In this guide, we’ll take a look at some of the incredible ways Amazon Alexa allows you to control your smart home devices without ever lifting a finger. From lighting and heating to sound and vision, Amazon’s Echo family of devices powered by Alexa mean you can now make it all happen just by saying the right words. We’ve put together the comprehensive guide to Alexa and Echo to get you started with smart voice control today.
When it comes to smart home control and the future of voice-activated automation, Amazon have emerged as a serious player and arguably the current leader in the market with their Alexa-controlled family of smart devices such as the Amazon Echo.
You may already be familiar with the Echo as Amazon’s answer to voice-controlled information and assistance and these are certainly areas where the device excels, with the ability to carry out a wide of remit of verbally initiated tasks from helping with your to-do lists and online shopping through to giving you live traffic and weather updates and even controlling a whole load of your integrated smart home devices.
What makes this so good is the fact that using Amazon’s inbuilt intelligence Alexa (and a few well-placed microphones and speakers), this can all be done with the power of your voice, so no more smartphone tapping required.
Amazon is the new Apple
You probably remember when you bought your first smartphone, you may even remember the phones you owned beforehand and the way that the game changed almost overnight with the launch of the iPhone and the subsequent iterations of always improving handheld devices.
In a lot of ways, this turning point is where we are with smart home voice controllers today and the transformative effect they’re already beginning to have on the way we control our connected devices, access information and build a smart home around a centralized ‘intelligent’ device.
That ‘smartphone moment’ has now arrived when it comes to smart home voice assistants and Amazon is leading the charge with its intelligent AI assistant Alexa to making your home and connected devices, smarter, more efficient, and more responsive to your every command and question.
While there are other major players (namely Google and Apple) also pushing into this new and evolving space as quickly as possible to gain a share in what will become a defining moment in smart home technological changes, Amazon are undoubtedly at the front of the pack with the always-expanding and improving Echo family of devices and the ever smarter Alexa intelligence that sits at the core of them all.
So what does this mean in practice?
Well firstly, many of the newest smart device manufacturers are increasingly building Alexa compatibility into their bulbs, locks, and thermostats out of the box, meaning with Alexa and one (or several) Echo devices set up in your home, you’re simply an unboxing away from having a voice-controlled smart home system.
On top of this, many of the best existing smart devices are almost certain to be compatible with Alexa either through subsequent firmware updates, utilizing a service such as IFTTT or interfacing through a third-party smart device.
Put simply, Alexa and the Echo devices are compatible with a lot of smart devices.
From ordering take-out to dialing a ride with Uber, answering your deepest (or most shallow) of questions or just playing music, the Amazon Echo is the flagship Alexa device which also connects to your smart home and lets you make interconnected home magic happen using your voice.
Updated in a beautifully stylish and compact form, Alexa’s had a makeover in the latest iteration of the Echo and she looks amazing. All of the functionality of the previous Echo in a smaller shell allows the new Echo to deliver all of the benefits of the older models with even less space requirements and a variety of awesome color finishes.
Find out more about the new Amazon Echo here
Behind it all, Alexa is the voice-controlled system behind Amazon’s suite of smart assistants. Having the ability to speak your command or aska question and have a device respond is pretty awesome and this is what Alexa aims to accomplish for a wide range of jobs such as reading you the latest headlines, playing your favorite music, controlling your home lighting and even turning on your smart coffee maker.
Acting as the digital intermediary between your voice and getting things done, Alexa is the intelligence that transforms Amazon’s Echo, Dot, Show and Spot devices into smart home media control centers.
It’s probably not too much of an exaggeration to say that Alexa represents the turning point in the field of voice-activated smart home control and assistance.
While Apple’s Siri arguably introduced the world to mainstream voice recognition, Amazon’s platform is looking to take things much, much further from what we’ve had before, towards a world of home intelligent assistance that Tony Stark would be familiar with.
Watch out Jarvis, Alexa’s on your tail.
The Echo and range of other Alexa devices utilize what are known as far-field microphones, effectively enabling Alexa to hear your commands, wherever you are in the room and even when there’s other stuff going on around you that would almost certainly confuse lesser microphones.
This intelligent listening capability is taken further by the fact that (with the higher end devices such as the Echo, Dot and Show at least), Alexa is always listening out for your next instruction. This means there’s no need to push a button to get started with these devices, instead, you just speak the wake word – “Alexa” by default – at which point Alexa will be activated and is then ready to receive a command. From there, simply say what you want to happen and Alexa will do her best to oblige.
