Amazon Alexa: How to start a smart home

During Amazon’s Prime Day sale four years ago, I found myself staring at a listing for an Echo Dot smart speaker. It was on sale for half price. I wasn’t browsing with any particular smart home gadgets in mind. It was simply being advertised on the homepage of the e-commerce giant’s website, and I lack the impulse control to resist a good bargain. I purchased it thinking I’d just use it as a fancy voice-controlled radio for my kitchen — much like my parents’ second-gen Echo back home — and told myself that it was the last time I’d line Jeff Bezos’ wallet with my hard-earned cash.

Fast forward to 2023, and Alexa is now on its way to running my entire apartment.

Its voice rings through almost every room. It manages my shopping list, listens for when my laundry needs switching over, nags me when it’s time for bed, and even turns on my towel warmer when I go for a shower. I never intended for this to spiral into a full smart home setup, but the convenience it has provided me with is worth every penny I spent on peppering Echo smart speakers and Alexa-compatible plugs and lighting around the place.

When I mention Alexa here, I’m specifically referring to the Alexa Voice Service (AVS), which is essentially a cloud-based service that can mimic conversations and perform tasks designated with vocal commands. Amazon describes it as the company’s “voice AI” — when it detects someone saying its wake word (usually “Alexa,” but more on that later), the service will start listening and responding to your demands. You can instruct it to play music via radio stations or streaming services like Amazon Music and Spotify, ask it what the weather will be like, and set alarms and timers to keep you on track throughout the day. Routines can also be created to group together various actions, such as switching off all your smart lighting when you say, “Cut the lights.”

From the very first Amazon Echo smartspeaker…Image: Amazon

To the current fourth-generation model. The design has changed considerably since the original was released in 2014.Photo by Dan Seifert / The Verge

Amazon spent at least four years designing what would eventually become the first Echo smart speaker before it was officially announced in November 2014. The Alexa virtual assistant — named after the library of Alexandria — launched alongside it, with its now-iconic voice born from Amazon’s acquisition of a Polish speech synthesizer called Ivona. Unlike rival voice assistants such as Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, Alexa quickly defined itself by actually being useful. It didn’t need a phone or Windows 10 to work, and the routines and skills built into the system allowed it to perform tasks like hosting trivia games, controlling your TV using voice commands, and fetching stock or weather reports from specific third-party services.

A lot has changed in seven years. These days, Alexa can be used via a mobile app and third-party devices like TVs and speakers, kicking off a trend in interactive voice assistants and fully embracing its calling as a robust smart home platform. It sits beside Google Home, Apple Home, and Samsung SmartThings as one of the four main ecosystems for smart home devices. Google Home, Apple Home, and SmartThings are solid options, but there are a few reasons why I’ve remained faithful to the Amazon Alexa platform.

Spoiled for choice

For one, Amazon provides the largest selection of smart speaker devices and frequently releases new models with generational improvements. Amazon Echo devices can be used as your smart home controller, and these days, there’s an Echo for everyone: you can get the fourth-generation Echo for $99, the more premium Echo Studio for $200 (which features Dolby Atmos and spatial audio technology), the compact Echo Dot for $50, and the affordable new Echo Pop for $40. Variants of the Echo Dot are then available that feature a built-in LED clock ($60) or colorful designs specifically created for children that come with a free 12-month membership to Amazon Kids Plus ($60), an all-in-one subscription service that provides access to books, audiobooks, educational apps, and games.

There’s an Echo device to suit basically everyone, including the new Echo Pop (pictured left) and the fifth-generation Echo Dot (right).Photo by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / The Verge

The Echo Show smart display also comes in several varieties, ranging from the adorable $90 Echo Show 5 to the $280 15.6-inch Echo Show 15. And all that doesn’t even include compatible Echo accessories like the Echo Sub ($130) or Echo Link Amp ($300). That variety means that you can select a smart home controller that best serves your needs, and there are plenty of deals to be found on older, still capable models if you’re on a tight budget. Apple’s and Google’s offerings can be similarly affordable, but they have far fewer smart speaker offerings by comparison.

