Two months ago Amazon made its Echo voice controlled speaker/home automation device available to everyone for $179.99. At the time I told Fortune readers that they should really buy the Amazon Echo based on my experience with the device, which I had owned since December. If I didn't convince you then, I'm back with some more inducements, and some tricks and tips for those that took my advice.
In the time since I've written that review Amazon has added support for more home automation products, including the Wink home hub and the SmartThings home automation hub. It has also fixed some of the issues with shared Google (goog) calendars so you can now get multiple calendars. The Amazon (amzn)Echo is even developing a sense of humor and plays games. So without further ado, here's what you can and still can't do with the Amazon Echo.
Link it with Lutron lights: I love Lutron dimmers, and thanks to the link with the Wink hub I can now command my dining room lights, laundry room, and porch lights to go on and off or dim with my voice. I also included my dining room and porch lights as part of a group called Downstairs so I can tell the Echo "turn off downstairs" as I'm heading up to bed and every downstairs light that is connected to the Echo shuts off.
Turn on your humidifier: Actually, this could work with any appliance that you plug into an outlet and can be left on all the time. Using an approved Z-wave (it's a type of radio) outlet that works with SmartThings, you can ask Alexa to turn on your humidifier (or whatever you have named that outlet) and it happens. You can also do this using the WeMo outlets that the Echo has supported for some time.
Provide a back door to your Sonos: This is somewhat janky, but you can control your Sonos speakers from the Amazon Echo if you only want to start and stop an existing playlist. The way to make this happen is to first hook your Sonos speakers up through your SmartThings account and then link the SmartThings kit to the Echo. The downside is the functionality is super limited. You can only play the current playlist and you can only start and stop the music using the same phrasing as you would for lights. So you'd say, "Alexa, turn on/off kitchen Sonos."
Play Bingo: When your digital life gets to be too much and you need to take a break from the screen, just take a quick detour over to this site and print out these Bingo cards. Then visit the Skills section of the Amazon Alexa app and enable the Bingo app. Next, gather your friends and family, pass out some markers and your Bingo sheet print outs, tell the Echo "Alexa, open Bingo" and let Alexa call out the numbers for you.
Shared calendars: Simply ask Alexa, "What's my calendar today" and she'll let you know the number of things you have scheduled and what they are. Initially she couldn't handle multiple calendars, but now you can go into the Alexa app (formerly called the Echo app) and check which calendars you want the Echo to pull from.
Now, before you get too excited about ordering Alexa to put your home into Away mode or lock it down for the night, here are the limits the device has today.
Nope, not gonna lock it: After hooking the Echo up to my Wink and SmartThings hubs I was somewhat dissapointed to see that it doesn't control my Z-wave locks or other sensors, but I found the reason in a CNet article that explained that Amazon and its partners didn't want burglers to be able to walk buy and command Alexa to open doors. Fair enough, although I was hoping to be able to create scenes that would allow me to tell the Echo to shut my house down for the night, which would include locking the doors.
That thermostat isn't going to to play ball either: As part of shutting down the house for the evening, I wish Alexa would control my thermostats to raise the temperature in the summer and lower it in the winter downstairs, but neither my Nest thermostat (which is linked to my Wink system) showed up on the Amazon Echo, nor my Ecobee thermostat (which is linked up through the SmartThings platform) showed up. It appears that devices which are integrated with the hubs via an email link or a cloud-to-cloud interface don't show up on the Echo.
100% accuracy: This is going to a biggie for people who will look at the thousands of dollars I spend on connected home gear and question my sanity. The Echo doesn't always do what I tell it to. Sometimes it's the Echo and sometimes it's the light or the wireless or a gremlin causing a glitch I can't replicate, but when I tell the Echo to turn off the kitchen lights sometimes they all go off but one. It happens most often with the GE Link lights in the kitchen and probably only one out of every 50 times with my Hue lights in the Living room. But it happens.
So today, the Echo can tell me my commute, offer me the news and my calendar, and let me control my lights, but it can't control all of my connected gadgets. And it can't even control my lights with 100% reliability. I'm okay with that, and expect it to continue to get better over time. It's still the most used device in my house after the Sonos system.
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