Gadgets :: November 21, 2018

Gadgets :: November 21, 2018

by Gregg Ellman
(@greggellman)

Alexa do this, Alexa do that.  

The popularity of the voice assistant has even caused the decline of people naming their children Alexa. According to a blog post from a sociologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, the name Alexa has seen a 21.3 percent drop in 2016 and another 19.5 percent in 2017. 

Even with the popularity, it remains unknown to many. I get asked often about what’s the deal with Alexa. With the system set to be one of the most popular holiday gifts this year, it’s worth knowing what’s up with Alexa.

Let’s take it from the beginning. Alexa is Amazon’s virtual voice assistant, released in November 2014. You have to pay for the hardware, but her service is free and if you have an Amazon Prime account ($119 yearly), you’ll be able to unlock a lot more of her benefits including a free music service.

The system is controlled by speaking commands to Amazon’s Echo Bluetooth speaker. I’m using an Echo Plus and if I was grading it on the sound alone, it’s outstanding. 

Setting it up is simple, especially since you get written instructions along with Alexa speaking instructions. Obviously since it’s driven by Amazon, you do have to have an account to log into the Amazon Alexa app (iOS App Store, Google Play Store or Amazon Appstore) on your smartphone. After logging in the app, it’s pretty straightforward; set up the app, connect your home WiFi to the Alexa and start talking to your new friend.

The voice assistant system can do a lot of things; control your smart home devices to unlock doors, change a thermostat and turn an appliance on or off. You can also make phone calls, send messages, get the news of the day, weather reports and even go shopping to name just a sampling of the features. Your choices are endless.

After opening my Echo plus and going through the setup I asked Alexa to play WFAN sports radio (my favorite New York station) and within a few seconds it was playing. My next command was to play SirusXM radio. Alexa told me I had to link my account, which I did and had my music playing right away.

Next on my list was the indoor Amazon cloud cam security camera ($119.99), which records in 1080p HD. The setup included the cloud cam app, connecting to your WiFi and a few other quick steps. Before I knew it, there I was facing the camera and watching myself on my smartphone. The camera has a 120-degree view, a built-in mic and speaker for two-way communication and inferred night vision.

You get free storage for the most recent 24 hours of clips or you can upgrade up to 30 days of storage and have up to 10 cameras connected.

The choices of devices that are Alexa-comparable is growing every day, including Bluetooth speakers and lightbulbs.  Setting up a light with a timer takes just a little longer then screwing in the bulb. 

With a Philips Hue lightbulb screwed into a basic lamp, per the instructions I turned the lamp on and off real quick. This allows it to go in pairing mode and have the Alexa app discover it. From there, just tell Alexa when you want it on or off or just set a schedule as I did by telling Alexa to turn the lamp on at 5p.m. and off at 7a.m. daily.

I already have Alexa compatible (second and third generation models) Nest thermostats installed in my house, so I added them with the app. So now when my wife is cold, all she has to say is “Alexa raise the temperature by 5 degrees.” 

 

iHome’s WiFi outdoor smart-plug is perfect for this time of year for controlling holiday lights. The plug is weather resistant and with an Alexa command it will turn the lights on and off or just can set a daily schedule. Obviously it’s not limited to holiday lights, it will control whatever plugged into it.

One feature I find amazing is voice-controlled shopping, which is only available to Amazon  Prime members. So if you’re out of detergent, coffee or other Prime products, just tell Alexa what you need. Since she is already connected to your account,  your credit card will be charged and whatever you asked for is on the way.

I finished up by asking Alexa if I can now have a margarita since my holiday/vacation week has begun. She replied that she doesn’t have an opinion on that, so I made the decision on my own.