Ring: The king of video doorbells goes for a second reign.

Welcome to the first installment of the fall series, focusing on incredible smart home products that make you want to brave the cooling weather and drill some holes, bang some nails, and chop some wood… or just add some cool tech. to your home.

Before we begin, I wanted to let you know that links in this article may include affiliate links, which provide me with a commission for purchases made through these links. This does not influence my opinions.

First up is the latest in video doorbell technology: Ring Video Doorbell 2. The newest in their video doorbell lineup, Video Doorbell 2 takes the best of the original Ring and includes a modular battery, greatly increases video quality, and even uses the same drill holes from a previous Ring doorbell (if you’ve got one!).


PROS: THE STUFF THAT MAKES YOU WANT IT

  1. Installation: Very quick in nearly every case. Less than 30 minutes in most cases, sometimes longer if you pre-drill holes.
  2. Video Quality: 1080p video with High Dynamic Range (HDR) provides stunningly crisp images of whoever shows up at your door.
  3. Battery Life: You should get at least 3 months between charges, under most circumstances.
  4. Modular Design: Easily swap out batteries without removing the entire Ring!
  5. Cloud Recordings/Saves/DVR: The best value in security camera video storage around. Just $30 per year for 60 days of storage.

CONS: THINGS NEEDING IMPROVEMENT

  1. Motion Settings: More customization is needed. Custom-drawn zones to reduce false motion recordings.
  2. Build Quality: The original Ring was made mostly of metal. Ring 2 switched out metal for plastic, and it feels cheap.
  3. Speaker Volume: It can be hard for the person outside to hear you, especially if you live on a busy street.


Ring has created what I believe to be one of the best, easiest to use, and most fun smart home gadgets so far. The ability to see and speak (two-way) to someone at your door without having to open that door (or when you’re not even home!) is a game changer. The Ring Video Doorbell 2 takes the best of the original Ring and makes it better, while also fixing some of my complaints along the way.

Ring 2017 March Shoot

Installation couldn’t be simpler – even if you have to pre-drill holes and insert anchors into a brick exterior. Installing my original Ring took around 30 minutes, including drilling through the brick. The included drill bit ensured drilled holes that are the perfect size for the anchors. Your mileage may vary, but it will almost certainly be an even easier installation process if you don’t need to dust off the power tools. I’m fairly certain that I just handed the baby off to the wife, cracked a beer, and started drilling. If I can do it, you can do it too.

Since I was upgrading from an original Ring and not installing the Ring 2 fresh, I first mounted the adapter plate using my existing holes, then screwed the Ring 2 into the adapter. I slid my fully charged battery into the slot, snapped on the front plate, and secured the security screw. Done. This took less than 15 minutes and I’d expect about the same even with a fresh Ring 2 installation into non-brick or stucco walls.

ring-ios-live-loginSetup within Ring’s app is easy. Just quickly connect to the temporary Ring WiFi network, enter your existing WiFi credentials, and then wait a few seconds while Ring connects. It was up and running in just a minute or so and without any problems. I have crazy good WiFi with eero, but you’ll want to make sure yours is in range of your router or an extender (like the Chime Pro).

Motion configuration is up next. I live on a busy street, elevated by stairs from the street level. Since Ring’s motion sensor is angled straight out and down, this is basically a worst-case scenario. My original Ring recorded video of nearly every truck and bus that drove by – around 50 videos every day. This was a huge drain on battery, requiring me to remove and charge my Ring every few weeks.

Ring 2, however, has improved motion sensing that has nearly completely eliminated these false recordings. While it hasn’t stopped them completely, it now only mistakes cement trucks for people. This is a huge improvement for me and Ring’s battery life!

So, battery life. Ring claims that most people charge their batteries every 3-12 months. This was nowhere near my experience with the original Ring which required recharging every 3 weeks. Based on my usage of Ring 2, however, I expect to get around 3 months between charges. I also bought a second battery (something you couldn’t do with the original) to make this process as quick and painless as possible.

Video quality is a place where the Ring Video Doorbell 2 really shines. Resolution goes up to 1080p (from 720p) and includes High Dynamic Range (HDR) – a feature common on smartphones. This means that videos not only look sharper but are less susceptible to sunlight or other light sources blowing out the picture with bright white spots. My Ring videos are clearer than ever and are absolutely share-worthy.

