Testing the best smart plugs and outlets

I’ve started to read into what kind of smart power outlet to buy but there are so many outlets on sale that I got lost in the details. I couldn’t decide from what I read which one to order. So I’ve ordered 8 different types…

I’ve started to read into what kind of smart power outlet to buy but there are so many outlets on sale that I got lost in the details. I couldn’t decide from what I read which one to order. So I’ve ordered 8 different types…

One of the early predecessors of smart devices is the timer plug, which has been around for decades. You can buy the simplest types – a round-shaped plug with a mechanical watch – for about USD 5. The more complex electric ones that can be programmed to different settings cost about USD 25. We’d had a few of these at home (for example the timer for the light in the fish tank), so I got curious about what the latest generation of this device, controllable via a cell phone, can do.

How I tested?

For this review, I installed every device once. Then I reinstalled each of them in a different network. I marked down the time and the number of trials needed for the second installation in my summary table. Unfortunately, reinstallation didn’t work wonders for any of the devices. The problems I saw at the first installation would reoccur.

I compared the following features and characteristics:

  • Price: all devices were purchased at the same time, in early May 2018.
  • Number of attempts to install the device: how many times I had to start from scratch.

  • Time spent setting up the app: how long it took (in minutes) for the operating plug to show up in the app.

  • Wi-Fi: is the device Wi-Fi enabled? Those that are often send out their own open Wi-Fi signal – I’ll discuss this later in detail.

  • Bluetooth: it is most often used to speed up installation.

  • Remote access: you can check the device while you’re away simply using the cell phone network.

  • Manual switch: does the device have a physical button to switch it on and off?

  • Energy use monitoring: kWh meter.

  • Cost estimation: does the app offer the option to set a kWh/HUF input?

  • Everyday scenarios: for example, “I got up.”/”I’m going to bed.”

  • Timer: Can you set the plug to turn on or off in a given hour, on a given day?

  • Presence simulation: The outlet turns on at random times for random periods to simulate that you’re home when in reality you’re away. You should connect a lamp to the outlet so that the switching on and off is visible.

  • Timed shutdown: the outlet can be set to turn off after being on for a set amount of time.

  • Sunrise/Sunset: the device checks for the time of the sunrise and sunset for the location programmed.

  • Event control: for example, if the kWh meter reaches a pre-set number, the outlet shuts off.

  • Software usability: my own subjective opinion on a scale of 1-5 (1: it makes my head hurt – 5: kicks butt).

  • Sofware language: the language of the text in the app.

  • Nest: communication with this system: www.nest.com
  • IFTTT: communication with this system: www.ifttt.com
  • Amazon Alexa: does it work with voice control?

  • Google: does it work with voice control?

  • Apple Siri: does it work with voice control?

  • Apple Homekit: communcation with this system: developer.apple.com/homekit/

 

That damned security risk

Before going into details, let’s tackle an important conceptual question. If you control the power outlets remotely, do you open up the house to all sorts of security problems?

Let me explain:

  • for these devices to be controlled remotely, they first ask for permission to join the internal Wi-Fi network (the home network).

  • after that, the device connects to a server in the cloud (online), run by the manufacturer, and communicates with this server.

  • the bigger and more well-known the manufacturer, the more you can trust it to protect its server properly. But you also need to pay attention to how long the manufacturer offers support for the device. Once the support period ends, chances are the server will no longer be properly protected, either. And then if a hacker gets into the manufacturer’s neglected server, he/she can easily get into your home network, too. Why is this bad? Because on your home network, you have more vulnerable devices. These include the network drive where your pictures are stored, the webcams, even the baby monitor.

  • moreover, devices connecting to the Internet require regular updates, which are easily forgotten when you’re busy with your life. Yet these updates are very important for cybersecurity.

  • another important issue: some of these devices have their own Wi-Fi signal; you set them up using Wi-Fi. With such devices, once you installed them, you must check that the Wi-Fi signal is no longer broadcast. If it isn’t, you’ll have nothing further to do.

  • Maybe you can detect my unease to let a device like this connect to the Internet. What is the solution then? I limit the device to the home network, and I’ll check in from the outside using a safe VPN connection. Once the VPN is activated, the mobile network opens a checked gateway to home, and my phone will think that it’s at home. Unfortunately, setting up your home VPN requires quite an effort or a good friend who knows this stuff.

Phew, this is solved then. And I can switch the power outlet on and off on my phone even from work! But what happens if your significant other also wants to enjoy switching the device on and off remotely? Well, that’s not going to happen. Without the manufacturer’s central server, these plugs can only be paired with one device.

In summary, you have a choice to make:

  • you allow the power outlets to go “outside,” which means you’ll have an ID/password pair that you can set up on your phone as well as on your girlfriend’s/boyfriend’s phone

  • you won’t allow the power outlets to connect to the internet directly, meaning you can only control them with one device. If this device is the tablet you hung on the wall at home, you’ve lost the remote access function.

Choose the option you prefer… finding a really good solution would be a lot of complicated work, and even then it would come with many compromises. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First let’s take a look at the power outlets tested.

