My 5 Favorite Smart Home / HomeKit Gadgets

iPad Pro running Home App Smart Home
Apple Home App running on my iPad Pro.

I’m a huge fan of automation in general especially when it comes to smart home stuff. My new home was built two years ago in May 2016. I got the chance to start with a clean slate and put in all the smart home tech that I wanted pretty much from day one. Sadly the builder wasn’t really into smart homes (aside from running ethernet drops) yet so I had to do it all after the house was completed. When people think smart homes one of the first things that comes to mind is lighting and that is pretty much where I started too, but it didn’t stop there. Since most of the things in a smart home are controlled via your mobile devices I also wanted to make sure that most if not all things I did worked with Apple’s HomeKit since I’m an iOS user.

1. My Lighting

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I Have Lightroom in my Living Room on the Big Screen

Lightroom Apple TV

Yesterday, Adobe released the Lightroom Apple TV App. With this App installed on your 4th generation Apple TV you can log in with your Adobe ID and access/view any of your sync’d collections/photos.

Why Lightroom Apple TV is a big deal

The more Adobe Photoshop Lightroom becomes the center of my photography, the more I will want “Lightroom EVERYWHERE!” I already have Lightroom on my computers, my iPhone, my iPad Pro and the web. The next logical frontier was the living room. I use Lightroom not only to organize my photos and do non-destructive edits on them, but I also use Lightroom to “show off” my photos. I can do that one-on-one with my various “portfolio collections” via my iPad or iPhone or I could share a link to a specific collection allowing anyone to view on the web.

Lightroom_Portfolio_Collections_Sync

With the Lightroom Apple TV App this means that I can also show off my photos on the big screen anywhere in my home. There’s no need to export my photos and load them onto another device. There’s no reason to tie up my iPhone/iPad via AirPlay. I can just fire up the Lightroom Apple TV App, choose a collection and hit the Play button on the remote.

See it in action from setup to delivery

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Apple TV 4th Generation Review

AppleTV-4G_Remote

 

I’ve been an Apple TV user since the first model and have owned each one. The 3rd generation (1080p) model definitely became one of my favorite gadgets of all time. I not only used it for iTunes movie rentals and TV shows, but also largely to stream my own content from my own movie library. Apple TV is also great to be able to stream just about anything from your iPhone or iPad. I mirror my iPhone often to watch things like Periscope broadcasts on the big screen. It has been rumored for a long time that Apple was coming out with a “TV” and I never put a lot of faith in those rumors because I simply didn’t see what Apple could bring to the table that would make consumers want to take their existing TV’s off the wall and put up an Apple TV. It’s much smarter to make a box that connects to the TV of your choice and get all that Apple has to offer that way. The 3rd generation Apple TV was getting long in the tooth, but via all the software updates along the way it has really become a nice little full-featured box. So what could Apple do with the 4th Generation Apple TV?

My initial setup didn’t go as smoothly as I thought it would

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Netflix vs. Hulu Plus: If you could only have one?

AppleTV-TV_movies

I’ve been a Netflix subscriber for years and I have also tried a trial subscription to Hulu Plus. The thing that turned me off of Hulu (and still does) is that you pay the monthly fee ($7.99) and yet they still play ads. Also not to mention that during my trial period all the ads were bought out by the presidential candidates of 2012. I just couldn’t take any more. Three years later I’m willing to try Hulu Plus again, but is it worth it? I’d gladly pay more per month to eliminate the ads. Many of you have Hulu, Netflix or both. Tell me why?

What if you could only have one. Which would it be Netflix or Hulu Plus? Also now that HBO Now is coming soon, would you pick HBO over Netflix or Hulu?

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Check out the new lower price on the Apple TV here.



