The Death of Tubby

The universe is cyclical.  Fail, win, fail, win.  Fail fail, win win.   There are patterns.   The Buddha put forth that we find meaning in life through struggle. I found a little meaning this week.

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The last minute, packing for Southern Fried Gameroom Expo, I decided to remove some key tools from my usual toolbag and carry a tote with some essential pinball-arcade repair tools to the show.     Stuff like:

A Hakko Soldering Tool
A Hakko Desoldering Tool
A Fluke 7x Series Auto-sensing DMM
Glass Puller
Deoxit
Cleaner, a Solder Sucker
A Wreck-it-Ralph Nesquick containter with hot glue implements
Nut Drivers
Various and Sundry other hand tools

Somewhere in the madness of packing up - the tub evidently was left behind at the hotel near the loading dock.   This is my fault.

When I finished rounds of unloading back at home and sat down to set up my pin in it's home, I realized the tub of tools was missing.   I put up a few feelers with the hotel lost and found and after getting hung up on a couple times and getting barely comprehendible responses other times it was clear to me that hotel was not going to be my best bet.   (Although I did send a small gift basket to the hotel Loss Team manager to try to encourage better service.  Looking back and with full-knowledge of events, that turns out to have been ineffective)

Tubby, Rescued
 

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The show organizers and volunteers of SFGE on the other hand are superheroes.  They work their butts off at this show and every year it's bigger, better and still feels like a big family.    I really.. really didn't want to impose on them with my careless tubby-handling..

But, alas I swallowed my pride and engaged the game bringer and facebook groups to sleuth out what happened.


Between facebook groups, facebook messenger and GAPAS email list, the fate of the tub was quickly brought to light.   

A well-meaning game bringer saw it as he left and placed it on the inside stairwell near the freight elevator.   Even though the hotel claimed they looked, they really didn't.   One of the event volunteers went back days later and found Tubby, all alone at the bottom of the stairwell.

 

 

I was already feeling shitty about having imposed on the group and beyond appreciative that Joe took time out of his day to go fetch Tubby.   When he asked about my shipping preference, honestly I was more worried about not inconveniencing him with finding a box that it would fit in.   "Whatever's easiest!"

As the week passes, we have these running conversations about "Where's Tubby?" and "How's Tubby?" and I try to find some small way to show my appreciation for his efforts in getting the tub shipped back.  The tracking info starts showing some sketchy entries but I chalk it up to our local Mayberry-like split-postal arrangement between two post offices.   

Eventually, though - a box arrives..  and tubby's corpse is inside it.
 

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The contents of the tub were mostly gone.   Both Hakko's, the DMM, all tools but one screwdriver and a glass puller. Really, the loss feels quite surgical.  Anything of a certain dollar amount - gone.  I'm not implying that there's a postal worker, soldering enthusiast running amok with my tools, though.    I can smell bureaucratic bullshit 300 miles away and this case reeks of risk mitigation by part of the post office.    

I've spent hours traversing the postal service phone tree trying to follow these directions.  Sadly, the phone tree literally had no series of options that would allow me to speak with the Mail Recovery Center or to initiate a search. Lots and lots of frustrating dead-ends and no humans.

I've since filled out all of the relevant stacks of forms and have set my expectations appropriately low for what comes next.   I've started shopping for tools to replace the missing ones... cha-ching, stimulatin' some economics.

Take-Aways:

  • Atlanta Renaissance Waverly Lost & Found - They don't find lost things. 
  • SFGE Organizers, Volunteers, Fellow Game bringers - Are awesome examples of humanity
  • US Postal Service Phone System - Makes me want to break things.
  • US Postal Service Web Portal - 6/13/2018 isn't a valid date?   Dead Links.  Horrible.

Finally..  hold on to your Tubby's and tell your Hakko's you love them.  You never know, one day they m they may not be there. 




RIP Tubby
2015-2018

Moving On in Memory of Tubby

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Slowly, I'll start replacing the lost tools.    To replace the Fluke Multimeter, I upgraded slightly from the 73 series Fluke to the Brymen BM235.    For the soldering iron, I'm sticking with the Hakko 888D.   

The hakko desoldering gun is the most bitter financial pill to swallow.  I'm going to wait until I have an impending need or the off-chance USPS actually finds the other one before I commit to that $325 Amazon Cart.  I see cheaper options that are compelling but I loved the other tool, probably best the save up and buy the one I know I'll like versus buying something that might be a let-down.

