Cutting the Cord – 7 Years Later

In April 2011, I wrote a post about how my family and I were going to cut the cord from cable.  Since that time, much has changed in the landscape of cord-cutting, so I thought I’d write a quick summary of where we are today, both in service subscriptions and hardware.

Subscriptions

Initially, we were subscribed to Hulu Plus and Netflix.  Netflix wasn’t even on my radar for the first article, because it was mostly older movies and television shows.  In 2011, it might have even been mailing us DVDs!  Today, we have a few more subscription services, but we also have access to much more programming.  Here’s the list (with prices, including tax):

Netflix ($14.97)

With a 14 and a 10 year old, we have the “4 screens + UltraHD” package.  There have been plenty of times where we are all watching something separately.  Netflix has really upped their game with original content in the past few years, and is absolutely a staple of our entertainment watching.

Hulu Plus ($12.97)

This is still the primary way we watch television.  We add the shows we watch to our queue, and Hulu gives us a managed list of recent episodes when we open the app.  It’s easy to see and review what you’ve still got available to watch.  We stepped up to their “No Commercials” plan, which is about $4 more per month, but is totally worth the time savings alone.  22-minute shows are 22 minutes, not 30.

DirecTV NOW ($42.80)

When this was announced, we jumped in to give it a try.  (Primarily because they gave us a brand-new Apple TV if we bought three months up front.)  We chose their “Go Big” option, which includes 105+ channels, but we get it as a grandfathered discount price of $40/month.  Here’s a picture of the included channels.

Screen Shot 2018-10-31 at 9.26.10 AM

We obviously don’t watch all of those channels (this is the primary problem with bundling this stuff in the first place), but we felt like we’re getting a good deal, so we haven’t stepped down yet.  I actually JUST reviewed the list of channels we would lose by moving down a step, and I think I’m going to make the switch to “Just Right” today.  This would drop my monthly bill another $15.

One of the biggest features of having a DirecTV NOW subscription is that your credentials unlock all of the other channel apps.  For example, if you use the ESPN app, you can log in and watch literally any college football game on Saturday.  If you like the Food Network, you can open their app and watch shows from your favorite series.  I like the shows “Better Call Saul” and “Walking Dead,” which I can catch on the AMC app.

HBO GO ($0.00)

Because we are AT&T customers with their Unlimited Plan, and also DirecTV NOW subscribers, they throw in HBO for free.  We don’t watch it a ton, but for free, I’ll watch John Oliver and Game of Thrones!

Hardware

We are really torn on this, and it’s really frustrating.  Primarily, we use a Roku Premiere+, which is outstanding, and has been our mainstay for years.  But the tide is turning, and there are a number of great devices out there.  We also have an Apple TV, and a Amazon Fire TV Cube.  There’s plusses and minuses to each.

Roku Premiere ($40)

Interface: Of all of the interfaces, this one wins.  The interface is just a grid of your installed apps.  Everything else you have to dig a little deeper to find.  It’s perfect.

Remote: The remote is also excellent.  Tactile, rubber buttons and volume control are huge.  It also has a headphone jack on the remote for when you want to watch without interrupting others.

Amazon Fire TV Cube ($120)

Interface: Sadly, this is probably my least favorite interface.  There’s too much retail focus, and not enough easy visibility into the apps, which is my core use case.  While I completely understand, since Amazon Video has a ton of amazing content, this creates an extra step every time that I want to watch TV.  The one big feature this device holds is that it’s also a full Alexa device, that can also control your TV.  “Switch to Input 3,” or “Turn off the TV” are amazing commands that get used regularly in our house.

Remote: The remote is great.  Very well thought out.  Voice search is awesome.  Voice commands are great.  It’s really the software interface that holds everything back, because hitting the “Home” button still leaves you one step from most of the things that you want to use.

Apple TV 4K ($179)

Interface: This comes close to the Roku interface: a giant scrolling list of apps. Where it starts to fall down is that it’s easy to get lost, especially with all of the default Apple apps that clutter up the list.  It’s the remote that makes everything fall apart.

