Home Automation Setup at the Condo: Part 3 – Bringing it all Together

So in Part 1 and Part 2 

I covered

  • Setting up Hue and some of the cool automations we’ve got running with remotes and motion detectors
  • Working with other applications such as Logitech Harmony to control the lights, adding an August lock and triggering automations such as turning on the lights when the door is unlocked or turning them off when the door is locked.

Since then we greatly expanded the system bringing it all together.  If you have the products on their own –

  • Harmony talks to Hue and August
  • Hue talks to Nest
  • Nest talks to Hue
  • August talks to Nest, but since we don’t use Nest Cams and Thermostats, there isn’t much on offer here.

You can use tools like IFTTT and HomeKit to bring some automation to all of this.  For example, IFTTT can setup rules, such as if I unlock the door, turn certain lights on.  IFTTT can take a few seconds to take action since you have a round trip to some company’s servers to then trigger IFTTT to then take action on someone else’s servers.  It’s alright, but you know at some point, support for products is going to go away.  That’s the unfortunately nature of our throw away society.

Enter the home hub –

HomeKit, since we have a fourth generation Apple TV will act as the hub for Hue and August but with varying degrees of  success both in-house and remotely.  The grouping functionality and automation is not great.

We looked at two options – the Wink Home Hub and Samsung’s SmartThings.  SmartThings is pretty cool, and quite expandable.  It’s definitely the geekier of the two.  For example, August locks are not supported.  Well, they are if you sort of hack it with Yonomi or IFTTT, but I want to be off the cloud solution as much as possible.

Also SmartThings doesn’t support the products that we had already purchased and in all honesty, doesn’t support a lot of products – unless you program it.  So in many respects, if you know you want a home hub, check the home hubs out prior to buying the add on devices.

As far as I can tell, there isn’t a perfect home hub.  For example, if you’re looking at add motorized shades in your home, Wink covers all the major brands except Hunter Douglas. SmartThings supports Hunter Douglas with some programming.

Wink Home Hub

We added a Wink Home Hub to bring everything together, otherwise you’re using different apps in different rooms.with varying degrees of success.

  • Wink allowed us to add a connected fan and light in our bedroom – This is actually available in Canada at the Home Depot in Etobicoke on Queensway, it’s just not on Home Depot Canada’s website.
  • We have three sets of lights that we are not planning on switching to connected bulbs – our dining room and three sets of lights in our kitchen – over our peninsula, the LED potlights and the LED strip under our cabinets.  We can actually use Lutron Connected Dimmers to provide some control there through the switch directly, a Pico remote and through the Wink App – No Lutron hub required.
  • At a later date, if we wanted to add Lutron shades, support is already there!
  • We could add power plugs that also connect to the WInk, which we did – We added two iHome iSP6X plugs to control two lights we actually never use.  Sadly despite advertising their support for Wink, they are not currently supported by Wink – Who states they are working on adding support.
  • The Wink hub will allow us control Hue and August as well, naturally.
  • We can add Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa if we wanted, sadly no support for HomeKit or Siri.

Voice Assistant

Between HomeKit, Google Home, Alexa, IFTTT and home hubs like Wink, there’s a mish mash of ways to connect to your devices.  Some technology works well, some technology still needs to mature.

HomeKit

Apple HomeKit, to me, still needs to mature as does Siri.  I have no doubt that Apple is trying to perfect Siri with their HomePod which is projected to be available in Q3 2017.  A fourth generation Apple TV is required which acts as the gateway between the internet, HomeKit and all of your devices.

HomeKit has the typical accessories available for it – switches, lightbulbs, thermostats, cameras,  entertainment centre remote controls, locks, sensors for motion, temperature and humidity.  It covers the basics – If you want to use Siri from your iPhone or iPad.

For some reason I’ve always found Siri a bit challenging to use voice-wise though that is more for dictation purposes.  As a result, I admit, I am not confident in Siri’s ability.  Also you can’t seem to add skills, which is pretty lame.  And you know Apple is going to be more of a closed system.

Google Home

I have an Android phone lying about that I got free when I switched carriers at work, so I’ve played a bit with Android Assistant with IFTTT.   I found Google Assistant’s voice recognition to be considerably better than Siri and quicker responding, I think.

That said, given we’re more of an Apple household, I’m not going to switch to Google mobile phones just to get Assistant.

The question is, do we get a Google Home?  Sure, that would work and works with iOS, but relatively speaking, at CAD$179/USD$129 it is a bit expensive if you’re wanting to put one in every room.  But that said, I liked features such as asking Google Assistant about my day, and she’s kind of sassy.

Amazon Echo

Enter Amazon Echo – Amazon Echo, having been around for two years, has a considerable number of skills – over 16,000 to Google Home’s less than 500.  Skills are, essentially, plug-ins you can add to add functionality to your Amazon Echo.

An Echo setup can be quite cheap too – US$49 for an Echo Dot and you can get a three pack for US$20 off the regular price.  Not bad and the speaker on the device sounds good, and supports Bluetooth out of the box.

That said, you know Google is opening up with their Google Assistant API being made available for third parties to add more capabilities.

However an interesting thing is, you can add Google Assistant to Amazon Echo and it works well!  You don’t get the hardware integration, but that’s fine – That’s what Alexa is for.

The drawback with Amazon Echo is that it does not support Canada for things like asking about the weather.  You have to either be very specific “Alexa, how is the weather in Toronto?” or use the Google Assistant integration.  There is a good site on “Making the Amazon Echo work in Canada” which involves either using the US app store to download the Alexa app for iOS, or side loading an APK for Android.

So needless to say, we went with Amazon Echo with Google Assistant integration.  It’s worked well in our condo with an Echo speaker in the bathroom and dots throughout the condo.

Hardware-wise, Alexa works with EVERYTHING and I mean EVERYTHING. Actually, the only thing she doesn’t do is turn the guest bedroom fan to Thermonuclear (yes, I have a shortcut in Wink for that) because the Wink/Alexa integration doesn’t support fans yet.  Pretty much everything else, I can control.