Harmony Smart Control Review

harmony_smart_control

It has been a while since I’ve looked at smart universal remotes. I’ve been happily using my Harmony One for years. However, it was time to setup a new room with HDTV, Apple TV and TiVo Mini. This means either using 2-3 remotes or just ONE! However, I didn’t want to go with another high-end Harmony, yet I wanted something that was still very good. This lead me to check out the Harmony Smart Control. This setup offers the best of both worlds. You get a regular remote control with physical buttons as well as a “hub” that allows you to control everything with your iOS or Android based smartphone or tablet. While I’ve used this hub before, I like the option of having a physical remote for those times when my iPhone is in use or not handy.

 

How to set it up

The setup was pretty straight forward. You plug in the hub to AC power and then download the Harmony Control app. Since there are no controls on the hub you first have to get it on your WiFi network either via your computer via a USB connection to the Hub or wirelessly to your smartphone via bluetooth. I opted to set it up via my iPhone 5s. The App found the hub and allowed me to key in the password to my WiFi network. Once it was setup on the network the App continued to allow me to set it up. The setup was very typical to Harmony remotes. You simply enter the brand and model names/numbers of the devices you wish to control. Believe it or not, that’s the hard part. Who remembers the model number of their TV? Once I tracked down the info I needed to enter, it was easily able to control each device. Then I setup “Activities” such as “Watch TV” and “Watch Apple TV”. Activities allow you one button options to turn on all the appropriate devices and switch to the appropriate inputs on your TV or receiver. Lastly I added my “Favorite” channels.

 

How does it work?

harmony_smart_hub

Once I set up the Harmony Smart Control, I now have the option of controlling my TV and components via the supplied physical remote OR via my iPhone or iPad using the Harmony Control App. It definitely beats having to have the TiVo remote, TV remote (to properly switch inputs) and the Apple TV remote. Either the App on my iPhone or Harmony remote can control it all. The App is pretty slick too. Not only do you have multiple screens for various controls, you even have a “gesture” screen that allows you to swipe up or down to control TV volume or left or right to change channels. I also like the one touch access to my favorite channels.

 

The Bottom Line

Logitech has hit the right combination of hardware and software with this combo. You have a physical remote that anyone can use AND the ability to use your mobile device to control it via WiFi from any room. I’m happy with this setup and I’m considering getting another one for another room of gear.

You can get the Harmony Smart Control here

You can also just go with the Harmony Ultimate Hub if you just want to use your mobile device.

 

Apple Adds HBO Go to Apple TV – Finally!

apple_TV_HBO_GO

Last night I saw the news that there was a software update to Apple TV that finally added HBO Go, as well as Watch ESPN, SkyNews, Quello, and Crunchieroll (anime). I stopped what I was doing and immediately did the update. As with all HBO Go devices and apps you will need to have an actual subscription to HBO through a compatible cable/satellite provider. I have Comcast Xfinity and it works.

Why on Apple TV?

If you have HBO already on your cable/satellite box then you might be wondering why you would want/need it on your Apple TV? That’s an easy one. At home I have Comcast/Xfinity and TiVo DVRs. Each TV has a box that can play HBO just like all the other channels. However, at my studio (a commercial building) Comcast doesn’t allow premium channels like HBO. I have Apple TVs at the studio and now I can have HBO on them. I’m a huge fan of Boardwalk Empire and often catch up on it while on the road or in studio. I have the HBO Go app on my iPad and now on my Apple TV. I can of course watch other HBO content, specials, concerts, etc. I also like the fact that they post episodes on HBO Go within about 10 minutes after they air live.

AppleTV_Main-Menu_Movies_US-ONLY_PRINT

While other set-top boxes like Xbox 360 had HBO Go I never figured out why it wasn’t available in Apple TV. My wait is finally over. Apple TV just keeps getting better with each update. Also the relatively low cost of entry makes it a no-brainer. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, I think HBO is missing out! More and more people I talk to are cutting or have cut the cable. However, many of these folks would gladly pay a low monthly cost to get HBO Go. It’s a shame that it has to be tied to a home cable/satellite provider.

You can get an Apple TV here on sale.

