First Impressions Amazon Echo Dot and Home Automation

June 10, 2017

Hello all.  For something a little different today, I thought I’d share with you my first impressions of the Amazon Echo Dot and its pairing with the Philips Hue lighting system.  

I’ve been thinking about a an intelligent speaker for a while.  I regularly use Apple’s Siri on my iPhone to set alarms, timers etc and I was interested in having an always-on assistant in the home.  At the time of writing, there are three contenders in this market; the Amazon Echo, Google Home and the new Apple HomePod.  I was anxiously watching the Apple Keynote to see what kind of product Apple would announce.  While the HomePod looks interesting, its price was beyond my budget and also the emphasis seems to be on the Bluetooth speaker rather than the smart assistant integration.  The ability to play my Apple Music would have been nice though.  The Google Home was also of interest, but the Amazon Echo’s ability to play Audible audiobooks as well as the low price point of the Echo Dot were the deciding factors for me.  Our apartment is pretty small, and I only play music with a headset, so I couldn’t justify the extra expense for the better speaker part of the full Echo.

The Amazon Echo Dot is not officially available in Canada (why not Amazon?) so I had to turn to eBay to purchase one.  My eBay experience was excellent and it arrived a couple of days after I placed the order.  It arrived the same day as my Philips Hue White starter pack to enable smart lighting in our home.  I chose the Philips Hue system as it works with both Alexa and Siri.

The setup for both the Echo and the Hue lighting system was incredibly easy.  Fair enough, I am quite tech savvy, but if you are able to follow on-screen instructions and press buttons when required, you should have no problem.  In total, it took me about 45 minutes to have the Echo and the smart lighting setup and working fine.

The Philips Hue white starter pack comes with the Hue bridge (the tech that translates between your smartphone or the Echo and the bulbs) and two bulbs.  I placed one in our living room and one in our entryway.  However, I forgot that the light switch controlling the entryway turns on two bulbs, so I had to purchase another for the smart functionality to work.  I also have a white ambiance bulb (this one changes the colour temperature of the white light) and a colour changing bulb on order.  The lighting system works brilliantly.  It was easy to setup and it’s wonderful to be able to say “Hey Alexa turn on the living room lights” and they go on.  Apart from the fun aspect, it’s lovely to be able to turn the laundry room light on by voice if you’re carrying a basket full of laundry.  There are a lot more things you could do with it that I have not yet explored, such as the ability to have the lights come on at a specific time or to have them come on when you (or your GPS enabled smartphone) near home.  I am having a few challenges changing the colour temperature of the white ambiance bulb with Alexa, but I’ll continue to work on it.

The Amazon Echo Dot, too, is a lot of fun.  As well as the usual timers, alarms and general questions, I’ve used it successfully to get weather reports, a flash news briefing and to add things to my shopping list and to-do lists.  My to-do list manager of choice is TodoIst, and Alexa integrates wonderfully with it.  I maintain a shopping list on Todoist and asking Alexa to add something to my shopping list immediately adds it.  Likewise if I ask her to add something to my to-do list it will go onto my Today list in Todoist.  Asking her what I have on my to-do list will have her read out what’s on my Today view in Todoist.  Awesome.

I was concerned that, with Alexa not being supported in Canada some of the functionality may be missing.  It’s true that a lot of the location specific information is unavailable.  For example, if you just ask for a weather forecast it won’t pick up your Canadian location.  You have to specify “what’s the weather like in Montreal, Quebec.”  If you do that though it works fine.  Also you can’t ask it to find you the nearest Starbucks.  Mine thinks I’m in Seattle, so a long way to go for a coffee!  I understand you also can’t place any orders.  I was concerned though that it wouldn’t pick up my Audible account as it didn’t show in the Alexa app.  However, worked perfectly.

Like the App Store, Alexa has what they call a skill store. There you can download mini applications to enhance Alexa’s functionality.  Most of them are just a bit of fun, but others are useful, such as the Hue skill to integrate the ability to manage your lights.  I installed the Allrecipes and one called Miauw Miauw.  This allows Alexa to mew like a cat.  I had to uninstall it though as my own cat, Lushka, was freaking out thinking there was another cat in the apartment!

Avid reader that I am, the real Echo killer app if you like for me is the Audible integration.  Quite often I’ll be doing some chores and think, gosh I could be listening to my audiobook about now, but not been in a position to look for my phone, open Audible and start my audiobook.  With Alexa I can just say read my Scribe of Siena audiobook and she fetches it from Audible and starts playing it.  Add to this the quick connection with my Phonak Bluetooth streamer and it’s a real winner.  I only wish Amazon would add the ability to listen to audiobook samples via the Echo.

All in all, I’m really happy with my Alexa and the Hue light integration.  They are well worth checking out.  Let me know in the comments if you have any questions.

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