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Amazon Echo review: Betcha can't buy just one of these voice-activated connected-home controllers

Michael Brown | Aug. 3, 2015
Amazon's Echo is the best voice-controlled product that I've seen at the consumer level. It's versatile, powerful, and amazingly quick to recognize your speech and then do something, whether that's answering a trivia question, playing music, giving you the weather forecast, or controlling your home's lighting.

I tested the Echo with a Philips Hue lighting system (connecting the Hue bridge takes just a few moments), but it can also communicate with a Wink hub and the broad variety of lighting controls that that device can control, including Lutron Caseta devices, GE Link and Cree Connected LED bulbs, and Leviton Decora Z-Wave components. The Echo is also compatible with numerous Belkin WeMo lighting controls, but that list doesn't seem to include We-Mo compatible appliances, such as the Mr. Coffee Smart Coffeemaker or the Crock-Pot Smart Wifi-Enabled Slow Cooker.

In addition to controlling individual lights--"Kitchen Pendant," "Kitchen Ceiling," and "Kitchen Counter," for instance--you can group lights into zones. Create a "Kitchen" zone, assign all three of those lights to that zone, and you can turn all the lights on or off at once. Say "Alexa, dim the Kitchen lights," and the lights will dim to a degree. You can also say "Alexa, set the Kitchen lights to 50 percent" or any other specific value. The Echo will recognize various other ways of speaking the same command, such as "Alexa, dim the Kitchen lights to 20 percent," or even "Alexa, Kitchen lights 80 percent."

What the Echo can't seem to do, unfortunately, is set Hue bulbs to scenes. When you use the Hue app or web interface, you can choose from a seemingly limitless number of colors and brightness levels with descriptive names. Philips calls these settings scenes, and you can create your own and share them with other users.

You can expand the Echo's connected-home capabilities using IFTTT (If This Then That) recipes, but none of the supported actions (the "That" in an IFTTT recipe) include setting scenes. You can set the bulbs to a specific color, which is essentially the same thing but entirely different at the same time. How's that? Let's say you find a scene that you really, really like. You'll never be able to figure out exactly which of the 16 million color values a Hue bulb can produce was used to create that scene.

Should you put an Echo in your home?

Few people need an Echo in their home (although it could be a real boon for the disabled), but it is nonetheless an incredibly fun and useful gadget--especially if you have a connected lighting system. And with support for Philips Hue, Belkin WeMo, and Wink, that covers almost every protocol on the market (Philips uses ZigBee; Belkin uses Wi-Fi, but the company announced a ZigBee bridge at CES; and the Wink supports all three).

Beyond the capabilities I've already covered, the Echo can inform you of traffic conditions on your commute, report your upcoming schedule (provided you use Google Calendar), maintain to-do lists, recite word definitions, and even answer basic questions using sources such as Wikipedia. I'd like to set one up in my home theater, so I could ask questions about the movies and TV shows I'm watching.


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