Wednesday 29 June 2016

Geo-Blocking, and how to get around it

The term used to restrict what content you can watch based on where you are is geo-blocking, and it's what these companies do to enforce their content licensing restrictions. These restrictions are based on revenue derived from the license to broadcast to specific areas.

If you subscribe to a streaming service like Netflix you will find yourself only able to access the content licensed for the country you are in. In my case the content for Canada isn't always what I want to view, the US catalog is much larger.

Other services such as Amazon Prime, Zattoo, Hulu, HBO Now, etc aren't even available in Canada, which borders on ridiculous. I have an Amazon Prime account, why shouldn't I be able to watch the Amazon Prime shows that are included with my subscription.

So how can you access content from another region? This is where services that provide VPN (Virtual Private Network) or DNS masking options come in to play. Recently Netflix was in the news for simply banning any connections to their service from VPN providers.

There are other solutions out there such as Hidemyass and Unblock-us, however these often have restrictions on what devices they support. If your device isn't on the list, you're simply out of luck.

Personally I've used GetflixUnblock-US , and Unlocator. By far the best of these 3 services has proven to be Getflix.

Getflix are so confident you'll love their service they don't require a credit card for their 14-day fully functional trial, just sign up and go. (Note to other providers, if you'd like me to evaluate your offering use the Contact form to reach me.) Unlocator's technical support was terrible, and Unblock-US doesn't support a lot of devices, so I suggest people not consider them.

As soon as you log in Getflix has a pop-up that lets you know once you are properly configured to use their service. If you aren't configured the pop-up lets you know there is a problem and their help file will walk you through the simple set-up.

The Getflix control panel is intuitive and easy to use. It lets you pick different regions for different services, so you could have Amazon believing you are in the USA while Netflix believes you are in Canada.

Most different unblocking services seem to have a price point betwee $35 - $50/year. Watch for sales when they pop up, I was able to get a 30yr subscription to Getflix for under $40 USD.

Until the content providers have their thinking catch up to modern technology and the realization that trying to limit rights based on geography is a losing battle it's going to be a cat-and-mouse game. Undoubtedly there is more profit to be made by universal licensing in the long term, but it's going to take some time for them to get there.

As an aside, the unblocking can also work for different app stores, so you may be able to buy apps on your smartphone or tablet that normally would be blocked for various reasons.

Go ahead and give it a shot, it's free to try, and both Unlocator and Unblock-US will each give you a week to use their services before you buy. There's my gift to you, 2 weeks of unrestricted access to content.

Happy surfing!

-The Home Geek

Tuesday 28 June 2016

Home Automation - You Need A Hub

What is home automation and why would you want it? Home automation is getting devices connected and controlled based on different criteria, be it time of day, location, temperature, moisture, security, or basically anything you can imagine.

Many people choose lighting as their initial venture in to home automation, getting the lights to turn on and off at specific times is popular, and that's how I started too. I quickly realized I also wanted to incorporate time of year and daylight savings time into the mix, and so the journey accelerated.

Getting in to home automation can be fairly easy and relatively inexpensive. These days WiFi-enabled LED light bulbs are a common sight at the hardware store. Most people have heard of connected thermostats like the Nest, and the number of other connected items grows almost daily.

The trick is being able to control all the devices easily from one central app, and having the ability to add new devices regardless of manufacturer down the road. For that you're going to need a Home Automation Hub.

The prices on these devices range dramatically, and you need to be sure you are choosing one that supports all the protocols, rather than a specific manufacturer.

I went with the Wink Hub for a few reasons, the most relevant being price and protocols. It supports Zigby, Z-Wave, and WiFi, meaning it should be able to control most devices.

From a cost perspective the Wink is at the bottom of the price list. Right now it is regularly $100 but can often be found on sale (Home Depot and other stores) for $50 if you buy any 2 devices it can talk to. If you're just testing the waters that means you could buy 2 WiFi-enabled light bulbs and get the Wink for half off.

