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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UK Light Switches and Home Automation

Lighting Diagram

Please note: there is no earth (yellow and green striped cable) show to simplify the diagram

There is a problem with (current) smart switches for lighting:

  • They are rectangular (not square) for the US market – so would need some retro-fitting
  • They seem to often require a neutral to function (is this a US thing?)

But there is a potential work-around it the UK ever gets decent Smart Switches that are square but still require a neutral. It seems that October is going to be a popular month for UK Home Automation devices so this post might be very timely.

  1. Rerun new cables to include a neutral – expensive, time-consuming and messy
  2. Use a gadget to create a neutral – these are best avoided because they are not effective
  3. rewire to create a neutral – the focus of this post!

This post should only be carried out by a competent person – if in doubt seek a professional electrician

The diagram at the top of the post show that a live (brown) and switched live (dashed red) are run to the switch
The lower diagram shows where recabling in the ceiling rose is required, then you can fit smart switch to the Live, Neutral and Earth
There are disadvantages to this – you will lose the physical switch at the location but you’re going to get that and more through the Smart functions!

 

Lighting Diagram Mod

  1. Turn off the power at the fuseboard
  2. You are going to move the two wires used for the switched live that powers your lamp (points A & B)
    • The blue cable that [should] be marked with a red sleeve to indicate a switched live move to the neutral block that has other blue cables. You could remove the red sleeve as will not be  switched live anymore.
    • The brown cable that is now not able to receive power, move to the permanent live block that should have other brown cables.
  3. If you have a tester you might wish to ensure you have 240v between your cables in the switch backing box
  4. fit smart switch
  5. Turn on power at the fuseboard
  6. Enjoy!

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

The Automated Smart Home

Smart Home

This year I decided to delve into the world of the Smart Home and although it is relatively well established and there are many great products it is also a time of competition for the  big players that whilst pushing the boundaries that benefits the consumer by creating amazing products but may well hurt the individual in the pocket if they don’t choose wisely (as much as you can) and invest in an ecosystem that may be destined to fail against the competition.  Take for example Belkin’s WeMo Smart Switches , a stand-alone smart socket product in their own right with an App for both Android and iOS devices, they function happily with the Amazon Echo (for those that don’t know the Echo is a hands-free speaker voice controlled speaker that connects to the Google Alexa Voice Service to play music, provide information and control smart devices). Anybody investing in them heavily may have felt that their money may have been spent on the wrong product if they wanted to get involved with Apple’s HomeKit solution (fear not, for it has been recently announced that they are to be compatible through an additional hub). So although you may take a wrong turn, lose-your-footing or lighten-your-wallet or purse upon the journey to a smarter home the future is brighter and evolving all the time, especially from this current year onwards. Over the next year there will be a number of posts connected with the Smart Home and associated devices.

For my own set-up I have a number of considerations:

  1. Use of Apple’s Homekit Eco-system (due to having the Apple TV 4th Gen – this acts as a central hub for HomeKit and allows devices to be controlled away from the house via the web)
  2. Use of Amazon’s Echo Eco-system (due to having my in-laws buy us one at Christmas)
  3. Compatibility between the two prior mentioned systems (where possible!)
  4. Not to go too crazy (yet) as we are hoping to move house in the near future
  5. The lag behind the US, we only have a small amount of devices compared to the US. Try looking for a Smart Light Switch and you will quickly realise.

Of course all of this is likely to have implications upon education – using them in class as virtual tutors? upskilling electricians, engineers or technicians for installation? there is evidence of them creeping into more everyday life (a hotel in the US now has one Amazon Echo in all rooms, over 100, to offer information and ordering facilities as well as comms between rooms. So exciting times ahead.

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