BOOK OF THE FUTURE

Husqvarna Automower 305

Husqvarna Automower 305

Husqvarna Automower 305

Did I mention that I like robots? I do. They have always been one of the coolest parts of science fiction. Though the reality of robots these days is a little more prosaic than those in the fiction I grew up on, they still get me excited. Especially when they can do jobs for me that I’m less than fond of. Like mowing the lawn.

I am not one of these people who takes great pride in their lawn: you only have to see the unevenly laid and multi-coloured morass in my back garden to realise that. But it needs mowing and so occasionally I have to heave a (borrowed) mower around the garden. ‘Fly’ it does not.

So when I spotted the Husqvarna Automower 305 at the Gadget Show Live this year I had to have a go, and the Swedish company was kind enough to loan me one for a few weeks.

Husqvarna installed the Automower 305 for me in the back garden. It’s not a complicated job but the way they go about it tells you something both about the company and the target market for these devices. This is the posh German car end of the gardening market: quality rather than ostentation; a stretch but not out of the reach of ordinary mortals.

The newest and most basic model that I tried runs a random series of routes inside a fixed boundary, defined by a thin wire that gets staked to the ground. This sounds quite intrusive but it is pegged so tight to the ground that the grass soon grows over it and it disappears. The robot detects a very small current running around the wire and so knows not to go beyond it. Another wire guides the robot back to its docking station where it recharges automatically between runs.

Each mowing session is triggered either manually, or more likely by a timer. The Automower is designed to keep a lawn trimmed to a fixed level rather than clearing large swathes, so you want it going out pretty frequently. Fortunately it uses very little electricity so this won’t cost you a fortune – very little at all in fact. The Automower did an admirable job on my little jungle, despite the concrete poking out and the unevenness of the ground. After a few days, the half of the garden we had set up with the Automower for comparison was incredibly neat. When I mowed the other side by hand, it showed exactly how hard it is to get such an even finish.

The Automower is not cheap: currently £999.99 on special offer. But you have to take a number of things into account when considering this price. Firstly, a petrol mower that would deliver the same sort of finish and allow you to maintain the same sort of area (up to 500 square metres) would be expensive to buy and much more expensive to run. Secondly, and more importantly for today’s time poor individual, you don’t have to give up hours each month to keep your lawn maintained.

As someone who feels perpetually short of time, that for me is the biggest bonus and the reason that I would love to have robots like this as a permanent fixture in my home.


IronKey Personal S200 1GB USB Key

Ah, the humble USB key. Apart from iPod docks and iPad stands, these are the review item I am most commonly offered, and most often reject. Because frankly making a decent narrative for the radio about a USB key is hard. It could be the biggest or the toughest, but frankly 99.9% of the population just don’t need them to be big or tough, and frankly there’s not much else you can say about them.

So why did I accept a review of this one? Well the IronKey has all the usual rufty-tufty claims to fame but it also has some pretty strong encryption (hardware-based 256-bit AES – good enough for the military so it’s good enough for you) and more intriguingly for most normal users, a secure web browser.

IronKey S200 1GB USB Key

IronKey S200 1GB USB Key

In essence this is a portable version of Firefox, the popular browser that you can run from the USB key on whatever machine you are using. Combine this with the optional Secure Sessions service and you can get secure, encrypted access to your online banking wherever you may be. If you are paranoid about your online backing security and spend a lot of time travelling or using shared computers this could be a useful feature.

One nice extra touch with the encryption is the self-destruct: enter the wrong password ten times and your data is toast. That’s good for spies, probably bad for the forgetful majority.

In summary then, this is a bit of a niche device for people who absolutely, positively need to protect their data. For people like the police and secret services who seem to routinely leave unencrypted data sticks lying around, these ought to be mandatory. But for the rest of us it’s really only worth it if you have some very sensitive stuff to protect – be that online or stored locally. For a good user-friendly interface and sensible price it gets four stars.


Track24 PackMaster Lo-Pro

Track24 PackMaster Lo-Pro

Track24 PackMaster Lo-Pro

In order to review this product properly I would need to undertake some sort of global expedition or join the SAS. Since I’m not planning to to do either of these things, I’ll make some general observations.

The Track24 PackMaster Lo-Pro is designed to keep you in touch with the outside world wherever you may be. More specifically it is designed to let other people know where you are and allow you to send and receive text messages with them. What makes this different from any modern mobile phone is that it uses the Iridium satellite network to communicate. That means that as long as you have a clear line if sight to the sky, you can literally use it anywhere in the world.

The unit is incredibly well put together and feels like it could definitely survive a round the world trip. Suffice to say the same unit is used in military applications where I’m sure it sees a great deal of abuse. As you can imagine in those situations, power sockets are not easy to come by so it also features a one month battery life. Finally on the feature count is the panic button, configurable to text and email anyone you choose at a single press. This is protected by a nice anodised metal cover that makes it feel very James Bond.

The user interface is pretty straightforward, though messaging is a little tedious without an alphanumeric keypad. Instead you scroll around a virtual keyboard with the direction arrows, though you can create a series of preset messages in advance so that it’s easy to tell people quickly “I’m fine” or “Send cake”.

