Category Archives: review

Devolo Home Control Hardware Review



Devolo LogoPowerline specialists Devolo have moved into the smart home business with Home Control, a Z-Wave based system that incorporates powerline networking. Regular readers will have seen two unboxing videos previously. This post has more photos and details of the various components, sensors and accessories available.

Central Unit

The central unit is at the heart of the Home Control system and communicates via Z-Wave with all the sensors. Part of the Starter Pack, it’s a Devolo dLAN powerline adaptor too, so can be incorporated into an existing powerline network, though this feature doesn’t seem to be advertised very well. This is the UK version, as can be seen from the plug and it has a single network port which is used to connect to a router if there is no existing dLAN network.

Devolo Control Unit

Devolo Control Unit

Devolo Control Unit

Currently, the USB port is not used.

Smart Metering Plug

As with the Control Unit, this is the UK spec version of the Smart Metering Plug. As might be guessed from the name, not only can the plug be switch on and off remotely, it can provide power consumption information to show how much power is being used by the connected devices. The crystal LED lights up to show when the plug is on and it works as a manual on / off button too.

Smart Metering Socket

Smart Metering Socket

Motion Sensor and Door / Window Contact

The Motion Sensor and the Door / Window Contact are different sensors but physically they look the same – long half cylinders with a PIR-style window at the top. Obviously one detects motion and the other when a door or window is opened or closed by the proximity of magnet. In addition, both units measure temperature and brightness. Slightly annoyingly, a red LED lights up when both sensors are activated.

Motion Sensor

Motion Sensor

Key-fob Switch

The Key-fob Switch is a four button unit with two larger buttons and two smaller buttons. The Key-fob seems well made in metal which will put up with abuse from nearby keys and there’s a sliding plastic covered that will prevent accidental presses. Within the Devolo portal, each press can initiate an action, e.g. turning on lights, but more on this in the next post.

Devolo Keyfob Closed

Devolo Keyfob Open

Room Thermostat

The Room Thermostat is a co-branded Danfoss unit which works with two temperatures, the sensed room temperature and a target temperature. The target temperature can be adjusted both by the up and down switches on the front of the thermostat and remotely through the Devolo portal. The thermostat is powered by two batteries so can be located anywhere within range of the Control Unit. Although it doesn’t show in the pictures, the thermostat display is backlight and comes on when a button is pressed.

Devolo Thermostat
Devolo Room Thermostat
Devolo Room Thermostat
Devolo Room Thermostat

Wall Switch

The Wall Switch is very much in the style of continental light switches rather than the UK’s narrower style but it’s still a very useful addition to the range of accessories. Powered by CR2032 battery, the switch can be configured either as a single or double switch and although it looks like a rocker switch, it’s more of a push switch with four switches – upper left, lower left, upper right, lower right. Consequently the message from the switch is typically “button x was pushed (and released)” rather than “button x is currently pressed”.

The switch disassembles to change the battery or change from single to double switch, though you have to be brave when pulling it apart!

Wall Switch Wall Switch Wall Switch

Smoke Detector

The Smoke Detector is much like other smoke detectors in that there’s a very loud alarm when smoke is detected. Unlike the average detector, the Devolo version also fires off a message to the Control Unit via Z-Wave, which can then be responded to using rules configured in the Devolo portal.

There’s a test button on the top of the smoke detector as expected; press for a few seconds to check the battery, which is a small CR123 3V battery rather than a 9V PP9.
Smoke Detector

Smoke Detector

Radiator Thermostat

The Radiator Thermostat is a user-fit replacement for many thermostatically-controlled radiators. Simply, the old thermostat is removed and the new smart thermostat is put in its place. It’s straightforward and no plumbing knowledge is required other than how to get the old ‘stat off. The Devolo manual (.pdf) lists compatibility and it comes with two adapter rings, though in my instance I have to further purchase a thread converter (M28 to M30) to fit my old valves.

It takes two AA batteries and works very similarly to the Room Thermostat in terms of measuring and setting temperature. The photo below isn’t the best as it’s not showing the temperature – it won’t until it’s actually connected to a radiator.

