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The most fun and useful things you can do with a smart assistant

The most fun and useful things you can do with a smart assistant
© Jdjuancimail | Dreamstime.com

Have you joined the "smart home" bandwagon yet? This, of course, means a home that is equipped with connected appliances and fixtures that can be controlled remotely via our home networks. 

But with smartphones and tablets seemingly reaching their peak, the next game-changing technological shift has finally gained mass adoption.

It's funny that years ago, we all wanted to control everything with our phones and apps. Now, we want to control everything with our phones and our voices.

Yep, the voice-controlled smart home is the hottest trend in consumer tech since the smartphone itself!

And in the center of the smart home revolution are smart speakers/virtual assistants like  Amazon Echo/Alexa, Google Home/Google Assistant and Apple HomePod/Siri.

With all the cool stuff that these gadgets can do, here are some of the most useful and fun features you can try.

Automated actions with "Routines"

Ever wanted to automate a string of tasks with just a single command? With Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa's "Routines," you can! If you're not taking advantage of this feature, you're missing out. It's one of the coolest things your smart assistant can do.

For instance, you can simply say "Alexa, I'm home!" and Alexa can greet you, turn on your living room smart lights, read the daily news then play a specific music playlist. 

Or you can say "Alexa, good night" and have her reply back with "sweet dreams," lock your doors, set your thermostat to a set temperature, turn off all your lights then play binaural white noise to lull you to sleep.

You can also set a scheduled routine and have your virtual assistant perform a set of actions each day. Note: Soon, you can even set time-delayed tasks and timers with Alexa.

Once you get the hang of making your own routines and have your virtual assistant greet you and do your bidding, it does feel like you are living in the future.

To create a Routine in the Alexa app, go to the menu then tap Routines. Tap the + sign to start a new sequence. Select "When this happens" then choose your trigger. The trigger can be a phrase, a schedule or a motion sensor event. Next, select "Add action" to start building the Routine. To wrap it up, select the device you want to trigger the routine from, then tap Create.

For Google Home Routines, tap "Menu" on the upper left corner of your Google Home app. Tap More Settings>>Routines. Under "When," tap "Add commands," enter your trigger phrase then click OK. To add an action, tap "Add action" under "My Assistant should..." If you want to schedule a Routine, tap "Set a time and day" under "When" instead.

For the HomePod, these are called "Scenes," and are found in the Home app that controls your HomeKit. They can allow you to group devices together with one command, say controlling the thermostat or setting the lights at the proper ambiance for TV.

Set the specifics for the "Scene" in the app, and then Siri takes over the next time you say "Hey Siri, turn up the temperature in the living room," or "Hey Siri, set my movie-watching scene."

Make announcements

Another feature you can try with multiple Amazon Echos, Google Homes or Apple HomePods is to set them up as multi-room intercoms. With this feature, you can use your smart speakers to broadcast an announcement to your whole house.

For example, you can say "Alexa, announce that dinner is ready and Alexa will record your voice and repeat your announcement on every Echo in your home.

On a Google Home and Google Home Mini, you can do this too with a similar command. For example, you can say "Hey Google, tell everyone it's time leave" and it will be broadcast on every Google Home in your house.

Amazon Echos also have an interesting feature called "Drop In." This feature lets you connect instantly to any Echo gadgets in your house, hands-free, without having to wait for anyone to pick the call up. Even better, you can even Drop In remotely to your friends' and relatives' Echos.

To set this up, open your Alexa app, go to Settings, then select the desired Echo device and tap Drop In. Now, select either On or Only my household to enable Drop In conversations.

To call an Echo, just say "Alexa, Drop in" followed by the name of the Echo you want to call.

HomePods can make announcements, too, with a simple "Hey Siri" command through the Personal Requests option. Just connect more than one HomePod wirelessly through your home Wi-Fi.

Free phone calls

Here's a great use for your Amazon Echo: place hands-free phone calls! Just link your mobile number to your Echo and it will let you call anyone from your contacts list.

To activate Alexa calling, you'll need an Amazon account, your mobile number and the Alexa app installed on your phone. Just open the Alexa app, go to the Conversations tab (on the bottom menu, it has a speech bubble icon) then follow the on-screen instructions to verify and link your mobile number.

To make a call from your compatible Echo devices, just ask Alexa to call the person or contact you want to reach by name.

With Google Home, link your Google account in your Google Home app, under the "Devices" section, toggle  "Personal results" to on and then simply sync all your phone contacts.

Once set up, you can start asking your Google Home to call anyone on your contact list.

HomePod makes phone calls when you turn on Personal Requests. Then you can ask Siri to make a call or answer an incoming call from your iPhone.

Translate languages

Do you need help translating a foreign word? Or maybe you're learning a new language and you want to be immersed with it, even when you're at home. Then let your virtual assistant guide your way!

Google Home, in particular, supports 28 different languages, including Spanish and Chinese, and you can simply say "Hey Google, what's the word for (word) in (specific language)" and it will instantly translate it for you. If you want to completely immerse yourself with a language you're currently learning, you can even set your Google Home to completely communicate with you in a specific language. Tap or click here to learn how to do this.