Update 2 Weeks Later

After painstakingly recounting the contents of tubby in both the "search for lost mail" and "file a claim" areas of the USPS website, this arrived in the mail a couple of days later..

 No, "My bad." or "Sorry for your loss."    Just the cold, calculated efficiency of a government bureaucracy accounting and indemnification department. :)

No, "My bad." or "Sorry for your loss."    Just the cold, calculated efficiency of a government bureaucracy accounting and indemnification department. :)

As  I look to add on the missing de-soldering pump to the toolbag, it looks like at the time of this writing, https://www.tequipment.net/hakko/ is the place to get it.  

 Ordered the Soldiering station and the FR-30x from Tequipment.    Happy with the price point and fast shipping.

Ordered the Soldiering station and the FR-30x from Tequipment.    Happy with the price point and fast shipping.

Data East Star Wars at SFGE 2018 (update: For Sale)

Post Updated 7/19/2018: Pinball is for sale.   

Pinside Link to sale ad: https://pinside.com/pinball/forum/topic/-de-star-wars-colordmd-pinsound-lots-of-extras-

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This year, I took my Data East Star Wars to SFGE.   

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Star Wars in it's cubby hole in the game room. Thankfully Kylo had a good game, so he didn't go wacky with that saber.. :) 

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The pinsound + flipper fidelity is capable of drowning out the surrounding pins in John Williams awesome-ness.  Hopefully you'll be able to hear it but I want to be a good pin-neighbor on the show floor. 

Download link for this Pinsound Orchestration: 
https://www.dropbox.com/s/0rejma4nsqspz7m/Star_Wars_OST_By_BD2a.zip?dl=0

Playfield Photos

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The illuminated flipper bat kit is RGB and can be pretty much any color.   I liked the stark white to play off the Storm Trooper art.  Though, Red, Green, Blue gives you the lightsaber feel.    You can get this kit here:  

http://www.planetarypinball.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Product_Code=PPS-FLIPLIGHTUP-KIT
 

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I've tried many different types of lit flipper buttons.  The ones I like the most are from Pinball Life.  I feel like they hold up better than the L-Board alternatives.

Get them here:  https://www.pinballlife.com/index.php?p=catalog&mode=search&search_in=all&search_str=brite+buttons

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Power Stuff

 Auxillary switching power supply to aide mods and reduce power load from Power Driver board.

Auxillary switching power supply to aide mods and reduce power load from Power Driver board.

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Custom built molex connectors and a breakout board, DKTap power out

Power Breakout Board:
https://www.pinballlife.com/index.php?p=product&id=4234

DKTap:

http://www.kimballspinballs.com/dk-pinball/

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Original DE MPU - batteries replaced in January 2018, no damage here.   Rottendog Playfield Power Board and Power Supply, though I have working originals.   The RD power boards seem to provide cleaner power than the original boards.

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Flipper Fidelity for Pinsound:   https://flipperfidelity.com/pinsound.html

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Original Playfield Power board.   Works.

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Original Power Supply.  Works but the board has some heat cracking on the back.  The RD board seems to provide cleaner power anyway.

 Sound Board - Parts Side

Sound Board - Parts Side

 Sound Board - Solder Side

Sound Board - Solder Side

Sound board is replaced by Pinsound.

 Original Speakers

Original Speakers

 Original Cabinet Speaker / Sub

Original Cabinet Speaker / Sub

Game Audits from the Show

I freed one stuck ball all weekend.   The pin help up great all weekend and had a steady line of people on it, which I really liked to see!

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25 Year Old Pinball or Boxed Wine

Newer isn't always better.  

Increasingly I feel like that craggy old shotgun wielding archetype that Robin Williams would go to for laughs in his routines..  You know the one.  He's sitting on his front porch with a stained trucker hat with a dirty slogan.  A highball in an unironic "old fart" coffee cup sits on a folding table next to a rolled up newspaper and his rants about kids these days are hard to make out around the wad of chew in his mouth.   

New in Box Pinball isn't for me.   They just don't make them like they used to, etc etc.

Except for... I'm not even 40 yet, I don't like mouth and throat cancer, I happen to like loud music and I'm quite optimistic about where "kids these days" will lead our future society in terms of not being assholes to fellow humans and improving life through technology.

