Idiot & Cheapskate’s Guide to Automating Your House (DIY SmartHome Hubs Controlled via Phone)

When I was a kid, I had this vision for my home that included automated everything — from lighting to blinds. Until last night, it was theoretical. Now I can turn off lamps from various rooms… from an Android or iPhone, even when I’m not in the house. It’s a start. And this morning when I got to work, I had the joy of toggling the lights from my phone to freak out WifeofNalts.

Let me warn you that we’re in an odd point of home-automation maturity. We’re moving beyond the era where it was reserved for the wealthy or techno elite. But it’s definitely not ready for prime time, and requires more patience and experimentation than I’d like… but such is the cost of being an early adopter, right?

My entry into “Smart Home Land” set me back only about $125: just $50 for a Wink hub (less if you buy it with add-ons) and about $75 for a bunch of GE Link lightbulbs (get the six pack). And I’ve got a plan for growing into additional functionality like remote monitors, appliance device on/off, security/alarms and broader control of lighting without doing the nightly sweep of 50 light switches. I can’t yet spring for the Nest, which is the connected thermostat that is the best-selling in its class. Honeywell and Lux fell asleep at the wheel.

Let me cut to wide shot and tell you about your options to entering “Smart Home Land.” Home automation was once reserved to the elite and wealthy, and required a special contractor and installation. Now you can pick up a hub and some $50-$150 add-ons and do-it-yourself quickly. I’m not going to get into the really nerdy hacks, but there are plenty of forums that can teach you to customize these beyond what the manufacturers specify or even offer.

There are too many options and a shake-down is looming. There’s Belkin Wemo, Phillips Hue, Quirky Wink, GE Link, Staples Connect, Harmony, Insteon, Lutron, Revolv, Smart Things. Overwhelmed yet? Here’s a review of some of them if you want to get into the weeds.

Let’s cut to your basic entry options, and then I’ll tell you why I started with the cheap, flawed but Swiss Army Knife option called Wink… note that I’m favoring options that don’t require ugly remotes or special displays. We’ll use our iPhones and Androids, thank you very much.

Which smart-home system offers the best flexibility at the best price?
Which smart-home system offers the best flexibility at the best price?
  1. Belkin has a Wemo switch that is a best-seller on Amazon and an easy place to dabble since it’s only $40. It uses your wifi and allows you to control any appliance via your Android/iPhone (just plug appliance into the Wemo, and the Wemo into your outlet. You can add on lots of additional options via Amazon or Home Depot. And if you’re all about lighting, you can get a Belkin Wemo starter kit for $85 that comes with a little hub and two lights… nice dorm room gift for that college techno kid. But I don’t see Wemo as a serious player.
  2. Then there are the lighting-specific solutions: Phillips answer to lighting customization: the Phillips Hue, which comes with a ton of different lighting options. The starter kit will set you back $188 and the individual lights get pretty expensive. Phillips Hue is generally cost-prohibitive except for those elite wealthy who might as well higher a contractor. But Home Depot has a decent spread of expensive lights so I imagine Phillips will be a formidable player. For those without excessive cash, the GE Links are better (you can also get these at Home Depot).
  3. There are a few other hubs that I didn’t look at closely. A cool-looking Revolv smart-home automation system (now part of Nest, the Google thermostat). Haven’t seen Revolv as a player yet. There’s Staples Connect (with Linksys), which is decent player and one that will likely survive the consolidation because Linksys and Staples are serious individual players. And the Smart Things Starter kit, which seems fairly comprehensive and has the best Amazon ratings… but is $300.
  4. And there are loads of home security devices, but I’m not writing about those.
  5. And the winner/wiener is… Wink hub despite some seriously negative reviews (including my own). Setup is torture (40 minutes of trial/error), but adding GE Link bulbs was as easy as screwing in bulbs and naming them. I can’t speak yet to the pain/joy of adding things beyond GE Link bulbs, but that alone made it worth the trivial entry cost of $50.


wink compatible products
Wink’s interface allows you to connect with a bunch of devices from other manufacturers

Wink is the buggy but poor-man’s Switzerland of all these home automation standards and devices. It has built-in support for Bluetooth LE, Wi-Fi, ZigBee, Z-Wave, Lutron ClearConnect, and Kidde. It also handles Phillips Hue (with some limitations) and works like a breeze with GE Link bulbs. I also like that Wink is a product of Quirky/GE, which gives inventors a chance to manufacturer ideas.

