If the simplicity and headline style of MacSurfer’s Headlines News and Technology News Network leave you wishing there were similar sites to handle your other favorite topics, then you’re ready for Really Simple Syndication, RSS. a lightweight XML metadata format designed to handle headlines and web content. Instead of a single talented company digesting web pages from thousands of providers as MacSurfer does, RSS uses a different paradigm. RSS decentralizes headline-building by encouraging all web providers to create regular "feeds" of their sites containing headlines and content. The content may be the same as the actual web pages, or it may be a subset with links to the complete web pages. Instead of your having to visit hundreds of web sites every day, you use an RSS Reader to do the leg work for you. All you have to do is tell it where to look periodically for items of interest to you.
Some RSS Readers are free, and some you have to pay for. For the Windows platform, we recommend NewzCrawler. There’s also NewsGator Outlook Edition which, as its name implies, creates RSS feeds in a folder within Microsoft Outlook. For your iPod (Yep, it’s true!), there’s Pod2Go. For your Treo 650 smartphone, there’s mNews. And, for your Mac or Mac mini, no one does RSS better than Ranchero’s NetNewsWire. Free and enhanced versions of Ranchero’s reader are available. The enhanced version is well worth its modest cost. Here’s how it works. Just define the web sites with RSS feeds that you’d like to track and tell NetNewsWire how often to retrieve the feeds. That’s it for the basics. What you’ll see is a 3-pane window (see inset) similar to many email clients. Your RSS sites are listed on the left, the headlines for each site appear at the top right, and the contents (known as an item in RSS parlance) for each story is shown in the bottom right pane. As with good email clients, NetNewsWire remembers which items you’ve read. And the dock icon shows how many unread stories exist in your feeds. You also can import and export your subscriptions for use in other readers, and there’s a Weblog editor which makes quick work of posting RSS content to your favorite blog. NetNewsWire also includes a Sites Drawer. It provides one-click access to hundreds of great RSS feeds. Here’s our own list of favorites in OPML format which can be imported directly into NetNewsWire to get you started. You also can find thousands more on the Complete RSS web site. There’s news, technology, sports, Fark, business and finance, Amazon, programming, humor, tech bargains, opinion, politics, entertainment, sex … well, actually, we just threw that in to see if you still were awake. Finally there are numerous scraped feeds or bootleg feeds. These are third-party crafted RSS feeds of web sites that do not yet (and may never) produce RSS feeds of their own such as WhiteHouse.gov and television program guides. There’s even a site that will create made-to-order RSS feeds for a modest fee. We’ll leave the legal issues these feeds may raise for another day.
Take a look at what the RSS feed for Nerd Vittles looks like. It’s not much different than the actual web page you’re reading here. Actually, with Complete RSS, it is the web page you’re reading here. NetNewsWire goes one step beyond the Complete RSS approach and actually builds the contents pane from the XML code without reliance on any of the page’s actual HTML code. This obviously facilitates off-line browsing. While RSS content originally was limited to text, all that has changed. You’ll see the same rich content (with images) that you’re used to with a web browser. Just like MacSurfer, the advantage in switching to RSS is that you can comb through hundreds of headlines in just a few minutes rather than waiting for hundreds of web pages (and pop up ads) to load. If you don’t yet own a Mac, there are dozens of other RSS readers available for almost every operating system.
The latest news in the browser and RSS universe is Firefox 1.0, the web browser that’s taking the world by storm. It supports RSS as an integral part of the browser. And chances are there’s a version for your computer right here. To use RSS within Firefox, just download and install the Sage RSS plug-in. All you need to perfect the reading of most blogs is a simple style file. Just Ctrl-click to download and save ours to your documents directory and configure Sage to use it (Tools, Sage, Options, Settings, Use Custom Style Sheet). Now you’re ready to start saving RSS links to read with Sage and Firefox. We recommend you create a bookmarks folder (Bookmarks, Manage Bookmarks, New Folder) just for RSS links since Firefox can periodically update your feeds. Here’s our RSS feed to get you started. Once you bookmark our link, choose Tools, Sage, and click on Nerd Vittles in your Sage-panel bookmarks folder. Voil√É¬†!