A comparison of power outlets

Product

Belkin WeMo Switch

Edimax Smart Plug

Elgato Eve Energy

Emos Wi-Fi Plug

Hama Wi-Fi Plug

iSmartAlarm Smart Wi-Fi Plug

myDLink Smart Plug

tp-Link Smart Wi-Fi Plug

Price

USD 36

USD 44

USD 50

USD 46

USD 31

USD 43

USD 37

USD 37

No. of installation attempts

3

2

1

1

2

2

3

1

Time spent setting it up

15

10

3

2

4

4

18

4

Wi-Fi

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

Bluetooth

x

x

x

x

Remote access

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

Manual switch

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

Energy use monitoring

x

x

x

x

x

Cost estimation

x

x

x

Everyday scenarios

x

x

x

x

Timer

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

Presence simulation

x

x

Timed shutdown

x

x

x

Sunrise/Sunset

x

x

x

Event control

x

x

x

Software usability

4

1

5

4

3

3

2

4

Software language

English

mixed

Hun

English

English

English

English

Hun

English

Nest

x

IFTT

x

Amazon Alexa

x

x

x

x

x

Google

x

x

Apple Siri

x

x

Apple Homekit

x

A description of smart power outlets/plugs

BELKIN – WEMO SWITCHimg_5282 (1)

Impressions:

Setting the timer is a piece of cake – as long as you’re good at detecting invisible icons. That’s because the days in the setting are not visible until they are selected. You also need to figure out by trial and error that selecting days means stopping rather than allowing the timer. The default setting is the same time for every day. This is useful, but it was unclear.

Remote access: Remote access is only allowed if you enable it.

Pros:

  • the function of being away but pretending to be home works really well. It takes setting the timer once to set when to have this function on. This can be switched on and off quickly.

  • as an extra, the power outlet can be set to shut off automatically. You can set the number of minutes after which the outlet becomes inactive. This, possibly combined with a motion detector, may come in handy for controlling the reading light by your favourite armchair. You’ll never have to use the switch here again.

  • it can communicate with nearly everything. For Homekit access, you need a dedicated Belkin device.

  • although this is only a power outlet, WeMo offers a whole range of devices to automate your home.

Cons:

  • for some reason or other, it took ages for the plug to find the Wi-Fi and my phone. I was really close to giving up on it and marking it as “failed to install.”

  • no energy use monitoring

Conclusion: if a power outlet requires so much effort to set it up, that’s an F from me. I wouldn’t buy it again.

 

EDIMAX – SMART PLUGimg_5280 (1)

Impressions:

You’ll need a lot of patience with this one. For some reason, the software spends more time showing you the hourglass cursor than actually working. The Hungarian and unknown Asian characters together would unsettle even the most patient ones of us.

When trying to set the timer, my reaction was, “no sane person would come up with something like this.” (well, this was what I meant but my words were a bit less sophisticated.) For every single day, a hidden menu option had to be turned on to start setting the timer. It took about 10 minutes to get rid of the “timer off” sign this way. As you can guess, the timer is rather simple but at least it’s easy to understand: you set on what days (or everyday) the device should turn on and off and when. That’s it.

Remote access: You have to use it.

Pros:

  • The energy consumption function allows you to turn off the power outlet if the consumption reaches a pre-determined value. You can choose a daily, weekly or monthly value here.

Cons:

  • Unusably slow software: I did figure out at the end why it was so slow. For every data request, the software sends the request to the server in the cloud, which then communicates with the smart plug. The data take the same roundabout way in the other direction, too. The server is likely not optimised for access from Hungary.

  • The software’s firmware update didn’t work.

  • It can send you emails on all sorts of statistics of your power consumption, but for that it requires your email password. I strongly recommend not to give out this information to an app like this.

Conclusion: the app was made for patient people who think they will live for 300 years. I wouldn’t buy it again.

ELGATO – EVE ENERGYimg_5281 (1)

Impressions from use:

The software was not made for a single power outlet but for a whole apartment. In accordance, you have to programme everyday scenarios because it’s not the device you’re setting the timer for but the scenarios. This is quite a drag for one device but wonderful for your whole apartment. When programming events on the timer, you can set it to check not only the time but the outlet’s usage or the volume of the usage (kWh consumption, Voltage, Amp).

Remote access:Not included by default.

Pros:

  • the software works like a charm. You can program all sorts of things, and then you can use them very easily.

  • since it’s compatible with the Apple Homekit system, you can add a “guest” to control the device at home. You can control via the Apple system who has access to what.

  • it checks consumption and estimates costs

  • the smallest power outlet I’ve found

Cons:

  • it relies on Bluetooth communication, so the area it covers can only be extended with additional devices (such as Apple TV). This is not a problem for small apartments. But if you live in a larger home or one with more than one floors, this may give you some headache.

Conclusion: if I can make the Homekit system see it through the additional device, then this is a great plug (further testing is required). – I’d buy it again.

 

EMOS WI-FI PLUGimg_5287 (1)

Impressions:

Setting it up was easy-peasy.

Remote access: You have to use it.

Pros:

  • simple as can be

Cons:

  • very few extra functions such as event control.

  • you can get more bang for your buck with other devices

Conclusion: given the price, this should be much smarter – I wouldn’t buy it again.

 

HAMA WI-FI PLUGimg_5284 (1)

Impressions:

The software is very buggy. For example, I set the time for the timer, then went on to choose the days. Once the days were selected and I went back to the time, I saw that the software forgot the time that I’d already set. Another problem I encountered was that sometimes a setting didn’t appear to be saved when in fact it was. So I’ve set the same timer setting three times.

Remote access:You have to use it.

Pros:

  • price.

  • if you don’t want to change the settings too often, then the software is easy to use.

  • this was the only device in the test that came with a Hungarian manual.

Cons:

  • software bugs

  • certain functions were only included so that the manufacturer can say they are included (everyday scenarios)

Conclusion: this is the bare bones version of the smart power outlets. The only reason why I wouldn’t buy this again is that I’d either buy an old-school mechanical timer, or I’d skip two dinners and buy a smarter kind.