Currently the Wink can only be controlled by your smartphone. (Android or iOS) When I bought the Wink a couple of years ago the software was rough, getting the Wink online was a buggy process and I had to invest about 30min getting it all set up. Wink has fixed that, these days getting a Wink hooked up to your home is fast and easy, it shouldn't take you more than 5-10 minutes.

One aspect I like is you can give other people access to control specific devices as long as they install the app. Want to let your cleaning unlock/lock the door from her smartphone so you don't give her a key that can be copied? No problem, grant her permission and it's good until you revoke it. No need to worry about rogue copies of keys.

The Wink app has a "Robots" function, which is similar to IFTTT (If This Then That) but not quite as robust. Still, I was able to have it automatically turn on lights when it saw my cell phone coming home from work early, or switch off all the lights in the house if no one was home. Wink added Sunset and Sunrise as events you can trigger from, which makes having the house security lights turn on and off as the seasons change a no-brainer.

The Wink supports my Nest Thermostat, and a whole host of other devices. I'm waiting for the excuse to replace my garage door opener so I can install one that talks with Wink as well. (Chaimberlain has one that should do nicely.)

There are a growing number of things you can control with a Wink hub: lights, thermostats, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, garage doors, etc.

The one that might save you on your insurance bill, not to mention some repairs, is a moisture detector system for your basement that will automatically turn off the water main to your house if it detects a flood.

Wink runs on a 2.4Ghz network, I haven't seen support for 5Ghz yet. This shouldn't be an issue for anyone, after all it's not streaming video, but I thought it worth mentioning.

If you're looking for a low cost way of getting in to home automation I recommend taking a look at Wink. The product list it works with expands all the time, and once it's set up it just works.

I'll have more on home automation in another article.

-The Home Geek

Monday 27 June 2016

A virtual personal assistant for meetings

A while ago I was poring over some news and heard about Amy, a virtual assistant from that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to help schedule your meetings, calls, etc.

Once I was able to get on to the company's website and sign up for their beta program I got connected with with Amy. She easily took hold of my calendar and was able to start scheduling meetings and calls for me.

Amy takes care of the "back-and-forth" with potential meeting attendees, letting them know when you are available and working back and forth with them to find a suitable time, then setting up the meeting with all parties. You just get a meeting request from Amy once she has handled all the details.

At the start Amy was only able to work with my Google calendar, but as the program expanded she can now integrate with my Office 365 calendar, or an calendar. The company says they are working on integrating with an on-premise Exchange calendar, so expect that to come down the pipe at some point.

How did she do? Well, except for one occasion where I was trying to arrange lunch with a friend and he sent Amy the message "Klaatu verada nicto" she did fine. (My friend being a film buff with a sense of humour thought he would try the command to shut down the robot in "The Day The Earth Stood Still".)

It didn't shut down Amy, she just forwarded me his message and said she didn't know what to do with it do I should take over.  Not bad really.

Amy can coordinate meetings with up to 5 people at once, and you can tell her your preferences, where you like to meet for coffee, meals, etc. You can also indicate hours you are available and how available. (eg: tell her no in-person meetings on Mondays until after 10am so you can catch up at the office first.) She incorporates all this information in to a polite email to recipients with suggestions on when/where to meet.

You can coordinate with Amy by email, ask her for status updates or to book meetings on your behalf very easily. Having her take over scheduling is as simple as copying her in on an email with meeting recipients and saying "Amy please find a time for all of us to have a call."

The beta is still running so right now Amy and her alter-ego Andrew (for those who prefer a male assistant) are free. The company does intend to offer professional and enterprise licenses down the road but for the moment I'd suggest getting in on the beta while you can.

-The Home Geek

Sunday 26 June 2016

Disposable email addresses

Ever click on a link promising a "free"  interesting report or software, only to be greeted with a page demanding you register your email address before getting the prize?

Happens to me all the time. Do these companies not think this shouts "Sign me up for your spam list!" from the rooftops?