Finally, there’s one unsung advantage of RSS feeds over traditional web pages that is huge in our book. With web pages, you never really know when the contents of a page have been updated. And with hit-and-miss web caching, you may not know even when you return to a site. RSS solves this problem transparently. When a page is updated, the link to the page in your RSS feeds list automatically changes back to unread. For those of us that write HOW-TO articles and don’t always get it quite right in version 1.0, RSS provides a great way to alert readers that something important has changed in the story. Give RSS a try, and you’ll see why millions are discovering that it’s a better way to enjoy the web.
[WM: And here’s one of those updates I was talking about. Another great RSS reader for the Mac platform was released just yesterday. The betas of NewsFire got rave reviews. And, if money matters, it’s half the cost of NetNewsWire.]
We began our five-part series on building a full-featured Internet hosting server with a Mac mini yesterday and covered the recommended hardware for the server as well as basic instructions for setting up an Apache Web Server. Today we’ll show you how to turn your Mac mini into a full-blown mail server with SMTP, POP3, and IMAP support. Before doing that, let me first define what SMTP, POP3, and IMAP are. And then I want to offer a word of caution about why setting up these services (especially POP3 and IMAP) for most folks is probably a bad idea.
SMTP or Simple Mail Transfer Protocol is a collection of services to send email messages between servers. It also accepts messages from mail clients for delivery to others. Messages are retrieved with a mail client which "talks" to either a POP3 or IMAP server which manages the flow of incoming messages between an SMTP server and the mail client. While there are exceptions, the fundamental distinction between a POP3 client and an IMAP client is that POP3 clients download messages and manage them on a local machine while IMAP clients download copies of messages which are generally stored on a server. At the risk of oversimplifying, if you have one computer and one email account, POP3 is more than adequate. If you have multiple computers that all need access to your email messages or if you need web access to your email messages, IMAP is probably a better choice because it is more robust particularly in handling deletions of messages from a variety of locations.
Rather than telling you not to install an email server, let me try to define when it would be appropriate and leave the rest to you. Every ISP on the Planet provides SMTP services for its customer base. If you have Internet access, you generally also have SMTP services to handle delivery of your outgoing email messages. One advantage in setting up your own SMTP server is you will always know its address or domain name. If you travel extensively or spend lots of time in Wi-Fi HotSpots of different vendors, then SMTP services for outgoing mail can be painful because you generally have to reconfigure your email client to tell it the address of your SMTP server before you can send or reply to email. This is not always the case, however. Most modern WiFi HotSpot routers now transparently reconfigure your SMTP settings when you connect to their services. And having your own SMTP server doesn’t always mean you can send email because more and more ISPs are blocking SMTP activity from downstream computers (i.e.. computers located inside your ISP’s firewall and routers) as a way to better control the proliferation of SPAM.
Almost every ISP on the Planet also provides POP3 mail services for customers, and most provide IMAP and webmail access as well. In addition, for mail delivery and storage, there are numerous other free services including Gmail from Google, HotMail from Microsoft, and Yahoo Mail from Yahoo as well as low-cost vanity email providers such as NetIdentity.com. Unless email between numerous users in your local area network is significant and uploading and downloading of messages to and from an ISP causes inordinate delays in the delivery of email, I can think of no sound reason to deploy either a POP3 or IMAP server on your local system. And there are some very good reasons for not doing it. First, it all but requires that you have a good grasp of DNS principles and that you properly configure your mail domain. If you’re saying, "What’s that," then you definitely do not need a POP3 or IMAP mail server. Second, if you don’t know what you are doing with DNS and your POP3 and IMAP settings, you run the very real risk of losing all of your incoming mail or having it bounce back to the senders. Third, most ISPs back up their servers fairly regularly. Do you plan to do the same? It’s your email! Finally, mail server services can be processor intensive and eat into your available resources. Keep in mind that these services have to run regularly to determine whether there is incoming or outgoing mail and, if so, to process it. Is it worth the computing resources to duplicate a service that skilled personnel already handle for free at your neighborhood ISP? End of lecture.
