Ultimate Mom’s Guide to Amazon Echo

Right off the bat, let me just say that technology is awesome! This is especially true if it can integrate almost seamlessly into your daily activities and just make things simpler.

After making its way to the homes of Prime members in November 2014, Amazon released the Echo to the general public on June 23, 2015 and it’s getting us all riled up!

What is the Amazon Echo?

Straight out of the box, the 9.2-inch Amazon Echo is a slender cloud-connected wireless speaker that does more than just playing music. Utter the wake word “Alexa” and it comes to life; connecting to a voice service that not only belts out your favourite tunes but also answers your questions, helps you catch up on the latest news, and even allows you to control various smart devices.

Alexa, the personal assistant with a buttery smooth voice, is reminiscent of Siri, Cortana, and Google Now except she’s not confined in a smartphone, tablet, or computer screen. Instead, she is housed in a sleek black cylindrical Bluetooth device.

There is a twistable volume dial at the top that comes with a light ring that glows blue when Alexa is awake and red when she is muted. There are also two buttons on the top—a microphone-off button and an action button for turning off alarms and timers.

Inside, the Echo boasts of seven microphones capable of “far-field voice recognition” that promises to hear your requests and questions even if you are in another room. A section of the blue ring even lights up to let you know which mic caught your voice command.

Getting started with the Amazon Echo couldn’t be simpler. You just plug it in (yes, there are cables and wall sockets involved and no battery pack) and begin setting up via the free Echo app available on iOS, Android, and Fire OS. Once the blue light ring flashes, Alexa is ready to help you out.

Other Tasks Echo (and Alexa) Can Do So Far

The Echo and Alexa are, admittedly, far from perfect but they have come a long way since their limited, invitation-only release last year. Amazon seems to be seriously putting up extra hours to develop their device. Here’s a few things you can do with the Echo (and with Alexa) so far:

  1. You can get the information you need, when you need it. Just say “Alexa, what’s my flash briefing today?” and you’ll get your personal newscast delivery from sources like NPR, the BBC, and ESPN without having to turn on your television. Alexa can also update you on the weather and event on the traffic between home and work.
  2. It can organize your day. Alexa can access your Google Calendar and can remind you of the things you need to accomplish today. Do you need to remember your son’s baseball game this afternoon? Do you need to add items to your shopping list or your to-do-list? Just give Alexa the signal and you won’t forget tasks any time soon.
  3. You can control home automation devices. The Echo easily connects with smart home devices like Belkin WeMo devices and Philips Hue light bulbs. You can also connect to SMARTTHINGS and control compatible lights, switches, and anything plugged in to the SmartThings Power Outlet. Just say “Alexa, turn off downstairs lights.” And you’re all set for the night.
  4. It’s a killer audio book player. If you have an Audible book collection, Alexa will happily read them out loud for you plus she’ll pick up right where you last left off.
  5. It can stream music for you. If you want to jam with your teenagers to the latest Taylor Swift hits, that’s no problem for the Echo. Say “Alexa, play music by Taylor Swift” and you’ll be treated to a jam session from your Amazon Prime, Spotify, or Pandora playlist. It can also access we radio services like iHeartRadio and TuneIn. Simply connect your phone or tablet to Echo by saying “Alexa, pair my device.” You can even skip songs, shuffle a playlist, adjust the volume, and stop the music with just a simple voice command. What’s more, Alexa lets users buy songs via Amazon Prime.
  6. It’s an awesome homework companion. Alexa has an expanded access to Wikipedia which can help kids with researching for homework assignments. You can also ask Alexa how certain words are spelled and can even provide accurate definitions.
  7. It’s fun! Did you know that Alexa can tell jokes like “What do you call a fake noodle? In impasta!” You can also play Bingo, “rock, paper, scissors”, and “rock, paper, scissors, lizard, Spock” with her.

For Star Trek fans who want to go all Jean-Luc Picard on the Echo, saying “Alexa, Earl Grey tea, hot” will merit the response “Unable to comply. Replicators are offline.”

Another way to have fun with the Echo is to say “Alexa, Simon says…” and she’ll repeat whatever you have in mind. Here is a great video on some of the fun you can have with Alexa.

IFTTT Recipes: Gifts that Keep on Giving

Amazon recently launched a new Amazon Echo channel on the popular automation service IFTTT (pronounced the same as “gift”) to secure the Echo’s position as an indispensable cloud-connected digital assistant.

amazon-logo-black-squareWith IFTTT (stands for “if this, then that”), users will be able to create free automated “recipes” linking web tools, social networks, and other smart devices and then trigger them with simple voice commands to Alexa. This pumps up the ante for the Amazon Echo connecting it to services like Gmail, Google Drive, Evernote, Microsoft OneNote, Nest thermostats, iOS, Todoist, and Toodledo.

Some of the most popular Amazon Alexa recipes including adding Alexa To-Dos to Evernote, adding Alexa Shopping List items to Evernote, emailing yourself if you ask Alexa for your shopping list, adding Alexa To-Dos to Todoist, tweeting songs you’re listening to on Echo, and keeping a Google spreadsheet of the songs you listen to on Echo.

There are dozens of other recipes available on the Amazon Echo Channel and users can expect even more in the near future.

It still has Some Limitations

The Amazon Echo is still not without its fair share of limitations and there’s a fairly acceptable explanation for it all.

  1. Alexa may have a hard time understanding commands when there is noise. She may boast of understanding organic speech better than the competition but she can still get confused when placed in the middle of muffled voices.
  2. Alexa only lets you buy new songs and reorder items you already bought off Amazon. The Echo isn’t really designed as a primary shopping device but Amazon already said it’s working on this. But don’t worry because you can always purchase albums through Amazon Prime
  3. HoneycombAlexa won’t control locks. While she can turn off the lights and control other SmartThings devices effortlessly, Z-wave locks and other sensors are another thing all together. This is a sensible safety feature. You may have to lock your home the old-fashioned way but Alexa won’t be unlocking doors for burglars either.

Clearly the Echo is an exciting product and we can’t wait for Amazon to roll out new tricks for this sleek wonder.

You can get your own Amazon Echo for on $179 at http://www.amazon.com/Amazon-SK705DI-Echo/dp/B00X4WHP5E.

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