The Good: Music, news, weather, sports scores, timers, home automation control, math, answers to questions, jokes…Alexa has a rapidly evolving set of skills and integrations quickly distancing her from the competition (if there even is any). Seven microphones, able to pick up commands even with music blasting. Simple, fast setup will have the Echo and supported devices connected quickly. Interactions feel natural, and if you don’t know what you can do, you can simply ask “Alexa, what can you do?”
The Bad: Although there is an app, currently you cannot issue voice commands through your phone. Despite being able to pair to phones to play Bluetooth audio for music, Echo can’t currently be used to make phone calls. Questions must have absolute answers. You can ask how many ounces are in a pound, but you can’t ask for a recipe for barbecue chicken (there is a skill that can help with the chicken thing). No ability to string commands, for example “Alexa, turn on the outside lights and play Huey Lewis and the News.” Echo must be plugged in at all times.
Overall: I have previously claimed that the Amazon Echo is the most important device in home automation today and I maintain that to be true. It is a music player, a personal assistant, a smart home hub, a member of the family. Seriously, after just a few days with Alexa in your home, interactions with her feel as natural as interactions with the rest of the family. The rapidly expanding set of skills and integrations with other products is astounding and can only get better. The Amazon Echo has had a ton of well deserved praise heaped upon it and it has only scratched the surface of its capabilities.
This year the Amazon Echo was at the top of my Christmas list…and in the middle…and at the bottom. Suffice it to say I dropped a lot of hints and my wife picked up what I was laying down. Our Echo has been installed since Christmas morning and since then it has been on track to dethrone Sonos as the most used device in the house. Why, you theoretically ask, well I’ll tell you.
Echo Plays Music – While Sonos is still our go to player for streaming music due to its multi room capabilities, we are using the Echo more and more because of the voice interface. When I’m cooking, it’s much easier to say “Alexa, skip” than it is to unlock my phone and skip through the Sonos app, or double tap the button on the Sonos itself. Echo currently works with:
- Prime Music
- Amazon Music
- Bluetooth streaming from phones or tablets
It’s not quite the library of compatible streaming services that Sonos has, but it does cover the major streaming services. Alexa also has an awesome feature where you can say things like “Alexa, play happy music” or just “Alexa, play some music” and she will take a stab at a station for you. This is how I discovered my current favorite Prime Music station, “90’s School Dance.”
Echo has Skills: The initial skill list kind of sucked. You could find things like Magic Eight Ball, Cat Facts, Yo Momma Jokes and of course 4AFart, which gives your $179 technical marvel the ability to make several fart noises on command. While the skills list is still littered with pointless apps like these, major companies have started to see the potential. You can now add skills to control Lifx and Vivint devices, order a pizza from Domino’s or call for an Uber.
Echo Controls and Unifies your Smart Home: Out of the box, Echo currently works with devices from:
This means if you have any of these devices or hubs on the same wireless network as your Echo, it will automatically recognize them in the Connected Devices section of the app, or you can discover them. You can then create groups of one or more devices and give them meaningful names, so you can ask Alexa to interact with them. For instance, I created one group with three Wemo switches called “outside lights,” then three groups of one device called “shed lights,” “pool light,” and “deck lights.” I can say “Alexa, turn on the outside lights” to light up the whole back yard or interact with individual devices with things like “Alexa, turn off the pool light.” The groups are not limited to one brand of devices, however, so I have another group called “the whole house” which is a mix of Wemo and Insteon devices throughout my home. Setting up these groups took no more than a couple minutes from the time I first set up my Echo.
It’s because of Alexa’s ability to control devices across numerous different platforms that she makes home automation make sense. Now everyone in the house has a simple, intuitive, hands free interface to your smart home without the need for them to download or interact with multiple apps.
Echo Plays Audio Books and Audible: The Echo has some seriously cool features when it comes to audio books and Audible. You can stream a book through Audible, stop it and then pick up where you left off in the text on your Kindle…and vice versa. Recently announced, though, is Alexa’s ability to read your Kindle books aloud just by saying “Alexa, read my Kindle book.” You can then go back to your Kindle book to pick up where Alexa stopped reading.
Alexa is Smart and Sassy: You can ask Alexa to find local businesses, set up a calendar, add things to your shopping list, order Prime products that you previously ordered, check traffic to destinations, check sports scores and schedules, tell you the headlines, tell you the weather, answer questions, do math, look up movie showtimes, or you can just hunt for Easter eggs by asking fun questions or making dumb statements. The idea struck me just this morning to say “Alexa, I have diarrhea,” to which she replied “That can’t be nice for you, I hope you’re over the worst of it.” It is rare to find Alexa without an answer to your question. Often when she can’t do what you asked or answer your question, she will give you direction as to how you may be able to accomplish what you asked, although sometimes she just goes on and on, which is why “Alexa, stop” is a good command to remember.
Alexa Integrates with Fire TV: If you have a Fire TV or Fire TV Stick on the same network as your Echo, you can ask Alexa to control your connected devices through your Fire TV remotes without having to pair them to the Echo. This is great if you’re in bed and realize you forgot to turn off the outside lights. Trust me…I know all too well.
The Echo is currently one of the best and most versitile pieces of electronics you can buy and it is only in its infancy. New features and integrations are being released so quickly that I had to edit this article as I was writing it because the ecobee3 integration was announced. The Echo has been so well received in the smart home community that it will be difficult for any product to not have an integration with Echo (I’m looking at you, Nest). I think this first generation of the device is well engineered and will hold up over time, as most of the functionality is software, although there are rumors of an Echo Mini swirling. Even then, it is possible to have multiple Echo’s in the same house, and that can’t be a bad thing.