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 Alexa smart home devices mean you can now make it all happen just by saying the right words. We’ve put together the comprehensive guide to Echo and Alexa smart home devices 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 smart home devices such as the Amazon Echo.
|Amazon Echo Plus||9.7/10|
|Amazon Echo Spot||8.2/10|
|Amazon Echo Show||8.6/10|
|Amazon Echo Dot||8.8/10|
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.
Smart Home Voice Control – Amazon is the new Apple and Alexa is the new Siri
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 system of Alexa smart home devices.
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, Echo and Amazon’s flagship Alexa smart home devices are compatible with a lot of connected devices and gear in your smart home ecosystem.
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 number makeover in the latest iteration of the Echo smart home devices and she looks amazing.
Providing all of the functionality of the older Echo devices in a set of smaller, and smarter shells allows the new Echo devices to deliver all of the benefits of the older models with even less space requirements, more smart functionality, and a variety of awesome design finishes.
The remit of Alexa voice control is also continuing to expand, with Echo and Alexa-enabled devices beginning to move away from simple, home based voice controllers, and now integrating into more devices than ever, and Alexa functionality even making it’s way into your car.
At the center of it all is Alexa, and the original and timeless iteration of smart home voice control is the Amazon Echo.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 smart home devices represent 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 Echo is undoubtedly the flagship Alexa smart home device when it comes to getting started with Alexa-enabled voice control.
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 form factor.
Within this newly compacted body, Amazon has crammed a lot of smart tech to deliver all of the connected 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.
Alexa – 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 off the lights in the house 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 the top Alexa smart home devices may prove to be Amazon’s answer to helping us get there.
While the hallmark of the best 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, the main Alexa smart home 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, as well as 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 Echo and Alexa Smart Home Devices
So, whichever model you eventually go with, the range of Alexa smart home devices are 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 main Alexa smart home 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 that the system will respond to.
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’ (or a word that sounds similar) 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 what you’re saying – “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 personalization of your smart 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 the Alexa smart home devices and 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.
Given the size of the Alexa smart home devices and voice control systems, 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 being 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.
Alexa Smart Home Devices – The Options
In terms of getting started with your Alexa smart home devices, it all starts with choosing an Alexa voice control 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 current iteration of 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.Learn More About the Amazon Echo Here
The launch of the original Echo Plus saw the integration of an in-built smart hub for to the device offering total connectivity and control over your connected smart devices.
While this was a welcome addition to the already excellent Echo, the first gen Echo Plus was larger than the standard Echo and made the device visually less appealing than it’s more compact siblings.
The new 2nd generation of the Echo Plus looks to correct this however, delivering the same excellent functionality in a new, streamlined outer shell.
The result of this is the ability to coordinate all of your other smart home devices in an attractive device, effectively allowing you to seamlessly orchestrate all of your smart lighting, heating, entertainment, security and more from a single, centralized point
This combination of features makes the new Echo Plus the natural centerpiece of a voice controlled smart home entertainment environment.
On top of a new streamlined exterior, the new Echo Plus features an improved speaker design offering improved sound output using Dolby processing to deliver high quality and immersive, 360° audio in any room it’s located in.
If you’re starting out in building a smart home system and have plans to create a fully integrated and connected smart home environment throughout your living space, then the Echo Plus is arguably one of the best starting blocks around which to build your system, providing the combination of device compatibility and voice control, in the form of a smart hub and audio speaker system.Learn More About the 2nd Generation Echo Plus Here
If you’re looking for an alternative to the Echo for your home that offers a similar feature set at a reduced size and price tag, then the latest version of the Echo Dot is 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 – there’s a lot of smart tech going on under the hood.
Although the Dot may appear to be a slimline version of the Echo, it actually offers the majority of the features found in the larger members of the Echo family.
The main difference you’re going to see in the higher-end Echo devices is the inclusion of a superior speaker system capable of delivering quality sound for music playback in the home. With that being said, while the Dot’s speaker is primarily designed for transmitting Alexa’s voice responses, the latest generation of the device features a significant overhaul to playback making it an increasingly choice for music playback as a standalone smart speaker.