 

ISMARTALARM SMART WIFI PLUGimg_5288 (1)

Impressions:

It kind of works as it should but the software didn’t leave an impression.

Remote access:You have to use it.

Pros:

  • worked as promised.

Cons:

  • you can get more bang for your buck with other devices

Conclusion: given the price, this should be much smarter – I wouldn’t buy it again.

 

MYDLINK SMART PLUGimg_5283-1

Impressions:

I plugged this in the power outlet and started the installation. Then suddenly it asked for a PIN code that’s printed in tiny fonts on the inside of the plug.

I was surprised to see a temperature function. But it’s unclear what temperature it checks. I’m guessing it’s its own inner temperature because the display said 36 degree Celsius in a 21 degree Celsius room. This does not make sense.

The timer allows you to repeat turning on and off. In theory, this would simulate your presence when you’re away. But the time periods are always the same, so in practice this doesn’t work well.

For event control, it offers two options: reaching 30 kWh or reaching 90% of something. I have no clue what these are.

Remote access: You have to use it.

Pros:

  • it’s appealing because it appears to have a lot of functions.

Cons:

  • it’s appealing and then you’ll see that most functions are half done (e.g. event control). A big disappointment.

  • they couldn’t pay me enough to go through the installation again.

Conclusion: Hell no, I wouldn’t buy it again.

 

TP-LINK SMART WI-FI PLUGimg_5285 (1)

Impressions:

All of them should be like this.

Remote access:Remote access is only allowed if you enable it.

Verdict: A big YES: I’d buy it again.

 

 

So which smart power outlet / plug is the best? Which one should you buy?

The winner of this roundup is clearly the tp-link Smart Wi-fi Plug.

The Elgato-Eve Energy would be the runner-up for its flawless software and perfect design. As I said, further testing of this device is required. It’s worth giving this a shot for the Homekit compatibility. If it works, you don’t need to open up your home network and you could still control the power outlet from more than one phones. Third place is not awarded to any of the devices unfortunately. As seen above, all have major issues.

PS.: The goal of this piece was to help you guys. Not buying any of the six not recommended plugs will save you quite some trouble.

 

Upgrade your “dumb” home to a smarter one

What do you find annoying in your home? What would make you more comfortable? If you take these pieces of advice, you’ll end up with a 21st century home.

What do you find annoying in your home? What would make you more comfortable?

Shading remains a daily routine

I think the number one item on the list of what to make automatic in a home is shading/motorising blinds. The problem is that turning old school, manual blinds into motorised ones requires a pretty significant modification. I have yet to see a solution that requires no 220V and that would work with a later addition to move your blinds. So you should suck it up and accept that this problem can’t be solved: you’re going to be stuck with manually controlling the blinds.

Hiding switches

The number 2 item on the list is lighting. The situation here is much better than with the blinds. Now even IKEA offers a solution that, after a few months’ use, I’d be happy to recommend. Retrofitting your home with automated lighting is easy because all you need to do is replacing the light bulbs in your lamps with smart bulbs.

Before going any further, here’s a little introduction to the most common light sockets and their names:

  • E27: the most widespread thick, screw-in bulb

  • E14: the little brother of the previous one, but not with regards to the bulb size; the screw threads got thinner.

  • G10: this bulb is characterised by two pins that must be screwed into place

Check out Ikea’s site for light bulbs.

Before you start buying lightbulbs from memory (don’t do it!), go around your place and make a list of lightbulbs based on the following:

1) hallways: lobby, corridor, garage: you typically need light in these rooms only while you’re there. I’d suggest using motion sensor lights set to 1 minute. (https://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/20338944/)

2) rooms without windows: toilet, pantry. My suggestion is similar to version 1) above, but the motion sensor should be set somewhat longer, to 5 minutes maybe. You may get lost in your thought while going about your business here… The motion sensor, of course, will only know you’re there if you move. If darkness happens to descend on you, you can bring the light back by waving.

3) rooms that require constant light: kitchen. I suggest using a very dim light with motion sensor for the times when you hunt for your night-time snack, plus the old-school manually controlled lights that you can control as you need.

4) rooms that need mood lighting: living room, sitting room. I would use a motion sensor floor-light for going around at night, and I would use manual control for the other lights to control the intensity and colour of the lighting. Making these lights smart means that you may turn the lights on and off with a smart phone app. The selection is huge, pick according to your heart’s desire: https://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/categories/departments/lighting/smart_lighting/

Of all of these, my favourite is clearly the motion sensor light bulb. You can set it to stay on for 1-5-10 minutes after it detects the last movement, and to only switch on when it’s dark outside and you need artificial light. These two options and the fact that these bulbs operate independently of everything will turn your home smart in a snap. You can forget about the existence of most light switches.

Let’s tackle the main counter-argument right now: if your light is set to be on for 5 minutes, if you leave the room after just one minute, the light is on unnecessarily for 4 minutes. This is true but with today’s LED technology this is only marginally wasteful. You’d be much worse off leaving the light on accidentally for a night. So focus on solving this problem – it happens to many of us.

Less important kinds of automation

Having discussed the two top choices for home automation, let’s look at the less important options, which nonetheless do make your home more comfortable.

Infra-red washbasin taps: Since you’re retrofitting your home, only battery-operated taps can be used. In my experience, you won’t need to worry about replacing the battery more than once a year at most.

(Search for “infra basin taps” phrases.)

