automation

A Blogging Experiment

Yesterday I posted The 7 Best Apple Home Devices on this blog. In part this was an effort to condense some of my intense study on the subject of home automation over the past four or five years so that someone could benefit from a broad-stroke overview of how I set everything up.

But this post was also 50 percent an experiment. Two summers ago, I posted The 6 Best Automation Apps for iOS. Strangely, this has become the most popular blog on my entire website, by far. This is despite it not really being about music or education, and despite the fact that blogs like MacStories pump out articles 100 times better on the subject, regularly.

My second most popular post is a video about indexing large PDFs using the musical score app forScore on iPad. It is far less popular from the post on automation, but still far more popular than anything I have ever posted. I feel like it represents my niche pretty accurately.

I did some thinking on what could have made my automation blog post so popular. Was it that the title is concise? Bold? Simple? Was it that it had a bite-sized, concrete, number of apps in that same title? Or was it that I successfully tagged the post so that it shows up in a lot of web searches? I tried to replicate a little bit of that format in yesterday’s home automation post, while still writing about something I am passionate about. We will see how well it does.

And please do tell me if the home automation post was helpful to you in any way.

The 7 Best Apple Home Devices

I keep promising myself that a larger dive into my home automation workflow is coming to this blog. And it is. But I thought that I would first take a moment to outline the top seven apps and devices that I am using in combination with the Apple Home app. These get special attention given that their HomeKit integration allows me to conveniently manipulate them all from within the Apple Home app and command them with Siri. 

All of the devices in this post are also compatible with the Amazon Echo. I only buy home devices that are equally compatible because I use Alexa in my house as well. Furthermore, the home automation space is still very young and fragmented. The more open a platform is, the more flexible it will be now and in the future. 

Philips Hue Lights

Be careful. These WiFi connected light bulbs are the gateway drug of home automation. With them, I can now turn on every light in my house with my phone or voice. For my small house, the bulbs work just fine, but I would recommend the light switches for larger homes for convenience and to save money. Check out the image below to see how these lights appear in the Home app. I can control them individually or group them together. I can automate them by time or location in the Apple Home app. It's really nice to have the lights gently dim around bed time, and gradually wake me up with a gentle red hue an hour before work in the morning. Because my iCloud account also knows who and where my wife is, I can set up an automation that turns off all the lights once both of us have left the house, and another that turns them back on when one of us returns. 

Check out Philips Hue lights here

The Home app aggregates all of my various different home automation devices.

The Home app aggregates all of my various different home automation devices.

The Good Morning scene is automatically set to run at 6:30 am on weekdays and at 9:30 am on weekends.

The Good Morning scene is automatically set to run at 6:30 am on weekdays and at 9:30 am on weekends.

This is the set up screen for my Good Morning scene.

This is the set up screen for my Good Morning scene.

Ecobee Thermostat 

The Nest thermostat was the first home automation device I ever bought. It doesn't work with Apple HomeKit though. So when it unexpectedly died last year, I jumped at the opportunity to try something new. Ecobee thermostats are the best around. Speaking into the thin air "Hey Siri, I'm cold" to turn up the heat is a modern day dream. Of course, I can automate temperature in all of the same ways I can do lights. And I can even group these devices into "scenes" in the Apple home app to streamline frequent actions. For example, the "Arriving Home" scene turns on the air and the lights. This scene is not only triggered by button or voice, but automatically runs when my phone is within close proximity to my house. 

This is what you see when you open the ecobee app.

This is what you see when you open the ecobee app.

Once you tap on a thermostat, you get more detailed controls.

Once you tap on a thermostat, you get more detailed controls.

This is my Arrive Home scene. The door unlocks for me, the thermostat turns on a good temperature, and the lights on the main level of the house turn on.

This is my Arrive Home scene. The door unlocks for me, the thermostat turns on a good temperature, and the lights on the main level of the house turn on.

Schlage Sense Door Lock

My Schlage Sense allows me to unlock my door with the tap of a button. My teaching studio is in the basement of my house and the door is upstairs. It is disruptive to a lesson to constantly be answering my door, so now I just tell my Apple Watch "Hey Siri, unlock the door." It authenticates through contact with my wrist and completes the task. Of course my Arriving Home and Leave Home scenes also unlock and lock the door, in addition to all of the other actions I mentioned above. Having my front door unlock for me when I arrive home makes me feel like I am living in the future. Having it automatically lock when I leave gives me peace of mind that my house is safe. 

Logitech Circle Camera

Of all the HomeKit devices out there, cameras are the hardest to shop for. I have found the Logitech Circle to be the best out there. Nest makes some great cameras but their lack of HomeKit support has driven me away. I have the Logitech set up in our dining room, facing down the primary hallway in my home. It is plugged into an iHome smart plug which is also HomeKit enabled so that I can turn it off and on remotely. This plug is automated in the Home app to turn on when neither my wife and I are home and turn off when one of us arrives home, therefore working like a security camera. When it detects motion it turns on our dining room and kitchen lights. It has a two way microphone so you can chat with someone in your home if you need to. And what I love about it most is that the camera feed shows up right in line with my other smart home controls in the Apple Home app. 