Beyond this one of the awesome features of the Dot is the ability to wirelessly connect the device 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 more of a traditionalist, the Dot also allows a 3.5 mm wired connection to a sound system of your choice meaning you can easily integrate the device into any existing audio kit you have set up in your home.Learn More About the 3rd Generation Echo Dot Here
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.
The latest version of Amazon’s Echo Show utilizes a ten-inch HD screen to allow you to make and receive video calls, watch video clips, and generally do some pretty neat stuff with the addition of high resolution visual interaction.
As with the Amazon Echo Plus device, the 2nd generation Echo Show includes an in-built ZigBee hub for orchestrating all of your smart home devices without the need for standalone hub – an essential feature if you’re looking to kit your home out with a range of individual smart home systems that all need to be controlled from one place.
One of the most significant additions to the latest Echo Show is also the inclusion of an overhauled speaker system which utilizes dual 2” premium drivers, Dolby processing, and a passive bass radiator, all of which combine to deliver a quality of audio ouput you’d expect from a high end smart speaker system.
The focus on improved sound output from the earlier version of the Show includes the ability to use your voice to adjust the levels and to set up multi-room music playback, hooking the device up with other Echo units around your home.
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 latest 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.Learn More About the 2nd Generation Echo Show Here
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 favorite track.
One of the biggest appeals to owners will almost certainly be the compact form and design aesthetic of the Echo Spot. Benefiting 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.
Alexa’s latest form moves the realm of voice control beyond the home and brings it onto the road with you.
Using a wireless connection to your phone, Echo Auto allows Alexa to pair with your phone, at which point you’ll be hooked up and be able to hear through the speakers in your vehicle.
The Echo Auto features eight microphones which have been specifically optimized to work with the acoustic environment inside a car, meaning Alexa will be able to hear your instructions over the car and road noise, air conditioning, and even over any music you’re playing.
So what kind of options does a vehicle-based Alexa open up?
Well, the first thing you’re going to be able to do is ask Alexa to play all of your favorite tracks or audiobooks when connected to Amazon Music, Spotify, or Audible.
You’re also going to be able to use those incredibly helpful virtual assistant features of Alexa to add items to your to-do list, when your hands are on the wheel, as well as getting the latest news updates, or weather conditions wherever you’re headed.
For the smart home side of things, Echo Auto is the perfect companion to those connected devices which bridge your home and your car, meaning you can ask Alexa to open your smart garage door when you arrive home each day.
Oh, and directions, Alexa supports apps like Waze, Google Maps, and Apple Maps, so voice controlled directions from Alexa are now a thing to.Learn More About Echo Auto Here
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.
Echo Dot Kids Edition – Alexa for Kids
The Kids Edition of the Echo Dot brings the essential functionality of the original with a couple of distinct differences including unique features, settings, and control options that make it specifically suited to a younger audience.
One of the first things you’ll notice about the Echo Dot Kids Edition is the inclusion of a ‘kid-friendly’ colored case which increases the durability – a must-have inclusion for a device designed to be used by kids.
Similarly, the Kids Edition Dot also includes a 2-year worry-free guarantee which covers the device against breakages, meaning if it gets destroyed, Amazon will replace it for free.
The Echo Dot Kids Edition also includes 1 year of Amazon FreeTime Unlimited out of the box which gives access to hundreds of hours of age-appropriate content including Audible books, ad-free radio stations, and music playlists.
Parental controls which can be accessed via the Amazon Parent Dashboard allow you to set daily time limits, pause Alexa on the device, and keep a remote eye on activity.
An incredibly useful feature of the Echo Dot Kids Edition (and one shared by other Echo devices) is the ability to communicate with your kids without having to shout up the stairs or across the home – a smart, kid-friendly intercom with a 2-year peace of mind guarantee.
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.
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 – Alexa Smart Home Devices
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.
Amazon Echo Spot
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.
