Living with the Tellstick Net, three months in

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A little over three months ago, I reviewed the TellStick Net home automation bridge. The tiny device plugs into your router and creates a bridge between a whole range of (third party) home automation equipment and the internet, and through that, your Android, iOS, or Windows Phone device, any desktop OS, or really just any browser. I’ve used the system constantly since I first got it, so I thought I would write a follow up with my long term experiences.

Home automation still has a very peculiar position in people’s minds, as something you see in science fiction movies or in rich people’s houses on TV. That’s very far from the truth, as in reality, many people have vacuum cleaners more expensive than the total cost of automating your house. Here in expensive old Norway, the Europe-only TellStick Net runs you about $140 on a good day, with equipment for it starting at $10-15 and going up to about $50 for the most common devices you would connect to something like that. I bought a few various plug adapters and whatnot, but as I like in a tiny student apartment, I’ve gradually abandoned things like desk lights and kitchen appliances and now get the absolute most use out of my dimmable ceiling light and two temperature sensors.

When I first got everything set up, I had a lot of fun just playing with everything, making it controllable with voice commands from my phone, and so on. Nothing quite says “welcome to the future” like telling your phone “lights off” and have it happen. That particular example is still so much fun that I used it to point out the difference between Siri and a custom voice control system on Android:

In daily use though, I don’t ever control anything with voice commands. For the most part, commands to control my lights or fetch temperature information are part of automatic scenarios in Tasker on Android, which is a whole different way of doing things. Instead of me using my phone to turn off the lights because I’m leaving the house, the actual event of me leaving the house makes my phone turn off the lights. It sounds like magic, but is just a simple combination of the events “I lost my WiFi connection to network X” with “send this command to the TellStick Net” from my phone’s perspective. Similarly, coming home is tied to turning on the lights. Those are just part of what the phone does when leaving or coming home though, as it also adjusts its own screen brightness, checks for items in todo lists, and other TellStick-unrelated things. What I did end up doing that is TellStick related is to have the outside temperature automatically show up in a widget on the lock screen when I leave the house, and have the phone read the inside temperature out loud when I come home.

I also have other scenarios where the home automation aspect is just part of a process, not a conscious action. Plugging in my phone at night activates sleep mode, which does a whole bunch of things, most noticeably dim the screen light, activate silent mode, turn off my PC, and turn off my lights. Again it’s all about scenarios, not individual actions. These are things people still do manually, while for me it’s simply become the state that my apartment goes into when I plug in my phone. It still amuses me to read about iOS’ “Do Not Disturb” mode, which compared to my phone’s sleep mode makes me wonder if it’s fair to Android to call iPhones “smartphones.” I also have variations of this sleep mode, namely nap mode, which lets me hit a single button to silence my phone, turn off my PC monitors (not turn off the PC), and turn off the lights in one go. On top of that I have other scenarios, as well as a quick access control panel (also made in Tasker) that allows me to access manual controls and temperature readings from both the home screen and lock screen.

The point I’m trying to make is that home automation is not about standing in the middle of your living room and screaming “lights off,” to use the scene from the 9th season of Two and a Half Men as an example. I can do that, but that’s not really home automation, now is it? You’re just switching out the act of flipping a switch with the act of saying “lights off”. Automatic transmissions switch gears for you, they don’t require you to scream “switch gears now!!!!” to the bloody thing. Home automation is all about making your home intelligent, not just make it a voice activated, but still just as stupid, home.

Once you do have scenarios set up, it quickly becomes just as natural as anything else, but that doesn’t mean you don’t notice a difference. I particularly like my sleep mode, as it allows me to go to bed without essentially having to tuck in my apartment first. If I wake up in the middle of the night, I can flip on all the lights I need from the lock screen of my phone sitting next to me, without the need for some tiny bedside lamp that lights up an area just large enough for you to miss the first toe-killing piece of furniture but hit the second.

As for issues with the TellStick, I have had a couple, but nothing major. The Telldus Live! service that is used for the internet communication part of everything has been down a few times from what I’ve seen on Twitter, but I always seem to either be on an unaffected server or miss the outage for other reasons. At one point the power went out, and when it came back on, the internet was still out for half an hour, leaving me without a connection to my lights. Still, it was a matter of flipping a switch to turn them on manually, and hardly Armageddon. My favorite TellStick moment of the last three months was however when I came home from the store, and found the building’s janitor and an electrician inside trying to turn the lights back on after they had cut the power for a routine (planned) building-wide check of the electrical system.

Some would say that home automation is for lazy people. It’s not. If anything, lack of home automation is for people who like to do extra work for no reason. We have tons of appliances that at some point in history has become a standard part of any home, simply because running around with a broom when you can buy a vacuum cleaner that does the job better serves no purpose. We use lamps with lightbulbs, because they’re easier and superior to candle lights or oil lamps. Avoiding unnecessary work is not laziness, it’s logic. Home automation is just that: Avoiding unnecessary work. We live by predictable patterns, and if it’s predictable, you can automate it. Cost was an issue when home automation was about major investments while building a new house, but it isn’t anymore. So, if you live somewhere you can use a TellStick or something similar, I really suggest you seriously consider home automation as your next “appliance.”

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.

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