Radiator Thermostat

Radiator Thermostat

Summary

Devolo has created a portfolio of useful sensors and actuators for a comprehensive smart home solution, although it seems that most of the devices are rebranded from a number of OEMs (Danfoss, Philio Tech, TKB, Popp). Regardless, the units all work well together and have a similar finish so it’s a minor point. Note that some of the photos make the devices look a little creamy; in reality they’re all a good clean white.

In the next post, I’ll be looking a Devolo’s  Home Control portal, which is where all the rules and notifications are setup to really make the home smart.

Thanks to Devolo for all the Home Control review units.


Product Review: 1byone Outdoor/Shower Bluetooth Speaker



1byone logoIt’s a basic rule of safety when using personal electronics: water and electricity don’t mix. It’s super important to take caution when using electronic devices in bathrooms or outdoor environments. Fortunately, there are products that are designed specifically to be used in these situations. With this in mind, I was given a new 1byone Outdoor Sports & Shower 4.0 Bluetooth Speaker to test out and review.

1byone Bluetooth speaker box
1byone Bluetooth speaker box
1byone Bluetooth speaker unboxing
1byone Bluetooth speaker unboxing
1byone Bluetooth speaker unboxing
1byone Bluetooth speaker unboxing
1byone Bluetooth speaker unboxing
1byone Bluetooth speaker unboxing

The speaker comes with a user manual, a hook for hanging the speaker and a USB cable for charging and connecting to a computer. Using the speaker is pretty straightforward. Hold down the power button and when the speaker powers on, a voice prompt lets you know if the device is connected to an external sound source, either via Bluetooth or USB. Pairing the speaker to my iPad worked flawlessly, triggering another voice prompt from the speaker indicating that it was connected via Bluetooth.

I tested the Bluetooth speaker by sending spoken-word audio from a couple of different podcast apps. The connection worked but it had some issues. By nature, spoken-word audio has some gaps of silence. And when the podcasts I was playing would have a moment or two of silence, the audio stream would cut out and “skip” to the next portion with audible speaking. This made it difficult to listen to spoken-word audio via the Bluetooth speaker. (For the sake of troubleshooting, I tried a couple of different podcast apps and two different Bluetooth devices but the problem never went away.)

I also tested the Bluetooth speaker by playing some music (most likely what the speaker is designed for) and in that case, it operated as expected without any of the issues I experienced while listening to podcasts. I suspect the speaker itself is designed to go into some kind of “low power” mode when the incoming audio drops below a certain threshold. Thus, causing the speaker to try and “turn off” when the podcast audio reaches a silent part.

The speaker is charged over USB and it can also be connected to a computer to use as a USB speaker. When I connected the speaker to my Mac, a voice prompt announced that the device was in USB mode. But the speaker never appeared as an available sound source in my Mac’s Sound System Preferences. The speaker can also play back media from a TF/Micro SD card but I don’t have a card in this format so I can’t test that out.

The 1byone Bluetooth speaker has no display. It provides its status thru voice prompts. The device is controlled by a series of buttons on its side. This includes power on/off, play/pause, volume up/down which also doubles as track forward/backward, a “phone” button for answering/ending phone calls and a “mode reset” button. The controls are molded into the chassis of the device and they are difficult to see in low-light conditions. Having the volume and track controls be shared by the same buttons can be a bit awkward as it’s necessary to hold the buttons down to adjust volume, while pressing the buttons once will skip ahead/rewind depending on the type of app you’re using to send audio to the speaker.

1byone Bluetooth speaker controls
1byone Bluetooth speaker controls

I tested the speaker by letting it play in the shower, The speaker has more than enough volume capacity to be heard over the running water. And while I didn’t position the speaker in a place where it’d get too wet, it did get some water on it and it came thru just fine. It probably wouldn’t be a good idea to fully submerge the speaker (why you’d want to do that is beyond me, anyway) but you shouldn’t have to worry about operating it in damp environments. Also, the speaker is very sturdy. It’s covered by a rubber shell that should protect it from most of the accidents that can occur in a typical day.

The 1byone Bluetooth speaker is available direct from the manufacturer for $45.99 (link above) or at a nice discount from Amazon for $19.99.


Product Review: 1byone Smart LED Bluetooth Light Bulb with Speaker



1byone logoI’m intrigued by a lot of these new “connected home” devices. My inner geek gets abnormally excited by the idea of being able to control everything (or at least most things) from a smart device or computer. That’s why I was excited when electronics manufacturer 1byone offered to send me one of its Smart LED Bluetooth Light Bulbs.