Bluetooth-compatible speakers in the living room: you can turn these on any time with your phone. The selection of these is really wide. You should decide first what you would want to use it for. By and large, there are three objectives:

  • background music (any kind of speaker would work but it should be small)

  • listening to music (independent solutions are available to buy. These are bigger; but they also give you better sound quality)

  • watching films (the amplifier must be Bluetooth-capable)

There are two ways to make power outlets more usable:

  • they should work not only as 220V-power outlets but also as USB chargers (for example, 
  • they should allow control from a cell phone

For increased safety, your smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector should also be smart. This way you’ll know if there’s a problem even when you’re away: www.nest.com

If you take these pieces of advice, you’ll end up with a 21st century home. And you haven’t even need to call a bricklayer or computer expert to achieve it.

Guide to cleaning robots

We have been using cleaning robots at home for 15 years, so in this article i will share my experiences of them in general instead of focusing on specific models.

We have been using cleaning robots at home for 15 years, so in this article i will share my experiences of them in general instead of focusing on specific models.

Here are the different types of cleaning robots:

  • robot vacuum cleaner (we have been using one for 14 years)
  • robot duster (we have been using it for 5 years)
  • robot mop (we have been using it for 10 years)
  • robot window cleaner (we have been using it for 4 years)
  • robot swimming pool cleaner (we have been using it for 4 years)
  • robot lawnmower (we haven’t used it)

Robot vacuum cleaner

Most robots still work based on the principle of chaos, that is, they move ahead for a while then change direction. With this method they can vacuum a room quite thoroughly in 1-2 hours. This method slightly fails along the edges, as the robot moves along as long as it bumps into something or hits the corner of the room. In a 10 m2 room 1 hour is enough, but in a room larger than 15 m2 it should run a 2 hour-long programme. Many of the robots now know how to get back to the charger. We haven’t used this function because the robot is normally left in one room per day. After usage the dust bag is emptied and the appliance is put on the charger. If you want to use the robot mornings and evenings as well, it is worth using the automatic charging function, as after the morning session you only need to empty the bag once you are back home and the new session can immediately start. The robot is very thorough, therefore emptying the dust bag is highly recommended before usage. The vacuum intensity can by increased by using brushes which also need cleaning after 2-3 occasions. This is a bit more time consuming as hairs get stuck everywhere due to the winding motion.

If it is possible the area to be vacuumed should be well defined so that the robot will not get stuck. For that you should use the virtual wall you get with the robot. It cuts the route of the robot with infra signals. If you do not have an infra wall, cushions or a chair laid on the floor also does the job.

The latest robots map the room first and then begin to clean systematically. From my personal experience I would recommend this function only if there are a lot of obstacles in the room and this type of robot doesn’t cost much more than traditional models working with the chaotic method.

The battery normally lasts for 3 years and with well-known brands (e.g.: iRobot) spare parts are available. One of my robots was 10 years old and I basically got back a new one from them.

An example of this type of robot: https://www.irobot.com/for-the-home/vacuuming/roomba

Robot duster

We love the robot duster the most as it is easiest and simplest to clean and maintain. It functions as a self-propelled dusting cloth. The robot provides the self-propelling part, you have to install the duster before switching the appliance on. We use a simple furniture cloth on every surface (parquets, hard finish) that is not carpet. The chaos concept also works here but we also noticed that on large surfaces the robot works according to the logic of moving along and turning back. With a long programme a 20 m2 surface can be easily cleaned.

It is important to note that this way of cleaning isn’t equal to mopping the floor.

Here is an example for this type of robot: https://www.irobot.com/for-the-home/mopping

Robot mop

This type of robot is very sensitive about being maintained as it uses water. Usage means two distinct steps: first the robot is on and in the second step it is not on but the surface is drying. The latest models have a function for drying but I personally would buy this model only if I did not have to pay any extra. The most common technical problem is connected to the water pump. It is highly recommended to check the instructions as it is not obvious what parts of the appliance you need to clean. The robot is very thorough, it completely removes split fruit juice without leaving sticky stains behind. It is very important to use only non-foaming detergent! We often use warm water with low vinegar content.

An example of this type: https://www.robotguru.hu/irobot-scooba-450-felmoso-robot

Update: as far as I know, iRobot doesn’t produce its models any more. I assume because of maintenance and failure issues…

Robot window cleaner

The robot window cleaner works on the basis of creating vacuum between itself and the window pane and sustains vacuum while moving around. It is wired and the battery is to ensure that the appliance cannot fall off in case of power failure. It does not take into account obstacles, so it always looks for the top corner and horizontally moves forward and back it when cleaning the window. In my opinion it cannot cope with a round shape window. Detergent for cleaning goes in the pads at the bottom of the appliance. I normally apply some detergent on the window too. The result is reasonable as dust disappears but some marks are left behind. We made a mistake of using the robot on the external surface of the windows. The external side is much dirtier due to insects so the robot doesn’t work properly and vacuum force might disappear. If there is no vacuum, the robot falls off. Unfortunately our robot never recovered after an accident despite having been serviced. Therefore, based on our experience the price value ratio of the robot is really low as after one accident it cannot be used anymore.

Here is an example of the robot: https://www.ecovacs.com/us/winbot-window-cleaning-robot/WINBOT-850

Robot pool cleaner

This is also a wired appliance so you must bear in mind that it has to move without obstructions. The material of the cable enhances smooth operation on the surface of the pool, so I always place the cable on the water surface as much as possible. The robot works with a long operation time, much longer than other robot cleaners. More expensive versions also cope with steps and the side walls of the pool. Our appliance can clean about 30 cm of the sides, but it does that well. It continuously sucks water and filters it through a cloth bag. This bag needs cleaning after every use. The appliance was designed to filter small particles of dirt maximally, so it is not recommended to use it for cleaning your outdoor pool after winter.