I personally have two fifth-gen Echo Dot speakers in my lounge and home office, a fifth-gen Echo Dot with Clock for the bedroom, and a second-gen Echo Show 5 in my kitchen. The illuminated clockface on the bedroom-based Echo Dot is an ideal modern alarm clock, and I can use the Echo Show to view the stream from a security camera or video doorbell, display recipes, or video call friends while I’m cooking. These Echo devices were basically the gateway drug that got me expanding into other smart home integrations. They’re simple and incredibly user-friendly, which makes them a good way to ease yourself into the Amazon ecosystem before fully committing to buying expensive add-ons — you can play around with Alexa’s various skills and routines until you’re comfortable with adding in additional hardware.

Echo Show devices are especially useful for watching Prime content while you cook or monitoring your smart security cameras.Photo by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / The Verge

And there are plenty of skills to play around with — over 100,000, at this point, far more than Google Home Actions and Apple’s user-programmable Shortcuts, each platform’s equivalent feature. Skills are essentially optional preprogrammed apps for your Alexa device that perform specific tasks or fetch information from a particular source. For example, you can install skills that allow you to order from Pizza Hut using your voice or get detailed weather reports from Big Sky, which uses the Dark Sky API. Plus, there are lots of goofier skills you can install to play games, tell jokes, and change how Alexa interacts with you. Most skills are free, though some do require a paid subscription to unlock all of the features, like Big Sky’s $1.60 monthly premium membership.

Hunches and customizable wake words

You’ll find that each of the three big smart home systems can largely perform the same tasks, but Amazon Alexa has at least two perks I can think of that its rivals lack. The first is Hunches, which allows Alexa to proactively control your smart home gadgets based on your previous activity. Let’s say you typically power up your robot vacuum to run when you go to the gym each morning — if you forget, Alexa may offer to run it for you. It doesn’t always need to ask your permission first, and the feature is enabled by default on Echo devices. You also have the flexibility to manually set which Hunches you want and disable those you don’t need. It’s a fantastic feature for people like me who can’t stick to a fixed daily routine.

The second perk is that you can change Alexa’s wake word. Part of the reason Amazon chose that name (besides the dorky historical nod) is that it claims there aren’t many words with “x” in them, which reduces the likelihood of the voice assistant mistaking random words for its activation phrase. Great logic, but it’s a nuisance if there’s anyone in your home actually named Alexa or Alex. You don’t get complete freedom to rename it (it would be far funnier if you could), but you can choose between Amazon, Computer, Echo, or Ziggy. I have mine set to Computer, naturally, so I can feel like Captain Picard every time I bark commands at it.

Alexa works with just about anything

Amazon Alexa is also by far the most popular and widely used ecosystem compared to Google Home and Apple Home, largely propelled by its wide-reaching device compatibility. There are a dizzying amount of Alexa-compatible products on the market — over 100,000 as of 2020, according to a Statista report. This includes Amazon-owned devices such as Fire TVs and Ring doorbells and security cameras and third-party products like Sonos audio systems. 

Echo Show devices can also display the live video feed from your Ring doorbell, so you know exactly who’s outside without opening your mobile app.Image: Amazon

Some Echo devices — specifically the fourth-generation Echo and the Echo Show 10 — also include a built-in Zigbee radio. This is essentially a wireless protocol for smart devices similar to Wi-Fi or Bluetooth that allows them to connect directly to Zigbee devices like Philips Hue lighting systems without purchasing a dedicated hub. And device compatibility should only improve as Amazon continues to roll out support for Matter, the new smart home standard designed to make smart devices work with each other across platforms and ecosystems. The fourth-gen Echo can already be used as a Thread border router.