1byone Smart LED Bulb
1byone Smart LED Bulb box

 

1byone Smart LED Bulb Unboxing
1byone Smart LED Bulb Unboxed

Unboxing the LED bulb is pretty straightforward. Remove the bulb and the manual is under a cardboard support underneath. The manual’s kinda small but it’s the proper form to fit in this box. Installing the bulb is equally straightforward. It uses an E27-style socket, which is pretty standard in North America and Europe. Just cut power to your light fixture, remove the existing bulb, and replace it with the 1byone bulb.

For testing purposes, I plugged my 1byone bulb into one of the fixtures on my kitchen track light. I then turned the light on at the wall and the 1byone bulb came to life by lighting up and playing a little jingle.

1byone smart LED bulb, powered off
1byone smart LED bulb, powered off

 

1byone smart LED bulb, powered on
1byone smart LED bulb, powered on

To control the bulb, it’s necessary to download a free mobile app for Android, or in my case, iOS. (The manual has a handy QR code that takes you to an app download page.) Once the app is installed, you’ll need to pair your mobile device with the LED bulb via Bluetooth.

1byone LED bulb Bluetooth pairing
1byone LED bulb Bluetooth pairing

The light bulb controller app has five sections: Connect, Music, Lamp, Off/On, and settings. The Connect section allows you to select the bulb you want to control and the Music section allows you to select music from your device’s onboard media library to stream to the bulb’s built-in speaker. I didn’t test the in-app music section as I had no media stored on my iPad.

1byone LED smart bulb app
1byone LED smart bulb app

You can always turn the bulb on/off from a wall switch but you can also do that from within the app. This is handy if you want to turn the light off but still stream audio to the bulb’s speaker (more on that later).

1byone LED smart bulb app
1byone LED smart bulb app

The LED bulb has a range of available colors to choose from. Tap the “Manual” button and then pick your favorite color. The bulb automatically changes to that color. (My photos don’t do a lot of justice to how the bulb looks when it’s colored. But, at any color, the bulb produces a pleasing, soft light.) The app also offers an “Auto” option that causes the bulb to flash different colors randomly. It’s unclear as to what exactly this is supposed to accomplish.

1byone smart bulb set to blue color
1byone smart bulb set to bluish color

 

1byone smart bulb set to red color
1byone smart bulb set to reddish color

 

1byone Smart LED bulb vs. standard bulb
1byone Smart LED bulb set to “neutral” (white) vs. standard light bulb

The app also has a timer that can turn the bulb off at a specific time. The timer is a bit odd, as it’s based on an analog clock. I was testing the bulb just before 10:30AM so I set the timer to 10:30AM and the bulb powered off at the specified time.

1byone LED smart bulb app
1byone LED smart bulb app

Instead of using the app’s included music streamer, I decided instead to use AirPlay to stream audio from a couple different apps to the bulb’s built-in speaker. First, I played some podcasts thru Stitcher. Then, I played some music from YouTube. AirPlay worked flawlessly with the bulb and the overall sound for both purposes was surprisingly good. And LOUD. Cranking the bulb’s volume filled the room with sound.

In the world of connected lighting, the 1byone smart bulb is very much an entry-level device. It doesn’t do much more out of the box than what I’ve shown here. Still, it is a cool gadget and could be good for someone who’d like a fully-featured bulb but doesn’t want to invest in a larger setup. The smart LED bulb can be purchased directly from 1byone for $30.99 or from Amazon for the same price.


Product Review: 1byone Amplified HDTV Antenna



1byone logoI recently moved my one and only television, a Samsun 52″ LCD HDTV, from the front room of my home into the back room. In doing this, I lost the connection to a TV antenna I had mounted on the outside of my home. While I don’t watch a lot of over-the-air TV, it was nice to have access to the channels I could get. I tried a basic set of non-powered rabbit ears to pick up some channels after the TV move. But it didn’t pick up anything. I figured for sure I’d either have to move my external TV antenna (not a fun task) or just give up on over-the-air TV all together. Luckily for me, I was offered the chance to review a 1byone Amplified HDTV Antenna.

ibyone HDTV antenna box front
ibyone HDTV antenna box front

 

ibyone HDTV antenna box back
ibyone HDTV antenna box back

 

1byone Amplified HDTV Antenna unboxed
1byone Amplified HDTV Antenna unboxed

The 1byone Amplified HDTV Antenna comes with everything you need to use it: The antenna with built-in ten-foot coaxial cable, the inline amplifier, A/C adapter for the amplifier, three double-sided 3M adhesive pads, and the product manual. Installation is pretty straightforward. Connect the amplifier to your television’s antenna input, connect the antenna to the amplifier, connect the amplifier to the A/C adapter, and plug the adapter into an available power outlet.

