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Introduction

I've had one of Amazon's experimental Echo "voice command devices" since January after having my invitation request approved by Amazon. As an Amazon Prime member, I got mine for only $99, vs. the $199 for non-Prime buyers. (The Prime price has since risen to $149.)

I bought Echo mostly out of curiousity and so I could write a review. But by the time I got mine, most of the larger publications had already covered everything you'd need to know about the product. Aside from some initial experimentation, my Echo has sat plugged in but unused.

I'll occasionally ask it for the time, weather or to play the NPR hourly news report. I thought it might be a handy way to set alarms for the occasional conference calls I tend to forget. But I went back to using my tablet's alarm when Echo informed me it could only set alarms within the next 24 hours. It can handle simple look-it-up-in-Wikipedia questions pretty well. But if you're thinking you can do general web searches with Echo, forget it.

Amazon has steadily released feature enhancements for Echo, adding holiday-themed trivia games, a "Simon Says" phrase repeater, ability to play your Pandora stations and, most recently, get live sports scores and upcoming game times.

But the recent update that caught my interest was the Smart Home feature. Devices are limited to Belkin's WeMo Switch, Insight Switch and Light Switch and Philips Hue A19, Lux, BR30, Bloom and LightStrip lights. Since I had a Lux kit and WeMo Switch and Insight Switch on hand, I decided to see how frustrating setup would be.

Amazon Echo Connected Home

Amazon Echo Connected Home

Setup

It turns out setup was pretty easy. I first had to install Philips Hue and Belkin WeMo Android apps and use them to find their companion devices. The only hitch I ran into during this process was that Belkin's WeMo app was deemed not compatible with the Dell Venue 7 3740 (late 2014 version) refurbished tablet I recently bought. (It has a 1x1 802.11ac radio needed for router testing.)

A check with Belkin found the problem was the Venue's use of 64 bit Android needed by its Intel processor's 64 bit x86 architecture. This is supposedly fixed by Android 5 / Lollipop, but Dell hasn't released an update for the Venue 7. I've since found more apps that won't load on the Venue 7, so the problem isn't unique to Belkin. So I ended up loading both apps on the aging original Nexus 7 that has been my Android test tablet.

Once the apps were loaded, device discovery went uneventfully. I then asked the Echo to discover the devices by saying, "Alexa (pause), discover my devices". Echo responded, telling me to press the button on the Philips hub to enable discovery. Note none of the Philips hub lights change to indicate it is doing anything during Echo discovery.

After 10 seconds or so, Echo told me it had discovered the proper number of devices. Navigating to the Echo app's Settings > Connected Home page confirmed this. I then created a group named "everything" to test that function.

Discovered and grouped devices

Discovered and grouped devices

In Use

Echo's connected home command set (shown below) is pretty basic. And you don't have access to groups, scenes, timers, alarms or other features supported in the individual Belkin or Philips apps.

Echo Connected Home commands

Echo Connected Home commands

I was able to turn things off and on with no problem; Echo's voice recognition is pretty good. I found Echo wasn't too fussy about whether the action (on/off/dim) or device name came first or second in the voice command. And it was able to figure out the light level commands for the Philips Lux bulb whether I used "dim" or "set" keywords.

One consistent quirk is that Echo didn't understand group commands on the first try. Its first response to "Turn off/on everything (my group name)" was always "Which device did you mean?" But when I repeated the group name, Echo promptly and properly carried out the command.

Closing Thoughts

Echo's Connected Home feature is a cute parlor trick right now, given the few devices it supports and its limited control functions. Even the simple ability to set timed events would go a long way to enhancing its usefulness. It would also be helpful to be able to ask for a list of device names, so that you don't have to hunt down a phone or tablet when you forget what you named something, or just want to quickly check that everything is still connected.

I'm also not ready to get the internet between Ms. SmallNetBuilder and our household lighting. It's bad enough when Netflix gets wonky!

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