Google Home review: How my family got hooked on a personal assistant speaker

Google Home

My Google Home patiently waiting for me to ask it something.

Ever since I heard about the Amazon Echo a couple of years ago I’ve wanted a personal assistant speaker. The idea I could just walk into my home and tell it to turn on lights or adjust my thermostat was the obvious next level in my dream of having a high-tech house.

While I waited for Amazon to release the Echo (or its cousin, the Echo Dot) in Canada, Google unleashed the Google Assistant on its line of Pixel phones. The Assistant was near perfection and was the main reason I ditched my iPhone and made the move to Android (bye, Siri). It kept getting better and better, too, with new capabilities being added frequently.

So when Google announced the Google Home, their Echo competitor, back in 2016, I was intrigued at what it could offer. It appeared to be just like the Assistant on my phone but able to do more in my home and for my entire family. And unlike the Echo, which uses Bing to look things up, Home has the almighty Google Search behind it. Then Google did something Amazon didn’t (and still hasn’t) – they released the Google Home in Canada!

Now, my excitement of having a personal assistant speaker over the years was not shared by my wife. My kids, of course, were on my side, but she was not sold on having a device “listening” in on us and told me I was never going to be allowed to bring one into our home. When Google offered to lend me a Home to review I figured it would be the only way I could convince her we needed one and, spoiler alert, it worked!

Here’s what impressed my family the most about the Google Home and why we can’t live without one now.

The speaker

I was not expecting much in the sound department from the air freshener looking Google Home. I’m used to streaming music via my Sonos system, which is still the gold standard for connected speakers in my opinion. That said, the Google Home offers really good sound quality that fills my living room quite nicely.

Being able to control Spotify (my streaming music service of choice) and raise or lower the volume via my voice is also a big benefit and a huge timesaver. This was by far the biggest selling feature for my wife, and even my kids ask it to play songs they like (although my youngest is hooked on Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” thanks to Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare and that’s all I hear now).

Home control

Controlling my lights and thermostat by voice is what I wanted the Google Home for in the first place, and it has lived up to my expectations!

The Google Home works with a majority of “smart” products and was easy to connect with my Philips Hue bulbs, Nest thermostat and Lutron switches. I can say things like “Ok, Google dim my living room lights” and ta-da, my living room Hue bulbs dim! Or I can say “Ok, Google adjust the temperature to 21” and I can see my Nest light up and adjust the temperature. It also works with the Wink hub, WeMo plugs and switches, TP-Link bulbs and Samsung’s SmartThings hub (among a slew of other devices).

Sadly, Logitech does not support the Google Home in Canada yet so users of the Harmony remote won’t be able to control their TVs via voice (this is an option in the U.S. and I still don’t understand why it doesn’t work here). If you have a Chromecast though (which, I do not) you can use the Google Home to control it via voice.

It really is an assistant

Since the Google Home is connected to your Google account it truly does act as a personal assistant. “Ok, Google what’s my day like?” will tell you things that are on your calendar, let you know how long your commute to work is and tell you the weather for the day.

You can also ask for the latest headlines and it will play you clips from news providers you’ve selected (CBC, Global News, Sportsnet and CityNews are available Canadian sources). And it works for multiple users, meaning my wife and I can both access our own info depending on who is talking.

Perfect in the kitchen

Using the Google Home to add items to our shopping list, set timers when we’re cooking, convert measurements and even find recipes are features of the Home I never expected to be hooked on. It’s pretty much the perfect kitchen gadget and has become a great motivation to get me cooking more.

General knowledge

With a six and a 10-year-old in the house we get a lot of questions about a lot of different things. We try our best to answer everything we can but when they ask a question like “how many home runs did Jackie Robinson hit?” I need to look it up. These questions usually come up at the dinner table when phones and computers are not around (and not allowed). Now we can ask the Google Home questions to get the answer and that tends to lead into more questions and more learning opportunities.

My wife also found this to be a blessing when doing homework for a class she was taking. Instead of getting distracted on her phone or computer she asked it a few questions to clarify info as she was writing notes.