This means there’s no need to push a button to get started with these devices, instead, you just speak the wake word – “Alexa” by default – at which point Alexa will be activated and is then ready to receive a command or question.
From there, simply say what you want to happen and Alexa will do her best to oblige.
If an ever-evolving and always improving smart home assistant is what you’re after, Alexa offers an excellent way to dive into voice-powered automated assistance for the most common tasks you find yourself doing.
The center of your voice controlled smart home has arrived, and she’s called Alexa.
In the Ultimate Guide to Amazon Alexa and Echo
2.Getting Started: How Alexa Works
3.The New Voice of the Smart Home
4.Does not Compute – Some Issues with Alexa
6.What about Alexa Skills and IFTTT?
7.Alexa for the Smart Home
8.What’s Next for Alexa and Echo?
What is the Echo and is it for me?
At the most basic level, the Amazon Echo is a voice-activated device that ‘listens’ to instructions and carries out simple tasks in response to these commands.
These actions can come in the form of an audio response from the device’s speakers – music or spoken information – or a relayed instruction to a connected smart home product within your wider home network – Ask for the smart lights to be switched on in the living room and illumination will follow.
So how does the Echo function as a standalone speaker system for streaming my music collection?
The Echo is capable of operating as an independent audio speaker solution for listening to music, and in this capacity, it really does perform pretty well (given that this isn’t the primary purpose of the device) for everyday use.
With a 0.6 inch tweeter for high notes and a 2.5 inch woofer for a deeper bass response, the latest Echo delivers what Amazon refers to as “omnidirectional sound” to provide broad sound coverage in all directions.
However, if what you’re looking for is a purely dedicated speaker system, there are certainly other alternatives which offer much more bang per buck at a lower price tag than the Echo.
If on the other hand, what you’re looking for is a device which offers the power to unite and control your smart home devices using your voice alone, provide responses to your vocalized requests and that outputs decent quality audio as a bonus, then the Echo is the device you’ve been waiting for.
With Alexa-based devices such as the Echo and its smaller but equally smart sibling Dot, the days of needing to free your hands to get something done in the house are rapidly becoming a thing of the past.
Imagine those times when you’re in the kitchen with your hands occupied cutting vegetables or washing dishes, just being able to tell your smart home to brighten the lights or asking Alexa to set a timer for 10 minutes.
The age of the hands-free home helper has arrived – and it feels great.
As well as queuing up your favorite tracks or lending a hand with household tasks, the Echo – and by extension, Alexa – can be used to find out those essential bits of information that you never have to hand when you need them.
For example, you can ask for facts about famous events or people and Alexa will pull what she knows from Wikipedia or ask a mathematical question and get the answer absolutely right, every time.
On the practical level again, combining these skill sets is super-useful when employing the brains of Alexa to assist you with your everyday household tasks such as converting units of measurement and setting reminders.
If you’re looking to build a comprehensive home automation ecosystem from the ground-up, you’re almost certainly going to want to include at least some element of voice control into the setup for your devices and alongside other solutions such as Google’s Home device, the Alexa range from Amazon are some of the best out there to get the job done.
Getting Started: How Alexa Works
When using Alexa, it becomes obvious pretty quickly that Amazon has done a very good job at designing a language recognition interface that is both intuitive to use and effective at responding to instructions and questions.
This ease of use is partly due to the design of the Echo and the Dot which incorporate seven microphones with ‘beamforming’ technology to hear whatever you ask, wherever you are in the room.
Once you give the magic wake word (which can be changed from the default “Alexa” to “Echo” or “Amazon”), the system is activated and awaits your next words. As soon as Alexa is given a verbal command or question after this, your voice is sent to the Amazon cloud computers to be analyzed before a response is fired back to the device and spoken through the system’s speakers.
As soon as Alexa is given a verbal command or question after this, your voice is sent to the Amazon cloud computers to be analyzed before a response is fired back to the device and spoken through the system’s speakers.
Think of the question/command and answer system as Alexa ‘looking up’ responses to whatever it is you’ve asked, before coming back to deliver the appropriate response.
Whether you’re trying to find out the current weather conditions where you live, the capital of Mongolia or maybe even just searching for and retrieving that hard to find song you requested from the online database, just ask and Alexa will try and get it done.