1byone HDTV amplifier
HDTV amplifier’s LED shows it’s powered on

Thanks to a handy guide from AntennaWeb, I know that most of the TV transmitters in my area are positioned to the northwest. My first attempt with the 1byone antenna was to hang it as high as possible in the northwestern-facing corner of my room.

1byone HDTV on the wall
1byone HDTV antenna on the wall

I ran the auto program feature on my TV. It didn’t pick up any channels.

0 channels found
Zero channels found

In the antenna’s manual, it states that if you have trouble getting TV signals, you should place the antenna as high as possible and/or put it near a window. For good measure, I moved the antenna to the opposite corner of my room, ran the auto program sequence and again, came up with nothing.

I then moved the antenna next to a window and tried again. This time, success!

6 channels found!
6 channels found!

With the antenna next to the window, I was now able to receive six channels. A nice improvement over the other attempts. The HD picture and sound were crystal clear and the stability of the signal was rock solid with no dropouts.

HDTV picture
HDTV picture

I know some readers will see the result of six channels as unacceptable. But, I think it’s great. I don’t live in a major metropolitan area, and even with my external antenna, I didn’t get many more channels than this. The 1byone Amplified HDTV Antenna promises a range of up to 50 miles. I’m certain that if you live in the orbit of a large city, you’ll be able to easily pick up many more chances with this antenna.

1byone describes this antenna as “paper thin” and they’re not kidding. The antenna is very thin and light. It’s easy to move about the room and try in different locations. I’d recommend using one of the supplied double-adhesive pads until you’ve found a permanent place for the antenna. It’s light enough that one adhesive pad will hold it on the wall, but you’d probably want to use more than one to hold it in place long term.

The 1byone Amplified HDTV Antenna is available for purchase for $36.99 direct from 1byone. It’s also currently available on Amazon for $29.99.


iRig Mic Lav Review



irig1The iRig Mic Lav is a fantastic rig for podcasters or video bloggers looking to quickly mic up someone to do an audio or video interview. I was honestly quite surprised at the quality of the audio the folks at IK Multimedia have really outdone themselves this time.

When I received the iRig Mic Lav for review, I wanted to put it head to head with some Pro Lav mics I have here in the studio. In my test the audio quality was equal to several of my wireless Lavs that cost 7 times as much as the $49.95 iRig Mic Lav.

irig2What is really unique about this product, is that through a module on the rig you can plug in a set of headsets to monitor the person you are interviewing, or you can plug in a second iRig Mic Lav and have two people wired up.. This is perfect in a host – guest situation. I would though like to see a little longer cable in both the solo and dual rig setups though.

Don’t get me wrong the cable length is about 5 1/2 feet, but if you are trying to hide the cable from being seen on Video running down the front of a shirt you may come up a little bit short. The iRig Mic Lav is going to be in my to go kit so that when an unexpected interview opportunity presents itself I can be ready in seconds. Folks that shoot selfie videos are going to be perfect candidates for this setup as well.

The iRig Mic Lav worked with all the Audio and Video recording apps I have, and I even used it on a skype call. So the usage cases are really unlimited if you are looking to up your audio quality.


Master Lock Blue Tooth Enabled Locks Review



masterlockMaster Lock has introduced a line of Blue Tooth enabled locks. You never have to worry about loosing a key again. Master Lock has always been my #1 choice in locks for reliability and durability. These new locks are no exception. They are rugged, and have the heft and strength you come to expect from Master Lock.

It’s weird to say this, but setting up the Blue Tooth enabled Master Lock the first time took about 5 minutes. I had to download and install the “Master Lock Vault App”, and setup my account with a Master password. Once that was completed I paired the Lock in the App with a special code provided when you open the lock packaging, From that point forward anytime I want to unlock the padlock all I need is my smartphone with the app loaded close to the lock and initiate the unlock sequence by clicking the unlock button that illuminates on the front of the lock. I have provided some screen shots to show you what it looks like in the app during the unlock process..

