The Greatness and Tragedies of WiFi Extenders

You live in a home. We are not defining what a home is because it could be anything: McMansion, apartment, townhome, condo, cave, earth house, box, whatever! Point is, once you get too far away from your WiFi source, the internets just doesn’t work. Routers have come a long way but there are times that it just can’t reach where you place your new wifi smart thermostat or sitting on your back patio. Homes have the tendency to have dead spots or act like a giant faraday cage (define: a cage/box that blocks electric fields, like cellular or WiFi signals).

How WiFi Works

wifi_signal

Basically, it is a sphere with moving dents. It goes up, down, and out. This screen shot below shows how WiFi goes out in a generally circular pattern. Any IT networking people would be telling me to shush right now because that’s not completely how it works, but it gives you a general impression. Notice, there are no corners. So imagine superimposing this circle onto your square home, and you can imagine in the corners of your home the wifi will be much less strong. A friend directed me to the app called AR Signal Master (iOS) or there is another for Android, Wifi Analyzer (Android). Using these, you can go to those suspect dead spots to get a reading on your homes WiFi strength. The further you are from the WiFi router, the weaker your signal will be. Here’s a nice generalization of what the dBm (decibel-milliwatt) signal means:

Strength Meaning Real Meaning
 -10 to -30 strong signal Everything so fast!
-30 to -67 stream videos Yay Netflix!
-68 to -70 surf websites Yay cat memes!
-71 to -90 weak signal hurry up cat memes!
-90 and less no signal da fuq!?! *waves phone around*

Notice all the numbers have a (-) in front of them. WiFi for home services are measured as (-) because that’s how the WiFi decision group made it because… well go look it up. It is all about WiFi power and outside of the above strength you aren’t using normal Wifi and that is outside the scope of this article.

Eliminating Dead Spots with Extender Set Up

You used an app to discover an important corner or part of your home has a WiFi signal less than -71 and is not supporting the use you want out of it. You have two options, purchase a new mesh WiFi system or buy a significantly cheaper WiFi extender (several options on that WiFi extender page. Let’s use an extender! First things first, decide your needs. Are you going to stream video (Netflix, Hulu, DirecTV Now, etc) from the extender? Or just going to run your smart thermostat from it? That decision affects what you will buy:

The way these extenders work is that they piggyback from your existing wifi where the signal is still strong and then re-broadcasts a new wifi signal for your device connections. Placement of an extender is critical. If you place the extender in a bad WiFi spot, the extender will allow devices to connect to it and show a full signal, but still have slow speed. So you need to place it in a ‘good’ connection spot and then it re-amplifies that signal for your devices:wifi_extenderIn this image, the purple circle is your existing WiFi and the blue is your extenders WiFi. You place the extender at the edge of the existing WiFi (purple) where you still have a good signal (for streaming video between -30 and -67 dbm and for smart thermostats or general surfing at most between -68 and -70 dbm). This will give you the most distance for your extender and highest speed back to your original WiFi source.

Configuring the Extender

You bought the extender, placed the extender, and now you need to configure your extender. The directions with most extenders are excellent, so I am going to defer to those manuals. HOWEVER, I will tell you some best practices and why.

The most important is a re-iteration of the above, make sure the extender is in an area that still has good WiFi signal from your original WiFi source, or you will not be happy and your speeds will not improve. Your connections will improve, but you will be super angry with full signal bars.

The second most important piece of extenders are in the naming of the wireless network names (SSID: service set identifier). In the image at the beginning of this blog with AR Signal Master, the WiFi SSID name is ‘Sailing Through Life.’ Yours may be ‘Jim’s Best WiFi’ or ‘FBI_van1’ or something to that effect. If you have the wireless names of ‘TW2134234’ with a crazy password of ‘f3q4fjkh4534’ then you are making life MUCH harder on yourself. All, I repeat all, WiFi routers are able to be renamed and have easier passwords used. Time Warner, AT&T, Comcast, Spectrum, and more can all have their default wireless network names renamed and more human passwords used. I would suggest taking this time to create a wireless name and password that is much easier to use (and then reconnect all of your devices). Here comes the most important part of my advice, name your extender wireless SSID as something different than your original Wifi network name. If you source Wifi is MyAwesomeWirelessNetwork, then name your extenders wireless network MyAwesomeWirelessNetwork_E. If it also has 5G signal, then:

Source SSID Name Extender SSID Name
MyAwesomeWireless MyAwesomeWireless_E
MyAwesomeWireless_5G MyAwesomeWireless_E5G

The reason behind this naming madness is because these extenders do not automatically hand off your device from one wireless network to the other. When you get home, if your source WiFi is near the front door, your device will connect to that source and stay connected to it at all costs until the signal is gone. If you keep your extender wireless SSID the same as your source wireless name, when you get up to your bedroom your phone will still be connected to the source wifi, show a strong signal, but not be able to surf the internet because the real signal is weak. When you are in an office building and connected to their WiFi and you walk around and stay connected, that is because they are using much more expensive equipment that does hand off your devices between antennas. These extenders don’t do that. What this means is that when you rename them as different networks, and you get to your bedroom with low signal, you can then select the MyAwesomeWireless_E network name from your bed and then continue to enjoy strong internet signal and good speed.