On that note, Alexa is also able to retrieve an almost limitless choice of audible output for your listening pleasure from sources such as the Amazon Music and Amazon Prime catalog, as well as being able to stream directly from services like Spotify, Pandora and live radio through TuneIn stations.
It’s the smart home smarts that really got us excited with Alexa though, and this is where the system is beginning to change the game in voice-controlled home automation.
Amazon Echo Anatomy
The latest version of the Echo works in an identical way to its predecessor with the major difference coming in the form of a greatly reduced outer body.
Within this newly compacted form, Amazon has crammed a lot of tech to deliver all of the smart functionality and sound playback quality associated with the Echo in a much smaller and arguably more stylish footprint.
The foundations of the device revolve around the two main features, the omnidirectional 7-microphone array for picking up voice commands from all directions, paired with an impressive sound playback system in the form of a 2.5″ woofer and 0.6″ tweeter combo.
On the exterior of the device, the latest Echo features a 3.5 mm audio input if you want to connect the device directly to your own speaker system.
The top of the Echo features 4 buttons which allow you to manually increase or decrease the volume (although this can also be done using your voice), as well as an ‘Action button’ and a microphone mute button.
This last button is used if you want the ‘always listening’ Alexa to stop listening for her wake word. With this button selected, the light ring on the top of the device will shine red to let you know that Echo (and Alexa) are no longer listening for commands.
One of the major design advances of the latest iteration of the Echo is the ability to choose between six unique and striking external color variations. From a choice of three fabric color finished through to wood and silver effect coverings, you can proudly display your smart assistant as a feature of your home and perfectly match any interior.
The New Voice of the Smart Home
Have you ever wanted to adjust the thermostat, open or close the blinds, switch the coffee machine on or even just turn the lights in the house off simply by using your voice?
We certainly have, and if the goal of the modern smart device is to make everyday and routine tasks as easy and efficient as possible, then Alexa may prove to be Amazon’s answer to helping us get there.
While the hallmark of smart devices today is the ability to control them from an app on a smartphone or on a tablet, then the next step in ultimate usability is making the need for a physical interface redundant entirely.
With a growing list of smart products offering out of the box, direct integration with the platform, Alexa and her host devices such as Echo, Dot, Spot, and Show, allow you to control a serious amount of smart kit from some of the biggest names on the market with minimal up-front setup required.
Outside of those products which Alexa works with directly, an even more extensive remit of smart devices is available for pairing through third-party integrations using IFTTT and other services to trigger actions via Alexa.
Among the most exciting names to work directly with Alexa from the start are systems such as Belkin WeMo, Nest and EcoBee thermostats, Philips Hue and LIFX bulbs.
On top of this, integration with smart hubs such as Insteon, SmartThings and Wink effectively enables you to control any products which are also connected to these devices, further widening the net of potential voice-control awesomeness within your home.
Does not Compute – Some of the Issues with Alexa and Echo
So, Alexa is pretty amazing when it comes to getting things done hands-free, but what about the shortfalls of the system?
Let’s start with a name.
As mentioned earlier, the Alexa enabled devices are always listening and ready to respond whenever they hear that all-important wake word.
The only issue is, that wake word is kind of limited.
Although the wake word can be changed between “Alexa”, “Echo” and “Amazon”, unfortunately, that’s your lot when it comes to voice responsive names.
From our experience, this can become a particular nuisance if you’re in mid-conversation with someone else in your household and mention the word ‘Alexa’ within earshot of the device, your Echo or Dot will unbeknownst to you, start listening and then deliver some nonsensical responses through the middle of your human-human conversation.
In our home, this has ended up with us using alternate words when discussing the cool features of the system, so as not to prompt Alexa to start listening. Kind of like when you have to spell things out when discussing certain things in front of toddlers or pets so they don’t understand – “Is it nearly time to take the dog for a w-a-l-k?”.
While these naming issues can be a bit inconvenient and don’t allow for a great deal of personalisation of your home assistant, Amazon have resolved one of the major issues that owners of multiple devices were facing with this lack of choice by introducing what they call Echo Spatial Perception – effectively activating the Echo or Dot nearest to you, rather than all of the units within earshot.
One of the complaints that some users also have with Amazon’s smart assistant is its ability to only handle individual, rather than queued or complex instructions and questions.
