21 January 2018

A Sustainable Voice-Controlled #SmartHome Cookbook [Recipe 1 - MUSIC]

With voice-control being the latest 'must-have' feature in people's homes, for many it may mean ditching their older technology, potentially contributing to the global crisis of eWaste (a concept perhaps not yet reaching the popular consciousness of plastics, but it will and should!).
So, I wanted to see if it was possible to still get at least some of the benefits of the latest technology, relying predominantly on some of the existing technology I already had in my home, maximising the reuse, and minimising the eWaste of technology.
In my #SmartHome Cookbook, I'm starting with a recipe for music streaming - one of the core features which the new Amazon Alexa and Google Home speakers major on. £30 later, I've made an OK start...
  • 1 old speaker, e.g. iPod speaker dock 
  • A Google Chromecast Audio (£30) 
  • Existing middle-range Android smartphone (tablet also fine) 
  • Google Home App (free) 
  • Seasoned with additional free Apps from Play Store to suit taste
  • [for voice control] Google Assistant App (free) 

STEP 1.) Dig out one of those old powered speakers you've got, any make/model, but it will need an AUX-IN port. Plenty available on eBay.
In my case, about six years ago, I was lucky enough to receive a Bose Sounddock as a gift. It was for connecting my old iPod Mini to (remember those?), and worked well. Until the iPod connection broke.

Broken iPod connector on my old Bose Sounddock
I of course looked into fixing it, and a year ago, I almost pursued an option to bluetooth-enable it with a DIY upgrade for about £60 - allowing me then to stream music to it from my phone. That never happened, so the speaker had been pretty much gathering dust... [iPod mini still used, but in my car]
STEP 2.) You need to buy a Google Chromecast Audio - the only thing which will need to pay for, and retails at a modest £30 in the UK. Also available second-hand from eBay for considerably less. Don't get it confused with other Chromecast devices available, used for streaming video.

The Chromecast has its own power supply, and comes with a standard 3.5mm lead for connecting to the AUX-IN port of the speaker (other leads and connections are available too)
STEP 3.) On your smartphone (or tablet), setup the Chromecast, where you'll be prompted to download the Google Home App (n.b. supports other operating systems too, e.g. Apple iOS and Microsoft).

STEP 4.) Follow the small number of setup steps, ensuring the smartphone/tablet you're using is on the same wi-fi network as the Chromecast, which should be 'auto-discovered'. Any firmware updates will happen during this process.

STEP 5.) Use various Apps to 'cast' ('send') any music from your smartphone to the speaker, via the Chromecast.
In my case, I already had BBC's excellent iPlayer Radio App, some of my own music previously synced to Google Music Play, and have started using the free Spotify App (n.b. Chromecast will now support Spotify without having to upgrade to Premium). Via a Chrome web browser on a PC, I can also cast audio from YouTube. There are many additional apps supported.
So far, so good - I have a #SmartHome speaker for only an additional £30 outlay, and have saved my broken Bose Sounddock being another piece of eWaste - in my case a hefty 2.2kg of hard-to-recycle plastic and electronics.
Incidentally, on my reckoning, my setup is in some ways better than the current plethora of Bluetooth speakers on the market, as:

  1. It casts via wi-fi at a higher quality than Bluetooth can manage 
  2. It doesn't drain the battery on my smartphone in the same way Bluetooth would (the smartphone acts effectively as a remote, that's all) 
  3. It doesn't have the same range restrictions of Bluetooth 
  4. Multiple devices can be connected to the Chromecast 

As I understand it, I could also buy additional Chromecast Audio devices, allowing me to replicate a Sonos-type multi-room setup, for significantly less outlay.

[optional] STEP 6.) - Voice Control. Download Google Assistant from the Play Store, and if you haven't already discovered it, you'll realise it opens-up a whole new world of opportunity (with a dash of frustration and amusement thrown-in too!). Rather than a dedicated and separate smart device (e.g. Google Home, Amazon Alexa), this will let you use your smartphone to provide at least some of the same functionality. For example, you can ask it to "Play next Song", "What is this Song?", "Find Songs by ", "Increase volume to 80%", etc. Here is a link to some more relevant voice commands.
So, yes, I'm a bit late to the world of the voice-controlled #SmartHome, but am pretty pleased with what I've been able to achieve with minimal outlay.
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