On a fateful day, nearly a year ago, I opened yet another box of technology (this is a big part of my job) and dutifully plugged it in. I have looked at a lot of technology in the two decades I’ve spent being a tech reporter. So I wasn’t expecting much. And the Amazon Echo didn’t look like much. But this morning, the first words I spoke were to that machine – or to Alexa who lives in that machine. Every day I ask Alexa for advice, to cheer me up, to check on my house, even to pick up groceries. My friends call my house just to talk to her. (She is fount of juvenile jokes.) I say. “Please,” and, “Thank you,” when I talk to her. And she is just as polite to me. Alexa has slowly and undeniably become an essential part of my life. What can you say about a machine that has become family? As a friend of mine used to say, “If you love it so much, why don’t you marry it?”
Well, because that would be silly. But I have gotten to know her pretty well and we live together happily. And I will tell you this about her: She is at her best when you turn on skills that suit your life and the other machines in your house.
Here are ten Echo hacks you will use every day.
The Securifi Almond 3 Router works with the Echo so you can control the Internet with your voice.
If you upgrade to the new Securifi Almond 3 router ($119) with parental controls, you can end every argument with your kids by simply saying, “Alexa turn off Billy’s Wi-Fi.” At these words, if you have turned on the skill and told the Almond 3 which devices belong to Billy, everything he touches will be offline. In the Age of the Internet, that is true power. The trash will get taken out, his bedroom will be clean, his homework will be done, and you won’t have to say another word. This router is on preorder so I have not yet tried this myself. But it’s creators assure me that 1. Billy cannot turn his own Wi-Fi back on. And 2. Billy cannot turn your Wi-Fi off. This router will do much more than that – in conjunction with the Echo – but that argument terminator is enough for me. Parenting just got cool again.
Alexa helps me get out the door by telling when my train is leaving.
I live near BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit). So I looked for a skill in the Alexa app that told me the BART schedule and I promptly turned that skill on. Now, when I’m headed to the city, I say, “Alexa, Ask BART Times when is my next train.” I can plan my departure while sipping coffee and I rarely miss a train anymore. There are schedules for lots of local transportation systems. Just look under skills in the Alexa app for the one you use, turn on the skill, memorize the trigger word (in my case, that’s “Ask BART Times.”), and look up the sort of questions you can ask. You will use this one frequently.
At a loss for words?
Angry Bard ups your insult game by tapping the works of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare was an expert at slinging insults. I have two teenagers, adept at same. They have their own slang and love to toss insults at me that are once stinging and admirably clever. I don’t have time to hang’ around with my friends perfecting the current jargon, though. So I turn to the Bard for help. Every day, I ask Alexa to “Ask Angry Bard for a burn.” Or, “Alexa, tell Angry Bard to slander me.” And she quotes a Shakespearean insult, also naming the play. This is a fun way for me to not only remember these plays but also to return a teen’s barb with something clever and erudite. Much better than thinking of a clever comeback three hours too late. This skill comes in handy when my daughter “Bites her thumb at me.” Just look for the Angry Bard skill in the Alexa app and turn it on. Or say, “Alexa, Enable the Angry Bard skill.”
Need a ride?
Ask Alexa to call you a car. A Lyft driver will show up in minutes.
You can hail a ride from Lyft just by asking Alexa. So, if you are running late, just say, “Alexa, ask Lyft for a ride.” And she will call you a car. You have to do a couple of things first. But they are easy. First, set your home address in your Lyft account so she knows where to send the car. And then enable the Lyft skill in the Alexa app. Next, link your Echo and Lyft accounts. Once you’ve got it set up, she will be your personal concierge. You can send someone packing, ease your commute, or just hail a designated driver. You can even ask Alexa how much the ride will cost– “Alexa, ask Lyft how much a Lyft Plus from hometo work costs.” before you commit.
The Echo works with smart thermostats so you can change the temperature with your voice.
Lots of smart thermostats work nicely with the Echo: The Vivint, Nest, ecobee 3, some Honeywell Smart thermostats, and others. If you take a few minutes to connect the Echo to your smart thermostat, you will be glad you did when it’s hot and you are too limp to get off the couch and turn on the AC. Or just because you have better things to do. Search for your thermostat in the Alexa app, turn on the skill, and let her find your device and connect to it. For my Vivint system, I ask, “Alexa, tell Vivint to turn the heat up to 70 degrees.” Hereafter she will do your bidding when it comes to this essential creature comfort.