The wide variety and sheer volume of Echo devices and Alexa-compatible gadgets make Amazon the ideal ecosystem for most folks looking to set up their first smart home. If you have specific products or tasks in mind, such as robot vacuums or a gadget that can open / close your curtains, you’re almost guaranteed to find something compatible with Amazon Alexa. And if you can’t, you can always buy Alexa-compatible smart plugs and just use those to control tech or appliances that you already own. I have around a dozen Ohmaxx energy monitoring smart plugs around my apartment that I use to connect regular non-smart devices with my Alexa routines and tell me how much electricity I’m using throughout the day. I have to check this via the dedicated Ohmaxx app, though Alexa does also offer its own Energy Dashboard to monitor energy consumption across a selection of supported products — a service that neither Apple nor Google provides.

In fact, those plugs were the only additional devices in my teeny Alexa setup until fairly recently. I still only own a handful, having recently added some cute Philips Hue and Twinkly smart lighting around the place (which I have set to turn on at sundown every evening). But I now have a fairly lengthy list of additional products I’m waiting to purchase and build into my smart home, such as a Tado smart thermostat and an August Wi-Fi Smart Lock.

Amazon Echo models with built-in support for Zigbee don’t need a Philips Hue hub to control your Philips smart lighting.Image: Philips

Opting for Amazon Alexa is also a no-brainer if you frequently shop via the Amazon website, especially so if you’re a Prime member. I can use voice commands to add and purchase items in my Amazon basket using the default payment and delivery address in my Amazon account and monitor the status of my deliveries either through audio notifications or on-screen tracking on my Echo Show. You can also ask it to keep track of items in your wish list and have it notify you when they go on sale. For better or worse, this is clearly a smart home assistant created by an e-commerce company.

“Alexa, stop trying to sell me things”

I say that because one of the most common complaints about the Amazon Alexa platform is how often it advertises its other features or tries to sell you something. For example, Echo Show devices frequently display homescreen ads, which are almost impossible to remove. Subscribing to Prime doesn’t prevent these from appearing, though it does prevent Alexa from constantly trying to tempt you with Prime-only services.

When you’ve asked Alexa something, it also loves to chime in with “by the way…” which is your only warning before it starts pitching recommendations for Amazon skills, features, and products like some soulless sales rep sniffing out a commission. I eventually learned you can reduce how often this happens by heading into your account settings, selecting “Notifications,” and disabling everything under the “Things to Try” tab. Before that, I lost count of how often I found myself screeching “COMPUTER, SHUT UP!” over its sorry attempts to get me to download a skill for telling crap dad jokes.

Just purchased an Echo Show? I hope you like ads.Image: Amazon

There are other issues that might mean Amazon isn’t the right fit for your blossoming smart home empire. The company’s repeated privacy issues will likely be the biggest deterrent for most, with Alexa having previously come under fire for commercial surveillance. Other Amazon products don’t necessarily paint a better picture for the e-commerce giant, which has been criticized for handing over Ring security footage to police without a warrant and acquiring robot vacuum companies to map out its customers’ homes.

Alexa also requires an active internet connection to work and doesn’t support Google Play or YouTube Music for obvious reasons, so if you’re deeply invested in either of those services, then Google Home may be a better fit. Some users may additionally find the platform’s routines to be too restrictive if, say, they need to add specific conditions to automations. Systems like Home Assistant paired with a Raspberry Pi work locally and provide far greater control over automations than Amazon, though setting that up might be intimidating for folks with minimal smart tech experience. Thankfully, there are several ways to integrate the two systems and use Alexa as your voice assistant for controlling Home Assistant devices.

But I don’t really need the granular control the more complex Home Assistant provides. I like the quick and simple convenience of Alexa. It’s easy to set up and supports every kind of device and feature I personally need to automate tasks around my home. Sure, I’d love it if it handled more complex routines and automations natively, but most folks have no need (or desire) to micromanage the exact conditions in which a motion-activated porch light should turn on or whatever. It’s the ideal smart home system for everyday consumers looking for an “idiot-proof” ecosystem, especially if you’re already subscribed to Amazon Prime.