Wireless security cameras are an essential part to any connected home.
Our homes are becoming more connected than ever. This also means are homes are filled with expensive devices that are easy to carry off. Wireless security cameras make it possible to watch your home – even when you’re not around.
Smart Home owners are opting to install security and surveillance systems to keep their families and valuables safe. Today’s wireless surveillance systems typically include video storage, and most can even integrate into your existing smart home hubs.
Here are five great camera options (and one terrible one) for high-def, 24-hour surveillance at a reasonable price.
We’ve listed six wireless security cameras below. But if you don’t want to read the entire article, here are our picks:
Wireless Security Cameras
Highly Recommended: Arlo Wireless Security Camera System ($499.99)
Hi: 1080p video quality, no contracts or fees, environmental sensors, free cloud storage, beautiful
Low: Lag and false motion alarms
360 Review: Canary bills itself as the “all-in-one home security device”, and it lives up to the hype. In addition to recording video in 1080p HD, Canary will also automatically notify sound a siren and the police when it senses a break-in. Setting this wireless security camera up is as easy as plugging it in and connecting it to the wifi using your phone. Once setup, your Canary will record video and audio when it senses motion. Canary also monitors the air quality, temperature and humidity of your house. Canary really is the all-in-one home security device.
Nest Outdoor Wireless Security Cameras – $185 for One Camera
Hi: Uses a standard power outlet, easy setup, great phone app
Low: Exposed power cable, cost for cloud video storage, web interface uses Flash, overall cost of ownership
360 Review: The Nest Outdoor Camera is similar to the Nest Indoor Camera, except it’s waterproof. Reviewers rave about the Nest camera’s video quality, solid build quality and abilty to use a standard power outlet. However, you’ll need to run the Nest’s power cable down the wall and to the outlet. While this makes it unsightly, it also makes it very obvious how a criminal could very easily disable your camera by simply unplugging it.
Arlo Wireless Security Camera System – $499.99 for Four Cameras
Hi: No wires at all (including power), easy setup, video quality, weatherproof, great design
Low: Lag and false motion alarms
360 Review: If you’re looking for a completely wireless security camera, Arlo is what you want. Typical security cameras require running electricity to your installation point. However, Arlo uses batteries, giving you the flexibility to install a camera anywhere you want. The battery in each camera lasts about 4-6 months. And since Arlo uses magnetic installation points, moving the camera or replacing a battery doesn’t require tools.
Swann Wireless Security Cameras – $59.99 for Two Cameras
Hi: IR night mode, weather resistant, easy to use, great price
Low: Video quality
360 Review: The Swann wireless security camera is the no-frills option for adding affordable surveillance to your home. They are continuously praised by owners for how easy they are to install. During the day, the Swann camera will capture color video. At night, it switches into IR dark mode, giving you crystal clear black-and-white video. Additionally, these cameras actually look like security cameras, which could help deter criminals.
ZModo Wireless Security Cameras – $99 for Four Cameras
Hi: Price, video quality, easy setup, ease of use, great phone app
360 Review: This wireless security camera is a low-power camera at an affordable price. HD resolution (720p) lets you see details other cameras miss, while it’s infrared night vision means you have surveillance 24 hours a day. This camera also has built-in motion sensing capabilities, and will send you a notification when it senses movement on any of your cameras. The ZModo camera can independently connect to the Internet, meaning you can watch your feed from anywhere in the world without any additional hardware.
Lorex Wireless Security Cameras – $299.95 for Eight Cameras
360 Review: This is what you probably think about when someone mentions a “standard” wireless security camera system. The Lorex system gives you an entire four-camera wireless security system with DVR for less than $300. Like almost every other camera on the market, the Lorex system records in 720pHD and allows you to monitor it from your phone.
Our Choice: the Arlo Wireless Security Camera System
It’s easy to install and even easier to move with absolutely no cables whatsoever. Additionally, it’s small and white, letting it look right at home outside or inside your home.
Wireless Security Cameras
Highly Recommended: Arlo Wireless Security Camera System
Awesome side note: You may be able to subsidize part of the cost of adding these cameras thanks to discounts from your insurance company. Give your insurance agent a call and see how much you can save by adding a wireless security camera to your home.
Hue lights have played a huge role in the smart home trend of 2016. However, you shouldn’t buy a wifi light bulb in 2017. Here’s why not, including a better option.
Hue lights were one of the very first smart home accessories on the market. Billed as “the world’s smartest LED light bulb, they look exactly like regular light bulbs, but have a wifi chip embedded. This gives them the ability to be controlled by your phone, Alexa (or any smart home hub), or the Internet
Hue lights sound pretty awesome. Why shouldn’t I buy them?
Hue lights actually are awesome! Not only are they one of the easiest ways to add smart lighting to your home, they are loved by almost everyone who owns them.