So you want to be a mail administrator. Great! Assuming you’ve mastered DNS (which is beyond the scope of this tutorial … and me), setting up SMTP and optionally POP3 and IMAP services couldn’t be easier on the Mac mini. Step 1: Go to this web site or this one and download Postfix Enabler. Step 2: Print a copy of the web page while you are there. This is the installation and operating instructions. Step 3: Decompress the archive and drag the Postfix Enabler icon to your Applications folder. Step 4: Run the application and provide your Admin password. Step 5: Click the Enable Postfix button. You now have a fully functional SMTP server. Step 6: If you want POP3 or IMAP servers enabled, reread the warnings above (hint!), and then read the Postfix Enabler documentation for installation and configuration instructions. Step 7: Send the author a small donation. Postfix Enabler is shareware. Having dabbled in shareware myself once upon a time, I can tell you it’s one of the best things that ever happened to keep the computer industry honest and competitively priced.
Note: Unlike Windows machines which all have their special quirks, all Macs pretty much work the same way so everything we’re discussing will work just as well on an iMac, or Powerbook, or Power Mac G5, or eMac, or iBook so long as you’re running an up-to-date version of OS X v10.3, aka Panther. If you have a Mac mini, then you have OS X v10.3. If you have a different Mac and you’re using an earlier version of OS X, then pretty much everything is different insofar as mail services (even the SMTP server is different) so you can stop reading now.
To test your new SMTP server, start up your mail client and reconfigure your client’s SMTP server settings to point to 127.0.0.1. Now send a message you don’t mind losing to someone you know and ask them to reply. Or just send a message to yourself. Wait a few minutes and refresh your mailbox. Keep in mind that a number of ISPs block all SMTP-generated email messages from end-users (that’s you!). If it doesn’t work, it’s probably your ISP that’s the problem, not Postfix. I told you not to do it. Didn’t I?
In our next installment, we really will be installing something you need, the MySQL data base management system, one of the fastest and most reliable DBMS products in the marketplace. It also happens to be free for most purposes. What can you do with MySQL? Just about anything. Take a look at our main web page at mundy.org. It is completely generated from a MySQL database. Or visit one of our beach webcam sites at Pawleys Island or Surfside Beach. All of the tide, sunrise, and sunset data for these sites is generated from a 100-year table of data stored in, you guessed it, a MySQL database. So join us back here tomorrow.
Today we begin our five-part series on building a full-featured Internet hosting server with a Mac mini. If you’ve followed our previous advice and are considering a move to a hosting provider for your web sites, then this series will show you how to build the perfect staging server, a place to experiment with new code before moving it to a production environment. Over a year ago, we undertook a similar project on the Windows XP platform. The difference in performance, security, and ease of deployment on the Mac platform is the difference in night and day so you’re in for a treat! For those unable to afford the move to a hosting provider at this time, you can use a Mac mini as your host for the time being. Functionally, there’s nothing a hosting provider would give you that can’t be replicated for free on the Mac mini. Other than bandwidth and slightly better performance, the Mac mini will provide an almost identical hosting environment to what you’d be using with a commercial hosting provider. In fact, we recommend installing application versions which match what most reputable hosting providers use, and we will do that here. If you later decide to make the move to a hosting provider, everything you’ve built on your Mac mini can be transferred with ease. Listed below are the pieces we’ll be putting into place over the next week or so to complete our ISP-In-A-Box project:
Our focus today will be on the hardware and web server software you’ll need for this project, and then we’ll get the Apache Web Server up and running to host your first two web sites. Luckily for you, Apple has made this project incredibly easy … and cheap. You’ll need a Mac mini which includes Mac OS X and FreeBSD ($499). Like Linux, FreeBSD is another UNIX derivative so most of the rock-solid Internet applications available for Linux have also been ported to FreeBSD. And, also like Linux, most of these applications are free at least for non-commercial use. Unlike Microsoft where security has been an afterthought and Linux where you have to track down patches and dependencies yourself, Apple takes security seriously and automatically notifies you when patches become necessary to keep your machine safe and secure. One button click and an admin password, and you’re up to date with the latest fixes and enhancements. If you’re serious about having web applications accessible from the Internet, there really are no sane options other than the Mac platform or contracting out your web hosting. Then again, perhaps you need another full-time job in which case Linux or Windows servers will gladly suck up every free minute of your day.