Games

The Google Home is loaded with fun word and sound games you can play. These range from trivia and math-based games to things like Mad Libs and Tic Tac Toe. Because there is no screen, you need to visualize and actually use your brain a bit more than if you were just playing a game on your phone or tablet. My kids and I find it’s great to play these around the breakfast table and I’ve even caught them forgoing their iPad time in favour of these games.

The Google Home can be purchased in Canada for $159 from the Google Store. It’s also available to purchase at Best Buy and Home Depot.

Have a Google Home or want one? Share your thoughts on it in the comments below or at facebook.com/bamcatBuzz.

Google Home finally coming to Canada

Google Home

Google Home is coming to Canada “this summer.”

During the Google I/O developer conference Wednesday it was announced that Google Home will be coming to Canada “this summer.”

Similar to the popular Amazon Echo (which is still not available in Canada), Google Home is a voice assistant that can answer questions, play music, control connected devices (like Hue bulbs), plus a few other things.

Along with Canada, Google Home will also be released in Australia, Japan, France and Germany.

No exact date was given as to when Google Home will be available in Canada or the other announced countries.

Are you excited to finally be able to get a Google Home in Canada? Share your thoughts in the comments below or at facebook.com/bamcatBuzz.

Never fumble for keys again with the Schlage Connect Touchscreen Deadbolt

Schlage Connect Touchscreen Deadbolt

Schlage’s Connect Touchscreen Deadbolt is an easy-to-use connected lock that is functional and sleek.

Along with connected bulbs and thermostats, one of the most obvious places to implement a “smart” home device is your front door. I’ve tested a few of these connected locks in the past but none have been as sleek or friendly to use as the Schlage Connect Touchscreen Deadbolt.

Unboxing

The Schlage Connect Touchscreen Deadbolt comes with a numbered touchpad panel for the outside of the door and a bulkier inside unit that holds the batteries, wires and also acts as an alarm. All required hardware, instructions and batteries are included in the box, along with one physical key (which I have still not used).

There are different trim and colour options available for the Schlage Connect Touchscreen Deadbolt. I picked up the century trim model in satin nickel and was surprised at how well it immediately blended into the features of my house.

Installation

I was replacing a Kevo Bluetooth Deadbolt with the Schlage Connect Touchscreen Deadbolt. Swapping the two was extremely simple and took about 20 minutes to do. If you are installing it on a brand new door or a non-standard door, it could take longer to install. The instructions are very detailed and easy to follow, though.

Setting up codes

The Schlage Connect Touchscreen Deadbolt comes with two preset 4-digit PIN numbers programmed and a 6-digit programming code (all of these are located in the user guide and on the back of the inside unit). A total of 17 other unique 4-digit PIN numbers can be programmed, making it easy for each family member to have their own code. Setting these up is as simple as entering the programming code followed by the 4-digit PIN you want to set. Again, the instructions are easy to follow and you won’t be lost setting up a PIN.

RELATED: Netatmo Welcome review: the security camera you didn’t know you needed

Locking and unlocking

I have never had a lock as easy to use as the Schlage Connect Touchscreen Deadbolt. To lock it from the outside all you need to do is press the Schlage logo on the front of the touchpad and, boom! It locks. When you want to unlock your door from the outside, you press the Schlage logo to get it to light up then enter one of your 4-digit PIN numbers (locking and unlocking from the inside works the way any other deadbolt does). You can also set it to auto-lock after 30 seconds and link it to a Wink Hub (see below).

Wink integration

Being able to double check that you locked your door when you get to work or being able to open your door for someone when you’re not home is probably the control you want from a “smart” lock. The Schlage Connect Touchscreen Deadbolt can connect to a Wink Hub or Wink Hub 2 in order to give you this control from within the Wink app or from a Wink Relay switch. And it’s worth getting a Wink Hub in order to gain this ability as it truly opens up a whole new world (when I get home with a load of groceries or a sleeping child in the backseat I unlock the door from my car and don’t have to mess around with my arms full).