IFTTT

For everything else that is not mission critical, I am happy to use IFTTT, such as

  • I can ask Alexa to
    • trigger self destruct and the living room lights will flash
    • start the party and it puts the lights in a colour loop
  • When playing music through Amazon Prime Music, I can track a all the songs that are played.
  • If the temperature goes above 25C it turns on the master bedroom fan, and below 25C, the fan is turned off.
  • Remember that Thermonuclear Winter command I wanted?  IFTTT can trigger fan shortcuts from Wink.  It turns the fan on to maximum and turns off the light.
  • When I weigh myself on my FitBit Aria scale, it blinks the lights in the bathroom to say the weight registered with their server.
  • I could use IFTTT to turn on the light when I come through the door, or turn off the lights in the front hall when the door is locked; but I now leave that to Wink.

What about security?

The good thing is, the only device that can unlock my front door is my Harmony remote (through my iPhone or the remote), Siri through HomeKit, or the August app.

  • Alexa and Google Home do not unlock doors, but will lock doors.
  • IFTTT will take action on lock or unlock, but will not unlock doors either.
  • Wink will not allow an unlock action, only lock

As for the rest – someone changing my lights, turning on my fan, etc… I am not that worried about.  Sure, it would be a pain to be woken up in the middle of the night due to someone hacking the lights.  Specifically, Philips, I know takes security seriously, so I am not that concerned.

What about your WiFi speeds?  You have to have a lot of data flying around

We did actually have slow speeds on our network, but not because of all the hubs and such – which all wire into one of my WiFI extenders – but due to the distance, the way WiFi extenders work, the lack of WiFi channels available in the condo and the fact that Apple WiFi routers don’t automatically change channels.

So we decided to upgrade to a mesh system that provides considerably better coverage, speed, constantly monitors for busy channels and automatically updates accordingly.   The changes have been pretty amazing.  It then also speeds up the effects of IFTTT and external triggers.

Home Automation Setup at the Condo: Part 2

So we setup our lighting system with switches and motion sensors, what can we do to kick it up to the next level?

Logitech Harmony

Scott and I use Logitech Harmony remotes for our home entertainment system.  So it made sense to upgrade to a Logitech Harmony Elite, which, by the way, is way cheaper to purchase in the United States (US$299) after exchange versus Canada (CAD$499!).

With the Elite you can

  • obviously control all your entertainment devices
  • you can control all the lights in your home, if you wanted
  • you can tell the system to select a particular scene when you select an activity, such as automatically dim the lights when you select “Play Movie”
  • it can connect to your Nest Protect alarms and provide you with details as to the status of each of your smoke/CO2 detectors
  • you can also control smart plugs, and even control the thermostat if you wanted
  • you can use the included remote or use your mobile device – phone or tablet, as a remote

So quite a neat system for home automation

 

August SmartLock

I always said we would never do this, but we are considering getting an August Smartlock for the system.  Why?  Geofencing is cool.  When you arrive at home, the doors automatically unlock, when you leave they lock.  Hands free!

On top of that, if we forget to lock the door, we can do it remotely; AND we can do it from our couch!  Okay, that last bit may be laziness, but Scott and I both check and make sure the door is locked.

But wait, there’s more

  • Lock the door from the Harmony remote… Check
  • Turn on of lights when you unlock the door… Check
  • Turn off lights when you lock the door… Check
  • Unlock the doors automatically if there’s a fire or CO2 emergency… Not quite, through IFTTT, yet, but know it could be done, possibly with a Wink Hub 2 and a shortcut.

Ring Door Bell

We wouldn’t really need a doorbell, but hey, I admit, I don’t like answering the door if I’m not expecting someone, so why not add a doorbell with a video camera?

Not only does it track motion, it can also track when rings happen, log to a Google Spreadsheet, flash the lights (useful for those hearing impaired), among other things.

It can also do things like, mute the music if there’s a ring at the door.

Kind of cool, eh?

Home Automation Setup at the Condo: Part 1

When Scott and I first moved into our condo a few years ago, we decided to install two Philips Hue bulbs in our living room to give them a try.  Until now, we really had not done much with the bulbs.  Turn them on, voila instant light as one would expect.

Being able to change the colour seemed like a cool feature, but not something that we used.  It was a novelty.   I also didn’t really understand why I would keep the switch on and control from my smart phone.  I just saw these as regular bulbs that happened to show different colours.

We bought two more and put them in my studio/man cave.  Even there, we didn’t really use the bulbs to their fullest capacity.  More to add ambience as the space looks out onto the balcony with a floor to ceiling window.

Enter my friend M Dave in Amsterdam, who I visited a few weeks ago.  Dave has an amazing Hue setup that really showed me how powerful the system is and what is possible.  I was introduced to the ‘the power’ of the Hue Motion detector – my killer app!

The Bathroom

The first bit of inspiration he gave me was the bathroom and toilet.  See, Scott and I can sometimes forget to turn off the lights in our bathroom.  This probably happens to EVERYONE.

In our bathroom, we have two sets of lights

  • Pot lights which we added when we renovated – one in the shower area, one where the toilet and sink area
  • A halogen light directly above the sink which came with the condo

At this point we have only added Hue bulbs to the pot lights.  We would have to completely change out the lighting fixture above the sink to something else if we really wanted to put Hue bulbs there.

With the motion detector, not only does it control when the lights go on, it controls how long the light stay on, the type of light you want at the appropriate time of day.  Pretty spiffy if you

  • need a bright light when waking up, such as something in daylight spectrum and throughout the day
  • want a darker light at night to help with getting to sleep, definitely something out of daylight spectrum

It also controls whether or not the light activates based on the amount of day light, prior to or after sundown, and based on the amount of movement in the room.

We placed it on a ledge where the sync is, perfectly out of the way pointed directly at the shower.  Since it’s behind the door, movement from the hall does not trigger the light.

There is even a Hue Labs version of the motion detector software, that allows to control a third time set of lighting, so you can have bright daylight in the morning, a more relaxed light through the afternoon and darker light in the evening.

So anyone can have a relaxing shower in any colour they wish.  Maybe a bit overkill for a bathroom, but it’s cool.