Case Report

A friend purchased wireless extender and placed it perfectly to connect to his smart home thermostat. The source and extender had the same wireless names. He streams TV and around the time that he installed the extender, the TV quit being able to stream Netflix. After talking for a while, we agreed to unplug the extender and then voila, his TV started streaming perfectly. The reason is because his extender shared the same name and the TV was likely connecting to the extender which has enough strength to run web surfing and smart thermostats, but not stream Netflix. Since the names were the same but the extender had a strong ‘signal’ but not stronger ‘throughput’, the TV would connect to the extender and choke. After renaming the extender, he was then able to definitively connect to the source WiFi and stream perfectly.

Don’t name extenders as the same as your source WiFi name because it makes it virtually impossible to figure out the source of potential WiFi issues.

Building a Smart Home: Episode 2, Alexa vs Google vs Siri

Who will win?

Looking back at my smart home requirements, it will need voice control capability. This blog will focus on picking the ecosystem with the best voice control.

Turns out, it is not a hard battle to eliminate one of them. I love Apple products because they historically ‘just work’. They have been having trouble lately though, especially with iOS 11. The glitches just make it frustrating. This is not about iOS 11 issues though, this is about Siri and how she has not kept up with Google Home or Alexa. Right off the bat, we are eliminating Siri as the controller of our smart home because she is just not updated enough and Apple cannot keep up with the competition from Google and Alexa. Sorry Siri, I wanted you to be my AI, but you’re not the droid I’m looking for.

Siri: “If you say so.”

Alexa vs Google Home vs Siri

This one is a tough one. However, my decision was made by default and I’ll explain why later. More objectively, I want to know which voice control most products support. Both Amazon and Google have made HUGE strides in getting people to adopt their technologies and it is definitely showing. In the end though, we all know which one has gained the highest mainstream following. You have to remove your ‘fanboy’ hat of either systems and really see which device systems are pushing:

Which one looks the most familiar? In my humble opinion, I have seen far more Amazon Alexa logos that Google Assistant/Home (Google Assistant and Google Home are basically interchangeable terms–Google Home is a product and Google Assistant is the brains in the product). Plus, we are people and Alexa gives us the more personal experience… its a NAME, not a title. It’s an instant connection.

However, earlier I said ‘objectively’. So lets be objective. I Googled (ha) ‘compatibility of alexa vs google assistant’ and noticed the first few hits were a bit biased. One of them had a head to head of these three voices and in the ‘Winner’ section, they didn’t even declare a winner but instead said how much they like Siri… and Siri is NOT the winner. I want her to be, but she isn’t.

Enter Tom’s Guide. They had a nice article laying out all of the information objectively. In the end, It basically came down to a tie between Alexa and Google Assistant, except I found a flaw in their results. They rated Alexa a ‘3’ in availability. Are you kidding me? BEHIND Siri? Siri is ONLY in Apple products and that is NOT available. I get it, they are counting Availability as “with you”. But we are adjusting this based on being in a smart home. More than once I call out for Siri across the room and she doesn’t answer. Alexa does, or Google Assistant does. I have adjusted the ratings accordingly:
voice assistant chart

With the adjustment for availability, you can see which one is the winner… Alexa. Google Assistant just doesn’t have the ubiquitousness (is that a real word?) as Amazon Alexa. HOWEVER, Google Assistant is smarter than Alexa. Google is able to better parse out commands and information from voice commands than Alexa who takes them command by command.

Final Showdown

When it comes down to Alexa or Google Assistant, after reviewing objective evidence and making personal opinions, my choice is Alexa. She has better compatibility with home products, has better aesthetics than Google Assistant devices, and has better human feedback (thought Google Assistant has better human thought compatibility). Google Assistant has better brains, but Alexa has better interfacing.

A final thing, I have been getting Alexa products as gifts from friends over the holidays. Alexa is proving to be a popular gift giving item, therefore since I have acquired a total of 6 Alexa products, we will be going with Alexa!

Choice: Amazon Alexa

 

Mac Won’t Boot After High Sierra Upgrade, ugh.

broken_apple_mac

It is a Mac. It is supposed to just… work! One of my friends came to me with an issue. They had a perfectly good Macbook… I think it was a 2014 or 2015 model, aluminum unibody, gorgeous of course. It was working just fine until they updated it to OS X High Sierra and then it just wouldn’t boot. They let it run for hours but it would just stay at the loading screen with the grey background, Apple logo, and a progress bar that would fill completely, but the OS (operating system) just would not start.

I followed all the instructions in this article to no avail. I ran the disk checkup, I cleared the NVRAM, I did an internet recovery (which is a super awesome concept). I even tried to reinstall the OS using internet recovery and for whatever reason it wanted to reinstall OS X Lion, which is not what we want.

Luckily, in my side hustle I run a small business of computer repair and stuff, which is how I post all my secrets here. I have a small collection of OS X install files that I was able to gather just for this purpose! Lo and behold, I have a High Sierra install file (the legit one, not one from some sketchy website). I obtained this install file from a working Mac previously by downloading it from the App Store and not installing it and copying it to external media.

I am a Windows person and when you reinstall Windows you are taking a chance that it is going to write over top of a lot of your personal stuff, and you will lose it. I didn’t know if Mac OS did the same, so I made sure to make a backup of my friends personal files to an external hard drive. I took out the hard drive, connected it to a hard drive reader, and connected that to another Mac and was able to copy all of his files to a backup location, just in case.

The next thing I had to do was use that same working Macbook to create a bootable USB version of High Sierra since the bad Mac was not starting. I downloaded the application Install Disk Creator and used that to create the bootable USB High Sierra update. You could also create the bootable USB drive via command line stuff in Terminal, but that takes time and patience and a lot of correct typing. I will just use the app.

