amazon echo

Smart Homes: Exploring the basics & other smart products

This is an ongoing series of blog posts that will explore the world of smart home technology and home automation by explaining the variety of facets currently on the market, paired with our personal experience as we test the products out to further both your and our understanding. To read the other posts in this series, click the ‘Smart Home’ category on the main blog page.

In my first post regarding home automation I talked about the new mainstream leader on the market, which is the Amazon Echo. I went into some detail as to what the Echo itself is capable of, but it’s the numerous third-party app integrations that truly make it shine.

The Echo has an entire ‘Smart Home’ section coupled with the ‘Alexa Skills,’ which is the method in which you are able to connect your other various home automation and smart products. The Skills section can be accessed in the Alexa app main navigation as well as on Amazon’s website. While the Skills library is still somewhat small, it’s constantly being updated with new features and companies that have developed ways to enable their devices via the Echo.

Skills must be enabled for them to be used via voice recognition, but a majority of them also require connecting other accounts to the Alexa app. Commands like “Alexa, play Jeopardy” or “Alexa, play the Joe Rogan Experience” are examples of non-connected skills that only require you to click ‘enable skill’ and you’re able to enjoy immediately.

Personally, I have the Fandango skill that allows me to check movie times, the Yahoo Fantasy skill that allows me to hear my Fantasy Football scores, the TrackR skill that allows me to locate my phone if it’s lost in my apartment somewhere and even the Dog Facts skill that will tell me random information about dogs if asked.

Clearly some of these skills are very insignificant, but are entirely customizable for you, the consumer. I must express though that using TrackR to find your phone lost in a couch cushion is extremely handy, but none of these are truly smart home specific.

The minor skills that your Echo can learn seem endless and you can get lost scrolling through the skill library. Within minutes you’ll have your Echo customized and working way beyond its original software.

The more personal applications like connecting your smart thermostats, security cameras or light bulbs all require you to give permission through Alexa by logging into that account and allowing the two accounts to be joined. These are a few of the prominent examples of smart home integration that currently exist.

However, these are a small fraction of what’s available. A good amount of the smart home skills are extremely similar, just developer-specific dependent upon which company you’ve decided to use in your smart home.

In later posts I will delve into the specifics of each type of smart home facets and skills, specifically regarding ones that I’ve personally tested and used as well as a few honorable mentions of ones that have similar features. I named a few of the smart home skills earlier in the post, but the current full array of products that can be controlled is much more extensive.

A smart home can include lighting and switches, home climate and thermostat control, security cameras and alarms, electrical outlets, door locks and garage openers, television components, kitchen and laundry appliances, smoke detectors, sprinkler and garden watering systems and a multitude of sensors that monitor motion, water leaks, open doors and even when a family member returns home, all entirely wirelessly controlled.

Some of the main manufacturers in the smart home industry include Philips Hue, Cree, TP Link, Nest, Ecobee, Logitech, Belkin, Luma, Zigbee, WeMo, zWave and many more are popping up every week.

The above referenced smart home skills may seem complicated, but in reality the setup and connections couldn’t be any simpler. Many of them require a separate app and account through the specific company that is then routed either straight into the Alexa app or into a more generalized smart hub such as Samsung’s SmartThings.

The next post in this series will explore Samsung’s SmartThings Hub and its various add-ons that we use in the BlackRock office as well as in my apartment. The hub is a piece of equipment that has some equivalent counterparts made through other companies, but Samsung is the current leader when it comes to the smart home game, whether you’re shopping online or in-store. Just take a look at Home Depot’s main Home Automation Basics site.

We look forward to bringing you more smart home information and as always, if you have any questions or comments, feel free to email me.