A few years ago, the coordinated smart home felt like a pipe dream, but Alexa has changed all that. Thanks to increasing compatibility with smart home devices, Alexa and the Amazon Echo is now the ideal hub of your connected home.
Where previously it was a disparate mix of devices and brands, the Amazon Echo has pulled all this together.
We8217;ll guide you through everything you need to know, what to buy and how to get your smart home perfected. If you recently got an Echo and want to know what else it will do, you8217;ve come to the right place.
Which Echo should I buy?
There are a number of different Echo models, but they all feature Alexa and they all offer the same Skills and voice controls. This applies to Echo Dot, the second-gen Echo and all third-party Alexa speakers, like the Sonos One for example.
These devices feature a display. This gives you more scope in the smart home, as they can show video from connected cameras. They also give you touch controls for devices, for example, turning off the lights without having to use your voice.
This version of the Echo has a Zigbee controller built-in, meaning you can control some devices without needing to connect a separate hub or use another app. (We8217;ll talk about this a little more below.) You can read our Amazon Echo Plus review for more details.
Before you do anything else, it is advisable to setup any smart home devices you already have 8211; smart heating, lights, cameras, plugs 8211; in most cases you8217;ll want these setup as advised before you do anything with Alexa.
Basically, follow the manufacturer8217;s instructions to get those devices working. This usually involves plugging it in, connecting a hub to your router, installing the app, searching for your device and entering a passcode.
There8217;s the question. A few years ago, we8217;d say 8220;yes, absolutely8221;, but if Alexa is going to be running the show, it doesn8217;t matter so much if you8217;re mixing and matching brands and devices. If fact, that8217;s that appeal of using Alexa.
One advantage of choosing lights and plugs from the same brand is that they all use the same hub and app, so that keeps things tidy when it comes to setting up. At the same time you might end up paying more for your bulbs and plugs than you actually need to. Alexa gives you flexibility in this sense.
Amazon also lists devices as 8220;working with Alexa8221; and there8217;s plenty to choose from, of varying price and quality. Those listed above are the devices we have first-hand experience with, so they come recommended.
There8217;s one exception to all this and that8217;s if it8217;s a Zigbee device and you have an Echo Plus 8211; and we8217;ll explain why now. If you8217;ve no interest in Zigbee or don8217;t have an Echo Plus, feel free to jump to the next section.
Zigbee is a wireless standard that8217;s used in a number of smart home devices. It8217;s the standard that Philips Hue uses, for example, and it8217;s fairly common, if rarely spoken about.
The Zigbee controller in the Echo Plus will let you set-up a smart home device without the need to follow the usual manufacturer procedures. Because the Echo Plus can directly talk to that device, it will recognise it and provide some controls 8211; without the need for a hub or app for that device.
There8217;s the downside that some advanced features aren8217;t supported: with Philips Hue for example, using Zigbee on the Echo Plus means you don8217;t need the Hue Hub or Hue app, but you don8217;t get any of the advanced controls, like Hue8217;s scenes, custom colours or firmware updates.
You can use Zigbee for cheaper or more basic devices (like a single white lightbulb), but for more advanced devices with more functions like you8217;r get from smart heating, you8217;ll want the full experience they offer, so Zigbee is best avoided.
Skills are the glue that holds Alexa together. You can almost think of Skills as apps, but because many will only then interact by voice, they8217;re not apps you will ever see. What they do is basically tell Alexa what it8217;s looking for and what that device can do.
To find Skills, you can either ask Alexa to search directly: 8220;Alexa, enable the Nest Camera Skill8221; for example, or much simpler is to just use the Alexa app on your phone. Ultimately, even if you install using your voice, you8217;d have to then enter your account details in the app anyway.
- Open the Alexa app
- Hit the hamburger menu in the top left-hand corner
- Select Skills from the menu
- Either open the 8220;smart home8221; category, or search for the brand you want, e.g., Hue, Nest, Hive
- Once you8217;ve found the Skill you need, hit enable
Once you8217;ve enabled the skill, you8217;ll most likely have to enter your account details for that device. Those will be the details for the account you used when you set-up those devices. For example, when enabling Hue, you8217;ll use your MyHue ID.
Once you have those Skills enabled, it8217;s worth reading through some of the details in case there are any specific phrases you8217;ll need to use. For example, you might have to say 8220;Ask Hive to boost my heating8221; to get the response you want.
This is essentially a scan the Echo and Alexa does to find those devices in your house. This is a critical step and takes less than a minute, after which Alexa will tell you that it has found these devices. You can say:
That8217;s it 8211; with the Skill is enabled and connected, Alexa will be able to interact with those devices using voice across any of your Echo devices and through the Echo smartphone app (on Android or iPhone).
If you subsequently add a new device 8211; another Philips Hue bulb for example 8211; then you don8217;t have enable the skill again, you can just scan and it will be detected 8211; as long as that device is setup and connected with Hue.
You can then see all your devices that Alexa knows about 8211; each blub, camera, etc. Sometimes you might find duplicates too, if there was a skill change or if you changed the setup slightly.
- Open the Alexa app
- Hit the hamburger menu in the top, tap smart home
- Under the devices tab, tap the device you want to rename
- In the top left-hand corner is 8220;edit8221;, hit this
- On the next page you8217;ll find the option to edit the name
You can change the name to anything you like, so if it8217;s strangely become 8220;backyard camera8221; you can Anglicise it, you can keep brand names or whatever works for you.
You can also rename plugs to be the device that8217;s connected to them. For example, if your garden lights are on a smart plug you can call it 8220;garden lights8221; and so on, which it better than asking Alexa to 8220;turn on my smart plug two8221;.
Alexa uses groups for smart home devices as well as creating multi-room audio 8211; which we8217;ve covered separately. The principle is the same however:
- Open the Alexa app
- Hit the hamburger menu in the top right-hand corner, tap Smart Home
- Select the Groups tab, then Add Group
- Select 8220;Smart Home Group8221; and give it a name, for example Living Room
- Then select the devices to include in that group
That then means you have devices in that group that will all react when you say 8220;turn my living room on8221;, for example. That might be lights and plugs or whatever. In reality, it works best with on/off applications, although in the case of lights, you can also say things like 8220;Alexa, make my living room lights brighter8221;.
Top tip: If you don8217;t want to specify the group name (living room in this example), include an Echo device in the group. That Echo will then associate itself with those devices, so you can say 8220;turn on the lights8221; in that room and only that room will light up.
Beyond groups, Routines can provide a degree of automation. Routines is the native Alexa offering, allowing you to associate some actions with trigger phrases, while there8217;s support for third-party scenes too, like a Hue lighting scene or a Harmony remote scene.
Routines are a little basic at the moment, and prone to complications, because the phrase you select has to be distinct, to avoid confusion with other Alexa commands. Alexa Routines now extend to native support for Ring, so you can have your Ring Doorbell trigger an announcement on your Echo for example.
- Open the Alexa app
- Hit the hamburger menu in the top right-hand corner, tap Routines
- Tap the + to add a new Routine
- Select a phrase or a time for your new routine to happen
- Select the actions you want from the offered categories
- Finally select the device you want the routine to run on
That8217;s all pretty easy to establish, but, as we said above, if your phrase is too close to something else that Alexa recognises, you might not trigger your routine. For example: 8220;good morning8221; already has an associated Alexa response, so making a routine triggered by saying 8220;good morning8221; won8217;t always work.