The interface for the Logi Circle 2 app.

The interface for the Logi Circle 2 app.

Eve Sensors

Sensors need no introduction. These things can trigger any other home device to act when they detect motion. Most of mine are set to turn on the lights in a given room when I walk into them. But they can also trigger thermostats and smart plugs. My favorite sensors on the market are made by eve. They are easy to set up and work reliably. Eve also makes a number of other interesting HomeKit products. 

Sensors appear as ‘Triggered’ in the Apple Home app when they have detected motion.

Sensors appear as ‘Triggered’ in the Apple Home app when they have detected motion.

In Apple Home, I can make an automation that turns on the upstairs light whenever my eve sensor is triggered upstairs.

In Apple Home, I can make an automation that turns on the upstairs light whenever my eve sensor is triggered upstairs.

The eve app makes a great alternative to the Apple Home app for controlling all your devices.

The eve app makes a great alternative to the Apple Home app for controlling all your devices.

iHome Smart Plugs

I like using smart plugs as an all purpose way of turning on and off the things in my house that are otherwise not “smart.” In addition to the camera workflow I mentioned above, I also have these plugged into other devices throughout the house. For example, my bedroom fan is plugged into one. I can now turn it on and off in the middle of the night without getting up. “Hey Siri, turn on the fan.” A lot of brands make smart plugs but the iHome is the easiest to set up and use in my experience. 

Apple HomePod

I was hesitant about the HomePod at first given that it shipped with incomplete software and relies entirely on Siri for voice commands. Still, the device offered some compelling features. When iOS 11.4 brought the features that were missing from release (AirPlay 2 and multi room audio), I scooped one up while Best Buy was running a 100 dollar off deal on them, refurbished. 

The HomePod fulfills a lot of the same purposes as the Amazon Echo. It is distinguished by linking into the Apple ecosystem, allowing me to command Apple Music, Apple Podcasts, and all of the home automation devices mentioned above. 

Control of the HomePod exists inside the Apple Home app where it appears as a speaker device. The recent addition of AirPlay 2 allows my two Sonos One speakers to show up in the Apple Home app as well. 

The HomePod is first and foremost a good speaker. But it can also command your other speakers in the house and even the audio output of your Apple TVs. Simply command “Hey Siri, move this music to the living room,” and listen as your music is magically transported from one speaker to the next. You can output your Apple TV audio through to this handy speaker and speak playback commands to your tv and movies with statements like “pause,” “stop,” and “skip ahead 50 seconds.”

The HomePod is the core of the Apple Home experience. Of course, you could just as easily control every device in this post from an Echo. However, as an Apple Music subscriber, and frequent listener to podcasts in the kitchen, having a HomePod makes sense for me to own.

It looks like the investment is going to pay off. This fall, iOS 13 will be adding even more features to the HomePod and Home app. For example, the HomePod will be able to distinguish between my voice and my wife’s. This way, when she asks it what is going on today, it will read from her calendar instead of mine. iOS 13 is also introducing speaker automations for scenes. So my Good Morning scene in the Home app will now play my favorite breakfast playlist in addition to turning on select lights and changing the temperature.

And finally, HomeKit automations and Siri Shortcut automations are going to be better tied together, and will be able to be triggered automatically. For example, doing something like stopping my wake-up alarm will both run the Good Morning scene and automatically run this Siri Shortcut that tells me how I slept, delivers a weather report, and opens a meditation in the Headspace app.

In iOS 13, HomePod play controls show up right in the Home app.

In iOS 13, HomePod play controls show up right in the Home app.

In iOS 13, music playback can become part of your scenes.

In iOS 13, music playback can become part of your scenes.

The new Siri Shortcuts app on iOS 13 integrates home automations and personal automations. It also allows them to be automatically triggered by time, location, opening a particular app, and more! In this example, stopping my wake-up alarm triggers my I’m Awake Siri Shortcut, which sets the Good Morning scene, reads me the weather, tells me how I slept, and starts a meditation.

The new Siri Shortcuts app on iOS 13 integrates home automations and personal automations. It also allows them to be automatically triggered by time, location, opening a particular app, and more! In this example, stopping my wake-up alarm triggers my I’m Awake Siri Shortcut, which sets the Good Morning scene, reads me the weather, tells me how I slept, and starts a meditation.

The 6 Best Automation Apps for iOS

Interested in learning some apps this summer that will make your school year easier in the fall? Here are my favorite automation apps for iOS and a very brief explanation of each. Don't worry, I am planning on blogging about a few of these at length later this year. 

Note: All of these apps take a little bit of an investment to learn but the payoff is HUGE. You will find yourself doing things on your iPhone and iPad you never thought were possible. If customizing your own automations seems daunting, every one of these apps has a user-submitted gallery where you can download actions that other people have already made.