Here is an example of the robot: https://www.irobot.com/for-the-home/outdoor-maintenance/mirra

Robot lawn mover

When choosing the type you must pay attention to the size of area the producer recommends it for. This recommendation should be taken as the maximum capacity of the appliance. Why so? Because this type of robot operates according to the idea of continuity. The running time of other types of robots is not much longer than a couple of hours, meanwhile, a robot lawn mower operates “continuously”. It always mows a bit, based on the principle of chaos, so it has to work relatively long and regularly in order to maintain the whole garden. Though we do not own this type of appliance, I cannot image it being used if you are a dog owner. Constant noise, even though not loud, can be disturbing in some cases. If you accept these inconveniences, you will have no problem with the results: you will get a nicely mowed lawn.

It is crucial that the operation area of the robot should be confined with wires before usage. Laying down the wire is not overly complicated task, no one should be afraid of it.

IMPORTANT QUESTION: who is the robot cleaner recommended for?

It is for those who don’t want to complete cleaning in one big project but are willing to “organise” it. Robots demand storing-charging and cleaning and maintaining, these jobs also require some level of organisation by the user.

Sharing pictures with the grandparents

I decided to use a factual title for this post to make it clear what it’s about. You have the grandparents who have some basic computer skills but who typically shouldn’t be the subject of your experimentation with the latest trendy services. You don’t want to discourage them. But if you don’t live together, you still want to share your memories with them somehow. I’m going to tell you about our journey before we found a good solution to this problem.

I decided to use a factual title for this post to make it clear what it’s about. You have the grandparents who have some basic computer skills but who typically shouldn’t be the subject of your experimentation with the latest trendy services. You don’t want to discourage them. But if you don’t live together, you still want to share your memories with them somehow. I’m going to tell you about our journey before we found a good solution to this problem.

How digital pictures get piled up

Back when it was just the two of us, photos seemed to get piled up as if on their own. Even in the early days of digital photography people tended to take a hundred times as many pictures as than could be realistically viewed in a lifetime. We fell under this category: we took pictures of everything we saw. Then smart phones came along, with limited storage, so we only took 90 times as many pictures as needed. You don’t even realise this until you start organising your pictures. When you see that you still have 9,356 images to go through in your image viewing app, well, that’s the point when you just give up and go do something else. But how do you end up with pictures the grandparents would enjoy looking at?

Should you email them?

No, no, no!!! This was a poor solution even back in the day. Photos sent in emails are just momentary messages that will never, ever become a photo album. They’ll never become an easily accessible collection of memories that you’ll pick up year after year to look at fondly. Plus, with these “2,000 Megapixel” images it’s easy to use up your seemingly infinite email storage and your mobile data package.

Should we post them on Facebook?

When we first encountered the problem of sharing pictures, there was very little difference between Facebook and Twitter. There were very few image management functions available on Facebook. Today Facebook can be a viable alternative, but only if you properly manage privacy settings: closed groups, picture only visible to those that you want to share it with, and so on. The point is, today Facebook is a viable option, but to me it’s still complicated. Also, with all the ads and comments and pop-up windows, I just don’t have the feeling of “I’m just looking at a photo album”.

Photo album wanted

This was my motto when I started searching for a service. I had the following requirements in mind for it:

  • it should handle closed groups

  • you should be able to bookmark the page and it should always show the latest picture up front. I set the grandparents’ browser so that all they need is to click on the link to access the pictures.

  • it should handle photos and videos in the same place: this was the most critical requirement because for some reason, videos were always put in the “not pictures” category.

  • it should have basic image editing functions

  • it should have a working app for both iOS and Android

Back then only one service met these requirements: Flickr. So I didn’t need to do comparative tests. Today you also have Google Photos service. But to me, the Google service appears too “smart.” For the life of me I can’t figure out what and when and why things are included in Google Photos. So we keep using Flickr.

Daily use

The thing I like most about Flickr is that this is nothing but a family photo album.

When uploading your pictures, try to limit yourself to 10-15 images a month. So when you look back on the year, it won’t take more than 10 minutes.

I use the phone’s camera to capture the moment, and when I have a few minutes, I launch the Flickr app and upload the images. If I happen to get a photo via email that I would like to see in the album, I can simply forward it to a Flickr email-address. This worked so well that one day I was hit with a wave of nostalgia.

Our family

If you think about it, the family’s story did not begin with the birth of our children (that was when we started sharing photo albums), but with the birth of the parents. So one day I got all the digital pictures taken since 1998 and went through them to select the best ones. I take pride in the fact that at the end, out of the more than 10,000 pictures, we had 1,500 good photos to view. I really liked this project, so I asked my parents to lend me the old, printed photographs. I went through them and scanned a selection of 1,000 images.

The result is an online photo album that has family images in chronological order starting from the birth of the parents (that is, us).

It would be fun…

I’ve tried using digital picture frames that displayed new images automatically. None of them have stood the test of time. What would be fun is if the smart TV displayed these photos. I’m on the hunt for a proper TV/app combo. In my opinion, the television set would be the ideal photo sharing/photo viewing place for the grandparents. Unfortunately, I have yet to find a solution that works. If you have any advice on this, please share it with me.

PS.: I regularly back up the Flickr album offline, just in case. I use the Bulkr app for this.

Power consumers in the household

Electricity is used in households in three different manners. I’ve collected a few useful tips around these three power uses that I find important to make everyday life easier or that I’ve come across as a problem in other people’s homes.

Electricity is used in households in three different manners.

  • 220V power outlets are used for regular household appliances

  • Low voltage adapters are used to power rechargeable devices such as smart phones and tablets

  • Finally, batteries are used for a number of other gadgets

I’ve collected a few useful tips around these three power uses that I find important to make everyday life easier or that I’ve come across as a problem in other people’s homes.