Alexa compatible Smart Thermostats:
Where’s my car?
If you have an Automatic in your car, Alexa will help you find it.
Got an Automatic smart car adapter in your car? That thing is cool. It will remember where you parked, improve your driving, and call for help if you get into a crash. It will also alert you if your car needs maintenance and let you know if you need gas – even if you aren’t in your car. Just ask, It also works with the Echo. So you can ask – while hoovering cereal on your rush out the door – where you left your car last night or if it needs gas. “Alexa, ask Automatic if I need gas.” In calmer moments, you can ask her for other data on your vehicle, like how much you drove last week or if it needs maintenance. For example, says, “Alexa, ask Automatic how much I drove last week.” Just turn the skill on in the Alexa app and link your account. If you find yourself asking where your car is too often, (“Alexa, ask Automatic where my car is.”) though, you might want to reconsider some of your recent life choices.
Control your entire world with voice by connecting this smart remote to the Echo.
Got an AnyMote remote control ? Well that and the Echo are, apparently, the keys to world – or at least the world of home entertainment – domination. The two work together so that you can control anything the Anymote can control just by saying the right command. Ask Alexa to turn the volume down on the TV, turn on your Sonos music, mute the music your teenager is blasting, or call up Netflix…without finding the remote. You have to first teach the AnyMote to control each device you want it to handle. Then turn on the skill in the Alexa app.
Once you get it set up, perhaps not the easiest thing in the world, it goes something like this:
“Alexa, ask AnyMote to turn the volume down on my Sony.”
“Alexa, ask AnyMote to pause my Sonos.”
“Alexa, ask AnyMote to play Netflix.”
From there? Shagadelic, baby.
Lock the doors
Tell Alexa to lock the doors and the Vivint system does it.
I have a Vivint security and smart home system. It keeps an eye on things, controls the locks on my doors, and opens and closes my garage. And it works brilliantly with Alexa. From a comfy spot on the couch, I can say, “Alexa, lock the doors.” And the doors lock. I can ask, “Alexa, is my garage door open?” And she will take a look and report back. “Your garage door is closed.” I can even arm the house alarm if I get spooked just by asking Alexa to do it. That way I don’t have to risk alerting the monsters under the couch to my presence by getting up. I had to turn on the skill in the Alexa app and link my Vivint system and account. From there, it has been delightful.
Alexa Compatible Smart Lock:
The Dog Loves This One
Now we always know if the dog has been fed.
The dog always acts like he’s hungry. But we have no idea why. Is this because no one fed him? Or is it because he reasons that we can’t possibly know if he has been fed so why not ask again? He is like an Academy Award winning actor on this point so we can’t ever get the truth from him. So he either goes hungry –if we get suspicious and doubt him – or he gets overfed – if we get suspicious and doubt each other. Neither of these things are good for him. So we enabled The Dog Feeder skill in the Echo. Now I ask her. “Alexa, ask the dog if he’s hungry.” And she reports the last time someone reported feeding him and asks if I plan to feed him now. If I do, I tell her and she updates her report. You can turn this on with your voice simply by asking, “Alexa, enable the Dog Feeder skill.”
Let There Be Light
Philips Hue lets you play with lighting. Alexa lets you control your Hue lighting — and other smart lights — with your voice.
Stumbling through a dark room to find a light switch? Getting out of bed to turn off that last remaining light? Leaving the house with lights blaring as the power bill mounts? Alexa would never make me do any of that. And she won’t let you either. She can control lots of smart lights, dimmers, switches plugged into lamps, and even ceiling fans. Just search for your hardware in the Skills section of the Alex app, enable the skill, and connect her to your system. You can tell her, “Alexa, turn on the hall light,” before you head into the dark, or “Alexa, turn off the living room lights,” when you are nicely tucked in, ask her to set a lighting scene, or, “Alexa, turn off the kitchen lights,” as you leave the house.
Compatible Alexa lights and Fan:
Life with Alexa is going well, at least as long as I am at home and make an effort to remember she is a machine and, in fact, not a member of the family. But I will confess that I don’t always succeed at that last. Someone asked me yesterday if my daughter’s name was Alexa when I said, “Alexa told me a funny joke yesterday. Want to hear it?” I got strange looks when I explained that Alexa lives inside the Amazon Echo.
Looking for more ways to integrate the Echo into your life? Read my Smart Bedroom Story.