1. Workflow 

Download here

Workflow is an automation tool that allows you to string together various different actions so that they can be initiated with a single tap. The list of actions you can choose from is dense and many of them are easy to understand without any coding experience. You could do something as simple as open the camera, take three pictures, and generate a .gif file all in one tap (see below). This idea is novel of course. The real power is in figuring out how to take tedious actions that require multiple taps and apps and string them all up into one tap using Workflow’s rich list of integrated apps. One of my favorite Workflows looks into my Dropbox folder for a PDF of a seating chart, generates a copy, and opens it in Notability on my iPad, where I can scribble information about my student’s progress with an Apple Pencil. (See this workflow depicted below). 

Apple just purchased Workflow earlier this year. My hope is that this will allow users to better automate Apple’s own apps and even system level actions down the road. 

2. Drafts

Download here

Drafts is a clean and minimalist text editor that allows you to send text to other apps. Think of it as the starting point for all text on you iPhone or iPad. It functions like a simple, text based, note taking app, until you swipe left and reveal a series of actions you can perform on the text. You can perform actions as simple as posting your text as a Facebook status, Tweet, text message, or email. You can also create actions so complex that they can include JavaScript. One of my more basic Drafts actions takes a list of items I have typed in a rush and imports them all into my Grocery list, which is a list I keep in the Apple Reminders app. 

 

3. IFTTT 

Download here

IFTTT (If This Then That) is a web service that allows you to create If-Then statements that trigger actions to happen in apps. First, the user logs into all of their connected services (Facebook, Twitter, Wordpress, Philips Hue Lights, Gmail, etc…). Then the user creates “Applets” where something that is done in one service can trigger something to happen in another service. For example, I could say “IF I am tagged in a Facebook post, THEN save that photo to my Dropbox. Or “IF I favorite that YouTube video, THEN save it to my Evernote notebook and tag it videos.” Of course, you can get really crazy with home automation apps and do things like “IF someone mentions me on Twitter, THEN flicker my Philips Hue light bulbs red.” 

4. Editorial 

Download here

Editorial is a text editor meant primarily for longer form writing. If you have a blog and an iPad, this app really shines. The app supports plain text, Markdown, and TaskPaper. Markdown is a syntax that allows users to create formatting like headings, bullet lists, tables, and expressions for the web without actually using HTML. For example, when I wrote this blog post, I did not click around in the toolbar to make each of the sections of this post into headings. Instead I just typed '##' in front of each of them, and my blogging service of choice, Squarespace (which interprets Markdown), automatically did the formatting for me. See below for an example.

TaskPaper is an amazing app for Mac that allows you to create checkable todo lists using only plain text. The syntax that the app uses also goes by the same name - TaskPaper. It is a really friendly way to work with checklists without taking your finger off the keyboard to format things. See the example below to get an idea what TaskPaper does. TaskPaper doesn’t have an iOS app, so the fact that Editorial works with TaskPaper files is great!

Much like Drafts, Editorial also has powerful user customizable workflows that you can perform on your text. You could have it post to your Wordpress blog in one tap, for example. My favorite Editorial Workflow takes a list I wrote in the TaskPaper format and uses it as a template for reoccurring projects in my task app of choice, OmniFocus. Certain projects that I perform over and over again contain similar tasks. For example, I always do the same fifteen to twenty things every time I put on a band concert at my school. I keep a checklists of these tasks stored in Editorial so that every time I have a concert, take a sub day, or go on a field trip, I tap one button in Editorial and it imports the list into OmniFocus, complete with due dates, flags, and tags. 

5. Launch Center Pro

Download here

Launch Center Pro is kind of like a springboard (the screen of apps you see when you unlock your iPhone) only it launches actions instead of apps. Actions can do almost anything. In fact, all of the apps in this post can be launched from within Launch Center. For example, I can publish my Workflows as buttons in Launch Center. I can create buttons in Launch Center that trigger IFTTT Applets. Launch Center actions can also launch apps, turn lights on and off in my house, take me into specific lists within my todo app, and more! 

Launch Center Pro took me a little more time to get my head around because it assumes that the user knows a little bit about something called x-callback-url. This is a protocol that most of the apps in this post take advantage of but don’t quite expose to the user. With Launch Center Pro, I felt like I really had to learn this system before digging in. Fortunately, MacStories has a great tutorial that you can read here.

6. Launcher

Download here

Launcher is a much simpler and friendlier version of Launch Center Pro. Setting up actions is very straightforward and a number of them are available as pre-built templates. Launcher lives entirely inside of a Today Widget, which is a special widget that you can invoke on iOS by dragging down from the top of the screen or by swiping to the right of your first screen of apps. Launch Center Pro also has a widget available that does much the same thing, but you might find that you prefer Launcher if the learning curve for LCP is steep.