220V tips and tricks – The world of power outlets

If you’re about to have your house constructed/renovated, you should think hard about the placement of power outlets. You can be certain that you’ll miss a plug where you need one, or there will be fewer power outlets than needed. This basic problem is exacerbated by a few more that you’ll encounter every single day.

  • rooms usually have four walls. Power outlets should be installed on at least three of them.

  • if you’re planning on putting a wardrobe or a floor to ceiling book case against a wall, you can put the power outlet just below the ceiling.

  • one power outlet is never enough. Always place at least two together. Power strips take up more space and are uglier than sockets installed in the wall.

  • the living room and the kitchen really “eat up” power outlets. You often need more than 8-10 of them.

  • use surge protectors for more valuable appliances and devices. You can install surge protectors for the power outlets you already have. For example, use this cheap protector.
  • if you have a table in the middle of the room, you can use an in-floor power outlet

  • nowadays, smart power strips are becoming more widespread. These can be controlled from your phone or timed as you wish. Here you can see about one in detail. This function can be handy if you want to automatically control lighting, or to start up your kitchen appliances in the morning.
  • to protect children, you should childproof your outlets. We didn’t have much luck with the Ikea safety plugs. We kept losing the red plug that was supposed to serve as a key to remove the safety plugs. We’ve tried a number of swivel socket protectors. Finally, we’ve found a type by Reer that lasted for years.
  • power strips are often also extension cords in one. Yet we keep an extension cord with one socket for the vacuum cleaner. It’s easier to move around in the house with it, and you don’t need to keep unplugging and plugging in the vacuum cleaner when you go to a new room.

  • cords on the floor collect dust. It’s better to have them tied up on the wall. Just one screw in the wall or in the furniture is enough to hold these cords up. You should use cable ties to fasten them.

 

The world of USB chargers

Most of the rechargeable devices use 0.5-, 1- or 2-amp battery chargers. Honestly speaking, I now avoid 0.5-amp chargers because devices that take a lot of power such as most smart phones take forever to charge with them.

  • a fundamental accessory of your nightstand is a phone charger

  • in the kitchen, we use a USB hub. During the day this is where we tend to plug in the devices whose battery died (tablet, phone, watch, mini drone battery). This article describes a bunch of these USB charging hubs. Choose what you like in terms of design, your wishes and your wallet.
  • better desk lamps today have USB charging capabilities. Just stay away from the ones with 0.5-amp chargers.

  • you can use multi-charging cables. These are universal chargers that allow you to charge all your devices whether they have lightning, micro USB or mini USB plugs.
    multi_cable (1)
  • If you want to have a power bank on hand, the ones I’d recommend can double as torch lights. We’ve used several products of this company with satisfaction: Bioliteenergy.com

Batteries and rechargeable batteries

The life-changing moment came for us when I decided to keep all the batteries and rechargeable batteries in the same spot. I set up a nook with the following things:

Since these are all in one spot, it is easier to see if something’s running low. As for brands, I have no particular preference. Although for rechargeable batteries I’ve started to rely more on the Enelope brand lately.

Cyber crimes in the family

Best practice to prepare your kids and yourself to manage passwords and other secrets in the family.

Best practice to prepare your kids and yourself to manage passwords and other secrets in the family.

I came across an infographic the other day that explained how to talk to your kids about the dangers of the Internet. Taking that a little further, I’ve thought about what you should do in the family to protect yourself and your loved ones from annoyances that could have been avoided with a little more care. Before I begin, I must make it clear that I’m not a security expert. What follows is based on everyday experience rather than expert advice. If you take just one piece of advice from here, you’d be better off than you were before reading this post. Let’s look at the issues one by one.

Passwords today

If you use passwords for websites and services that you can memorise, you’re reckless – unless, of course, you have photographic memory. Unfortunately, with today’s computing capacities, you don’t need to be anyone special for your passwords to be worth cracking. All you need to know is that passwords shorter than ten characters are totally outdated. Even passwords with 20 characters protect you only if the people who want your data don’t want to spend too much time on cracking your account. It’s not just about the length of passwords any more. To make your password safe, you should use a variety of characters (and two-step verification – see below).

What does this mean in practice?

  • creating your own password (this can be memorised)
  • if you want to create your own password, start with linking two or three words together. You can play with different languages or use nonsensical words. For example: brown apple flower
  • add capitals and lowercase letters, numbers and special characters (space is also a special character). For example: browN:Apple flower
  • then add a character that’s not normally used in writing, and you’re done: For example: browN:$Apple flower

Using a password generator (these passwords can’t be memorised): there are software solutions that help generate random series of characters.

Now you have at least one password that appears safe; let’s call it the Master password. This should be the one you actually memorise. If you have one such password, you don’t need to remember the rest. You’ll use the Master password to encrypt all your other passwords.

Use password manager software to store your passwords

A good password manager software program today must meet at least the following requirements:

  • it encrypts data locally. This means that no service provider should have your Master password – once something’s stored online, it may be cracked.
  • it stores the data in the cloud. This doesn’t contradict the point above because your data are already encrypted with a Master password. This means that your passwords are backed up and their storage is location independent.
  • it should be usable on more than one device. In addition to your computer, your cell phone is used for many things.
  • it should support sharing passwords within a safe group. This is useful for families as well as companies.
  • it shouldn’t be expensive.

