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May 102018
 

The low-cost Echo Dot (and its various more expensive stable-mates), available in various colors and sleeves, responds to voice commands with voice answers, and controls other electronic gadgets.

We’ve had a love-hate relationship with our Amazon Echo devices since  getting our first back in 2016.  We love what they do, but we hate that we don’t know more about how to use them better, and we get annoyed at ourselves when we forget the appropriate voice commands to do the things we wish to do.  So, for our own benefit, as well as for yours, we came up with a cheat sheet of some of the most useful commands and features of these devices.  A copy of this is attached, and a more extensive version is available to our kind supporters from their special supporter resource page.

First, a quick refresher on what the Amazon Echo is.

Amazon’s Echo units are voice controlled.  You speak to them, asking them questions, or asking them to do things, and they reply to you.  For example, ask them for information about the weather or news, and they’ll tell you.  Ask them to turn on your upstairs lights, and if you have a compatible smart light switch connected to those lights, they’ll turn the lights on for you.  Ask them to set a reminder message for you at 2pm to do something, and so on.

Order a pizza, book a restaurant through Open Table, schedule a Lyft or Uber car, ask what movies are playing in local theaters (or television programming), have them convert Euros to dollars, ounces to cups or liters, and so on.

Their speakers can also be used to play music, or as an intercom service, both within your home/office or more broadly to contacts elsewhere in the world.  They can be connected to your phone as well.

Some models of the Echo devices also include cameras and screens.  And, similar to how Amazon’s Kindle eBook reader started off as a dedicated device and then evolved to become an app available on most phones, tablets, and computers, so too is their Echo app increasingly available on phones, tablets and computers too.

We first reviewed the Echo in December 2016, and then did a follow-up review with more commentary and ideas about how to use Echo units.

The least expensive Echo unit is the Echo Dot.  Usually listing for $49.99, the Echo Dot is currently on a “Mother’s Day Special” for $39.99.  If don’t already have some, perhaps now is a good time to dip your toe in the water and try one; and if you already have some, maybe now is a good time to get another one or two to add to more rooms in your house.

Add one of these between your wall socket and the light or other appliance plug and you can then remote control whatever is plugged in to it.

The other essential thing to add to your Echo unit are remote control plugs so you can have your Echo devices turn things on and off for you.  You can get replacement wall mounted light switches for regular lights if you don’t mind the small amount of rewiring needed to install them.  But for items that plug into a wall outlet – including lights and all sorts of other electrical appliances – it is tremendously simple just to add a unit between the wall socket and the device plug – no wiring required.

These smart plugs have plunged in price.  When we first started buying them, we were paying $40 for each plug and feeling pleased at the ‘bargain’ we’d uncovered.  Now you can get them for as little as $12.99 each, and packs of two, four, six, etc at slightly lower per-unit costs.

There are a couple of things to watch out for when buying smart plugs.  The first is to make sure they can be directly controlled by Echo units – some require a ‘smart hub’ that interfaces between the Echo units and the smart plugs, but most don’t.  The best thing is to look for an “Amazon Certified” badge on the listing.

The second is to see what the current rating is for the device.  Most are rated for 10 amps, some are rated for 15 amps.  If you’re simply switching on and off simple appliances and lights, 10A is probably plenty, but if you’re wanting to turn on heavier machinery, heaters, or cooking equipment, then you’ll probably need 15A.  10A is enough for about 1100W of power, 15A is good for 1650W of power.

Here is a link to a ‘cheat sheet’ with some of the most useful of the many commands you can use with your Alexa Echo.  Some of them refer to built in capabilities of the devices, and others relate to additional ‘skills’ that you download to your device – a bit like adding apps to your phone or tablet, for example, and a very easy process to do.  (Note – Travel Insider contributors can go to their contributor page and download an extended version of this document.  If you’re not yet a contributor, you can become one here.)

When we wrote about the Echo unit in December 2016, there were about 4,000 different skills.  Now there are more than 25,000, and you can even now develop your own skills through a fairly easy ‘do your own programming’ “skills blueprint” tool that Amazon offers.  As far as we are aware, currently all skills are completely free (even in cases where an equivalent phone based app costs money to purchase), making it enticing to wade through some of the long listings of skills to find ones that could be of interest.

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  3 Responses to “Using An Amazon Echo”

  1. Love articles like this. I have had my Echo for about 3 years and although I do not use it as much as I should, enjoy the convenience of the “little” things like setting an alarm.

    I think you had a typo – “10A is enough for about 11000W”

  2. Another thing to watch out for. I believe most use the 2.4 Ghz wifi channel although maybe some use the 5 Ghz. ?? — As they usually also work via Smart Phones, best to get the frequency you use the most.

    There are lots of options with these and hard to know exactly what you need – so get caught up on details. Also note some block the other outlet connection and others do not. And some have 2 outlets which can work in tandem or individually.

    A full report along with suggested uses would be nice. Some like it to turn on coffee pot from bedroom after waking up to the Alexa alarm. Ha. Now to find one that turns on shower and dresses me!!

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