After putting the High Sierra install files and installing Install Disk Creator, I created the bootable USB drive, connected it to the Mac, turned it on and immediately held down the Option button and was able to select the USB drive. Once it loaded I selected to Install High Sierra and it started, and ran, and ran, and I started playing Horizon Zero Dawn, and it continued installing with me looking to make sure the progress bar was moving… and it was… and FINALLY, it loaded up a very custom screen with a picture of my friend and his wife which told me the install happened without deleting all of his files. HOORAY!

All in all, it wasn’t bad, but I wanted to run through the whole list of options before resorting to reinstalling the OS if it didn’t have to happen because I didn’t want to risk losing his files. In the end, I learned when reinstalling Mac OS X it doesn’t erase your files! I’m just glad I didn’t have to pull the nuclear option and completely erase the drive as I have previously discussed, because that would be annoying.

Categories: Computers, Technology

Restore your Computer to Factory Settings – Windows 10

March 3, 2018 1 comment

factory_reset_computer

Are you selling your computer to a close friend or relative where you know they won’t do whatever they can to get your files? Then you probably don’t have to use a ‘scorched earth’ method of erasing your computer as we discuss in Completely Erasing Your Computer. Instead, you can simply use a built-in Windows 10 feature to restore the computer to factory settings! It is incredibly easy to do. It will erase all of your files, programs, and any settings and make it just like the day you brought your computer home so you can sell it to your close friend/family with minimal effort.

Step 1: Back up all your stuff

It goes without saying that your computer will be erasing everything. Make sure you have all of your stuff backed up to an external media (flash drive, DVD, CD-really??-, online storage space such as OneDrive, Google Drive, or Dropbox (disclaimer: I have referral links in those, use them if you want… or not).

Step 2: Start the refresh!

Select the Start Windows logo button, then select Settings Gear-shaped icon > Update & security Circular icon > Recovery. Under Reset this PC, select Get started.

You will then see a window pop up:
Windows 10 Refresh

Select the Remove Everything option and then it will continue and do some scanning and whatnot and then have another screen titled “Your apps will be removed, ” click Next.

Then you will be waiting a little bit longer and finally:Windows 10 ready to reset

Click Reset and let the computer do the rest! It will remove all your applications (except default ones that are installed by Windows 10) and also remove all of your personal files.

When it finally reboots your computer, it will be asking you to set up your computer as a new user. Here is where you stop, because the close friend/family that will be purchasing the computer will fill all that stuff out when they get it.

You’re done! In only two steps! Now have a cup of coffee and celebrate how easy that was.

Categories: Computers, Technology

Completely and Securely Erasing Your Computer

March 3, 2018 3 comments

Completely and Securely Erasing Your Computer

This is the scenario where you are selling to a third-party person who you don’t know and don’t want them to be able to ever see what you had on your computer. This method does a GREAT job for most users… however since we know about the NSA and there are insane forensic scientists that can do almost anything… its not 100% guaranteed that it will destroy everything. But it will render your data useless and irretrievable for anybody who is reading this web article and wants to do a good job removing their private information from their computer.

Again, remember this will impossibly remove all your data and your complete operating system (OS) (Windows, Mac, or Linux). You will be able to re-install those OSs later though since they remember your computers model number, in its most simplest explanation. Basically this means you don’t have to worry about Windows product keys anymore, which is nice. Before you do all these steps, be sure you have a copy of your Windows on flash drive or DVD for re-installation!! Luckily, I found an AWESOME program that lets you download ANY Windows files from Heidoc. You can use either link to download the program, I just listed my copy on Onedrive just in case the Heidoc link ever goes down. Download your Windows and install it to a USB drive just like we do DBAN Boot and Nuke below. For all this to happen, you will need a total of two (2) USB drives. One giant one (8gb or more) for Windows and one tiny one for DBAN.

Step 1: Download Dban Boot and Nuke

Go to DBAN Boot and Nuke and download DBAN, or click here for the direct download link. You have just downloaded an ISO file. This is basically an image of external media, like a DVD or CD disc. ISO are kind of like zip files where they contain all the files within them. So now we need to install the ISO file to an empty  flash drive.

Step 2: Download Rufus

This program installs the ISO file to an empty flash drive. You can’t erase your hard drive when you are running the software from that same hard drive, so installing it to a flash drive solves the problem. The flash drive does not need to be big, it can be just a 1gb flash drive, it just needs to be empty. Now go here to download Rufus.

Step 3: Run Rufus

You have DBAN Boot and Nuke, you have Rufus, let us use them! Plug in the flash drive and start Rufus by double click it. RufusYou will then be greeted by a small window of options as seen in the Rufus program image here. Make sure Device is set for your flash drive. My flash drive is named Annoyed. Next, leave Partition scheme and target system type, File System, and Cluster size as the defaults. Name the New Volume label whatever you want. My flash drive after it is done will be called DBAN.

Then, click on the dropdown that I circled in the Rufus image and change it to ISO Image, and click the little hard disk picture to the right of it, browse to where you saved DBAN Boot and Nuke (probably in your Downloads folder), and select that.

When you have it selected, click the Start button! It will give you a warning that all data on the flash drive will be destroyed. That is why it needs to be empty because it will use up the entire flash drive, click the OK button.

wait…

wait…

wait…

DONE! Click Close.

