Amazon Echo (and why I like it alongside HomeKit)

Amazon Alex (Black)

Whilst I don’t class myself as an Apple fan-boy I do buy into their platform heavily, mainly due to the fact that I have been burned so many times as an early adopter that I just wanted a phone that not only worked, but that did what it said on the packet, but was reliable. Apple’s products work flawlessly (although not always cutting edge).  I decided late last year that I would buy into the Apple HomeKit eco-system mainly due to having iPads, iPhones, Apple Watch and a 4th Gen Apple TV (that acts as a hub and bridge to the control devices external to the house). Just as Santa was delivering my first shiny and pristine HomeKit compartmental smart socket and a Philips Hue Starter Kit a relative purchased the Amazon Echo. I am not ashamed to say it laid in it’s box for a week whilst I was playing with the HomeKit compatible devices. Then I finally got round to tinkering with the Echo…. what fun!

Calling out “Alexa”….  (you can change  this to Echo or Amazon) enables you to do many things with an Echo that are, in the part are trivial, such as:

  • “Alexa, Tell me a joke”
  • “Alexa, volume 11.” (caution: very loud)
  • “Alexa, beam me up.”
  • “Alexa, sing me a song.”
  • “Alexa, random number between “x” and “y.”
  • “Alexa, heads or tails.”
  • “Alexa, roll a die.”

to the more useful:

  • “Alexa, do I need an umbrella today?”
  • “Alexa, set a repeating alarm for Tuesdays at 8:00 a.m.”
  • “Alexa, set a timer for 10 minutes”
  • “Alexa, play music” (from your Amazon Music Library)
  • “Alexa, play Radio 4 on TuneIn
  • “Alexa, How is traffic?”
  • “Alexa, What’s in the news?”
  • “Alexa, Turn on the kitchen lights”
  • “Alexa, Spotlights colour blue”
  • “Alexa, Dining Room 50%”
  • “Alexa, Connect my Phone”
  • “Alexa, add coffee to my shopping list”

The playing of music (never got round to having a sound system in the kitchen) and controlling of lights is by far the most used features of the Echo and I am surprised at how capable it is at hearing and understanding commands from over 30ft away whilst the TV is on and the kids and making a noise. We can easily control lighting from the lounge even though their is the dining room between us and the Echo. The Echo is constantly having small upgrades, early on in the year you had to use the IFTTT service to turn on a predetermined colour for Hue lamps, now Alexa can do it seamlessly on her own and you can request colours without presetting. Addition of “Skills” (think of as an app for your Echo) allows for integration with other devices such as Plex Media Server where I can ask “Alexa, Ask Plex to play Spongebob the Movie”, a go-to-kid-pleaser!

Now admittedly we lag behind the US for features (but as ever they work extremely well when they come over to this side of the pond). But such features as being able to play the same music multi room synchronicity, texting of voice calling your Echo for reminders and  two way comms between internal and external devices are sure to keep the platform fresh and innovative, as well as giving the rival a real run for their money. I am not afraid to say that it is favoured over using the Siri button on the TV remote or lifting my apple watch for a Siri command – it’s already listening for me and is quicker to react – just as long as I am in ‘ear-shot’ and other family members are not being disruptive (my eldest loves to either beat me to a request, confuse Alexa or countermand me – much to his own amusement).

In relation to learning they show a level of interaction that can be a real advantage to learners (although I don’t fancy taking mine into work just yet!), an always attentive support assistant that can help with definitions of terms, perform calculations, set timers for activities, set reminders, read audiobooks, play music (or audio files), request spelling of word, synonyms and even translate phrases into other languages. These are available right now so who knows what the future might bring?

For a device that’s been available in the UK since the 28th of September 2016 that was fun from the start and has constantly evolved I would recommend a purchase, definitely as a solid entry in home automation and the fact they are heavily discounted on occasion and can be over 30% off. Would I buy another? I can’t see why not, I am just holding out for the expected V2 rumoured to launched later in the year to compete with the impending Apple HomeHub. With improved Audio and styling.

Do you have an Echo or Dot? What do you use your for?