RVD2_product_batteryAlso new to Ring Video Doorbell 2 is its modular design. Two faceplates come in the box. One is a darker, aged brass, look and the other is a bright silver color. There are only two faceplates right now, but I would not be surprised to see Ring release new colors similar to the original model color choices in the future. This faceplate also allows for quick access to the now-removable battery. Extra batteries can be purchased and kept charged so that battery swaps take seconds instead of requiring hours of charge time and missed recordings. Just remove the security screw and pop off the faceplate to either swap that or the battery. Simple.

If I was disappointed about anything with my upgrade, it was the build quality. The new Ring 2 drops nearly all of the metal that made up the original Ring, replacing it with plastic. This downgrade makes the unboxing experience less than exciting as the light plastic seems to float away from my hands – a sharp contrast to the premium heft the metal in the original Ring had. If this was required as a trade-off for the removable battery and changeable faceplates, however, I’m cool with it.

Finally, the speaker volume is the only disappointment that I have with the Ring Video Doorbell as a whole. Both the original Ring and the Ring 2 sport underpowered speakers that fail to overcome loud background noise from things like busy streets. My Ring recordings where I speak to visitors almost always show them leaning in close so that they can hear me. I do live against a busy street, but this should have been accounted for when choosing to include two-way voice communications.

Overall I am incredibly happy with my new Ring Video Doorbell 2. It is one of the few smart home products that I use that puts a smile on my face every time I use it. Ring is frustration-free, fun, and just plain cool.

Solving WiFi with eero

One of the first things my wife and I agreed on when deciding to buy a new house was that it must eventually have “kick ass WiFi.” I have been using a new eero Pro 2nd Generation system for the last two weeks and can finally say, after nearly three years in our new home, that we have kick ass WiFi!

The road to finally solving the WiFi problem in our brick, lathe, and plaster-filled home was a long one – and ultimately wound up being fairly expensive.

We started initially with the Quantum Gateway that came with our Verizon FiOS service. While this wireless access point was surprisingly powerful, we found it just could not penetrate all of our walls and blanket the main floor, basement, and second floor in the fast WiFi we wanted. Next!

AirPort Extreme

Apple’s AirPort Extreme access points were an obvious second choice. We’re an all Apple household and, while the pricing was quite high, we figured integrating three of these would ensure each floor was properly covered. This wound up being our solution for about two years. Everything worked wonderfully well and could easily max out our 150/150 Mbps connection (at the time) anywhere inside our house. Problem solved, right? Wrong. Gigabit internet came knocking and we upgraded immediately. Our 3x AirPort Extreme setup just couldn’t handle it. While maximum download speeds clocked in around 400 Mbps (about the best real-world speeds WiFi is currently capable of), the average speeds were much slower at 100-200 Mbps. Ouch. I knew there were better options, and decided to explore them.

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Netgear Orbi

Enter: mesh networking. I was woo’d by the promise a new type of networking they would ensure that I always had the fastest WiFi speeds no matter where I was in my home. Orbi’s “dedicated backhaul” was there to keep communications between units fast, meaning the satellite unit should be nearly as fast as the main unit.

This worked in practice. Orbi was, by far, the fastest WiFi system that I tested. Speeds hovered very near 500 Mbps download consistently – except when it didn’t.

Netgear’s Orbi has connectivity issues with iPhones, likely caused by some weirdness of how it interacts with iOS. My iPhones and iPads would frequently lose connectivity to Orbi entirely, or even sometimes display full WiFi connection bars but be unable to load anything online at all. Previous experiences with Netgear have shown that their wireless teams infrequently issue updates and their support teams leave much to be desired. Amazon has a great return policy, so I sent them right back.

eero Pro WiFi System (2nd Generation)

Finally, I decided to bite the bullet. I cashed out a recently discovered cache of $700 in Bitcoin and bough a 2nd Generation eero Pro WiFi System on Amazon for $470 and had it delivered the next day.

Setup was insanely quick and simple. Plug-and-play after connecting my gateway eero (the first one plugged in – it doesn’t matter which), guided by an awesome app that helped me find proper positions for my other eero units throughout the house. No configuration necessary. Eero handles all of the hard stuff, so I literally just had to plug the first unit into power and Ethernet, then get power to the two extra units and I was done. WiFi everywhere.

Eero does not win the award of fastest WiFi overall, clocking in at an average of 300 Mbps down and up on my gigabit line, but it does come out on top in speed and connection reliability. My speeds never waver. They are always fast, and I never lose my WiFi connection unless I’m outside and across the street. Every corner of my (sometimes) annoyingly sturdy 1920s row house is blanketed in super fast WiFi.