In addition to being able to be controlled by wifi, Hue lights also include multi-colored LEDs. This gives them the ability to change to any of 16 million colors.
However, they’re not the best option for overhead lights or lamps.
You shouldn’t buy Hue lights (or any wifi bulb), if your lights are controlled by a switch.
Reason 1: Is the Light On or Off? Neither? Both?
Imagine walking into a dark room. What’s the first thing you do?
You look for the light switch!
Reaching for the light switch is so common, and so ingrained in us, that there are actually placement standards! Electricians are required to install light switches at specific places on the wall.
Everyone expects light switches to be there, and taking them away causes anxiety.
What’s this have to do with Hue lights and smart light bulbs?
Standard light fixtures are controlled by a switch. And when the switch is off, there is no electricity going to the outlet.
This is true whether it’s a light fixture in the ceiling controlled by a switch on the wall, or a lamp controlled by a button on the lamp.
And when your smart light bulb is plugged into that fixture or lamp that has been switched off, it’s no longer usable. At all.
Without electricity flowing to the light fixture, your wifi light bulb is completely useless. This is even worse if it’s a light bulb with a built in speaker!
For your Hue light to be useful, the switch always needs to be in the “on” position.
Well, I’ll just keep the switch “on” all the time!
Good idea in theory, but that leads us to our second reason why you shouldn’t buy a Hue light:
Reason 2: Hue Lights Are Confusing to Visitors and Kids
It’s the weekend, and friends or family come by to visit. You’re showing everyone how you can make your office lights orange, and everyone’s very impressed.*
As you’re leaving the room, Uncle Larry flips the light switch off as he’s been trained to do his entire life. He doesn’t realize it, but he’s just made your evening a little bit more annoying.
As we know now, your wifi light can’t work without electricity. Nobody thinks about your fancy lights when they flipped the switch off – they were just doing what comes naturally.
So, now you can’t turn on those lights from your phone. And that defeats the entire purpose of putting them in!
Reason 3: Hue Lights Are More Annoying for Your Spouse
Let’s be honest: the “necessity” of controlling your Hue lights from your Echo Dot is absolutely a first-world problem.
Your spouse knows this, and my wife definitely knows this.
We just talked about lights being “on” when they’re “off”, or “off” when they’re actually “on”.
You and me, we’re smart people. But that’s even confusing to us – and we’re the ones who set it up!
Now, imagine your spouse. They may not have been involved in the installation because they have way more interesting things to do.
Maybe you’ve persuaded them to (reluctantly) install the app, helped them set it up, and they’ve even turned a light on and off a couple of times.
But the first time your new light setup is harder to use than a regular light switch is the last time that switch gets used.
And what fun is it when it never gets used?
Smart home devices should make it easier to use your home, not harder. But wifi light bulbs add extra steps to turning on the lights, which defeats the purpose.
I want to like smart light bulbs. But when you take everything into consideration, they’re just not a functional addition to your home.
If your internet goes out: no lights.
If someone flips a switch the wrong way: no lights.
A smart light switch does exactly same thing a wifi light bulb does: it allows you to control your lights from your phone or another location.
However, a smart light switch does it without all the headache.
A smart light switch can be used without a phone or internet. They can also be used with a phone or internet, but can also control lights like a normal switch.
A smart switch still lets you control or automate your lights using your phone, your computer or Alexa. Smart light switches connect to the wifi in your house, meaning that you can control them from anywhere.
A smart switch lets you use any light bulb. You can plug in an expensive, fancy LED light, or just a standard incandescent.
Most importantly: anyone can use it as a normal switch! There’s still a switch on the wall that anyone can turn on or off.
And best yet, a smart light switch costs about the same as a wifi light bulb.
Sonos is a wireless home sound system that lets you stream your music in CD quality to anywhere in your house.
Sonos lets you stream music to any room without running speaker wire through your house. Then, it uses the wireless network already in your home to connect up to 32 speakers to each other.
And since you don’t need to run speaker wires, it lets you move your speakers anywhere, easily. Grilling on the deck? Working in the basement or garage? Simply unplug your speaker, bring it to where you’re working, plug it in, wait a few seconds for it to connect to your wifi network and voila! Now you have great quality streaming music while you work, wherever you are.
Sonos is the easiest way to add music to your home, period.
So, what’s so special about it?
Sonos lets you play the same song, at the same time, to multiple rooms in your house.
So if you’re throwing a big party, you can have the same music playing in the kitchen and on the back deck at the same time.
It even lets you play different songs in different rooms in your house at the same time.
For example, you can play rock in the office to finish the day while jazz plays in the kitchen as dinner is being prepared.
You can play TV audio in every room of your house (or just a specific room).
