DIY Hi-Fi, WiFi And Home Entertainment Pitfalls

DIY is one of the UK’s favourite pass-times. Last year the DIY industry was worth £36,000,000,0000 and caused 25,763 injuries requiring medical attention between 2014 and 2017.

I’m sure if you really looked into it you could find out how much of that £36bn was spent on repairing their own mistakes, and replacing stuff that they had broken. Look deeper still and you can probably find how much was spent getting a professional in after a disastrous weekend of failed home improvement.

DIY ranges from building a lean-to, putting together flatpack furniture, decorating or installing home entertainment systems and the like. For the most part these kinds of jobs are easy enough, don’t require any specialist tools besides pliers, screwdrivers and a drill. I could write for ages about the guy who removed all the floors and load bearing walls out for reasons known only to himself, or the one who began burrowing under his home, then his neighbours’ eventually undermining several properties down his street over the period of several years. Read more

What’s The Story With Google’s Assistant?

If you have an android phone you may have already been interfacing with some iteration of Google’s Assistant for several years. If you’ve ever been too busy to use your hands, but needed information and said “OK Google, how do I get to Sainsbury’s?” or said “Hey Google, show me pictures of kittens” (and who hasn’t!?) then you’re already an experienced Google Assistant user.

Because that’s all it takes. Say “OK” or “Hey Google” and it starts listening for instructions. Google’s language analysis is now well advanced over its competitors and can follow several complex linguistic challenges which any child could understand, but computers really struggle with.

Linguistic challenges include context. Google’s Assistant can ‘turn off the light’, which seems innocuous, but other smart assistants will need to be informed which specific light you mean. Google’s application can also follow a string of instructions, for example ‘OK Google, turn off the lights and put the heating on too’ contains ‘off’ ‘on’ and the word ‘too’ which could easily be mistaken for the number 2. According to machine learning, this is an incredibly hard thing for a computer to understand, and Google’s assistant seems to have cracked it more elegantly than other devices on the market, such as Alexa or Echo.

As well as contextual understanding, it also allows you to have an ongoing conversation, so you don’t have to use the ‘Hotword’ (the spoken trigger that starts these devices listening) every time you want to have the assistant do something. It also recognises different voices, which is great for access to shopping, games and parental controls over adult content. Read more

What’s In Google’s Home Hub?

Google’s Home Hub is the video interface which you can use to control your smart home and Google assistant, either by voice or fingertip on the 7 inch touchscreen.

Google’s Home Hub does all the things you’d expect it to, from controlling media throughout the house to the temperature and access, including security cameras, doorbells and intercoms. You can also make broadcasts, announcements, reminders and notes, and search the internet just by talking to Google assistant, which is built in. Just like any other smart home device, you connect all the apps on your phone, tablet and hub and you can control anything from anywhere.

Security, Environmental Controls, Entertainment, And Alarms

As well as all the other apps and devices, Google have added Nest to their portfolio, and if you don’t know, Nest are market leaders in wireless environmental controls, a broad brief which includes security cameras and motion detectors, intercoms and doorbells, thermostats and alarm systems, such as smoke, fire, CO and intruder alarms.

The Home Hub Nest allows you to monitor security cameras both inside the home and out. With Nest you can not only see when people are coming to your door, but watch the pets or keep an eye on your kids if you think they’re being naughty when you’re running late home from work! Motion detectors activate the cameras, sending you footage when people are moving about, and yes, you can even set it to recognise when it’s a person or a pet.

All the security sensors can alert you through a variety of means, such as an SMS or email, record footage to the cloud, livestream to your tablet and, with a single touch, let you call the emergency services.

Here’s Not Looking At You, Kid

Unlike other devices available on the market, the Google Home Hub doesn’t come fitted with an integral camera. Which seems odd until you consider that without it, nobody can hack the camera to invade your privacy, or record images without your knowledge. And it’s really no inconvenience since so many other devices can be synched which do have cameras. Because it lacks a camera, it is slightly cheaper than competitors which don’t. A double plus if price and privacy are on your mind.

The Google Home Hub comes in a variety of colours, including beige, charcoal, turquoise and off white, and is fitted with a speaker and mic, which you can turn off just by flicking the switch if you want it to stop listening for a while.