Hardware. Since the Mac mini only has one RAM slot and because Apple has made Mac mini hardware upgrades difficult (but not impossible), you may want to consider at least bumping the machine up to 512MB ($75) when you initially order it. This will almost double the performance of the box for applications such as those we’re going to be deploying. Extra RAM is particularly important once we get all of the ISP functions (shown above) running simultaneously. The other option that’s too inexpensive to pass up is increasing the hard disk size from 40GB to 80GB. For $50, you’ll never be sorry. If $499 is your absolute budget, then fine. Everything outlined here will chug along on a $499 Mac mini. If you can scrape together another $125, you’ll have a much more capable system down the road when you really start exercising the server capabilities of the Mac OS X platform.
Unlike Microsoft, which cripples Windows XP Home Edition by not including a web server, Apple has taken just the opposite approach with Mac OS X, the operating system which is included with your Mac mini. Because Mac OS X is built on top of the FreeBSD platform, Apple has included most of the FreeBSD development tools in its software distribution. Enabling the Apache Web Server on your Mac mini may just be the easiest thing you ever do on the computer. Click on the upper left corner of your display and then choose System Preferences. When the System Preferences window appears, click on the Sharing folder under Internet & Network options. Under the Services tab, place a check mark in the box beside Personal Web Sharing. If the system won’t let you select this option, click the Lock and enter your administrator password. If you want people on the Internet or your local network to be able to access your web site, you also need to enable Personal Web Sharing under the Firewall tab. You do have your firewall enabled, don’t you? If not, do it now! Once you complete these steps, open your web browser and enter localhost as the destination address to find. You should see the Test Page for the Apache web server with the Apache logo. Congratulations! You’re now a webmaster.
Actually, your Mac mini is now hosting at least two different web sites. The main web site which is accessible at localhost, 127.0.0.1, or your Internet IP address is the one we’ve already accessed. If you open a Finder window and select your local drive icon, this will move you to the root directory. Then choose Library, Webserver, and Documents to move to the directory where HTML pages for your main web server are stored. The default web page is index.html or index.html.en if you’re supporting multiple languages and English is your computer’s native tongue. There’s also a web site for each user account on your Mac. Documents for these sites are stored in the Sites folder of your home directory. You can access this web site at the following address: http://localhost/~yourname where yourname is the account name you set up when you first turned on your Mac. When you access this site, Apple even provides instructions for building your first web page. Your personal web page can be accessed from the Internet with an address such as http://nnn.nnn.nnn.nnn/~yourname where nnn.nnn.nnn.nnn represents the IP address provided by your ISP.
Finally, you’re probably whining because most folks don’t access web sites with an IP number and most ISP’s assign dynamic IP addresses which are always changing. Right you are to complain, on both counts! Here’s what you need. First download DNSupdate and install it on your Mac. This software regularly talks to a DNS server to tell it what your current IP address is. Next, set yourself up a dynamic DNS name on DynDNS.org. Once you complete both these steps, people can access your web site on your home network using a domain name just like mine. Using a web browser, type in wmundyhome.dyndns.org to see how it actually works.
Tomorrow we’ll get your email server up and running on the Mac mini with about the same amount of effort it took to activate Apache. Until then, here’s hoping you enjoy your first day as a webmaster. Click here to read the rest of the articles in this series.
If you’ve always wanted a complete Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) solution for your small business or home office but were put off by mega-thousand dollar sticker shock, there’s good news. Your clean living finally has paid off. Thanks to Apple’s introduction of the $499 Mac mini and Ovolab’s 2.0 release of their $150 Phlink telephony server, you now can build an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) call center and auto-attendant with complete messaging, voice mailing, call routing, data base lookuping, out-dialing, faxing, and email message forwarding for under $650 … in one afternoon. And, yes, I’ve done it so this isn’t a sales pitch. Need support for additional incoming lines? Just add additional $150 Phlink server modules, and you’re in business. If you’re contemplating building the Home Automation Server we discussed last week, then this telephony server is a perfect complement. All you’ll really need is Phlink and a little additional RAM when you purchase your Mac mini.
