As a public service, I created a series of public Google calendars pre-loaded with all candle lighting and Havdalah dates and times for several years. These calendars can be integrated to address Shabbos and Yom Tov issues with home automation or just give you candle lighting times for Shabbos and Yom Tov. I created a calendar for several time zones. There is one for New York Metro, Chicago, LA, etc. and, of course, one for Jerusalem. If you need another time zone, send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I will be happy to add it.
To add the appropriate Tribe Tech Review Public Shabbos and Yom Tov Google Calendar to your list of personal calendars, Right Click and Copy the appropriate calendar URL link below. Then go to your Google Calendar on any computer (not phone). Choose Add Friends Calendar by URL and then paste the appropriate calendar link from the time zones below:
There are many smart security cameras on the market. Nest is a popular brand offering cameras at $199 and $299. Netgear, another popular brand, offers the Arlo camera at $199, while Amazon offers the Cloud Cam for $119. Nest requires a subscription-based cloud service to store video in the cloud so that you can view it from anywhere. The Nest Aware cloud history service is $100 a year for 10 days of history and goes up to $300 a year for 30 days of history. It’s bundled with other services as well. When reviewing home technology, I often prefer to start at the bottom from a cost perspective and see if the features provided are sufficient before I move on to technology with a higher price tag. This month I’m reviewing the Wyze Cam, which sells for $19.99 at Wyzecam.com. No, that is not a typo; the camera costs 20 bucks and does not require a storage subscription. Interested? Keep reading.
When the Wyze Cam camera arrived in the mail, I was shocked at how small the box was: literally a 2-inch cube. Do good things come in small packages? My wife Bibi’s reaction was, “Wow, this camera is cute.” The camera comes with a flexible stand, which allows it to be raised, tilted and swiveled to point in any direction. It also comes with a magnetic base and an adhesive for wall mounting (although I did not mount mine). The camera requires a nearby power outlet (it is not battery powered) and of course a Wi-Fi connection.
Once plugged in, a simple application of the camera is as a baby monitor that will allow you to view your little ones from anywhere. I recommended this to a colleague who is a new father and he loves it. There is also a two-way voice connection that allows you to speak to the camera and hear sounds along with viewing live images.
Right out of the box the camera offers both sound and motion-detection options. When movement or sound is detected, the camera records and uploads to the cloud 12-second clips, which are saved for 14 days without a subscription. That is a huge advantage over some other services that charge hefty fees for a similar feature.
I found the motion sensor to be accurate, detecting primarily actual movement. Occasionally, I received empty motion clips that seems to be triggered by cloud movements and shadows. There is a sensitivity option that I dialed down to address this. The sound clips did not seem very helpful in my experience, though I did discover that houses make sounds—be it the air conditioning or heating or the refrigerator compressor switching on. I dialed down the sound sensor drastically, hoping it would still capture a glass breakage or other loud sound but not bother with the rest.
There is a separate smoke and carbon monoxide alarm sensor that will notify you if any of your external house alarms are triggered, which can be very helpful in a real emergency. The camera also has wide angle (110 degree) viewing capabilities. When I placed it in my foyer I was able to monitor both my front and side doors simultaneously since they are set at a 90-degree angle of each other. If you require coverage of angles wider than 110 degrees you can use two cameras and daisy chain from one power source to multiple cameras, avoiding extra wires.
There is also a night vision mode that I set to Auto; it produces high-quality videos even with all the lights in the house switched off.
The camera is only for indoor use, so I placed it on a windowsill facing the street to capture activity outside my front door. It worked well during the daytime, capturing all movements to my front door. The camera is compatible with the Alexa, so I can ask to view a live image of my front door from a compatible Alexa-enabled device (Echo Show). The wide angle and motion detection works against you in this scenario as the motion sensor picks up each car traveling on your block. Fortunately, a recent update to the software allows you to set a specific zone for motion detection. I set it to the narrow view of my front path while excluding any movement beyond the curb. This defines the motion-detection zone, but once motion is detected in that zone the full camera view is recorded. Nighttime video, however, was a little bit of a disappointment on my window due to the reflection of the glass. Perhaps if you have a better lighting in front of your house it will give you a better image. In a recent interview with the Wyze Cam CEO, there was a hint of an outdoor version of the camera in the company’s near future. I will hold off on purchasing outdoor cameras for a while until this is released.
Motion detection on Shabbat poses the big challenge for this camera as well as other smart cameras and smart home devices. When speaking with halachic authorities, the common opinion is that triggering motion detection that is not for your benefit is not a problem. However, where the trigger is for your benefit it can be problematic. For example, if your neighbor’s motion light sensors are triggered when you pass on your way home, this may not be an issue since the motion detection is for your neighbor’s benefit and not yours. However, setting up a motion-sensitive camera in your own home is clearly for your benefit and this may not be permissible if it will trigger events on Shabbat. In a previous article I quoted rabbinic authorities who believe keeping an Amazon Echo listening in your home on Shabbat is problematic for similar reasons (see Alexa get Ready For Shabbat ).
