Book review: Home Automation for Dummies
Home automation has come a long way from the days when all that was available were manual timers that might or might not have offered anything more than the ability to turn a lamp or appliance On and Off at one set time, or the X-10 modules and controllers that drove almost everybody nuts trying to get them to work properly. Nowadays we have what seems like endless choices, with no two systems being alike in either products or complexity. How to make sense of it all? Home Automation for Dummies tries to straighten it all out. Does this book succeed? Let's find out:
The basics of home automation, aka SmartHome
As with all the For Dummies series of books, Home Automation for Dummies starts with the assumption that you don't know much, if anything, about the subject under discussion, and starts by explaining the absolute basics you'll need to know to get started. The author, Dwight Spivey, also makes the assumption that the reader isn't going to be gearing up to do a massive, self-installed, whole-house installation. He assumes a reasonably tech-savvy reader with a reasonable, real-world budget, which is a definite plus.
Where To Buy
In our recent article How to get smart about your home we discussed the different basic philosophies of setting up automated processes in your house. This book doesn't talk philosophy as much as it talks about figuring out what your goals are (a little at a time or "all in") and whether you want to try to make devices from multiple manufacturers work together, and whether you want to take the practical approach or just tinker with the latest and greatest gizmos you can find. For people who are truly just getting their feet on the ground, this approach can save a lot of time, money and frustration.
There's a step by step plan for determining what's practical for any individual setup: Your home's size, whether you want to automate exterior devices, whether you want to start off with just a few simple gadgets or go ahead and blow the wad on a major installation, and so forth. These sections are well worth reading, but there is a downside: The author has chosen very specific devices to illustrate his points. While this will work OK for a while, with the way technology advances, the devices in the book will be obsolete quickly and may no longer serve as a worthwhile illustration of the points.
Automating inside your home
Many of us have done a little "home automation" when we schedule lights and appliances to turn On and Off. Maybe you want the coffee maker to start early, so you have hot coffee when you stumble out of bed and grope your way to the kitchen. Or maybe you want your lights and radio to turn On, to make it look like you're not away on vacation. And many people have thermostats that can be programmed to keep the place at a reasonable temperature. Nowadays, of course, there are far more options for turning things On and Off, controlling the lights and controlling the thermostat. Home Automation for Dummies describes quite a few options in detail, giving examples of both inexpensive and expensive devices and suggesting how they might be used.
It's not just a matter of Off and On, when it comes to lighting systems. The controllers can respond to sunlight or darkness in the house and change the lights accordingly, and they can be controlled with your smartphone so you can have the place lit up before you get home in the dark. They can also be triggered by motion, which could be very helpful for humans getting out of bed in a darkened dwelling, but not quite so helpful if you've got pets who roam around at night. Some systems can be used not only to light your home but to control the color of the lights you use. The book gives a good overview of the options available from companies such as Philips Hue, INSTEON, TCP, SmartThings, and Belkin.
Security is a big new field for home automation. Home security systems have been around for a long time, of course, but now there are even more options. Your home alarm system can be set and monitored from your mobile device, and you can lock and unlock your doors the same way. You can monitor your home through webcams that send a signal to your mobile device, and you can set off an alarm if your system doesn't do it automatically. There are even devices that can tell you where your pets are, assuming the pet is big enough to put a fairly bulky tag on, which pretty much limits it to medium-to-large-size dogs or small farm animals, and whether something is leaking inside your house. Home Automation for Dummies once again gives a product overview to illustrate the kinds of things one can consider buying and installing.
There's a lengthy chapter devoted to home entertainment systems. The author endeared himself to me when he began the chapter by describing a tech-deprived childhood much like mine, where TVs only got three channels (at most) and remote controls were only for rich people in a galaxy far, far away. Although I was from an even more primitive age when UHF hadn't been invented yet. Look on the internet for "Philco TV 1956" if you want a bit of free entertainment from the ancient world. :)
He then goes on to introduce the modern world of home entertainment, and there's a lot of technology out there that can make choosing what to watch or listen to, and where, and on what devices, about as easy as it can be.