Here’s a quick introduction to Ovolab Phlink’s feature set. Using any phone line with caller ID (including VOIP lines such as those we’ve previously recommended), you can build customized solutions to answer and route calls based upon the caller’s identity. This customization includes user-specific IVR menus to retrieve customer data, weather reports, sales figures, or virtually anything else you need. After retrieval, the caller can use a touch tone phone to route a fax or email to a specific phone number or email address. Or you can use the IVR capabilities to capture voice mail messages which immediately can be retrieved using any web browser or emailed to you or your cell phone. All you need is an Ovolab-provided script. If you need to turn on the sprinkler system in your front yard while away on vacation, that’s no problem either. Just phone home, key in your secret sprinkler watering code, and Phlink will pass the instruction along to the Home Automation Server we built on the same Mac mini last week using Indigo. Another great use of this system is to route telemarketers and folks on your personal do-not-call list into that special place: IVR Hell, an endless variety of choices to press 1 for this and press 2 for that. It can entertain obnoxious sales people for hours at a time, and you’ll never even know the phone rang. Or, if you prefer, Phlink can just disconnect these calls. Finally, you can use the Mac’s powerful text-to-speech capabilities which are incorporated into Phlink to build customized responses to queries from callers. For example, a customer could be provided a current inventory status based upon a customer-initiated query. The possibilities are endless. And if you’re not that imaginative, Ovolab has assembled an incredible array of scripts to get you started. Some of you probably are shaking your head saying, "I’ve tried cheap IVR solutions before, and the touch-tone commands just weren’t reliable." Well, Phlink is bundled with a USB hardware adapter to handle caller ID and touch-tone translation, and I have found it to be just as accurate as corporate systems costing thousands of dollars. You won’t be disappointed. Just send me a check for half your savings, and we’ll call it a day. Enjoy!
Engadget’s terrific HOW-TO on turning your Mac mini into a media center hub is a must read.
Our final installment in the HOW-TO Build a Home Automation Server series delves into the software that is available to make your home come to life. The first installment provided an overview of building such a system, and we covered much of the recommended hardware for such a system in the second installment. As mentioned previously, the brain of this system is a clever piece of software called Indigo (see inset).
With Indigo, you first define all of the X10 components that have been installed in and around your home: sensors, motion detectors, lamp modules, appliance modules, door chimes, and on, and on. Next, you define what you want to happen with each device and when. These actions occur because of one of two types of triggers: time/date matches or external triggers. For Time/Date Actions you define (1) a Time/Date Trigger, (2) a Condition, and (3) an Action. The Time/Date trigger can be a specific time, or a time within so many minutes of sunrise or sunset, or a repetitive time every so many hours or minutes. The date can be one or more days of the week, a specific date, or every day. Conditions let you limit actions to only during daytime or nighttime or based upon the value of a certain variable which you also can control. An Action can be either turning a specific device on or off, dimming a light, executing a combination of predefined actions, setting a variable, executing an Applescript, or sending an e-mail. All of these events can be randomized within a specified range of minutes or hours. As you can see the flexibility is virtually limitless. Finally, all Indigo actions can be enabled for use from two other pieces of software: Ovolab Phlink and Salling Clicker. Phlink is a complete telephony server for your Mac. Salling Clicker lets you control many Mac functions including Indigo using almost any Bluetooth-enabled cell phone.
The other powerful component of Indigo is Trigger Actions. Instead of a time and date, these actions are programmed to take place when a specific triggering event occurs. Triggering events include motion detection, darkness or daylight detection, power failure, device state change, receipt of an X10 command, receipt of an email message containing certain letters or words in the subject or received from a particular email address, or a change in the value of an Indigo variable. As with other actions, you can specify conditions for these actions which must be met, and you can define what actions or combinations of actions occur when the condition is met. As mentioned in the first installment, Indigo also can be used to download most of its actions and triggered actions into a PowerLinc Controller which obviates the need to have an always-on computer to manage your Home Automation System.
The only real limitation to Indigo is your imagination. If you’re not that imaginative, then you might want to visit the Indigo online forum which has hundreds of tips and suggestions to get you started. In addition, there is a voluminous script library that supports Indigo, Phlink, and Salling Clicker functions as well as a web interface to virtually all Indigo functions and controls. We’ll save an in depth discussion of Ovolab Phlink and Salling Clicker for next week, but these two software products will make your Home Automation Server something that no PC on the planet can rival … at any price.
