The Amazon Echo Plus

If you own an Alexa-enabled smart speaker, such as an Amazon Echo or a Sonos One, you probably use it to play music, check the news and weather, and answer trivia.

If you also own an August Smart Lock, a Nest Learning Thermostat, a Ring Video Doorbell, or any one of more than 28,000 internet-connected smart home devices, you can use Alexa, Amazon’s digital assistant, to control them, too.

So you could say, “Alexa, set the thermostat to 74 degrees,” and the speaker will change your thermostat setting without you doing anything more than speaking the command. 

The universe of products compatible with Alexa is ever-expanding, as we see with a flood of product introductions this week at CES 2019.

Giving a voice command is simple enough and intuitive, but the setup process for enabling these commands can be complex and not as easy as manufacturers may lead you to believe.

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“Connecting a device to Alexa involves finding its ‘skill’ in the Alexa Skills & Games menu and following a series of steps that you might find tedious,” says Elias Arias, CR’s test engineer for smart speakers and other electronics.

“Usually, you’ll need to have your device’s username and password at the ready in order to get it connected," Arias says. “But we found some skills required you to make additional selections that could be easily missed in the setup process, which results in you having to restart the process and look for those elusive selections.”

And remember: Always take the time to create a strong password for each of your devices instead of using the default password.

Below, we walk you through how to connect your smart home devices to your smart speaker, explain how to organize them into rooms and groups, and as a bonus, how to automate them to perform repeated tasks on their own.

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Amazon Echo Plus (2nd Generation) smart speaker

Price: $150.00

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Connecting Your Devices to Alexa

If your smart home device’s packaging or manual displays a “Works with Alexa” badge, follow the steps below to connect it to Amazon’s assistant.

Step 1: Open the Amazon Alexa app on your smartphone or tablet.

Step 2: Tap on the bottom-right button, labeled Devices, to pull up the Devices menu.

Step 3: Tap the “+” button at the top right, then tap “Add Device” from the list of options.

Step 4: From the Setup menu, select the type of device, followed by the brand, and then follow the step-by-step instructions.

If your brand of device is not listed in Step 4, it may still work with Alexa. To try it, go back to Step 2 and follow these alternate steps.

Step 3a: Tap the menu button at the top left, then tap “Skills & Games.” This will bring you to the Alexa Skills Store.

Step 4a: Use the top-right search button to search for your brand of smart home device. If a branded skill appears in the results, click on it to open its listing. To install the skill, click “Enable to Use” and follow the setup instructions.

Organizing Your Devices With Alexa

Once you’ve added your devices, it helps to organize them and your smart speaker(s) into groups based on where they are in your home. If you create a Living Room group and add the Alexa speaker and smart lights in that room, you’ll be able to say “Alexa, turn on the lights” instead of “Alexa, turn on the living room lights.” It’s not a huge difference, but it makes the voice commands feel much more natural.

You can also add lighting scenes to these groups, which allow you to quickly call up custom brightness and color settings if you’re using smart lightbulbs with those options. Follow the steps below to create your groups.

Step 1: Tap the “+” button at the top right of the Devices menu in the Alexa app, followed by “Add Group.”

Step 2: Give the group a name (the app will suggest a list of common names, such as Master Bedroom and Family Room) and add the relevant Alexa speakers, devices, and scenes.

Step 3: Once your group is populated, tap the “Save” button and the group will be ready to use.

Automating Your Devices With Alexa

To make your smart home devices truly smart, you can automate them to complete tasks based on triggers you specify: day/time, arriving/leaving home, sensors, and voice commands.

For example, you could automate your devices so that when you say, “Alexa, good night,” your lights turn off, your front door locks, and your thermostat turns down for the night. You’ll use the Alexa feature called Routines to create these automations.

Follow the steps below to make as many routines as you like.

Step 1: In the Alexa app, tap the top-left menu button > Routines > “+” to pull up the New Routine setup screen.

Step 2: From this screen, tap “When this happens” to create a trigger for the routine. The trigger can be a custom voice command, a day/time, an instance of you arriving or leaving home (based on your smartphone’s geolocation), or a change in a device, such as a door opening or a camera detecting motion.

Step 3: Choose your trigger and tap Save, which will take you back to the New Routine screen.

Step 4: Tap “Add action” to choose what action the routine’s trigger will cause. Your options will include having Alexa say a phrase; play music; adjust the speaker volume; read calendar events; report on traffic, weather, or news; send a notification or make an announcement; or control other smart home devices. You can add multiple actions to the routine, which is how you can have a “good night” routine that turns off your lights and locks your door, as in the example above.

Step 5: When you’re done adding actions, simply tap “Create” and your routine will be ready to use.

By connecting all your devices and creating multiple routines, you’ll be able to take full advantage of both your smart speaker and your connected devices. While the setup process could and should be simpler, these products are still very much in their infancy and should become easier to use in the months and years ahead.