The app does allow for turning off the motion detection at certain times during the day but does not allow you to choose the day of the week, or to choose times based on sunset for Shabbat. Plugging the camera into a smart switch that turns the entire camera off for Shabbat is a solution (one that I previously recommended for the Amazon Echo itself). I did this for a while and it rebooted after Shabbat without issue. However, I wanted to find a way to keep the safety of the recording going 24/7 but to just turn off the motion-detection triggers over Shabbat and Yom Tov. I have found a solution and it is a solution that may work for other smart device integrations. It is a bit elaborate, so check back soon for Part II…
My wife drives a 2017 Nissan Pathfinder. She routinely tells me she loves her car. I am less enthusiastic. For $2,000 we upgraded the vehicle to the “tech package” that includes a navigation system, but the vehicle’s built-in navigational interface is shamefully behind the times. Therefore, to navigate while driving, I clip my phone to a $5 plastic piece that grips the vents of the air conditioning system. I spoke to local car leasing expert Aryeh Moskowitz of Arcar Motors and he agreed that I am not alone in my disappointment. In fact, technology complaints are at the top of the list, according to a recent J. D. Power Vehicle Dependability Study. Wouldn’t it be ideal if our phones easily connected to our dashboards and empowered it with the same capabilities of our phones? The answer, of course, is yes, but is the technology currently available?
My navigation application of choice is Waze. At times, I also use Google Maps. I prefer Waze because I believe its live crowd-sourcing of traffic is superior to any other navigation system available. The interface is clearly much more intuitive than my car’s system. I’ve noticed as I travel that most of the Uber drivers I encounter also use Waze. Some occasionally use Google Maps or the built in Uber map—also Google-based. At times I even use Waze when I know where I am going, just to warn me about traffic cameras and speed traps. I also must admit that I love Israeli technology.
When I was in Israel my rental car came with a Waze navigation system. This was somewhat surprising as I have not seen this option yet in any new, used or rented car in the United States. However, that is what I want in my dashboard: the navigation system of my choice integrated with the car sound system so music will fade when a notification is being communicated and a voice call will work with my navigation system the same way it does for the current factory-installed system.
If you are in the market for a new car, you will notice that some cars now have a (optional) feature called Apple CarPlay and/or Android Auto. The idea of these platforms seems to address the functionality we desire. When you plug in your phone to the car USB port (wireless versions are on their way), a selection of available apps optimized for in-car use are displayed. Each platform has its own set of compatible apps that are now built into your dashboard screen. However, do they provide the seamless Waze navigation integration we have been looking for?
I reached out to Aryeh again and asked him to grant me access to a car with Android Auto installed. Thankfully, he had one available and joined me with intrigue as we tested the functionality. We plugged in an Android phone with Android Auto installed, and after some settings configurations we were given the choice of using Google Maps or Waze on our dashboard maps. We selected Waze and, presto, voice guidance took over in the vehicle.
We took it a step further and tested the ability to issue voice commands to Google to make phone calls and send text messages. We were able to say “OK Google, Call” or “Text,” including via WhatsApp, and were even able to ask Google to “play music” from several streaming services. Finally, we were able to say, “Ok Google, navigate home using Waze.” No buttons to press or interface to “navigate.” If you are a user of the Google digital assistant, you can ask Android Auto for anything you can ask your assistant. You can ask it to close the lights or the garage at home, set your thermostat on the way home from work or to read you an audiobook on a long road trip. Try getting your $2,000 factory-installed navigation system to do these.
While much of this same functionality exists on the Apple Car Play, the only navigation app that Apple offers is its own Apple Maps. Sadly for Apple users, both Google Maps and Waze are not available on the Apple CarPlay platform. While Apple Maps has been around for many years, it is far from the best offering from Apple and not what I or many of you use, even if you are completely entrenched in the Apple ecosystem. Allowing Google Maps and Waze on the Apple CarPlay platform would require both Google to desire it and Apple to allow it. As competition for the dominant dashboard platform of the future heats up, I don’t expect either of these fierce competitors to allow it.*
(* Since originally written, Apple has announced they will support third part Maps including Waze within Carplay . This is of course welcome news)
Regardless of Apple or Android platform, the features on these platforms outperform car manufacturer-installed systems. One would expect all car manufacturers to embrace these platforms. However, after taking a closer look with Aryeh, not all manufacturers have adopted them in all Models. Infiniti as an example currently does not offer either. BMW offers just Apple CarPlay as an option but not Android Auto. Hyundai, on the other hand, offers both standard. Some manufacturers have announced plans to offer one or the other, while others have embraced the newcomer Amazon, who plans to integrate Alexa into your dashboard.