Except for pinball.   You see: "In my day we didn't need HD screens, instead w..."

On podcasts like Kaneda's pinball podcast there are recurring themes, paraphrased:

  • New Pinball is Best
  • Remakes are better than Originals
  • We need more collectible, exclusive pinball

Pinside posts with themes of "DMD is now VHS" and  "LCD games dethroning the DMD juggernauts" leave a narrative that the future of pinball is about media immersion, LCD screens, run by PCs and surface-mount modernized components.

I couldn't disagree more.


New Pinball is Best

New pinball is new.  The best pinball ever, is the new one just around the corner.  Until 4 months from now when the next-new one is shipping.  Somewhere in this cycle of FOMO-fueled madness, there probably is some good pinball.   You know how you'll find the best pinball experiences?  With time.  Over time, you'll discover the best pinball machines of the current release generations.   

 

Remakes are better than Originals

The remakes are cool.  Not necessarily better.   The remakes have bigger, color displays and modern components.  Modern components that are modeled in design off of disposable consumer electronics.  Surface-mount components and a closed, non-modular system are found on the remakes.  You loose customization and repairability and trade them for a miniaturized components.  Hopefully, they hold up over time because these remakes are being applied to some of the best pinball ever made.  That's a $9k, 20 year gamble.

 

We need more collectible, exclusive pinball   

Pfft.  Pinball as a collectible.  Seriously?  Pinball is meant to be played, not idolized.  It's a game to be enjoyed with friends, not a trophy to lord over your jealous peers.  $30k pinball machines to sit in some rich guy's trophy room does nothing to spread the love of the hobby.

For me, I'm watching for known-awesome Bally / Williams titles more than NIB pinball.

Some pondering that led me here, your mileage may vary:

  • Theme alone, can't save a pin but can sink it.
  • The Pinside Top 100 List is good but also skewed temporarily by new-pinball
  • Stern will keep the line running, no matter what. 
    • If you are holding a Stern title as a collectible, that probably isn't going to work out, long term
    • Expect re-runs of past titles to augment disappointing sales or delays on new release titles (ac/dc recently)
  • Stern will address quality issues but to an operator's-level of satisfaction. 
    • Check your collector quality OCD at the door.
    • Expect issues to be blamed on mods
    • Go through distributor to get repairs, even out of warranty
  • Stern's licenses often require protections that lead towards hostility towards game customization businesses. 
    • Alternate translite artists get take-down notices
  • SAM-games were over-built in a good way.  Electronics, playfield, clear coating, cabinet, welds and connector solder - all better in SAM titles.
  • SPIKE v2 isn't there, yet. But will get there.
  • JJP titles are well built in terms of cabinet and playfield but the electronics are less proven and may not age well.
    • how many 20 year old PCs do you have that are still working?
    • support is problematic
  • JJP Production tooling time is too high to release themed games on a schedule relevant to IP
    • Last POTC movie was released in Summer of 2017.  In Summer of 2018, you still can't own the POTC pin in your home.
  • CGC Remakes are good but different in important ways.
    • The electronics may not age well
    • They can't be customized
    • They emphasize bling over truth-to-the-original
  • Spooky Pinball's commissioned titles lack replay-ability and depth, they are missing that x-factor. 
    • TNA will end up being the Medieval Madness of this era of Pinball
    • Extra attention to the BOL tells me they have a keep eye on bottom line, don't expect lots of code updates long term 
      • Except for TNA - Danesi will continue to make it a great experience, on his own time and probably dime.
  • American Pinball is hopeful but still a gamble.  Houdini plays well but production ramp up is taking forever. Probably not sustainable.
  • Dutch Pinball - Expect them to fail.
  • Heighway Pinball - They are in the process of failing.
  • Deeproot Pinball - Too early to tell, expectations are currently low.

I recently found this stash of 25 year-old single-grain (yes, grain) Scotch rebottled by "That Boutique-y Whiskey Company".    It is tasty and more affordable than one might imagine.   You can drink Boxed wine or a 3 year old blended Whiskey.  They'll both go down.   Me?   I'm thinking quality of quantity.  You can have your new in box LCD pinball.  Keep selling those Bally-Williams titles to make room for the new Sterns.   They'll be making about 4 a year until the cows come home.   