This then spawned off another idea for me

The Laundry Room

Scott and I have a Laundry Room in our condo where the light often gets left on as well.  Also, if you’re carrying a bin of clothes, why not make it easier and use motion control to turn on that light?

So, we did.  I had an fifth Hue bulb that I was doing nothing with that I had found while cleaning up my man cave, which was an older first-generation bulb.

It’s clear that when you buy into such a system, that you really should plan out the type of bulbs that you want in the space such as a white-only bulb, or one that does multicolour.  Given it’s an older bulb, it doesn’t do certain colours well, most notably blues and green; so its an okay bulb to put in the space.  Ideally, I would have saved money using a while only bulb.  But hey, we can do laundry in purple light!

Supplied with the motion detector is a magnetic base.  The sensor connects to it magnetically, so you can angle the sensor as you like, and from there you can place the sensor on a magnetic surface.  All of the shelving in our laundry room is metal and I could place the sensor pretty much anywhere.  I have the sensor pointing perpendicularly at the doorway.  Given the layout of our unit, movement from the hallway is not captured by the sensor.

That said, Shadow, our cat triggers the light at night, so we had to make sure we programmed the light to nightlight, from 11pm to 8am.

I had one other idea for this setup

The Man cave/Studio

The studio and man cave, I admit, I don’t spend a lot of time in.  It’s a small space which often becomes a storage area for things when we have guests over, or at holiday times and such.  As much as I clean it up, it very quickly gets filled up with crap.  Not ideal for a space that’s really meant to be where I am being creative or chilling, listening to music or playing games.

Often, I’ll pop in to get something, and then pop out and sometimes forgetting to turn off the lights with the intention to go back and do something.  So, again, an easy fix with the motion detector.  Again, it’s posted perpendicular to the door, low down and done in such a way that walking by the door does not trigger the sensor, turning on the lights.  I also have the daylight sensitivity turned up so that it adjusts nicely to daylight savings and standard time.

I also decided to add the remote dimmer so that I can easily control up to four scenes and dimming.  It’s probably more than what I need – I always have my phone on me, but I figured I’d give it a try, and I can repurpose it elsewhere if needed.

The cool thing about the dimmer switch is that

  • you can mount it in several different ways.  Magnetically to a metal surface, stick it to something or you can even screw it into a wall if you wanted
  • you can use it as a remote control off where you mount it, so I could carry it with me if I wanted

I’ve mounted it magnetically under one of my studio monitors.

Which brings me to…

The Bedroom Closet

This is the one place where I don’t have a lightbulb that can reproduce the rainbow.  Sorry. LOL!

If there is one other room light that constantly gets kept on, it’s our walk-in closet.  It irks the heck out of me when this light gets left on.

A room like this doesn’t need a colourful bulb, so I picked up a bulb that only does white light.  Now, in the Hue system, you have two kinds of white bulbs – One that only dims or one that has a wide spectrum of white.  I chose to go for the wide spectrum of white.  You can get this with a dimmer switch, saving a few bucks on the combined package.  I am using the dimmer switch else where.

So what do you do early in the morning when your husband is sleeping and you want to get something from the closet without waking them up?  Set the motion detector to use a dark colour of light – either the nightlight setting or you could actually use a colour bulb and use, say, a dark blue in the third generation bulb (more below on that).

It’s possible we may swap the light in the closet with the laundry room as we experiment.

Of course, I had to extend this to…

The Bedroom

We love IKEA, it’s all over our condo.  We recently picked up new lamps for the bedroom, and if you know IKEA lamps, they all have oddly placed switches.  The dimmer I put in the man cave inspired a neat idea – replace the switch with Hue dimmer switch and add a Hue bulb – one each for Scott and me.  On top of that, we have a third dimmer switch which is at the entrance to the bedroom.

Hue is a bit quirky in that you can’t link the accessories to a single light bulb.  It has to be a room.  However, an accessory can be assigned to multiple rooms.

So, Scott’s lamp is one room; my lamp is another, the individual switches control the single room; the one at the entrance turns on both rooms.

Which takes us to…

The Foyer

In the foyer, we have two beautiful pieces of art called “Timber 1” and “Timber 2” by Tim Yanke.  We also have the perfect light fixture for the space – A three GU10 ceiling mounted light fixture from IKEA.  We actually had the lights prior to the artwork being in the space.

I had been looking at the geofencing capabilities given the significant upgrades made to our space, does it make sense to use that feature?  Not until we really took a look at the foyer.

Why not get three GU10 bulbs and a motion detector, so that when people walk into the space to put on shoes or their jacket, that the light comes on automatically.  It also makes the geofencing functionality usable.  If we had friends in the living room, it doesn’t make sense to geofence to those lights because you’re interrupting people that may have set a particular program.

When Scott or I arrive home, whenever we get to the drive way of the condo building, the lights in our hallway automatically turn on.  When we walk in, it then resets the lights to the motion sensor programming depending on the time of day.

Which then takes us to…

The Living Room

The Living room has

  • a halogen ceiling light that’s from the 90s. It’s a really neat lamp that works for the space,
  • two taller lamps – one with a reading light,
  • a curio cabinet with LED lighting that I installed from IKEA which is okay,
  • the dining room has a five-bulb halogen ceiling light,
  • the open concept kitchen has a six-bulb halogen ceiling light

There isn’t much we can do with the halogen lights in the dining room and the kitchen, really. When we renovated the space, we spent good money on these lights and we really like them, so we are not going to change them.  Fair enough.

As I mentioned earlier, I had Hue bulbs in the living room but they were first generation bulbs. I actually moved those bulbs to the bedroom and swapped them for two third generation bulbs which produce deeper blues and greens.  They’re gorgeous bulbs.

On a whim, I decided to add a Hue Go lamp.  I liked the idea that the bulb could be recharged and used in other spaces such as our balcony.

Behind our television is a mirrored wall.  It was there when we moved in and it’s a neat element to add depth and the perception of room in the living room.  We chose not to take it down when we moved in.

I put the Hue Go behind our television just to give it a try.  Wow, the way it adds to the lighting of the space is interesting.  The light reflects off the mirror and the ceiling and adds some depth to the lighting in the room.  Scott really liked it.