Once you have a hub and suffer through setup, you can add all kinds of things: alarms (Kidde/Nest), blinds (Bali/Lutron/ZWave), cameras (Dropcam), weird things from Quirky, garage doors (Chamberlain and Quirky/GE), heating and cooling (Honeywell, Nest, Zwave, Quirky/GE), lawn/patio, kitchen, door and window locks, and general appliances via a power plug that accommodates two different plugs that can be controlled separately (the other two are just plain extension plugs). Warning- that power plug got absolutely hosed on Amazon comments and it’s clearly flawed.

We’re still a few years before this stuff becomes more mainstream, but it’s nice that it’s become somewhat affordable and I like that you can experiment with different components to see what’s worthwhile.

Have you tried any of these? Would love your experience and “watch outs.”

What We Can Learn from Most-Viewed Videos of 2010

What can we learn from the most-viewed “viral” videos of 2010? How are they similar and different from years past?

First, let’s take a look at the run-down, courtesy of YouTube and ReelSEO, here’s the list. YouTube has a new trend blog/website that’s worth bookmarking or RSS’ing: YouTube Trends.

  • The BED INTRUDER SONG! (a news clip turned into a meme with help from schmoyoho
  • TIK TOK KESHA Parody: Glitter Puke – Key of Awe$ome #13 (another Next New Networks hit)
  • Greyson Chance Singing Paparazzi (a 6th grader with Justin Bieber-like cut, featuring shaky handheld camera)
  • Annoying Orange Wazzup (Daneboe’s facial fruit was spurred to amazing popularity in 2010… note that since Daneboe launched Annoying Orange’s own channel early in 2010, the collection has been viewed nearly 400 million times… giving him more views than this entire top-10 list).
  • Old Spice | The Man Your Man Could Smell Like (hey a commercial- see what does the author of Beyond Viral know?)
  • Yosemitebear Mountain Giant Double Rainbow 1-8-10 (the dude trips out seeing two rainbows)
  • OK Go – This Too Shall Pass – Rube Goldberg Machine version (Okgo, the treadmill band does it again)
  • THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE – Trailer (really? a trailer?)
  • Jimmy Surprises Bieber Fan (Jimmy Kimmel is handling his old/new media balance quite well- check out the girl get a visit from Bieber)
  • Ken Block’s Gymkhana THREE, Part 2; Ultimate Playground; l’Autodrome (this is the only one I hadn’t seen- a racing car… snore). Speaking of videos I haven’t seen (even the “Viral Video Genius” can’t see them all), did you see Cookie Monster audition for SNL? If Jim Henson was alive, SNL would be auditioning for The Muppet Show.
  • So what are the common themes?

    1. Nothing sells like a song (most of the top-10 all-time most viewed YouTube videos are songs).
    2. Quirky is still nice — whether it’s manufactured (Annoying Orange) or authentic (Double Rainbow)
    3. Viral is increasingly a symptom of offline popularity (Kimmel/Bieber/Lady Gaga/Twighlight)
    4. The biggest difference between 2009 and 2010 is that professional & commercial content trumped user-generated videos, with only one true exception (the Double Rainbow).
    5. With the exception of Daneboe (Annoying Orange) and Schmoyo (AutoTune the News), none of these really spawned a new person or channel.
    6. Production quality mattered more this year than years past. Which is why we amateurs need to up our game (see my new ShootLikePro blog).
    7. Note that the top-ten list excludes major record labels, or they would dominate list. YouTube has increasingly become a free visual jute box.

    How is this list similar or different from 2007, 2008 and 2009?

    1. Commercials are still the exception not rule. This year’s popular advertising campaign/commercial was Old Spice, and last year it was Evian’s roller skating babies. I referred to the latter in my book as the “exception to the rule” that promotional videos don’t often go viral. Even though this is increasingly true, 2011 to spawn some Old Spice knockoffs nonetheless. Hopefully a few brands and agencies will try a “road less travelled” with better odds.
    2. Both 2009 and 2009 lists had a Twilight trailer. Again- this says less about online video as the fact that the films are extremely popular.
    3. Last year’s “double rainbow” was the quirky “David After the Dentist,” now at 75 million views (that’s almost half of the views I’ve garnered on my entire collection). Hopefully we’ll continue to rally around odd moment like these.
    4. As the medium matures, we’ve seen fewer “quirky” amateur clips than, say, 2008 when we had viralizations like Fred, “Christian the Lion” and ImprovEverywhere’s “Frozen Grand Central.” The memes of 2007 were even more interesting to me — from The Landlord and “Leave Britney Alone” to Obama Girl (Next New Networks) and the South Carolina Miss Teen USA clip
    5. Last year’s kid singing Paparazzi was a more choreographed wedding video (Forever). People love an amateur singer overnight success story (Susan Boyle).
    6. Almost all of the top-10 popped on YouTube. The world’s second-largest search engine remains the most vibrant channel.
    7. The teen factor is still driving views, even if each year offers content for a broader demographic.