Remote: This might be the worst remote control that has ever been created.  Because it mostly a trackpad, every time you pick it up, you can’t help but press a button.  All directional controls are done as swipes, which sounds awesome, but is actually much slower than pressing a physical button.  Add to all of that the fact that it’s wafer thin, and easier to lose in the couch than you’d like, and you’ll learn to hate it.  Not a fan.

 

Traveling with Alexa

As you might imagine, I spend a decent amount of my time traveling around the world talking about Alexa.  Because of this, I frequently find myself bringing a couple of devices with me where ever I’m headed.  Early on, I would just throw an Echo Dot in my bag, and coil up the power brick and cable.

I was always worried it was getting knocked around in my suitcase or backpack, so I started looking for a small container or bag to keep it in.  That’s when I discovered Khanka Cases on Amazon.  They make awesome hard-shell cases for each of the different Alexa devices (including the Fire TV Stick and the Echo Show!), and I now take most of the devices with me on every trip because they pack so nicely, and really protect the hardware.  I can’t recommend these enough.  Here they are:

Echo Dot Case – $7.99

echodot

Echo Case – $12.99

echo

Amazon Tap Case – $10.99

tap

Amazon Fire TV Stick Case –  $8.99

firetvstick

Echo Show Case – $22.99

echoshow

 

Finally, it’s a little obvious, but traveling with a Fire TV Stick ($40!) should become an absolute requirement for you if you travel any for work.  Having all of my streaming options, including movies and tv shows from Amazon/Netflix/Hulu/DirecTV NOW/HBO GO/Fox Sports Go/Plex available to me in every hotel room is lifechanging.

Do You Know Your Email Address?

I had, without question, the strangest conversation I’ve ever had today.  It fundamentally makes me head hurt to think about it.  It reminds me of a bit from the comedian Lewis Black, where he was consumed by something he heard a woman say in a coffee shop: “If it hadn’t been for my horse, I wouldn’t have spent that year in college!”

Anyways, this is a completely real story that happened no more than an hour ago.  I wanted to record this exchange while it was still fresh.

Background

I have a Gmail address that I never use, but it’s only my last name, so I’ve held on to it.  It forwards all of its mail to my primary email address, so I still receive all of the messages.  For several years, I occasionally will get strange registration emails to this address for websites like Amazon, Best Buy, SoundCloud, and others.  I’ve never been able to reach out to the person, however, because the only contact information they provided was MY email address.

Today, I received a registration email from Netflix, registered to that email address.  And then I got another message that they needed to confirm my phone number.

verifyphone

When I clicked on the link, it showed me the entire phone number of the person.  This was the first time that I had a way to contact this foolish person registering accounts with my email address!!

So I decided to text this person, in the off-chance it was a mobile phone.  Maybe I could figure out what the problem was!  The following is a completely unedited text exchange between me and this person.

textmessages

 

Amazing, right?

Wrap Up

You may have noticed that I had the names of two people that had been registering accounts with my email address.  And she knew the other person, because it’s her cousin.

THIS MEANS THEY BOTH THINK THEIR EMAIL ADDRESSES ARE MY EMAIL ADDRESS!  This also, somehow, means that they both think they have the same email address.  I’m betting they’ve never discussed this, but I would love love love to hear her tell this story to her family tonight.

Just thought I should share!

P.S.  Did she say her grandpa brother?  Does she have a brother that is also somehow her grandpa?  This might offer a real explanation for this whole ordeal.

Getting Alexa To Pronounce Ordinals

Today, I’m working on a project that requires Alexa to say things like “first,” “second,” or “twenty-first.”  I’ve gone through a few iterations of creating these ordinal strings.

First: Brute Force Attempt

I started the easy way: I created a hard-coded switch statement for the values from 1 – 10, and used a helper function to feed me the appropriate return value as a string..  Not the most elegant, but it got the job done.

Second: Slightly More Elegant and Scaleable

As my application grew, I realized that I would now need the values from 1 – 50 available in my application.  I added to my switch statement…until I got to 15.  At that point, I realized I needed a new solution that could scale to any number I passed in.  So I started writing some logic to append “st” to numbers that ended in 1, “nd” to numbers that ended in 2, “rd” to numbers that ended in 3, and “th” to pretty much everything else.  I had to write some exception cases for 11, 12, and 13.