So, thinking a bit further, rather than putting a light that’s meant to be moved around, behind the TV, let’s move that bulb out somewhere – we’re still figuring out where; and replace it with a Hue Bloom.  Which we did.

The Hue Bloom is created somewhat older technology so you really notice a red/green/blue shift in the light depending on the colour.  It will do.  The Hue Go, however, is fantastic and given the $20 price difference – you really could go with either.

When using scenes, the room pops.  When using apps such as Hue Camera it makes the television experience that much more interesting.  Watching Tron Legacy, it really adds to an immersive movie experience.

For the living room, we have a Hue Tap Switch.  Scott had mentioned it would be neat to have a remote control for the light beyond our phones.  I’m not 100% sure how useful the Tap Switch is.  At a high level, it combines four switches into one and it uses no batteries.  It’s powered based on the push of the button.  Kind of neat, that way.  That’s the only switch we really have in the living room.

So, what can you do with the lights?

Pretty much anything… Well, almost anything.

As I mentioned in the front hall, the lights are aimed towards artwork and to provide light to those putting on shoes.  If I wanted to, I could add a splash of colour.  In hot pink light, the orange and reds in our art really pops.

In the living room, it’s all about mood.

As I said in the Man cave, it’s all about ambience.

The showcase is really the Living Room.  Take a movie like Tron which, in the “Grid” scenes have almost a monochromatic blue hue with the occasional orange for the Recognizers.  It’s the perfect movie to experiment with Hue Camera (https://itunes.apple.com/ca/app/hue-camera-for-philips-hue/id965037211?mt=8).

To me, it adds to the immersive environment of the movie.  Completely perfect.  I’d love to try watching the original Tron as well as Bladerunner.  As for watching other kinds of films, we’ll have to see how it works out and report back.

So, what next? 

Kitchen?

Scott and I might have our sights set on upgrading the kitchen lights.  They’re already LED both pot lights and strip lighting under the counter.

In all honesty, I think going with Hue lighting would be overkill.  We don’t need a kitchen that’s got multi coloured lighting and it would be excessive.  BUT you know, it would be cool to be able to control the lights in there.  So, who knows, it’s not a priority.  We have all the wiring to do this.

Bedroom, Part Two?

The bedroom and the guest bedroom both have a ceiling fan with a light, with a smaller bulb in it.  Is there much value in having Hue bulbs in these?  In the guest room, I could see it, offering our guest a remote to turn off the lamp.  In the bedroom?  I could see changing the bulb.

The problem is finding the right size of bulb.  Do I try a PAR16 bulb?  An E14 from Europe won’t work and it’s not the right size of connector anyway.

Curio Cabinet?

My first experiment with Hue Light Strips will probably be our curio cabinet.  The lighting provided from IKEA, while quite cool, doesn’t provide the quality of light that I would like in the space.  So, this will probably be my first experiment.

Living Room, Part 3?

The halogen space ship, as we call it, the living room works nicely, but it would be nice to not use a halogen bulb.  I think the only option would be the Hue Discus or Fair White Ambiance Semi-Flushmount.

There is the Phoenix too, but it doesn’t seem like the right fixture for our space.

Hallway?

We have two Nest Protects in our condo. One in the living room and the other in the hallway.  These provide a night light based on motion.  They’re perfect for that need.

We still have a fixture with 5 or 6 GU10 bulbs that are halogen based.  Do we put Hue bulbs in those?  Do we go colour or white?  Do we spread some of the colour bulbs and white bulbs across the living room and foyer?  What is the value of doing the hallway as well?  Do we do motion detection too or more basic control?

Generation of Bulbs?

Yes, there are three generations of some of the bulbs.  Specifically, for the colour bulbs aka “White and Colour Ambience” A19 bulbs, here are some details:

  • Gen 1 bulbs with model LCT001, they can’t reproduce certainly blues and greens, so they look a bit more white.
  • Gen 2 bulbs with model LCT007 are similar to the LCT001 bulbs, to my eyes.
  • Gen 3 bulbs such as the LCT014 bulbs, can reproduce deep blues and greens.  They’re packaged as “Richer Colours” and they truly are the bulbs you want, these days.

Final Thoughts

Changing out your halogen, incandescent and fluorescent bulbs, I’d say is worth it.  The power savings that LED lights give you – enough said.

Taking that to the next level with motion detectors, I think, makes sense.  I can’t imagine how much money our parents and grandparents wasted with lights left on, and with electricity prices as expensive as they are in Ontario, it simply makes sense to change your bulbs.

Scott and I live in a condo and we don’t pay for our electricity directly.  The building is on a bulk billing system and it’s included in our condo fees.  Still, why would we not contribute to try and reduce our hydro costs?

That said, a system like Hue can be expensive.  A single colour GU10 bulb is CAD$49.99, and in the US it’s USD$49.99.  Americans, if you want a deal, buy your bulbs in Canada (USD$37.80 at today’s exchange rate!).  That $49.99 is pretty standard across the board for the colour bulbs.

The white-only bulbs that only dim with the same colour temperature are CAD$14.99.  If you want bulb that does any colour of white, those are CAD$29.99.  Add CAD$20 for a box that includes a dimmer, which, alone, is regularly CAD$24.99.  Not a bad deal.

So my advice is to truly plan out where you truly want colour and where you really need white bulbs.  You don’t need colour bulbs everywhere – We certainly don’t in, say, the bedroom.

Three weeks in New York…

I’ve spent the past three weeks in New York City.  Does this count as trips 6, 7 and 8, or is it 1 trip despite flying back and forth to Toronto?  I like big numbers, so trips 6, 7 and 8 it is.

My trips to New York have always been in Autumn or Winter.  Never the summer, so it’s kind of a treat to be here in really good weather and people have said that I’m here during the perfect season.

I had an interesting reaction to starting on this new project in New York.  First was excitement, and then it progressed to, ugh, New York.