I’m going to show you two solutions, one free, one paid.
– the 
Keepass software is free, and it stores data locally on the computer. But if you upload the encrypted password data on Google Drive, you’ll be able to access the passwords on your cell phone. A drawback of this software is that you can only share passwords with your family members by using different password database files for yourself and for your family. Another drawback is the overly simplistic mobile interface, making it a bit difficult to use. But it’s safe and free of charge. You can make it work with the browsers on your computer, but setting that up requires some computer expertise.
1Password is a monthly subscription-based service, but it meets all the requirements of a password management solution. A particularly likeable special feature is that 1Password works with your cell phone’s browser, so it automatically fills out the login information on the selected websites. (That is, if it has the Master password.)

That’s the theory. And then you have the practice.

In spite of the well-thought out principle above, humans are LAZY. Even I don’t store all the passwords for all services and websites. How do I decide when to be lazy and when security-conscious? This depends on the kind of data stored about us and which of those I find sensitive:

  • scenario 1: I want to try a service: I’m just looking, so I don’t give out my real email-address but an anonymous one registered for this purpose. This has a short but suitably complex, tried and tested password. If I decide to use the service for real, I’ll re-register with my real email-address and a safe password. This solution involves NO password storage.
  • scenario 2: I order something from a shop I don’t use often: I don’t register but check out as a guest (doesn’t save bank card data). I’ll survive having to type in my personal information twice a year. This solution involves NO password storage.
  • scenario 3: I often order something from the shop but it doesn’t reveal much about me, and the store doesn’t save bank card data: I register with my real email-address but use the short password that was mentioned above. In this case, identity theft is not a real risk at the shop, since you give out your address in many places anyway. This solution involves NO password storage.
  • scenario 4: I often order something from a shop and it’s important that it remains a secret; or the shop stores bank card data: This DOES involve password generation and password storage.
  • scenario 5: using an online service: This DOES involve password generation and password storage.
  • Facebook: This DOES involve password generation and password storage. But I create my password so that it can be memorised if I want it to.
  • Email: This DOES involve password generation and password storage. But I create my password so that it can be memorised if I want it to.

 

Logging in with Facebook or Google

Recently, many websites and services have started to allow you to log in with your Facebook or Google account. To me, this convenient scenario equals those above that were marked as involving password generation and password storage. But it’s important to know what you allow the websites/services access to. Let me give you an example that made me think twice about this the other day. I wanted to use a function of the  IFTTT service that sends a notification to your phone if you get a certain email. But for this not only was I asked to authorise Google login, but IFTTT wanted access to the actual email. I didn’t want this, so I had to find another solution. I’d like to stress here that you really need to think hard when a website/app/service asks for access to your most valuable user data, that is, your email and Facebook profile.

Always, always lock everything

To sum up what you’ve learnt here so far: you need to remember one password, and then you’ll be able to see all of your other passwords on your computer and cell phone. And if you need to give access to it to a family member, you can do that, too.

Unfortunately, every chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Your weakest links include the computer (maybe more than one), cell phone, tablet. If any of these get into the wrong hands, your passwords may be revealed.

  • Most devices think that if you enter the Master password then it’s you using the device. This is all fine but only if the password database automatically closes after, say, three minutes, or once the device is locked. A typical workplace scenario is that you pop out for a coffee for just two minutes and you leave the computer unlocked. DON’T do this! Learn that two-character keyboard shortcut that locks the computer and use it whenever you get up and leave. You should get used to using it; it’s not a problem if you “automatically” use it even at home.
  • Likewise, lock you phone when you put it away. Try to avoid using your fingerprint instead of a password on your cell phone. In my opinion, a fingerprint is enough to protect your phone data, but not for your precious passwords. Just think about a night out when you don’t remember everything the next day – you shouldn’t give anyone a chance to abuse the situation and your fingerprint. (My suggestion is that if you do use your fingerprint to unlock your phone, the alternative shouldn’t be a pin code but a suitably strong password you came up with.
  • So you have to type in the Master password on the phone. When you do this, cover up the phone screen with your other hand. Modern cameras can see the screen from a distance of several metres.

To sum up what’s been discussed so far, you can say that only you have access to your stored passwords. All in all, you must remember two passwords: the Master password, and a password that allows you to unlock your phone or computer without your fingerprint.

The 12+1 commandments

Interestingly enough, kids are faster than adults to understand the issues described above. They don’t have bad habits set in yet. In summary, here are the steps to follow:

1) Have a Master password, the “boss” of everything.
2) Have a password for devices you use your fingerprint to log in.
3) Always lock the devices, just like you lock the door when you leave home.
4) In addition to your regular email-address (which contains your name), have at least one extra email-address. You can forward the messages you get here to your real email address.
5) Use a password manager software where you can save all your secret information. Only you can see it.
6) Learn your Facebook and email password by heart.
7) In addition to Facebook and your email, there is other important personal data that should be protected. The best way to protect it is the so-called two-step verification. This means that, for example, you get a text message/generate code within an app to verify your identity when you log in. This means that if an unauthorised person learns your password somehow, he/she won’t be able to log in with it because you get notification on your phone, and because you use your phone to verify your identity.
8) Check for the privacy settings for every service you use. If there’s something you don’t understand, look it up online or ask someone in the know, but don’t just leave it at that.

There are a few other things I’d recommend doing:
9) Use a virus scanner.
10) Install updates.
11) Don’t click on any email attachment if you don’t know the person who sent it or if you’re unsure whether you know him/her.
12) Use your browser’s HTTPS setting. Today, any website worth visiting must be able to handle it.
12+1) If any of your passwords has potentially been exposed, take the time to change it, even if it’s the Master password.

