First came the programmable thermostats, timers and light switches. Then came the hubs that tied all the small devices that run your home automation system together. The hub also connects with your computer or smartphone app that acted as your home controller making it easy to control all those separate devices.. Now the lines have become more blurred.
The Amazon Echo is here. It is both a voice activated controller and a limited hub.
Not just a voice-activated search engine
Unless you’ve been living under a rock you know that Alexa is the name Amazon has given to the computerized voice of the personal assistant within the Echo. She listens to the ambient sounds in your room and “wakes” when you trigger her by using her name. As a personal assistant, she responds to your Internet search engine queries vocally.
In addition to search queries, Alexa can be configured to work directly with media sites like Spotify, Pandora, etc. to play and pause music, movies and so on. She can also read you your audible books, email and so on.
Alexa can also directly control some of the smart devices in your home. She does so through IFTTT (If This Then That) command recipes. She can dim your Philips Hue lights and turn down your Nest Thermostat for you at the same time as she starts playing that romantic song, for example. However, there are currently very few devices that connect directly to the Echo and you do need to spend a little more time working through each setup.
Let Alexa control your smart hub
More commonly the Echo is connected to a smart hub like the Samsung SmartThings or Wink 2 to enable it to control multiple devices. The hub holds the direct interface with a wide range of devices and protocols. Alexa just needs to pass on your vocal commands to the hub to reach them all.
It provides an alternative and easy way to control your smart devices, in addition to controlling them with your smartphone. Your cell phone is not in danger of being replaced by the Echo anytime soon, but Amazon has announced that they have added the ability for the Echo to call or message others who also have an Echo, a Dot or an Alexa app.
The Amazon Echo Dot
The Amazon Echo Dot is a more affordable and more portable version of the Amazon Echo. The main difference between the Echo Dot and the Echo is the speakers. The large speakers are replaced with smaller ones and although it won’t be as loud as the Echo, the Alexa in it is just the same as the Echo’s.
It still has long-range voice capabilities due to the multi-directional microphones present. Both also work with the wake word that can be “Alexa,” “Amazon,” “Computer,” or “Echo.” It has a 3.5-mm audio output jack so that you can connect it to your existing speaker system; you can also connect it to your Bluetooth speaker.
The Dot has been limited to media management in most situations because of its reliance on your speakers. It can’t very well take a central command spot in your kitchen if it is hard-wired to your stereo downstairs in the den.
Amazon Show joins the family
Amazon’s newest member of the Echo family is the Show. It features a 7.5″ screen that allows those calls you can make to other Echo owners to be video calls. However, the most impressive feature of the Show from a smart home standpoint is its ability to show you what’s going on with your home security cameras.
This is the feature we expect will drive serious buyers to shell out the extra money for that screen (currently about $50 more than the Echo with no screen). This was a screen skill added shortly after the Show was announced. If that rate of development continues, some pretty impressive skills could quickly make this the mainstay of the family.
How the Alexa works
All three Echo devices have Alexa to thank for their usability. Alexa is very sensitive to questions and commands, thanks to the 7 microphones built into the units. This enables Alexa to always hear you.
You can have multiple Echo devices in your home to make sure Alexa is always close enough to hear you. As you set each one up, they automatically find each other and assign themselves a name in the order they’re activated. They also manage overlaps between themselves so only the closest unit will respond if you are in range of two units.
In order for it to control your smart devices, you first need to set it up properly and ask correctly. You train Alexa to recognize your voice through an initial set up, but she continues to learn and sharpens her recognition over time. Many people in your household can teach Alexa to respond to them.
Alexa also has skills, which are like apps that enable it to do various things. The number of skills that Alexa is capable of having is continuously rising. A highly recommended skill that you should add is the IFTTT app mentioned above, which allows a way for Alexa to control different devices through the cloud that aren’t directly configured to work with Alexa.
You’ll use Alexa’s skills when you add a smart home device to your growing home automation system. If for example, you want to add voice control of your Nest thermostat, you’ll need to set it up through Alexa’s Smart Home menu. From there you navigate to configure Smart Home, then Enable Skills. You’ll be prompted to sign in to your Nest account and finally, you’ll instruct Alexa to discover the device by the name you have given it.
Make sure that name is something easy to remember because you’ll need to use it whenever you want to issue a voice command to it. You’ll need to say something like “Alexa, turn the downstairs thermostat up to 72 degrees,” instead of just “Alexa, turn the temperature up to 72 degrees” for your command to be carried out.
While that level of specificity may seem like overkill, it’s actually more of a reflection of how granular you can make your home commands. You can turn on or off one light among dozens, or control one heating zone among several through the right hub and voice commands. That’s amazingly smart.
The Amazon Echo and the Amazon Echo Dot are both very useful when it comes to controlling your smart home devices. They can be used to directly control various smart devices or can be connected to hubs, which are connected to your smart home devices. This enables voice control of smart devices that may not be directly compatible with the Alexa. For now, unless camera monitoring is high on your priority list, we”re
For now, unless camera monitoring is high on your priority list, we’re not ready to call the Amazon Show a favorite. We prefer to give it six months to see what other skills it can be taught. For now, it’s just another screen that can show you movie trailers and commericals you’d probably rather avoid.
While the Dot is far less expensive, its reliance on your speaker set up makes it a less flexible, though not less smart, option that might appeal most to small-space dwellers or those just wanting to test the waters. The full Echo, on the other hand has range of motion, so to speak, that makes it simpler to use since you can put it where you need it. That’s why it gets our vote as the smart and simple choice.
The full Echo, on the other hand, has the range of motion, so to speak, that makes it simpler to use since you can put it where you need it. That’s why it gets our vote as the smart and simple choice.