While Alexa does allow you to create grouped commands (effectively a command to action more than one task simultaneously, or to turn on multiple devices at once), this is about as complex as spoken instructions can currently get.
For a series of instructions, these need to be vocalized individually one after another, for example: “Alexa, turn on the bathroom lights” followed by “Alexa, play my shower music playlist”. What you couldn’t say in this scenario would be “Alexa turn on the bathroom lights, adjust the temperature in the bathroom and play my bathtub mix”.
This of course, is a deviation from the natural way of speaking for most people and can prove annoying when you forget this limitation exists.
A particularly relevant example of this is when dictating items for Alexa to add to a list. In this instance, each individual item needs to be added before asking Alexa to add the next – far from a time saver in that regard.
For the size of the Alexa-equipped devices, it has to be said, Amazon have designed the inclusion of their audio receiving and transmitting into a compact body really quite well.
However with that said, one of the shortfalls of Alexa’s listening capabilities still comes in the form of a difficulty the system can have in understanding you when there are multiple voice inputs hitting the microphones at once, or if there’s just a bit too much background noise getting in the way of your instruction or question.
In both of these cases, you may find yourself repeating a request to your Echo or other Alexa listening device to make sure you’re heard loud and clear.
In terms of getting started with your Alexa enabled smart home, it all starts with choosing a device which best suits your needs and these choices are now wider than ever before.
There are a few options out there which now come with Alexa built in as standard, ranging from the ‘dedicated’ voice detecting and audio output devices from Amazon which are based within the Echo family itself, through to third-party devices which feature the system as the intelligent brain to help you get more done through the power of voice control.
The natural starting point if you’re thinking of integrating Alexa into your home environment is to go for one of the Alexa-enabled base units.
While all seven of these share a degree of functionality that clearly establishes them as belonging to the primary Alexa family, each variation offers a slightly different feature set from the others and it’s worth getting to know the strengths and weaknesses of each before deciding which unit is best suited to your specific needs.
As the foundation of any voice controlled smart home setup, one of the Alexa enabled devices from Amazon will provide an excellent starting block for building an intelligent ecosystem of devices that you can control with your voice, whether that’s adjusting the temperature, dimming the lights or asking Alexa to play your favourite music.
The second generation of Amazon’s flagship Alexa device, the latest Echo is the original voice controlled device from Amazon and remains the cornerstone of the Alexa offering, providing voice-activated assistance and a portable speaker in a compact package which performs well for everyday use.
Among the improvements in the latest version of the cornerstone Alexa voice controller, the 2nd generation Echo is also now considerably smaller than its predecessor (the Echo Plus now taking over the previous shell style and incorporating additional functionality as well).
On top of this, the new Echo includes an improved, Dolby audio output, and while still not a replacement for a dedicated audio solution, is able to deliver music and voice incredibly effectively within small-mid sized rooms, projecting sound in 360 degrees when placed in the center of a space.
With the ability to pair wirelessly with your phone or tablet for Bluetooth playback, as well as streaming directly from services online, the Echo features a speaker which offers omnidirectional bass-response and overall sound quality above what you’d expect for a device of its size.
As with the other devices in the Alexa family, Echo also represents the physical presence of your voice-controlled smart home as well as the output device for any questions or tasks you pose for Alexa to answer or carry out.
Filling the style of the original 1st generation Echo, the Echo Plus combines all of the smart specs of the main device but now also includes the significant benefit of an in-built hub for offering total connectivity and control over your devices.
The Echo Plus is larger than the new 2nd generation Echo (above), but the ability to coordinate all of your other smart home devices is totally worth the additional space, effectively allowing you to seamlessly orchestrate all of your smart lighting, heating, entertainment, security and more from a single, centralized point, making this a true core for your entire smart home environment.
On top of this, the Echo Plus offers improved sound output using Dolby processing to deliver immersive, 360° audio in any room it’s located in.
If you’re starting out in building a smart home and have plans to build a fully integrated and connected smart home environment throughout your living space, then the Echo Plus is arguably one of the best starting blocks to build your home around, providing the combination of device compatibility and voiice control, in the form of a smart hub and audio speaker system.
If you’re looking for an alternative to Echo that offers a similar feature set at a reduced size and price tag, then the Dot could be what you’re after.
Coming in at around half the price of the Echo, the Amazon Dot differs from its larger sibling in a couple of ways.