You can also manually open the lock with a series of up / down / left / right clicks on the same unlock activation button. When a battery gets low in the lock the app will inform you so that you can replace it.

They currently come in two models prices at $49.99 and $59.00 these locks would be perfect for a school locker or something that you would access on  a regular basis that needs securing..  It should be nothed that only the larger of the two offerings are weather resistant. The smaller lock is inside use only.

IMG_6904

IMG_6905IMG_6906


Roku 2 Media Streamer (2015) Review



Roku LogoMedia streamers are hugely in vogue at the moment with products from Roku, Apple, Google and Amazon, and good a few of these are going to appear under the Christmas tree in a few day’s time. Although hard numbers are difficult to come back, it’s generally thought that the market leader by a good way is Roku, with Google, Apple and Amazon following in roughly that order. Once the figures are in for the Thanksgiving and Christmas sales, this could all change. Regardless, on review here is the UK 2015 version of the Roku 2, which now sits in the middle of Roku’s British line-up, between the Streaming Stick and the Roku 3. Let’s take a look.

Roku 2 in Box

In the box, you get the Roku 2, remote control (with batteries) and power supply with four plug adaptors, including UK, US and continental. There’s no HDMI cable.

Roku 2 inside box

As with the previous Roku 2 models, it’s in the “hockey puck” style, though it’s a little bit more rounded than the earlier Roku 2 models. The remote is the usual candy bar, but this model uses IR signal transmission rather than the WiFi and Bluetooth of predecessors. This may be of interest if your Roku normally lives round the back of the TV as you’ll need to bring it into view.

Roku 2 Front

Looking round the 2, there’s the trademark fabric tab on one side, with a USB port on the other. At the back you’ll find HDMI, network and DC power sockets, along with a microSD card slot. In addition to the Ethernet, the Roku 2 has dual band wireless.

Getting started is straightforward. Plug everything into the Roku 2, put the batteries in the remote and sit back on the sofa with the remote. The Roku 2 steps through the setup in a straightforward fashion, though putting in long passwords or WiFi keys can be a bit laborious. Regardless, you can be up and running within minutes.

Roku offers over 1,500 streaming entertainment channels which are great for followers of niche programming, whether travel, sport, kids, health & fitness or faith/religion. However, the vast majority of UK buyers will be interested in the offerings from the main terrestrial broadcasters plus the well known video-on-demand services. Naturally, Roku has them all. BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, Demand 5, Sky Now, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Google Play Movies and YouTube. For audio fans, there’s Spotify, Rdio, Pandora, TuneIn and Vevo. Newshounds will like the BBC News and Sky News channels. I could keep going but in summary there’s lots there and no-one will ever be able to say, “There’s nothing on the TV”.

Roku 2 RearOn the other hand if you have your own media, the Roku Media Player will play from USB storage and DLNA servers, and a Plex client can be installed too. I streamed ripped movies from a Buffalo Linkstation and while picture quality can be subject to network speeds, I had no problems at all and enjoyed HD footage without glitches from all the services that offered HD streaming. The Roku 2 has a HD optimised processor and I think it shows. The microSD slot can’t be used for media storage but can be used to boost the internal memory of the Roku 2 for extra channels.

If you’re a real film buff, you’ll be interested in Roku Search and Roku Feed. The former searches through top channels by title, actor or director to find your favourite programming and the Roku Feed automatically updates you when new films become available for streaming (or if the price changes).

The Roku 2’s main user interface is a simple menu driven affair and it’s not nearly as sophisticated as Amazon’s Fire, which combines media from multiple sources. Part of this is because the Roku doesn’t have the integrated cloud-based ecosystem behind it in the style of Amazon or Google, but part is to keep things straightforward and easy to use, much like an ordinary TV. The channels such as Netflix then have their own interface. Frankly, I prefer the channel approach as you know what you are getting, e.g. BBC programming, Netflix’s catalogue, YouTube video. Channel or app sophistication varies hugely. Most are good, especially from the big names like BBC or Netflix, though Spotify’s channel is a bit disappointing.

