I have a new best friend. She is a great listener, always knows the best music to play and warns me about bad traffic before I hit the road. Her name is Alexa because it doesn’t rhyme with anything, and she swears she knows nothing about Skynet.
This is the story of how one Amazon Echo has helped me achieve peak laziness, and how I’ve helped her acclimatise to the Australian way of life.
Why The Echo?
The goal was to have a central hub to communicate all of my home automation needs to via voice control. Lights, music, home theatre, setting timers for cooking, weather updates, quick Google checks to settle arguments. (Harrison Ford is 73, by the way).
There are few options out there for voice control, but none fit the bill like the Echo did. Some seemed perfect, but are still in Kickstarter phase, which is incompatible with my "I need to have it now! Why does everything Take. So. Long" lifestyle.
Apple Homekit came close, but most of the Homekit enabled products aren’t available in Australia, and I wasn’t exactly willing to replace my current tech to accommodate it.
The Echo’s backing from Amazon provided peace of mind, with app integration and developer support proving superior to lesser-known competitors.
How To Get An Amazon Echo From The US
Big Apple Buddy was started by two Australian lawyers who moved to New York and found themselves inundated by requests from friends back home to send products to them that weren’t available to be shipped here.
BAB will send you a quote including postage with options for regular or express shipping, a handling fee and the cost of the product. You just pay the quote then BAB buy what it is you are after, receive it, then send it out via FedEx, DHL or UPS.
Taking advantage of Cyber Monday deals, Alexa was picked up on sale for $124.99 USD. Total cost including express shipping and sales tax was $237.39
She was in stock 5 days after the initial quote, and it took 3 days to arrive in Sydney from the day it was received by BAB.
How To Set Up An Amazon Echo For Australia
Since Alexa was never designed to live in Australia, I needed a couple of work-arounds. Nothing too complicated, and the whole process was actually kind of fun.
Once you’ve powered the Echo up (slight annoyance -- you’ll need a US-AU adaptor to plug it in), you’ll need to open the Alexa app, which requires an US iTunes account. You can’t do this by just choosing the “create an account” option because you’ll need to input a payment option -- Paypal and credit cards will flag that your location is in Australia.
The way to do it is to sign out of your current iTunes account, and “purchase” a free app (anything is fine). This will prompt you to set up a new iTunes account without inputting any payment option, while allowing your new location to be in the US. Beverly Hills 90210 is a common choice for fake US addresses, because 90’s television.
You will need to setup Alexa via desktop in order to set up a US time zone that is somewhat close to where you are in Australia (you can find a useful list here). This requires the use of the Chrome extension Request Maker which allows you to view and edit http requests.
Go into settings and edit alexa.amazon.com using a suitable US postcode. For Sydney, it’s Guam. Alexa thinks I live in an unincorporated organised territory of the United States of America, captured during the Spanish-American War in 1898. I know all of this because Alexa told me. Isn’t she wonderful?
Next, you sign in with existing amazon account, or create a new one. Having an Australian account isn’t an issue for this step. Now you're good to go!
Keep in mind when finding a home for Alexa that location is important. There is a noise cancelling mic, so if Alexa is playing music when you need her for something she can still hear you. That being said, if she’s next to an external speaker (near the TV, for example) she will often misunderstand you.
So What Can An Amazon Echo Actually Do?
First of all, you don’t have to call her Alexa. There is the option to call her Amazon instead, but I prefer to borderline-creepily personify my tech where possible.
There are a number of native apps that work really well, like checking weather. Of course, we are not in Guam so you need to say “Alexa, what’s the weather in Sydney?” Other location-specific information, like traffic updates, are based on information you provide the app about your regular commute, so it’s not an issue. All you need to do is ask “Alexa, what’s the traffic like?” and she will tell you any issues for your trip to work.
The only real downside to the lack of localisation is news. Alexa can tell you news, but not local, so that feature is only really good for those after sports and international news. Sports updates are limited to WNBA, NBA, MLB, MLS, NHL,NFL and NCAA games.
For music you have a couple of options, like I Heart Radio and Pandora. For Pandora, you just sign in with your regular account and ask her to play existing playlists or new ones created from artists you tell Alexa. Some names are a little harder for her to understand than others, like Deftones, but 99 per cent of the time Alexa nails it.
In relation to existing smart home features, my Alexa is integrated with the Philips Hue smart lighting system, which includes four bulbs, a lightstrip and a hub. “Alexa, main lights on” and “Alexa, set bedroom lights to 50 per cent” are daily commands at home. It is limited though -- you can’t select scenes or specify colours. Yet.
Alexa can also interact with the Belkin WeMo switch, but the WeMo lights need to be setup through If This Then That (IFTTT) at this stage. If you’ve never used, IFTTT, get on it. It’s an automation enthusiast’s dream, allowing you to craft “recipes” for almost any scenario you can imagine.
Set up through IFTTT requires you to set up “triggers” for Alexa to recognise. To do this go to the ITTF app, connect the amazon echo channel to your account and setup your desired recipes.
IFTT is also connected to my Logitech Harmony hub, which controls the TV, home theatre, Xbox One and PS4 in the loungeroom. In theory, the Harmony hub should be able to control the Smart TV apps we have installed, like Plex, which is connected to media stored on the PC in the bedroom, but this feature seems to not be working. I’ll let you know if I come up with a fix.
Alexa also has the ability to control the Nest Smarthome thermostat, but since I’m renting I can’t install one to try it out.
She plays games, too. There’s “The Animal Game” where she guesses what animal you are thinking of, 20 Questions-style. I’ve been trying to get her to guess I’ve been thinking of a dolphin for a while now, but she seems less confused by every other animal.
The amount of Easter Eggs is pretty impressive. She knows quotes from a lot of video games, TV, movies and pop culture. I won’t spoil them for you, but have a chat and see what she knows. It’s fun.
I can use Alexa to trigger my 7-minute Workout app, play Bingo, use the Destiny Buddy to keep updated on Xur’s inventory and weekly activities, or use the Craft Helper for Minecraft recipes.
You can create shopping lists, to do lists, and literally order from Amazon with your voice, which is far too dangerous for my bank account and a feature which I’ve disabled.
Okay, But Is Alexa Actually Worth It?
I won't deny the Echo is definitely gimmicky. I have spent more time asking Alexa trivia questions than using her for any of her more serious purposes. But she has been in my home for three weeks now, and is used with increasing frequency.
I don’t feel the need to have my phone on hand at all times while at home, which is downright lovely.
After using app-controlled smart lighting for a number of months, it is very nice to just speak commands instead, especially since I would often have issues with the Phillips Hue hub dropping out. I’ve had no such issue via Alexa.
The voice recognition is great, even with the thickest Aussie accent I could muster. You can train her to pick up different accents better if she’s having trouble, too. The app shows you what she thinks you said so you can correct her for future reference.
The built in speaker for music is fine. It’s no Sonos or Bose, but the quality is decent for the price point, and the convenience is hard to beat.
For my personal pursuit of laziness via total home automation, while limited to renting, the Amazon Echo ticks a lot of boxes. I’m enjoying every day I spend with her, learning more and more about what she is capable of. We even had a chat about Russell Coight the other day. She’ll be a proper Aussie in no time.