So you got an Amazon Alexa for Christmas and you’d like to know what it can do?
How about setting up some simple and inexpensive home automation?
You’re in the right place.
First, let’s talk about what Alexa can do for you.
Amazon’s Echo devices
I’ve had Echo devices around the house for a few years now, and here is a look at how we use Alexa in our house.
I have a fourth-generation Echo Dot with a clock on my bedside table and a third-generation Echo Dot in the living room.
Every morning, my wife and I start our day by asking Alexa what the temperature is and what the weather is going to be for the day.
This is as easy as saying, “Alexa, what’s the weather going to be in Dallas today?”
We also use Alexa as our daily alarm to wake up.
This is done by saying, “Alexa, set an alarm for every weekday at 6:30 a.m.”
Alexa can also help if you’re taking the day off and want to sleep a little late.
Just say, “Alexa, cancel my 6:30 a.m. alarm.”
She’ll respond by saying, “6:30 a.m. alarm canceled. Do you want to cancel for every weekday?”
If you say no, she’ll just cancel the alarm for one day.
Timers are also a great task for Alexa. From my kitchen, I can just holler out, “Alexa, set a 25-minute timer.” You can also name your timers by saying, “Alexa, set a 45-minute cake timer” if you’re baking.
Of course, there are thousands of Alexa commands. You can look up a big list at cnet.com.
One of the best features of the Alexa ecosystem is the addition of third-party skills.
These skills add features to the Echo through tie-ins to other companies.
Some popular skills include:
Audible: You can listen to Audible books through Alexa and control the playback with your voice.
Roku: If you have a Roku TV, you can enable the Roku skill and control the TV with your voice. “Alexa, turn off the TV,” is something we say every day at my house.
Nest: If you have a Nest smart thermostat, you can add the Nest skill to allow voice control of the temperature in your house.
Sleep sounds: You can turn Alexa into a white noise machine so you can tune out the sounds of the city and relax.
You can interact with Alexa and do things like add skills on the Alexa app in your phone or tablet.
Some of the apps you can add cost money, but there’s no monthly fee for Alexa.
I used to let a Wink hub help control my home automation devices like smart bulbs and smart plugs. Wink also helped control my Emerson Sensi Thermostat and my Schlage smart deadbolt.
Wink decided to move to a subscription model, so I began looking for free alternatives.
It turns out many devices have turned to Alexa to help control things.
I did have to ditch some old smart bulbs, but most of my home automation setups were already Alexa-compatible.
This means you set up the item — like a Wyze Smart Bulb — with the Wyze app on your phone, then load the Wyze skill in the Alexa app and ask Alexa to scan for new devices.
Alexa should take about 20 seconds to scan and come back to tell you she found a new bulb.
You name the bulb, like Jim’s bedside table, and you can even assign it to a room in your home.
Assign an Echo device to the room (say, the bedroom) and you can just walk in and say “turn on the lights” to turn on all the lights assigned to that bedroom.
Once you have the bulbs set up, you can control the entire room with your voice.
I also have Alexa working with my Emerson Sensi Smart Thermostat to control my house’s temperature.
My AT&T Digital Life home alarm also has a skill, so I can ask Alexa to arm or disarm the system.
I’m also using several smart plugs — there are many brands — to control various items around the house.
I have a large floor lamp with four bulbs in my living room. Instead of using four smart bulbs to control the lamp, I am using one smart plug.
The Alexa app lets you set up the smart plug and designate it as a light, so I can group my floor lamp with the rest of the smart bulbs in my living room.
Music in any room
Finally, you can use your Echo to play music from most popular music services, like Amazon Music, Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora and SiriusXM.
If you have multiple Echo devices around your home, you can group them and sync up the music playback throughout your house.
Some Echo devices have pretty good speakers, but most Echoes — even the smallest Echoes like my Echo Dot — can connect to better speakers via Bluetooth or a 3.5mm aux out plug.
Plus, adding music to another room is the perfect excuse to buy another Echo.
There is a bunch more the Alexa ecosystem can do for you. Amazon sends a weekly email to tell users what’s new with Alexa.
I’m talking about Amazon devices in this column because that’s what I use at home, but a lot of this functionality can also be had with a Google Home or Apple’s HomePod.