The Smart home is becoming much less expensive and much less difficult to set up

TP-link logoOver the last year or two you may have seen advertisements for things like “smart lightbulbs” that can be switched on and off remotely by your mobile phone, but which cost an eye-watering amount of money. I’m sure I’ve seen them for £50 or £60. An awful lot of money for a one-trick pony. Not only that, but they also have to be connected via their own central “hub”.

TP-link Smart PlugThings are now changing. I recently came across the TP-Link Smart Wifi Plug (with energy monitoring) that does several things I want in one plug and which cost me just £25 from Argos. The same item is available from PC World at £35 and a version without the “smart monitoring” from Amazon at about £25.

So, what does it do?

Plug it into a socket and then plug your appliance (eg lamp, fan heater, laptop charger) into the smart plug. From your smartphone, you can then:

  • Schedule automatic switching on and off of the appliance
  • Schedule automatic switching on and off at sunrise and sunset (automatically moving the time as the seasons change)
  • Schedule “randomised” switching on and off so that while you are away you appear to be present (only useful when you are plugging a light into it, I suspect!)
  • Remotely switch the appliance on and off (over-riding the schedule, if one is set)
  • Monitor the appliance’s energy consumption over the previous one, seven, and thirty days

Apart from the fact that the plug does all these things for a very modest price, it is very easy to set up.

The steps you need to take are:

  • Download the app (for iPhone or Android)
  • Create an account (just the usual username and password)
  • Plug the device into a power outlet
  • Temporarily log your smartphone onto a special wifi network (that connects it to the plug)
  • Switch back to your normal wifi network
  • Configure the scheduling, etc, of the plug

Smart plug in actionThat’s it. You can even control your plug from Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant (if, unlike me, you don’t feel it just too creepy and invasive that Amazon or Google will listen to, and record, everything that takes place in your room).

It seems to me that the combination of a very reasonable price and easy setup should make this kind of “smart” device very much more popular. Notice that there is no mention of having to set up a special “hub” that grander and more ambitious “smart solutions” necessitate. All we are doing with this device is replacing older technology (eg a mechanical timer plug) with one that is a lot more capable (and silent – unlike some mechanical timers that audibly whirr and click).

While checking Amazon’s price, I noticed that there is another product that offers three such plugs in one pack for just £25.99. There is no mention, though, of who manufactures this one and my fear would be that the setup might be complicated, aided only by instructions written in Chinese. When TP-Link started selling routers in this country, they could be tricky to set up and the instructions weren’t very clear. Their router setup is now much improved and this smart plug is very easy to set up, with no such complications.

So, as long as you have a smartphone running at least IOS9 or Android 4.1, plus a wifi network, this product should work for you and be easy to set up.

And how apposite that this blog post should be coming out the day before we will all be crawling around the floor and under desks, changing mechanical timers because the clocks have changed. No more of that for me, thank you very much!

Is your wireless internet connection a lot slower than you would like?

The maximum speed of your internet connection is limited by the type of connection you have and the contract you have with your Internet Service Provider (ISP). Fibre optic connections are much faster than ADSL (“normal” broadband). The specific fibre optic plans with Zen Internet, for instance, offer speeds of up to 38Mbps and up to 76Mbps, whereas ADSL broadband connections are more likely to be “up to 8Mbps” or “up to 16Mbps”.

However, these figures are only “theoretical” maximum speeds, and they could be further reduced by your own hardware and connection type.

I’m not concerned here with the different plans offered by different internet providers, nor with the abilities of different routers, or their positioning in relation to your computer(s). Although these are all relevant factors in the speed of your internet connection, I’m only concerned here with a simple, and relatively cheap, way that you may be be able to give your internet connection speed a significant boost.

TP-Link TL-WN821N Wireless Adapter

Better than the internal wireless adapter, but this sticks out 7cm from the edge of the laptop

What I’m talking about is possibly the most common way of achieving a wireless connection from a laptop to a suitably-equipped wireless router. This involves just taking it for granted that the inbuilt wireless adapter in your laptop is going to do the job properly. But that is not necessarily going to be the case. In my own case, my “main” laptop is usually connected wirelessly to a mid-range Asus RT-N66U router in the same room. My contract with my internet provider delivers me “up to” 38Mbps. However, in practice I used to achieve only about 5Mbps. Occasionally it would go through a purple patch and deliver 7-8Mbps but that was it. In fact, it made it pointless having a fibre optic connection at all. A standard ADSL connection would deliver the internet just as fast. If I connected an ethernet cable the speed would shoot up close to the maximum of 38Mbps.

The laptop in question is a Samsung RF511 that is 3.5 years old. There is plenty of life left in the machine yet, and I even fitted a SSD to it recently and promised myself I’d make it last for at least five years. It’s a good laptop that I’ve always been happy with. But then one day I decided, out of curiosity, to check the wireless speed of my 5.5 year old MacBook Pro and was astonished to find a regular and reliable 36Mbps. I was just as surprised to see that my Microsoft Surface achieved 38Mbps wirelessly.

TP-Link Nano Wireless Adapter

TP-Link Nano Wireless Adapter protrudes about half a centimetre when connected and delivers 30Mbps

The only thing that made reasonable sense was that the wireless adapter in the Samsung wasn’t doing its job very well. I found one on eBay for less than £10 and my previous 7-8Mbps went up to about 15Mbps. So, for less than £10 and half an hour spent taking the case off, replacing the adapter, and replacing the case, I had doubled the speed. But it was still less than half as fast as the MacBook Pro and Microsoft Surface.

Then I tried attaching a USB wireless receiver. I enabled it (in Windows Control Panel, go to “Network and Sharing Centre” and then “Change Adapter Settings”), disabled the internal receiver, and got a boost up to about 20Mbps. The problem with this, though, is that the adapter sticks out 7cm from the laptop and I think it was in danger of getting bashed. So, off to Amazon where I found a TP-Link “nano” wireless adapter that only sticks out about 0.6cm from the side of the laptop. Although this device’s theoretical top speed is only 150mbps (compared with 300mbps for the rest of my equipment), in practice it manages 30Mbps.

Wireless Download Speeds

The “nano” adapter achieves almost 30Mbps, but the Mac and Surface still do a bit better

So, cutting out all the intermediate tests and steps, the final result is that an outlay of only £6.78 provided a means of increasing my download speed by five or six times. The only technical knowledge needed was how to enable the new device (via Windows Control Panel as detailed above). If you want to try this solution but need help setting it up, then I could help via Teamviewer (but we we may have fun losing and re-gaining the Teamviewer connection as we make the switch to your new wireless adapter). See this link for my charges for offering computer support via Teamviewer.

I think I need to add two small caveats here:

  • All “actual” speeds mentioned above are approximate and can vary from test to test. I certainly can’t predict with any certainty what speed boost you could achieve by adding a USB wifi adapter. However, I think the general conclusions are valid, and the outlay is not high.
  • If your internet speed is also slow using a wired connection, then it might be that your router is getting past it. When they are 3-4 years old they can start to deteriorate in performance – especially if they feel hot to the touch.

All speed tests were carried out at www.speedtest.net.

© 2011-2019 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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