Traveling with an Apple TV

AppleTV-2010

Im quite fond of the Apple TV for streaming content, watching movies and displaying my photos throughout my studio. This little box does a lot and with each software update Apple adds more capabilities to it. Recently I saw a deal on a refurbished one and I decided to snag it and use it as my “on the road” Apple TV. The idea is that since I travel so much and it seems that most hotels now have flat screen HDTVs in their rooms that I could potentially use an Apple TV to stream my own content during down time. However, the thing you have to keep in mind is that the Apple TV was never really designed to be taken on the road.

 

It needs a network connection

AirportExpress_2012

Unlike the 1st generation Apple TV, the newer models don’t have hard drives in them. So there really is no effective way to load it up with content before heading out. You have to either stream to it from a computer/iOS Device or you have to stream to it from the internet. The Apple TV has both WiFi and an Ethernet port. That helps a lot! Although it has WiFi it was not really designed to connect to random hotspots. There’s no web browser and therefore no way to really accept the terms and conditions even if the WiFi is free. I have been traveling with an AirPort Express Base Station for years. If my hotel room has an ethernet port I can just plug the AirPort in and provide WiFi to all my devices, including an Apple TV. Also the newer AirPort Express Base Station has an additional Ethernet jack so that you can even plug in a wired device to share the connection, such as an Apple TV. However, if there is no Ethernet port in the room and the WiFi network isn’t wide open you would be pretty much out of luck. You could use a MiFi or tethering to a smartphone/iOS device. You could also share the hotel WiFi connection from your laptop using Internet Sharing to the Ethernet port on your Apple TV. Before I’d do the latter I’d have to really really want to use my Apple TV. Otherwise I could just plug the computer into the TV and bypass the Apple TV altogether.

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Hulu Plus vs Netflix on Apple TV

Now that Apple has quietly added Hulu Plus to Apple TV (just reboot your Apple TV and it will be there). You have a choice in streaming TV/Movie Content Providers. I have been a Netflix customer for many years. I became loyal to Netflix on the day I saw the first ad that stated “no late fees!” I was so tired of Blockbuster and Hollywood video constantly charging me if my DVD wasn’t turned in on time.  Yes being late is my responsibility, but watching movies by a certain day of the week didn’t always work for me. The Netflix model was much better. Keep it as long as you want. Those days are behind me. I don’t get DVDs/Blu-rays anymore in the mail. I do however stream Netflix content to my Apple TV and my iPad. Granted, it isn’t the quality of Blu-ray and you don’t have the latest movies to stream right away, but I can usually always find something to watch when I have time to watch. I don’t have to wait for a disc in the mail and I don’t have to return anything either. Yep, I’m a streaming kinda guy now.

Hulu Plus or Netflix

I wasn’t interested in Hulu Plus at all! I didn’t see any advantage over Netflix, but I decided that since it was now built-in to my Apple TV I’d give it a shot. Let’s go through a comparison now.

Hulu Plus on Apple TV
Netflix on Apple TV

 

Price – Hulu Plus is $7.99/month for unlimited watching and Netflix is $9.99/month for unlimited watching. The different is Hulu Plus still has commercials that you are forced to play before the program starts and usually in the middle of your show. There is no way to skip these ads. Right off the bat I have a problem paying for streaming AND seeing ads too! Netflix also offers plans that will include DVD/Blu-rays too. So for $17.98/month you get unlimited streaming AND 1 Blu-ray at a time (keep as long as you want with no late fees). This is the best of both worlds because you can still get a current movie on Blu-ray and stream everything else. I would have to give the price advantage to Netflix even though it’s $2 more, it doesn’t have ads.

Content – both Netflix and Hulu Plus have thousands of shows and movies, but the Netflix has more! More doesn’t necessarily mean better, but more is more. When you are looking for something to watch, chances are you’re more likely to find something on Netflix. Again Netflix has the advantage here especially if you’re more into movies. I would say that if you are more into TV shows you might like the Hulu Plus experience and content list a little better.

On Apple TV – As far as Apple TV is concerned the experience is about the same between the two services. You can search for shows by name, browse categories and see your recently watched shows.

Going mobile – both Netflix and Hulu Plus have mobile Apps that let you stream content to your iPad or iPhone/iPod touch. I’d call this one a tie.