The reality is while many well reputed companies abandoned this practice long ago there is still a significant mass who's marketing departments drive their web communication and steer it towards "Give me more email addresses to blast stuff at!"

It's just our reality today. Several people I know created "dummy" email accounts just to deal with this type of silliness, but there is a better way.

If you need to provide an email address for them to send a link or report to, consider using guerrillamail.

Guerrillamail provides you a disposable email address that will accept incoming emails and hold them for an hour for you to review. You can forward incoming mails, respond to mail sent to that inbox, and even compose a new email from it.

Guerrillamail provides 10 domains you can choose from, and you can use an email address their system generates for you on the fly, or create your own. There is no sign-up process, they never ask for your email address or any other information.

As with everything there are a couple of caveats with this service.

  1. The email accounts have no password, so anyone who goes to guerrillamail and types in the email address you've used will see the contents of the inbox. (After all, it's designed for spam protection, not security)
  2. Incoming email is only held for an hour and then deleted automatically.
They also offer an Android app if you need those addresses on the fly, rather handy bit of service.

I confess I use this service for both work and home as I like to sometimes register for demos and the sales team has ensured their website demands an email address before letting you view their product. (Another ridiculous tactic designed to dissuade or annoy potential clients.)

In today's data-driven world a little privacy provided by services like guerrillamail is a welcome change.

Happy surfing,

-The Home Geek

Saturday 25 June 2016

Lower Your Telephone & Cable Bills

I love how technology makes our lives easier, helps us stay connected, and entertains us. I also love using it to cut bills down. Often when I say this people begin to scratch their heads and comment on how large their monthly telco bill is. While I can't make it all go away, here are some tips on how to make that bill shrink a bit. The two options that can quickly lower cost are VOIP and video streaming.

Goodbye Bell, Hello VOIP:

VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) has been around for a long time, and it's available for home use. VOIP uses your internet connection to let you make and receive calls on your existing telephone handsets.  You just pick up the phone and there is a dial tone, no magic hocus pocus to make a call. Expect to get many calling features included with a VOIP service at no additional cost. In addition VOIP usually offers better long distance and international rates that are available from traditional providers like Bell. 

My current favorites are Fongo ($59 for adapter and $4.95/month) or Ooma  ($129.99 for the appliance and $3.98/month for service) Both are good alternatives to a traditional landline, and can save you hundreds of dollars a year. I have heard that an Obi200 device ($50 for the adapter) paired with Google Voice ($35 for number port) will give you phone service with no ongoing cost, however this only works in the US and isn't available in Canada. (Yet)

Video Streaming:

TV is changing, and it's future is in apps. Video streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Shomi have been around for a while now and offer some great content, but what if you want to see shows that Nexflix doesn't carry, or current network programs? (Personally I need to see Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead or I go into withdrawal)

Enter Kodi. Kodi is an open source home theater platform that can let you watch almost every television show or movie out there using your internet connection, and there is no monthly subscription fee. That's right, I just said it was free. Even better, all the commercials have been edited out already, so you don't have to fast-forward through anything.  

You do need a device to run Kodi, but it doesn't have to break the bank. I like using the Amazon FireTV, but they can be tricky to get depending where you live. (Amazon doesn't currently ship them to Canada). Other alternatives are readily available, like the Matricom G-Box Q Quad Core, or the NVIDIA Shield. (The shield is a little pricey although worth it by all accounts). All options support streaming in 4K video. I like that I can take it with me when I travel, many a rainy day in a hotel with the kids has been saved by being able to spin up their favorite shows when we needed to.

There are many "how to" guides out there for configuring Kodi and getting access to both saved and live television shows and movies. You're going to want to install a couple of add-ons to Kodi once you have it. I recommend TV Addons and Exodus. Google can also be a great resource for helping you get going quickly. Many people decide to "cut the cord" and cancel their cable subscriptions once they become comfortable with Kodi. 