It was at this point that I made an amazing discovery.

Third: Alexa is already too smart for me.

While playing with my second solution, I used the Voice Simulator that is available when you are building an Alexa skill.  I wanted to see if Alexa would pronounce the words the same if I just appended the suffixes like “th” or “nd” to the actual number value, rather than trying to convert the whole thing to a word.

This is where the discovery was made.

I tried getting her to say “4th,” and she pronounced it as I expected: “fourth.”

On a whim, I added “th” to the number 2, which would normally be incorrect.  She pronounced it “second.”  I had the same experience with “1th,” which she still got correct as “first.”

If you append “th” to the end of any number, Alexa will pronounce the appropriate ordinal.

My mind was slightly blown today.  Thanks, Alexa.

The Art of the Coding Tutorial

As part of my new responsibilities at Amazon, I’m working to re-write the Alexa development tutorials for a couple of reasons:

  1. We want them to be as easy to follow as possible for developers of all skill levels.
  2. The Amazon Developer Portal and AWS will forever be making changes to their interfaces, and we want to be able to easily keep up with updating our screenshots.
  3. We want to be able to re-use as much of each tutorial as possible, again to minimize the maintenance costs that come with updates.

Before anything else, however, we want tutorials that help developers get from Point A (no Alexa skill) to Point B (published Alexa skill) with as few barriers as possible.

So I ask these questions of you, my wonderful readers:

  1. What are some examples of tutorials that you have found effective?
  2. Which is the best format for you to follow a tutorial?
    1. One long web page that covers every step.
    2. One web page that covers the essential steps, but has links to the “fringe-y” stuff that only some developers will require.
    3. Multi-page tutorial that breaks the process into 5-6 digestible chunks.
    4. A video.
  3. Is it more important to get to Point B, or understand *how* you got there?

Holy Cow Garageio!

I’ve decided to start a series of posts about the ever-growing list of smart home devices I’ve decided to bring into my home.  These won’t be on a regular schedule, but as I continue to add functionality to my house, I’ll do my best to provide my opinions and experience with those products.

Today, I want to talk about Garageio.

garageio

You can probably guess from the name, but Garageio is a device that you connect to your garage doors to open/close them, as well as monitor their state.  In addition, you can connect Garageio to Alexa, and make all of that functionality happen with your voice.

Yes, there are certainly cheaper options.  Yes, you could probably build one yourself.  But to get all of this functionality in a package that works reliably, had IFTTT integrations, a great mobile experience, AND works with Alexa?  That’s a tougher deal to beat.

In fact, I tried.  I bought a WeMo Maker device ($70) and hooked that up to my garage door.  It worked, but it didn’t manage state.  So I added a webcam to my garage so that I could see whether the door was open.  It also only allowed me to send an “event” to my door, which meant that it would close if it was open, and open if it was closed.  Not a great experience.

Installation

Installation was surprisingly easy.  The entire contents of the box boiled down to five parts. (I have the two-door model, but the different models really just determine how many wires you get.  It appears it’s always the same box.)

  • The Garageio Black Box
  • Wire for connecting box to garage door opener #1.
  • Wire for connecting box to garage door opener #2.
  • Sensor for garage door #1.
  • Sensor for garage door #2.

Basically, you connect all four wires to the box, connect the box to your wifi, and you’re off and running.  Incredibly easy.

garageioproductphotos-6

Using the Garageio App

For most smart home devices, the app that drives everything is a make-or-break experience.  Thankfully, the Garageio team knocked this one out of the park.  I have a horizontal scrolling list of my doors, and swiping up on a door opens it, swiping down closes it.

20161107_151428000_ios

I also get notifications if a door stays open for 15 minutes.  This is a nice feature, but as a parent of two active kids, the door is constantly open in the afternoons after school.  My daughter gets home at 3pm, and so nearly every day at 3:15pm, I get a notification that the door is still open.  You only get one notification, however, so it’s not annoying.