This is the second of our three-part series on building a Home Automation System using your Mac mini. You probably should read the first installment before continuing here. So where were we? Before you start buying home automation equipment, sit down and figure out what you want to automate and what you don’t. You also need to familiarize yourself with what’s available in the home automation marketplace and decide which components you want now and which ones you’ll defer until later. Lamps and overhead lights on a single switch are very easy to automate, and I’d recommend you start simple. $49 will get you a great starter set to control nine separate lights and appliances in your home. Add a $12.99 wireless transceiver with your order, and all of these devices also can be controlled from the included remote. Motion controlled outdoor floodlights are also easy to implement if you want to tackle something else initially. This week you can get two sets of dual, motion-controlled X10 floodlights for $50. Not bad if you’ve compared pricing at your favorite hardware store lately. As a last purchase in Round 1, I recommend you acquire a couple motion detectors which can be used outside for porch lights or inside to illuminate rooms with difficult to reach light switches. These are half price for the remainder of this week, but they go on sale often at X10.com as well. Once you get all of these components installed and working reliably, then you can place another order for more exotic components: three-way (or more) switches, thermostats, sprinkler systems, swimming pool lights, and virtually anything else that has a plug. A good rule of thumb is that the more sophisticated a control device becomes, the more expensive it is to automate. Remember, too, that after you install a couple of new X10 components, check for reliability using some of the tests we outlined in the first installment. It’s much easier to isolate problems when you do some checking after every few additions. If there are unreliable devices, order a signal booster and resolve the problem before adding more devices.
It’s also worth mentioning that X10 equipment is available from a variety of sources including SmartHome.com, X10.com, and a number of eBay stores. Use your favorite search engine to find matches for "X10 equipment." For some items such as socket rocket lamp modules (a device that screws into a regular lamp socket to control a light bulb or flood light), it pays to watch the X10.com web site for several weeks. Many items are offered at 3-for-1 pricing at least once or twice a month, and the savings are significant. If a couple of overhead lights in your kitchen are controlled by four wall switches, you have two choices. You can replace all the wall switches with an X10 four-way switch system (about $150), or you can install a socket rocket for each light in the ceiling at a cost of $10 per socket (when they’re on sale!). You can do the math. If you watch the X10.com web site sale page for a few weeks, you will get an idea about what goes on sale and how often. Moral: Don’t get in a big hurry to buy this stuff all at once, or you will pay about triple what you’ll pay by being patient. SmartHome.com has the broadest array of home automation equipment, and they also have the highest prices. Some things like repeaters and noise filters you will just have to buy at market price and probably from SmartHome.com. But, again, spend a little time on their web site and their auction site to get a feel for what things should cost and how often they go on sale. It will save you hundreds of dollars. A final word of caution is in order. X10.com is an aggressive marketer to put it charitably. These are the folks that introduced pop-under web page ads among other things. Once you get on their mailing list, your grandchildren will probably still be getting your X10 emails long after you have moved on. It’s probably worth opening a new Yahoo email account just to handle X10.com mailings.
Tomorrow, we’ll wrap this series up and review some of the things you can do with your Indigo control software. And we’ll take a look at other great software applications that will further enhance your Home Automation System.
If you thought the Mac mini was only an entry-level PC Killer, think again. The Mac mini may just be the perfect server on which to build your dream Home Automation System. Having built one of these using an iMac G5, I’m more than a little jealous that it now can be done for $1,000 less using a Mac mini … or about $5,000 less than what you’d pay an "expert" to build it for you. So let’s get started. Just like baking a cake, we’re going to start with the ingredients, and then we’ll put them together and produce the finished product. When we’re finished, everything in your home or apartment can be controlled and managed from your home automation server, the Mac mini, using the keyboard, automatic timers, a web browser, an email message, or touchtone commands from any telephone in the world. A typical scenario might go something like this. You drive in your driveway after a long day at the office and, yep, the outside lights come on. But that’s not all. Your entire home magically comes alive. The living room, den, and dining room lights all dim to an appropriate level for just after dusk and your favorite after-work album for the 6 p.m. hour begins to play in the kitchen and exercise room. The aquarium lights go on, and, your Mac mini begins downloading all of your personal e-mail for later viewing. An hour later, the outdoor floods turn off. All of the interior lights turn off two hours after no motion has been detected in your home. This is the first of three articles on how to build just such a system.