The alarm

The unit I got has a built-in alarm. While this sounds like a good idea, I found it very sensitive and awkward to use (wind blowing against the door even set it off one night). It also takes a bit to get the alarm to stop once it goes off (my poor papergirl had the scare of her life when I was testing it). After playing with the settings I never found a good middle ground and ended up disabling it.

RELATED: 5 reasons to add Philips Hue bulbs to your smart home

Final thoughts

Issues with the alarm feature aside, the Schlage Connect Touchscreen Deadbolt is a great lock that’s easy to use and extra functional when paired with a Wink Hub. The ability to use codes instead of keys makes life much easier and has already saved me hours trying to find my keys multiple times a day.

The Schlage Connect Touchscreen Deadbolt retails for around $239.99 at Home Depot and Lowe’s in Canada. For more information, visit schlage.com.

Do you use a connected “smart” lock? Interested in one? Share your thoughts in the comments below or at facebook.com/bamcatBuzz.

Netatmo Welcome review: the security camera you didn’t know you needed

Netatmo Welcome

The Netatmo Welcome is a slick and functional connected security camera. Courtesy Netatmo.

I have a love-hate relationship with indoor connected security cameras. On one hand, I like feeling safe and knowing my house is being monitored when I’m not there. On the other hand, I don’t like the idea of a camera recording me while I’m walking around in my briefs, or worse, a hacker hijacking the camera and watching me walk around in my briefs!

My feelings for connected cameras changed after testing the Netatmo Welcome for a few weeks. Unlike the Netatmo Weather Station (which I found to be a cool, but unnecessary device) the Netatmo Welcome is slick and functional.

First thoughts

After unboxing the Netatmo Welcome (I was too excited to shoot a video of it), the cylinder shape and goldish colour instantly made it stand out from other security cameras I’ve tested (it comes across much more like a Bluetooth speaker than a camera). Along with a USB port to power the device, there’s an Ethernet port and a  MicroSD card slot located on the back.

RELATED: Netatmo Weather Station review: Cool device; far from perfect

Getting it connected

Because it requires a power source and I only wanted it to point at my front door to see when people come and go, it took some maneuvering and extension cords before I got it up and running. Once it was hooked up, getting it onto my home WiFi network and setting it up via the iOS app was a very simple process (there’s also an Android app available).

Features

The big feature of the Netatmo Welcome is its facial recognition capabilities. For the most part this worked well with my kids (both boys) and I. For some reason it seemed to recognize my wife or mother even after flagging multiple images of them during its training (the only explanation I have for this is their longer hair got in the way of a full face view).

Via the app you can set up and be alerted to any motion detected by the camera. It can also listen for alarms, such a smoke or security alarm, going off inside your home and notify you of them as well. Like the facial recognition it takes some tweaking in order to get this working smoothly.

Netatmo Welcome face recognition

Example of face recognition with the Netatmo Welcome. Courtesy Netatmo.

Other features of the Netatmo Welcome include the ability to get a live view in 1080p HD from within the app and have recorded clips uploaded directly to Dropbox or an FTP server.

Hands on

As I mentioned above, it took a few days to get the camera working to my liking. Faces from reflections of my TV in a window were picked up and kept alerting me of “unknown faces”. I re-positioned it and then trees moving outside kept alerting me of “motion detected”. When I finally found the “sweet spot” for it, it worked like a charm.

RELATED: 5 reasons to add Philips Hue bulbs to your smart home

Being able to get a clear live view when no one was home (even at night when all the lights were off inside) and being able to confirm that all my timers and smart bulbs were working as they were supposed to was a big selling point for me. I was also impressed with the integration of Netatmo Tags, which are additional sensors available to purchase that can be attached to windows and doors. These talk to the Welcome to alert you if a window or door is opened.

Cons

The only real con to the Netatmo Welcome I found was lack of compatibility with other “smart” devices. It would be nice to be able to use it with the Wink Relay or via the Apple Home app. This is the same issue I had with the Netatmo Weather Station and it’s a real problem if Netatmo wants to compete in the the “Internet of Things” market (you even need separate apps for the Weather Station and Welcome).