If you’re used to any current smartphone then this device feels a little basic – and expensive at circa £750. But then you have to remember what it is designed and built for, and that no mobile phone is going to allow you to call for help in the middle of the desert after nearly a month without recharging.

For that reason, and the fact that carrying it makes you feel like a spy, it gets a solid four stars.


AlertMe Launches Family Panel

AlertMe Swingometer

AlertMe Swingometer

As you may have seen, I am something of a fan of the AlertMe Home Monitoring system. Today the company is launching a ‘Family Panel’ of triallists to help them refine and develop the product further. I’ll be joining this panel and thought you might be interested too.

You can find out more at http: //www.alertme.com/the-panel.

In short, 100 families will get the monitoring pack for free for a year and be invited to feedback on their energy usage, participate in challenges and blog about their experiences (so the marketing team hope – though clearly I will be). Sounds like fun to me: I am thoroughly enjoying being a miser.


AlertMe Home Monitoring

There are a few areas of technology that get me most excited (no sniggering at the back). Home automation is very much one of them. The ability to monitor and control aspects of your home – security, lighting, power consumption etc – really appeals to me. Add to this the intuitive management of multi-room audio/video playback and ideally a few robots for cleaning purposes and you start to get to something like the home of the future we all (OK I) have always dreamed of.

Until recently this has been something of a hobbyist’s hack or the realm of the super rich. You either cobbled together your own system out of open source software and discount hardware (sorry X10 fans but this never cut it for me as a consumer-quality product) or you spent thousands on high end kit and got  a professional installer to make it all work for you.

AlertMe Home Monitoring Kit

AlertMe Home Monitoring Kit

But as with all technologies, prices fall and innovation progressively brings even the most advanced hardware and software to the masses. Enter the AlertMe system. Today this doesn’t do the whole ‘home of the future’ piece but it goes a long way towards delivering on the dream at a sensible price and in an incredibly consumer-friendly manner.

Today AlertMe is promoted as a system to reduce your energy bills and secure your home. The most basic pack provides you with a home ‘hub’ that connects to your broadband, and a monitor that clips around your main power supply to the house. These devices send information to AlertMe’s secure website where you can log in and see how your house is performing: how much power is being used at any one time; how this compares to previous usage; and what it is likely to cost you each month.

Compared to the basic black and white displays of most energy monitors, the colourful graphics are very easy to interpret and actually go some way towards making it fun to be a bit of a miser. More importantly though they put the important information in a place you can access easily: I’m usually at the office when I’m sorting out bills and energy contracts (the joys of self-employment). Even if I were at home I would want the data at my fingertips rather than having to go and check out my monitor.

Spend a little more (the basic pack starts at £49.99 including six months subscription – after six months there is a monthly charge of £1.99) and you can add features. At £25 you can buy a SmartPlug to allow you to monitor individual devices and turn them on and off remotely. You can do this via the free iPhone app, which also shows all of your energy data, or via the web interface. You can also add a lamp that gives a visual indication of energy usage.

Moving up the price range (not a straight upgrade as it requires a different, more feature-rich hub) is the security system, which I will review in full down the line but includes car-style remote arm and disarm, and monitoring of your other alarms (e.g. smoke and carbon monoxide).

A Platform for Home Automation

AlertMe today only tackles a subset of the home automation market. But with the products that it has developed it has the opportunity to do something special: to move home automation from the realm of the geeks and put it in the hands of the average consumer. To make remote monitoring and control appealing to the late majority.

iPhone app shows consumption in my house today

iPhone app shows consumption in my house today

This is a difficult trick at which Apple excels: neither iPod nor iPhone were the first to market in their space but they made the use of a new technology appealing to consumers through great design. AlertMe offers similarly brilliant levels of design: from the minute you open the box everything is easy: guides, notes and tabs mean you can’t go wrong, even with the daunting task of clipping the sensor around your primary power supply cable. Assuming you’ve plugged the hub in properly, the slick web interface will then tell you clearly if anything isn’t working properly. The energy monitoring is fascinating and addictive, and the SmartPlugs respond unbelievably quickly to commands entered online.

AlertMe’s Corporate Communications Director Jody Haskayne told me about plenty of developments coming down the pipeline that will make what already feels like a polished product even more appealing. Heating controls will be one of the next additions, allowing you to monitor and control the thermostat on your central heating from work: genuinely useful. There will also be an intermediate hub with some of the features of the more expensive security unit, and monitoring for solar PV systems and electric vehicle charging.

Ultimately though, the company doesn’t want to be in the hardware game: having created a platform for home automation they want other partners to come in to provide every flavour of hardware gadget you can conceive – including the ‘automatic curtains’ that Jody Haskayne rightly nails as one of the more frivolous aspects of home automation.

In summary then, the AlertMe Home Monitoring system is a great taster of the home of the future. It brings quite sophisticated monitoring control and capabilities to your home at a very sensible price and with design that means anyone can get their head around it. But more importantly, it addresses a real life problem. It’s one of the few gadgets out there that might actually pay for itself through savings in energy – a pressing concern for many, especially given the recent hikes in gas prices.