big deal till Amazon makes their configuration interface more usable.

To be fair when Alexa is compared to Google's Home:

Cons:


  • Google does not even have a web interface so everything must be done via phone or tablet.
  • Often skills like Harmony where with Alexa you would say "Alexa, turn on Netflix". With Google that worked then it went to you had to say "Hey Google, Ask Harmony to turn on Netflix." and then often tells me it did not recognize me and would not do it. Now it seems to be back to just "turn on" BUT for instance when I say "turn on Hero" (my PC's name) to Alexa is just works. I say "turn on Hero" to Google it starts playing something from Pandora.
  • It appears too that at some point Google Home lost some of the account links I had setup.


  • Lately the Googles (I have a Home and 3 minis) seem to say try again in a few seconds a lot.
  • To discover new devices you say "Alexa, discover devices." You say this to Google and it finds phones and asks if you want to ring them. Ask "how do I get you to discover devices", you get "I don't understand" and "I found a related how to get Alexa to discover devices"! It is also easy to do from the Alexa app with a swipe down. Instructions I found online say Google's Home should do that too but it appears to do nothing for me.
  • Google appears to allow one Harmony hub to be connected while Alexa allows many. (I have 5 currently)
  • Adding skills to Home is an egg hunt compared to Alexa. I just tried to add the Wyze skill for example and I had to search on line to even figure it out. Then while trying to link the account it just exited half way through me entering my login info.
  • WyzeAlexa sees all the cams, motion and contact sensors I have. Google sees on the cameras and contact sensors.
  • Google routines still appear to be voice command triggered only while Alexa's allow triggering using voice, time, some sensors (see above), location, alarms, echo button presses and "Guard state".

Pros:

  • The devices list in Google does seem to use the room from Homeseer. However I had to add each Wyze and Wireless Tag device to a room during the setup process manually. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

How to get actual help in tech groups

Another attempt at Answer to "I'm new what camera / automation should I get?"

I'm seeing multiple posts a day with people asking vague questions like:

  • What is the best security camera?
  • What is the best hub?
  • What is the best security or camera system?

Most of the responses are not any better. Lots of I use this and love it or I tried this and hated it.  With a vague question there can be not good reply other than asking for details. You do not see people asking what is the best vehicle or the best entertainments system? Ok maybe the second one from time to time but the reason you do not see people asking the vague question of what is the best vehicle is they have seem to get what you plan to do with it matters. A bike might work for some and odds are most will end up with some sort of car or SUV but there are many factors to take into account like:

  • distance you plan to drive 
  • number of passengers you may need to haul
  • other stuff you may haul or tow
  • any special needs equipment
  • your driving habits as in want good pickup or braking
  • how well the seating accommodates you and or your passengers
  • safety factors like armor or crash handling

Or in the case of the entertainment system a smallish 720p smart TV with a Netflix app maybe all one person wants while another  may want to have a large 4K TV linked to a PC or Roku with a cable like subscription to see the show they may want plus a DVD player or Plex setup for stuff that can not be streamed. Then there is surround sound, voice search and such which some would assume to be include while others deem them frivolious.

In short you need some basic specs before you can talk brands and models.

For example if you are looking to add one or more security cameras, are you looking looking to just get notified or want actionable footage. I have multiple posts on just figuring out the specs you need for a camera. Starting with "What is the best camera for X?"

A home automation hub like an entertainment or security system is even more subjective with virtually infinite options to work with. It should be obvious that any package "system" will be a starting point at best and only makes sense is it is cheaper than getting the parts you want and can use later separately. The blog where this post is located, Adventures in Home Automation, chronicles stuff I've tried to solve the problems I want to solve.  These posts might give you ideas of what you can do to solve yours. Note however this blog only goes back to 2016 after I'd already moved to Homeseer so most of the posts involve it. I started with X10 stuff back in the early 1980s adding TimeCommander Plus in the late 1990s then Insteon devices up till 2014 when keeping it all going outweighed the time savings of having it. Though I did not remove the last of it till 2016. Between 2014 when I bought my first modern home automation hub via the SmartThings Kickstarter, and moving to Homeseer I also tried 4 models of Vera hubs and 2 Lowes Iris hubs. The point being I went through a lot of them before finding that worked for me. One of the reasons I went to Homeseer was than I have 3 buildings to cover. My home, shop and barn which need their own network of devices since Z-Wave and Zigbee do not do well over distances. Note I see people claiming they can use them between buildings and even over 100 feet line of sight but I've never seen anything like that myself. I would be VERY sceptical of such claims. Going with Homeseer let me have one interface for the networks in all the buildings. Plus it is made to handle a large number devices unlike many of the popular hubs that are controlled and configured mainly via a phone app. I generally do not suggest it as a first home automation hub though because it is aimed at the market between the basic DIY hubs like Vera and SmartThings and the pro install system like Crestron and Control4. As such it tends to cost more and be a bit harder to setup than the basic DIY hubs. Though some things are actually easier to do in Homeseer than Vera or SmartThings and some things others do better. For instance Home Assistant has a plug in to talk directly to a Wyze sense hub that has me thinking of linking a Home Assistant instance to my Homeseer. Another thing to keep in mind it each hub has its way of doing things. Somethings that are point and click with one require programming with another.

So when it comes to choosing a home automation hub ask yourself:

  • Am I looking to do automation or just remote control? Automation is where things happen on their own like walking into a room and the lights come on versus you saying a command or pushing a button. You will often see both called automation and gateways like Hue and Harmony called hubs. There are even grey areas like Echo Plus which has a Zigbee interface and limited automation functionality.
  • What do you want to control and monitor? Make a spreadsheet of the hubs you are looking at and the things you want to do and fill in the cells with if it will do it and how. But do your research. "Works with" can mean anything from you plug the device in and the hub sees it to you need to build and configure a gateway system to make it work. There will be compromises not matter what you go with. For example this is my sheet of the things I've tried.
  • What skills do you have or want to have? Odds are you are going to have to learn something. Look at some examples to see what it takes to do the things with each. If programming it involved, how easy is it to learn to do. Is there a good community of supporters that can help you if you need it?
  • The whole cloud versus local debate. Avoiding the cloud is best but sometimes it is the only way or so much easier that you are willing to take the risk, at least for now.
  • Track record of company. We are just starting the shake out of companies. Look at their history and customer base.
  • How easy is it to move to another? Probably more of a device thing than hub since there really is no way to move from one brand hub to another yet. Often not even between models of a brand in some cases (SmartThings V1 to V2 for example). Buying devices supported by multiple hubs is always your best bet as is doing things like using a Hue gateway instead of pairing devices directly to the hub. Then if you need to change or replace a hub you can do so much easier.
Lastly remember most of the people posting in groups have only tried one or two things so they really can not compare much and most of the replies will be love X and hate Y.  You will need to gather, filter and weigh it all into something usable. Also I would discount anyone saying they have never had a problem. Everything has problems. Especially out on the bleeding edge where a lot of automation is. There are things you can do like avoiding the Internet / cloud services to make things more reliable but even totally local will occasionally go down.  Like the guy claiming his WiFi goes 300 feet to his security camera you have to wonder what his frame rate is and how many are getting dropped. Odds are he rarely looks at that camera and just does not notice how much it is missing. Till one day he needs the footage of course but then it will be too late. This analogy an installer told me sums it up perfectly. "I have to explain to my clients that if you have only ever ridden a horse and someone gives you a small compact car, you are gonna think it's awesome purely because you don't know you can get a Range Rover or a Truck for the same money."