Will the availability of a platform impact your decision of which car to buy? It is certainly something for you to consider, especially if you want the latest technology embedded into your vehicle. But what if you love a car or already own one without the platforms? Are you stuck in car technology purgatory? Luckily, there are several stereo receivers that are available to be installed into your dashboard that come with both the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto platforms. These receivers can be purchased and installed by companies such as Best Buy. However, for directions to a store near you, you will still need to take your phone out and glue it to your dashboard. If you are using Apple Maps instead of Waze, please watch out for those speed traps and potholes along the way.
When we renovated our home, our contractor presented us with the option of installing a classic intercom system. This type of system requires a special phone or a wall-mounted device to page and communicate by voice from room to room. However, something inside of me said that these systems will be obsolete by the time they are installed, so we passed on the option. I then set out to find the latest intercom technology and I am certainly glad that I waited.
The first device that caught my attention was the Nucleus intercom system. If you are looking for an intercom that has both audio and video, this system may be the way to go. The product has come down in price significantly, and at $100 provides a rich set of features including an integrated Amazon Alexa. This means that you can use the device as a stand-alone video intercom or as if it was an Amazon Echo. You will require one of these devices in each room in which you want an intercom set up, which can quickly add up. Additionally, to hang this on a wall you will either require a power source at eye level or have a wire running up the wall. Alternatively, a power over ethernet (POE) would need to be run at eye level to the location of each potential device. The installation can quickly add to the total price. Placing the device on a stand and using WiFi with the cord running behind furniture is certainly the most economical and aesthetic way to go. I have not tested the product, but I do not believe it avoids any of the Shabbos issues raised previously with the Echo. Additionally, powering the device via POE will not allow the smart timer solution I provided in an earlier article.
Given that I (and presumably many of you) already have an Amazon Echo in several rooms, using the Echo as a home intercom system seems like the easiest and more cost-effective choice, for now. You can add an Echo Dot for under $50 and expand it to rooms as you feel necessary. While I don’t currently own the Echo Show, which is the Echo device with a screen, I did convert a Fire Tablet that I bought on sale for under $50 and converted to an Echo with a screen. This is a much cheaper alternative to the Echo Show without the “clunkiness” of the device. While, we do not have a smart doorbell with Alexa compatibility, I do have a camera on the front door that I can ask Alexa to view from the Tablet.
The key to setting up an Echo device as an intercom is to uniquely name each device after the room in which it is located. We have the kitchen device named “Kitchen” and my daughter’s room named “Abby.” I keep the names as short as possible to make it easiest to speak. For example, saying, “Alexa, call Abby” is easier than saying, “Alexa, Call Abby’s Echo Dot” or “Alexa, Call Abby’s Bedroom.” It also makes it less likely that Alexa will misunderstand a word.
The Echo has two calling modes. One is simply a call where the device rings and a voice command is required to answer the call. The second method is the “drop-in” mode, where the connection is instantly established with no answer or acknowledgement necessary. This can be problematic from a privacy perspective. I set my kitchen Echo to allow drop-in from household members only. The thought is, anyone who can physically drop into the kitchen at any moment can also drop-in via Alexa. However, the master bedroom, which requires a knock before physically entering, will certainly require specific permission before connecting. I set the drop-in feature on this room to “off.” For kids’ rooms, it is really a personal call. If you have an Echo show (or Tablet) with video features, you may feel differently about this than if it is just a voice connection.
While the Echo as an intercom works well, Amazon is far from content to leave it at that. The Echo also allows the intercom to extend beyond the walls of your home. The intercom and drop-in feature can extend to anyone who owns an Echo device. My parents have an Echo and we have used it to talk occasionally (yes, Mom, I know I should call you more often). My daughter has an Echo in her college dorm and it does make me feel like she is just a little closer to home. But beware, Amazon is very aggressive in asking for access to your contacts, and if you don’t configure your Drop-In settings properly, you may have your boss or other contacts Drop-In on your family dinner unannounced, or perhaps even worse.
Finally, Amazon is taking aim at phone cord cutters (those who opt not to have a home phone) and now offer a device called the Echo Connect that will allow your Echoes to call any land line or cell phone. While I have not tested this yet, the idea of being able to dial everyone on your phone book without picking up a landline or cell phone is certainly appealing. To all this, my mom has one thing to say, “OK, so don’t pick up the phone; but call me anyway!”
Shortly after the first iPhone was released back in 2007, Apple introduced the App store. Today many take the App Store for granted as we easily download our favorite apps. However, it took a while before the power apps of Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Waze and others emerged to fight for space on our phone home screens. Before them, a slew of lesser apps dominated.
The Amazon Echo also has a new app store and it is known as Alexa Skills. Whatever the Skills are today, I assure you they will only improve tomorrow.