Step 4: Run DBAN from the flash drive

Next is the hardest part and it is extremely computer manufacturer specific. You will need to leave the flash drive in your USB port and reboot your computer. Immediately after you reboot your computer, you will have to start button mashing on one of the buttons. When I say button mash, I mean press the key repeatedly until something happens (tap tap tap tap tap tap tap). Some computers allow you to directly access boot order without messing with BIOS, which is awesome, do that if you can. Here are my best representations of what you might need to do:

  • Dell: button mash F2 key, or F12 for boot selection
  • HP: button mash F10 key, or F9 for boot selection
  • Asus: button mash DEL key
  • Compaq: (really??) button mash F10 or F1 key (try one, if it doesn’t work try the other)
  • Toshiba: button mash F2 key
  • Google the term: “Computer Brand” bios and look at the top hits. If you have trouble, leave me a message in the comments and I can help you find it.

Once you are in the bios… its continues to stay complicated. DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING EXCEPT WHAT YOU NEED TO TOUCH. Bios is where you can really mess up your computer. If you are to categorize the computer as a person… the computers processor is the brain and BIOS is the spinal cord. Mess up the spinal cord and it all falls to sh!t (all my love to spinal cord injury victims and congenital spinal cord complicated people–I am a huge advocate for public accessibility requirements).

In the bios, you are looking for an item termed “Boot Order” or something along that line:BIOS boot order

After you find this screen, you will want to set your USB drive to the first position. Using the directions from the above image, you would use the + sign on your keyboard to move the “Removable Devices” line up to the top. After you get it to the top, push the F10 key. Your computer will then reboot and start straight into DBAN Boot and Nuke!

Step 5: Using DBAN

The first screen you will see is this:
DBAN start screen

Its ugly, yes, but effective. Push your Enter key. It will then do a bunch of stuff:
dban loading

Just keep your fingers off the keyboard while its doing that thing. The weird marks in the “……” above was where I was pushing keys when I shouldn’t have been. Don’t do what I did. It won’t hurt it, but just don’t.

Next, you will be at the decision screen:
dban decision

Make sure the Method above is set for DoD Short. That means it is using Department of Defense Short method, which it goes through each bite and changes it from 1 to 0 or 0 to 1 for 3 passes. This will be just fine for 99.9% of you readers out there. If your method is correct, just hit your space bar to change the box from blank to “wipe”.dban wipe

Once everything is good, push the button F10 on your keyboard to start!dban boot and nuke running

Now, go do something else because this will take about 3-5 HOURS depending on how fast your computer runs and how big your hard drive is.

Step 6: Reinstall Your Operating System

Like I said way earlier, you should have Windows or Mac OS on a separate flash drive ready to go for re-installation. Take out the DBAN USB drive and plug in your Windows/Linux/Mac OS USB drive. Your computer is already set to boot from the USB drive from your efforts earlier when you changed the BIOS, so it should launch right into installing Windows! You will need to reinstall Windows otherwise you are selling someone a non-usable computer and that is just not nice. Reinstall Windows using very generic username and passwords since you will be selling this to someone. Make the username “user” and password “password” for your windows installation and give that info to your buyer.

Tada! You have successfully erased your computer using government-grade erasing technology and it is ready for selling without giving over all your precious files/information. If you have any questions, leave a comment and I’ll do my best to answer as thoroughly as possible.

Categories: Computers, Technology

Before Selling Your Computer — Erase It!

sell_your_computer

You have done a ton of personal stuff on your computer. I’m not going to judge what you’ve done, nor will I ask because I just don’t want to know. However, something you should be aware of is that your computer retains small bits of all this stuff that you do in its brains. Web history, applications installed, documents, etc. Even if you erase these files, they are not gone. If you commit a crime, forensic scientists can confiscate your computer and retrieve all of your documents even if you deleted them. When you delete a file, the file itself is not gone, just that piece of storage space is declared to be available (I’m oversimplifying, but I mean the title of this blog is “That Was Annoying to Learn,” if you want more detailed stuff, read a white paper). When that space is declared available, it can be overwritten by something else, like a document. So if a document is 5,000 bits long of 1’s and 0’s (binary data), then deleted, and a new document is made and it happens to only be 2,000 bits of data, this leaves 3,000 bits of data of your old document left over that can be retrieved and pieced together by those forensic scientists… or even a casual user who is interested in computers and know how to use Linux tools!

There are all kinds of free options available to erase your computer. You just have to decide, do you want COMPLETE erasing or just setting back to how it was when I first bought it?

If you have intensely personal stuff (you be the judge), completely erasing it with a free program called Dban Boot and Nuke is a great option. I frequently do this because I have the resources immediately available to reinstall Windows. But if you are selling to a friend and don’t need government-grade erasing software and just need to reset to factory settings to get ride of all your personal stuff, Windows has a super easy built-in solution. So we will break this article into two separate posts… I guess three if you include this page. So, lets get started!

Completely and Securely Erasing Your Computer

Restoring Your Computer to Factory Settings

If you are reading this part, you’ve gone too far, go back up and make your selection!

 

Categories: Computers, Technology

Fresh Install of MacOS Corrupted??

Guess what, its actually NOT corrupted! I was installing an SSD drive on a clients computer, a mid-2010 Macbook. They didn’t remember their password and just wanted a nice fresh install. “No problem,” I replied. PROBLEM.

This guide is not for a newbie to installing an OS. You should be familiar with using USB drives and the concept of how they become a bootable medium. That being said, its a great learning experience.