You can stare at your $40k SUPREME pinball or your $15k Super-Limited Edition Re-themed Batman. I think I'll grab a $12 bottle of wine or $80 bottle of aged scotch and go play my players quality $5k AFM with a buddy.

Robotron in the House

Robotron is one of these games that I've only recently discovered a love for through the recommendation and good-advice of friends.   It is a slightly older title than I would have normally identified with as an arcade-dweller kid but wow - what a fun game! 

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After spending some time with it on a friend's MAME setup and on my ArpiCade card I decided that it was the next arcade cabinet for my gameroom.  I recalled having seen one locally in a local basement a few years ago helping a friend pick up a game.  I figured it would already have sold but was surprised to find it was still available.  Not running but still available.

After some light haggling we can to terms and I agreed to buy it.  Another good friend and purveyor of arcade goodness, David - even picked it up for me while servicing the seller's Burgertime.

In condition, the game's technical condition had deteriorated a little since a couple of years ago.  I recall it booted to a memory error back then, these days it didn't boot at all.

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The original power supply apparently had some issues (though was thankfully still in the cabinet.) .  This power supply sat atop the coin door. The owner would reach in and power on the game by flipping this PS on and off.   

I'm not really judging whomever did this as a fix, more so I'm just really thankful that these days Arcadeshop, highscoresaves, twisty wrist and others provide viable adapted power supply modernization options that allow you to preserve the original game harness and introduce a switching power supply.

This stuff might not have been around when the tech did the fix or maybe the owner opted for quick-and-easy route, "Just get it going."

At any rate, the original interlock switch and cabinet power switches were all bypassed by this inclusion.

 

When modernizing a power supply situation, I'm a fan of these Power Supplies (pictured below) that I usually get from Arcadeshop.  They have a pretty handy, well-diagrammed on/off remote wiring capability, which makes them versatile.   If you aren't a purist or working with a modern-or-remade cabinet, you can cut a hole in a cabinet and have it protrude like a PC power supply out the back of a cabinet.   No, of course I didn't do that with Robotron. 

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The 4-pin connector gives you a nice ability to wire into an existing cabinet power switch and wiring loop.   I made a couple of connectors and boom the cabinet switch is back in service, as is the safety interlock.  Even though they are more annoying than helpful in most cases..

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The boards have some head-scratching black paint overspray. The black paint seems more like rhino-lining material than spray paint but who knows.    Also a fair number of board repairs and trace workarounds on the mainboard.     I spent a few hours troubleshooting voltages and reseating chips before deciding, for now, the original boards are not a priority for me.

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There, the game sat.  Pulled out from the line up, parts strewn about everywhere as I tried to work in free moments to continue troubleshooting.   Kids running in and out of the game room, parts everywhere.  As I opened the Nest app one night to set the temperature I saw the B&W footage of the game in the basement and this stirred decision time..

After only a few hours here and there troubleshooting voltages and reseating chips.  I decided for now the original boards are not a priority for me.   Let's just get it playing.. 

I could throw hundreds of dollars and dozens of hours at the original board stack and maybe power supply or I could throw hundreds of dollars and a few hours and do a non-permanent Multi-Williams conversion and have not only Robotron but Joust and Defender and Stargate and others..

In what is probably equal parts of impatience and curiosity, justified-after-the-fact: I ordered a bunch of stuff from ArcadeShop.  I didn't want to do any permanent conversions to the cabinet or control panel but decided to order a Multi-Williams fPGA board and control panel, related cabling, etc.

I pulled everything, the original wiring harness, control panel, power supply, boards.   I have to admit I felt a little guilty for doing this.   I made no additional cuts to cabling, I cleaned it all as best I could, wrapped it all in paper, bubble and pallet wrap plastic and stowed it in the cabinet.

It still felt wrong..  like removing the games' vital organs or something?  I guess all of these years of watching KLOV threads and watching people get thrashed for multi game conversions has made me sensitive to this.   

I kept.. everything.  Documented it all with photos and my thoughts are that one day, I might decide to put the game back into an original state.  As the KLOV trolls might put it:

You neutered the unicorn but at least you put the balls in a jar, in formaldehyde. 

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For now, though - I'm running the Multi-Williams board which is directly booting to Robotron.  