Now that I’ve spent three weeks here, I can definitely say I’m excited to be here, on several levels, much I’ve learned while here:

  • I love the diversity of this place.  No where else in the US can you hear as many languages spoken as I hear in Toronto.
  • The distinct areas of the city Soho, TriBeCa, Downtown, Midtown, Times Square, Hell’s Kitchen, Chelsea, Uptown, Harlem, Nomad, Brooklyn – And the parts I’ve not explored; bring such character to the city.
  • The food choices are overwhelming – which is a blessing and a curse to me.  If I find the right restaurant that’s compatible with my diet, I can be happy just eating at the same place.  Sounds boring eh?  But hey, BBQ!
  • I think I learned the most about New Yorkers at the 9/11 Museum and while looking out daily from 4 World Trade Centre reflecting on the rebuilding of the World Trade Centre where work daily.  Their resilience, how much the community comes together in times of need and how people do actually look out for each other.
  • People are proud of this city, no matter the gleaming towers, the grime on the streets, the flashing lights, the history.
  • In the days of right wing power, it’s great seeing New York and New York State being representative of the sanctuary city that it is – All kinds of posters in the subways, on the streets, showing the hope that exists for new people trying to make their way in this metropolis.
  • I love taking the subway to work every day,  Yes, I’m the guy that forced one of my coworkers to take the subway one day, and she said, “Never again!” Alright princess, have your taxi.
  • I love being able to walk all over this city, completely breaking my minimum step requirements on various apps.  Sweet!  And I’m getting a lot more exercise in than I would be if I were in Toronto, just going between the office and home.  I am also completely shattering how much walking I did in Portland.  New York is a very walkable city with lots to see.

In my past trips, I’ve had glimpses of what makes this city tick, but it’s always been a bit superficial because I’ve never spent a long enough time here.

NYC is more magical than I thought it could be.  I can see why people are attracted to this city.

On a personal note, I’ve been able to get way more down time than I’ve had in the past three years.  It’s been good to be offloaded and to start feeling more myself again, the real me who is considerably more funny and uplifting than I have been for a while.  A lot of energy seems to have come back too, which is a very good thing.

New York International Auto Show Thoughts

I’m on a new project through work and it’s brought me to New York City for the next two weeks.  It also happens to co-inside with the New York International Auto Show.  Since I missed the Toronto International Auto Show, I figured I’d spend some time there.

Yes I got my car geekery on, in New York City.  Ironic, given I would never even attempt to drive in this city,  If I lived here, I’d have no need for a car.

I digress.

Let’s start with companies that impressed me.

Genesis – My Aunt and Uncle had a Hyundai Stellar and friends of mine had a Hyundai Pony.  They weren’t bad cars, and I remember the Stellar fondly.  I’ve driven many a Hyundai in my time and more recently, I’ve had mixed feelings about them.  I have also driven a number of Kias with mixed feelings too – Some fantastic, others where I’m not feeling the road at all.

The interior of the Genesis shows just how far Hyundai and Kia have come.  In short, the Genesis feels more like a BMW killer than Infinity or Acura ever have.  Yeah, you can joke about Hyundai’s start in North America.  You have to start somewhere.  You can see the efforts of hiring German design gurus has had on Kia and Genesis.

Toyota – The look of the Camry and the Avalon blew me away.  Gone is the stuffy looking design, and in it’s place is a nicely appropriately aggressive look.  Hat’s off Toyota, you haven’t gone so ridiculous on styling, that I’d consider both of these cars in the future

MINI’s Countryman Plug-In Hybrid – My dealer will often skimp on loading up demo cars with the greatest and newest technology. I’m often left wondering, if I order another MINI and it’s a Countryman, how will the interior look?  The interior, and especially the technology inside has to impress me on a car.  MINI went all out on their Countryman Plug-In Hybrid, and I’m more than happy to say that, essentially, we could get the interior to mostly match our 5-Door MINI Hardtop – save for the upgrades that the Countryman comes with.

The newly upgraded MINI Connected infotainment system is very nice too, and I very much liked the design of the interface.  So there we have it – the Plug-In Countryman remains on our list.

Honda Civic Coupe – WOW, what a change, sporty… Everything you’d want in a Civic.  I really liked the LCD-based glass dashboard which many manufacturers are moving towards.  It really makes the Civic look futuristic.  Will we be saying that in the future when we look back?  We’ll see.

Ford F-150 – If I were a truck guy, I’d be lusting over a Ford F-150.  Annoyingly to my friends who have them, I’m not a truck guy.  I can, however, acknowledge, rightly so, that Ford is doing it’s best to make the F-150 more economical on gas.  After all, trucks are an important vehicle.  There are people that legitimately need them.    What really impressed me is the off-road monitor that tells you what angles your truck is at.  It’s fun stuff like that, that I like.

Nissan and Kia Ski Gondolas – Tank tracks on an SUV?  Sure!

Lincoln Continental – Hot damn!  Definitely a head turner in that segment.

 

GM Bolt – I don’t know what happened to GM, but again, another fantastic EV!

 

What didn’t impress me

Piano Black Interiors – Toyota a Honda, hear this – Piano Black is not sexy.  Sure looks great when it’s polished and dust free, but when it’s smudged, dusty and dirty, it’s not pretty.  Just don’t.  Stop!

Mercedes putting Smart into a corner – Come on Mercedes, Smart is a fantastic car maker.  Create the demand for them like BMW has with MINI.

Chevy Volt – The Volt is a desirable car for me, I love the concept, I love what GM has done with it – It doesn’t feel or look like a typical GM product.  In short, it’s the only GM product I would even consider.  However, sitting in the back seat – I sit OUT the back seat.  Out because there’s no headroom and with the lift gate open, my head sticks well out the car.  FAIL!

And finally, what I’m still wondering about

BMW – I’ve been focused on German luxury cars for a few months now because, honestly, I would love to own a BMW.  Always have.  It actually doesn’t have anything to do with status.  They’re phenomenal vehicles to drive, they have awesome infotainment systems in them.

There’s something that feels like it’s missing in the 3-series.  Yes, it’s BMW’s starter car, but there’s something that feels almost a bit cheap to warrant the expense in the interior.

Sitting in the X3 and X5, it almost feels like the leather interior hasn’t been cared for, or maybe it’s the plastic interior of the MINI looks so much better, that genuine leather no longer looks right.

