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New Hardware (Episode 2): IP Camera, Itead Sonoff Goodies, and Amazon Echo Dot
January 16, 2019
<-New Hardware: Micro SD Cards, ReSpeaker 2-Mics Pi HAT and Xiaomi 3G Router Using HA Bridge with the Echo Dot 3rd Generation->

How can I get on with software experiments and updates when new hardware keeps on arriving?. It is not that producers are inundating me with freebies; I have never been seriously approached by any to review their products. So it is all down to my own doing. In this second "mailbag" post without a video stream, I will present my first impressions of a cheap wireless IP camera, the 3-pole Itead Sonoff T1 wall switch, the new version of the Itead Sonoff Basic and the 3rd generation Amazon Echo Dot.

Table of Contents

  1. Unusual Difficulties Purchasing in China this Year
  2. Escam IP Camera
  3. Itead Sonoff T1 US 3 Gang
  4. Itead Sonoff Basic (New Generation)
  5. Amazon Echo Dot (3rd gen)
  6. Amazon Smart Plug

Unusual Difficulties Purchasing in China this Year toc

In this section, the vagaries of ordering from China during the peak November and December period this last year are described. As you would imagine, delivery is slow at that time of the year. There are many sales around November 11 and the Christmas shopping season is probably already started by then. Accordingly, I never expect fast delivery during the holiday period.

But this year, things were particularly bad in Canada. CUPW-STTP the Canadian Union of Postal Workers implemented rotating strikes at the end of October. Various cities and distribution centres were affected by strikes at different times with one consequence being the piling up of parcels in some of the important distribution centres around the country. Ironically, the workers were demanding, among other things, adjustments because the explosion of online shopping has brought about a sharp increase in parcel deliveries which I take it are much more taxing than handling envelopes. Which seems fair enough.

As a consequence, Canada Post communicated with Chinese sellers asking them to suspend shipments. Things got quite peculiar. At one point I wanted to order a $30 helping hand and all the sellers were asking about $140 for shipping which I assumed would be done by an international courier. Needless to say, I did not place an order at that time. After back to work legislation and with the end of the Christmas rush, it looks like things are returning to normal, and I did place an order.

Some of the Aliexpress sellers I was dealing with ignored the Canada Post request or perhaps their package left China just before. Most just complied with the request, but only one let me know by message. However, all added a "seller cancelled" entry in parcel tracking. None refunded the payment I had made. It turns out that I had to raise disputes. I did this using as "evidence" a screenshot of the "seller cancelled" entry and so far I have had no problems. Three refunds were done in two or three days and one seller has asked me if I wanted to go ahead with the order which I is what I wanted. Wish all had offered that choice. There remains one seller who is "investigating".

Over on eBay, I am a bit flummoxed because I was pretty sure I had made a small purchase, but I find nothing in my order history. I guess I will have to look at my credit card transactions carefully to see what happened. It would have been in the order of $2 to $4 so I will not be losing any sleep.

Escam IP Camera toc

My first IP camera, the Blitzwolf SIC1, was not exactly a brilliant purchase. The software was noteworthy because of its very poor quality, and information about it was very difficult to obtain. For some time, the product has been orphaned; Blitzwolf does not support it or even acknowledge that it ever sold it in the past.

Undaunted, I purchased a second very cheap IP camera, the ESCAM G02. Apparently, a fool is easily parted from his money by a firm called e-Scam! The SIC1 was a heavy, fixed outdoor camera, this new one is a flimsy pan and tilt indoor camera. The all-plastic construction weighs almost nothing, half a kilo according to the specifications provided by the manufacturer; it feels more like half a pound.

ESCAM G02 Wireless IP Camera

To be clear, I made an educated guess about the suitability of the camera based on information found on a Hungarian site named Bits everywhere, or smart objects if Google translation is to be trusted. The April 6, 2018 article by eNeS entitled IP Camera LAN + WiFi (ESCAM G02) has valuable information such as the rstp URL, pan and tilt URLs and so on. My best advice is to get that page, ask Google to translate if like me your command of Hungarian is less than adequate, and save it.

Just four quick notes.

  1. The rstp URLs can be simplified. rtsp://admin:password@ip-address/11 will work, although rtsp://admin:password@ip-address/iphone/11 does indeed function. The same is true for the lower resolution stream at /12.
  2. Integration into Domoticz is very simple given the JPEG snapshot URL http://ip-address/web/auto.jpg?-user=admin&-pwd=password&.
  3. The Web interface which can be used to control the pan and tilt motion also displays the video stream. But only if the Flash plugin by Adobe is installed.
  4. The camera totally failed when it came to the "wife approval factor". As soon as my mate saw the bright green LED and the pan and tilt motion of the camera in the TV room, she made it clear that the device had to go. The Webcam in the living room has obtained a passing WAF, because it is on only when we are absent. I have not found a way to turn the G02 on or off by software. It could always be done in hardware using a Sonoff Basic. Which ever works out best, it may be possible to return the camera to the TV room if I can find a less obtrusive place for it.