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I wanted to get my Joust and Defender on, so I added a Multi-Williams control panel from ArcadeShop as well. 

 The assembled Multi Williams control panel with slightly modified IL-stick joysticks and repro ball, sticks and shafts. 

The assembled Multi Williams control panel with slightly modified IL-stick joysticks and repro ball, sticks and shafts. 

Then, I fell down the WICO leaf-switch hole and got stuck on trying to find a way to get WICO's working in the reproduction control panel.

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I borrowed the WICO joysticks from the original control panel.  Which, it turns out isn't so original.  Looks like a converted Bubbles control panel. I rebuilt the WICO sticks with new shafts, balls, leaf switches, grommets and washers.  I crimped on new pinch connectors on the old control panel - and stowed it away for later.

The original control panel being wooden and the repro Multi-Williams being metal creates a height issue with the existing sticks.  There isn't a spacer and e-clip configuration that would allow me to get the height in range of being correct, so I came up with something that might be janky but seems to be working well, so far:

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I cut square spacers out in the relative shape of the WICO from some 3/4" nominal cabinet-grade scrap leftover from another around-the-house honey-do project.  I shot it with a couple of coats of rattle-can clearcoat to give the dust washer a nice slick surface to glide over.

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This gets us a closer-to-accurate height and lets me have dust washers sandwiched between the control panel underside and WICO top.   I used standoff's to mount the blocks and WICO's to the repro control panel's existing screws.

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..and... after a night of installing everything and another evening of tweaking.. It lives!  Robotron in the house ya'll.   The direct-boot option on the J-Rok is pretty awesome. The game boots straight to Robotron and if it were not for the control panel you'd never know it was a Multi-Williams board.    P1 Start + P2 Start and you get to the game select menu where you can switch games.   A few games included on the board are vertical but all of the horizontals play very well.

 Nathan was the first person to get a High Score recorded on the High Score board for Robotron.   It is a hotly contested spot, though with Justin currently in the lead. :)

Nathan was the first person to get a High Score recorded on the High Score board for Robotron.   It is a hotly contested spot, though with Justin currently in the lead. :)

Ready Player One

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Be thee warned, herein lies light spoilers.

If we were to hop into a flux-capacitor equipped DeLorean DMC-12 and travel back in time to visit my bedroom as a kid, I resembled James Halliday from the book in many ways.  In the back bedroom of a trailer in Indiana, my C64 sits on a rickety table supported by phonebook-thick Visual Basic books connected through atrocious wiring and a 9600 baud modem to the outside world.   

ATN0S37=9 <RETURN> ATDT1812-294-xxxx<RETURN>.   I could turn off error correction and ask for 9600 baud but it would usually negotiate down to 2400 baud instead.

A dot matrix printer sits on the nearby night stand. VHS copies, recorded from broadcast of Star Wars, Weird Science and real VHS without cover of Indiana Jones, Temple of Doom sit scattered around the room. Apparently I kept the Indy rental too long and the late-fees were such that they told us to just "keep it."   My folks were pissed and I recall sweeping and cleaning up in Dad's shop one summer to pay for it.

I had a nice stash of copied games from my uncle.  The parents weren't big on wasting money on computer games, as they saw it, so I spent a fair amount of time coding Zork-like text adventures on that old C64.

So, being the nerd that I am, when I read Ready Player One I enjoyed it and found a kindred spirit in both Wade and Halliday.  When I heard that Spielberg would helm the movie adaptation, I was pretty pumped about the movie.

So, how was it?   Honestly, I left mostly disappointed with the movie version of Ready Player One as compared to the book story.    Don't get me wrong, Cline's book has some cringeworthy lines of prose that might be meta towards the tweenage mindset of the content or might just be bad writing.  But, the universe is interesting and the story has a ton of potential.

My biggest let down on the movie version of the story is that the Tomb of Horrors, Joust match isn't included in any of the challenges.   Being an arcade enthusiast, I thought this was some of the most descriptive writing in the book and I'd have liked to see it come to life on screen.   I can see, how that seen might not have resonated with general audiences.   It is hard to smash-cut / montage clips of people playing video games and continue to be interesting.   

Joust and Acererak being missing isn't the part that I thought was the biggest missed opportunity of the Tomb of Horrors remix, though.  The book places the beginning of the adventure in the school-planet, accessible to all students no matter how underprivileged.  I thought this coupled with Spielberg director-juice might have given Ready Player One the recipe to be a kid-adventure story for a new generation: A Goonies for Gamers.