And all this after having test driven both an X1 and the new 5-Series a few weeks ago and really liking both.  I guess it comes down to, what are my expectations?  What am I expecting in these cars?  It could be that some of their models are just, outdated…

Audi – I’m not sure what to think of Audi, honestly.  I really like the glass cockpit design, possibly even more so than BMW’s.  I like that Volkswagen Group is expanding that design to other brands, like Volkswagen.  I like the technology.

I’m surprised I fit in the back seat of an A4.  So maybe Audi should be in my impress me list.

Problem is, I was so soured by Audi at the Toronto International Auto Show a few years ago, because they were douchebags that wouldn’t let you sit in any of their cars.  When it comes down to it, they’re just supped up Volkswagens with slightly upscale interiors, but with some fantastic engines and technology.  They’re special, but they’re not that special, unless you’re talking about an R8… Now that is special and drool worthy.

Still, I have mixed feelings about Audi and I think it’s similar to how I feel about BMW, but they’re not outdated…  What am I expecting in these cars?

Volvo – I had a chance to play around with Volvo’s new Sensus infotainment system.  I can see the attempts that Volvo are making to combine safety, a large readable infotainment system that’s not flashy.  Problem is, the UI is not always intuitive.

It certainly is better than the too many buttons on the last of their current generation vehicles.  What were they thinking?  And to think, as a kid, I loved pushing buttons.  Even that younger version of me would have said, too much!

I did like the wood trim in the various vehicles, and generally, I liked the interiors.  Well thought out.

 

So those are my thoughts, from someone who isn’t an auto journalist, just a guy into the look and feel of cars.

 

MINI: I stand corrected!

Today I brought the KUMAKART to the dealership to get it’s summer tires put on and to get a software upgrade for a rattle on cold engine start.  Gotta love that a software update now fixes stuff like that!

That said, I decided to retry the Countryman.  My review was somewhat scathing, for me, and I really wanted to see – was it the car or was it me?

Turns out it was me.  Well, maybe the person who sat in the vehicle before me.  See, the back seats are adjustable.  Super adjustable, and well, I didn’t adjust the seats.  I didn’t think of that because, well, I’ve never been in a car where the back seats are adjustable.

So there you have it – The Countryman IS back on our list for vehicles to consider in the future.

 

MINI, BMW… Choices

While I was in Portland last week, I got an email from American Express – Test drive a BMW and get  $100 Starbucks gift card.

I couldn’t pass up getting $100 to spend at Starbucks.  Seriously.  Test driving a BMW to get it?  Oh pull my arm, please!

Scott and I are not in the market for a new car.  We have at least 2.5 years left on the lease of Stormer the Kumakart, our MINI Cooper.  That said, the MINI, while such a fun and amazing car, is a bit too small for us.  Scott does have some difficulty getting in, and Scott’s mum had ‘fun’ getting in and out of the back. Not the most practical car, but hey, if we had to live with it for a long time, we could.

I do not regret the lease of our MINI in anyway.  I’ve always wanted one, and if we had not got it when we did, we would probably have never had experienced the joy that it actually has brought us while driving.  I still grin when I see it and say, “This is the most ridiculous car I have ever owned”  I jump at the chance to drive it when I can.

If we had the space, I’d buy it and get a second car. – despite it’s flaws – mainly, the size.  I adore that MINI so much, after all, we designed it and ordered it.  It’s OUR car.  I’ve never felt such passion about a car – maybe our first car.

Four vehicles were on our list to test drive today, with six total to sit in:

  • BMW X1
  • BMW 530i
  • MINI Countryman
  • MINI Clubman
  • BMW 3-Series
  • BMW X3

I am going to group together sizes of cars in my comparisson.

BMW X1

The X1 was, I think, the perfect height for an SUV.  It was very nicely appointed and drove smoothly.  It’s what I was expecting in a typical BMW – responsive and could be a lot of fun to drive.  I really liked the HUD – Given we have an HUD in our MINI, I’m a big fan of the technology, and even more so on the BMW line.

The back leg room was okay.  It felt a little cramped, but we may have also had the seats back a bit further than we normally would put them to drive.

BMW X3

We sat in the X3 and didn’t test drive it.  Between the X1 and the X3, the X3 would be prefect for us in terms of back seat room, and it’s not so high up you’re having to really reach up and step up to sit in the vehicle.  The prefect size for an SUV for us, and I know it would be a quality drive.

The X3 is getting a refresh soon, so when the comes out, I look forward to test driving it.

MINI Countryman

The MINI Countryman is built on the same platform as the BMW X1.  We fit in the X1.  We didn’t fit in the Countryman.  A serious let down.

One of the most important tests that we do on any vehicle is sit in the front seat, adjusting the seat for where we would normally sit.  I then go sit in the back seat.

I couldn’t sit in the back seat.  There was no where for my knees. There just wasn’t any room!  I can sit in the back seat of my MINI Cooper 5-Door behind Scott.  I couldn’t sit in the backseat of a Countryman.  What kind of bonkers big MINI is this and based on the X1?

We had every intention of test driving the Countryman to see how it feels relative to the X1.  Sadly, it was a no go from the start.

MINI Clubman

Now, unsurprisingly, if I can sit in the back seat of a MINI Cooper 5-Door, I can definitely sit in the back seat of a MINI Clubman.  I knew this would not be a problem.  Successfully behind Scott as well.  It was a no-brainer, we took this for a drive.

The Clubman is definitely wider than the MINI Cooper 5-Door that we have and, probably appointed nicer with some nice design changes for the interior.

It drives the same way as our Cooper, just slightly bigger.  Not overbearingly so.  It was peppy and fun.

I am concerned that Scott did have some problems with the height of the door opening. He often hits his head getting into the car, and certainly did on the Clubman.

Betty, Scott’s Mum, would have no problem getting into the front of back of the car with big door openings.

We know the brand, we know what we want in the interior, and our friends would appreciate the room in the car.  We love the trunk space.  All taken into consideration, this car is, hands down, on our list to consider.