Go Digital:

If you like the idea of cord-cutting but still want to watch local news and programming a digital TV antenna is a great option. A digital antenna will let you pick up local news and programming, and the picture quality is actually better than what you are probably used to as it doesn't use compression. There is a large variety of antenna options available for under $100.

It's all about choice:

The number of options to replace your traditional telephone and television services is increasing all the time. If it seems too daunting to take on yourself there are companies out there that can help, just google "Cord cutting" and check out their fees and services. Personally I don't mind shelling out $100 for something that has no monthly subscription fee associated with it, I'm quickly saving money this way...which I'll use to buy the next tech gadget.

Friday 24 June 2016

Say "No!" to excessive hotel WiFi charges

There appears to be a growing trend in some hotels and resorts to try and charge guests for WiFi access per connected device. If you're like me you probably travel with several devices, and having all these connected at once could easily add another $75-$100/week to your bill over the course of your stay.

It's outrageous gouging.

There is an alternative, get yourself a travel router and connect as many devices as you like while only paying for 1 device. The travel router can connect to the existing hotel/resort WiFi and then broadcasts it's own network that you connect all your devices to.

I bought the HooToo TripMate Nano on sale at Amazon for $25. This handy device weighs an amazing 1oz and easily fits in your pants pocket or carry-on bag.  You can easily manage it from your smartphone, tablet, or computer, and if you connect all your devices to the HooToo before leaving home they will automatically find it when you power it up at the hotel. Just use the admin interface to have the Nano join the hotel WiFi and you're done. It will also act as a media centre, serving files on a connected USB drive, and it has an ethernet port if your room has a cable to plug in. Overall a purchase I'm very happy with, but there are more reasons than cost savings to get one.

Safety First: Hotel networks are notoriously polluted, the amount of cross traffic is incredible. Your internet connection probably isn't secure, and I know people who enjoy running packet sniffers on hotel networks just to see what they capture.

Think it only happens in small "one-off" places? Last February I was at Club Med with my family, and my brother-in-law had brought his family down at the same time. We both have small children so our Fire TV's came with to help keep the kids occupied in case of poor weather.

One day sitting by the pool I fired up the Fire TV app on my smartphone and it instantly discovered the Fire TV box in my brother-in-law's room.

If I could do that, I could use my laptop to start seeing other guests devices. Worse, I could then start trying exploits on them, or capturing their web traffic. Don't think it happens? Check out this story.

Using a travel router reduces all those risks. The router by nature acts as a firewall, helping to shield all your devices from prying eyes in the hotel.

It's been going on for years, and sadly the hotels don't seem to be doing much about it.

I'll easily save the $25 the HooToo cost me the first time I stay in a hotel that gouges charges per-device for WiFi, and I'll also rest a little easier knowing there is a firewall between me and the rest of the "guests".

If you're looking to get one, the Nano can be found on sale at Amazon every so often. I'd suggest adding it to your watch list.

Happy surfing!

The Home Geek

Wednesday 22 June 2016

Protecting Your Home Computers...For Free!!!

I hear it a lot. "Help, I got a virus! What should I do?" When I ask what anti-virus program they were using to protect themselves it's often greeted with a sheepish "Well, the program expired and I meant to update it but..."  Sound familiar?

Whenever the topic of anti-virus comes up for personal use I suggest people consider Sophos. This well known anti-virus vendor offers their product free for home use, and one account will protect up to 10 computers. It even supports both PC and Mac! That's easily a $250/yr value for free

No ads, no nag messages, just free protection that you can centrally manage from a web page. You don't need to be a tech guru to run it, and you can protect all your computers as well as your mother's system so she doesn't get infected again. (Sorry mom, but prevention is easier than another panicked phone call.)  You can check it out at 

I can hear some of you now saying "But I don't need anti-virus, I own a Mac!" Let me stop you right there. Viruses exist for Mac's. It's a fact. Google it. What you need to ask yourself is "Why would I risk a virus and possibly all my data when it costs me nothing to protect it?"