To conclude, this was not a bad purchase although only time will tell if it is a worthwhile addition to the gadgets around the house. In any case, the investment was minimal.

Itead Sonoff T1 US 3 Gang toc

Itead has been producing ESP8266 based Wi-Fi wall switches for some time, initially for the EU market and latterly for the North American market. I ordered the "3 Gang" Sonoff T1 sometime at the end of last year and received it in the first week of January. Given the post-office problems this was impressive. Even better was the packaging. I wish I had taken some photographs. The switch is tightly packed in a sturdy cardboard box. The latter was protected with bubble wrap sleeve specifically designed for that purpose.

I did take a picture of the device taken apart except for the POWER BOARD which remained screwed into the case.

Itead-T1 US 3 Gang

That board contains the power supply and relays (hardware or SCR? I don't know). The TOUCH BOARD is aligned vertically. It is easily identified because of its three white touch pads. At the bottom is the Espressif chip and, barely visible, nine through holes for single pin headers divided into two groups. Each connection is well labelled on the other side of the board. This where connection with a serial cable will be made to reprogram the firmware.

The Tasmota wiki contains useful information. These switches are clearly much more complicated than the Sonoff Basic. It appears that some have encountered problems flashing new firmware. I also found some YouTube videos with complaints about fitting these inside a wall switch box. I am also worried about the back light. If it is too bright at night there will be a lot of resistance from my mate. All that remains to be seen.

"3 gang" means three poles or, in essence, three switches. My intention is to connect only one of the switches to the ceiling lamp. The other switches will not be physically connected to lamps but will control the bedside lamps through the home automation software. That should save us a few steps.

Itead Sonoff Basic (New Generation) toc

I also received a few Sonoff Basic Wi-Fi switches. They contained the new revision of the board labelled Sonoff RF R2 POWER V1.0. As the side by side photographs show, there is a considerable change in the design.

New and Old Sonoff, Top View of PCB

Top view, new revision on top.

New and Old Sonoff, Bottom View of PCB

Bottom view, new revision on top.

The obvious change is that mains power flows from input to output via thick wires with black insulation instead of the heavy traces on the bottom of the PCB. The latter had extra solder to increase current capacity, but it was obviously difficult to get a uniform distribution of the solder. Indeed, part of the mains current still flows across traces and the solder on these albeit short runs is quite uneven. There are other differences, the ESP migrated from the bottom to the top of the board, and there is better filtering in the newer revision.

A fuse has been added to the input and better separation of mains power with cutouts has been achieved. These improvements may be linked to the CE certification logo that is now printed on the switch. It does appear that the switches are safer but please do not take this as an endorsement, I know nothing about this subject. In any case these devices do not have UL or CSA certification, so caution must be exercised if using them in North America.

The last significant change that I will mention is that GPIO14 is no longer brought out to the header beside the tactile switch. The row of 9 connection points along the top of the board where the RF daughter board was presumably connected is gone. Is that now done with the 5 connection points next to the output connector? From what I have found on the Web, GPIO14 is brought out to the connection labeled KEY. If it works out, functionality has not been compromised although it will be a little bit more awkward to add an external switch.

Amazon Echo Dot (3rd gen) toc

There was a discount on the Google Home Mini in the late fall. I purchased a couple of them, one as a gift for my mother. At the same time the Amazon Echo Dot (2nd Generation) was also on sale by a well-known office supplies retailer in North America. While the order was accepted, I received notice after a few days that the order was cancelled for reasons I have forgotten. While this did annoy me, in retrospect I am happy the order was not fulfilled because not long after, Amazon, offered the new 3rd generation Echo Dot at a very reasonable price. Furthermore, the French Canadian version was finally available.

As the picture shows, the Echo Dot is larger than its competitor from Google. Its cylindrical shape, with only marginally more rounded edges than the preceding generations, makes it look bulkier than the Home Mini. Furthermore, it is considerably heavier which, given its use, is of no real consequence. I wish I had chosen a more sombre colour, but the stark white top and sides in combination with the pastel colours of the LED ring on the top edge, is not displeasing.

Echo Dot and Home Mini

The story is pretty much the same for the power wall wart. The Echo Dot does have a longer lead which can be useful. It eschews the potentially unreliable micro-USB connector in favour of a sturdier barrel connector. There is also a 3.5 mm audio connector which is absent from the Home Mini.

