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Technology Reviews
Reviews on technologies that automate and improve our lives.

Cat Genie review - Automatic litter box reviews E-mail
For Pets
Written by Peter   

Cat GenieLittermaid

Cat Genie

Littermaid

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Rating: 5 out of 5

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Rating: 2 out of 5

Stupid cat. That's what I used to think when cleaning the litterbox and grumbling to myself about him prancing around like royalty while I clean up after his majesty. Of course, the simple solution of getting rid of the little fluffball isn't really an option due to the wife's emotional attachment. So what's a guy to do?

 

Note: For an at-a-glance view of Litter Robot vs Cat Genie 120 vs Littermaid vs Scoop Free click here.

 

My first attempt at solving the problem was to search for some sort of automatic litter box, insisting that someone has to have this figured out by now – I was right, but there are several options and you can only do so much reading about a cat litter box before you feel awkward and bored. I settled on the Littermaid box which essentially uses a rake to run across the litter, scooping up any cat droppings into a container which becomes air-tight after the rake goes back to its resting place.

There is a sensor to stop the rake in case the cat does something silly like jump in, and I figured that emptying the container once a week would surely be easier than each and every day as I did currently (ok, once every couple days, but it begins to stink after that.) After some mild threats about giving the cat away, I received wife approval for the expenditure and ordered it immediately...

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Insteon Software Review - HomeSeer E-mail
Home Automation
Written by Peter   

Home Automation Software Review

HomeSeer Home
Automation Software

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Rating: 4 out of 5

For those of you hunting for the best home automation software, I empathize with you, it's not an easy task to sort out.  Compiling a list of which software supports which technology and on what operating system is just stage one, and then there's the part where you sort out the plugins, third-party modules and so on until you feel like this little project has just turned into something complex and it may be more work and less fun than you had hoped.  

Putting some of the fun back into the process is the latest version of HomeSeer, which supports every major home automation technology (Insteon, Z-Wave, X10, UPB & others) and has plugins to handle everything from sprinklers to security systems to RFID tags.  Having used other home automation software such as Girder and MisterHouse in the past, I was interested to see how HomeSeer would compare.  

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X10, Insteon and Z-Wave Price Comparison E-mail
Home Automation
Written by Peter   

Which Home Automation to Choose?In my recent X10 Home Automation review, one of our readers (Ray) asked for a more detailed comparison of prices for typical scenarios using X10, Insteon and Z-Wave.  It's a good question, and one that others have likely thought about as well when debating the merits of spending the extra on a second-generation system such as Insteon or Z-Wave versus the cheaper X10.  

I've created a couple of plausible scenarios below, however it would be great if this was more of a collaborative effort so if you have been doing some research yourself and have information to share (or have any questions) please post in the comments section below.  

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Litter Robot - The #2 Automatic Litterbox E-mail
For Pets
Written by Stephanie   

Litter Robot
Litter Robot

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Rating: 4 out of 5

My husband and I first started looking into automatic cat litter boxes when we decided to expand our family.  Our concern was "toxoplasmosis", which is an infection particularly dangerous to unborn babies, caused by a parasite found in cat faeces.  We considered simply having my husband take over the responsibility of cleaning the litter box while I was pregnant, but as soon as he found out he could automate the process there was just no turning back.  Not only does an automatic cat litter box practically eliminate the need to scoop cat waste, it also reduces disgusting cat odours, the potential for disease or infection, and makes our cats very happy (they are clean freaks, like us!)  The only member of our household who is unhappy with our move to an automatic system is the dog….he sure misses his cat cookie snacks <barf>

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X10 Home Automation Review E-mail
Home Automation
Written by Peter   
X10 Home Automation
X10 Home Automation

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Rating: 2 out of 5

Even if you're looking at home automation for the first time, you've probably heard of one brand: X10.  It's cheap, readily available and based on the advertisements can do just about anything.  In fact, it's how many of us who are now obsessed with home automation got started years ago.  The difference between then and now is that back then, that's all that was available.  It was either X10 or build your own from relays and spare computer parts (yes, I did this - as did many others).  Today however, there are several other choices, almost all of which are better than X10 in one very important way: they're reliable.
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Elk M1 Gold Review - Home Automation Meets Security E-mail
Security
Written by Peter   
Elk M1 Image
Elk M1 Gold

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Rating: 4.5 out of 5

When we recently moved into our new house, my wife was concerned about the main floor windows and the possibility of someone entering through them.  Despite my reassurances that our dog would take care of any intruders (he wouldn't), she still wanted me to research and purchase an alarm system.  Determined to integrate this future alarm with our existing home automation, I had a laundry list of criteria for the system and I wasn't sure I could find something that would meet my needs without significant modifications or hacks.