To download Skills on the Echo, open the Echo App and enable the Skill. Then, speak to Alexa and ask her to use your new Skill. For home automation, the most important Skill is your Hub platform. For me that is Wink (see article history at tribetechreview.wordpress.com) but it may be Samsung’s SmartThings or another platform for you. Once you have your Hub Skill enabled, you can control all the devices on your Hub via a voice command. I can open and close lights, close locks (not open, for security purposes), play music and adjust my thermostat, just to name a few.
For this week, I thought we would look at apps that are specifically targeted at Jewish audiences. These application development pioneers have launched Echo Skills that Convert Alexa to Judaism.
Alexa has a built-in feature called Flash Briefing. It will provide you with a customized update of weather, news, sports and more. You do get to choose your news sources so be sure to avoid fake news. I chose the Wall Street Journal over the New York Times but there are many others to choose from, including Israeli news sources. Arutz Sheva, Ynet, Haaretz and an unofficial Jerusalem Post Skill are all already available. Arutz Sheva, my choice, is a strong quality feed while the unofficial JPost Skill I am sure will improve or will be launched officially in time.
Hebcal, a critical add-in I use within my Microsoft Outlook Calendar for access to all yom tov dates and times, has now launched a Skill for the Amazon Echo. Enable the Skill and you can ask Alexa to ask Hebcal what time candle lighting is for Shabbat. You can also ask for a future Hebrew date or the Torah portion for the week. It can tell you when Pesach falls out this year or any other year. The challenge will be to understand Alexa’s accent in trying to pronounce Hebrew words. Perhaps one day Alexa will take Ulpan, roll her “R’s” and pronounce the “CH” in Hanukkah.
I searched a little deeper into the Skills library and found a way to have the Daf Yomi play through the Echo. While I imagine this is not what Jeff Bezos of Amazon had in mind, the famed Rabbi Shalom Rosner of OU Torah allows you to add his daily daf shiur to your flash briefing. I found another Daf Yomi shiur in Yiddish which gave me another perspective on the Super Bowl ad where Alexa lost her voice. I am not sure how far my readership extends but accessing all shiurim on YU Torah via the Echo seems like a worthy endeavor. A shorter daily Torah thought or a Mishnah Yomi may also be helpful for those with limited time.
There is a daily Tehillim Skill where Alexa will read you the perek of Tehillim of the day — in English. There is a Purim and Pesach Trivia game, a Yiddish dictionary, and even a Rabbinic Randomness Skill which will give a random rabbinic quote. I heard a great quote from Rav Kook. I even found an Omer counting Skill. Of course, you’ll need to ask Alexa the Omer count for last night so that she does not err in stating the current day without making a proper Bracha.
Not all the Skills, Jewish or otherwise, are keepers. You will find yourselves enabling and disabling Skills until you find the ones that speak to you, so to speak. It may be the Daf Yomi or a bit of wisdom from Rabbinic Randomness, or something else entirely. But a year from now there will be even better and more impressive Skills to choose from. The next Waze or Facebook Skill is likely already being programmed in someone’s garage in Palo Alto or Tel Aviv. I will certainly keep an ear to the ground for you, so stay tuned and keep reading.
Alexa, is it possible to write a blog on home technology without inevitably discussing the Amazon Echo?
When Amazon introduced its digital voice assistant, the Echo, affectionately known as Alexa, in June 2015, it was a game changer. It caught consumers and tech giants like Apple by surprise and upended the home technology industry. I was testing lighting and home automation devices at the time and was surprised to receive an invite to be an early beta tester for the Echo. I often received skeptical questions from my otherwise supportive wife: is it too difficult to press a button that you need to use voice control? But as the Alexa app log demonstrates, she is a convert! “Alexa, how many teaspoons in an ounce?” “Alexa, play my favorite station on Pandora.” “Alexa, set a timer for 30 minutes.” “Alexa, turn off all kitchen lights.” And my least favorite, “Alexa, what time does the mall close?” Wait, “logs” you ask? Yes, Alexa is listening and recording, always!
While recording voice logs in your home raises many privacy concerns, I have learned that in home automation, privacy is what you give up for convenience, much like other technology we have already grown accustomed to. To be fair, the logs are only sent back to Amazon when you preface your sentence with the wake-up word, Alexa. However, to hear the word Alexa, the Echo must always be listening. In certain models of the Echo, the device moves from audio logs to video logs, which can raise an eyebrow even further. I won’t go there, yet.
The always-listening feature does bring us to an important Shabbos question: Does one have to turn Alexa off for Shabbos if it is always actively listening and evaluating? I posed this question to Rabbi Binyamin Zimmerman of the Zomet Institute in Israel (zomet.org) and he responded that “Since Alexa is always listening by capturing all sound in its vicinity and analyzing it to determine if it contains the trigger word Alexa, all speech triggers a function within the device. Although on Shabbos one might not care for this function, as one will (at least try their best) to not say ‘Alexa,’ it is a function that they very much want during the week. Therefore, even Alexa’s normal functioning on Shabbos would raise serious concerns, even if her name is never stated.” In other words, the Zomet Institute position on the Echo is that it is not permissible to have the Echo on in your home on Shabbos.