Roku RemoteThe remote is easy to use with a directional pad falling easily under the thumb. Other buttons function as home, back and menu controls. There are four shortcut buttons for Netflix, YouTube, Rdio and Google Movies, which is great if you use those services, but a waste of space if you don’t. It’s a pity they aren’t more generically labelled, e.g. Films, Music, News, Sport, with a configuration option for each button. Even better would be to print and label your own buttons!

To play media from smartphones and tablets, Roku offers a complementary app (Android, iOS and Windows) which can be used to not only manage and control the Roku 2, but also cast media from the mobile device to the screen. It’s great to show the photos you’ve just taken on the TV.

There’s no doubt there’s strong competition out there for the spot below your TV but the Roku 2 performed well and without issue. Pricewise, the Roku 2 has an RRP of £69.99 but can be found on-line for £10 less which is good value especially at the lower price. Of course, if you don’t need to play from local storage, consider the Roku Streaming Stick which is £20 cheaper (RRP £49.99). Overall, I think the Roku is a good choice if your intention is to “watch TV” without being distracted by unnecessary features. Go on, get one for Christmas.

Thanks to Roku for providing the Roku 2 for review.


Using Samsung SmartThings



Samsung SmartThings LogoI’ve been enjoying Samsung SmartThings for a couple of weeks and it’s been an interesting time. The technology is a key factor in a smart home but let’s not forget that a home is often inhabited by a family and a smart home has to be used by a family. It can’t just be one geeky member (Dad!) who knows how it works; everyone has to understand the features to take advantage of it. With this in mind, let’s see how easy it is to use SmartThings and what are the benefits for the family?

My previous unboxing post covers the SmartThings hardware  so I’m not going to labour that side too much; if you want to see what the SmartThings look like, review the post or the YouTube video below.

Samsung’s SmartThings app is really where it all happens and while comprehensive, it can be a little overwhelming. It’s worth taking some time to get the way Samsung thinks into your own head, before delving into some of the more complicated features. Simply, there are Locations, typically your home, with Rooms full of (Smart)Things. Things can be observed or controlled independently or Routines can be setup to control Things based on information from other Things.

SmartThings Rooms       SmartThings Things

Some Things can show state such as whether a door is open or closed, how warm or cold a room is, or how much power is being consumed through a plug. Some Things can carry out actions, e.g. turn a light on or off, or lock or unlock a door. Currently Samsung SmartThings are available for motion, temperature, moisture, presence, power and door state but there’s a whole ecosystem of products from other vendors that can be integrated.

This video shows how the power sensor can be used to measure power and turn off devices remotely.

It’s the Routines that really put the smarts into the smart home. For example, a Routine might say that if motion is detected by one sensor, then turn on a light. Going a step further, I have a routine that once everyone has been out of the house for 10 minutes, it turns off two power sockets and some lights. Even better, a second routine comes into play that turns everything back on when people come back to the house.

SmartThings Routines  SmartThings Routine Features SmartThings Routines When

SmartThings Home MonitorThe app has a Smart Home Monitor too, which is easily thought of as software-based security system. The Monitor has three modes, Arm (Away), Arm (Stay) and Disarm. When armed, unexpected activity triggers actions such as messages to phones or snapping photos from webcams. As well as the obvious ne’er-do-well entering the property, alarms can be raised against smoke, fire and leaks, depending on the sensors available. The system can help you escape too: assuming everything is connected up, in the event of fire, lights can be turned on and doors unlocked enabling a speedy exit.

To some extent this is theoretical in that I didn’t have smart door, but I do have Philips Hue which joined into the SmartThings ecosystem without any problems at all.

If the main SmartThings app isn’t enough for your needs, there’s an ecosystem of plug-in SmartApps that can extend the feature set. I used one called “Notify Me When” to send me a message when my fridge door was left open for more than two minutes. You can see the setup in this video.

Returning to my initial premise of “Everyone has to understand how it works to take advantage of it”, what did I find? Actually, everything worked so well that my family didn’t really need to know much once I had setup the routines. One big plus was my wife liked getting a notification that I was home as it meant I had picked up the children on my way.

To some extent the early success of SmartThings in our home has been the quick wins. One thing missing from the SmartThings starter kit is a camera, so at present if I do get an alert from the house when I’m out, there’s nothing I can do to see what’s going on.