While the major difference on first glance is the size, don’t be fooled.
Although the Dot may appear to be a cut-down version of the Echo, it actually offers many identical features found in the larger, pricier alternative, only really sacrificing the inclusion of a speaker system capable of delivering quality sound for music provided as provided by the Echo (the speaker within the Dot is really only suitable for hearing Alexa’s voice responses).
This shortcoming is made up by the ability to wirelessly connect the Dot to a suitable speaker system meaning you could use the leftover cash saved choosing the Dot over the Echo as spending money towards a dedicated audio device for pairing.
If you’re feeling more traditional, the Dot also allows a 3.5mm wired connection to a sound system of your choice (we’re looking at you Apple!) meaning you can easily integrate the device into any existing audio kit you have set up in your home.
The Tap is slightly different to both the Echo and the Dot in that it doesn’t have any external wires for power, meaning you can take it with you wherever you find yourself in need of a portable speaker solution.
Measuring in slightly smaller than the Echo, the Tap includes a decent quality speaker along with a rechargeable battery and comes with a dock for charging.
One of the major differences between the Tap and the Echo/Dot, is that it isn’t always listening for your voice in the same way the other devices are. If you want to ask Alexa to do something using the Tap, you have to press a button on the device to enable the microphone before speaking your command to Alexa.
While it’s undoubtedly more portable, you’ll still need to be connected to the home network in order for Tap to be able to carry out any requests or stream your online music library.
Also, the ‘press to speak’ requirement removes the hands-free charm of the other two Alexa devices, but as a subsidiary unit working alongside an Echo or Dot, the Tap is an excellent addition to your Alexa-oriented smart home setup, particularly if you’re looking to use it outdoors in the garden or in the immediate vicinity of your home.
One of Amazon’s latest additions to the Echo family comes in the form of the Echo Show, a display centered take on the Alexa based smart home assistant.
Whereas the previous Echo iterations are audio-only devices, the Echo Show utilizes a seven-inch screen to allow you to make and receive video calls, watch video clips and generally do some pretty neat stuff with the addition of visual interaction.
From ordering food online and adjusting the temperature of your smart thermostat to dimming the lights and asking Alexa for weather updates, the Echo Show is equipped with all of the smarts of the other devices in the range – the big difference now of course, is you can also see things on the inbuilt display.
The first visual iteration of Alexa-powered home voice control hubs from Amazon is available in both a black and white finish and bridges the gap between speaking a voice command to Alexa and actually being both told and shown the result on screen.
The Echo Spot is the second of Amazon’s Alexa based devices to feature an in-built screen for watching video clips (such as news flash briefings), video calls, visual to-do lists, calendars and more.
At the foundation of Spot’s functionality is the classic remit of Alexa tasks such as intelligent voice activated assistance, smart home control and audio playback.
What makes the Echo Spot (and it’s sibling Echo Show) different, is the ability to benefit from visuals in the form of a screen and in-built camera.
Not only can you make device-device video calls between Echo Spot and Show devices, but you can also benefit from other visual media on the device’s screen ranging from video clips through to on-screen song lyrics when you’re listening to your favourite track.
One of the biggest appeals to owners will almost certainly be the compact form and design aesthetic of the Echo Spot. Benefitting from 2nd generation Alexa far-field tech means Alexa will pick up whatever you ask her, wherever you are in the room and the device itself is small enough (and stylish enough) to fit anywhere you need it – beside the bed as a visual alarm clock for example.
The Supporting Cast
While you’ll absolutely want to build your smart home around a central hub unit such as the Echo, Dot or Show, there are also supplementary devices within Amazon’s native Alexa family which can make an invaluable addition to your voice controlled environment at home.
Due to the fact that every Alexa enabled device within your home is ultimately connected to your specific account, the true advantage of additional devices or range extending “satellite’ devices (such as an extra Dot upstairs) is that you can effectively communicate with Alexa, wherever you are in the house to find things out, control devices or just get jobs done.
Alexa Voice Remote – The Extra set of Ears
But what about if you’re far away from your Echo, Dot or Show but still need to get Alexa on a job?
Or how about if you’re in bed, your Echo is in the Kitchen but you realize you left all the lights on downstairs?
Well, Amazon have thought about these eventualities too and with the addition of the Echo and Echo Dot Voice Remote, they’ve found a pocket sized way to solve the problem.