You can see from my screenshot that there’s also the ability to “Share Doors.”  This allows me to grant temporary (or permanent) access to my garage door to others.

20161107_152049000_ios

IFTTT Integration

As expected, they also did an excellent job with their IFTTT integrations, so that all of the functionality I want can be triggered by all of the other services I use.  For example, I can set a geofence on my phone, so that if I enter a specific area, my garage door automatically opens.

I can also set specific times for it, so that at 10:30pm, it automatically shuts both of my doors so that I don’t leave them open all night.

If you’ve used IFTTT, you know this is only scratching the surface of what is possible, but there’s only so many creative ways to open and close a door.  So far, I’ve been delighted, however.

Alexa Integration

“Alexa, ask Garageio to close Bike Door.”

It works exactly as you would expect.

Garageio was an early entrant in to the world of Alexa, which is awesome.   I think that they will eventually hook it up to the new smart home skill API, which helps in simplifying how I communicate with it, but even now, it’s perfect. It recognizes the names I gave my doors, and works every time.  I’m really happy to have this device in my house, and I would highly recommend it for yours.

You can pick one up on Amazon for about $200.

My Frustrations with “Smart Home”

That’s not a fair title.  I LOVE the smart home movement.  I love being able to open/close my garage remotely.  I love having rooms light up as I walk into them.  I love concocting recipes on IFTTT to mash-up my smart devices into even smarter experiences.  I love telling Alexa to control my home with only my voice.

“If it is 10:30pm, and the garage door is open, close it.”

What I don’t love, however, is that much of the experience and joy that is meant to be created by smart devices seems to have been created exclusively for one person that lives by themselves.  Let me give you a few examples:

Smart Bulbs

Smart lightbulbs can be controlled by my phone.  They can change colors, be turned on and off, and even dance to my music.  Amazing, right?  Where this story falls apart quickly, however, is the traditional light switch.

If I turn the bulb off from my phone, the light switch becomes non-functional.

If I turn the bulb off with the switch, I lose all of the “smart” features.

If I am a single person living by myself, I can consciously make a decision to only control the bulbs from my phone, and everything is harmonious.  Once you introduce roommates, like a spouse, or even worse, children, this entire experiment falls apart.  The consistency that you require evaporates instantly.

Smart Plugs

 

 

This is another example of power management that has so much potential.  Plug this into the wall, and now you can control a lamp, a stereo, or really anything else that requires power.  You can even set timers, so it’s an incredible way to manage those random lamps you have around your home!

That is, until someone turns that lamp off in the traditional way.

catlight

Now your smart plug is a $40 brick that can control nothing.  It’s incredibly frustrating, and most of the frustration comes from the fact that our homes are not constructed with the idea of a smart home in mind.

Geofencing

geofencing

Geofencing might be one of the coolest ideas around when it comes to smart home functionality.

“When I pull into my driveway, open the garage, turn on the lights, set the thermostat to 71F, and turn on my favorite music.”

“When I am gone for more than 18 hours, set the entire house to away.  Light bulbs on timers, thermostat as low energy as possible, all doors closed and locked.”

If I lived by myself, This. Would. Be. Awesome.  Instead, it becomes an incredible way to scare my entire family to death as I dramatically announce my home arrival.  There HAS to be a better way.

Summary

In short, I love smart home stuff.  But as a software developer, my brain wants more.  Today, in our homes, we basically get the equivalent of a solitary IF statement.

IF I pull in the driveway, THEN do this stuff.

In order for this smart home stuff to be truly impressive (and accessible) to everyone, we need to be able to add as many conditions as we possibly can.

IF I pull in the driveway AND my family is home, THEN open the garage.
ELSEIF my family isn’t home, THEN open the garage AND turn the house up to eleven.

Smart home is still really in its infancy for consumers.  If we want to make it more accessible, we need to be able to provide this level of customization in an easy to use format.  IFTTT and Stringify have made huge strides here, but we still have a long way to go.

I, for one, look forward to the very near future.  This stuff is amazing, even if it’s also frustrating sometimes.