Step 1: Get MacOS

Unless you have an Apple Mac somewhere that also has the app store, you are in for a nightmare. Luckily, I know a guy where I was able to get into his app store where he happened to have upgraded his Mac over the years and had access to the older version of MacOS. If you don’t have access to an official Macbook, you are in for a world of pain because nobody has the .app file you need… like anywhere. Macdrug has it but they use a download site that limits you so I wouldn’t have the complete file for 2 DAYS!!! No thank you, I want this done now.

This site has great instructions on getting the .app file you need once you get access to a Mac. Lesson here, just get access to a Mac.

Step 2: Burn to USB drive as Bootable Installer

Lots of time wasted here because of later reasons, but Apple Support has a great document of how to create your own recovery media. Just follow the directions to a T and you will have your own recovery media on a flash drive in no time. However, what I recommend for simplicity is just going ahead and renaming your mounted USB drive to “MyVolume” (without the quotes). That way you can simply copy and paste their command line right into your terminal window and it work right away, no editing required.

Step 3: Remove the Installed SSD Because You Already Forgot a Step

Solid state drives (SSD’s) are sent without being “initialized”, meaning they have nothing on them. Not even a file system. So if you installed the SSD without first connecting it to a working computer, you made your life harder. Connect the SSD to an existing drive (I used this docking station to connect the SSD to the working Mac and formatted it to Mac OS Journaled thingy. When you put the SSD in the docking station and connect it to the Mac, it immediately prompts you to initialize it, so do it. Then after its all done, eject the SSD properly, and put it back in the non-working Mac.

Step 4: Boot non-working Mac to USB Drive

When you turn on the Macbook, immediately push the “Option” button and hold it. Eventually a screen will appear with a prompt to boot from the USB drive, do it. You will then be presented with an option to install Mac OS X as a fresh copy. Do it. You then may receive a message that prompted this blog entry:

MacOS_Install_Error

WHAT?!?! I downloaded it DIRECTLY from the Apple App Store. HOW THE F%^ IS IT CORRUPTED??

Cool down, try the latest one, Mac OS High Sierra. SAME

Try just Sierra… oh wait, Apple doesn’t list that yet.

Redo the USB drive, maybe that will fix it?? No. New USB drive? No. Burn to a DVD? Where is a DVD? Ugh, no.

WHYYYYYY??? [hours go by of repeating above decision processes and retrying all of them]

SOLUTION:

Of course, a web search combined with calming down and actually reading and thinking about the situation. If the client didn’t know their password, then it has been a long time since they used the Mac. It has probably been dead for a LONG time. Also, I replaced the battery (did I mention that? The client dropped the Mac previously and the battery was expanding out of its shell and I was too scared to plug it in, so I replaced the battery).

In doing so and with the knowledge that the Mac was sitting idle for a long time… THE INTERNAL CLOCK WAS WRONG. The system clock was set to the year 2000. Mac OS X El Capitan was released in 2015. The Macbook was protecting itself from installing software that “hadn’t yet been” invented!!

This website saved my sanity: http://osxdaily.com/2015/01/19/fix-os-x-install-errors-cant-be-verified-error-occurred-preparing-mac/

I connected the Macbook to my wireless, updated the clock using the terminal command prompts as described, and now it is installing Mac OS X El Capitan… just like it should.

That was super annoying to learn and took a lot of hours out of my life (and probably shortened it because of the stress and raging against the name of Apple). But… problem solved.

Fix your clocks.

 

 

 

Categories: Computers

Building a Smart Home: Episode 1, The Beginning

February 5, 2017 Leave a comment

I’m doing it! I’m building my dream home! I have finally outgrown my current place of residence and am in the process of building my own home and can customize a lot of features to what I want, and I want a smart home.

What defines a smart home?

In this planning phase, I have several requirements that must be met for me to define my home as a “smart home.” Smart home is an extremely loose term. If you use plugs that you can access and activate with your smartphone, is this a smart house? Technically, I suppose. But this does not enrich your life. My definition of a smart home is a series of interconnected devices in your home with remote access capability that allow for automation of tasks, notification of events, home environment monitoring with immediate feedback, and on-demand event triggering that will seamlessly enrich the lives of the smart home inhabitants and its users. Specifically for this project, it must:

  • be accessible via smartphone
  • be able to be controlled by voice commands
  • be borderline 100% usable without a smartphone/smart device (i.e. tablet or computer)
  • allow for development of routines/automations
  • allow devices to communicate with each other in some capacity (Z-wave, ZigBee, RF, wireless)
  • make my life better
  • user interface must be acceptable to spouse
  • allow the entry of guests without significant difficulty when homeowners are not available or around
  • allow notifications of specified events (i.e. alarm system contacts specified users)
  • be secure

In addition to these minimal requirements, I have several aesthetic, specification, and design requirements:

  • no visible cords
  • user interface must be intuitive
  • must allow old-school utilization in the event of power/internet failure (i.e. internet goes down,  but the door locks still allow entry)
  • alarm system must have contingency ability in the even of internet failure
  • minimal visible aesthetic disruption due to quantity of devices
  • devices must be aesthetically appealing

Current State of Smart Home Technology

There are many different types of smart home products available and even more coming to market. These devices are commonly referred to collectively as the IoT (internet of things) as they have the capability to connect to the internet in an invisible way and “do things.” Its not a computer, its not a server… its a thing that connects to the internet! Most of the devices offered to make a smart home are wireless. In the past couple years there’s been an explosion of different types of popular wireless technology used in smart home devices: ZigBee, Z-wave, RF, bluetooth, and wireless/wifi. There are several differences between these but most of them have one common concept of requiring a hub. The hub serves as the source of control of these devices whether it be a light switch, door lock, thermostat, room environment sensor, motion sensor, etc. Depending on the technology the user chooses determines which hub to purchase. The hub is partially dictated by which ecosystem a user is invested with their current home devices (iPad, Android tablet, iPhone, Android smartphone). The reason this is important is because the smartphone is the device that almost always follows you and next to you. If you have an Android phone and start investing in Apple Homekit devices… you made a poor choice of building your smart home.

