A long time ago, science fiction brought us the futuristic idea of controlling your home with your voice. In recent years, home automation has emerged from the realm of maybe-someday into a more widespread reality. The popularity of Amazon's Alexa voice assistant is helping to shepherd this tech revolution into the mainstream.
Alexa isn't just about playing your music, giving you the weather forecast, or telling silly jokes. It can also be about embracing a "Star Trek"-like world where your voice becomes a remote control for your home. Where once you had to reach for a light switch, you can now walk into your house with your arms full of groceries and say, "Alexa, turn on the kitchen light."
Tip within a tip: Not sure what Amazon Alexa can do? Click here for a list of commands you're missing out on.
Alexa-enabled devices like the Echo and Dot are the cornerstones of your voice-activated home, but you will still need to invest in other gadgets to get your "Jetsons" house up and running. You can go all-out and control everything from your thermostat to your door locks with Alexa, or you can take a more measured approach, set up a couple convenient lights, and add more devices to your collection down the line.
Plug and play
Let's start simple. One of the quickest and cheapest ways to get going is with a TP-Link Smart Plug. This device, available in a few different styles, plugs into an electrical outlet. You then connect whatever you want to control into the Smart Plug. You can schedule and control the outlets using TP-Link's Kasa app, but the real fun is in connecting it with Alexa and using your voice instead.
TP-Link also offers an in-the-wall light switch to replace standard switches. Belkin's WeMo line is a similar Alexa-friendly alternative with both plug and wall switches available. This is an easy way to use Alexa with electrical devices like lamps, stereos, and appliances without having to invest in a larger system.
Take your temperature
One of the perks of having a smart thermostat is saving money on your energy use, but voice control is a fun feature. You have a handful of options when it comes to thermostats that work with Alexa, including offerings from Nest, Honeywell, GoControl, Sensi, and First Alert.
One of the most visible options on the market is the Nest Learning Thermostat, but it's also one of the most expensive. It learns and adapts to your schedule, adjusting your home heating and cooling to match your lifestyle. That's nice all on its own, but you can hook it up with Alexa and then command it to set specific target temperatures or raise or lower the temperature by a set number of degrees. You can also control multiple Nest thermostats, so you can ask Alexa to warm up the living room while turning down the temp upstairs.
Lock it down
Voice-controlled smart locks are an intriguing new development in the Alexa world, but they're mainly of interest to early adopters right now. The August Smart Lock brought us Alexa's first smart-lock skill in mid-2016, but the voice commands are limited for good reason. You can tell Alexa to check if your door is locked or to go ahead and lock your door, but you can't unlock it with your voice. That's for your own security. You wouldn't want a stranger standing outside your window telling Alexa to unlock your house.
Another caveat for the August lock is the need to use the August Connect Wi-Fi bridge to make it integrate with Alexa. That brings the price of the lock system up to around $300 with limited voice functionality. If you were planning to buy and install a smart lock anyway, then you could look at the Alexa feature as a bonus, rather than a driving factor in your purchasing decision.
Hit the hub
A smart-home hub is like a brain that operates multiple devices in a house. These hubs can control everything from thermostats to light bulbs to light switches to security cameras. There are many options to choose from, including offerings from Samsung, Wink, Logitech, Insteon, Alarm.com, and Vivint. Some of these hubs (like the ones from Vivint and Alarm.com) require dealer installation, but others you can do yourself.
We'll take a closer look at the Samsung SmartThings Hub as an example of what to expect. The hub works with compatible light switches, smart bulbs, motion sensors, water leak sensors, fan controllers, video doorbells, cameras, and door locks. While the SmartThings app gives you ultimate control over all those devices, the Alexa feature means you can use your voice to turn lights off and on and adjust the thermostat. You can also use Alexa to control what Samsung calls "Routines," a set of interconnected commands such as adjusting the lighting and raising the heat across your entire house for when you get up in the morning.
This is just a sampling of some of the home automation devices that play nice with Alexa. The ecosystem is constantly growing. For example, LG announced an Alexa-enabled smart refrigerator earlier this year. Samsung's Powerbot VR7000 joins Neato's Botvac Connect as a voice-controlled vacuum cleaner option.
There are very few home frontiers left untouched by Alexa now. It's just a matter of how many and what kinds of gadgets and appliances you want to invest in. You don't have to go out and replace all your household machines, but you might look to see which products offer Alexa integration as you naturally upgrade and update your home.