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Alexa, What Else Can You Do? Getting More From Amazon Echo | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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BILL PYSZCZYMUKA was installing an air-conditioner in an upstairs window last spring when it occurred to him that there was a way to control the machine without getting up from the couch downstairs: his Amazon Echo.

Mr. Pyszczymuka, who lives in Schenectady, N.Y., figured the Echo — Amazon’s $180 internet-connected speaker — could be connected to an app that controls a Wi-Fi-connected power plug. By plugging the air-conditioner into the smart power outlet, he could turn the air-conditioner on or off just by speaking a command to the Echo.

“The moment of truth came when I asked, ‘Alexa, turn on the air-conditioner,’” he said. “The unit beeped upstairs, with Alexa telling me, ‘O.K.’ I thought it was more than O.K. It was cool.”

Mr. Pyszczymuka is part of a prolific community of Echo tinkerers who are using the smart speaker for much more than playing music. Since Amazon released the Echo last year, it has quickly become the top-selling home audio speaker on Amazon.com and one of the company’s most successful hardware products. While Amazon, which reports quarterly earnings on Thursday, has not revealed how many Echos it has sold, people have put the speaker to work as a shopping assistant, kitchen companion and home automation tool.

Yet making the Echo a smarter speaker is not intuitive. And, if consumers do not do any research or tinkering, Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa, can appear lacking in capabilities compared with Apple’s Siri and Google’s voice assistant. That’s because Alexa’s database isn’t as mature or thorough as others that have been on the market longer.

So I recently revisited the Echo to unearth some of the best tips to getting the most from Alexa. Here’s a rundown.

A Smarter Audio Speaker

Let’s start with the basics: Consumers can make their Echo a hipper audio player by tweaking just a few settings. By default, the Echo will play music from Amazon’s streaming music library. But Amazon recently let people change the default music player to more popular streaming services, like Spotify and Pandora.

To change the default music player, open the Alexa smartphone app. Then tap Settings, tap Music and Media, and tap Choose Default Music Services and select Spotify for your default music library or Pandora for your default station service. That way, you no longer have to say “Play Radiohead on Spotify” or “Play Radiohead on station Pandora” — you can just say “Play Radiohead” or “Play Radiohead station” and the Echo will play music from your service of choice. (Apple Music and Google Play are not supported by the Echo.)

Other audio tricks include the ability to ask Alexa to play specific podcasts — try speaking a command like “Alexa, Play ‘Fresh Air’” (the NPR show) or “Alexa, Play ‘This American Life’” (also from NPR). An often-forgotten feature of the Echo is its ability to play live radio stations from all over the world. Just ask Alexa to play the call letters of your favorite radio station like KQED, and the Echo will stream it.

Your Virtual Sous-Chef

Echo tinkerers have been putting the speaker to work in their kitchens. One reason: you can summon Alexa without touching the device, which makes it extremely helpful while preparing food or putting dishes away.

Try these basics to get acquainted with Alexa in the kitchen: After you stick a pie or roast in the oven, ask Alexa to set a timer. Need help tripling a recipe? Ask Alexa to do the math (“Alexa, what is three times 127?”). Need to know how many tablespoons are in a cup? Ask Alexa to make the conversion for you.

Alexa can also help restock your kitchen. If you are an Amazon Prime subscriber and are running out of something like Ziploc bags, just say “Alexa, order Ziploc bags” to place an Amazon order right away. If you prefer to pick up the item at a store, say, “Alexa, add Ziploc bags to my shopping list” to affix items to a shopping list in the Alexa smartphone app. The best part about using Alexa to compile a shopping list is that multiple family members can add to it, even after you have left the house.

Exploring the Smart Home

Now that you’re well acclimated to Alexa, consider some advanced hacks, such as configuring the Echo to control different parts of your home, including the thermostat and the light bulbs. This will require buying more gear.

One useful product to buy to expand Echo’s utility is TP-Link’s $25 Smart Plug, a Wi-Fi-connected electrical outlet. It can be used to toggle on and off an appliance that you plug into it, like a lamp or portable fan — or, if you’re creative like Mr. Pyszczymuka, an air-conditioner unit.

Setting up the Smart Plug takes a few minutes. I plugged a bedroom lamp into the Smart Plug, then downloaded the free smartphone app Kasa, which detected the Smart Plug and connected it to my Wi-Fi network.

Then I opened the Alexa smartphone app, added the Kasa “skill” (third-party apps for Alexa are called skills) and connected Alexa with my Smart Plug. I subsequently gave the lamp a friendly name: bedroom lamp. Now at night, I can say “Alexa, turn on the bedroom lamp” to light up the bedroom before I walk down the hall.

Fancier light setups are available, too. Philips offers smart light kits called Hue, and its companion app can be used to adjust some Hue bulbs into hundreds of colors. I connected a Philips Hue light strip with the Echo using an internet algorithm on the website If This Then That. Then I tweaked the recipe to turn the light strip red whenever I said “Alexa, trigger ‘Game of Thrones’” — which set the mood during viewings of the HBO show.

Another nifty use of Alexa is how it can control a smart thermostat, which I tested with my Wi-Fi-controlled Honeywell thermostat. In the Alexa app, I added the Honeywell skill, then scanned for the thermostat and labeled it Honeywell. Saying “Echo, set Honeywell to 80 degrees” set the heater to that temperature. (Alexa also works with other smart thermostats like Nest and the Ecobee 3.

Some Echo tinkerers have been even more ambitious about hooking up their homes. One Reddit user made Echo open and close window blinds. Others have bought smart home kits like Samsung’s $249 SmartThings system, which can be set up to connect with different sensors like a water leak detector or a motion sensor.

Larger projects like these are expensive and take more technical skill, so I recommend starting with basics like smart lights, plugs and thermostats. Then you can assess whether you need a much smarter home.

Testing Skills

Looking for more things to do with Echo? Open the Alexa app and add these three skills — TV Shows, The Bartender and Uber.

Then next time you’re couch-surfing, ask Alexa a question like “Ask TV Shows what time ‘Last Week Tonight’ airs” to find out what time the show is on. (The answer: Sunday at 11 p.m. eastern on HBO.)

Or when trying a new cocktail recipe, say to Alexa, “Ask the bartender how to make a Manhattan” to get a list of ingredients and instructions. And while you are tying your shoes and getting ready to go out, say, “Alexa, ask Uber to request an UberX” to summon a car to your home.

The downside of forming a bond with Echo and Alexa? You will wish it can help you with everything, everywhere — including filing an expense report on the go or turning down the volume of a loud co-worker. At least you will always have a friend waiting for you at home.

(The New York Times)