But, that isn't what we got.  Bummer!

The movie missed plenty of other opportunities including potential for an Epic Soundtrack. Guardians of the Galaxy-level soundtrack integration didn't happen, either.

Some aspects of the movie were better than the book.  Movie Halliday leans away from his book-asshole Steve Jobs tendencies and more into his Asperger's situation.   The result is a much more interesting, likable and maybe pitiable Halliday and delivered through a great performance.

Movie Art3mis is considerably more charming that the often selfish-seeming, prickly femchismo Art3mis from the book.     

Book Ogg is far more interesting and is used in better ways than the movie.

The movie version of Aunt Alice is a step up and adds some depth to the loss in that situation.  Misses Gilmore still gets the firey shaft and doesn’t even get a pleasant exchange with Wade for her troubles.

The visuals are great, especially the Stacks and the intro to the OASIS. Though the movie stacks seem to be a bit more friendly.  Like a nice rv park for gamers.   I like the use of drones in the movie but the IOI hendhwoman is kind of pointless and the IOI infiltration plot is heavily remixed clumsily.

All said I think Ready Player One is a fun spring / early summer flick. It isn’t the epic Goonies-for-gamers story that it could have been but the last scene with Halliday did have some heart. 

   

 

 

Smart Plugs - a Year Later

Computer:  Tea, Earl Grey. Hot.

It's a beautiful dream and with Amazon Alexa, Google Home, Siri, Bixby (ha) and others we get a little closer each time.   Add matter-energy conversion, intra-spacial tunneling that isn't bound by relativity and the speed of C and we may one day find ourselves in the Cosmos facing off against goatee-clad alien warriors.

My generation may have to wait to fully experience Roddenberry's utopian future vision for humanity, at least we can talk to our computers now and sometimes that can even carry a level of utility with it. Last year I shared some stuff here about using Amazon Echo and related Alexa Smart Home Skills and Wifi-enabled smart switches to power games on and off and to play music in the game room.  

After living with two brands of smart plugs for about a year, in our game room and other parts of the home, I thought it might be a good time to do a deep dive in how that's been working out.   What works, what doesn't.

Smart Plugs

I went with two brands of plugs in my implementation, not necessarily intentionally but that's just sort of how it shook out through coupons, rebates, coupons, etc. iHome and Belkin Wemo.   There are others out there but I'll stick with what I know.  Here are my thoughts on each.

iHome Plugs

The Hardware

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Originally, I favored the iHome plugs because of their convenient size and form-factor.  The plugs have a convenient button, two convenient status indication lights: One signifying power state and one signifying wifi connectivity status.

The iHome plugs have convenient HomeKit ID labels or adding them to your HomeKit setup and for adding to the iHome app.

Based on the plug size, you can fit two on a standard wall plate or a few on a power strip with the correct plug orientation.

 

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The App and Setup

Plug setup is pretty simple and standard for these sorts of things.  These plugs are Homekit compatible (mostly) so I opted for an iPhone to manage them.  You can use the Homekit discovery features of iOS to set them up or configure them within the iHome Control app (available from the App Store and Google Play).

The setup app attempts to OCR the HomeKit ID label while adding a new plug.  It sounds like a good idea except that in most cases, that ID window is nearly impossible to get to while the plug is in an outlet. (It is on the bottom.)     That aside, points for trying to save me the step of entering a code.

The plugs join your WiFi network and can be organized in Locations (DoddHome in this picture), Rooms, Zones, and Scenes / Macros.  You can classify a plug based on it's service type, things like fans, outlets, video games, etc.   This doesn't seem to really do much of anything, just provide at a glance the type of object on a plug.

The iHome Control app is a little kludgy in terms of device editing.  I very often power on a device by accident, trying to edit the specific device definition. Sorting, doesn't work.   

Another fuzzy aspect to the iHome setup is they have a portal account associated with ihomeaudio.com and the nature of that account is a little on the mystical side.  My original setup process required me to create an account with a username.  Later on, integrations with other services required integration to an account with an email address as the password.   Somehow in that mess, I apparently have two accounts on their backend and had to go through these extra steps of essentially sharing the plugs with myself.

