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October 2012
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December 2012

A word about Hue

The new Philips Hue lighting system is getting a lot of buzz. In brief, it's a wireless (ZigBee-based) remote control system for LED lightbulbs that can be set to a myriad of colors. The results are stunning in person, I literally gasped after installing my set. At $60 a bulb, the starter kit is a reasonable deal as it means that you're only paying $20 for the ethernet ZigBee bridge. And folks have already started to reverse engineer the protocol, ahead of Philips' promise to open it to others.

The bulbs are available only from the Apple Store. Online, the store is showing several months backlog in filling orders, but your local store might have them in stock. (The Lincoln Park (Chicago) store has several on the shelves as of 2 days ago.)

The iOS app and Hue website, are nice, but I haven't been able to figure out how to schedule events. This is a highly touted feature but perhaps it is not implemented yet. (I sort of hope not, as if it is there, it is too well hidden.) I'll write more about these in the future, but if you're interested, in my view they are living up the hype.

INSTEON Hub: Automation the Rest of Us?

Has Smarthome finally cracked the "more hassle than its worth" problem that dogs home automation? Their new INSTEON Hub certainly looks like it might (but it is not shipping yet).

The price is right ($129) and it appears to just be a sleek, quiet box that you control using an iOS or Android device. No monthly fees, and there seems to be a smidgeon of scheduled event and notification support, too. Those of us used to the total control and flexibility that a PC-based system offers might feel this is too simplistic, but my gut reaction is that this could be exactly what the average person would consider. I'm very much looking forward to seeing how this develops.

Keyboard Maestro: Wrap URL

Nearly every blog entry I've written for the last several years has been posted using MarsEdit. It's a fantastic blogging tool. And it has a very useful shortcut "Paste Link" feature that lets you wrap any word with a URL from your clipboard.

This feature is so handy that I found myself wanting it system-wide, not just in MarsEdit. Eventually, I had a lightbulb moment and realized that it's something I could easily accomplish using Keyboard Maestro. (Another must-have utility for serious Mac users.)

Here's how the macro is defined:

Snapshot 11 5 12 2 38 PM

To use it, copy a fully-qualified URL (for example, to the clipboard. Next, in a text editor, select the words you want to link to the URL. Then execute the Keyboard Maestro macro. (I do it using the Keyboard Maestro menu.)

What happens is that the macro stores off the current clipboard (the URL), then copies the current selection, then replaces the current selection with a correctly formatted hyperlink. It all happens in the blink of an eye.

And the best part is this works in every Mac OS X application. Finally, a little bit of MarsEdit magic everywhere I want it.

Update: Thanks to @keyboardmaestro for pointing out that the last two steps could be Insert Text by Pasting instead. Even simpler!

Living with Dropcam

There's been no shortage of press for Dropcam lately, so I'm not going to set very much context with this review. If you're not familiar with the product, you'll be able to find lots of other sites that give you a general overview.

Instead, I'm going to compare Dropcam to the Withings Baby Monitor that I reviewed several weeks ago. Both products are worth considering if you're in the market for a home webcam.

The Dropcam is a lot less expensive than the Witings model. In fact, you could almost buy two Dropcams for the price of a single Withings camera. This is a big advantage, but as the old adage holds true, you're getting less too, but the missing items might not matter to you.

The Dropcam is just as easy to set up, but it takes a completely different approach. You need to temporarily tether (via USB) Dropcam to your computer in order to change its network settings. Other settings can be changed without connecting the camera, using the Dropcam website or iOS app. This difference in configuration models is important if you plan on moving the camera to other locations on a regular basis. For that usage model, Withings is the one to choose.

From an aesthetic perspective, I prefer the look of the Withings camera. It's larger, but its simple white box doesn't seem as "spy cam" as the Dropcam. On the other hand, the small size and minimalist design of Dropcam might appeal more to you. It is certainly much easier to mount, made more so thanks to the recent firmware upgrade that lets you flip the image if you're hanging the camera upside down.

Speaking of mounting, the Withings camera uses a small power supply with a thin electrical wire. (The usual thing you see in electronic power supplies, such as your phone or clock radio.) The Dropcam uses USB power, with a charger similar to the one an iPhone or Kindle uses, so you have to run a micro-USB cable. You get a nice long cable in the box, but if you need a longer cord, be aware that a simple splice won't do the trick.

Both cameras features audio, and the quality is about the same to my ears. Both cameras also let you talk through them--a trick sure to startle anyone nearby.

Video-wise, I prefer the Withings camera because you can zoom and pan to get a better look at things. The Dropcam is an HD image too, but it's not zoomable. Visit the Dropcam list of public cams to get a handle on the quality for yourself. The bottom line is you won't be disappointed with the Dropcam, but its lack of flexibility means you have carefully consider where you place it.

And while you're checking out the public cameras, notice that you're getting website access. Unlike the Withings camera, which is only viewable using the iOS app, your Dropcam can be viewed on the web too. This is either a plus, or it is paranoia-inducing, depending on your point of view. A nice (extra-cost) feature of the site is the "DVR" option that lets you view past events triggered by sound or motion. If you're using the camera for security purposes, this offsite archive could be essential. But if you have it a remote site using a low-bandwidth connection, you'll want to carefully consider the cost of constantly uploading video to the Dropcam servers.

One thing the Dropcam doesn't have is a temperature and humidity sensor. I really like that feature of the Withings camera, but I don't miss its lullaby and nightlight modes. Again, it all depends on how you intend to use the camera.

An unexpected bonus of the Dropcam is that you'll get an alert (on your iPhone) if the camera drops offline, even if you're not an online DVR subscriber. This let me know about a recent power outage, by inference, while I was away from home. It didn't tell me, though, when the camera was able to reconnect.

It's great to have two feature-rich, HD cameras available at reasonable prices. If you're considering either the Dropcam or the Withings Baby Monitor, I'm sure you'll be pleased with either. Hopefully these observations have helped you make your choice.