The Voice Remote acts as a portable microphone which is wirelessly hooked up to your Echo or Dot (the remote doesn’t work with Tap) to ensure you can always be heard by Alexa wherever you are in the house, without having to resort to shouting.
As well as providing range extension for your voice controlled device, the Voice Remote also allows you to control the volume of the device from the remote, which is super-handy when you’re a considerable distance from your Echo but still want to hear your music or whatever it is Alexa’s telling you.
Amazon Dash Wand – The Kitchen Assistant
Even though you may have an Echo or Show within earshot of your culinary workspace, while they’ll both happily read out recipes or provide super-useful conversions, there are still a few tricks that they can’t do when it comes to making life in the kitchen that bit easier.
Luckily the Dash Wand is just the tool for the job and comes primed with Alexa (no pun intended) to help you tackle everything from refrigerator inventory and resupply, through to grocery ordering and even helping you add ingredients for specific recipes to your list.
The Dash Wand includes a built-in barcode scanner for reordering groceries as well as the ability to talk directly into the device to add items to your shopping list. While the Dash Wand doesn’t offer the ability to double up as a music player in the same way as some of the dedicated Alexa devices, it does contain a magnet for fridge-clinging awesomeness, and a water-resistant body means it’s ready to help you face every cooking and baking challenge head-on.
What about Alexa Skills and IFTTT?
Alexa’s functionality and remit of tasks can ultimately be extended through ‘Learning’ what Amazon calls Skills as well as through the subsequent application of IFTTT Applets which allow actions in your smart devices to be triggered if certain conditions are met.
A Skill can be taught to Alexa in no time at all, and following Amazon’s release of the Alexa Skill Kit earlier this year, there are now over 2500 Skills which have been developed by both amateurs and professionals alike for use with the system.
Simply add the Skill to your Alexa app and it is ready to use with all of your compatible Echo devices.
With Skills ranging from requesting a ride with Uber and ordering takeout food through to 1 Minute Meditations and similar exercise programs, you can teach Alexa to do a lot of useful (and not so useful) tasks to help you get things done.
In terms of IFTTT (If This, Then That), simply applying the IFTTT Skill to Alexa opens up the ability to connect your Echo, Dot or Tap to an extended range of services or other devices through what are called IFTTT Recipes.
Building a Smart Home around Alexa
So what smart home devices does Alexa work best with and what can you do when you connect Echo to your smart home?
As we talked about earlier, there are some smart products which integrate and work with Alexa pretty much out of the box with minimal setup required and the number of products offering this ability is now greater than ever before.
In other cases, Alexa can be integrated with smart devices through the use of Skills which Alexa can learn as well as through utilizing IFTTT.
For devices which work with Alexa directly, the setup process is incredibly straightforward.
Using the Alexa app, search for the product in question from the database and then ask Alexa to discover the device from those in range.
Once Alexa picks up the product, you give the device a name (‘Coffee Maker’, ‘Bathroom Lights’, ‘Living Room Thermostat’).
Again, as mentioned earlier, while Alexa can’t process multiple voice instructions at once, you can create grouped tasks which can be given a name, allowing you to fire off multiple smart home actions with one phrase or word such as ‘All Lights’ – “Alexa, turn on All Lights”.
The ability to group devices is powerful and can be used to set up whole grouped tasks that you want to work together as soon as you issue the command to Alexa.
For example assigning a group of devices and actions for the phrase “Alexa, start my morning routine” could be an instruction to the system to turn on the coffee maker (via a smart plug in the kitchen), adjust the thermostat and turn the lights on in the bathroom.
A number of leading smart home brands offer direct integration with the Echo family and this list continues to grow. Below are some of the main players in the smart home device market which you can connect to Alexa for voice control with ease.
The WeMo range of smart plugs from Belkin are designed to work seamlessly with Alexa as soon as you plug them in to a device and an outlet.
Effectively turning any regular electrical appliance into a smart device (that can be turned on and off remotely), WeMo smart plugs can be interfaced directly through Alexa by giving the plug a name that Alexa can use to identify the device.
From that point on, the device can be activated or switched off using just your voice.
Another option in the WeMo range comes in the form of their light switches, allowing you to control the regular lights throughout the home without ever touching a switch.