The Amazon Echo can likewise go multi-lingual, but she needs a skill called Translated to do it. After enabling this skill, you can say "Alexa, open Translated" then ask how to say English words and phrases in a specific language. The Translated skill currently supports more than 35 languages.

Siri has had a translation feature since iOS 11. Just ask: "Hey Siri, how do I say where's the bathroom in French?"

Control your TV

In case you didn't know, if you own one of Amazon's Fire TV streaming devices, you can control it remotely by merely using an Echo and your voice.

Setting this up is easy! Just open your Alexa app >> Music, Video & Books. Select Fire TV >> Link Your Alexa Device then follow the on-screen instructions to select the devices you want to link. To confirm the link, tap on Link Devices.

Note: If you only have one Fire TV registered to your Amazon account, it will link to your Echo automatically. 

To use your voice as a remote control, just say "Alexa," followed by a playback command, such as pause, fast-forward or skip an episode. You can also tell Alexa to search for a specific video and open other apps on your smart TV.

The Google Home, on the other hand, can control your TV with a linked Chromecast streaming device that's connected to your home network.

With this feature, you can ask your Google Home to stream a specific Netflix movie, a YouTube video, or content from various music streaming services like Spotify and Pandora.

If your TV supports HDMI control (HDMI-CEC), you can even ask your Google Home to turn on, turn off and change the volume on your TV.

HomePod can be your voice-activated remote control for your Apple TV; remember, Apple works best when in its own, self-contained environment. Simply say, "Hey Siri" to get your playback to pause, play, or skip ahead, or use Siri to control the audio.

Multi-room audio

Do you have multiple Echos or Google Homes in your house? You can set them up to play the same music simultaneously! It's like having a full centralized speaker system in your house. If you're familiar with Apple's Airplay or the Sonos system, it works similarly.

Here's how you set up multi-room audio. Go to Settings in the Alexa app then scroll down until you find Audio Groups and select Multi-Room Music. Here, you'll see all your Smart Home Groups. Select Add Group >> Amazon Multi-Room Music Group. Select a name for your new group, then add the Echo devices you want to include.

Once you have your groups set up, just tell Alexa the song, artist, album, station or genre you want to play followed by your group name.

On Google Home, you can likewise set multi-room audio by creating "Groups" on your Google Home app. Just tap Devices on the top-right corner of your screen, select the speaker you want to add to a group, then tap Menu >> Create Group.

HomePod can spread throughout the house with ease. Make sure your HomePods have been set up with different names or identifications and that the iOS has been updated. That's it. AirPlay 2 will automatically start in every room that holds a HomePod. You can also pair two HomePods for stereo sound.

REFRESHER: HOW TO ENABLE AMAZON SKILLS

Did you find an Alexa skill that you like? Here's how you activate it.

1. Open your Alexa app on your smartphone or tablet, tap the menu icon (the three horizontal lines in the upper left corner) then tap Skills.

 

2. Here, you can browse or search for the skills you may want to use.

3. Tap on the desired skill, then tap "Enable." That's it!

Note: Some skills can also be activated via voice command. Simply say "Alexa enable" followed by the skill name and Alexa will enable that skill automatically.

Coming soon to Alexa

Alexa Guard

Here's one useful update for Echo devices: a mode called "Alexa Guard."

With this new feature, you can inform Alexa that you're leaving your house and she'll set all your Echoes into "Away Mode."

With Guard, your Echoes can act like security sensors and they will send you notifications if they hear the sound of breaking glass or an alarm. Away Mode will also randomly turn your smart light on and off to make it appear as if you're home.

Quite a brilliant update, if you ask me.

Local Voice Control

Amazon addresses one of the most annoying things about smart home control. Since it's cloud-based, if your Echo loses internet access, you lose control of all your Alexa-enabled smart appliances too.

Local Voice Control to the rescue. With this new feature, select Alexa controls can now be accessed locally on the device. This way, Alexa won't have to connect to the cloud each time you want to turn your smart lights on and off.

Location-based Reminders

Also coming with a future Echo update are location-based reminders. With this feature, you can have Alexa remind you to "take medication" when you get home. 

Whisper Mode

Here's another much-needed feature, Alexa's Whisper Mode! With this update, if you whisper your command to Alexa, she will whisper back her response!

Alexa Hunches

The just-announced Alexa Hunches are similar to AI and deep learning predictions. With this new feature, Alexa can learn your daily routines and remind you of activities that you may have neglected to do.

For example, when it's time for bed, Alexa could remind you to lock your (smart) door if you forgot to.

21 clever Alexa commands you will use again and again

More than any other device, Alexa has become our closest approximation of artificial intelligence. She has a voice and personality, and if you ask the right question, she’ll even get sassy with you. Users even refer to Alexa as “she.” We usually prefer to say her name, rather than the name of the device itself, Amazon Echo. For many owners, Alexa is more than a mere virtual assistant; she has become something like a domestic companion, a Rosie or R2-D2 that can also order takeout. Tap or click here to learn more.

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