Apparently they have that solved now.  The need for an account given HomeKit's nebulous infrastructure makes sense, your device definitions need to live somewhere in the cloud so that they aren't lost when your phone is reset.  It appears their original implementation didn't consider the concept of integration to third party services (Alexa Skills, Google Home, IFTTT, Stringify, etc) so I believe that is the cause for the initial account mess.


A couple of engrish emails in June of last year after all of the plugs stopped working and my accounts were merged successfully.

This made it ...slightly .. more reliable..

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Service Reliability

The service reliability has improved some since my accounts were merged but still isn't exactly rock-solid.  Occasionally all of the plugs just fall away.   More often, they work from the iHome Control app but aren't available to Alexas, IFFT and other services.


Sometimes but not always I can trace this to internet connectivity outages or power outages.   If the cable modem disconnects but wifi remains up, it seems as if the plug times out connecting to the cloud.  Even though the plug LED's indicate successful operation it becomes unavailable to iHome Control, Apple HomeKit, IFFT, Alexa, etc.

The solution, annoying as it is, seems to be to just unplug the iHome plug - plug it back in once the internet is available again.

This is .. annoying, especially considering the whole point of this is to have plugs located in inconvenient-to-reach areas, like behind big-assed video games or floor lamps tucked away behind the couch in the Den.



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Network Presence and Data Consumption

On the wifi-side, the iHome plugs seem to work out well in terms of connectivity to our mesh network.   They stay connected to our wifi, despite loosing connectivity to their parent cloud services.

They do, however consume more traffic than the Wemo.   Below is one plug, for 60 days. (Left)   Not a ton of data for 60 days if you compare to something like an IP camera, though. (right)  But still, 200 mb U/D of data consumption to turn something on and off might be a consider if you are living the mobile-broadband / limited data lifestyle.

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Customer Service

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My early impressions with iHome customer service was pretty dismal, especially considering the added bonus of complexity and burden of proof associated with the concept of: "Your service's integration with (other service) is down."    The classic technical support tendency where multiple vendors are involved to point to the other guy takes hold.

In order to get support at all, I had to distill the issues down to distinct failures with iHome products themselves.  The integrations with Alexa, IFFT, Google Home and others just isn't something they are set up to support.

One step in the right direction is that recently I received a proactive email blast to let me know their services were unavailable.   The outage lasted for about 18 hours, which was a bummer but at least they owned it. 

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iHome Conclusion

iHome seems to be improving but hasn't been a trouble-free experience.  My plugs are in the "not bad enough to replace but not good enough for me to keep buying" category, for now.   If the service continues to improve, I'll consider them for future growth.


Belkin Wemo Plugs

The other brand of smart plug that I engaged with was Belkin Wemo.   Sort of, by accident.  It was a function of coupons, rebates and Christmas, Birthday and Father's Day gifts that put me into multiple ecosystems.

The Hardware

The Belkin Wemo smart plug originally was released on only the gigantic wall-wart format (below, left) and more recently is available in a new mini-plug design that is still larger than iHome's mini plug but small enough to not take up an entire outlet, or small city block like the original plug.

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In addition to the smart plug, Belkin was wise to offer a wall switch and they were one of the first to market with a Wifi / Cloud Services enabled wall-switch like this. 

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The App and Setup

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Setting it up

Setting up the Wemo plugs using their app isn't quite a walk in the park but has gotten better over the year.  Originally, I experienced considerable weeping and gnashing of teeth using their setup process to add plugs to the network.  The Wemo plugs join and present themselves as Wifi endpoints.  You set up the plug by starting the app, initiating the new device process, then jumping out of the app, joining that temporary Wifi endpoint and re-opening the app.

That's not unheard of for these devices but two issues persisted during my initial setup of Wemo devices.   The first was that the app open / close - join / rejoin activities would crash the app and leave the plug in some sort of half-configured state.    The second was that the original firmware for the plugs (circa 2015) didn't include support for strong Wifi passwords.  If your router has a strong wifi password with spaces, special characters - you'd have to join the plug to an insecure endpoint, allow it to update firmware, then rejoin the secured endpoint after the firmware update.   Classic technical chicken-egg complex.  I need wifi to get the firmware update but  I can't join the wifi because of the firmware.   SUPER FRUSTRATING....