    Each year the top 10 most-viewed hits are a smaller percent of overall views… it’s the long tail effect. Finally, do you notice anything missing for the first year in a while? No SNL Digital shorts… or sadly, anything from The Onion, College Humor or Funny Or Die.

    Okay now go buy my book, or tell a journalist to interview me for a delightful year-end segment on viral videos.

    Beyond Viral: Everything About Online Video You Were Afraid to Ask

    Sylvania DV-120 Reviewed, Rated vs. FlipCam

    I recently wrote about the Sylvania DV-128, which was $40 shipped. I called it the “poor man’s FlipCam.” Well unfortunately, you get what you pay for. See the footage compared to the FlipCam Mino… the Sylvania is grainy and the audio is overdone… I had to turn it down so it didn’t blast you.

    I was expecting the Sylvania to be lower quality, but not this lame. It’s almost as grainy as a $20 digital camera I bought that’s hidden in a pen. Go for the Flipcam Mino instead.

    I was excited that someone was getting into a really approachable price point, but this was a mistake for the company trying to move from lightbulbs to consumer electronics. Erodes trust.

    Choosing the Best Video Chat Tool or Software: FaceBook, Stickam, Skype, Google Chat, AIM, BlogTv

    It’s a race for live video chat. Which one is right for you? First the history, then some recommendations based on what you plan to do (one-to-one or one-to-many).

    • First it was Stickam, where community people would run group video sessions.
    • Then came, which provided advertising dollars to popular online-video talent to run live shows (the most-subscribed blogtv creators are, not coincidentally, all most-subscribed on YouTube).
    • Stickam and Blogtv, according to Alexa, are currently fairly close in terms of visitors and time spent on site (as much as 13 minutes).
    • Skype also extended its audio chat to video. And of course there’s always AIM video for people either far behind or far ahead of the time.
    • Then Google/Gmail Video Chat made it easy, and integrated with Google mail.

    Now Facebook is getting into the game. Given the proliferation of Facebook, I’d guess we’ll see significant use of its video chat — perhaps more than Gmail or AIM since it’s a common platform regardless of e-mail or hosting provider.

    It’s unfair to compare these, because they have different purposes. Here are three, with my recommendations:

    1. Want a video-conference call that includes several people, and potentially observers with view/comment access only? Try Stickam.
    2. Want to do a “show” for a large audience? Blogtv is probably best, unless you want to interact with interviewees or callers… then it gets limited.
    3. Going one-to-one? AIM, Google Video Chat, Skype, and FaceBook seem like reasonable bets. Given that FaceBook likely has your network established, I’m betting on it surpassing the others.

    nalty merck

    How to Send Large Files (mostly for free)

    augustus gloop chocolate tubeNeed to send giant video files, but don’t want the hassle of FTP? There’s a proliferation of free sites that will allow you to upload a giant file (100 MB to 1 Gig) and provide someone else with a URL or e-mail so they can pull it down. Some require “client” software, but many need only a web browser and are supported by advertising or upsells to fancier versions. I used to be a loyal Pando user, but there are three problems:

    1. I don’t like the way I have to locate the file and drag it to the clumsy file interface (the user experience for finding a file on my Mac via Pando is painful).
    2. Most people don’t want to have to download and install a client application to retrieve it (even though it’s quite easy). And once you’ve done that, it’s usually the most convenient way to go (because it’s a one-step operation — instead of uploading, waiting for a unique URL, then e-mailing that URL and hoping your recipient downloads it before it expires).
    3. Pando seems to be constantly nagging me to upgrade, and I never see any improvements. It also crashes quite often.