I sought a second opinion from other Rabbi’s and they all agreed with the Zomet conclusion that keeping Alexa on in your home on Shabbos is a problem. I asked the question again when Amazon announced that the Echo will be listening for glass breaks and smoke alarms to see if that would make a difference and the answer was still the same. From my own user experience, I have encountered practical reasons that you would always want to find a solution to turn the Echo off for Shabbos. I have had the device mishear the word Alaska as Alexa during the Shabbos meal. I have also had the device play random music without prompt. I have heard comparable stories from other users. What do you do on Rosh Hashanah when Alexa randomly starts playing music, as one user described? Pray (out loud) and ask for “Alexa to stop” and hope for a miracle?
I therefore recommend you always have an Alexa Shabbos plan. You can certainly unplug the device for Shabbos. Amazon is keenly aware of the privacy issue that their devices present and prominently offer on all versions of the Echo a mute button that will turn off the microphones and video if applicable. This would be effective in addressing Shabbos concerns. An important voice command feature that is noticeably absent from the Echo is the ability to ask Alexa to stop listening. Sure, you can physically push the mute button, but that is counter to the entire premise of the Echo. A routine that would allow you to say, “Alexa, get ready for Shabbos!” and would trigger a series of actions, including turning off the microphones in all Echo enabled devices, would be a welcome addition to the service for Shabbos and non-Shabbos observers alike. My technical recommendation for now is to turn the automation technology against itself and have the Echo device plugged into a smart switch or outlet that turns itself off for Shabbos (see previous articles at tribetechreview.com). This is what I have implemented, and it is effective. Upon turning the device on for Havdalah, the device wakes without any need for re-configuration. Perhaps when Amazon sees many devices going offline for Shabbos it will add this feature.
Honestly, I think this problem will become even more difficult to address in the future as more traditional appliances and gadgets around your home will come embedded with Alexa. Amazon makes it clear that this is their strategy and offers a free integration tool kit to make it easy for manufacturers to implement. They recently introduced their Alexa enabled Microwave which if anything is a message to electronics manufacturers to integrate Alexa in everything or else they will. Google is right behind Amazon as their search engine empire is at risk as searches move from computers and phones to voice-based devices (and the Google home device will have the same Shabbos issues). Refrigerators, thermostats, speakers, microwaves, washers and dryers will likely all have voice recognition embedded. Many already do. The Consumer Electronics Show this past year in Las Vegas was all about Amazon and Google voice integration. Hopefully, voice recognition will improve to the point that unprompted actions will no longer be an issue, but having listening devices all over your home might be inevitable, and muting each of them every week will not be easy.
The good news is that the Echo is always learning new skills and commands. Features are updated on a weekly basis. My first-generation device has all the software updates of the latest generation. A device that can be purchased for as little as $29 and gets better each week is very compelling. I look forward to the week when I am able to share a Shabbos mode workaround and Alexa will observe a day of needed rest. We are all living in a Star Trek world and we will need to adapt if we want to continue to live on the ship while remaining in Avraham’s tent. I will likely spend a few articles discussing Alexa, but until next time, live long and prosper. Shabbat Shalom!
When I replaced our wood-burning fireplace with a gas fireplace, my wife was disappointed. For starters, she missed the distinct smell of real wood burning. I reminded her of how the smell remained in her clothes long after the fire was extinguished. She countered that she missed the soothing crackle of the embers that can’t be replicated in a gas fireplace. I rebutted by pointing out the mess created by the embers with each use. Finally, she asked me how we would use the gas fireplace on Friday night, and I was speechless…
There is nothing quite like the ambiance of a fireplace on a chilly winter night. The flickering flames and warm glow can captivate your attention for hours. Add the peacefulness that Shabbat brings after a tiring work-week, and sitting in front of your fireplace can only be described as a slice of heaven. With our old wood-burning fireplace, we would stack the wood up high before Shabbat. While I went to shul, my wife and kids read under warm blankets in front of the fire. When I returned, the fire would still be burning strong. Gathering everyone to come to the table for Kiddush would be a challenge. After the Shabbat meal, we all gravitated back to the couch in front of the fading flames. When we were ready to go to sleep, the embers would be calm enough to close the flue.
So why was I speechless? Isn’t there an obvious way to use home automation to turn on and off the fireplace on Shabbat? After all, it is just a simple switch that activates the fireplace and we have many smart switches in the house. The answer is certainly not obvious, at least not to me…initially. You see, gas fireplaces work on a low voltage wire (12 volts) and most, if not all, home automation switches require 120 volts. I am not an electrical engineer, but likely this higher voltage is needed to power the signals (WiFi, Z-Wave, etc.). Additionally, in many cases, smart switches require a neutral wire that is not found in the typical gas fireplace.
