And It Just Doesn’t Work

Posted on July 5, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Hardware, iOS, Mobile, Music + Videos, Paul, Smart Home, Xbox One with 145 Comments

And It Just Doesn't Work

We’re planning a big move, and while this is a stressful and uncertain time, I’m rethinking the personal technology we use day-to-day with an aim to make things better. And that means finally pulling the trigger on some changes I’ve been considering for a long time: Getting rid of cable TV and our phone lines, being smarter about connected speakers, implementing a mesh wireless network, and more.

Like many of you, I bet—probably most of you—the mess of products and services we currently use at home is the result of years of piling on. And what you end up with, ultimately, is a bunch of stuff that doesn’t work well together. Much of which duplicates functionality elsewhere. It’s a mess.

Consider the living room. We currently have multiple devices—a cable box, Xbox One, Apple TV, Android TV/Chromecast, and so on—attached to our HDTV. And the onus is on everyone in the family to figure out how to get where they want to go. For example, most of these devices, including the TV itself (it’s a 4K/UHD Smart TV) include a Netflix app. And … it’s not clear which one is best. Literally.

The Apple TV doesn’t support 4K/UHD or HDR, and yet it often provides the best picture quality. The Smart TV version of the app does support 4K/UHD and HDR, but it can be buggy, and the remote is terrible. (The Apple TV remote is also terrible.) We could run Netflix off of our phones and cast it to the TV, and there are benefits to doing so, including the fact that the Netflix mobile app includes better content browsing capabilities than the set-top box apps. But then you have to use the phone to control playback, and that is less than ideal. And using an Xbox to run Netflix is like taking a battleship to the corner store to buy milk.

My goal, of course, is to minimize complexity while maximizing functionality. But just looking at Netflix, which is a single app, you can see the issue. There’s no obvious best solution there.

OK, there may be one, though it comes a bit out of left field. The Android TV-based Mi Box works like a 4K-capable Chromecast and has its own remote, and that remote is better than the remotes that come with the TV or Apple TV. This is a solution very few people will ever consider, I bet. But it’s the kind of thinking I’m trying to apply to this problem. Find one thing that works.

We’ll never really have one thing attached to the TV. But one of my goals with this move is to simplify this setup, and part of that change will be not using a cable box. So we’ll see how that goes. YouTube TV? Maybe. (It’s available now where I’m trying to move.) I’ll probably look at a variety of services over the first few months of our move, which is scheduled for late August.

And that’s just the TV, of course. We now have three Sonos speakers, and we like them quite a bit. But because I purchased the cheapest PLAY-1 models—typical thinking on my part, sadly—we’re missing out on interoperability with Chromecast, which limits their usefulness. Higher-end Sonos speakers include an audio-in jack, but the PLAY-1 does not.

Which means I’d be better off selling these speakers and buying $100 bookshelf speakers, and adding a Chromecast Audio to each. And … I may just do that. But I will wait until this move is complete, and see how well that works. And then decide.

The house we’re moving to is considerably bigger than our current home. This was never a goal, in fact, my wife and I have long planned to downsize when the kids were out of the house. We try to be OK with this unexpected change by rationalizing that the new house is a different kind of downsizing because it is significantly less expensive than our current home. (Suburban Boston is one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world. Rural Pennsylvania? Not so much.) But it presents logistical issues nonetheless.

Home networking is a great example. Using that “piling on over time” non-strategy I mentioned earlier, we’ve implemented wired Ethernet over a weird 50 percent of our current home, but we mostly rely on terrible FIOS router-based wireless networking capabilities. The new home is bigger, and it will require a different approach.

I may one day wire it for Ethernet, though we have more pressing concerns related to updating all of the electrical receptacles and light switches, and many of the light fixtures, to be more modern and less “beiged with age,” as I call them. (Not to mention limited funds.) For the short term, I’m going to try a mesh wireless networking setup.

Next week, RCN is coming to the home to install a cable modem (only, with no phones or cable TV), and I’ll see if a Google WiFi three-pack can effectively cover the house, as I suspect it will. That way, Internet access will be ready and waiting for us when we actually move over a month later.

(And, no, RCN isn’t my first, second, or even my third choice for connectivity. But that’s what we got. It offers speeds of 330 Mbps down, which is great, but only 20 Mbps up, which will be challenging.)

Beyond these things, I will be evaluating whether it makes sense to do any kind of smart home control implementation related to heat/AC (on different systems because Pennsylvania), though just consolidating the many incompatible thermostats in the house—literally five different types across the house—will itself be a major achievement. But that’s the bane of home ownership: There is always more to do, more to spend money on.

It’s going to be a busy year, regardless. Where it makes sense, I’ll write about these changes in more detail, but I’m mostly worried about just making it all work. And doing it in a way that is more integrated and better planned. I guess it could only be better.

 

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