How-To Geek

The Amazon Echo Is What Makes Smarthome Worthwhile

Image of an open newspaper with paper houses on blue background. Above one house stands bunch of keys. House and keys are marked in white.

The Amazon Echo and smarthome are a match made in heaven. Alone, both sets of products are fairly useless—but together, they are awesome.

New technology is often met with groans from people who don’t understand what purpose it serves. Sometimes, those products die (if they truly aren’t useful), and sometimes the world grows to love them. The Amazon Echo is one of those products that regularly causes people to publicly wonder: “Why would I want this?” Smarthome products, like Wi-Fi lights or learning thermostats, often evoke the same question.

I felt the same way, until I actually tried using those products in my home. But here’s the catch: you have to use them both together. The Amazon Echo is mediocre if you don’t use it with smarthome products. And smarthome products aren’t don’t make life much more convenient without the Amazon Echo (or a similar voice control device, like the new Google Home.) Since even my smarthome-using coworkers were puzzled by this sentiment, I felt compelled to make my case in a little opinion piece. Let’s do this.

Smarthome Isn’t Just Lazy: It’s All About Context

You’ve undoubtedly seen the get-off-my-lawn types pull the “lazy” card whenever smarthome or voice control enters the conversation. “Only a millennial would be too lazy to get off the couch and flip the light switch”. But it isn’t just about laziness. It can be, but I’d argue voice control is even more useful while doing other things.

For example: I like to watch TV while I make and eat lunch. In the past, I would go to the living room, turn on the TV, wait for everything to start up, select a show on Netflix or my home theater PC, and start it up. It doesn’t seem like that much of a hassle, as this is the way we’ve done things for decades.

But with the Echo and a Harmony Hub, things are way simpler. I can walk into my kitchen, start making lunch, and tell Alexa to turn on the TV. Once the TV is on, I can tell her to play the next episode of How I Met Your Mother on my home theater PC. There’s no waiting around, no scrolling through menus…just me making lunch while Alexa does my bidding in the background.

Similarly: I don’t have a lamp near my bed, since all my bedroom lights are controlled from the switch on the wall. The only problem? The switch is all the way on the other side of the room. So after reading in bed for a half hour, neither my wife nor I want to get up to turn the lights off. This isn’t laziness: the whole point of reading a book in low, red-tinted light is to put yourself to sleep. Getting out of bed and walking disrupts that. Now we can just say “turn off the lights” and instantly drift off into beautiful slumber. And of course, we still have a switch on the wall when we want it.

Smarthome Apps Are a Hassle, but Voice Control Is Easy

“So why not just use the apps on your phone?” I can hear some of you asking. After all, that’s what smarthome is intended to do, right? You install a product, like a Wi-Fi light bulb or Wi-Fi outlet, and then you control that device with an app on your phone. But if that were the only use case, smarthome would be stupid. Why would anyone give up the one-flick convenience of wall switches for something that takes at least three or four taps to do on your phone?

Enter voice control. Saying “Alexa, turn on the living room lights” is way faster and easier than pulling out my phone, unlocking it, going to the Hue app, and flicking the right switch. And I can do it from anywhere in the house.

Voice control isn’t just an added convenience for my smarthome. It’s the primary way I control my smarthome. I hardly ever open any of the apps.

Yes, I know smarthome isn’t just about “turning things on and off with your phone”—there are some useful automation features, too. But most of my experience with smarthome products has been on-demand usage–and the Echo is what makes it pleasant, instead of a multi-tap hassle.

You Could Use Siri or Google Assistant, but Standalone Voice Units Are Great

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So why not just use the voice control on your phone? Well, you can…but I still think the Echo is better. Hear me out.

First of all: Amazon has done a good job of targeting smarthome as a use for the Echo. The Echo supports an abundance of smarthome products—more than either iOS’ HomeKit/Siri or Android’s built-in voice control, in my experience. In fact, until the release of Google Home, Android’s voice control didn’t support any smarthome stuff, so you needed an Echo if you were an Android user.

Besides, if you used your phone, then you’d have to worry about having your phone with you all the time–I don’t know about you, but when I’m home, I leave my phone on the table somewhere instead of gluing it to my person. The Echo just makes things easy–it becomes part of your house, instead of being part of you.

Smarthome and Voice Control Need to Go Together

Alone, these two products are unexciting. It may be a fun gimmick to control your lights from your phone, but it gets old quickly. Voice control is easier than using your phone, and (in many cases) more convenient than flipping a switch on your wall.

The Echo is the same way. Alone, Alexa can do some decent stuff–play music, call an Uberplay Twister–but it’s underwhelming as a standalone product (and judging by many of the reviews, so is Google Home). But once you fill your house with smart lights, outlets, locks, or whatever else you want, Alexa becomes your own personal house-controlling Jarvis.

None of this takes into account cost, mind you. Smarthome is still pretty expensive, especially if you have a bigger house. You don’t need Wi-Fi lights in every room, but at $15 a bulb, the cost for a few rooms still adds up quickly. And while you can save money on the $179 Echo by buying an Echo Dot, it still isn’t cheap–especially if you want to put them in multiple rooms (which you really need for maximum convenience).

But hopefully, as these technologies become cheaper to produce, they’ll become cheaper to buy, and everyone can take advantage of them. But they also need to have purpose in people’s homes—and in my experience, the only way that’ll happen is if smarthome companies realize that voice control is the glue that holds it all together.

Image Credit: SvetaZi/Bigstock.

Whitson Gordon is a writer, Windows geek, PC builder, metalhead, chopstick-using potato chip eater, and Midwest-to-Southern California transplant. You can follow his nerdy exploits on Twitter and Facebook.

  • Published 11/4/16

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