Another feature which looks like a disadvantage on the surface is the cable. To operate it needs to be plugged into a power source via the 1.5m long cable. We’re so used to all our device being wireless that we’ve forgotten that it’s actually an advantage to tie some things to the wall. There’s no chance of the hub getting lost down the back of the sofa, someone wandering off to another part of the house and forgetting to put it back, or the batteries running out when you’re in the middle of something important.

When you’re not using it, the Home Hub sleeps in a default screen which either shows the time, or a clock with the current temperature, weather, and a handy item or diary schedule on display. A simple down swipe will load all your rooms, apps and connected devices, sorted by category, waiting for your instructions.

Briant Communications are an official recognised Nest installation partner, and we install and connect a range of the latest environmental and security control systems. If you’d like to know more about any aspect of wireless home security, networking, and audio visual technology, get in touch!

How To Plan Your Entry Level Home Cinema

Finding information on many aspects of home entertainment, wireless, SMART homes, home cinema and home networking can be really tricky.

If you’re only asking basic “how to” questions, but the information you get back is in depth technical specifics, product descriptions, or professional level discussions including baffling jargon and acronyms, the information is useless. So, instead of confusing you with useless data, we break it down for you.

When I started researching this article I Googled “how to design your own home theatre” just to see what other home entertainment fans were doing. Wow! Those guys REALLY take home cinema seriously!

So, this blog is going to be about what the average home entertainment fan can do in their home to create the best viewing environment, without building a soundproofed extension and furnishing it with rows of suede armchairs. Instead, this will be about screen and surround sound location. But if you do have a mancave and want it turned into a theatre, you’re welcome too.

You can skip straight to the bulletpointed list now, or read on to see why we recommend doing things the way we do

First of all, decide which room you’re going to convert into a home theatre and entertainment centre. If you’re thinking you can just put a new surround sound system into the living room, think again. The room you choose will need to be dedicated to movies and games or the entire point of investing in the effort and equipment needed is lost.

Next you’ll need to set a budget. If you know the size of room you’re converting, and the type of movies you’re going to want to watch then you’ll also know the size of TV screen you want, the number of speakers required for the best sound and the size of furniture you can have in there. The price of the TV and separates is item 1 on your budget, but then it may be necessary to add carpet, comfortable furniture, and thick curtains to keep out light and muffle sounds.

As well as the AV equipment itself, think about lighting too. Too dim and you’ll need to turn it up every time you misplace the remote or game controller, too bright and it interferes with your immersion into the picture. Lighting which is controlled by your home hub would be perfect, but a dimmer switch will do for now.

As well as dark, heavy curtains to block out the light and noise from outside your house, it’s a good idea to get dark carpet or rugs cleaned timely by carpet cleaning riverside. These not only baffle the sound while adding a soft, comfortable surface underfoot, they reduce the ambient light in the room too. Paint the walls a muted colour too, or, better yet, use a noise reducing wallpaper.

Build a rack for all your equipment. All the different pieces of technology you’ll need soon mount up, and hoping to make sense of them all if they’re strewn about will become impossible. Building a rack will mean that they’re all in one place, neatly stacked but with all vents clear and the wiring loom will be much easier to make sense of too. Nobody wants wires all over the place, but if you don’t go completely wire free, you at least want the cabling to be neat and tidy with all lines neatly identified. Find a good universal remote control too. Having half a dozen different handsets all over the place, all getting lost, needing batteries gets very tiresome very quickly.

Next you need to start making it look like a luxurious home cinema. You’ll want to place the primary seating directly in front of the screen, at approximately 1.5 to 2.5 times as far away from the screen as the screen’s diagonal width and the primary speakers should be at eye level and equidistant from your head, ideally forming an equilateral triangle of left and right channels and your head. The secondary speakers need to be set up behind you, ensuring they’re on the right sides of the room, otherwise the stereo effect will be lost. The subwoofer can go under the TV, or directly behind you. Some say it should be aimed toward the head for the best sound, while others say “no, point it at your torso for a bone rattlingly intense experience!”

Ideally the maximum width of sofa will be two seats. Wider than that and the benefits of a wide screen and surround sound will be lost. If you’re planning on having more than two people at a time watching, don’t put additional seating alongside your primary viewing position, but behind.

