Smarthome 2021: Homekit, Vocalinc, Tailwind, Rainmachine, Raspberry Pi Homebridge, Matter, and Thread too

Well, time once again for the bi-monthly update on home automation. The main things are that we now have four different houses laid out with Apple Homekit as a base and here is what is working, some tips, tricks, and some traps that cover how to handle multiple homes, multiple users and gives a list of working (Tailwind, Rainmachine, Homebridge) and big disappointments (Vocalink A21/E26 L3).

Tips: Going all Siri was easier than expected, great prosumer networking

OK, we are now that the point where we got a whole bucket of HomePod mini’s and it is actually getting natural to just say, “Hey Siri, set an alarm for 5 minutes” or “Hey Siri, turn on the power in Grace’s room.” A million years ago, Microsoft talked about “ambient computing” and now it is finally here. I know this is the last choice for most folks after Amazon Alexa and Google Home, but we chose it because it is more private (Google, Ring) and works better together (Alexa) even if Siri is not as bright as its cousins.

So, the goals are to gradually automate all the houses where “someone regularly asks me what is wrong.” I’m finding that it is better to give a new home network than to struggle with that, so with the Smart Home comes the need for a network that is reliable, secure, covers the whole house and can be managed remotely.

While there are lots of choices here from the consumer-grade Eero, Ubiquiti Amperity, the big thing is that you want gear that is:

  • Not going to be flaky, that is reliable and not require handholding
  • Manageable from anywhere, so it needs a management console so that I can work on it from anywhere and debug things
  • Gets updated regularly because this is such an easy attack point for hackers, so you really want intrusion detection and blocking built right in.

Basically, I think it makes the most sense to overinvest in the base components of the network because when you spend hours trying to make WiFi work, having low signal and then APs that crash is just terrible.

Tricks: Apple Home is complicated to manage, Homekit Installation randomness

But here are the notes on how to set up multiple homes with multiple users:

  1. Multiple homes means that you do an Add Home and then you can put devices in there. As I’ve said before, beware that you need to do a full device reset if you move things between homes. So choose carefully.
  2. And that editing the home order has that strange go to a home then hit the back arrow to get to the hidden pane that manages and deletes homes

The really tricky part though is getting multiple users working properly:

  1. First of all the devices need to be relatively new, they have to be IOS 13.1 or higher. So iPhone 6 need not apply.
  2. Then when you add a new person, you need to make sure to hit “Edit Accessories” to give them admin permissions and also can “Stream and Record”. Note that if you have 6 people across 4 homes, you are going to be doing that 24 times. it gets repetitive.
  3. Notifications are only handled on a per device basis, so the notifications features which are cool like notify if a strange face when you are not at home have to be done for every device a person owns. So if you have 6 people and 4 homes and 2 devices each (Macs included), you are editing notifications 48 different times and notifications require you change a bunch of things, so it is something like 150 different screens you get to deal with ugh. I find that it is easiest when configuring if you do all this for folks because the dialogs are really confusing.
  4. Since there is no management console, you can’t just click all this stuff or even see who can do what where.

Tips: Automating the next layer, Tailwind door openers, Rainmachine sprinkler control

You can really see this in the strange bugs and failures that all these low-cost, low-margin products have where the price is incredibly low, but they end up crashing and not working. But here are some notes on the latest long devices:

  1. Tailwind. I got t his nearly six months ago and there is a massive sale going on right now where a opener that used to cost $99 is now $69 (goodness, I hope they don’t go bankrupt!). But, I looked at a bunch of smart garage door openers and the Tailwind came out ahead because it is wired so more reliable. It puts a magnetic sensor on the door and the instructions while long are pretty easy to do. The tricky part is that the installation video covers the current set up 6 minutes into the video. The best wireless one is the Chamberlin IQ, but the Amazon folks says that connectivity to the sensor isn’t really great. The Tailwind isn’t technically a Homekit product yet, but you can get on the beta.
  2. Rainmachine Pro 16. They make a sprinkler control and in our climate crisis times, they can save alot of water. The main issue is that setup is really confusing. When the device powers up, you need to be next to it and it has a dedicated Wifi setup. When you setup, it asks if you want to add it to the Apple Home, but if you click yes, it gets added, but you can’t see it anywhere and you can’t delete it. Yes, I have a question in to Rainmachine on this. The actual Rainmachine application isnice though. The thing has a touchscreen and you can finally get one (the Pro) with a hard ethernet connection and not depend on WiFi, also unlike the Rachio, it doesn’t require an internet connection, it does use internet weather forecasts, but the programming is on the device. One small pain is that for large installation with more than 16 zones, you need to buy and program multiple devices, so if you have say a big house with 56 zones, you are going to buying four of these and managing them all, there is no daisy chaining. The physical setup isn’t complicated. You plug the 24V power supply in and then insert the two leads into the panel. You basically push down on the holder and push the lead in. The other thing is that you then insert the common ground in and then each lead goes into each zone.
  3. Homebridge on Raspberry Pi. Well, we basically have focused here on just Homekit devices, but there are others out there. For networking, we’ve been using UniFi and have their UniFi protect cameras. It works great, but with homebridge, you can a whole host of proprietary things and push them into Homekit. It’s incredibly easy to do, just download the brew install raspberry-pi-imager to your Mac, and then go to other system and download homebridge, insert your SD card in and it will burn an image that you can stick into your Raspberry Pi 4 and you have a homebridge up and running. You then browse to the ip address of the Raspberry pi and port 8581 and in the web UI, you will get a QR code. Just go to your Apple Home application and choose Add Accessory and show it to the iPhone camera and it with Add a Bridge for you and suddenly you can access a host of devices. You can then browse to the plugin menu and search for say “Unifi Protect”. Then it’s a simple matter of going to the Unifi Admin, create a new local adminstrative user for Protect and stick that into the configuration screen. And you are done! Suddenly all those cameras appear in the Apple Home application. You don’t get image recognition but you do get motion events.