The next big step would be in heating and boiler control – why heat the house when there’s no-one around? I’d like to integrate my existing interconnected fire alarm too but I don’t really want to rip it out and replace with, say, Nest, so I’ll be looking for a homebrew solution where I can add a device that picks up the alarm signal on the interconnect and then passes that along to the SmartThings Hub.

Overall, I’ve been impressed with Samsung’s SmartThings. It’s worked well, with no major issues and only a couple of minor glitches. The Starter Kit is priced at GB£199 or US$249 (the contents are slightly different) so it’s not a trivial investment, especially if joined to a Philips Hue. However, I love it.

Thanks to Samsung SmartThings and The Insiders for the Starter Kit.


Mpow Cheetah Bluetooth Headphones



Mpow Logo

I’ve been looking at a few Mpow gadgets recently and so far, they’ve all done well, giving great performance for not much money. Next in line are the Mpow Cheetah Bluetooth 4.1 Sports Headphones to give them their full title. These are sport-oriented headphones, with a neckband to keep them in place. Let’s see if these are worth putting on the Christmas list for the January fitness programme.

Mpow Cheetah BoxThe Cheetah comes in a small grey box that has a curious soft touch finish to it. While it feels pleasant, it’s actually quite hard to see what’s inside the box as black headphones on a grey background doesn’t work well. Getting into the box is another matter too: there’s a hidden magnetic flap which will keep you guessing for a few minutes.

Once inside, the Cheetah headphones are coiled neatly on top. These are the boring black ones though they are available with yellow, pink, blue and green highlights. Taking them out and removing the tray reveals a small instruction booklet, USB charging cable and three sets of silicon earbuds (small, medium and large). Looking at the left and right ear pods, the features are not unexpectedly sparse and the leftside one has nothing. The right pod has all the controls, including volume rocket, multifunction button, mic, indicator light and microUSB charge port. Unlike the Swift, the door over the charge port has a small flap which makes in much easier to get your fingernail under.

Mpow Cheetah In BoxCharging is straightforward and takes about two and half hours from flat. There’s a red light on during charging which changes to green when the battery full. Similarly, the Bluetooth pairing is simple: hold down the multifunction button for five seconds until the Cheetah enters pairing mode and do the usual on the smartphone. Job done.

To get the headphones on, you untwirl them and put them round your neck before popping the earbuds in. To start with, I found the Cheetah headphones very uncomfortable – the earbuds just didn’t fit right. Then I realised I was wearing them the wrong way round. Twit. Once the headphones are in the correct ears, they’re much more comfortable. The neckband is sufficiently strong to keep them in place short of being physically ripped from your head, but it never feels like your head is in a vice. The neckband also keeps them round your neck if you need to take the headphones out for a few moments.

Mpow Cheetah ReversePressing the multifunction button powers up the headphones. A voice announces “Power on” and “Your headset is connected” but doesn’t give battery time. The volume rocker works as expected for sound levels, and long pressing the volume buttons is supposed to skip forwards and backwards. On my phone, it skipped forwards ok, but skipping backwards didn’t work properly – it would only go to the beginning of the track, not the previous track. The multifunction button played and paused the track.

For calls, the Cheetah has various tricks, including double pressing the multifunction button for last number redial, and long pressing the – volume rocker to mute calls. In use, callers came through clearly and people said that they could hear me well. As with the Swift, the Cheetah announces the phone number of the caller.

Mpow Cheetah ControlIn terms of audio quality, Mpow has again proved that it can deliver great sound at low cost. As with the Swift headphones, I listened to a selection of tracks using a OnePlus 2 smartphone playing from a range of music services, some streamed, some downloaded. There was good presence and clarity, with reasonable high frequency reproduction and effective bass. I did feel that the Cheetah needed a bit of volume to perform at its best but even with that, these are good headphones. Perhaps not as good as the Swift but considering these are aimed at the sporting activity, they’re outstanding value priced at around US$25 or GB£19.

If you are looking for headphones to wear when working out, running or cycling, the Cheetah headphones are perfect. Sound quality is good, they aren’t going to fall off and at the price, you aren’t going to be too bothered if they get trashed by accident. Just make sure that you put them on the right way round.