Ecosystems

There are two predominant smartphone operating system, Android and iOS. Depending on which operating system you use will partially dictate which smart home ecosystem you choose to use. Android cannot use Apple Homekit. Apple iPhones can use about any system, but not always via Homekit. Homekit is a homegrown smart home technology developed by Apple. On every iOS device there is an app called Home and this is where the devices you install will show up IF they are Homekit compatible. There are currently not very many Homekit compatible devices as the hardware and softwareworks_with_homekit requirements dictated by Apple are high and relatively expensive. In order for a device to show up in the iOS Home app, it must Work with Apple Homekit”. If it doesn’t show the logo to the right, then chances are it won’t work with the Home app. This does not mean your iOS device cannot use it however, it just means you will need the manufacturers app to control the device. The hub used for Homekit systems can be either an iPad that remains within the home at all times for the automations or you can use an Apple TV (4th generation). The easiest choice is Apple TV as this probably will not leave your house. You CAN use Homekit devices without a hub, but you cannot make routines or automation via Homekit (i.e. when I arrive home the lights turn on). All automation requires a hub for all ecosystems.

Amazon Echo is another ecosystem that is widely available and widely supported. compatible_with_amazon_echoI can already hear some of you saying “Amazon Echo is not an ecosystem!!” This is technically true, but most products say “Compatible with Amazon Echo” and its just like Apple Homekit, except made by Amazon. When that compatibility is specified, it means you can control the device with Amazon’s Echo device. Amazon Echo is extremely popular and widely compatible with almost all smart home devices in some capacity. However, Amazon Echo is not a hub. A hub is still required, just like Homekit, to create routines and automation.

These two devices have been the predominant influence behind most automation. Google has developed their own persona assistant, Google Home, which is quickly becoming popular. When building my smart home, I want to maximize compatibility. If I want to change from iOS to Android, I don’t want to have to dump all smart home products I’ve purchased because they are ONLY Homekit compatible. I don’t want my smartphone to dictate my home nor my home to dictate my smartphone purchase. That being said, I have invested into the Apple ecosystem and use mostly iOS products, therefore I do want to make my home as Homekit compatible as possible but still keep it such that a non-iOS device would work just fine.

Wireless Communication Between Devices

A smart home is smart because the devices are able to talk to each other, respond to automation requests, and in some cases piggy-back on each others wireless abilities. Like mentioned earlier, there are several wireless technologies: ZigBee, Z-wave, RF, bluetooth, and wireless/wifi.

ZigBee is the oldest standard first developed in 1998 by IEEE (the people who standardize wifi). A group of ZigBee devices form a mesh network and that the ability to extend the network beyond the original start point. For example, consider Device A, B, and C to be ZigBee devices. Device A is closest to the hub, Device B is further away but still within radio distance of Device A, Device C is far away from the hub and cannot detect it, but can smart_home_diagramdetect and connect to Device B. The hub would be able to communicate with Device C by pushing the signal to Device A or Device B to reach Device C. For instance, in diagram to the right, the Hub can communicate with the Lamp via either of the Lights or the Door Lock even though the Lamp is not able to contact the Hub directly. Basically, each device allows another device to communicate through it to reach back to the hub, and vice versa. Mesh network! Some of the newer routers are working like this as well (Eero, Google Wifi, Orbi).

Z-wave was originally  a proprietary wireless technology developed rather recently. It works basically the same as ZigBee. The differences are that it is slower but can reach further (30 meters compared to 10 meters per Electronic Design). Here’s a table from Electronic Design with the rundown:

73665-table

Bluetooth is exactly what you expect but with a few caveats. Most devices use Bluetooth LE (low energy) to save on battery which makes a HUGE difference in battery life. Since most of these smart devices are completely wireless, that’s a big deal. The goal is that the battery life of the device would last for months or years instead of days. The problem is that it has about the same range as normal Bluetooth and does not do mesh networking. So your smart device (lock, light control, etc) has to be within a certain range of your controlling device or hub. If your house is giant, this is not a good idea to use unless you want a lot of hubs (seems counterintuitive and extremely expensive) or just use the smart device when you’re near with your smartphone. Most modern smartphones are equipped with Bluetooth LE.

Wifi is exactly what you’d expect. The device connects to your wifi network and typically does not require a hub. However, in order for it to be automated, you will need a stay-at-home hub such as Apple TV for Homekit. The manufacturer iDevices is a maker of wifi connected smart devices and they are predominatly targeted to Homekit users. Like Bluetooth LE, these devices do not use mesh but instead need to be within wifi network range to work.