Final thoughts

Overall, I was impressed enough with the Netatmo Welcome to seriously consider adding one to my home. For $219 it’s cheaper than the similar Nest Cam ($249) and with no monthly fee for services or cloud storage it’s a solid contender.

The Netatmo Welcome is available in Canada at Home Depot, Best Buy and Amazon.ca. For more information, visit netatmo.com.

Do you use a Netatmo Welcome or similar connected security camera? Share your thoughts in the comments below or at facebook.com/bamcatBuzz.

Around the House (Oct. 4, 2016)

Around the House is a weekly roundup of news items related to smart devices, tools, kitchen gadgets and anything else worth mentioning that affects how we live at home.

Google Home not coming to Canada

Google held a big event Tuesday to announce the new Pixel smartphone, which features Google Assistant and supposedly has the best smartphone camera ever. The more exciting news was about their Amazon Echo competitor, Google Home. Considering the Echo is still not available in Canada I fully expected Google to jump on the market with Home and completely crush Amazon here (the Home and Echo pretty much do the exact same thing). Sadly, Google did not mention availability in Canada at all and now we have two devices we can only dream about using.

Amazon now ships faster in Toronto and Vancouver

Speaking of Amazon, they now offer same-day and weekend shipping to Amazon Prime members in Toronto and Vancouver (they really should launch their own delivery service here). They also rolled out Twitch Prime last week which offers exclusive gaming content every month, discounts on new release games and a free monthly Twitch channel subscription. Twitch Prime is included with the annual $79 Amazon Prime service for Canadians.

Samsung washing machines could hurt you

Did you purchase a top-loading Samsung washing machine between March 2011 and April 2016? If so, you might want to listen up. Samsung has issued a warning about some of these machines after reports of them “exploding”. According to Consumer Reports, “the problem seems to occur during the spin cycle when some machines suddenly and sometimes violently break apart.” Considering Samsung just had to recall the Galaxy Note 7 over reports of it exploding, this is not a very good year for the company.

No Apple Home support for the Wink Hub 2

In one of the worst-kept secrets around the smart home and “Internet of Things” community, the Wink Hub 2 was officially announced last week. Coming to a Walmart or Home Depot near you for $99US, the Wink Hub 2 adds 5GHz Wi-Fi, an Ethernet port and upgrades the internal memory from 64MB to 512MB. Unfortunately, it does not support Apple Home yet which means it’s really not worth upgrading to if you already have a first-gen Wink Hub. (When I complained about lack of Apple Home support on Twitter the company pointed out they support over 31 brands and 300 devices).

You could win $10,000 in tools from Milwaukee Tools

Milwaukee Tools launched their “Cut the Cord” contest on Oct. 1 with a grand prize of $10,000 in cordless tools! All you have to do to enter is submit a photo of your Milwaukee tool collection at cutthecordcontest.ca and get your friends and family to vote for you. There’s also monthly and weekly prizes up for grabs, along with a “most voted” prize worth $1,200. The contest closes on Jan. 31, 2017. Good luck!

Have something to add to Around the House weekly? Share your thoughts in the comments below or at facebook.com/bamcatBuzz.

5 reasons to add Philips Hue bulbs to your smart home

Philips Hue

Philips Hue bulbs truly add the “smart” to “smart home”.

For the last few years I’ve been attempting to turn my home into a “smart home”. Some of the products I have added or tested have been great, while others have had constant issues or just didn’t live up to the hype. My latest addition, the Philips Hue connected LED bulb, blows every other “smart” thing out of the water. Here’s five reasons why.

Easy to setup

For my review Philips sent me the Hue White Ambiance A19 Starter Kit. This kit consists of two connected bulbs, a bridge and a remote. Hook the bridge up to your router via an Ethernet cable, screw the bulbs into the light fixtures you want them in, download the app and you’re up and running (seriously, the setup took about 10 minutes in total).

Works with everything

There is nothing more infuriating than not being able to control a “smart” device the way you want. One of the standout features of the Philips Hue bulbs is it can be controlled from almost everything. The Wink Relay works with it as does Amazon’s Echo device (still not available in Canada) and it’s compatible with Apple HomeKit (meaning you can tell Siri to turn lights on and off). It also works with Nest (lights turn on when thermostat is in “Away” mode and turn on if your smoke detector goes off) and can also be controlled via the Harmony Ultimate One remote.