Tips: Limited automation with IFTTT

The amount of automation allowed is really small. For instance, you can’t have a motion sensor send you a notification on the phone, you can only have it turn on a light. Whoever worked on this at Apple, doesn’t have a model that is a publish or subscribe event model. So, you have to pay for IFTTT and that of course fails if your internet connection goes down. Frustrating.

Traps: Vocalinc Connection and Reliability, Wemo Network Flakiness

It does feel like the Apple Home application and the way it works is a Rube Goldberg mess of random peripherals by random companies. It feels way more like the Windows world where things sort of work, but the requirements aren’t strong enough. They started with very strict rules and had no momentum, so it sure feels like a product manager decided that lots of brands >> uniform things work. That’s actually kind of un-Apple like really.

So, here is a personal, unscientific list of reliability. That is, when your network goes down, which devices just come up and which don’t fail:

  1. Philips Hue. These light bulbs are expensive and they need a hub, but they really do just work. And don’t be confused, this has nothing to do with Philips the company, this is actually a company called Signify that is doing all the work. For power geeks, what they have is a Philips uses Zigbee underneaths, so the light bulbs can communicate with Bluetooth or with ZigBee (using IEEE 802.15.4). It uses 2.4GHz usually running at 250Kbps and is a mesh network, so every Hue light bulb can relay traffic to a hub which converts Zigbee into IP. As an aside, the main issue with ZigBee is that it can’t be used with GPL and there is an annual fee to use it.
  2. Apple HomePod mini. OK, these don’t go to the top of the list, because I see quite a few transient errors with HomePods particularly in larger installations, I get these transient errors where it will say a HomePod is not responding, but when I go to it, it plays fine. What’s excited about this device (see the section on futures later is that it has Thread built into it, so it can use its 2.4GHz radio to talk low-power, low-latency, meshed to Thread devices.
  3. Apple TV 4K (2021). The main trick here is that you can’t just name them the save as your HomePod, otherwise, you will get strange names like “Living Room (2)”, so make sure you name them “Living Room AppleTV”, if you do this then when you install a no-name HomePod in a room, it automatically gets the room name, so just putting a HomePod in the Living Room enables, “play music in the living room” and then “play video on the Living room AppleTV” works as well. And like the HomePod mini, it also has the thread protocol built into it.
  4. Eufy Solo Indoor Cam C24 2K and Eufy Solo IndoorCam P24 Pan and Tilt. These are typically $30 and $60, but you can get them on sale, while they do have the normal Apple connection issues, they seem to work really well and they support Homekit Secure Video. The main pain is that to do things like Pan and Tilt, you have to tunnel to their native applications. Apple really needs the notion of a widget in Apple Home because every device has different controls. Technically, these are powered devices so function as WiFi devices (no ZigBee etc stuff to worry about) and their network connections work
  5. Denon AVC-X3700H. Technically speaking these receivers are Airplay 2 compatible (so you can link them with other Airplay 2 devices like the HomePod mini for multi-room audio). Turns out thy don’t talk about it, but it also supports Homekit by default since all Airplay 2 devices. But there is a homebridge link that connects to the Denon 2020 control protocol. This only works for late model
  6. Logitech Harmony. Ok, the jury is still out on this one, but it looks promising. This works in Apple Homekit via Homebridge and theoretically, you could get rid of the Harmony application and just use the Logitech Harmony to control it. Sadly, Logitech has discontinued the Harmony and there is no 64-bit MacOS client anymore. The main thing it does by default but basically, you get the ability automagically a button that sets the activity button, so you can turn on each input and run it from Apple Home which is pretty neat. The main issue is that
  7. Eve Room 2. This is a temperature and motion sensor, it works fine, but it needs to be really near a WiFi access point to work, even with a Unifi AP running at maximum, it needs to be within 15 feet of it. Also the microUSB connector is a little loose, so it doesn’t work with all cables. The main wonderful thing about Eve though is the future, they support Thread (think of it as low power, mesh networking for IoT) and most of all their application exposes all kinds of things (like the address of a home) that you don’t see with Apple Home.