On the subject of lighting, the Philips Hue series of smart lightbulbs can be controlled directly through Alexa in conjunction with the Philips Hue Bridge (which in itself allows control of up to 50 Hue lights in your home).
Alexa can be used to switch lights on and off as well as dimming when required.
As with other devices, groups can be set up and assigned to control certain ‘sets’ of lights around your home allowing you to only activate those in a specific room if required.
The Learning Thermostat from Nest not only programs itself to adapt to your heating habits, but also integrates with Alexa meaning you can ask your smart assistant to adjust the temperature whenever you need.
Integrating with Nest allows you to ask what the temperature is, to raise or lower the target temperature as well as instructing the device to meet a specific temperature, i.e. “Alexa, set the thermostat to 68 degrees” or “Alexa, increase the thermostat temperature by 4 degrees”.
If you’re looking to expand the connectivity between the Nest Learning Thermostat and Alexa, there are a number of Skills that Alexa can learn, as well as IFTT recipes to increase the functionality even further.
Pairing Alexa with a SmartThings hub enables you to voice control those devices which the hub itself is responsible for in your smart home ecosystem.
This is particularly useful if you’re looking to setup (or already own) a system with a number of Z-Wave switches involved (these also tend to come in somewhat cheaper than dedicated WeMo plugs which is a consideration if you’re on the fence).
Getting Started – Setting up Alexa and Echo
Whether we’re talking about the Dot or the Echo, getting underway with your Alexa enabled device could hardly be simpler and basically goes something like this:
- Unbox your device, plug it in, download the accompanying Alexa app, switch the device on and follow the prompted instructions.
That’s about it.
When you first get set up and underway, you’ll be required to connect to your existing Amazon account via the app (creating an account if you don’t already have one) which is then effectively ‘paired’ with Alexa and your device(s).
This connection with your Amazon account is used for accessing everything from Amazon music (for playback through the speakers of your device) to your Kindle and Audiobook purchases and of course, to the Amazon E-commerce platform if you’re planning to purchase anything using your voice at a later date – more on this below.
Once you’re set up, the app is your place to go for tweaking the settings of your device including changing the ‘wake word’ from the default of “Alexa” to either “Amazon” or “Echo” as well as doing things like viewing the log of instructions you’ve given and responses received during use.
A Smart Home Shopping Assistant
One of the core features of the Alexa enabled devices is the connectivity to your Amazon account, which, if you’re an Amazon Prime member, also means the ability to ask the system to order online goods simply by speaking the command and having Alexa place the order.
In reality, you’re probably thinking “there’s a lot that could potentially go wrong there”. On the one hand, Alexa will recite the information of the product she’s found including the details and price.
Where this system really comes into its own though is when you place a re-order – for example kitchen supplies or consumables like paper towels or pet food – at which point, Alexa trawls your previous order history and understands specifically what you’re looking to reorder.
What’s Next for Alexa and Echo?
The development and rollout of the Alexa family has continued to gather pace with the Echo and Dot finally making it across the Atlantic for release last year and the continued expansion of the range so incorporate devices like the Show for North American households.
With this momentum and growth, the number of compatible smart devices and services that become accessible via Alexa is only likely to increase dramatically, with Amazon holding a strong position on the voice-controlled home automation sector.
So what can we expect next in the way of new functionality and features in the near future?
With what Amazon calls the Alexa Voice Service, one of the things you can expect to see increasingly will be the integration of Alexa into third-party products outside of the remit of the Echo family. In the home device arena, one such existing example of this is the Trilby, a portable speaker system for use around the home which allows you to access Alexa directly from the device as well as offering the functionality of making calls when connected to a smartphone or VOIP service.
Perhaps the bigger deal though, comes in the ability to access Alexa directly from your phone, with the ability already being integrated into models including the Huawei Mate 9 and the HTC U11, the latter of which includes hands-free Alexa voice control in the same format as the Echo – although this time of course, it’s in your pocket.
The arrival of Google’s competitor to the Echo family in the form of Google Home has the aim of emulating and improving upon the feature list provided by Amazon’s Alexa devices, albeit with the power of Google’s much more powerful search pedigree behind it.
As for the Echo, Dot and Show devices, upcoming generations will almost certainly aim to fill the gaps left by existing and previous models, probably with an increased focus on reduced size, more power flexibility (and increased portability) as well as greater sound quality across all devices.Learn more about Amazon Alexa enabled devices here