Take them both for a test spin

Ultimately you will have to compare for yourself. I have no idea what shows or movies that you will be most interested in. For me the winner is Netflix if for no other reason I can’t stand the commercials on Hulu Plus. Luckily both services have trials. Again even when it comes to trails Netflix has the advantage. You can try Netflix for 30 days. You can try Hulu Plus for 1 week!

 

Apple TV Update Sneaks in a New Photo Wall Screen Saver

I use Apple TV's and HDTV's throughout my studio to display my photography. When I did my last update to Apple TV for some reason it forced a factory reset and while it was no big deal to set it up again, I discovered that there were a couple new choices in the Slideshow/Screensaver area. One of them is called Photo Wall.  I love this one because not only does it frame your images in a variety of nice frames that float by, it adds nice touches like mattes and a 3D spin when it hits the corner of the virtual room. It's like you're walking along a wall of photos and you get to the corner and turn to walk down the next wall. Nicely done!

You can get an Apple TV 2nd Gen here for $99.

My Movie Rental Habits Have Changed to Mostly Streaming

Back in the day I would run over to my local Hollywood Video or Blockbuster video to grab a DVD rental for the evening. I got so tired of both company's insane late fee policies that I switched to Netflix and never looked back. Netflix mails the disc to my house and I can keep it as long as I want. Once they added Blu-ray discs I was totally sold. At one point I was on the 3-Discs-At-Home plan. Then I noticed that they would sit for days and weeks on end before I had a chance to view them. I went all the way down to 1-Disc-At Home. Over the holidays I started looking at all of my home entertainment gadgets and it seems that just about every device I own now (TiVo, Playstation 3, XBox 360, Wii, Apple TV, iPad, etc.) can stream movies from either Amazon, Netflix or iTunes. I also noticed that the one Netflix Blu-ray disc I had at home had been sitting there for weeks. I finally watched it. However, before I sent it back I adjusted my account once again, this time to eliminate the discs altogether.

 

Blu-ray discs are better, but…

There's no debate when it comes to the quality of Blu-ray movies over ANY of the popular streaming technologies. Blu-ray wins in the quality category hands down. However, I've decided that for my regular movie viewing that it's just not important enough to keep getting discs. Here's my rationale: 

  • If I'm really interested in the movie, chances are I'll see it on the big screen in the theaters.
  • If it's just a so so movie, streaming quality is just fine and I get to see it immediately on my schedule right when I'm ready to watch. I don't have to leave the house or wait for the disc to come.
  • If it's a movie that I ABSOLUTELY LOVE and one that I'll want to see more than 3 times then I'll buy the Blu-ray (This is VERY RARE). I think I own maybe 20 Blu-ray discs total.

 

Netflix and iTunes are my top two choices

If a movie is available on Netflix instant streaming, it's a win for me. I can watch it on just about any of my devices. The quality is decent for the most part and it's a part of a monthly fee I'm already paying. If it's not available on Netflix I'll price compare it on Amazon (via the TiVo HD or Premiere XL) or iTunes via the Apple TV.  

While the quality of Blu-ray is better, I just can't get past the convenience of streaming these days with my current schedule. My local Hollywood Video closed its doors two years ago and Blockbuster is barely hanging on. Times have definitely changed.

 

The Devices I prefer to stream on

For iTunes and Netflix I'm really liking the NEW 2nd generation Apple TV. Hands down the best Netflix UI I've seen to date.

For Amazon on Demand, it's definitely the TiVo Premiere XL

For watching on the road, it's the Slingbox Pro HD. It allows me to stream whatever is showing on my TiVo to my laptop, iPad or iPhone.

For some older movies I'll watch via HBO. The problem with HBO is, they are never playing the movie I want to watch when I want to watch it. Sometimes I wonder why I still have HBO as most of my favorite HBO series have all but died?

Lastly I still have one Comcast Cable DVR too. If all else fails I can do a Comcast On Demand viewing.

With the above choices I'm set!

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