Are you the kind of person who has a clock radio in their bathroom, giving you time and either music or news, while you’re otherwise occupied or getting yourself ready to start your day?  Me, too.  But a while ago I started to suspect that I could do better.  Is there an appliance that will give me more than just time and a radio, to make my morning routine more productive?

Welcome to the 21st century.

vanityvision-glass-smart-mirror-magic-mirrorYou may have seen or heard of the “smart mirrors” that are becoming the new hi-tech bathroom feature: Displays built into the mirror provide time, weather information, news, access to home security, etc.  The idea kicks ass; but the mirrors are pretty pricey because of the tech involved, and the mirrors themselves are limited in style and installation options.  Until I can buy and easily install a combination medicine cabinet and smart mirror at Lowes, this is an idea better suited for deep-pocketed homeowners.

There are a few hacks out there that show DIYers how to make their own smart mirrors, by embedding a phone or tablet behind a mirrored glass and setting it to display a preprogrammed set of data (usually clock and weather, maybe a news feed).  It’s a much cheaper option, but limited in that you can’t manipulate the phone or tablet while it’s behind the mirror; so you have a very static display.  (You may be able to expand that limitation if you can leave the phone or tablet open to audio commands, but since audio control is itself pretty limited in what you can do, it’s not much help.)

I decided to go a simpler route: I just mounted a tablet on a bathroom shelf.  Its job would be to provide me with the basic info I want while washing up, but have more flexibility than your basic clock radio (and a bigger screen than if you used a radio with an iPhone mount).  This would be my bathroom news appliance.

bathroom appliance mounted on shelfI experimented first with the smallest, cheapest android-based tablet I could find, an RCA Voyager.  With a 3.5 x 6 inch screen, it would provide enough of a display to be seen clearly when standing at the sink.  It’s not a particularly powerful tablet, and the tinny little speaker isn’t great for music, but for the basic task of being a bathroom appliance, it’s plenty.  And it doesn’t look bad on the shelf, either (it’s hard to find good-looking clock radios these days).

I mounted it on a shelf just above the light switch and power outlets.  First I placed a small non-slip gadget grip tab on the shelf, set an inch from the wall.  Then I placed the tablet on the tab and leaned the tablet back to the wall.  This makes it stable and keeps it from pitching over or sliding off of the shelf.  Next,  I plugged a USB to Micro-USB line from the tablet to the power outlet (a spring-retractable line, so my power line would look as neat as possible).  Presto, your installation is done.

Like a lot of tablets, this one comes with a camera facing the user… which means it’s staring at the interior of your bathroom.  Unless you like the idea of someone maybe hacking into your wireless network and stealing candid shots of you doing your breast exams, I’d suggest covering that lens.  I used an old-school hole punch to cut a small round bit from sticky label, used a marker to blacken it, and stuck it over the lens.  Take that, peeping tom hackers!

The key to making your new bathroom appliance work is to keep things simple. Don’t load a ton of features or custom settings on it at first… just start with the few features you want to regularly see displayed there.  Since it’s plugged in, set it to stay on when plugged in.  And unless you want to be awoken by alert noises for this and that, turn off or silence all notifications.

bathroom appliance close-upConnect it to your home’s wireless account, so you can start your setup and feed your apps.  I started with a clock (a Google-standard app which, when tapped, would become a low-light display-saving screen saver), a Weatherbug weather widget, a Google News widget, an app for WTOP Radio (a news station) and an app for US Office of Personnel Management alerts (in the Washington, DC area, a useful thing to have).  Later I added a Maps app to check locations and routes to desired destinations.  You can choose whatever apps and widgets you prefer, depending on what and how you want it to display, and arrange them on the screen however you’d like.  You’re not looking for information overload, so don’t go nuts.  But if you insist on other apps, you can always call up a second screen to display them, so as not to clutter your main screen.

When I enter the bathroom, I tap the Close icon on the bottom of the screen, and the appliance closes the screen saver and brings everything up.  I can take it all in with a glance, and if I want additional detail on the weather, or a news story, I just tap the app to bring it up.  The WTOP app is designed for phones only, so tapping it has the slightly annoying response of opening sideways on your screen… but then, it’s just one button to start the radio, so no big.  The appliance has a volume rocker on the side, as well as volume buttons on the screen itself, so adjustment is easy.  The single speaker isn’t great, but for listening to news, it’s fine.  When I’m done, I tap the clock once… tap and hold it to switch to the clock screen-saver… and leave.  (The screen saver is good as a bathroom night light, too.)

The other nice thing about the appliance is that I can use it for more than what’s on display if I want or need to.  I can unplug it and read on it while on the can (I could… I’m not saying I ever actually do that), look up health tips, find skin care products, order razors from Amazon, etc, etc… then put it back on the shelf when you’re done.

The upside is obvious: Much more flexible than a clock radio.  You can chose what to display and how to display it, and adjust the appliance’s functions through the Settings.  As time passes, you can change out apps or give the appliance new things to do.  And you’ve got a big screen that’s easier to read, say, when getting out of the shower, or before you’ve put your glasses or contacts on.

The downside: This hack is only as good as the tablet you use… and your wireless connection.  The RCA Voyager isn’t much of a tablet, and it’s occasionally fritzing or locking up, requiring me to hit the reset button to correct… and I mentioned its tinny speaker.  If you get an old or cheap tablet you might find the apps you want won’t play on the OS version you have.  And none of those apps will be useful if your wireless connection is bad or overloaded.  So, just because I tried this with a cheap tablet, doesn’t mean your appliance should be cheap.  Use a tablet you’ll be happy with.

And though you may not want to just go out a buy a new tablet for this task… it’s worth considering this hack as a second life for an existing tablet in your home, when you replace it for a new one.  Waste not, want not.

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