When choosing what furniture to use, heavy, comfortable couches with fabric covers are best. As well as being comfortable to sit in for the duration of a movie or extended game-play, the fabric will deaden ambient sound. Other furniture should be kept to a minimum. Flat surfaces reflect sound back into the room which can affect the dynamic surround. Keeping curtains closed when you’re watching will also prevent the windows reflecting sound back into the room as well as keeping out bright sunlight or street lighting.

Another reason to keep furniture such as dressers, chests of drawers et cetera to a minimum is data and signal. If you decide to use wireless devices and wireless speakers interference can come from many sources, and objects in between a signal source and the receiving device can reduce the strength of the signal, which in turn affects the output.

Finally, KISS. Keep It Simple, Seriously. Too much clutter, too many boxes and devices needing to be plugged in, swapped over, or charged, too much cable, are irritants. Even pictures and posters on the wall which can cause reflections and detract the eye all interfere with your viewing pleasure. You don’t want a bare room, but a zen-like peaceful space, at least until the opening titles run, is a must.

 

Now for that bulletpoint list:

• Dedicate your space to movies and games

• Set a budget, and tweak your expectations accordingly

• Think about how you’re going to light the room

• Use soft furnishings such as curtains and rugs to muffle sound and light

• Keep your home cinema clutter free

• Plan the layout of the room, speakers, subwoofer, screen and seating

• Use heavy fabric furniture for comfort and noise deadening

• Think about signal and data, keep the line of sight between radio sources and receivers such as wireless speakers clear

• And finally, keep it simple

Getting Started With A Smart Home System

Child watching television in a lounge filled with furniture.

Once strictly the field of sci-fi movies, a home that can be controlled by talking to it when you’re in, or by remote control (via your phone) when you’re out, is no longer a fantasy. It’s not even the preserve of the super-rich, it’s available to buy on every high street or by clicking here.

Smart devices (Technically SMART, it’s an acronym for ‘self-monitoring analysis and reporting technology) are interconnected, intelligent products such as fridges, TVs, lights, home security, including doorbells and intercoms, heating and air conditioning and even vacuum cleaners. All these devices operate on a range of different platforms, such as BlueTooth, HaLow, (low power, long range wireless) or WIFI. Because the signalling between devices isn’t compatible with one another, it will be necessary to invest in a home hub. These are the voice activated characters we are becoming familiar with. Say “Alexa, do this!” or “OK Google, do that!” and the reassuring, yet robotic voice will reply while it puts your command into action.

If You’ve Heard About Smart Home Devices, But You’re Not Sure What They Are Or How They Can Improve Your Quality Of Life, Read On

Read more

Seasonal Security, Don’t Give The Burglars A Happy Christmas

Christmas time is a time for families to spend time together. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and all that. So you might think that home security is something that can take a back seat, since even burglars have homes and families who want to see them at Yuletide.

Or so you might think. The reality is that while burglaries increase over the summer, they also spike around Christmas time. Because extended families like to get together households will be on the move as they do the round robin, paying visits to mum, dad, grandparents, then the inlaws, making a surprising number of properties empty all day for several days in a row. And because all the attention is focused inwards, people are less aware of what’s happening in the gloomy, rainy, cold streets where they live.

Christmas also means outings and shopping trips which can drag on for hours. This gives unwanted visitors ample time to observe your home and chance their arm if they’re confident you’re tied up elsewhere.

And your home will offer rich pickings too. All your old property, and all the presents under the tree too, make Christmas a bonanza for intruders. So how can you use basic every day tech to make your home safer? Read more

Prattling on Portal and Portal+

The next month or so will see Facebook releasing their first piece of real-world hardware in the form of the Portal and Portal+ devices.

More than just optimised for videocalls over messenger, they are Alexa enabled and integrate fully into your home hub and social media. They also offer a great deal more hardware and software than your typical phone or tablet too. With four mics picking up speech it intelligently eliminates ambient noise and the 12megapixel camera provides a 140-degree field of vision. The software means the camera can pan and zoom to follow you as you move around a room, so, in combination with the mics, you’re ensured a clearer and better customised conversation. The difference in the Portal and the Portal+ comes from the hardware and its functionality. Portal has a 10-inch screen and it is designed to stand in the landscape position. Portal+ has 2 tweeters and a separate bass driver for 20W of sound, double the Portal, and can be pivoted on its mounting to display in landscape or portrait, depending on your preference. Read more

This Week’s Tech Adds Explained

This week there have been a lot of ads for smart TV services which simply plug in to the back of a TV via the HDMI port, turning it from a run-of-the-mill TV into a smart TV.

