Studio711

Gadgets

Stop Spam Calls

Lately my cell phone has been getting two or three spam calls a day. Even when it’s not that bad I’m still getting one every day or two. Technology to the rescue!

There’s a free app (Android, iOS and Windows Phone) called Truecaller. It replaces your phone app. When you get a call, it looks up the number to determine if other users have marked it as spam. You can even tell it to block the call completely if it’s really sure that it is spam.

This app has been a big help for me. Previously I’ve answered pretty much every call because I don’t know if it’s a call from our alarm monitoring company or not. (Those calls come from a variety of different call centers.)

It still annoys me that we haven’t been able to solve the problem of spam calls, but at least this helps me reduce the amount of time that they suck out of my day.

Find My Phone

“Where’s my phone?” is a common question in our house, and I’m guessing we’re not alone. Assuming you aren’t able to have someone call your phone for whatever reason, here are two alternatives we use.

  1. We have some WeMo light switches in the house. I hooked them up to IFTTT. If we hold down the light switch button for more than 2-3 seconds, it will call our phones. If the ringer is off, that might not help a lot.
  2. Type “Find my phone” into Google (or visit the Android Device Manager page). This is where you’d go if you lost your phone and want to wipe it remotely, but it also has a “Ring” feature that will ringer your phone even if the volume is turned off. I’m guessing there is something similar for iPhones too.

Calling our cell phones is one of the main reasons we still have a landline, but we’re looking to drop that (and switch our alarm monitoring solution) so we’ll switch over to these alternatives.

SmartThings Plus Ecobee

Last December, I wrote about how I had done some programming on our new SmartThings hub to automate our home a bit. My favorite customization is that our thermostat automatically turns down when both Tyla and I are away from the house (based on the location of our phones) and then automatically turns back up when we return. It occurs to me that I should probably disable that when we hire a babysitter and both leave for the evening.

It all works smoothly, but using the default APIs available with the SmartThings, I can only tell the thermostat to go to a specific temperature when we return. I can’t say “resume your normal program” which is what I really want since the thermostat automatically turns down a bit at night. I suppose I could program all that in the SmartThings hub too but it seems like overkill when the thermostat already can do that on it’s own.

So to avoid that overkill… I spent a couple hours figuring out how to make my SmartThings application authenticate with the Ecobee API and call a “resume program” method there. Basically I wanted to see how hard it was to call into the detailed API for a specific device when I hit a limit in the generic API provided by SmartThings. Turns out, it wasn’t too bad.

I continue to be happy with this SmartThings hub and would recommend it, especially if you’re a programming nerd who likes to tinker. It’s a fun little sandbox and all this code is probably saving me some money on our heating bill.

Chromecast

We got a Chromecast back in 2014 and while I thought it was a neat device, it ended up in my old gadget box in the closet.

Now that we have Android phones, I pulled it out again. Our new phones combined with all the improvements they’ve made to the software in the last 3 years has really made a difference. This thing is awesome!

The basic idea is that when you’re watching a video or listening to audio on your phone, you press a button and it is “cast” to the Chromecast device that is hooked to your TV. The Chromecast then takes over and plays the video. You can use your phone to browse around and it won’t interrupt the video (though you can also use your phone as a remote control to pause, fast forward, etc.)

I’m amazed at how many apps support this! The obvious ones like YouTube work great, but so does Spotify, my favorite podcast app, and even our security camera app. Duplication of a computer screen to the Chromecast also works infinitely better than it used to. Chromecast doesn’t support Amazon Video (or vice versa… whatever… Google and Amazon are fighting), but I can play a video on my desktop and cast it to the TV. It works great. Granted that’s a limited use scenario since we have other devices hooked up to the TV that play Amazon Video, but it’s cool that it works.

If you have Android or iOS and you have need for an easy way to show pictures, video and audio from your phone onto your TV, Chromecast should be on your shopping list. It’s so cheap it’s almost a no-brainer.

Favorite Things of 2016

I looked back through my Amazon purchases in 2016 and thought I’d share a few of my favorites:

  • iVac Switch – I don’t know why I waited so long to buy this. If you use a dust collector in your shop, this is an awesome upgrade. It automatically turns your dust collector on when you turn a tool on. When the tool is shut off, the vacuum runs for a few more seconds and then turns off.
  • Truck cover – My truck should probably be on this list but that seemed a little silly. This truck bed cover, however, is a perfect fit for the list (and the truck!) I can unroll it or roll it up in less than a minute. It creates an almost waterproof seal over the bed. If you’ve fought with a tarp even one time, you’ll appreciate this purchase.
  • Amcrest 1080p cameras – We continue to build out our home surveillance system with bargain hardware and it continues to work out very well. These new 1080p cameras are incredible! The only problem is that it makes me want to replace all of my old ones.
  • Kingdom Builder – This board game is a gift we got for Logan, but it’s also available on your phone. The rules are fairly simple but the strategy is complex. I’m a wee bit addicted to this one right now.