Author: Steven Goodwin
Audience: Linux experts
Reviewer: Harry Fairhead
Home automation is a hot topic at the moment but it isn't an easy area to work in. Can a book on Linux and Raspberry Pi sort it all out?
This is a very strange book which claims to be on the topic of Smart Home Automation but really drifts all over the place onto topics that the author finds interesting. It is focused on using Linux and a range of hardware devices that run or can be made to run Linux in one form or another.
It is a second edition of a book previously called "Smart Home Automation with Linux" and you need to be warned right at the start that the "and Raspberry Pi" tagged onto the title of this edition is more about marketing than content. There is the occasional mention of the Raspberry Pi and a single chapter at the end that really doesn't go anywhere.
If you are expecting a book that tells you how to take the Raspberry Pi and make a home automation system then you need to find another book. This one reads more like a collection of things that allows the capable engineer and software developer to create ad-hoc systems that are vaguely connected to home automation.
This isn't a bad thing - as long as your interests coincide with those of the author.
The most important point to make is that this is not an "off the shelf" approach to home automation. It certainly isn't about neat kits that you can buy to add automation, or even aspects of it, to your home, let alone a complete solution.
On the other hand there are limits on how far the tinkering goes. Steven Goodwin never suggests building any electronics and is fairly restrained about suggesting "re-purposing" existing gadgets, unless its a software-only mod. Cutting off a resistor from a PCB to increase the clock speed of a device is about as far as his hardware modification gets - and even here it is suggested that you could use a saw!
The first chapter is all about X10 but there is little explanation of how X10 works or the protocol. After an introduction to the range of X10 devices you can buy we have an introduction to Heyu, the Linux command line X10 interface. Then we move straight on to an alternative control system Z Wave - new in this edition. It's a good summary, but you could find out as much with an internet search. Next we look at C-Bus and a detailed explanation of how networks in general work. By the end of the chapter not much has been learned, apart from the fact that certain devices and bits of software exist. This is not a practical introduction to anything.
Chapter 2 does an immediate detour into the topic of appliance hacking. The star of the show is the Linksys NSLU2 storage device which is interesting because it's an easy-to-modify Linux appliance. The only problem is that it is getting increasingly difficult to get hold of - you can find a few on eBay, but none of the big retailers sell it any longer. We also have a range of other machines mentioned almost in passing. - PlayStation, Xbox etc - but all at the level of "these exist". Finally we have some hardware hacks which amount to basic Arduino projects and how to use a general-purpose X10 device to control ad-hoc equipment. This is all a bit superficial and unsatisfactory.
Next on the list is Chapter 3's approach to media. The goes over Linux command line utilities for playing DVDs and ripping DVDs. This is followed up by a discussion of media boxes, WiFi connections and setting up a NAS device as a media server. There is a new section on UP&P. All fairly obvious is you have the skills to do it and probably too fraught with difficulties if you don't.
From here the book takes a less interesting excursion into how to wire a house for networking. This covers how many watts a machine consumes, setting up UPSs, what type of machine to buy, etc. It doesn't really go into anything deep or interesting such as whether a managed switch worth it or should you invest in structured wiring.
The next chapter goes off into the general area of communications - how to send an email. There are some interesting ideas such as voice recognition and speech synthesis, but a quick search on the web reveals more information that the book gives.
Chapter 6 is a another digression into the legality of using content that you acquire via the web followed by some ways of getting Twitter and Facebook data and how to use screen scraping to acquire data. It is all very ad-hoc and very unsatisfactory.
The penultimate chapter is on control hubs and the author's pet subject - a software project call Minerva that co-ordinates things. I'd be more impressed if we were talking of something with a GUI interface or a smart phone app and real usability. This view of the smart home is that the home is less smart than my desktop PC. Moving to Linux is no excuse to dump modern conveniences such as a good, easy-to-use GUI for the rigors of the command line. Why go primitive when what you are trying to do is futuristic?
The final chapter seems to have been added just to get on the Raspberry Pi bandwagon. It explains what the Pi is and explains some of the details of using the GPIO. It also gives a list of possible projects, but no real guidance as to how you might make them work. If you have the skills to actually implement any of the ideas, you are probably in a good position to think them up for yourself. Given that the Pi has interesting things going on connected with home automation - like a Z Wave interface card - this chapter completely misses the point. You can get the same, and much more, information from any book on using the Pi as a control device.
Overall this is a book that misses the mark by a mile and even more so in the second, hardly changed, edition with its gratuitous chapter on the Raspberry Pi. It rambles and is very shallow. This is a shame because you get the feeling that with so much enthusiasm there is a good book trying to get out.
Whatever you do don't buy it if you are looking for a home automation solution that might stand the test of time. The best you are going to get by following the ideas in this book is a kludge of a system hacked together from parts that are going out of production.
Certainly don't buy it if you are looking for a book on the way you could use Raspberry Pi in home automation because it just doesn't go there and you will be cross that all you have is a single off-topic chapter.