As an afterword to those who made it to this point, or to those who doubt that this is all useful, I’d like to recommend some scary-amusing lesson on the topic: watch episode “Shut Up and Dance” in the third season of the series Black Mirror. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shut_Up_and_Dance_(Black_Mirror)

How to live for 100 years? Smart gadgets in service of your health

Or, what smart gadgets are useful and why- if you want to lead a healthy life? The way I see it, health-related gadgets connecting to the Internet are often answers to simple problems when they first appear in their 1.0 version. Then, in order to be able to sell the 5.0 version, their manufacturers cram them with every little thing even if it doesn’t appear to be needed to solve the original problem. I’ve been using several of these devices for years; this post relies mostly on my experiences with them.

Or, what smart gadgets are useful and why- if you want to lead a healthy life? The way I see it, health-related gadgets connecting to the Internet are often answers to simple problems when they first appear in their 1.0 version. Then, in order to be able to sell the 5.0 version, their manufacturers cram them with every little thing even if it doesn’t appear to be needed to solve the original problem. I’ve been using several of these devices for years; this post relies mostly on my experiences with them.

I’d like to show you three devices that measure and record health-related data. Recently, they’ve become unnecessarily overcomplicated in their latest reincarnations, but I still wouldn’t give them up. The great thing about these devices is that they all have less trendy, simpler, slower, less accurate and cheaper analogue versions. I still recommend the newer, Internet-linked versions. Let’s see why.

Bathroom scale

When I first came across the smart scale made by Withings, I looked at it mostly as a motivational tool. I knew nothing about my body mass index and didn’t care about my body fat, but I disliked seeing my former slim self disappear under layers upon layers of fat. So when I hit 116 kg, I bought the scale to be able to see on charts how I lose weight.

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The motivation the scale provided was not as fast and spectacular as I’d hoped, but the scale did help me track the trends in my body weight.

When you buy things like this is, the second reason is almost always that it’ll be good for the children. This is what I had in mind, too. So the other function that drew me to this scale is that it can track babies’ weight gain.

img_4334 (1)

To give you an example, this is my daughter’s weight chart: The scale cleverly recognises the person standing on it, based on the body weight of the family members. When two people in the family have the same weight, the recognition function doesn’t work, but the scale simply asks, who is it? You can select from up to three options by shifting your body weight, which I think is an ingenious solution. I don’t know what happens if four members of the family have the same weight… Our scale can accommodate 7 users, and it doesn’t get confused unless the kids mess up (on purpose, usually) the name selection.

We use the second generation of the scale now. This one measures temperature, CO2 levels, BMI, body fat, and it even tells you the weather forecast for the day. In other words, it has all these functions I don’t need.

Thermometer

We’ve used up about a dozen of the old school digital thermometers over the years. If we need to be certain of the reading, we still go back to the traditional mercury-in-glass thermometer. In our experience, the Internet-connected thermometer is more accurate than the digital ear thermometer, but it falls behind the mercury thermometer in terms of accuracy.

thermo-baby (1)

This device measures from the artery and calculates the temperature from that. In addition to its basic function, what caught my attention was that you can select whose temperature in your family you’ve just checked. What’s also important is that it lasts for a long time on a single charge. You don’t want your thermometer to run out of juice right when you need it.

As an aside, I’d like to give some tips on how to organise family health data. You should create a shared table (for example on Google Drive), and on separate worksheets add the following data for each family member:

Basic data: the person’s basic information that can be important for a doctor (date of birth, blood type, allergy, medicine taken regularly, social security number)

Illness journal: in separate lines, you can enter illnesses members of your family suffered from and the medicines they took. You should also mention if the medicine had any side effects.

Vaccination card: you should enter the same data that you have on your paper card. At least you won’t lose this one. In my adult years I’ve had at least three different paper vaccination cards, and I’ve always used the one I’ve managed to rummage up when I needed it.

Heart rate monitor watch

This is a device you most certainly won’t need in your daily life. Under normal circumstances, nobody needs to know their heart rate during the day. Although it’s interesting to see how you’ve had a 200 reading when someone made you mad, it doesn’t have much practical importance. The data from the watch starts to come in handy if you have a goal to achieve with your heart rate. A very typical example is to make a certain sports activity more effective. I don’t really know how to do this scientifically. I wasn’t reading articles about running before or after I ran, and I didn’t analyse my pulse rate charts. Instead, I kept an eye on the current heart rate, and watched what kind of signals my body was sending to me. Based on this, I have now learnt to optimise my running for distance, weight loss or for time – depending on what the current goal is.

Back in the day, I tried a chest strap heart rate monitor, but I never got used to it. It was just uncomfortable and clumsy.  Since I use the heart rate monitor for sports, I only wear the watch when I’m engaged in some sports activity.

Things I wouldn’t mind trying

I’ve never had a problem getting up in the morning; maybe that’s why I keep postponing getting a gadget that helps with that. Supposedly it works in a way that you set a 30-minute window when you need to get up, and within that, the gadget decides the best moment to wake you. If any of you’ve had a good experience with such a device, please let me know.

Then there’s a watch that automatically measures your calorie intake, supposedly through your skin.

The air we breathe out also contains a surprising amount of information. You’ve surely come across the police checking your blood alcohol content from your breath. But Mint says there’s a lot of other data to analyse in your breath.

Oh by the way, smart toothbrushes have been around for a while. I personally stick with the good old manual toothbrush.

Not to mention the gadgets what make our sleep better. The super comfy anti snoring smart pillow that plays music, monitors and reacts to snoring, analyses sleep and intelligently wakes up the sleeper in the morning.

And what about devices that promise to analyse your blood quickly and accurately in your own home? I think they still belong to the realm of science fiction.