Hubs

I’ve been talking about hubs the entire time, but lets detail them briefly. Hubs are used for automation and binding the devices together. There are several hubs available and many more being added from each manufacturer. The important thing is to get a hub that is compatible with what you are buying. If you bought a lot of Lutron Caséta wireless dimmers and you have Homekit, then you are in trouble. BUUUUUT, you could buy the Lutron hub which will connect to your Homekit and THAT will work. But then you just bought an Apple TV (or iPad… but just don’t… spring for the Apple TV since it will never leave your home) and you also just bought a Lutron hub… just to dim your lights. Samsung SmartThings is a multipurpose hub (connects to both ZigBee and Z-wave devices). However, be sure to check with your target devices to make sure it is compatible with Samsung SmartThings. For example, the Lutron Caséta uses RF so won’t work with Samsung SmartThings, but will work with Wink (another hub). It gets super complicated super quickly. I’ll reference you to this great website that I use a lot, Wirecutter, where they review smart hubs in depth. In the end, it depends on which products you want to end up using and what kind of compatibility you want and what you want them to do.

This Is Long

This blog was supposed to go into details on smart devices, what they do, which ones to go with, what you want, etc etc. But its getting too long for such a huge topic. Smart devices for home automation is expanding faster than I can type. Just in writing this one post, iDevices listed their in-wall remote for pre-order and now its actually available. That is fast (or I’m slow, even though it took  me just a few days to write this). So we are going to break this entire thing up into several different posts. This post was just to get us started, the next one I’m going to go into more detail on what I want out of my smart home and focus on light switches since this, in my opinion, is one of the most useful aspects of making your home smart.

Headphone Jack quits working: Microsoft Surface Pro 3

September 15, 2016 Leave a comment

I have a Microsoft Surface Pro 3. The current date is 9-15-2016 and I still love it, even after lusting after the Surface Book and Surface Pro 4. I just can’t convince myself to get either one of those beautiful machines because the Surface Pro 3 (SP3) still works so well!

While I sing praises for the SP3, it is not without its issues. In a previous post, discussed fixing the Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter (MWDA) and this post will be about fixing some audio issues. I’m not really sure why I ran into this, but I noticed that since I updated PlayOn to the new version, it installed itself a virtual audio device (right-click the speaker in the bottom right hand corner of your computer, then go to Playback Devices and it’ll show you all the playback devices).

Problem 1

Headphone jack quit playing audio automatically when headphones are plugged in, the audio continues to play through the speakers.

Solution 1

I’m not really sure because I was immediately compounded by problem #2. See below.

Problem 2

Audio volume rocker on the left side of the SP3 shows that I am changing audio volume, but its not actually doing it!!! No volume control!

Solution 2

This solution solved both problems. Go to Device Manager (in the search box at the bottom left of your screen next to the Windows button, type in Device Manager and it should be your first hit).devicemanager

Step 2, you will expand the menu for Human Interface Devices and uninstall the following items:

  • HID-compliant consumer control device
  • HID-compliant consumer control device

Yes, I said the same thing twice because there are two. Uninstall them both and don’t worry, they will reinstall themselves when you reboot. BUT DON’T REBOOT YET!

Step 3, expand the menu for Sound, video and game controllers (that ironically does not use the Oxford comma… sigh….). Uninstall the Realtek High Definition Audio. There may be more than one Realtek High Definition Audio listing, uninstall them both. Again, don’t worry because it will reinstall itself upon reboot.

After uninstalling them, the SP3 will inform you that you need to reboot, go ahead and do this. Once the SP3 has rebooted you will notice it reinstalling some drivers. Once it is finished installing, play an audio file of your choosing. Use the volume rocker on the left side and it should work! Plug in some headphones and you will notice they probably don’t work. Reboot your computer again. Once the computer has rebooted for the second time, choose an audio file of your choice, start playing it, and plug in some headphones. It will reinstall the headphones drivers and it should switch the audio to the headphones AND the volume rocker will now control these as well.

Conclusion

It was annoying that these steps had to be completed at all because it shouldn’t have to happen, but computers are complex machines and sometimes they just get things crossed weirdly. I scoured the internet for these solutions and I obtained the HID-consumer control device bit from a Microsoft Community thread. Enjoy your working-again Microsoft Surface Pro 3!

Happy Listening!

Categories: Computers, Technology

SharePoint 2013: Create a Birthday List in the Workplace without Year

The workplace is an unusual space that is required to accommodate a huge variety of personalities while also following laws and doing its best to prevent bias and discrimination. That is an extremely loaded and broad sentence. To narrow the scope, lets bring it down to using SharePoint 2013 in the workplace to develop a dynamically updating list of birthdays for the current month. After all, most everyone loves a good office party! Lets begin.

Create a custom list within SharePoint 2013, if you are unfamiliar with how to create a custom list, this post is not for you and you should step back to learn the basics of list creation and customization. The concepts in this post are not difficult, but we will not be defining how to do the very basics. In this list, you will need a total of 5 different columns:

  • Employee: Single line of text
  • Birthday: Date
  • Birth MonthDay: calculated column
  • Start of Month: calculated column
  • End of Month: calculated column

Employee and Birthday

I defined what each of those columns should be, the nice part is you only need to populate two columns with data: Employee with the Employee’s name and Birthday (mm/dd/yyyy). Entering a persons birthday in this information may not comply with your company’s policy to keep age confidential to prevent age bias or discrimination. To prevent any conflict, simply enter everyone’s birthday with the correct day, but set the year to the current year. So a person name Peter Parker would have a birthday of 12/27/2016. The year doesn’t matter because we will not be calculating age nor do we want to violate a persons right to keep their age confidential.

