Finally, I’ve gotten what I desperately need and truly deserve — a personal assistant at home. Sure, she doesn’t do windows (or dishes, or laundry, etc.) but I see great promise in our family’s relationship with Alexa — the “personality” behind Amazon’s Echo device. It feels a little odd to call a device “her,” but it feels even stranger not to, as she — like Apple’s Siri — is clearly worthy of a personal pronoun.
For my birthday, I bought myself an Amazon Echo, after hearing some of my colleagues wax rhapsodic about their experiences with the device. Another deciding factor: the company recently added an integration with SmartThings, my home automation/IoT hub — which means I could (theoretically) control my “things” via voice control.
There’s nothing like opening up a slow app and waiting and waiting and waiting for it to open to the right page…. all to turn on a light or open a garage door. That’s not what I was hoping for when I started on this whole IoT journey. And my husband has been begging for “a normal garage remote control” because he’s sick of waiting outside the garage hoping the door will open automatically (as it’s supposed to when his phone is in range), but not knowing whether it actually will. Voice control won’t necessarily solve that last problem, but I thought I’d throw it in while I was complaining.
So, What Does Alexa Do?
Well, she’s supposedly learning more every day (she accepts over-the-air software updates without your needing to do anything). But, for now, she’s been useful in a few ways:
- Letting me easily listen to music, podcasts or the radio while I’m cooking or washing dishes — when my hands are caked with flour or just soaked with soapy water, making trying to control a phone pretty much a hassle. Now, if only she could answer the phone when my husband calls while I’m embroiled in the messiest possible part of making dinner. A little more on this.
- If you’re a Prime member, Alexa has access to your Prime Music, along with anything else you’ve uploaded to your Amazon Music account. I took the plunge and paid $25 for a subscription so we could have all of our favorite music easily accessible. Then I uploaded (using the Amazon Music Importer) everything from my hard drive to the cloud. For the most part, these are things we bought or ripped from CDs long ago, as we’ve mostly switched to Spotify for listening and music discovery. I was surprised to find we had nearly 2,000 tracks. More on Spotify next.
- Though Alexa can theoretically control Spotify, it only has powerful integration with Pandora, iHeartRadio and TuneIn. You can pair Alexa with your cell phone via Bluetooth as you can with any Bluetooth-connected speaker, but it can’t retrieve certain songs or playlists for playback. It can just play, pause, stop, etc.
- However, for those services with which it integrates closely, like TuneIn (which doesn’t require a subscription and is free), it’s pretty amazing. I just say “Alexa, play ‘Fresh Air'” or “Alexa, play KUTX (our local public radio station)” and it flawlessly starts playing the latest podcast episode or the radio station live stream. This works for individual songs and playlists, too.
- Entertaining the kids. The most popular feature in my household by far has been her ability to tell jokes. My 7-year-old has nearly gone through her entire repertory and he laughs in a self-congratulatory manner when he gets the puns or other wordplay. I’ve enabled “skills” (third-party-developer-added functions) that let her lead a bingo or trivia game, or act as a crystal ball or spout facts about cats, and I expect those will be equally popular with the younger set.
- Opening the garage door. Yes, this actually works. For security reasons, it’s recommended you disable this capability, or call your garage door something only you could think of. Otherwise, any random person or burglar could open your garage door, or any other smart door lock you have connected, simply by asking it be opened or unlocked.
- Turning lights on and off. This mostly works. I’m using the fairly inexpensive GE Link Bulb (Z-Wave) — they’re around $15 as compared to, say, $93 for this LIFX Wi-Fi Smart Multicolored Bulb. So, from the “you get what you pay for” perspective, perhaps I shouldn’t expect them to work perfectly all the time. I’m still working on it, though.
- Making alarms, timers, to-do lists and shopping lists. This works really well, and I’ve integrated the functions (via IFTTT) with ToDo-ist and Evernote (which I share with my husband), so I’m hoping it’ll be useful for those times when I’m cooking and realize I’ve used the last of a particular ingredient.
- Providing information, like the news, the weather, the time and Wikipedia entries. You have to learn how to phrase things to get your request understood — she’s training you, instead of you training her — but it works pretty well.
- Like I said, you’ve got to learn the lingo and speak to Alexa kind of like you’d talk to a computer, but not exactly. When it comes to controlling devices, you need to name them carefully to make sure they’re easily understood and that Alexa handles them properly. For example, some SmartThings users reported that Alexa had problems when told to turn “everything” off — like at night, when someone wanted to shut off all the lights in their house. But change “everything” to “home,” and it worked fine.
- Along those same lines, I’ve noticed that Alexa’s response to certain language changes over time, even during the same day. When I first hooked her up to SmartThings, I could say “open the garage door” and “close the garage door” and she’d say “ok” and do it. Later, it would only work if I said “turn the garage door opener on” and “turn the garage door opener off.” Not exactly natural language, but it could become somewhat natural. (Take THAT, burglars!)
- Supposedly, you can set it up to re-order certain items from Amazon that you use regularly (paper towels, dish soap, or whatever) when you command her to do so, but I’ve disabled that for now so can’t report on its usefulness.
- When it comes to connectedness, Alexa can only control, not be controlled. This means you can’t set up IFTTT recipes that say something like, “When my iPhone enters the house, play ‘All Star by Smashmouth.'” Alexa will only respond to your voice, the remote or (to a lesser extent) the Alexa app — not to other devices.
- I haven’t yet resolved the issue of where Alexa should be placed. Our house isn’t huge and it’s all on one floor, but when it’s in the kitchen and I’m in the home office, I can’t see myself yelling across the house to get something done. Right now, I’m thinking the kitchen — which lies between the master bedroom and our living room — might be the sweet spot, but I’m experimenting with the remote control so I can issue commands without screaming when I’m not right there. We will see.
What I Wish She Could Do:
- Read me a recipe while I’m cooking. Tough one, though, probably, as I go back and forth a lot during a recipe, and it’s always helpful to read the whole thing in advance in case you are in the middle and realize you’re missing an important ingredient or don’t have the right sized pan.
- Give me the status of my devices. For example: “Is the garage door open?” or “Is the driveway light on?”
- Allow me to compose notes, text messages, emails or the like using solely my voice.
- Use something other than the default noise when you set an alarm or timer. It would be great to be able to have it play a song to wake you up, for example, or, taking this further, have an alarm-type sound blast out of it when there’s motion detected at a time when the system is set to “away.”
Right now, my devices are few, so I can imagine Alexa’s usefulness (and my ability to conceive of possibilities) will only grow as my ability to control my environment (bwa ha ha!) grows. And then Alexa will take over and horror movie scenarios will ensue.
But, Seriously, I Dream Of Having Alexa:
- Open the chicken coop at sunrise and close it a little after sunset. And alert us somehow when there are eggs to be collected in the nest boxes. Plus, sound a siren to warn away our pesky dogs who think eggs laid by the chickens are their personal source of sustenance.
- Water my garden and, more importantly, know when it needs watering and when it doesn’t. I’m getting closer with this one, as start-up Spruce Irrigation should be shipping sometime soon.
- Control all our lights and outlets. Oh, yes, the ultimate power will be mine.
Those looking for media control may have moved a step closer as today Amazon announced Alexa will be included in the Fire TV product. Haven’t dived into that yet, but it’s an interesting development.
And, yes, I know I mentioned the Dash Buttons in my headline, but I’ve rambled on long enough so I’ll have to discuss those in another post.