Then there are unreliable Homekit devices, but it doesn’t seem to really matter:

  1. Samsung Q60T. This is one of our monitors we got in 2020. Again, you would somehow expect the remotes just to work in Homekit since they already have a remote function with Apple TV, but this just basically allows you turn on and off your TVs. If you want to do more and actually control it from Homekit, then I’m trying the homebridge to Samsung TV that is running Tizen really.
  2. LG C9 TVs. These seem to have an issue in how you power them down, so they report “Updating or no response” forever. Of course, I’m not sure why Homekit even has television in them, they don’t let you run them as a remote (you need a Logitech Harmony or something to do that).
  3. Kaiterra Air Quality Monitor. This is an air quality monitor and has been working great with their dedicated applications, but I get a “device not available message all the time” and it needs to be powered on and off
  4. Saitechi Dual Smart Outlet. I have their dual outlets, they are expensive at $60 for two outlets, but you get power monitoring (although Homekit doesn’t allow power monitoring yet, one of the issues is that the actual Apple Home only has a limited set of parameters).

Then there are devices I can’t really recommend:

  1. WeMo Smart Plug. Belkin makes good gear and these $25 things are cheaper than the Satechi, but they really seem not to like WiFi changes. When I change an access point, they will not find the network and require a complete reset.
  2. Vocalinc L3 A21, E26/E27 light bulbs. Ok, one bulb powers up but refuses to pair and the other worked for a while but no longer lights.

Tip for the The Future: IP-based Matter and Thread Link Level

Well, this is quite a mess, but as usual Internet Protocols come to the rescue. The big shift is solving the way that Z-Wave, Zigbee each of which have application level, transport, and then link-level protocols. Not to mention Bluetooth or plain WiFi. The main thing these are trying to solve is meshed communications and running at low power (otherwise things would just all be WiFi).

But, there is some hope, turns out the guts of the new standards that are coming is going to try to unify a bunch of this. As an example, Zigbee is 2.4GHz with a proprietary link stack and their own transport with CHIP which the big three, Amazon, Google, and Apple are supporting because certifying is so hard.

First though to understand this, here’s a decoder ring of what people are talking about:

  1. Smart Home applications. These are things like the Apple Home application that let’s a user control things. Or, the Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. They are at the top of the stack.
  2. Application programming interfaces. This is how they find devices, talk to them etc. There are some big families here like the Zigbee interface and the Z-wave one.
  3. Hubs. You need these because computers use Ethernet and WiFi, but most smart home devices are going not have an Ethernet jack handy and WiFi burns alot of power and you don’t need Gbps of bandwidth. So, you need hub or gateway that translates the smart device networking to regular old IP. This is what the Philips Hue hub does for Zigbee as an example.
  4. Transport protocol. This handles how you address smart devices. Most of this has been proprietary because it needs to be low power. Zigbee and Z-wave for instance have this. The big push (as you will see below) is to try to make IPv6 the central layer. This has some great advantages in that it is standard and open, but the question is how to make it low power.
  5. Radio link protocol. Finally at the lower level, you have how a light bulb talks to things. It could use Bluetooth, it could use WiFi, but many of them again for power reasons use proprietary radio standards like Zigbee or Z-wave. So there is work going on to replace that with an open stack that is modern and fast called Thread (that Apple is supporting).

The result is two new developments to fix the transport and radio link. The first is Matter which basically bets on IPv6 as the ultimate transport and takes away the Zigbee stack and replaces the center part with IPv6 and this across all the different pieces. And there is a new open radio link communications standard called Thread as well. This requires a new radio stack to be running, so someday you will get Matter compatible hardware that uses Thread. Why Thread, you say? well, the big reasons are that it is low-power like Zigbee and Z-wave (FYI Philips for instance uses Zigbee over 2.4GHz to go from its hub to its devices). But the big reason is that it is very fast and also mesh, so you don’t need to have hubs everywhere. The trick is that they are using 802.15.4 MAC/PHY layer so it hopefully will be as fast as Z-Wave and Zigbee

So what the heck is going on? Well, in short, the Internet of Things (IoT) has had a big problem because it has to be very low power (much lower than WiFi) and support lots of devices (so meshing is key). The proprietary solutions that have arrived are Zigbee and Z-wave (which are of are incompatible). And then each of the application folks have done their own software to gives us Amazon Alexa, Google Home and Apple Homekit. The problem is that you need all kinds of bridges (typically from Zigbee or Z-wave to IP and then another bridge to the applications).

So at the applications layer, Google is going to let the Google Assistant control any Matter device, the Nest displays and speakers will be able to do the same. And at the link layer, Google Nest Hub. But, the big news is that Apple in iOS 15 will support Matter devices in the Home application and the HomePod mini has Thread in it (so it will talk with Thread devices and gateway them into WiFi). Hope is on the way! Then Signify (the makers of Philis HUe and WiZ), will update their hub to work with Matter.

Net, net, it’s all in the future, but it probably pays to make sure that the new stuff that you buy has a path to Matter and the devices you buy have Thread.

I’m Rich & Co.

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