Good news is, they seem to have most of those issues ironed out.  The last five plugs I've installed came boxed with an appropriate minimum firmware and the app is considerably more stable.   

Living with it

The Wemo app has received alot of nice little quality of life additions over the last year.   Inclusion of thumbnails, a simple but effective editing interface and simplified new-device-onboarding have all been added and work extremely well.

Wemo still doesn't natively support Homekit but the service is so good, I really don't miss it.

It was a rough start but Wemo has gone from barely able to get it working to, rock solid in a very short period of time.

 

Service and Reliability

Where day-to-day use is concerned, the Wemo's stand out.   They just work.   All of the time.   Power outages, cable outages, intermittent internet connectivity, foam rave parties (ahem), whatever.  They just always work and they always work on all vectors.   They self correct, they stay updated, they work in the App, they work with IFFT and Stringify, they work via Alexa Skills.   

Did I mention: they just work?

 

Network Presence and Data Consumption

On the network, the Wemo Plugs consume a tiny amount of data.   11/16mb U/D for 6 months.    That's some efficient use of data!   Sipping it like a nice wine instead of gulping it down like fermented grape juice sold in a bladder.

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Network Naming

and...  I didn't even know that I wanted this but... the Wemo plus are piping the device name over NetBios, meaning each plug shows up on my network with the name of the device I have set in the app, versus the random Mac-Address fragment I get from iHome.  Most routers allow you to alias a Mac with a network name or establish a static lease to accomplish this.

It was so refreshing that I didn't have to do any of that... 


Again, it just worked.

 

Wemo Conclusion

Adding Wemo plugs to my network with the early firmware was problematic but modern incarnations of the plug appear to be shipping with more complete and stable firmware from the factory.   The Wemo app tended to have minor issues setting up new plugs originally but has since become quite stable.   The app features lots of nice features and the backend cloud services are especially solid.  The addition of a Wemo mini plug that splits the difference in size between the original wall plug and the smaller, iHome plug alternatives combined with service stability make Wemo my first choice for future additions.

Bringing it all Togehter

In my scenario, a humble $29 Echo Dot brings it all together.   I chose a Dot over the original Echo because, well: I had one sitting around from a work-related thing.  (Proof of concept of an Alexa Skill.) 

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Also, I didn't need the full speaker capability of a full-sized Echo, this Dot is plugged in via  headphone jack to an audio receiver.  This allows us to hear (or optionally mute) Alexa's responses and gives the added benefit of voice-controlled music through connected music services.

One thing I liked about using an Alexa-enabled device over a Google Home (personally) was that I have experience building Alexa Skills and utilizing Amazon Web Services.  If I need something custom, I can whip it up pretty quickly.   So far, the stock capabilities are working just fine for my purposes, though.

Connecting the plugs


You enable the connectivity between your smart plug (or other devices) and the Echo / Alexa devices through the skills interface.  

You basically pick the skills from the Alexa Skills catalog related to the plug vendor, sign in if necessary and then the Echo devices can discover those plugs on your network using those Alexa Skills integrations.

 

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Once discovered, your smart devices will appear in the Smart home screens in the Alexa App.   These screens recently underwent a design change and they feel a little clunky in terms of design and layout but the app is solid, functionally.

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From here you can organize devices into groups.   So, define a group names "The Pinball Machines" and choose all of those devices connected to pinball machines and Alexa will control those devices together.   

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Likewise, the group definitions give you an opportunity to alias or rename individual devices.   Pictured here, Donkey Kong is an alias to the plug named Donkey Balls, which.. is an Expanse tv show reference among other things.   

Sometimes grouping and aliasing is handy when the name of a plug doesn't work well with voice services.   For instance, prepositional phrases can confuse Alexa.    "Alexa, turn on Revenge from Mars" should control the plug for that pinball machine.   However, "Alexa, play my awesome playlist from Spotify" plays music from a connected service.  Including "from" in the name of the game made controlling that device difficult.   Aliasing it as "Revenge" or "RFM" alleviates this pain and AI Intent confusion.

So, that's about I have for this post.    Voice control in the game room is pretty danged cool.  I'm sure one day, someone will shut down a game on me while I'm playing it in an irresistibly evil move.   Hopefully voice recognition will improve and more plug options with better support will emerge..

Until then, if you need me - I'll be in the gameroom plugging and unplugging iHome plugs trying to keep them working.