    Now I’m finding a wealth of alternatives, and the web interfaces have improved. The ads are still there, but it’s a small price to pay for free storage and upload/download. Here are just a few… No doubt Google will invent a free one that will crush this marketplace, but you gotta love ’em all for trying.

    • sendspace: Currently my favorite. Up to 300 MB, no fee, and very few limits. Has some upsell packages with a lot higher limits (1.5 gigs).
    • mediafire: One to watch. Has really good reviews (PCMag, CNet and PCWorld) and is apparently new.
    • senduit: Extremely easy, but it vanishes in 7 days and you have to wait for the unique URL (then e-mail it). Lose that code, and the file vanishes.
    • yousendit: I moved to it, but it started nagging me about reaching a limit. It’s got some upsell features.
    • dropboks: Haven’t played with it yet, but seems simple enough.
    • nakido: Another one I haven’t tried, but looks simple.
    • Plain Old Webserver: A Firefox add-on that does the trick apparently.
    • diino: Another client one, but decent file limit.

    The Attack of the Killer How-To Video Sites

    Lately it’s “The Attack of the Killer How-To Videos Sites.” We’ve already seen ExpertVillage, Instructables, AOL’s How To, VideoJug, and of course YouTube’s How-To section.

    While uploading on this morning, I noticed three more sites that have surfaced. Most of these models depend exclusively on advertising revenue. While that’s a nice interim model for targeted buys, I do see the potential for sites and creators to post modest fees for instructional videos.

    If it was “iTunes” easy to buy a “how to” video, you’d probably pay a modest fee for “just-in-time” learning. Anything to avoid the instructional manual, attending a class or hiring a pro. Here are some examples:

    1. Although it’s got a laughable web 2.0 name and brand, Slipo is somewhat unique. It’s more fo a social learning network for teaching through video & webcam. People can meet others of common interests, and engage in live, personalized webcam classes (members can schedule appointments, charge fees, and re-watch their live classes later for additional practice).
    2. HowCast is probably “the one to watch,” since it has recently signed distribution agreements with, Metacafe and Bebo. Those join a collection of distribution agreements with Myspace, YouTube, Verizon FiOS TV, Joost, and ROO. It doesn’t hurt that it’s founded by veterans from YouTube and 3 from Google. Howcast provides advertising revenue-sharing income for user-generated content and professional video.
    3. 5 Minute is a place to find “short video solutions for practical questions,” and a place for people to share their knowledge. The idea behind 5min, of course, is to focus solutions that can be visually explained in no more than 5 minutes.

    And if you don’t like what you see, find a free Web 2.0 platform and aggregate your own “how to” videos around some ridiculously niche topic. Or just create your very own revenue-producing “How To” video using Revver (see a video I made back in Sept. 2006). Better buy one of these coin counters (see video) to help sort your pennies.

    While you’re at it, please create a “how to” video on attracting weary advertisers.

    Pete Cashmore reviews some of the best “how to” video sites at, including (a site that aggregates them but isn’t working as of this writing).

    Where to Buy Cheap Video Camera and Gear- New and Used (B&H)

    Unknowingly I was approved as a B&H affiliate last December (I should check e-mail more often). So here’s a banner below. For those of you that don’t know, affiliate programs allow bloggers and website owners to earn some small portion of your purchase if you visit the e-commerce site via the blogger’s coded link or banner. So bookmark this page!

    A lot of people ask me what video equipment to buy, and where to get it. I default to BestBuy for impulse electronics, and often buy from But my “heaven on Earth” is the NYC B&H store. I’ve mentioned it several times before (even before I had the old “affiliate” hidden agenda. 🙂

    B&H is like FAO Schwartz for digital video, audio and camera nerds. They sell video cameras, digital accessories, sound gear and computers. Prices are amazing, and I’ve never had an issue with service or returns (bought my recent Canon HV20 there for a steal). I’ve been burned by NYC retailers before, but the place is run by Amish I think.

    My original blog ( was littered with low-revenue text ads, but I’ve deliberately not junked this blog up with low-profit Google text ads. They’re an eyesore. But here’s an affiliate banner for B&H. I have no idea how much I make if you go there via this banner, but I thought I’d give it a try. I’m pimping, but I know I’m not steering you wrong.

