Right now Amazon Echo may be the most important device in home automation. Nay, it IS the most important device in home automation. Echo does for home automation what the Harmony remote does for home entertainment and then some. It takes multiple disparate systems and integrates them in a manner that is so simple and intuitive that anyone can make it work in seconds.
How do you currently control your smart home? Is it a collection of apps on your phone or tablet? Do you have multi-button switches installed in certain rooms to activate scenes or devices? Do you have a super cool touch screen wall panel? How do your guests or family members control your smart home? Do you let the kids touch those super expensive switches or panels? Do you have to give guests a manual on how to control each room of the house?
I suffered from some of the answers to these questions. My wife refused to install the nine apps required to control our house. My tablet, a Kindle Fire, didn’t even have most of the required apps. I didn’t want dedicated switches or panels installed in specific rooms, and guests were totally lost about how to control anything.
Enter Alexa. With proper, very simple configuration, Alexa will be the center of your smart home in no time. It quickly becomes the only method of control you will use for many devices. In the first day of use, commands like “Alexa, turn on the outside lights” or “Alexa, turn off the whole house” became second nature. When guests come over, I now tell them that if they need something, just ask Alexa. After they get over their initial shock seeing it work, they inevitably ask Alexa if she is Skynet…which she has wonderfully snappy responses to.
Is Echo the perfect solution right now? No. There is always going to be room for expansion. For one, it doesn’t work with all devices. There are many integrations I would like to see that may still be in development or may never happen. For instance, Amazon doesn’t seem keen on the idea of Echo being able to open garage doors or unlock doors. They learned early on that an enterprising burglar could see an Echo sitting out and try saying “Alexa, open the front door” from outside. One completely baffling place where Echo doesn’t work is to make phone calls. You can pair your echo with your phone via bluetooth, and it will play music or other audio from the phone. Despite having an array of microphones, crystal clear speakers and bluetooth functionality, Amazon just doesn’t seem concerned with allowing you to make calls. I would also like to see direct integration with Nest, although there is a workaround, and the ability to control or sync with my Sonos devices. Which brings me to my next point…
Home automation isn’t even the main purpose of Echo. Yes it’s one of the key bullet points, but Echo is meant to be your virtual assistant. Alexa can also:
- Search local businesses
- Play audio books from Audible. It also allows you to switch from text to audio and back without losing your place with supported books.
- Set up a calendar
- Order Prime products from Amazon
- Check the traffic to a destination
- Check sports scores and schedules
- Play music from Pandora, your Amazon Music library, Prime Music, TuneIn, iHeartRadio, and your phone
- Hear news, weather and information
- Ask many of the same questions you would search on google
- Set alarms, timers and create lists
- Help with math. Ask what half of three quarters of a cup is and get an answer immediately. Annoy your friends by asking for Pi out to 30 digits…
- Have hilarious dialogues
- Look up movie showtimes
- Read Kindle books
The great thing is that this product is in its infancy and is constantly getting better, and you can extend its functionality with either the skills library or IFTTT. It also has no true direct competitors. Cortana, Siri and Now all require you to be holding and directly interacting with a device in order to trigger voice commands. At best, you have to be close enough for them to clearly pick up your command when you say the trigger phrase to activate them. Echo, on the other hand, can hear me clearly from another room while it is playing music.
Whether you are just getting into home automation or looking to add voice recognition to your existing smart home, I highly recommend you consider adding an Echo to your life.