This past weekend, I tested the Switchmate toggle switch ($39.99). What is unique about the switch is that it does not connect to your wiring. It is simply placed over your existing switch and attaches magnetically. There are two versions of the switch to accommodate the two most common switches, rockers and toggles. Either one will affix itself to your switch plate, even if the plate is plastic, in which case it attaches itself to the metal screws.
The Switchmate is by far the easiest smart switch to install as there is no wiring at all. I took the toggle switch out of the box and placed the batteries (included) into the device. I walked over to the fireplace switch and placed it over the switch and, thanks to the magnet, it just snapped together instantly. When you press the front of the switch, the device is supposed to flip the fireplace switch from off to on and vice versa. In my case, the device needed an extension, which I quickly learned is included in the box. Once the push button was working, it was time to install the free app. The switch paired with my phone easily via Bluetooth. The app was simple to use, and it was easy to schedule a timer for sundown Friday night and then another for Shabbat day. The app is limited to two schedules but that should suffice for most cases.
However, the simplicity of the installation comes at a cost. Since the switch requires batteries you will always need to be wary of power. The app provides a readout of the battery percentage remaining, and given that I use smart locks, changing batteries is not new to me. The website claims that batteries will last 10-12 months, which is fortunately longer than fireplace season. If they last even nearly that long, the switch will more than meet my needs.
Another downside is that Switchmate switches are not compatible with Hubs or the Amazon Echo, which I found a little disappointing (how can it be that after six articles, I still have not written about the Echo?). I was told by their excellent customer service department that these features are being explored, but as of now the battery life would be drastically reduced if the device were to need to connect to hubs and other devices and signals. On the positive side, the product is completely independent, so you can begin automating your home for just $40 without buying anything else.
Unlike smart light switches, where there is little downside to leaving the schedule running should you not be home, you may want to be a little more careful with a fireplace. While some may say it is safe to have a gas fireplace on continuously, if you are not going to be home for the weekend you may want to remove the Switchmate from the wall and just replace it when you return. Additionally, if you have a TV mounted above your fireplace as I do, you may want to limit the time and the heat from the fireplace. In my experience, two to three hours does not seem to pose a problem.
Experiencing Shabbat again with the fireplace on was certainly a game changer and honestly the best $40 I have spent on home automation. If you own a gas fireplace I highly recommend this simple device. While I may not have won my wife over from the wood-burning world just yet, she is slowly warming up to the idea. Stay warm and Shabbat shalom!
New iPhones are out for the holiday season and there are several to choose from. If you want to buy your child the iPhone XR for the eighth day of Chanukah, it can cost you over $800. If you want your child to be the envy of the entire schoolyard, you’ll spend up to $1,449 for the privilege of owning an iPhone XS. I will not be reviewing these iPhones as I am content with a smartphone that can be purchased for about $100. You read that correctly: your technology reviewer, who craves all the latest technological gadgets, is satisfied with a budget smartphone—and, I stipulate, so will your children.
I’m not going to engage in the debate about whether a smartphone is appropriate for your middle-school child. You can read about all the pros and cons elsewhere. However, once you make the decision to buy your child a smartphone, I implore you to look at alternatives to the increasingly and audaciously expensive iPhones.
In the past, I’ve made the mistake of buying expensive phones for my children. Each one had an early end of life. Cracked screens, lost phones, stolen phones; I have even had an Apple ID hacked where I watched helplessly as the expensive phone became worthless. There are many god reasons to buy a premium phone for yourself but for your middle school child, I would suggest you think twice.
For the last more that a year and a half I have owned a Blu R1 HD Android-powered phone.
While at this time I am due for a new phone, the budget Blu phone had served me well and likely I would feel the same need for an upgrade if I bought the latest iPhone on the market almost two years ago. My phone has a 5” screen, which is actually bigger than the iPhone 8. Perhaps I don’t have a keen eye for this, but the resolution looks as good to me as my old iPhone. The phone delivers 4G LTE speeds through the carrier of my choice. Navigating the apps is also identical to what I have experienced on iPhones. The Blu has the full Android Play app store, which is the Android parallel to Apple’s app store. You can download almost every app that an adult or child would need: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Candy Crush or Sling Kong; you name the app and it is just as functional on the Blu phone as on the latest iPhone. I have all my home automation apps running on the Blu phone. Of course, the phone also has Bluetooth, front and rear cameras with video, and a speaker phone.