Unless you decide to go for the excellent Echo Plus which includes an in-built smart hub, pairing your Alexa with a hub such as the awesome SmartThings solution 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 Echo and the Other Alexa Smart Home Devices?
The development and rollout of the Alexa family has continued to gather pace with the range of Alexa smart home devices beginning to expand far beyond the humble beginnings of the Echo and Dot.
With this momentum and growth, the number of compatible Alexa smart home devices and services that become accessible via Alexa is only likely to increase dramatically, with Amazon definitely holding a strong lead 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 immediate Echo family into more traditional speaker and sound systems as they become increasingly smart themselves.
In the home device arena, one such existing example of this is the Sonos One, a high quality speaker system and Alexa smart home device rolled into one from one of the industry leaders in audio equipment.
Competition to the family of Alexa smart home devices comes in the form of Google Home, the brand’s rival to the Echo which has the aim of emulating and improving upon the feature list provided by Amazon’s Alexa smart home devices, albeit with the power of Google’s much more powerful search pedigree behind it. On top of this, the Apple HomePod, while arguably not so much of a threat, will undoubtedly grow in popularity as the device, its audience, and the market continue to develop.
As for the Echo, Dot, and other flagship Alexa smart home 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 Smart Home Devices Here
Smart Assistance – Getting Started with Alexa Skills
Alexa is able to be ‘taught’ what Amazon calls ‘skills’. This doesn’t involve any form of complex AI homeschooling though and within a few taps of the app or even by telling your Alexa enabled device to add the skill, you’ll have access to a new repertoire of smart assistant functionality.
Using Alexa to Help Kick Start Your Day the Smart Way
Mornings are hard. In fact, if you’re anything like us, just the prospect of getting out of bed at 6:00 sends a shiver down your spine. Luckily though, with a little bit of help from a smart assistant like Amazon’s Alexa, it’s now becoming even easier to shed those morning blues.
Here are seven of our favorite Amazon Alexa skills for early mornings that will help you rise and shine every day.
1. Wake up on time.
The alarm functionality on the Echo is basic but effective allowing you to ask Alexa to set a wake-up call for you at the time of your choice and then turn off with a grumble as you roll out of bed. While the standard set of tones for the alarm offers a pretty slim choice of audio awakenings, there are also ways to pair Alexa with Spotify and wake to something a little more to your taste.
2. Get your daily briefing.
(Sort of) like the president, you can get Alexa to give you a rundown of the most important events of the day through flash news briefings as soon as you wake up. The news that Alexa reads to you can be set in advance by defining the categories you’re most interested in. If you just want an immediate update on what’s been going on in the world, simply ask “Alexa, what’s new?”
3. Recap your schedule.
Alexa can let you know what you’ve got lined up for the day ahead like an always-on PA. Simply ask and Alexa will let you know the calendar events in your diary as well as the next and most important appointments for the day ahead.
4. Be inspired.
Waking up early and then feeling motivated can feel like a tall order on some mornings. Luckily, Alexa is looking to help here too though and simply through vocalizing the request “Alexa, inspire me”, she’ll proceed to read an inspirational quote to help get you ready for the day. We like to think of it as our own early morning pep talk.
5. Brighten things up.
If it’s dark outside, use Alexa’s skills to bring a little light into your morning by telling your smart assistant to switch the lights on. When combined with one of the many compatible smart light solutions such as LIFX, Philips Hue or TP Link, you can replicate a pretty close match to natural daylight indoors without even leaving the bed, let alone getting up to flick a light switch.
6. Get the pot on.
Alexa can be tied up to smart plugs to activate an on/off function on any power outlet switch for most regular ‘non-smart’ devices. Hook an Alexa compatible smart plug up to your coffee machine or kettle and be welcomed downstairs by the shot of caffeine you need to face the day.
7. Check the forecast.
Umbrella or sunglasses? Scarf or shorts? To get an idea of how it feels out there when it’s still too dark to tell, just ask “Alexa, what’s the weather?” and you’ll be provided with a personalized report of your local weather for the day to make the most informed decisions before ever opening the front door. This is one of our favorite Amazon Alexa skills.