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Network management through the eero app is incredible, letting me see what is connected and how much bandwidth each device is currently using. I can set up custom profiles that restrict access from certain devices and pause internet access as desired. With the optional (and $99 a year) eero Plus addon, I can even stop malicious connections both coming into and attempting to leave my network, reducing the spread and impact of viruses, spyware, malware, and adware. I even get a weekly report of what eero Plus detected and blocked, as well as a quick overview of what kinds of connections are most common.img_0035

The security information that eero Plus provides is interesting, but could be more helpful. I wish that the weekly report included more details, like what the two Malware blocks were, specifically, that it detected and blocked last week. What device did it originate from? What application triggered it? What domain was it trying to connect to, and when? Answering these questions would make the service much more valuable.

In addition to network security, eero Plus also offers the ability to block ads at the network level. This means that many common ad networks are blocked, preventing ads on nearly every website I visit from being displayed. It also seems to block certain types of ads in certain apps from the App Store, but this is usually not the case.

Overall I am incredibly happy with my new eero Pro WiFi System. At a nearly $600 buy-in for the system and $99 of that recurring every year (for as long as I keep eero Plus), eero is hardly a bargain. What it lacks in affordability, however, it makes up in ease of use and time savings by absolutely nailing the “set it and forget it” ideal of worry-free WiFi. Eero promises and it delivers. If you are looking for a new WiFi system that requires little to no maintenance and delivers fast speeds throughout your home, eero is where it’s at.

The links above may contain referral links that may provide me with a small compensation if you buy a product or service after clicking one of them. This does not influence my opinion over any product or service.

Thoughts on WWDC17 keynote

Apple’s 2017 WWDC Keynote is over and I’ve tallied the results and confirmed that it appears that just one of the items on my wish list came true: Siri improvements (maybe?). I’m assuming that one is coming true, since Apple is baking Siri into their impressively expensive Siri and music speaker they call HomePod.

I’ll be honest: I didn’t expect Apple to touch on most of my ideas during the WWDC keynote, especially since it is generally more developed focused, but I waited a couple of days before compiling my thoughts to see if someone with a developer account uncovered the fulfillment of my other wishes. They haven’t.

The one item I had hoped to hear something about from earlier developer testers is the extreme slowness that I experience on my 2016 13″ MacBook Pro with Touch Bar when using the Keychain password manager. Any time Safari auto fills my username and password on a website, I see the beach ball spin for a second or two before the fields are filled. Going into the password manager itself in Safari also takes a long time to load after authenticating with my fingerprint. This seems to be a delay caused by the interaction between macOS and the new secure enclave used by the Touch Bar Macs to securely store passwords and fingerprints (like on iPhone). You better believe I’ll be grabbing that public beta to test out the performance in High Sierra as soon as it’s available.

Everything else besides Siri were small changes that wouldn’t made iOS better for me, but aren’t huge deals. Whatever.

Surprises

iMac Pro? That’s all that wasn’t spoiled ahead of time and is interesting. I like that Apple is starting to take Pro-sumers seriously again, but I’m guessing that this means the redesigned Mac Pro is quite a ways off. A new iMac with beefier specs and more holes cut in it for airflow is hardly Apple design and innovation at its best, so I’m looking forward to what’s really next. Those Space Gray accessories look pretty killer.

HomePod. While not entirely a surprise, this $350 speaker with Siri chilling inside is intriguing. Siri is fairly terrible on iOS right now, with most of my questions being kicked over to a web search that I need to physically unlock my iPhone to see. I am super interested to see how this works with HomePod. Making me pull out my iPhone and tap on a web search isn’t going to cut it for a speaker I’ll shout at from the couch when I’m feeling lazy. If I wanted to use my eyes and my fingers I would have just taken my phone out.

My next computer

I’ll admit that I’m a little tired of playing the spec and battery life guessing game when it comes to buying computers. My $1,700 MacBook Pro with Touch Bar is now outdated, replaced by the next generation of processors that should have been in my model, and so now I’ve got a piece of junk. Not really, obviously, but I don’t think iPad gives users this feeling.

With the introduction of closer desktop-level multitasking, iPad is quickly becoming a legitimate computing platform – and one that I might make my primary platform. Beyond web browsing, email, and Office apps, there’s not a ton that I don’t think I could do on iPad that I do on my MacBook now. Sure, I’d probably never write that app I’ve been thinking about. It’s been 5 years and I haven’t gotten beyond installing Xcode, anyway.