To be fair, several features the iPhone flaunts are not available on the Blu. For starters, you will have to give up facial and fingerprint recognition. 3D touch and other small bells and whistles may be absent as well. The camera on the Blu is certainly not as robust as the iPhone’s—especially in low light. However, for the selfies and silly photos that dominate my kids’ social media posts, the camera on the Blu would suit just as well. For me personally, when I want quality photos, I carry a DSLR. But for basic photos for social media or depositing checks via a banking mobile App, the Blu works just fine.
On the other hand, my Blu phone has several features that you will not find on any iPhone. For one, it has expandable memory storage; I can install a microSD as needed. My wife on the other hand opted for an iPhone but did not pay for the extra memory and now struggles to keep her phone relevant. She can’t keep photos or too many apps and must delete two items for every additional item she wants to download. It is hard to believe that for $1,000 or more you don’t have the feature of a budget phone. The Blu also comes with dual SIM cards, which will come in handy for that trip to Israel; a feature that is strangely absent from the iPhone. Finally, the battery on the Blu phone seems to last longer than my old iPhone. These are big advantages for the underdog.
It is easy to fall for the marketing and fanfare that goes along with the release of each new iPhone. I don’t mean to be unappreciative of the innovation the first iPhone brought forth to the world. However, after 10 + years, the competition has closed the gap and the utility difference has certainly converged. Honestly, since I made the switch, I feel free from the price premium shackles of Apple. It certainly takes a degree of boldness to make the switch, and that is what Blu stands for: Bold Like Us. Join us and have a Happy Chanukah.
Last time, we reviewed the Schlage Connect Smart Lock and identified some potential issues with its use on Shabbat. This week we will review the August Smart Lock and see if it presents any favorable functionality for the shomer Shabbat smart home.
The August Smart Lock is designed to work with your phone via Bluetooth connectivity. From the August app you can open and close the lock with a tap of your phone. The app uses geofencing technology to know when you have entered or exited the geographic area of your home and can automatically open and close the lock. This feature allows you to walk in and out of the house without using a key or even entering a passcode. It does assume that you will always have your Bluetooth-enabled phone with you. The lock retails for $149 , but if you will want to control the lock from anywhere outside Bluetooth range, you will need to also purchase the August Connect for about an additional $70 . The August Connect will add a Wi-Fi bridge to your connectivity so that you can control the lock from anywhere. You simply plug the bridge into a wall socket within Bluetooth range of the lock and it will connect the lock to your home Wi-Fi. This bridge will be the key—pun intended—to a possible Shabbat solution. It gets a little involved, so stay with me.
What is unique about the August Smart Lock is its implementation. The August lock is not an independent lock. It must be paired physically with a traditional key/lock on the outside of the door. Basically, you keep your existing lock on the outside of the house and add the August lock just to the inside. This means that there is no outside electronic keypad associated with the August Smart Lock. August does offer a standalone keypad as an add-on, but it is an option and not the typical installation. This design makes it look promising from a Shabbat perspective.
A new feature that August recently released is DoorSensetm. DoorSense allows the lock and app to know not only if the lock is locked but if the door is closed as well. August is the first smart lock to address the problem of getting a locked signal when the door is not actually closed. DoorSense is only available on the Pro Lock and the oblong version of the lock (pictured above). The feature is identical to a traditional house alarm door sensor that will indicate when the door is opened or closed. The DoorSense functionality does not present a new problem for Shabbat, just more of the same.
One of the downsides to the traditional smart lock with an outside keypad (like the Schlage we reviewed last week) is that even if you remove the battery for Shabbat, the only way to lock the door after leaving is with a key. A key is only a viable solution, of course, for those living in an area with an eruv. Additionally, if there are multiple family members who need access, everyone would need to carry a key. The August lock provides an opportunity to resolve these issues.
Since the August lock is only installed on the inside of the home, you can install any lock on the outside. The way to take advantage of this design is to pair it physically with a traditional push-button mechanical lock. Yes, in this tech column, I am recommending the same lock your grandparents may have used . This unique marriage of old-world and new-world technology has the potential of being a true match made in heaven. The setup addresses the shortcomings of the Schlage lock in that you can lock the door upon exiting without a key, and then return home to open the door with the outdoor mechanical lock.
This setup would be perfect if only the August Smart Lock did not send a log signal with every lock and unlock, as presumably every smart lock does. As we discussed with the Schlage, a log will be triggered even if you open or close the lock with the mechanical password on the outside of the home. While removing the battery for Shabbat remains a viable option, removing the battery on the August lock is a little more involved than severing the connection on the Schlage. If only there was a way to bypass the log…
I would like to propose just that…we bypass the log. Since you will not be using your phone and its Bluetooth connectivity on Shabbat, your lock only connects to the world via the Connect Wi-Fi bridge mentioned above. While this bridge is important for use during the week, for Shabbat observance it is the source of the problem by sending the log. If you place the bridge on a smart switch and schedule the bridge to be off on Shabbat, you can avoid the log. In this way it may be similar to the bypass used for traditional alarmed doors and windows.