With the Playbar soundbar, you can play TV audio from the Big Game in every room in your house so you never miss the action.
As a result, Sonos’s low price and simplicity make it easy to create a rich home theater experience without the wires.
How does Sonos work?
Sonos uses wifi, not bluetooth, to stream music to your speakers.
This gives you the ability to pump CD quality sound anywhere in your house with smooth playback.
And since it doesn’t use bluetooth, your phone never stops the party. The music continues playing even when you leave the room, receive a notification or make a call.
Therefore, if you want to get Sonos set up immediately, grab the Play:1. But if you already have a speaker system you love, grab the CONNECT component, instead.
What’s the difference between Play, Playbar, SUB and CONNECT?
Sonos Play is the series of wireless speakers that are perfect for any room.
The Play series has three options:
Play:1 is the smallest and most affordable wireless Sonos speaker (pictured above). Perfect for your kitchen counter, nightstand or bedside table.
Play:3 is the medium-sized wireless speaker with deeper bass than Play:1. You can position the Play:3 vertically or horizontally. This is perfect for a larger room where you need robust sound at a reasonable price.
Play:5 is the most powerful Sonos speaker on the market. Perfect for audiophiles, the company says the Play:5 offers “face-melting sound”. The Play:5 is a large speaker great for huge rooms.
Playbar is the Sonos soundbar and streaming speaker in one.
The Playbar gives you great sound for your TV, while also allowing you to stream music to that speaker. Additionally, when a Playbar is connected to a TV, you can stream the TV audio to any other Sonos speaker.
SUB is Sonos’s sub-woofer.
Pair the SUB with any Sonos speaker, or with the Playbar for the ultimate connected home theater experience.
Sonos CONNECT devices lets you instantly turn any speaker into a full-blown Sonos speaker.
What’s the difference between CONNECT and CONNECT:AMP?
CONNECT allows you to connect powered speakers to your Sonos system. It includes a Line-In port, making it perfect for an existing stereo system.
CONNECT:AMP also allows you to connect speakers to your Sonos system, but also includes an amplifier. This makes it perfect for those who want a little more power with their music.
You can stream music directly from most online streaming services to any (or all!) of your Sonos speakers.
Does Sonos work with Apple Music? Yes. To play Apple Music:
open the Controller app on your phone, tablet or computer
add the Apple Music service
sign in with the Apple ID that you use with Apple Music
Does Sonos work with Pandora? Yes. To play Pandora:
open the Controller app on your phone, tablet or computer
add the Pandora service
sign in with your Pandora account
Does Sonos work with Spotify? Yes. To play Spotify, use Spotify Connect to let Spotify remotely control the music on your speakers.
Does Sonos work with Amazon Music? Yes. To play Amazon Music:
open the Controller app on your phone, tablet or laptop
add the Amazon Music service
sign in with the Amazon account you use with Amazon Music
Does Sonos work with Google Play Music? Yes. To play Google Music:
open the Google Play Music app on any Android device
choose the speakers to cast your music to
Does Sonos work with SiriusXM? Yes. To play SiriusXM:
open the Controller app on your phone, tablet or laptop
add the SiriusXM service
sign in with your SiriusXM account
Does Sonos work with SoundCloud? Yes. To play SoundCloud:
open the Controller app on your phone, tablet or laptop
add the SoundCloud service
sign in with your SoundCloud account
Playing Your Own Music
Sonos makes it easy to stream your personal library from a computer.
To add your personal music to your Sonos music library, download the official Sonos Controller app to a computer with your music library.
In the Controller app, click “Manage”, then “Music Library Settings”
Click the “add” or “+” button
Select the folder that your music is located in
The music will be added to your Sonos music library and available to play
Note: You can only add 65,000 songs to your Sonos library. So, if you have more than 65,000 songs, you may want to be deliberate in the songs you import to your library.
Can I stream TV audio through Sonos?
Yes! Adding the Playbar allows you to stream your TV sound to other Sonos speakers.
The Playbar works with just two cables: one for power and one for your TV. It works with your current TV remote. The Playbar uses a Line-In port to connect to your TV, and any audio playing through the Playbar can be streamed to any other Sonos speaker. This is especially handy if the game is on, but you can’t be near the TV.
Playbar gives you home-theater quality sound with just one speaker. But if you’re looking for a true 5.1 surround sound experience, simply pair it with an Amp and four Play:1 speakers.
Additionally, the Playbar can be used just like any other Sonos speaker to play non-TV audio.
Which speaker should I buy?
This chart makes it easy for you to build the perfect system for your house.
I’m brand new to Sonos and don’t already have speakers I love:
The Play:1 is the most affordable way to step into the Sonos ecosystem.