Birth MonthDay

After you have completed entering the data for the two manual data entry columns of Employee and Birthday, select the column Birth MonthDay. The concept of this column is because the employee has the current birthday of 12/27/2016 and that will obviously not make sense to any viewer. Since a date type column requires a year and shows the year, you can create a custom calculated column to only show the month and date of the the persons birthday. This would turn “12/27/2016” into simply “December 27”. This view makes much more sense to the viewer since it omits the randomly selected year of 2016 for the persons birth year while preserving their age confidentiality.

Select the column Birth MonthDay and ensure the type is calculated. The image below contains the code that you will want to place in the formula box. Note here that you want to make sure the data type returned is set for “single line of text” as this is not a legitimate date column in the mind of SharePoint 2013. The portion of the code TEXT also enforces this, but you must make sure the proper setting is selected or it will give you an error.
SharePoint - birth monthdayNote that in this code, we use “mmmm” to define the intent for the employee’s birthday month to be spelled out fully. There are 4 month specifiers:

  • m = month number (1, 2, 3)
  • mm = month number with two places (01, 02, 03, 10, 11, 12)
  • mmm = month text limited to 3 letters (Jan, Feb, Mar)
  • mmmm = full month text (January, February, March)

Make the selection that best fits what you want for your list to show. Day follows the same rules for the most part: d= number, dd = 01.

Start of Month

The end goal is to show a dynamically updating list of employees birthday of the month, however SharePoint has a hard time doing this natively since it is a dynamic time period, so we have to build a really weird workaround. The next two calculated columns now come into play, starting with the Start of Month column.

Just as was previously done, ensure that the column is set for calculated. There are a few differences we will be doing with this column than the Birth MonthDay column however. We will explicitly declare this column as a date so that SharePoint understands how to understand it when it does its calculations. In the formula, set yours to match that of the image below. You will undoubtedly notice that the order is strange. SharePoint understands dates as DATE(YEAR(variable),MONTH(variable),DAY(variable)). The formular below gathers the YEAR and MONTH from the Birthday field, but the DAY is set explicitly to “1”. Therefore, all dates using this formula will be Birthday’s YEAR, Birthday’s MONTH, but the date will be 1: 12/1/2016. We are doing this because we have to dynamically select the first date of each month for SharePoint to do the proper comparisons/selections later on.
SharePoint - start of monthDifferently than before, ensure the data type returned is Date and Time with Date only selected, as the time is unnecessary.

End of Month

Like the Start of Month, we need to dynamically get the last date of each month. This is done extremely weird however. Every single month has the date of 1, but not every month has the last date as 30, or 31. We also don’t want to exclude anyone who has had a birthday on the 31. The solution to this quandry that not all months have the same number of dates is that we simply go to the next month, go to the first day of it, and go back one day:

Birthday = 1/15/2016. End of Month = 2/1/2016 – 1 WHICH THEN = 1/31/2016

SharePoint knows how to calculate dates, it just needs to know what to do and by subtracting 1 from the first date of the next month, its going back to the last day of the current month. Using this solution, you will always get the last date of each month properly and thus not inadvertently exclude anyone’s birthday. Complete the formula with that from the image below.
SharePoint - end of month

Filtered View

All your columns are now built and all information is now readily available to build the final view. If you look at all the columns together, they should look similar to the below image:
SharePoint - staff birthday listNow you will want to create a new view that you will also set as the “default” view. Name the view whatever, you want. For my purposes, I called the view “Birthday Month”. Set it as the default view as was just mentioned. Check only the Employee and Birth MonthDay for the columns to be shown in this view. Next, jump down to the filter section. Enter the information as depicted in the image below:
SharePoint - filter view settings
This creates an odd range that SharePoint will follow and thus only show the current months birthdays. Basically, the formular doesn’t really consider the birthday at all, just the birthday MONTH and the birthday DAY which we set as the first day of the month and also last day of the month. The date of [Today] is a SharePoint pre-defined function that selects the current date. Putting into english, the above filter states that SharePoint should select every record that has a Start of Month DATE less than or equal to TODAY as well as an End of Month DATE that is greater than or equal to TODAY or:

5/1/2016 5/8/2016 5/31/2016
[Start of Month] [Today] [End of Month]

Explain: [Birthday] is 5/10/2016. [Today] is 5/8/2016. Since for that employee’s list item, they will have a [Start of Month] = 5/1/20xx and a [End of Month] = 5/31/20xx. Therefore, TODAY’s date of 5/8/2016 will meet all the criteria of that employee’s list item entry with their [Start of Month] and [End of Month]. The View however will show just the [Employee] and [Birth MonthDay] column… even though SharePoint is not doing any real calculations with the [Birth MonthDay] column as the [Start of Month] and [End of Month] are dependent on [Birthday].

Now, simply refresh your screen at the default list view and you should see the list of employee names with the birth dates and no year for the current month! Happy Birthday to them.

SharePoint - staff birthday list_final

Update (2/5/2017)

An awesome commenter pointed out a serious flaw. Sharepoint will not show the birthdays each year… only in the CURRENT year of their birthday. Using the above example, the birthdays will only show up in 2016 because I set their birth year as 2016. In order for the birthdays to show up again in 2017, you have to update each birthday to be the same date, but in 2017 instead of 2016. Serious flaw and I apologize if this wasted a lot of peoples’ time. If you have Nintex installed on your Sharepoint, I developed a routine that you run once a year to update all birthdays to the current year by adding 1 to the year. So if you run it multiple times, you will continually increase the persons birth year by one year. I’ll post the Nintex workflow here soon. Special thanks to jeanpaul7 for pointing that out!

Categories: Computers, Technology