Unlike many things we buy in life, especially for the smart home, the Echo is a very different proposition. Your smart lights can go on or off, vary in brightness or color, or play in an attractive theme, but they can’t one day start ordering you a pizza.
Part of the delight of Amazon’s range of Echo products and its virtual assistant Alexa is that we never know what the developers will come up with next. Or, what products it will start working with, and what features will be added.
There is also the fact that, as a shiny plastic cannister consisting of microphones, speakers, radios and silicon chips, it is not instantly apparent what your Echo can do. We’ve written up several pieces on what you can do with an Echo, see the list of cool skills you can use and tips on getting started.
But, when you buy an Echo, either the original tower unit, the compact Dot or the go-anywhere Tap, you need to consider the impact it can have on your smart home, the occupants and the services you use.
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Tip #1: Location, Location, Location
When you buy an Echo product you need to consider how it will be used.
A small property where you or the family spend much of their time in one room or an open plan area will probably find that the original Amazon Echo is the perfect product, capable of playing music at a reasonable volume and fielding requests from across the room.
If you have a larger home and everyone wants in on the action, then a main Echo in the living room and a selection of Echo Dots in the kitchen, bedrooms and other areas should do fine.
However, if budget is an issue, then the $30 Alexa Voice Remote will allow you to give instructions or ask questions from around the home. It comes with a little holster, so you can keep it somewhere safe, and has its own microphone and controls. So, while you can hear the music from the bath, you can now change what you’re listening too without risking a soggy Echo.
Naturally, Echo devices are dependent on WiFi range, just like most other smart home devices. So, don’t expect the same degree of performance from one stuck in the attic bedroom without an accompanying WiFi booster.
Tip #2: Learn to Speak Alexa
Alexa is intelligent, but she isn’t a true AI, yet. This means that you need to speak her language, you can’t just randomly fire questions at her. Learning to always say “Alexa” first, or “Amazon” or the other trigger words becomes second nature after about two minutes.
After that, you need to figure out her sentence structure. That is usually in the form of “Alexa, do this to object.” So, “Alexa, turn up the heating,” “Alexa, turn on the TV,” “Alexa dim the bedroom light” or “Alexa, play my music.” are valid examples.
You will also want Alexa to be able to understand you, while she is pretty good with regional dialects and accents, if you seem to have trouble getting through to her, then there is a voice training option within the App’s Settings menu where you can repeat stock phrases, so that she can learn your intonation and speech patterns. This will help you two get along better and is recommended, if you regularly hear that she can’t understand you.
One other tip, is to try and locate your Echo away from room corners, walls or solid objects as localized echoes can interfere with the microphone ring.
Finally, to avoid false triggers, keep your Echo away from the TV set or your PC, especially if there are regular adverts for the product being broadcast or on websites.
Tip #3: Amazon Echo and the Smart Home
Most of our readers will have picked up an Echo to handle some smart home activity. With the range of supported devices growing rapidly, there’s a range of control options. First there are devices that have native support such as LiFX, Nest, Hue and more. These will proudly say “Works with Alexa” on the box or appear on Amazon’s smart home page with similar motifs.
The second tier of support comes in the form of Skills, which are third-party plug-ins to make something work with Alexa. You can find the latest skills here with a whole range of smaller brands or niche products and services making themselves compatible.
Finally, Alexa has its own IFTTT channel where you can find many a huge array of pre-set commands to help Alexa work with your smart home products or link various devices actions together.
If things refuse to talk to Alexa, the most likely issue is network connectivity, or if that seems to be working okay, then you can trying switching all components on and off. (Yes, it is 2017 and we still have write this!) If none of that works, then check the IFTTT command and compare it with web forums to see if there’s a slight change – in the same way that you talk to Alexa, these skills and IFTTT commands have their own syntax.
Tip #4: Light Up With Alexa
The main way that the Echo communicates, apart from voice, is via the light ring on top of the original Echo and the Dot model. Learning what those lights mean is key to any early troubleshooting before you start shouting abuse at her.
When an Echo is turned on the blue lights indicate powering up and also signal that Alexa has heard one of the activation phrases. An orange light means the Echo is trying to connect to the WiFi. If this persists or it turns a violet or purple color, then you might want to give your router a nudge, kick or simply restart it.
When it comes to volume, red means you have muted the device and white indicates the volume level, which can adjust by voice the controls on the top, or via remote.
If you see flashing red lights then Amazon is having trouble completing or understanding a command. Try again (in a simpler phrase) or it could be that the cloud service or something else is having issues.
Flashing blue or amber lights means that the Echo is trying to connect with a Bluetooth speaker or other device. Distance can sometimes be a problem with these although we can blast music to our sound bar downstairs with no trouble at all.
Tip #5: Alexa on the Move
As we’ve said, Alexa and Echo is an evolving concept. Given that Google and others are planning smarter AIs that respond to natural language chat, remember the meaning of a conversation with someone and can carry out sequential, related, requests it is only a matter of time until Alexa becomes even smarter.
Keep checking the Echo app, Amazon’s Echo blog or even the developer pages to find out what’s going on under the hood. These and other pages will keep you up to date, so you are always taking advantage of the latest Echo features and skills.
Patrick Sinclair is a geek; make no mistake about that. He runs All Home Robotics in his spare time so he doesn’t have to think about his depressing cubicle and it gives him an excuse to buy expensive gadgets to review!