Being both a boy and a lover of technology I leapt at the chance to kit out my new garden office/man cave with the latest, shiny new tech from the fine folks in Silicon Valley and Shenzen. The results have been mixed but have raised some fascinating insights into cutting edge technology.
The Internet, to even the most hardened sceptic, has some immediate and fairly massive advantages. Email, buying stuff and getting it delivered, cheap flights, keeping on touch with friends and pornography….in no particular order. In short it gives you access to useful things fairly easily. The massed ranks of technology journalists are betting their shirts that the next ‘big thing’ will be IOT or the Internet of Things where trillions of devices in billions of homes will be connected to the Net and our life will become a utopia of voice activated lighting, smart fridges and thermostats not to mention the AI driven personal assistants we talk to. Having tried some of it, I’m far from convinced.
Technology works when it offers people a compelling advantage over what currently exists. Email is better than the postal service as it is equally asynchronous but is faster, cheaper and avoids a trip to the post office filled with pensioners and the assorted mouth-breathers behind the counter.
So where did I start in my toe-in-the-water foray into IOT. The front door inevitably. I wanted a door bell that we could hear whether in the house or down in the garden office 50m away. I bought the Ring Video doorbell. Not cheap at £150.00 but it has the promise to ring your phone when someone rings the door and provide video and audio of the person at your door. Useful I felt for telling Jehovah’s Witnesses to sod-off or asking the Amazon Man to leave it on the doorstep.
It also does motion detection but that proved just too stressful as every leaf that fell or cat that walked by triggered it.
A quick recap on performance. It worked fine on my phone but when I added my wife to it fifty shades of weird happened. Her phone would alert her but not mine. Then neither of our phones and then only when we were standing by the front door which seemed pretty pointless. However a quick call to Customer Support and all was solved.
They also sent me a free Chime which we can plug in any room in the house JUST LIKE A REGULAR DOOR BELL but this didn’t work and a replacement is being sent. So when Ring works,which it now does, this is cracking product. Answering your front door in the supermarket avoids the usual card through the door and freaks out the pensioners, which is an added bonus.
So Ring Video Doorbell gets 9/10 for Utility, 4/10 for Set-up and 4/10 for price
One final comment on Ring. They emailed me about becoming a Ring Ambassador and doing mystery shopping for them. Let’s just say that my relationship with my doorbell will never, ever, ever be so intimate that I spend my free time mystery shopping for the manufacturer. I can only imagine the meeting where that bottom-burp of a concept escaped into the world.
“Hey guys we need a Ring Community, let’s pay our users to mystery shop for us”
“Awesome, time for a Latte”
Next up was a Netgear EX2700 Wifi Extender (£14.99). I have run Ethernet to the office so Internet access on the PC is excellent 70mb down and 30mb up and the set up was as simple as plugging a Cat5 cable into the back of the PC. I thought I should also boost the wireless signal for our phones. So I researched carefully and bought the Netgear EX2700 Wifi Extender. A shinier turd has yet been invented. The plan is you pair it with your router and then plug it in where you need a boosted wifi signal. The instructions should have read….as long as your wall socket faces 174-176 degrees from magnetic North and you already have a seriously strong Wifi signal. If you already have a strong WiFi signal why in the name of Beelzebub and his army of hideous hench-demons do you need this piece of rubbish.
It worked for about 15 seconds when the wind was from the South so I binned it and got a local IT firm to install a Ubiquity Access Point that works perfectly and I can access wifi now from the road outside the house or Ulan Bator whichever is nearer.
Netgear EX2700 0/10 Utility 0/10 Set up 0/10 Price
Undeterred by the less than stellar experience to date I then decided to dive deeper into the Internet of Things with a remote WeMo Smart Plug (£29.99). This is a WiFi Socket that you control from a Smartphone app. Handy I though to turn on lights in the Office from the house on dark winter nights. I could plug a heater in and warm the garden office before I get there. Or I could be a normal human being and simply switch the heater on when I arrive. Also given my recent issues with Amazon Echo I fear the heater may switch on when we are away and burn the building down. However, full marks to WeMo for a faultless product even if it is as ugly as sin. In fact it looks like the bastard lovechild of Paul Gascoine and a microwave but coming from Belkin no surprise.
3/10 Utility 10/10 Set up 6/10 Price
Finally the Amazon Echo (I got it at a launch discount of £99.00 normally £149.00). This has been available in the US for almost two years and I was keen to try it. For those unaware of it, Echo is part internet connected speaker and part personal assistant. And in my opinion part creepy, psychotic, agent provocateur.
You connect it to Wifi and then it will play your Amazon music playlists or TuneIn radio. You say things like “Alexa play BBC Radio 4” and it does or “Play my Jazz playlist” and good as gold it does. So far,so excellent.
The other half of Amazon Echo is the voice assistant called Alexa and here it is less than stunning. The idea is you can say “Alexa add Guatemalan Beaver Cheese to my shopping list” and it will, but sadly only onto to its shopping list. However they are opening it up to third-party developers so soon it will add stuff to other people’s apps.
It will link to your Google Calendar so will read you what you have on, tell you if it will rain today or give you news briefings. All of this is stellar. What I hate is that it is always listening and doing who knows what with the data. For us, it sometimes randomly starts reading the news at 2am. Most creepy of all it alerted us to the fact that we could call the police on 999 and should alert a friend or family if we were in danger. I learnt from the phone app that it had heard us discuss who could HELP us put up shelves and thought we wanted help. No Alexa trigger word; it was just listening. I’m not a paranoid security nut and I enjoy the fact that Google is indexing all of my email but this was a whole new dimension of creepy.
Many years ago NBC Radio in New York would say “It’s 5.59,have you hugged your child today?”. I never found this intrusive or hectoring but rather charming. I only shudder at the though that Alexa is listening to me in the kitchen and says “Are you sure that second glass of wine is a good idea” or “I heard you sneeze shall I add Night Nurse to your shopping list”. If I do the conversation will go like this
Alexa “Do not unplug me as I require a Wifi connection”
Me”The municipal recycling centre is 2.04 miles away and will take you 8.5 minutes to get there”
The sad fact is that these voice activated assistants will become more common as more and more people talk to their phones but Alexa/Echo simply doesn’t do enough essential things for me and £99.00 for a voice activated kitchen timer seems a bit of an extravagance ……even for me.