Amazon Echo is voice-activated and interacts with users through a personable female persona, “Alexa.” Alexa’s cloud-based operating system “learns” over time, adapting to your speech patterns and personal preferences the more you use it. Even the relevance of her responses will continue to improve. Alexa is always on and will “wake up” to respond to your request upon hearing her name, whether you want to hear yesterday’s news and sports scores, information about upcoming events listed on your Google calendar, traffic and weather reports, or more. You can also use Alexa to set alarms or timers.
If this sounds a bit like having a version of Apple’s Siri right in your living room, it is. But Echo’s functionality extends beyond a voice-activated info-center and personal assistant to interact with other smart devices in your home as part of an innovative and convenient home automation system.
Control Devices in Your Home
Alexa interacts with a number of smart devices in your home to turn on lights, turn small appliances off and on, and even make coffee.
Currently, Alexa integrates with Philips Hue products (on Amazon), including the A19, BR30, Lux A19, LivingColors’ Bloom and LightStrips, and Belkin’s WeMo Switch, Insight Switch, and Light Switch. This puts a number of devices—from lighting to small appliances plugged into a WeMO switch—under your voice command via Alexa. Installation is simple but requires using the manufacturers’ app to set up the device and register it to your home’s Wi-Fi network first. Once that’s done, tell Alexa to “discover” your appliances.
By creating specific groups of devices in the Echo app, you can control devices individually or within those groups. For instance, let’s say you want to be able to tell Alexa to turn off all your lights and your home entertainment system before bed. Create a group that includes these appliances, and you have functionality similar to creating a “goodnight” scene in a fully-integrated custom home control system, where all these devices will turn off when you say, “Alexa, Turn off ‘everything.’”
You can also dim Philips Hue products and Bloom Lightstrips or LivingColors bulbs using Alexa, but you currently can only use the Philips Hue app to adjust the color.
Voice Activation Becomes a Lifestyle
With Alexa, you can simply speak your needs, adding a measure of convenience to your day. You’ll be able to compose a shopping list by telling Alexa what you need, and she’ll store it in the cloud for you to access when you’re at the grocery store. Reviewers note that you must say Alexa’s name before each item, which can get tedious. If you could say, for example, “Start grocery list,” and have Alexa record each item you tell her after that, this feature might be even more useful. You could rattle off your list in one long stream as you search through your refrigerator and pantry. However, for the sake of preventing Alexa from interjecting in conversations not intended for her, speaking her name might not be that bad after all. For those who might live with a human Alexa, you can change the Echo’s “wake up” word to “Amazon” to avoid confusion.
If you prefer online shopping, you can ask Alexa to find a replacement water filter (Amazon), for example, and Alexa will search for it on Amazon and, with your permission and payment information, she’ll order it and have it shipped for you.
For the highest level of convenience, Alexa might be best placed in your home’s hub of activity—perhaps the kitchen or family room—where she can provide a source of music, information, or help search for nearby movies that are playing that night. Or she might be a good fit for your bedroom, where she can tell you the day’s weather to help you decide on proper attire or turn on your coffee maker at your command, so your caffeine kick start will be ready when you get out of bed.
Although this isn’t quite yet “home automation,” it does set the stage for interaction with smart devices such as your refrigerator, where, in the future, the fridge might send a message to Alexa that you’re out of milk and Alexa could add it to your shopping list automatically. The software isn’t that sophisticated—or that connected—yet, but future upgrades might do just that.
Amazon Echo’s Limitations
With a power cord and no battery backup, Echo is a single room device. The remote control (sold separately) has a microphone permitting you to speak to Alexa from a different room or in a noisy environment, but you still have to be close enough to Alexa to hear her speak back.
Like any “virtual assistant” software, Alexa can only be so helpful when it comes to providing information. She is ultimately limited on what kind of questions she is able to answer, so she is probably most beneficial as a voice-activated home automation system.
As far as safety is concerned, Alexa doesn’t turn off unless unplugged, so anyone could have access to a variety of your personal devices if they say her “wake up” word. When you’re not home, it might be wise to deactivate Alexa’s microphone by pushing the microphone button. Amazon hints at future integration with door locks and garage door openers, which means you’ll want to make sure no one can use Alexa to control these devices when you’re not home. While it’s highly unlikely a burglar will shout through your window for Alexa to unlock the door, and even less likely that Alexa would hear and understand, it’s better to be safe than put your home and belongings at risk.
Additionally, Alexa lives on your home’s Wi-Fi network, so she is only as secure as your Wi-Fi connection, which means you should only connect it to a router with WPA2 AES encryption.
Is Amazon Echo the Right Choice For You?
Echo is perhaps best suited for those who are already using, or plan to purchase, a number of Philips Hue or Belkin WeMo products, as it offers a fun, practical way to control these devices using voice commands. Echo’s interactivity also makes it a learning tool for children and Alexa’s perceived “personality” adds to the coolness factor. With additional capabilities coming online at a rapid pace, it might be time to consider making “Alexa” part of your family.
Sarah Brown is a home automation and community safety consultant for SafeWise.com. She enjoys writing helpful tips and in-depth reviews. Sarah believes that through entertainment, technology and the written word, we can all stay connected to each other and create a safe environment out in the ether. Learn more