We look at the differences and similarities in NowTV and the Amazon Firestick, including charges, functionality, adaptability and choice of services.

If you want to get all the services that a smart TV has to offer, all you need to do is plug in a smart device into the back of your TV, configure it and BOOM! The world of NetFlix, Sky Cinema, Sky Sports, iPlayer, Amazon Prime, Catch-Up and Spotify, right? Well, in theory. The reality is it’s a little more complicated than that.

Amazon Prime Fire Stick

The Fire Stick is a simple plug and play device which slots straight in to the back of the TV and allows you to watch TV from myriad sources, gives you voice control, Alexa functionality and immediate access to your home network. It also comes with a handset which allows you to scroll through shows, services, controls and settings. From the homepage you can find all the apps and recently watched shows, boxsets you’ve started and recommendations based on your viewing habits.

It also anticipates your budget, ie, if there is a show for free on one platform, such as NetFlix, and it’s a paid event on another, it will go to the free option as a default, but also let you know about the other options, if for example you can only stream it for free, but you can buy it to keep on the other channel. The Fire Stick is fast, so less buffering and freezing, and it has a strong receiver too, so if your TV is a distance from your wireless router, you’ll find the service better than with some other devices.

With the handset you can control like a normal remote, or talk to Alexa by pressing a button and speaking, meaning that she doesn’t start doing things or answering back in the middle of a show because she misheard or someone on screen said ‘Alexa’! But of course you can link up to your home hub, Echo, or other smart speaker if you want that kind of access.

The Fire Stick is capable of delivering Full HD up to 1080p, so if you want 4K Ultra HD or HDR then another device is for you, but as an entry level device, the Fire Stick is the device for you.

Pros:

Fast, stable connection to your WiFi and home hub

Easy to use controls and interface, handy recommendations.

At £40, it’s a very reasonable price, although this doesn’t include further subscriptions to additional services.

Cons:

Geared to Amazon services and products.

No 4K Ultra or HDR capacity

Search sometimes gives erroneous results

Now TV

The ad for Now TV makes it look like a simple solution that you can just plug and play, just like the Fire Stick. However, when you visit the Now TV website there are a number of different devices at different price points, all offering different functionality and services.

The Now TV Smart Stick, like the Fire Stick, offers HD TV and voice search, starting at about half the price while the Now TV Smart Box offers 4K. When you’re on the website you choose whether you want a stick or a box, then you have to choose which stick or box you want. This means choosing the ‘TV Passes’ you want bundled with your package. If you choose a sports TV Pass it’s not immediately clear whether you can also add an entertainment Pass. Click on the ‘Get Offer’ button and you’re taken to the purchase page, but besides a voucher code field you get no other options. But presumably because there is a stick option that has no TV Passes, and the devices themselves appear identical, it must be possible to increase your options.

While this, strictly speaking is a website/customer satisfaction issue, it bodes poorly for the customer. But ignoring the multiple TV Passes it’s possible to try for free for 14 days before starting a subscription, let’s look at what the devices actually do.

The stick itself is a simple plug and play device, plug it into the HDMI port and start watching TV instantly. After clicking around I found it’s possible to increase the number of channels you can watch, you need to buy further TV Passes via the website. Passes include 1000s of movies, hundreds of boxsets and live Sky broadcasts including sports. It also offers On Demand, Sky Store, UKTV Play and YouTube. Again, you can operate the search facility via the remote, however, looking at community pages and discussion forums, it looks like you will have problems if you want to synchronise it with your home hub without additional equipment or changing WiFi providers.

The Now TV Smart Box offers all the options that the stick does, but in 4KHD. Plug it in and make your options, including Sky Cinema, Sports, NickToons, Atlantic and many many more. Again it’s a plug and play device which is contract free, just plug it in, synch it with your WiFi, and add or delete TV Passes as you want. The website doesn’t actually say anything about whether the box connects to your home hub, whether there is voice control. You’re simply encouraged to buy the box, plug it in and add TV Passes.

Pros:

4K HD available on the Now TV Smart Box

The stick is cheap, and many of the TV Passes start with a free trial period

No contracts are required, simply buy the stick or box and start enjoying TV straight away

Cons:

It doesn’t appear to be easy to connect to home networks or home hubs unless you’re already on compatible platforms

Subscribing to multiple TV Passes can get expensive, notwithstanding the low entry cost

Trustpilot complaints include poor reception, picture freezing etc. poor customer service, problems with the stick itself and the remote not working properly.