Required Components. There are a number of components that can be used to build a home automation system. I’m going to break these components down into required, unnecessary, recommended, and optional. As far as required components, you obviously will need a bare bones Mac mini. It will serve as the hub for the Home Automation System. Does it need to be a unit dedicated just to home automation? Probably not, but I recommend it because the home automation system works better with an always-on server. If you’re going to do other things with your Mac mini, invest in some additional RAM. Otherwise, you’re fine with the $499 model as is.
We’re going to build this system using X10 technology so you need some software to control the timing of home automation tasks and to send X10 signals over the existing electrical wiring in your home. These signals control turning lights on and off as well as dimming them. And they can control appliances and thermostats. Combinations of tasks can be sent from the server to dim the lights, turn on your home entertainment system, choose a playlist from iTunes, and draw the drapes. It all depends upon how spiffy you want your ultimate system to be. Now that you have your Mac mini, the next required component is the X10 control software, an extremely powerful, well-supported product called Indigo. It costs $89.95 and is available with a 3o-day free trial directly from the author. Next, you’ll need a PowerLinc USB device, which is the device to which Indigo sends device instructions at scheduled times specifying when particular events should occur (e.g. driving in the driveway, sunset, or two hours after no motion is detected on motion sensors #1, #2, and #3). The PowerLinc device then sends the actual X10 signals down your power lines to individual X10 devices which control each light, or appliance, or outlet in your house .
When you buy Indigo, you get a special price on the PowerLinc device and one lamp module so here’s the link to get the deal. The cost is $35. You’re also going to need a USB hub to expand the number of USB ports on the Mac mini. A $10 4-port, bus-powered USB hub from CompUSA will suffice; however, make certain you plug the PowerLinc device into a dedicated USB port on the Mac mini, not into the hub! If you only want to control one light in your home, your required components are complete so get those pieces ordered first. However, we set out to build the ultimate Home Automation System so I’m assuming you probably don’t want to invest $635 and stop reading just yet. There are cheaper ways to dim one lamp, but you knew that.
Unnecessary Components. PowerLinc also makes a new device with memory called a PowerLinc Controller. This can be used to control X10 devices in your home without a computer even being on. Indigo can download the desired X10 commands, times, and triggers into the controller, and then you can shut down your computer. You lose some functionality with the controller, but not a lot. For example, the controller doesn’t know what time sunset is each day, but it does have an internal clock. So Indigo will handle the translation to an actual time and send the time of sunset today to the controller. This usually will suffice for a month or two at a time without another brain dump from Indigo. I’d recommend you skip this component for the time being and leave your computer on. You can always add it later when you decide to turn your Mac mini into a media center. Also in the unnecessary category is a UPS for your Mac mini. Unless your home is run by a generator when the power is off, a UPS doesn’t buy you much for reasons which should be obvious. A UPS also may cause interference which can scramble the X10 signals and produce undesired results. A power strip with surge protection should suffice for the Mac mini. Note that the PowerLinc USB device needs to be plugged directly into an AC outlet. For best results at lowest cost, the preferred location for the Mac mini and the PowerLink USB device is somewhere fairly close to the circuit breaker box in your home.
Intermission: Some X10 Theory. Let’s take a break from our buying spree long enough to talk about some of the problems you’ll encounter in an X10 Home Automation System. X10 systems suffer from two problems: line noise or interference and weak signal strength typically due to distance limitations. Large appliances, particularly older televisions, generate lots of "noise" on the power lines in your home. UPS systems and many no-name-special computers do the same thing. This causes X10 signals to get scrambled leading to undesirable or even no results. Weak signals are generally caused by one of two things: distance or too many X10 devices. Each X10 device absorbs part of the X10 signals on the line. You may not know it but there usually are two 120 volt runs of power in your home. To get a signal from an outlet on one run to an outlet on the other, that signal has to travel outside your house to the nearest transformer and back … unless you know the magic trick. Generally, you solve noise and interference problems with filters. And you solve diminished signal problems with signal boosters or the magic trick that we’ll get to in a minute.
