eXtensions - Wednesday 16 August 2017

eXtensions - The Wednesday File (18): Home Automation - If you are Lucky - Philips Hue, and Smart Plugs in Bangkok (Updated)

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers


Apple and other major tech companies have been pushing ideas of the automated home for a while now. It is one thing to have an automated home in Cupertino, but it is somewhat different to try and make this work the other side of the world where the devices are almost unavailable and are usually expensive. Where there is a will there is a way.

Last week I unboxed the Philips Hue kit I had bought in the U.K. and was able to set it up fairly quickly. I soon realized that the lamps I had were inadequate so I bought a couple more in Siam. I ended up installing a single white Hue bulb in the living room, while in the bedroom I now have a colour bulb and a white one. The Hue kits are not available here although they are sold in Singapore; and although I wrote to Philips again asking about any future availability, my email went unanswered. Again.

Late Note: An email from Amazon had me look again at their Philips Hue section and some of these devices will now ship to Thailand. Particularly useful may be the same Starter Kit I bought in London. Amazon prices this at $64.99 + $28.71 shipping - $93.70 (3117 baht). I paid £59.95 - 2586 baht for this and that included 20% VAT. It would be in everyone's interests if these were available in the shops here.

Although I set the lights up with the Hue app, they also appear in the Apple Home app and that is what I use as the main control. On the Hue site, I noticed a comment encouraging users to experiment and that is just what I have been doing for the last few days. I have proved to myself what I already expected about home automation and I want more.

Philps Hue Philps Hue

Philips Hue

I have mentioned on a number of occasions how Siri works (at least for me). At home I can usually turn on the Alternative Radio using AirPods, but once outside, wind and traffic noise reduce the usefulness and my commands are misunderstood. Not so with the Home installation.

When I return to my condo each day, the curtains are drawn to limit the effects from the sun and my command, "Hey Siri, turn on the lights", is instantly obeyed. The same is so for when I go to bed and say, "Lights out". In the interim, I have tried colour changes with Siri and the Home app, as well as dimming the lights to make the balance in the rooms match the activity: reading, relaxing, watching TV. As a test, I also turned on one light (using Home) while travelling on Bangkok's BTS system so the room was already lit when I arrived.

With the realisation of an automated home (albeit simple), I want more. Like others the key for me - until devices that are Homekit-capable begin to arrive here - is the controllable plug. But there aren't any. I checked those on Apple's list of approved devices and not long ago all were rated for 110v systems. Many countries use 220v power so appear to be excluded from such automated luxuries. Or are they?

I was already aware that the iHome plug (which I have) was only for 110v and the company told me they had no plans to develop this for other systems. I have a couple of Elgato Eve smart products and a look at their site shows the Switch and Power meter for the US is rated for 100-240v. Although the Elgato site displays, "Product not available in your country", Amazon thinks differently, although this is not cheap at all: 2829 baht ($49.93 + $35.10 Shipping). It does however, have several sensor functions which makes it more than a mere plug. I am tempted by this.

Philips Hue Bridge Philips Hue Bridge

Philips Hue Bridge

Last week, AppleInsider (Mike Wuerthele) reported that HomeKit capability was to be added to the Ikea Tradfri smartbulbs via a firmware update to the system's bridge. These lights do not appear to be sold by IKEA in Thailand. No surprise there. And just this week, MacRumors (Tim Hardwick) reported that LightwaveRF is to release several products, including a light dimmer and smart socket, that work with HomeKit. The significance here is that the UK also uses 220v power, although it has those ghastly 3-pin square plugs that are aesthetically challenged.

The information is that "The new range will be sold in the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates through Apple retail stores, online via Apple.com, and other chosen retail outlets." There was also a mention of "further HomeKit compatible devices for both the UK and international markets" so keep your fingers crossed.

The HomeKit compatibility for the Tradfri lighting system (not available in Thailand apparently) is via a download for a firmware update for the wireless bridge. This sounds similar to the Philips Hue although the Hue can support 50 bulbs (using Zigbee) while the IKEA bridge will only support 10, so that sounds like a Bluetooth system.

A warning note on firmware updates appeared this week in an item by Dan Goodin (ArsTechnica) who writes, "LockState mistakenly sent some 6i lock models a firmware update developed for 7i locks." All the updated locks became inoperable leaving some red faces and some very angry users.

iHome Plug Koogeek P1 Plug

iHome Smartplug (left) and Koogeek P1 Smartplug

Looking at the Koogeek site I saw that there were two 110v plugs and another marked for EU-use that was rated at 220v. I sent email to Koogeek and they replied really quickly with information about the Thai importer, so I phoned. The particular (EU) plug I had asked about was not imported here, but I was told that the P1 was available and that he had been told this could be used in a 220v socket. He added that he had had one running for a couple of months without any problem and the page for the Koogeek P1 Smart Plug (Thai only) also had a comment "Tested successfully with 220V, 50Hz Thailand" (Google Translate). The site also has the Koogeek SK1 Smart Socket for lamps. The light socket is rated at 90~250VAC so that is worth looking at right now.

I ordered two of the P1 Smart Plugs (1,190 baht each), but the checkout was problematical with my non-Thai details and finally balked at the passport number. It is set up for Thai use. Another phone call followed - the importer has good English - and I was provided with bank account details. I paid the amount a short while later and the plugs were on the way by EMS that day, arriving on Tuesday.

Despite what had been said by the importer, one of my Electrical Engineering colleagues was not totally convinced and advised caution (or better still a step-down transformer). He did advise using for short periods (i.e. not leaving the plug connected overnight) as he was worried about overheating. My intention is to use this for tasks such as boiling water for tea or coffee and I will watch this closely.

A well-known property developer here is looking to produce smart homes in three areas: city condos for professionals; up-market houses; and homes for the older person in the suburbs. They too are having problems locating suitable devices to install and (also like me) are increasingly frustrated by this lack. Although the will and the money are there, the equipment is not.

And yet Thailand is not the only country that uses 220v systems, so the rollout worldwide of devices for the higher rated voltage systems is slow, restricting take-up of automation: something that was noted by the Apple employee who sold me the Philips Hue in London.

I cannot be alone in my wish to try out automation. It is not that I am lazy, but ever since I have used computers, I have aways wanted to do more than any out of the box system would allow. Although my motivation is to test and try, there must be hundreds (or more) who would like to automate their homes: the product developers are lagging.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. After 3 years writing a column in the Life supplement, he is now no longer associated with the Bangkok Post. He can be followed on Twitter (@extensions_th)



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