There's a section devoted to "home entertainment gurus." These are websites that show you how to do things you might never have thought of, like having a virtual web-based "remote control" that can handle all your devices regardless of how they transmit their signals to each other. Or using Bluetooth technology to replace a box full of remote controls with your smartphone. Many of us are already familiar with streaming devices like Roku, AppleTV and ChromeCast. The "Smart Home Entertainment" chapter goes into detail about both the known and the unfamiliar devices and gives the reader a good idea of what's out there… at least at the time the book was published.
Putting it all together
It isn't till more than halfway through Home Automation for Dummies that the author gets down to the nuts and bolts of making your systems work. Since there are so many options available, this approach makes sense. Better to know what your choices are, according to your skill level, your budget and the devices you want to work with before you try to get it all together.
Precisely because there are so many options, the book can't give detailed information about every single one. But it gives the reader a good start on figuring it out. First, of course, is figuring out which devices work best together and which don't work at all. There's a discussion of smartphones and tablets (Android and iOS) and computers (OS X, Windows, Linux, and Chromebooks). The pros and cons are discussed in an evenhanded manner. The irony is, though, that this section concludes with "Keeping Apps Up-to-Date" when it's gone into detail about devices that may well be out of date by the time someone reads the book. Still, though, it's a handy reference to what you need to consider when you try to tie together your mobile device or your desktop with all the security, entertainment and practical devices inside your home.
Then there is an examination of the biggest frustrations, the lack of standards and the multiple manufacturers who insist on doing everything their own way. The reality is that most people are going to have to settle on devices from one manufacturer (or manufacturers who agree to abide by one standard) rather than just buy devices off the shelf and expect them to get along. (Anyone who tried to get X-10 modules and controllers to cooperate is probably still recovering from tearing their hair out, and those gizmos were from the same manufacturer!)
There are, however, options available for people who want to try to make "multi-protocol systems" work. In general, this involves a hub of some kind that can communicate with other devices and convince them to work together. We covered the ups and downs of working with hubs in our previous article on SmartHomes.
The Part of Tens
Most of the For Dummies books end with a section called The Part of Tens. They usually contain ten great hints, tips, websites, products, etc. Home Automation for Dummies does something different: It talks about the simple products that people can use to get a start in home automation without too much frustration. Again, though, these products may no longer be available when the reader goes to the store to get started.
Then there's Part of Tens devoted to "Ten great websites for home automation" that should be of interest to almost anyone, and they have the advantage of being easy to update as the world of gadgets changes.
But wait, there's more….
Home Automation for Dummie s talks about some devices that people might not have considered.
I've never had a robot vacuum cleaner, for example, and wouldn't have thought of it as part of a home-automation scheme, but yes indeed, you can schedule your busy little Roomba (or whatever) to start prowling around while you're not there and finish up before you get home (your four-footed friends are just going to have to like it or lump it).
Or how about an automatic gutter cleaner, an automatic pet feeder (Didn't Doc Brown invent that one?) or an automated flush-a-ma-jig for your toilet so you never have to reach around and flush again?
There are a LOT of products mentioned that I might never have thought of, like an Internet-connected washer and dryer, a robo-mop, an automatic grill cleaner and something called RoboSnail, that gets algae off the glass in your fish tank. OK, call me a Luddite but I think a good old fashioned Plecostomus is all that's necessary for that last task, and so does my Plecostomus in the fish tank.
I suspect that some of those esoteric products will be languishing at the closeout stores or on eBay well before the book gets its next edition or goes out of print. That's the big downside to being too specific in one's recommendations.
Where To Buy
Home Automation for Dummies is a well-written book and the author clearly knows what he's talking about. So much for the notion that people who knew a world without remote controls are hopeless with technology. There's a wealth of real-world information, and For Dummies has provided their usual excellent Extras companion website. The book covers a lot of options and gives a good overview of what will work and what won't. But a book that relies so heavily on present day products gets dated all too fast and that may be a problem. It's hard to make intelligent choices based on devices that are already in the day-old bin, so to speak. Also, the illustrations are in black and white and greyscale, and they're not as appealing as color illustrations. But color illustrations are always more expensive. Still, I would recommend reading it to get a good overview of what is out there and what you might never have known about. If you can find it at your local public library, so much the better, because then you'll know whether this is the book for you. For me, it's a keeper.