As an added bonus the program will let you control what kind of websites each computer can visit. Want to make sure the kids aren't surfing inappropriate sites on their laptops? Sophos has you covered. 

You can assign controls by easy to use categories and let Sophos do it's thing. Below is an example. I strongly recommend using a self-updating anti-virus program as basic protection for your computers, otherwise you're asking for trouble.

There are other free anti-virus programs out there, however this is one of the most robust offers I have seen and the price is certainly right. The interface is easy to manage even with no technical knowledge and the underlying protection is good.

Tuesday 21 June 2016

It's not you, It's your WiFi

Ever had this problem? You're sitting down to watch a show or load up a game and suddenly you get buffering messages and slowdowns. You call the internet provider to complain your 100MB connection is really slow on your ipad or Playstation and they ask you to plug a computer directly in to the router and run the speed test. It works fine and the helpdesk says that's all they can do, have a nice day.


The problem is your WiFi. Your router can't break the laws of physics, factors like the construction materials of your home, the number of people around you with their own wifi, and even what channels your router uses all impact performance.

One router in your home isn't going to cover the whole place with fast, reliable signal. Businesses know this, which is why they invest in expensive WiFi appliances to ensure staff can work everywhere in the office. While doing something similar for your home was always possible, it was often too complex and expensive for most consumers. That has changed.

There are three new players in the space who are making fast, reliable WiFi in your home very easy to achieve.

First we have eero. Eero self-manages, so once you plug it in you can ignore it. The system tunes itself for better performance and upgrades it's software in the wee hours of the morning when you're not using it. It was elegantly simple to install, and is managed using your smartphone. When I tested it the set-up took about 5 minutes to get all three eero units configured and                                                                         running. 

Next there is the challenger luma. Luma promises similar performance but adds enterprise-grade security options to help you keep your devices and family safe online. With luma  you can actually control what kind of websites each device can visit, including ipads, home media centres, etc. The rating system uses a simple drag interface and categorizes sites similar to movie ratings. Don't want the kids seeing anything worse than a PG rated website? No problem, drag the slider there and                                                                   you're done. I'll review set-up if I get my hands on one.

Finally we have Plume. This company uses a different approach than eero or luma, and their product claims to always be learning. With Plume you buy small "pods" that plug in to an electrical outlet and scatter them about your home. Plume says their system will figure out the best way to connect each pod, ensuring maximum speed                                                             to every area covered. 

So what are the differences? Well eero is in production, you can buy it and it ships today. Luma is still getting their distribution channel organized. Luma also claims to offer more advanced security and protection for your devices. Plume is still in pre-production, meaning you can order it now for $39USD/pod with a minimum of 6 pods (So $234 now, $294 later) however they don't plan on shipping until fall of 2016. Once Plume goes to release the cost will be $49/pod. 

If you prefer Luma's approach you can still take advantage of discounted pricing, which offers you a 3-pack of Luma appliances for $399US instead of the planned release price of $499US. By comparison the eero 3-pack is also $499US so the real difference will be in the features once Luma is shipping.

Wait, did he just say $399-$499?! A new router is WAY cheaper.

That was my initial reaction as well, but let's put it in perspective. You're probably paying between $65-$90/month for high speed internet to your home, and it's likely you only get 10%-15% of that speed on your laptop or tablet. Not sure? Try running a speedtest when you're not beside your router. Systems like eero or luma fix the coverage, and you can finally use what you're paying for. In less than a year the money you were wasting on speed you couldn't use pay for the hardware while you (and everyone who uses your WiFi) are much happier.

I see a shift in home connectivity, speeds that were once reserved for large corporations are now affordable for the average consumer. Gigabit to your home is a reality, and it's only going to go up  from there. Traditional television is dying and being replaced by apps on smart TV's and set-top boxes.  As we continue to add more and more connected devices to our homes systems like eero and Luma are going to become indispensable. Your friends will be asking "How come your WiFi is so much faster than mine?"

You can just smile and tell them to read this blog.