Total control

Along with it working with everything I threw at it, the Hue app gives you total control of the bulbs. You can set routines for the bulbs to turn on and off, change the brightness level (“Dimmed” is great for watching Stranger Things on Netflix) and even change the colour (only if you have a colour Hue bulb). The supplied remote (which can also be mounted to the wall) can be programmed and both the Android and iOS app are easy to use. You can also control it via certain wearables, like the Apple Watch, and use the IFTTT app with it. There’s also third-party apps available that opens up the potential of Hue even further.

RELATED: Nest aims to make your home safer with new outdoor camera

Great bulb

My entire house has been updated to LED bulbs and the Philips Hue bulbs give off some of the best light out of the bunch. The White Ambiance bulbs range between 2000K and 6500K, giving you the ability to have warm or cold light depending on your mood. They’re 800 lumens, use only 10.5 watts and can last up to 25,000 hours (comparable to most LED bulbs these days). Because you can dim them via the bulb there is also no need for expensive dimmer switches, which sometimes cause LED bulbs to hum.

Expandable

Philips makes a range of Hue bulbs and up to 50 bulbs can run off of one bridge. I’ve already purchased extra bulbs for around my house and added some colour ones to the mix (having my lights outside turn orange for Halloween or red and green for Christmas is going to be awesome). There’s also Hue light strips available, which are perfect for under kitchen cabinets.

RELATED: Netatmo Weather Station review: Cool device; far from perfect

Final thoughts

The initial cost of adding Philips Hue bulbs is a bit shocking (the starter kit I was sent is about $129.99) but once you see the control they give you you’ll realize it’s well worth the investment. I honestly don’t know how I survived this long without them.

Are you a fan of Philips Hue bulbs? Use something similar? Share your thoughts in the comments below or at facebook.com/bamcatBuzz.

Netatmo Weather Station review: Cool device; far from perfect

Netatmo Weather Station

The Netatmo Weather Station is a cool “smart” device, but lacks a lot of features that would make it a must-have item.

The Netatmo Weather Station is the first personal home weather station I’ve used and from what I read beforehand, I expected a full featured connected home device. And while it has many great qualities, it lacks in a few critical areas. Here are my thoughts on the device after playing with it for a few weeks.

What is the Netatmo Weather Station?

The Netatmo Weather Station is a personal home weather station that connects via your Android or iOS device. The base kit consists of an indoor base station and an outdoor module that can detect heat, humidity, air pressure, air quality and carbon dioxide (CO2) levels. The indoor base station can also monitor those things as well as noise levels. Accessories like a rain gauge and a wind gauge can be added to give a user more information.

BELOW: Watch as I unbox the Netatmo Weather Station and its accessories

Setting up the Netatmo Weather Station

The indoor base station plugs into a wall outlet to get power and needs to be somewhere close enough to the outside module. Once it’s booted, you use the app to connect it to your home Wi-Fi and set it up. The outdoor module requires AAA batteries and needs to be mounted in a location that it won’t get wet or be in direct sunlight. It needs to be positioned close enough to the indoor base station for the two to sync. Getting those working together was a fairly simple task.

Netatmo Weather Station

The Netatmo Weather Station outdoor module mounted to my house.

Where I had issues was when connecting the rain gauge and wind gauge accessories. Both use AAA batteries and both need to be near the indoor base station as well. After a few hiccups, the rain gauge synced and I found a good spot to mount it where it could collect rain and still be in range. I fought with the wind gauge for about an hour and never got it to connect. I packed it up and never bothered trying it again as it was too frustrating.

Using the Netatmo Weather Station

Once the Netatmo Weather Station is set-up it pretty much runs itself. The app will notify you when CO2 levels are over 1,000 ppm or when there is a large amount of rain collected. You can of course load the app to check conditions whenever you want. The main indoor base station also lights up with different colours if CO2 levels are high.