BMW 3-Series

A BMW 318i was the first car I attempted to drive.  In downtown Toronto on Harbord St, in a manual car I had no idea how to drive.  I was shitting myself at the time.  My uncle was a bit silly to have done that to me, bless his heart.  The next time, we took it to a parking lot.

We sat in a 3-Series just to see how we would fit.  The car was definitely too low down.  I felt like I was lying in it, maybe even more so than in my MINI.  That said, we fit and Scott said it would be acceptable, but would, “Just be okay”.  All in all, the 3-Series is a sport car, hands down and it exudes that.  I know they’re fantastic, I’d probably enjoy driving one just as I enjoy driving my MINI.

Back seat-wise, not too bad either.  BMW did a great job of raising the ceiling for us tall people in the back seat, and not in a noticeable way that Volkswagen has done in either the Golf or the Jetta – I can’t remember.

The 3-Series could be a consideration, though I’d say the 4-Series Gran Coupe would be more apropriate.

BMW 530i xDrive

If heaven were a car, then this must be heaven.  I can’t gush more about the most expensive car I have ever driven in my life.  The car we drove was easily worth between $64,000 and $71,000.

It was so smooth.  The HUD was amazing.  The glass dashboard.  The new gesture controls made me feel like Miranda Priestly telling the car, “No no, I want the volume up.”.

I let my foot off the brake, and I’m used to a car starting to move forward . The car was stopped dead, no rolling forward, no anticipating the light.  Whoa!  It was so smooth in it’s ride.  Switching modes, the pick up was quite something in Sport mode, and Eco Pro mode definitely didn’t feel like Green mode on my MINI.

The new entertainment system with BMW Connected Services – Just a joy to use, as one would expect from BMW.  I’m so glad they’re keeping the iDrive dial along with adding the gesture controls, and touchscreen.

Scott reversing the 5-Series, with the rear camera and obstacle detection system, it brought a degree of confidence in parking such a large vehicle.  Maybe, just maybe, Scott and I can own a large vehicle and be confident, that we wouldn’t hit the back passenger quadrant on a concrete pillar – like we did with both of our Prii.

I can say, hands down, I would buy this car in a heartbeat, and Scott would too.  What a gorgeous ride.  I cannot say I have sat in a more luxurious car, other than the classic Bentley that my cousins rented when they got married.  The level of technology – This is a serious geek car.

In Conclusion

The best words out of Scott’s mouth when sitting in a MINI after the BMW experience: “This looks kind of cheap!”  Oh dear, MINI.  I know you’re definitely a Premium brand.  You truly are, but… yeah there’s a certain degree that the interiors do have a degree of cheapness to them in some of your base models.  But hey, that’s why people upgrade the interiors.  Compared to other companies, alright they’re premium.

Our perceptions were definitely skewed for a brief moment by the sheer beauty of the new 5-Series for sure.

I can only imagine what the 7-Series is like to be driven around in.  Maybe I should leave that for the ride from Munich’s airport to BMW Welt in 2019 or 2020.  Can you say, European Delivery?  Oh yes.

A boy can dream, right?

Christmas 2016 Ornament – Using Arduino

I created a Christmas ornament using an Arduino Uno and an 8×5 NeoPixel Shield.

In short it,

  • Displays one of seven messages randomly
  • Displays a set of bars that animates – Based on this thread
  • Displays a star that moves and cycles colours – Based on this tutorial

The code is, essentially, C and REALLY easy to develop, and the APIs from AdaFruit make this wicked fast to get code up and running quickly.  The language used for Arduino actually is based on Processing, but also accepts C and C++.

The Libraries used are:

  • AdaFruit GFX Library
  • AdaFruit NeoMatrix
  • AdaFruit NeoPixel

Here is the code:

#include <Adafruit_NeoMatrix.h>
#include <Adafruit_NeoPixel.h>
 
// MATRIX DECLARATION:
// Parameter 1 = width of NeoPixel matrix
// Parameter 2 = height of matrix
// Parameter 3 = pin number (most are valid)
// Parameter 4 = matrix layout flags, add together as needed:
// NEO_MATRIX_TOP, NEO_MATRIX_BOTTOM, NEO_MATRIX_LEFT, NEO_MATRIX_RIGHT:
// Position of the FIRST LED in the matrix; pick two, e.g.
// NEO_MATRIX_TOP + NEO_MATRIX_LEFT for the top-left corner.
// NEO_MATRIX_ROWS, NEO_MATRIX_COLUMNS: LEDs are arranged in horizontal
// rows or in vertical columns, respectively; pick one or the other.
// NEO_MATRIX_PROGRESSIVE, NEO_MATRIX_ZIGZAG: all rows/columns proceed
// in the same order, or alternate lines reverse direction; pick one.
// See example below for these values in action.
// Parameter 5 = pixel type flags, add together as needed:
// NEO_KHZ800 800 KHz bitstream (most NeoPixel products w/WS2812 LEDs)
// NEO_KHZ400 400 KHz (classic 'v1' (not v2) FLORA pixels, WS2811 drivers)
// NEO_GRB Pixels are wired for GRB bitstream (most NeoPixel products)
// NEO_RGB Pixels are wired for RGB bitstream (v1 FLORA pixels, not v2)

#define PIN 6
Adafruit_NeoMatrix matrix = Adafruit_NeoMatrix(6, 8, PIN,
 NEO_MATRIX_BOTTOM + NEO_MATRIX_LEFT +
 NEO_MATRIX_COLUMNS + NEO_MATRIX_PROGRESSIVE,
 NEO_GRB + NEO_KHZ800);


// Global Variables
// matrix_x, y used to drive the size of the LED matrix
// text_pass used to change text colours after each pass
// starpos used to position the star when switching to different colours
// starpos_incdec is used to move the star back and forth based on the boundaries of the matrix
// rand_messages is used to randmize the messge that is shown
// text_colours is an array of colours to use for the text, star_rgb used for star color values, star_colour used to drive the actual colour of the star
int matrix_x = matrix.width();
int matrix_y = matrix.height();
int text_pass = 0;
int starpos = 0;
boolean starpos_incdec = 1;
int rand_messages = 0;
unsigned int star_rgb[3] = {255,255,255};
uint16_t star_colour = matrix.Color(star_rgb[0], star_rgb[1], star_rgb[2]);
const uint16_t text_colours[] = {matrix.Color(255, 0, 0), matrix.Color(0, 255, 0), matrix.Color(255, 255, 0),matrix.Color(0, 0, 255), matrix.Color(255, 0, 255), matrix.Color(0, 255, 255), matrix.Color(255, 255, 255)};

