The Amazon Echo is a voice activated Artificial Intelligence (AI) system developed by Amazon for your home. Though it was released in the US in late 2014 it was October 2016 before it became available in the UK. Although it has been around for over two years it still feels like many of the apps or “skills” are Betas. If you’re willing to be an early adopter the potential is huge and totally awesome. The Echo is “always listening” and reacts to voice commands when it hears its name (either Alexa, Echo or Amazon). I set my device’s wake word to Echo because it has the fewest syllables.
The Echo really become a part of daily life when you connect it to smart home devices and let it control your house for you. I bought a dot for each room in my apartment (three at £49 each), Philips Hue bulbs for every room (£50 for the starter kit with the bridge and two bulbs, and £15 for each additional bulb) and a Nest thermostat (£200). I used a TP-Link Smart Plug (£25) to link in my Deathstar holographic lamp resulting in the world’s most awesome smarthome voice command: “activate Deathstar”. The whole lot cost around £500, which is a lot. It is very cool though.
The make or break question for any voice controlled system is how well it recognises commands. Echo gets it right about 80% of the time, which considering my husband has a Glaswegian accent is decent enough. It has trouble with distance and background noise (hence why we bought one for each room). It also can’t contextualise questions – e.g. “Who is the US President?”, followed by “How old is he?” won’t work – each question must stand alone. Overall the technology still feels new, so while it usually works expect to hear “I didn’t understand the question” fairly often.
There are lists and lists of commands out there to keep it short and sweet here are my top twenty useful ones:
Top 20 Out-the-Box Commands
- Niceties: Say Echo, I’m Home/ Thanks
- Stop: As you experiment just say Echo, stop to make it stop speaking or playing music.
- Volume: Echo, set volume to 8 (between 1 and 10).
- Play Amazon Prime Music: Echo, play song/ album/ artist. (Spotify etc. also supported)
- Song information: Echo, what’s this song?
- Set alarm/ timer: Echo, set alarm for 7 a.m./ set a timer for 15 minutes.
- Ask the time/ date/ holiday: Echo, what time/date is it? or Echo, when is Easter? (works with most holidays)
- To-do list: Echo, add ‘return library books’ to my to-do list. Say Echo, read to-do list to hear the list back. Use IFTTT to copy the to-do list to gmail or todoist.
- Calendar events: Echo, what’s in my calendar tomorrow/ on Friday? Echo, schedule dentist appointment (it will then ask you for the time and date).
- Shopping list: Echo, add milk to my shopping list. Say Echo, read shopping list to hear the list back. You can also view the list in the Alexa app wherever you are or use IFTTT to copy it to another platform.
- Check News: Echo, what’s in the news? You can customise your news sources to suite your tastes.
- Check weather: Echo, what’s the weather like/ this weekend? Echo, will it rain today?
- Check the traffic: Echo how is the traffic/ my commute?
- Restaurants: Echo, where is the nearest Chinese restaurant or Echo, what is the best Chinese restaurant in Dundee.
- Arithmetic: Echo, what’s 13 plus/ by/ minus 45? or Echo, how many milliliters are in 2 cups?
- Definitions: Echo, define defenestration?
- Control smart lights: Echo, turn on all lights/ off kitchen light/ set all lights to 20 (out of 100).
- Control smart thermostat: Echo, set the temperature to 18.
- Ask questions: Echo, how many stars are in our galaxy?
- Read Wikipedia: Echo, Wikipedia Scotland. Then Echo, tell me more if you would like to hear the article.
Echo is super useful in the kitchen. I have it play music or read an ebook while cooking. During playback (it lowers the volume to hear commands) it can still search for a requested song, set timers, add items to my shopping list, convert cups to millilitres and use do arithmetic for me. This may seem superfluous until you have your hands covered in sticky dough or are doing the washing up – then it saves the time and effort of having to clean/ dry your hands and get your phone.
- Usefulness 9/10
- Awesomeness 10/10
- Easy Setup 10/10
No futuristic home would be complete without smart
lighting. The easiest way to achieve this is through WiFi bulbs controlled by a smartphone. With an app you can set up lighting profiles (e.g. relaxing, daytime), manage lights manually and even set them to switch on when you get home or dim when it’s bedtime. You can also get smart plugs for lamps though you won’t be able to dim these, only switch them on and off. I gave the lights 9/10 for usefulness because not having to get out of bed to switch the lights off is the most convenient thing ever. They got 10/10 for awesomeness because voice controlled lights feel very sci-fi. They got 10/10 for easy set up because you just change the bulb to the Hue one, switch it on, plug in and connect the bridge to the wifi and then hit discover. To connect it to Alexa just add the skill and tell her to discover. Using the Hue app you can make groups, moods and change the names of lights.