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Philips Hue Smart Lamps

Hue Hub and Lamps

Before we begin let’s start off by stating that the following is my own experience and not a recommendation, also this post is not going to talk all things ‘Hue’ but will focus on the ‘basics’ to get up and running. Firstly you are going to need a bridge (version 2.0 for HomeKit compatibility) this can be purchased separately but can be cheaper if bought as a starter kit – the Hue White and Colour Ambiance kit will effectively give you 3 lamps and a free bridge for instance in either BC or ES fittings, this is where I started and it is certainly fun to mess around with the colour options.

The following lamps, and hub, are your basic options (you can get light strips and desk/floor lamps but we will not be talking about those in this post directly). All devices are Energy Class A+ Rated.

  • Hue Bridge 2.0 @£50
  • Hue White and Colour Ambiance – 16.8 million colours, lamp temperature range of warm white (2200K) to cool white(6500K) light & dimmable
    • E27/ES or B22/BC (10W) @£50
    • E14/SES  (6W) @£50
    • GU10 (5.5W) @£50
  • Hue White Ambiance – lamp temperature range of warm white (2200K) to cool white(6500K) light  & dimmable
    • E27/ES or B22/BC (9.5W)  @£25
    • E14/SES (6W) @£30
    • GU10 (5.5W) @£25 (or x2 for £44)
  • Hue White – dimmable
    • E27/ES or B22/BC (9.5W) @£15

Why did I decide to upgrade to smart lamps? well curiosity and the fact that the E14 lamps I was using were costing me £6 a time and were blowing out at one-a-month and the cost of changing fittings and purchasing lamps would be cost effective – not to discuss the energy savings. Also smart lamps are a cheap and easy way to move into the Smart Home experience. The great thing about Philips Hue is that they are well established, are easy to expand beyond any initial purchase and fall into a number of Smart eco-systems – Amazon Alexa, Apple HomeKit and Google Home. So you can use or move between different control systems should you wish to.

So what lamps should I purchase? well let’s do a quick calculation based on fittings already downstairs:

  • Lounge: 3 x B22 ceiling / 3 x B22 floor lamps
  • Dining room:  10 x E14 ceiling
  • Kitchen: 3 x E14 ceiling
  • Utility: 4 x GU10 ceiling

Now given when I started this journey the E14 lamps did not exist until April 2017 so I was going to have to change the fittings in the dining room and kitchen but for the purposes of this post (if E14’s were available) the cost of upgrading to colour lamps would be £1,150 (23 Lamps x £50 = £ 1,150).

Burning an astonishing 1111 Watts for all the rooms main lights and table/floor lamps, mainly due to lack of natural lighting lights in the kitchen and utility are on throughout the day, I have now reduced it down to a highly respectable 97W and with utilising the smart abilities of the lighting through timers and sensors this should further reduce costs. The reduction in part was by needing to replace multiple E14/SES up lighter fittings with singular E27/ES downlighters. My cost for lamps ended up being a respectable £300, this may seem a lot but keep in mind the abilities of the smart lamps that I did not have before. I now have three colour floor uplighters in the lounge for those cosy movie nights, three ambience or the lounge ceiling and the rest as white only. We only (currently) really use the coloured Hue’s to set a movie night theme of blue, currently the ambience Hue’s are not fully utilised.

I learnt some important lessons along the way and would recommend based upon my experience:

  1. Only purchase lamps that give you the functionality you would really use, I’m not interested in turning my utility room into various shades of green or even having a cool white spectrum
  2. E27/ES (Edison Screw) fittings are a lot more common than B22/BC (Bayonet Cap) – You can purchase E27/ES to B22/BC  adapters but not B22/BC to E27/ES
  3. You can purchase splitters to convert 1xE27/ES to 2xE27/ES (but you would need room in any fitting for the extra lamp addition)
  4. Wait until  there is a special on the hue starter kit – they can go as low as £125, and the ambience have reached as low as £18. You don’t have to buy everything at once!

Interested in using Homekit in the UK? visit & join https://www.facebook.com/groups/homekituk/