What I liked about the Netatmo Weather Station

For the most part, the Netatmo Weather Station is a slick-looking “smart home” device that has a lot of information to offer. From the packaging to the slim design of the base station and outdoor module, it feels very much like an Apple product. I liked the fact the outdoor module and accessories took batteries and didn’t rely on house power. The app (I tested both the Android and iOS version) is well designed and I discovered having a super local forecast in my backyard really does make a difference. There’s also a nice weather map feature that shows other Netatmo Weather Station readings from around the world.

What I didn’t like about the Netatmo Weather Station

Besides not being able to get the wind gauge to work, I was irked that it and the rain gauge didn’t include a mounting bracket and that Netatmo sells the bracket as a separate accessory. I only had one bracket in my review kit, meaning that even if I got the wind gauge to work I would have had to decide on what accessory to use as I could only use one. This is a bit sneaky on Netatmo’s part in my opinion. Also, no matter how tight I had the bracket, the rain gauge tipped over a few times during heavy downpours making it seem like there was no rain at all.

Netatmo Weather Station

The Netatmo Weather Station rain gauge accessory mounted on my fence.

I was also disappointed with the lack of integration with other “smart home” devices, such as the Nest Learning Thermostat and Wink Relay. Both of these would make the Netatmo Weather Station a much more valuable tool for the connected home.

How the Netatmo Weather Station could be better

It would be great if the Netatmo Weather Station included a wall-mounted display panel as having to always load an app is a bit tiresome, especially when there’s a whole family involved. This could easily be solved if it could integrate with other devices better, such as the Wink Relay. I would also like the ability to have the Netatmo data sync with other weather apps. I also think that the wind gauge and rain gauge could be merged into one unit for space and cost savings.

Final thoughts

The Netatmo Weather Station is a cool “smart” device, but with the lack of a wall display and no integration with my other devices, it’s not an essential tool for my connected home and I won’t be running out to buy one anytime soon. It did open my eyes to the potential of having a personal weather station though and I do now want one.

The Netatmo Weather Station base package retails for $179.99. The rain gauge is an extra $79.99 and the wind gauge runs for $99.99 (the mounting bracket is $24.99). An additional indoor module is also available for $79.99. For more information, visit netatmo.com.

Do you use a Netatmo or other connected weather station at home? Share your thoughts in the comments below or at facebook.com/bamcatBuzz.

TrackR bravo update opens up family sharing, offers custom designs

TrackR bravo

Find things quicker (such as keys) in a group with the new TrackR bravo family sharing feature.

TrackR, the small tag-like Bluetooth device that allows you to easily find all your things, rolled out an update Tuesday that opens up family sharing for the TrackR bravo.

“We are building a platform that remembers where your stuff is so that you don’t have to, and TrackR bravo is an integral part of that platform,” Christian Johan Smith, president and co-founder of TrackR, said in a statement.

RELATED: Philips launches Sonicare connected toothbrush

When you attach the TrackR bravo tag to an item (such as your keys) you then have the ability to ping its location via an iOS or Android device and find where it is. Family sharing allows users to open those items up among groups of people, such as a spouse, roommate or neighbour, to locate a “thing” more quickly (great option for keeping tabs on a TV remote or outdoor cat).

Not as high-tech as family sharing but still a cool option, users can now make the TrackR bravo more personal by having a photo or image printed onto it with custom printing. The image is printed using UV-LED technology, meaning it won’t easily scratch off. It’s an extra $4.99USD and is only available during checkout online at thetrackr.com (they ship to Canada).

“With family sharing and custom printing, TrackR bravo becomes an even more powerful tool for keeping track of your most important belongings, while also fitting more seamlessly into your everyday life and style. That’s the future of consumer inventory management as we see it,” Johan Smith said.

The TrackR bravo is available online in multiple packs and colours at thetrackr.com. It can also be purchased in Canada at Best Buy for $39.99 each or $79.99 for a three pack.

Do you use the TrackR bravo or similar device? Share your thoughts in the comments below or at facebook.com/bamcatBuzz.