Smart Home with Amazon Echo
The first time we heard about the Amazon Echo was about this time last year when a colleague shared this video. Even after watching the more serious version, we were a bit puzzled. What would we do with this gray cylinder in our house? Even as early smart home adopters we were not especially interested.
Then, as Prime members, we got our offer to pre-order an Amazon Echo for $99. The price seemed reasonable enough to give it a shot, so we ordered it, and a couple of months later, it arrived.
When we got it, we weren’t really sure what to do with it. The Echo is constantly “listening,” so putting it in our living room felt a bit creepy. At the time, we had been looking for both a way to listen to music in the bedroom and a new alarm clock, so we put the Echo in the bedroom. It was still a little creepy but at least immediately useful.
The Echo is really easy to install. Just plug it into a power outlet and download the Amazon Alexa App on your phone that guides you through the rest. We used the app only briefly to configure some services, now for the most part we almost never use the companion app, as most everything can be controlled via voice.
For its first two primary functions, alarm and speaker, the Echo has been amazing. The sound quality is really great and it plays music from stations on TuneIn, Pandora, and Prime Music. You can ask for the news and weather and get a great quick briefing anytime you want. Setting the alarm (and snoozing!) is as easy as asking Alexa to do it for you. Even with these two functions only the Echo would have been well worth the introductory price.
The nicest surprise about the Echo has been integrating it with our home automation. Before we got the Echo, we were so frustrated with our Wink Hub and devices that we had migrated almost everything off the hub and were only still using the lights we had connected to our Wink Relay and Tapt, and even with those two we were actively trying to figure out how best to replace them. But once we connected them to our Echo, they have been working great. We just say, “Alexa, turn on the kitchen” and all the lights come on immediately. When we flick the switch on the Relay there is always a delay as the command goes up and down to the cloud, and sometimes the lights don’t turn on at all. We keep the Echo remote in the kitchen and often use it instead of the switch. We would love to use it for the rest of the house but don’t really want to move all our Z-Wave devices back to the Wink. In the meantime, we set up Alexa to send a command to IFTTT when we ask for a sports score that triggers our Zipato hub to turn off all our lights. Not elegant, but it works. We are waiting for Zipato to add support for the Echo.
Up to now, we experimented with a lot of voice control, and as longtime iPhone users, have been using Siri for years. Alexa does not seem quite as complete as Siri yet, but the natural voice control is really impressive. Other than a few funny misunderstandings, Alexa is remarkably accurate and talking to the Echo by just saying “Alexa” is a lot more natural than having to hold up your phone, iPad or even your watch and ask Siri for something. Lots of developers have been using the Echo APIs to create new services and we look forward to adding new capabilities and integrating with more devices in our home soon. We think that the Echo will give Apple’s HomeKit a real serious competitor in the smart home market.