There’s some part of me that just wants to have an iPhone and iPad that go everywhere with me.

The end

So, that’s it. Not the most exciting WWDC keynote, but still solid. I think we’re nearing peak OS innovation here, where we will see fewer dramatic redesigns of iOS and macOS. These are mature, feature-packed, secure, and stable modern operating systems that honestly don’t need much. Apple has seemingly moved to maintenance mode, making adjustments and feature additions based on feedback (customizable Control Center, anyone?!). This is good. I like this.

Keep it up, Apple.

WWDC17

This year’s developer conference from Apple is shaping up to be a doozy. Many of 2017’s biggest hardware surprised may have been spoiled by a Foxconn insider on Saturday, but the software front remains a mystery. Tomorrow we find out where Apple is taking the iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, Mac, and maybe even the Apple TV. I always look forward to these software announcements and try to find references to new hardware features that may be announced later this fall.

My quick wishlist on the software front:

  1. Improvements to Touch Bar access to secure enclave that cause massive auto fill delays in Safari.
  2. Dark mode system-wide in iOS.
  3. Better search on iOS. Slack may be a factor, but honestly it sucks anyway.
  4. Time remaining on battery easily visible again (and reliably accurate again!) in macOS.
  5. Apple News in macOS.
  6. Faster app access and syncing in watchOS. Yeah, it’s way better but still not quite there.
  7. Siri improvements. She is such a blight on an otherwise amazing ecosystem. Amazon’s Echo/Alexa is just SO much better and I love using my Echo devices while I hate using Siri.

And that’s it. Apples operating systems already feel quite mature, stable, and refined. There’s not much that I can think of changing beyond that seemingly-insignificant list above. I love surprises, however, and look forward to learning about what I hadn’t thought of tomorrow afternoon.

I just really hope Apple fixes the secure enclave issues in Safari in macOS on the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar.

The dangerous smart home

The smart home has taken down the internet. Like many people on the east coast yesterday, much of the internet was inaccessible to me for a good part of the morning and some of the afternoon. It turns out the culprit was the smart home devices that many of us have (including me) in our homes. We can now be affected by Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks by the products created to make life more convenient and safer. Thousands or millions of us may have inadvertently been responsible for taking down a chunk of the internet for many millions of people for numerous hours. This is frightening.

If a single person (or possibly a small group of people) can write scripts that take over our smart homes in the background and launch state-level attacks against major internet backbone providers (like Dyn and their managed DNS service), what can an actual state-sponsored attack do? We all now, essentially, have the ability to bring portions of the internet to its knees using freely distributed software more quickly and easily than we used to download shareware from Tucows just ten years ago.

We have reached a point (many years ago, even) where “security through obscurity” is no longer a valid method of protecting our networks, devices, and data. It is not okay for hardware and software developers to ship products with default usernames and passwords that are easily guessable or trivially cracked. A sticker showing the randomly generated and secure usernames and passwords for each device could have been enough to stop this kind of attack. It is no longer okay to sacrifice security to avoid a few technical support calls or emails. It is no longer okay to not be able to handle briefly looking at a username and password sticker if you need to login to an administrative panel (most people don’t, anyway). My Verizon FiOS Wi-Fi access point shipped with a surprisingly secure WPA2 password. Our smart home products can do it if our Internet Service Providers can do it. It is no longer okay to not take cybersecurity seriously.

The fact that this attack may not be state-sponsored or launched with a state-created tool is the most terrifying aspect of these attacks. It is one thing to be terrified of a major government’s nuclear stockpile, but bringing news outlets, banking systems, government services, and more to their knees through the efforts of possibly a lone coder is a different animal. Governments must fear retaliation. A 400 pound hacker in a basement may never be identified.

Without change and care taken by the companies we trust to come into and control our homes, the best that we can do is hope that this was a state-sponsored attack and this was their one shot with the best they’ve got. If this really was done by a lone coder, our newly exposed weakness could open the door to an even more damaging attack from an unfriendly foreign government. As more public utilities get “smart” and connected, we are forced to trust that they are taking cybersecurity seriously.

Being denied access to parts of the internet is annoying, but having our homes, power grids, banks, or water supplies taken over by an unidentified, untraceable, actor is a matter of national security that can not be ignored.