Thanks to Mpow and Patuoxun for the review Cheetah Bluetooth 4.1 sport headphones.


Mpow Swift Bluetooth Headphones Review



Mpow LogoWhen it comes to headphones, I’m a firm believer in that you get what you pay for. Undoubtedly there are diminishing returns above a certain price point but the bundled headphones that used to come with mobile phones were complete rubbish in terms of both their build quality and audio characteristics. Fortunately, those days are past and most respectable manufacturers provide usable headphones.

On review here are the Mpow Swift Bluetooth 4.0 wireless headphones which are marketed as “sweatproof, jogger, running, sport…earbuds…with AptX mic hands-free calling”. With an RRP of GB£30, they are often found for sale at about half that, say GB£15, which is a fantastic price for Bluetooth wireless earbuds….if they sound good. My daily listeners are Sennheiser CX300s, so the Swift’s have got their work cut out here. Let’s take a look and first up is a short unboxing video.

As can be seen from the video and the pictures, the Swift headphones are of the earbud type, with a loose ribbon cable connecting the two ‘buds. The cable doesn’t grip the neck like some models and the ribbon cable keeps tangles to a minimum. The headphones come in a good range of colours, with a choice of black or white for the body and then a selection of highlight colours, including blue, yellow, magenta, green and pink.

Mpow Swift EarbudsBeing Bluetooth headphones, the Swift earbuds are quite big on the outside of the ear containing the wireless electronics, rechargeable battery and the mic for hands-free calling. On the left headphone there’s a covered microUSB port for charging that comes with a personal warning that fingernails are required to get the port cover off. The coloured flash on this headphone doesn’t do anything, whereas over on the right, it acts as an action button, turning the headphones on and off, play / pausing music and taking calls. There’s also a volume rocker and microphone on the right side. When doing some activities with the action button, there’s a voice confirmation such as “Power on” or “Connected” which can be handy when trying to figure out what state the headphones are in.

Mpow Swift EarbudsWhile all the buttons worked, I disliked using the buttons, partly because I have big fingers and the buttons are small, but mostly because I don’t like the sensation of the earbud moving within the ear when I tried to press the buttons. YMMV, as they say.

Bluetooth pairing was so straightforward, it’s hardly worth mentioning…hold down action button, select Swift on phone in Bluetooth settings, job done.

Standard earbuds are notorious for falling out during the movement and with the extra weight on the headphones, one might think that the Swifts would drop out of the ear at the slightest twitch. Fortunately Mpow has this covered with a couple of retaining options.

Mpow Swift EarhooksFirst, the Swift headphones come with three sizes of earbud for small, medium and large earholes. Second there are three sizes of ear loops that catch on the inner part of the ear and finally there are hooks which lock into parts of the ear for a really firm hold. Both the loops and the hooks easily slip over a round section on the headphones. For retainability, the hooks are impressive, though you do need to spend a little time get them in the right place the first time. Once locked behind a suitable part of the outer ear, they easily keep the Swift headphones in place, even while running. Obviously they’re still going to come out if something catches on the lead (which is a good safety feature) but short of deliberately taking the Swifts out, they’re staying in. For extended listening, I did find the Swifts a little more tiring than other earbuds, possibly simply because of the extra weight.

Mpow Swift Earbud with hookFinally, it brings us to audio quality and Mpow may force me to re-evaluate my initial premise that you get what you pay for as the Swifts are really very good. I listened to a selection of tracks using a OnePlus 2 smartphone playing from a range of music services, some streamed, some downloaded. There was good presence and clarity, and while the high frequency wasn’t perfect the bass was effective without being overpowering. Seriously, the Swifts weren’t far off the Sennheiser CX300s, which surprised me.

There’s the additional benefit of being able to take phone calls with the Swifts too.  When a call comes in, the Swifts announce the incoming phone number which is a great feature for when the phone is in the bag or otherwise out of view. Callers generally said that they could hear me clearly but it was obvious that I was hands-free.

Overall, the Mpow Swift headphones are great value. They seem well made, sound great and stay in the ear, even when exercising. At GB£15, they’re not throwaway but you aren’t going cry too much if you damage or lose them during sport. Recommended if you are looking for Bluetooth sport headphones.

Thanks to Mpow and Patuoxun for the review Swift Bluetooth 4.0 wireless sport headphones.