    So if you’re on the market for gear and you can find a better price at B&H, go there via this link and you’ll be helping me offset my Bluehost fee for this blog! Again- I wouldn’t send you there if I wasn’t really happy about my experience with B&H, and most of the prosumers (professional/consumers) I know buy all of their gear at B&H — whether they live in NYC or not. Double check because occasionally you’ll find a better price there, but the options on Amazon for video enthusiasts are limited.

    The actual NYC store is a dreamland. Get there if you can. I drove past it recently with Mr. Safety and told him about the giant conveyor belts that shoot your product from the warehouse to the register and he thought I was teasing. When I shop there I hear circus music in my head and people’s heads transform to giant lollipops.

    Converting and Uploading Those Old VHS Videos

    I’ve got two or three plastic bins in my basement, packed with hundreds VHS tapes. Among a lot of junk (Simpsons episodes, SNL reruns) lies some of the first video shorts I’ve made… um… two decades ago. So I spent hours this morning researching ways to convert them, and it comes down to a few complex choices with big tradeoffs:

    1. Ship your tape to a service provider (I found AMB Media Services via a Google text ad). For the price of $5 to $9, you can transfer VHS, VHS-C, Mini-DV, or Hi-8/8mm tapes. If you only have a few tapes, and want a low-maintenance solution (because your VHS still blinks 12:00), this is your best option. But when you add the shipping (about $9), converting a few tapes will cost more than buying a device. Some pharmacy and photo shops offer this service, and maybe shipping is less expensive.
    2. Use a camcorder with an analog input. Then you can connect your ol’ VHS to your camcorder and record it digitally. Next, you simply convert your digital tape to your computer as you would any new footage. Unfortunately my high-end Canon HV20 doesn’t have analog in. But I used an earlier camcorder to convert and upload “Woodblock Doll,” “Mint and Treats,” and “Attack of the Killer Slinky.”
    3. Buy a “Black Box” Device. Pinnacle’s Dazzle was the first device I bought to convert my Mini-DVs to digital footage more than 8 years ago. I researched the space, and paid maybe $200 for the device and editing software. Now there’s an AV-to-digital converter that’s selling for less than $50. There are other “black box” solutions like the Canopus ADVC-1110, but it’s pricey at $200 plus. Here’s one of the highest-rated VHS/DVD devices on Amazon (the Sony VRDMC5 DVDirect DVD Recorder). This Sony device got a favorable review from PC Magazine as well as CrunchGear, but a few customers have complained about audio problems.
    4. DVD/VHS Combination Units. Wired’s “Gadget Review” compares a number of other solutions, that include simple consumer decks that have both DVD and VHS. Some of these allow you to dub a VHS to a DVD… but this appears oddly complicated.  Further, you’ll need software to “rip” that DVD signal to something you can edit, compress and upload. This ‘DVD/VHS combo option leaves you with a full DVD copy of your tape without all the editing and manual work.
    5. Additional Options and Sources. In researching this post, I did find a nice review of options by “AskBobFranklin.” And two reviews worth mentioning: Video converter software compared and Video editing software compared. I also like this post by SignVideo that describes the method and gives you tips on preserving the quality.

    So what’s the bottom line? I’d go with a service (online or at a local store) if you just have a few tapes. But if you have six or more then it’s much more affordable to get a device. While writing this post, I bought the Pinnacle Dazzle DVD Recorder ($44 at Then I realized that it had a few bad reviews on Amazon, and… oh… it’s not Mac compatible. D’oh. So now maybe I’ll spring for the Sony VRDMC5. Or maybe I’ll tell wifeofnalts it’s on my birthday-wish list. The black box is convenient but it’s another darned device that has limited functionality beyond this purpose.

    Here’s my description of “the perfect device,” but I doubt it exists:

    1. It costs less than $200, and has a VHS deck and a DVD burner.
    2. The DVD is playable on a regular DVD player, but it also automatically chunks the video into segments that can be viewed via thumbnails. Or you can set it to chunk in 5/10-minute increments.
    3. You’d store the entire DVD as a safeguard against the deteriorating VHS tapes (although obviously burned DVD are far from permanent archives). Still, I suppose we’d actually watch our wedding tape more than once a decade if it was on DVD.
    4. But the DVD would also allow for easy exporting in the form of Quicktime, .mov or .mp4 files… so that you don’t need to use software to “rip” the entire DVD, convert, edit and upload. Too many steps!

    Would appreciate any feedback if this device does exist. I’d love to dust off some of the videos in the basement, like these vintage Nalts clips (see “more” for details).

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