Now is an appropriate time to remind readers that I am not a halachic authority. I am not stipulating that this solution is necessary, or for those who choose to implement it, that it in fact solves all Shabbat issues. I hope I have helped you become a little more knowledgeable and have provided a creative solution to those concerned with some of the potential issues raised. If you have comments or suggestions, please feel free to be in touch. Shabbat Shalom.
This week, Amazon introduced “Amazon Key,” a service that will deliver packages directly into your home. The days of worrying about packages left at your front door will soon be a memory. In fact, with Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods, I am now certain we will have Amazon delivering food into our refrigerators in the not-too-distant future. All this will only be possible if you have a smart lock for the Amazon delivery service to use to open your door and enter your home. The question we want to answer is: are smart locks compatible with Shabbat observance?
I have been testing two popular yet very different smart locks. The first is the Schlage Connect, which retails for about $180. It offers a mechanical deadbolt on the inside of the door; a simple turn of the lever locks and unlocks the door. On the outside is an electronic keypad that illuminates when you press the first button. You can create four-, six- or eight-digit numeric password combinations. The lock also supports multiple codes. Create a code for the family, another for the housekeeper and a third for a trusted contractor. The lock can notify you by phone alert or email when specific codes are used. Adding and removing passcodes are simple and can be done either from the lock itself or from the remote Wink app, which I personally prefer.
There is an auto-lock feature that is extremely useful. Each time the lock is opened, whether from the inside mechanical side or the outside electronic side, the lock will automatically close 30 seconds later. This is great for kids (and adults) who enter or exit without remembering to lock the door. It also provides significant peace of mind knowing that the door is always locked. Finally, it alleviates the dreaded need to get out of bed to make sure all the doors are locked. For me, this is a priceless feature. However, when exiting and re-entering the house for slightly longer than 30 seconds—say, to take out the garbage—you may find yourself locked out. While I will often rush and try to beat the clock or leave the door open a crack, the worst-case scenario is that you must re-enter a passcode. You can temporarily turn off the auto-lock feature by entering the passcode and then quickly closing and re-opening the lock. This will leave the lock opened and waiting indefinitely for you to return from taking out the garbage. As soon as you return and manually close the lock from the inside, the auto-lock feature will automatically re-engage for the next time it is opened. While the lock comes with traditional keys, part of the allure of a smart lock is not having to carry any house keys.
Smart locks have an obvious shortcoming. Since most residential doors do not have a power source, smart locks need batteries. I use rechargeable batteries and keep a spare set handy so they can easily be swapped. While some may worry about being locked out of their home if the battery dies, it would take negligence on the user’s part for this scenario to unfold (unless there is a defect). The locks are also “smart” enough to notify you by email or phone when your batteries are low, providing ample time to replace them before completely losing power.
The attentive reader may have noticed several potential issues with Shabbat. Clearly, using the illuminating touchpad would be an issue on Shabbat. However, even if opening the lock from the mechanical lever on the inside, you may have an issue with Shabbat. The auto-lock feature triggers the 30-second timer mentioned above. Once you leave the house, the door will electronically lock 30 seconds later. Even if you are leaving only briefly and return home before the auto-lock is activated, triggering the timer itself may be an issue. While you can certainly turn off the auto-lock feature completely (not the temporary method listed earlier) every Friday and then back on after Shabbat, this is a major inconvenience. A Shabbat-mode feature would certainly be a game changer for the shomer Shabbat consumer.
Finally, even if you choose not to use the auto-lock feature, there may be an over-arching Shabbat issue. Every lock and unlock event, even if using the mechanical lever, is logged. Through the Wink app, you can see a detailed log that the lock sends every time it is opened or closed. Apparently, even with the auto-lock feature completely disabled, every time you open or close the lock you are sending a signal. This log may not be useful or even noticeable in most cases. There is no obvious light and everything about the activity of turning a mechanical lock seems permissible…except for the log. Perhaps for security there may be room for leniency, or perhaps it may be like passing a motion detector where there is no benefit to you. Please ask your rabbi. If this is a concern, the best technical solution I can provide is to take advantage of the lock’s shortcoming and sever the battery connection before Shabbat. On the Schlage lock this is easily accomplished without having to actually remove the batteries.
Even if you choose not to have this lock on a door you frequent on Shabbat, you can still find it useful in other applications. I have it on my entrance from the garage to the house since I don’t go to the garage on Shabbat. You may have other doors that are used primarily not on Shabbat, or you may want to designate a specific door as the Shabbat door and use this lock on other doors. Finally, you could add this as a second lock to a door for the added convenience and use a traditional lock on Shabbat and only use the smart lock during the rest of the week.
What about the other smart lock I mentioned at the beginning? Does it solve all these problems? I will keep that under lock and key until next time…