The best way to install a problem-free X10 system is to build the server, load Indigo, and plug in your PowerLinc USB device and connect it to your computer. Get those three components working reliably first. Then turn off every other circuit breaker in your house. Now plug a lamp into your one lamp module, and then plug the module into an outlet near your computer. Enable the breaker that controls that outlet. Set the desired X10 address for this module by creating a new device in Indigo which matches the specs of your lamp module and then assign it a device address. Turn the lamp OFF at the lamp switch and then turn it back ON. Move immediately to Indigo and turn the device on three consecutive times in rapid succession. This will set the lamp module to whatever device address you configured in Indigo. There are 256 unique addresses so you don’t have to worry about running short. Turn the device off and on several times using Indigo to make sure it works reliably. If not, repeat the above steps.
Once the lamp can be reliably controlled from Indigo, unplug the lamp and lamp module and move them to five or six different areas of your home. Plug the lamp into the lamp module and the lamp module into a new outlet. Enable this outlet on the breaker box, and then turn the lamp on and off from Indigo. Repeat the test several times. If it works every time, move on to your next location. Here’s the magic trick. If it fails, turn on your electric clothes dryer (after enabling it on the breaker box), and repeat the test. If it still fails, you will need a repeater between the location of the computer and the location of the outlet. All you do is plug the repeater in to various outlets along the way, and repeat the test. If the lamp works after turning on the dryer and repeating the test, it doesn’t mean you have to run your dryer forever more just to turn your lights on. Instead, just buy an inexpensive phase coupler that matches the outlet on your dryer. If your house is larger than 3,000 square feet or is laid out in such a way that a heavy smoker would be out of breath when he or she got to the other end, I’d recommend you purchase a coupler-repeater instead of a phase coupler. This boosts the signal in addition to connecting the two 120 volt runs in your house. Turn off your clothes dryer now, move to the next location for testing, enable the breaker for the outlet, and repeat the testing procedure above. This sounds harder than it actually is. The good news is that, when you are finished, you will have isolated most of the signal strength problems in your house. As you add more devices, you may find that the signal diminishes below reliable levels again. At this juncture, you simply purchase another repeater and install it in various outlets between the source and destination until the problem goes away. A good rule of thumb is to buy one repeater for every thousand square feet in your house.
Now that the weak signal problemss have been addressed, you’re ready to tackle the line noise and interference issues. Make sure you’re back to square one in the breaker box with no breakers enabled except the one controlling the computer and PowerLinc device and one additional breaker controlling the outlet where you are going to plug in your lamp module and lamp to begin testing. Be sure you can turn the lamp on and off with Indigo several times. If not, go back to the tests outlined above. If all is well, turn on one additional breaker at a time and repeat the lamp testing. I’d start with the appliance breakers that typically cause the most problems: circuits with old TVs, circuits with a UPS device, and circuits with a computer. If you cannot turn on the lamp reliably using Indigo, then you need a noise filter on the circuit with the noisy appliance that is controlled by the breaker you have enabled. Turn off that breaker and proceed to the next breaker. Once you complete testing all the breakers, move the lamp and lamp module to another section of the house and repeat the tests outlined above again. It is quite possible to have a noise problem in one area of your house (which requires a filter) and not see the problem in other outlets so don’t get lazy and skip any testing steps, or you’ll be absolutely miserable down the road. In the event you run into problems or get frustrated, here’s a more detailed analysis of what I’ve covered in summary. You do not need to buy a signal meter to diagnose X10 problems. You just have to perform the above tests carefully and methodically. If you’re just curious later and want to verify whether a particular appliance is "noisy," use a battery-operated radio, tune it to a low AM frequency that is clear of noise, turn up the volume, and hold it close to each appliance and outlet you want to test. You’ll know instantly if there’s significant noise being generated by a particular appliance, and you just avoided making a $300 investment in testing equipment. If you want a more in-depth review of X10 home automation technology, SmartHome.com is a great place to start.
Stay Tuned. Your eyes are probably glazing over by now so we’ll save a discussion of the recommended and optional hardware for your Home Automation System for tomorrow. Then, in our third installment, we’ll connect all the dots and you’ll see what a truly incredible Home Automation System you’ve been able to build using a $500 Mac mini for your foundation. The moral of the story thus far is simple: start small and thoroughly test your outlets to find potential trouble spots. Don’t buy 50 home automation components and install them all thinking everything will work just fine. They won’t. If you’ve ever had a marine aquarium and tried to populate it with a dozen new fish in one fell swoop, then you already appreciate the virtue of patience. Otherwise, save yourself some grief, and just trust me on this.