The Wireless World’s Guilty Secret: Wires!

Start Living Your Life Clutter Free

When you’re thinking about installing your Smart Home WiFi, entertainment and security devices certain things make themselves annoyingly apparent. Cables.

Every electronic device naturally needs its own power supply, notwithstanding the application is ‘wireless’. Wireless speakers still need to be connected to the mains, even if they don’t need to be connected to the amplifier or TV. To keep up with the power supply demands means using all the available power points or littering your home with extension cables. And suddenly becoming ‘unwired’ is looking like more and more of an impossibility.

If we look at the case of wireless speakers a good deal of the problems with going ‘wireless’ come to a head. Despite the fact that the drivers don’t need to be connected to the device which is playing the sound, they do still need a power supply, so they need to be located near a power point, or have a long extension cable running to them. Wireless speakers also have a certain range. Take them too far away and they start to show a reduction in sound quality. They can also experience interference from microwaves, phones, and other wireless devices. None of these problems exist if there is a cable running to the speaker, although the wire can be unsightly, and pose a potential trip hazard.

With the advent of flat screen TVs it’s been possible to hang the screen on an interior wall. They take up almost no space and are easily located out of harm’s way. The down-side is that this means having several cables running up an otherwise blank section of wall. Read more

Horrify Your Home at Halloween

Halloween has always been one of my favourite holidays. I love horror movies, the dressing up, the sweets and tasty treats as the leaves turn, and then it’s just a week to Guy Fawkes night and all the fun that fireworks and bonfires bring. What could be better?

But it just occurred to me how much more fun you can have with a wireless home hub haunting your home.

Let’s face it, when you think about it, a home hub is a little bit like being haunted by a really helpful ghost. You shout out the name and a disembodied voice calls back, answering your questions and doing things, moving things about, turning lights on and off, even making the temperature drop, if you tell it to turn on the AC!

Scooby Doo-ify Your Home And Garden

Let’s take a walk through the gates of your GeoFence and look at what can be done to make your home automatically spooky. Many brands of security cameras and wireless access systems allow you to have a conversation with callers at your door, and motion detectors will turn security lights on as soon as anyone approaches. If you have ‘If This Then That’ (IfTTT) enabled devices you can create a light and soundscape using switches to turn on any number of Halloween tricks. They don’t need to be smart themselves, just activated by a smart plug. Smart speakers can be set to come to life, screaming, moaning, or playing spooky sounds as your visitors walk up the garden path.

Once your Trick or Treaters have made it past the first line of defence, they are free to press on your doorbell. Greet them with compliments or curses regarding their costumes. If they’re guests to your Halloween party, unlock the door remotely, with a chilling creak (pre-recorded if you don’t happen to have a squeaky door on hand) and invite them in…

Once they’re over the threshold they can experience your home of eerie chills while you let them stew. Turn lights on and off, play music or sound effects, even create different playlists to play in different rooms, creating different moods for each area. Your interior security can identify not only movement, but whether that movement is a person or a pet. Use IfTTT to set off different events such as animating skeletons and giggling witches if anybody dare move.

You can set the lights to come on and off automatically as people pass through the house, and light activated switches can turn anything on and off, such as spooky smelling air fresheners, (I don’t know, mouldy pumpkin?) and electronic spooky Halloween shower curtains. (no, I’m not making that up!)

Basically, if you can plug it in, you can use technology to make it come on and stop again remotely, seemingly as if by magic. But if you’re getting into the party spirit, a smart home hub can be incredibly helpful with that too.

Doing your research. I didn’t know about electronic spooky shower curtains until I googled Halloween gadgets, and you can do that kind of research from your armchair with a smart tv. You can not only look up the recipes for seasonal food and drink, but look up uncommon treats too, and when you’ve found them, order them to be delivered to your door, all the while getting on with other more fun activities such as carving Jack-o-Lanterns or whipping up a wicked witches outfit.

These are just a few ideas we came up with to make Halloween a little bit spookier this year using wireless smart home technology. If you can think of any others, let us know on Twitter or via our Facebook page. We can’t wait to hear your ideas!