Tip: If you plan to use the Apple Homekit App then you need to get the newer square bridge because HomeKit can’t connect to the round one.
The Philips Hue ones are quite pricey but good. I have a selection of the plain dimming ones and the warm/ cool light ones. The colour tone of the light makes a huge differences – I would recommending in one of these first to judge for yourself if you want it in every room. We did not buy any of the coloured hue lights but they do look interesting. I have experienced the coloured light effect when we stayed in the Citizen M hotel in Amsterdam. It was a fun gimmick for the hotel but I just don’t know if we would use it at home. I will invest in one to try them out but I can’t see myself being converted. I will update you when I do!
Smart Plug Adaptors
- Usefulness 10/10
- Awesomeness 7/10
- Easy Setup 10/10
The plugs got 10/10 for usefulness because they allow you to integrate nearly any simple on/off device into your smart home. They lost some points on awesomeness because most of the ones I have found are bulky and very visible. They get 10/10 for set up because you just plug them in, connect to wifi, name them in the app and then tell Echo to “discover”.
Trying to find plug sockets that are compatible with homekit and Echo is difficult, especially for UK plugs. When you add in trying to find a product cost effective enough to buy enough to make them really integrated its almost impossible. If we ignore homekit for a moment, then based on price and Amazon ratings the TP-Link Wifi Plug looks like your best bet, at £25 it isn’t the cheapest but still comes in £15 cheaper than the £39 Hive Active Plug which also requires a Hive Hub to work.
I used one of the plugs for a holographic Death Star lamp we have in the bedroom, which leads to the greatest smart home voice commands ever…
Echo, Activate the Death Star
- Usefulness 9/10
- Awesomeness 10/10
- Easy Setup 4/10
We have quite an old heating system that didn’t have a thermostat so for us the Nest has been a revolution. Depending on your skill level it is quite complicated to set up and though we managed it in the end if you aren’t so confident suggest I would getting a handyman to do it. It took many hours and a lot of swearing to get it functional so for that reason it only gets 4/10.
The ability to learn your habits and know when you are home is really useful for economising and the monthly reports that you can have emailed to yourself is just plain cool. The integration of heating also improves the overall ‘smartness’ of the house. For these reasons it scores 9/10 for usefulness and 10/10 for awesomeness.
Other Cool Stuff that I Don’t Have
I haven’t given these a rating because I haven’t had the chance to try them myself yet but I will update this when I do.
Carbon Monoxide and Smoke Alarm
If your smart home is supposed to care for you and put you at ease then it will need a fire and carbon monoxide alarm. The practical advantage for this device is that you can be notified of an incident when you are out, and it even tests itself regularly giving you additional peace of mind. The Nest Protect Smoke + Carbon Monoxide Alarm comes in at £89. This is considerably more the non-smart ones that you can pick up for less than £20.
You can set blinds using voice commands, motion sensors or timers depending on your needs. In my research they seems to be one of the hardest to find and most expensive aspects of the smart home. The most popular brands are Pella, Lutron and Somfy. A more cost effective alternative is to use a device called … which will fit to the blind cord. If you are feeling ambitious then it is possible to create your own blind automation system using Arduino for significantly less.
Locks, Motion Sensors and Cameras
Having a home security system that can be controlled by voice and your smart phone would be pretty awesome. You could use it to check in on pets when you are away from home or that dreaded “Did I leave the oven on?” anxiety. Motion sensors can be tied in with lights so if you get up to go to the toilet at night your path lights up.
Don’t panic, you won’t need to buy a new car. Automatic Car Adaptor is a small device that fits to your cars diagnostic and records information about your driving and car. In the case of an accident it can even contact emergency services and loved ones. It can even track mileage for expenses and talk to Alexa and allow her to answer questions on its logs.
The Parrot Flower Power Wireless Plant Monitor can feed back information on you plants health including soil moisture, fertiliser, ambient temperature and light intensity based on parameters that you set according to the plants needs. At £29.99 each they aren’t cheap but if you are fond of high maintenance plants, or simply forgetful with your watering regime this could be just what you need.
Remember that machine they used to have in the chemist that when fed a £2 coin would weigh you and tell you your body fat percentage? Well move over because now you get your own personal Withings Smart Body Analyser. It relays the information to the app where you give it additional information such as height and gender and it can in turn give you your BMI and track your progress in handy graphs. It automatically recognises each individual family member when they step onto it based on its regularly used profiles.