Keep in mind that, when writing this, I had had only two days to play with this new toy. As I am learning more about the device, I am more and more impressed with it even if initially I was somewhat underwhelmed.

The initial installation of the Dot Echo was a bit rough going. But then I had not read the manual carefully and for some reason and I used the browser application (www.amazon.ca) to configure the device. The discovery of the Amazon Smart Plug (next section) did not go smoothly. Eventually, it was discovered but given its English name "First Plug" which caused problems when trying to turn it on or off with French commands. I got around that problem by creating a group with one of the suggested names, "Entrée", and adding the device to the group.

Speech recognition is not quite on par with the Home Mini. I found that I had to slow down my speech somewhat and enunciate with more care. But the newly released French (Canada) version is preliminary which does suggest improvements will be forthcoming.

I then decided to use IFTTT to control some of my IoT devices. This turned out to be a disappointment. There is an Amazon Alexa trigger but it is not as versatile as the Google Assistant trigger. The language of the trigger cannot be specified, it is apparently determined by the language used with the Echo Dot. There can be only one trigger phrase while with Google Assistant there can up to three. Of course I could create additional applets with different triggers but a common action. It is just more work.

The real problem was the way the trigger has to be formatted. In English it would be something like Alexa, trigger the hall light on and Alexa, trigger the hall light off. The trigger keyword is mandatory. After that word, it looks like anything goes. Google Home uses a different approach, some words being reserved for its own use. I found it was a hit or miss affair when setting up my applets for the Home mini until I would find an expression that would not be interpreted by Google Home as a command to forward to some other cloud service. The Amazon approach has the merit of being quite clean.

I had problems creating the IFTTT applet in French. First of all, there was no obvious translation for trigger and the English word did not work. That was solved with the Web: déclanche works as answered by Miguel on FDV. The next problem was the syntactic contortion needed to make grammatically correct commands. In French, the verbs allume and éteins are used to turn a light on or off, not adverbs. But two verbs cannot follow each other. So, I created triggers such as Alexa, déclanche l'allumage de la lampe d'entrée and Alexa, déclanche l'extinction de la lampe d'entrée. However apostrophes were not allowed in the trigger. It is awkward and much too long given the less then perfect acuity of Alexa and my usual mumbling, specially when repeating often used phrases.

Aside from these linguistic problems, I found the Alexa-IFTTT route slow compared to the equivalent commands in Google Home-IFTTT. Slow enough to be discouraged.

The next day, I decided to try Philip Hue and Wemo emulation in TASMOTA. So I moved the Echo Dot to the TV room where there are only two lamps connected to Sonoffs. I easily changed the emulation mode on each. It was a snap to discover these switches and to create "routines" to turn them on in the Amazon - Alexa application. There is no need for a special trigger word, I could use the syntactically preferable verb based commands. The commands are executed locally and hence very quickly, and since the verbal commands are short there is almost perfect execution. The microphones are quite sensitive and I can tell the device what to do almost at a whisper from a fair distance.

I still have some experimentation to do. Alexa complains that I am not using the Philip Hue device correctly; it clearly wants some sort of % type command. Nevertheless, it does turn the lamp on or off as desired. This success reconciled me with Mme Amazon and I am happy to have removed the following X10 devices that did not cooperate very well with the home automation system

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Old X10 Gear

Amazon Smart Plug toc

I picked up a Amazon Smart Plug along with the Echo Dot. There is not much to say about it. It is very solid, surprisingly heavy, and once installed works without a problem.

Amazon Smart Plug

Three reasons motivated my purchase. First it is UL (Canada and US) approved, which makes it the first IoT device with an acceptable accreditation I have. Second, it was deeply discounted. I would probably not purchase it at the current regular price of $34,99 (of course free shipping starts at $35) which represents quite a steep increase compared to a Sonoff Basic. Third, I half hoped that it would be possible to hack this plug but right now it looks like I would need to basically break the case to just look at the inside.

On the second day, I removed the device from the list of paired devices in Amazon - Alexa. Then I had the application use the Echo Dot to discover the device again which it did quickly, but this time it gave it a French name Première prise which was then directly usable in verbal commands. I then found that it was a simple matter to change the name in the application. It is now named Décorations de Noël. I have almost a year to figure out if it is possible to get make the Echo Dot turn on and off the plug with some sort of external trigger such as an HTTP request from the home automation system.

<-New Hardware: Micro SD Cards, ReSpeaker 2-Mics Pi HAT and Xiaomi 3G Router Using HA Bridge with the Echo Dot 3rd Generation->