Amazon is trying to breed a generation of couch potatoes. Thanks to Prime Now and Amazon Echo, I may be becoming one of them. Amazon Echo is a voice-controlled speaker and personal assistant wrapped up in a tiny, black cylinder. Though she’s fun, she isn’t for everybody.
When my dear friend texted me for technology advice, she wanted to know if she should buy the Apple Watch or Echo (I know, night and day), my answer to her was, “buy the watch”. Echo adds a lot of value to my life, but mostly because Alexa, Echo’s personality, controls my smart home and entertains. She’s not a powerful speaker and she isn’t necessarily easier to use or smarter than Siri (yet). However, if you are a smart home newb or veteran, Echo will quickly become one of your favorite gadgets.
Amazon Echo Compatible Smart Devices and Setup
Echo works with Wink, SmartThings, Insteon, Philips Hue, and a growing list of compatible devices. However, that doesn’t mean that she works with every device that connects through these hubs. A little more on that later…
Connecting smart devices to Echo is easy. Some, like iSmartAlarm, connect through IFTTT while others connect directly. You connect to IFTTT by adding the appropriate channels on ifttt.com. Others, like SmartThings, are setup directly through the Amazon Echo app for iOS or Android. Within the Amazon App, select settings, and then connected home. From there you can link devices or setup groups. For example, I have both of my porch lights grouped so that they turn on or off with one voice command. Underneath the group section, you can choose your desired hub and smart devices. You can include and exclude devices as needed and it’s as simple as pressing a link within the app. If you prefer, you can have Alexa discover new devices with your voice. Say, “Alexa, discover new devices,” and she will look for new things to connect to.
Connecting Scout to Echo is done through apps as well. In the Echo app, click the icon on the top right hand corner, click skills, search for Scout, and enable the Scout skill. Then say, “Alexa, launch Scout!”. She will send a code to your app’s dashboard – remember this code. Go to the Scout app, click the icon on the top right hand corner, click Amazon Alexa, and enter the code.
Echo + IFTTT, iSmartAlarm, SmartThings, and Scout
Echo can up your home’s security. I’ve been using Echo with my iSmartAlarm security system through IFTTT. You can create custom trigger phrases to arm your system, disarm your system, and even trigger panic mode. For security purposes I suggest making the phrase something unique to you. You can make your phrase something benign or creative so long as it starts with, “Alexa Trigger (Fill in the Blank).” Using Echo with Scout works similarly, but even better.
Scout connects directly to Echo, no need for IFTTT. It also offers more expanded control. You can ask about recent security events and even check to see if you left a door or window open (something that wasn’t possible with SmartThings or iSmart). You can disarm, arm, or swap modes and even ask for help with your voice, “Alexa, tell Scout to send help!” And there’s no need to worry about an intruder barking at Alexa. During the setup process, you will create a four digit pin. This pin is what you will use to let Alexa know it’s you, and not someone she should ignore.
With SmartThings, Alexa can dim and control my connected smart lights, but she can’t tell me if my door is open or closed. Right now, light show parlor tricks and smart plug control are her forte. No, she can’t lock your doors and she can’t control your thermostat. And though it sounds like lock control is out of the picture for security reasons, I doubt that she will stay stagnant for long.
Tricks and Flops
Beyond smart home control, having Alexa around is pretty handy. Of course she can play music, but she can also build your shopping list, check your commute time, function as a timer, and answer questions – so long as the question can be answered using Wikipedia. Though she can’t Google, sigh, she can use Bing – kind of. If the answer is Bingable, she will send a link with the proposed answer to your app. Does Alexa need to learn to Google? Hell yeah she does! And I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve forgotten she cannot.
Life with Alexa isn’t all peaches and cream. My biggest problem is that many times, I don’t know what to say to get the outcome I want. For example, if I say “Alexa, read books from audible,” she will say, “Sorry, I don’t see any books in your library.” However, if I say, “Alexa, read Pretty Girls“, she will start reading the exact book from my Audible library.
A second, yet related issue, is that the order in which you say things can mess up your outcome. Flopping around the words turn on and dim can mean the difference between success and failure when working with smart lights. The final downside is that Alexa can’t hear through walls and she lacks a battery. In other words, she’s a one room act, unless you add the remote control. But if I did, I would be able to boss Alexa around by speaking to the remote instead of shouting up the stairs at the main device.
With all that said, Alexa is hands-down better at recognizing speech than Siri. I’ve added some crazy things to my shopping list and Alexa has nailed them all, even correcting my pronunciation of Nietzsche and Fage. When I asked Siri to add Fage to my notes, she told me she didn’t see any matching restaurants for “Phase Greek Yogurt”. When I tried again, she decided to search the web for “treasure a Greek yogurt.” Treasure, kind of like Fage Greek yogurt, but not really.
Is Alexa perfect? No. Can she control every device in your smart home? No. Is turning on lights with your voice an incredibly cool trick? Yes. Using Echo is fun. It’s like a toy, but for grownups.
If you want your smart home to talk back to you, it’s going to come at a price. Echo sells for $179.99 with the remote being an extra fee. Of course to get additional value, it doesn’t hurt to have a Prime membership ($99/year), which will add the ability to order from Prime using your voice and play Prime Music.