 // Merry Christmas Message 
String myMessages[]={"Merry Christmas", "You've been naughty", "Krampus is here", "Ho Ho Ho!", "Happy Holidays","Meet me under the mistletoe", "Home for the Holidays"}; 
int myMessagesSizes[]={-98,-120,-98,-80,-95,-170,-140};
// Code
void setup() 
{
 Serial.begin(9600);
 matrix.begin();
 matrix.setTextWrap(false);
 matrix.setBrightness(6);
 matrix.setTextColor(text_colours[0]);
}

void update_star()
{
 // Future code fix - Make dynamic based on matrix_x and matrix_y
 // In short, if the star hits the Y boundaries, move back
 if (starpos+4 == 7) { starpos_incdec = 0; } 
 if (starpos == 0) { starpos_incdec = 1; } 

 // Clear screen, draw star
 matrix.fillScreen(0);
 star_colour = matrix.Color(star_rgb[1], star_rgb[0], star_rgb[2]);
 matrix.drawLine(0, starpos, 4, starpos+4, star_colour);
 matrix.drawLine(0, starpos+4, 4, starpos, star_colour);
 matrix.drawLine(0, starpos+2, 4, starpos+2, star_colour);
 matrix.drawLine(2, starpos, 2, starpos+4, star_colour); 
 matrix.show(); 
 delay(1);
}

void color_morph(unsigned int* value, int get_brighter)
{
 // Updates the colour through updating the refence. 
 // Get brighter flag increments/decrements
 for (int i = 0; i < 255; i++)
 {
 if (get_brighter)
 (*value)--;
 else
 (*value)++;

 update_star();
 }
 if (starpos_incdec) { starpos++; } else { starpos--; } 
}

void rowColorWipe(uint32_t c1, uint32_t c2, uint32_t c3, uint16_t wait) 
{
 // Borrowed code to draw green, white and red bars
 // Clear screen
 matrix.fillScreen(0);

 // Draw the bars
 for(int j=0; j<2; j++) {
 for(int q=0; q<6; q++){
 for(int y=0; y <= matrix.height() + 10; y=y+6) {
 matrix.drawLine(0, y+q-11, 5, y+q-6, c3);
 matrix.drawLine(0, y+q-10, 5, y+q-5, c1);
 matrix.drawLine(0, y+q-9, 5, y+q-4, c1);
 matrix.drawLine(0, y+q-8, 5, y+q-3, c3);
 matrix.drawLine(0, y+q-7, 5, y+q-2, c2);
 matrix.drawLine(0, y+q-6, 5, y+q-1, c2);
 }
 matrix.show();
 delay(wait);
 }
 }
}

void loop()
{
 // The main Arduino loop
 // Displays the christmas message, then the Christmas Wrapping bars, and then the star animation
 // Easier to have the message scroll here rather than using a separate method/function
 
 // Clears screen and sets message
 matrix.fillScreen(0);
 matrix.setCursor(matrix_x, 0); 
 matrix.print(myMessages[rand_messages]);
 // matrix.print(F("Merry Christmas")); // If using a single message

 // Enter this only if the message has been fully displayed. It's displayed by moving the cursor
 if(--matrix_x <= myMessagesSizes[rand_messages]) {
 // Reset message scroll
 matrix_x = matrix.width();
 matrix.setCursor(matrix_x, 0);

 // Christmas Wrapping bars
 rowColorWipe(matrix.Color(255, 0, 0), matrix.Color(255, 255, 255), matrix.Color(0, 255, 0), 500);

 // Cycle through the star colours
 color_morph(&star_rgb[0], 1); // transition to red
 color_morph(&star_rgb[1], 1); // transition to yellow
 color_morph(&star_rgb[0], 0); // transition to green 
 color_morph(&star_rgb[2], 1); // transition to aqua 
 color_morph(&star_rgb[0], 1); // transition to white
 color_morph(&star_rgb[1], 0); // transition to violet
 color_morph(&star_rgb[0], 0); // transition to blue
 color_morph(&star_rgb[2], 0); // transition to black (all off)
 
 if(++text_pass >= 8) text_pass = 0;
 matrix.setTextColor(text_colours[text_pass]);
 rand_messages = random(0,7); // Random number between 0 and 7 (n-1)
 } 
 matrix.show();
 delay(100); 
}

Gaming past

I look at most of my younger friends going crazy for Pokemon Sun and Moon these days and realize, they don’t know anything outside the realm of Nintendo, Sony Playstation and XBox.  It’s like there wasn’t a gaming history prior to the time when the NES came out.

Given the videogame market crash of 1983, it’s somewhat not surprising.

For someone of my generation – yes I know how that sounds, there were a lot more options.  My collective group of friends not only were into NES and SNES, but we were also into our Amigas and Ataris – ST that is, not just the 2600.

Games like Worms (Team 17), Super Stardust (Team 17), Wipeout (Psygnosis) and pretty much anything out of Sony Studio Liverpool  (which was formerly Psygnosis) would be no where today without the Amiga.

There are some fantastic games such as Zool, The Lost Vikings, James Pond, etc. that came out during that time period.  Simply fantastic, that people seem to have forgotten and simply don’t seem to care about except for those of us who lived it.  Which is sad because there are some real gems.

I’ve owned, in my lifetime, two CD32s, picking up the latest one about two years ago, and I own a fully working Amiga CDTV completely with a hard drive. I’m slowly refurbishing the CD32, which at this point needs a replacement CD spindle to work.  Everything else on it seems perfect.

Which brings me to an interesting quandary.  I can perfectly emulate the CD32 on my Surface or MacBook. Do I really need the original hardware?  There is something to be said for owning a piece of iconic history, especially if you can keep it going.