Your Voice Controlled Smart Home with Apple and Amazon

Bedroom lighting controlled by Amazon Echo

Find out How Apple & Amazon Are Changing the Way We Control our Homes and Manage Our Lives

We recently told you about the Apple HomeKit and how it can integrate products to control your home. Amazon has a similar product; Amazon Echo, which uses the voice service Alexa to support voice-activated home control.

Amazon Echo can work as a stand-alone product (as we have described below) but it can also work with other home automated products to give you sophisticated control of your lighting, curtains or blinds, music, TV and more.

Amazon Echo and Apple HomeKit require a solid wi-fi throughout your home and we can help devise a solution that will meet all your needs for streaming information, films and music so you get the most out of your Amazon or Apple product.

What is Amazon Echo and how can it help me?

Amazon EchoAmazon Echo has three features –

  1. A voice activated speaker
  2. Voice assistant
  3. Smart home controller

Amazon Echo is a hands-free speaker you control with your voice. Echo connects to the Alexa Voice Service to play music, provide information, news, sports scores, weather and more.

Echo has seven microphones and beam-forming technology so it can hear you from across the room—even in noisy environments or while playing music. When you want to use Echo, just say the wake word “Alexa” and Echo responds. If you have more than one Echo or Echo Dot, Alexa responds intelligently from the device you’re closest to with ESP (Echo Spatial Perception).

Amazon Echo provides hands-free voice control for Amazon Music, Prime Music, Spotify, and TuneIn. In addition, Echo is Bluetooth-enabled so you can stream music services such as iTunes from your phone or tablet but, as with all blue-tooth products, you need to stay in close proximity for uninterrupted sound.

What about Alexa Voice Assistant?

Alexa’s skills are capabilities like smartphone or tablet apps, enabling you to interact with Echo devices in a more intuitive way using your voice. Amazon also supports third-party apps called “skills”, which are installed using the Alexa app on your smartphone.

Once added, asking Alexa to open or ask the skill a question provides you with all sorts of features. For example, there is a National Rail skill which can give you an update on your commute via rail, or specific train times. Out of the box Alexa can give you traffic updates for road commutes and the weather; the Uber skill can even order you a taxi. There is also a skill for EDF Energy so that you can ask Alexa about your energy account.

Alexa as a Smart Home Controller

Alexa allows you to integrate various smart-home devices – there’s nothing quite as cool as walking into a room and saying “Alexa, lights on in the kitchen” and it happens, as if by magic! Of course, it depends on which devices you already have or are intending to buy – skills exist for Nest, Hive, Honeywell, Tado, LightwaveRF and LIFX; the Echo works out of the box with Philips Hue and Sonos.

Setting up the system can have its challenges; for example, with Philips Hue, each scene available for each bulb is listed as a separate entry, so you can end up with a huge list. You can configure what’s visible and what isn’t to Alexa within the various skills, or make Alexa forget them directly – either way, you have to do it one at a time which can be rather time consuming. You also have to consider what you call all your devices. You have to be able to say them easily and Alexa has to be able to understand what you’re on about. For instance, numbering lights 1, 2 and 3 in each room doesn’t work well. If you tell Alexa to turn off the bedroom light, but you have more than one light in the room called bedroom light, she will ask which one. The easiest thing to do is to call each light or device something separate and then group them together within the Alexa app. I grouped all my devices into a massive group called “house”. This meant I could walk out the door and shout “Alexa, house off” and everything would turn off.

I also created groups for individual rooms, upstairs, downstairs and the hallway, so that they were easy to command for each place in my house. The groups overlapped so that I could command more than one rooms’ lights in one go. It took a bit of thought to work out what was going to be easy to remember and say, but was well worth it.

Intelligent Abodes specialise in smart homes; integrating control of your most used items in the home like lighting, TV, music, curtains and blinds to make life easier, convenient and fun. Consequently, we are integrating Alexa into many of our smart home solutions so that you get the sophisticated control and the ability to use voice control. It’s a great solution that can expand with your changing needs.

Amazon Echo DotWhat is Amazon Echo Dot ?

Amazon Echo Dot is essentially an Amazon Echo without the speaker. Instead it has the facility to connect to speakers or headphones through Bluetooth or a 3.5 mm stereo cable to play music.

What are some of the issues with Amazon Echo or Dot?

  • Amazon Echo or Dot are less discreet, requiring a black box in each room; most control systems have moved away from this concept, housing all items in a discreet location and controlling then with a smart phone, tablet, remote or on-wall keypad.
  • You need a reliable network connection to ensure Alexa works efficiently.
  • Some clients have experienced issues with certain routers e.g. BT and connection to the Amazon Echo – but these can usually be overcome.
  • Quality of the speaker is not great; there are better sounding speakers available at a similar price.
    Some of Skills (Apps) can be hard to find.
  • You need to think about how you address Alexa to get exactly what you want – for example if you ask Alexa to play a particular radio station, sometimes she can’t find the exact station; however, if you ask her to find the same station on TuneIn, she will always finds it. Play an album or song that sounds like something else.
  • For those people that like streaming service, Apple music is not available.
  • Alexa is a surprisingly capable assistant – mainly thanks to the skills – but she does have her limitations. Although you can link your calendar (such as your Amazon or Google one), you can’t hook up your email or a phone for text messages. Therefore, Alexa cannot read out incoming emails or messages.
  • Notifications are pretty much non-existent, too. Alexa can’t tell you that you’ve got a new email. Hopefully Amazon is working on this, but one reason for the absence could be down to the fact that the Echo doesn’t know whether you’re around or not.
  • Alexa will occasionally respond when children speak to it; generally Alexa doesn’t respond to children’s voices, but it may be frustrating when it does and they play their favourite song.
  • There is no option to create profiles, so Alexa treats all commands equally, no matter who is issuing them.
  • If you have multiple Echo’s, the nearest one will respond; occasionally two may respond and you may have to tell one to stop.
  • Alexa can’t take multiple commands, so you have to make each request individually. This slows things down, and doesn’t feel natural. It would be nice to be able to say “Alexa, turn the lights on in the lounge and set the heating to 20 degrees”.
  • Alexa will normally understand the question, but it can’t match the amount of available data on Google’s assistant.

Summary

The Amazon Echo is a fantastic addition to any home, a device that improves when linked to other smart devices and services. Use it without any of these and you’ll soon find yourself bored with the sound of your own voice. Use the Echo to the fullest, though, and it may well become your favourite gadget.

For more information, email or call for an informal chat on 01392 314710

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