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Insteon Venstar Thermostat Review - Hot or Not? E-mail
Home Automation
Written by Peter   
Insteon Thermostat - Venstar T1900
Insteon Thermostat

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Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Home Automation is about more than just lighting.  Sure, that's where most of us start our obsessions but it quickly becomes apparent that the rest of the house could be tied into the same system and one of the first thoughts is the automation of the home heating & cooling system. 

 

To address this need, Venstar has come out with several thermostats that accept plug-in modules on the bottom which allow them to be controlled by infrared remote (including Logitech Harmony series), telephone or (my favourite) your Insteon network.  How well do they work?  That depends on which model you get...

 

 

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Z-Wave Security Alarm System E-mail
Home Automation
Written by Peter   
Elk M1XZW - Alarm Z-Wave Interface
Elk M1 Z-Wave Interface
So, you've decided to go with a Z-Wave based home automation system.  Perhaps you have a house with older wiring or another reason to choose the RF-based Z-Wave over it's dual-mesh and powerline-only competitors.  Regardless of the reason, now you're looking at a world of possibilities including integrating with a ZWave alarm system, controlling curtains and other household fixtures.  

Fortunately, some of the top products that other home automation technologies have integrated with for a while now are becoming available to the Z-Wave crowd.  Looking at alarm systems, the top rated Elk M1 system now has a ZWave Interface (Elk M1XZW) which allows the alarm to activate devices and events within your home automation system.  Need to trigger a z-wave device from a door sensor or provide a warm welcome with your lights when you disarm the alarm?  Not a problem with the Elk to Z-Wave interface.  This setup is by far the most well-integrated and advanced, however there are other options for those on a budget. 
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Insteon Motion Sensor Review E-mail
Home Automation
Written by Peter   
ISY-99i Image
Insteon Motion Sensor

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Rating: 4 out of 5

Home automation is one of those addicting things that feeds off itself once you get going.  For example, many people (myself included) begin with an assortment of light switches and remote controls, thinking that controlling any light in the house from the couch is as good as it gets.  Once the system works, we begin to take the functionality for granted, and almost become annoyed with the prospect of having to reach for the lighting remote.  "Shouldn't it just know what I want?" begins to enter our thoughts and the next phase of upgrades begins.

One of the key aspects of having a system 'know' more about us has been termed presence awareness and basically it involves sensors...many of them.  There are some very cool projects out there involving RFID tags, bluetooth proximity applications etc, but they all have shortcomings for the average person (RFID is still very much a hacked technology with no solid integration offered yet, and bluetooth proximity requires you to always carry your cellphone...even at night, when you're wearing your robe.)  As these mature, I'll be all over them however for now a more practical solution involves motion sensors - Affordable, easy to install and they don't require you to carry anything for them to work. 

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Zigbee vs Insteon – Home-Ready or Hype-Riddled? E-mail
Home Automation
Written by Peter   
Insteon SwitchControl4 Switch

Insteon

Zigbee

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Rating: 5 out of 5

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Rating: 2 out of 5

There are a plethora of products out there that claim to be able to convert your home into the dream house you imagine it to be.  Auto-closing curtains, lighting that adapts to your mood, you know the drill.  For years, Zigbee has been working on refining its wireless, ‘self-organizing mesh network’ technologies outside of the scope of home automation, preferring to target the commercial groups and applications by providing kits for product developers rather than the end-user products themselves. 

 

Zigbee has always been more of a standard (802.15) than a brand name, which is why you won’t find much when searching for ‘Zigbee products’ and they’ve created an entire framework for development with the Zigbee Alliance, Zigbee PRO standard and Zigbee Home Automation application profile.  The idea is that by making life simpler for product developers we will see a variety of competing brands offering every product the consumer could imagine.  It’s taken about 9 years for the Zigbee concept to ratify itself into a standard, but now that it’s there, who is using it and how does it stack up?

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WiFi Digital Picture Frame Review E-mail
Gadgets & Gizmos
Written by Peter   
WiFi Digital Picture Frames
WiFi Picture Frames
 

I wanted a digital picture frame.

After seeing them in stores I was always put off by the high price and hassle-factor of loading new images all the time. After all, what’s the point of having such a dynamic piece of technology in your living room if it can’t be updated frequently enough to keep you interested?


When frame prices dipped below the $100 mark, my interest was renewed however the issue of updating still plagued me. I thought “why hasn’t anybody integrated WiFi into a picture frame?” and promptly searched Google only to find out that they indeed had, and there were actually several manufacturers with such frames. Excited I began to ponder the possibilities: Updating the frame directly from iPhoto, potentially having new photos pulled from my computer automatically - no, wait...pulled from the internet automatically! Many of my friends post pictures up on sharing sites and social networks like Facebook, why not have those go to the frame as well?

With my new set of requirements I set off to find the perfect frame.

 

 

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