I’m an audiophile that’s brand new to Sonos and don’t already have speakers I love:
In October 2016, Sonos launched a private beta program to test Alexa functionality. The company used a similar program in 2016 to test the successful Spotify integration. That integration launched just a few months later, so we’re confident that Alexa integration is coming any day now.
You can sign up for an invite to the Alexa beta program here.
Control Sonos With SmartThings
SmartThings is the most popular Smart Home Hub on the market. The SmartThings hub lets you control various connected devices within your house. SmartThings can control your lights, thermostat and thousands of other devices. Now, it can even control your music.
By installing Sonos from the SmartThings Marketplace, you can include your speakers as part of any automation in your house.
Control music playback manually from the Things menu in the SmartThings app:
Sonos is really, really powerful. But it won’t fit into every budget. Not surprisingly, there are some great alternative ways to add multi-room audio to your home.
Apple Airplay lets you pump music from your Mac or iOS device to your Sonos speakers. However, it requires an Apple TV or Airport Extreme, plus speakers.
Airplay isn’t usable for Android users since it requires a Mac or iOS device.
Google Chromecast Audio
Google Chromecast Audio lets you turn any speaker into a wireless speaker for about $30. So long as the dongle is plugged in to power and connected to wifi, you’ll be able to use the Google Cast app on iOS or Android to set up your devices.
You can then stream audio from any Chromecast Audio-enabled app (and there are a ton of them).
Pure Jongo System
At about half the price, the Pure Jongo S3 speaker gives you the ability to have wireless speakers that are battery powered. The Pure Jongo system works over wifi (like Sonos), or you can use Bluetooth – handy at the beach.
Bose has entered the wireless speaker market with the Bose SoundTouch 10 product. At roughly the same price as the Sonos Play:1, you’ll get arguably better sound and the ability to control it with Alexa from day 1.
While there are a number of cheaper alternatives on the market, Sonos has been doing this longer than anyone else, and it shows.
Is Sonos Worth the Cost?
Sonos has some of the best speakers on the market, giving you the best sound anywhere you want it. The Play series gives you amazing bang for your buck, while the Playbar makes it unbelievably easy to stream TV audio anywhere else in your house.
Sonos has historically been slow to allow external integrations. However, they have been quick to integrate with popular streaming services. They were early supporters of Apple Music, and their Spotify Connect integration is world-class.
Their apps and services are some of the most stable and polished available. And once Sonos connects with Alexa, you’ll have the ultimate multi-room speaker system, powered by the ultimate virtual assistant.
You can install an Ecobee3 thermostat in less than 15 minutes. This guide will walk you through installing your new thermostat, and includes three Pro Tips that Ecobee didn’t include in the installation guide.
Installing a thermostat sounds like a complex job, but it’s not. I will show you that the Ecobee3 installation is not hard, especially if you follow this guide.
Before You Start Installation
This is a simple job, so you’ll need some simple tools:
Phillips head screwdriver to mount and unmount the trim plates from the wall
3/16″ drill bit and drill to drill holes for your new trim plate
Step 1: Kill the Power
We’re dealing with electricity, so let’s play it safe. You also don’t want to accidentally short out your new thermostat or your furnace.
Find the main breaker box for your home. This could be in the basement or garage, and has many black breaker switches. Identify the switch that controls the power to your furnace or HVAC system and flip it to the off position.
Confirm that you’ve successfully cut the power to your thermostat by looking at your HVAC system (it should be quiet), or by checking the screen on your existing thermostat (it should be off).
Step 2: Remove Your Old Thermostat
Most thermostats are two pieces: one trim plate mounted to the wall with screws, and a removable face. For right now, you only want to remove the face.
While every thermostat is different, the face of your thermostat is likely disconnected by pulling down from the top, up from the bottom, or straight out.
Step 3: Verify That You Have a Wire Plugged Into the C Terminal
With the face of your thermostat removed, you should be able to see the current wire connections. It should look something like this:
Look for the terminal marked “C”. This is your “common” wire and is what powers your thermostat. Your furnace is sending 24 volts of power up this wire, which is necessary to turn on and power the Ecobee thermostat.
Is the C terminal empty (like the one above)? If you don’t have a wire connected to your C terminal, we need to add one more step to your installation. Since this is the Easy Installation Guide, I won’t cover that here. But I will have a free installation guide for that soon – you can sign up here to get an email when it’s ready.
If you have a wire connected to the C terminal, you’re in good shape, so keep reading!
Step 4 (Ecobee3 Installation Pro Tip 1): Take a Picture of the Current Installation Wiring
We haven’t done anything particularly interesting until now, but this is where things can start to go really wrong.
It’s important that we reconnect the Ecobee in exactly the same way as the old thermostat was connected. This ensures that we don’t cause any severe damage to your HVAC system, and that Ecobee will run correctly.
While red should hook up to the R terminal, white should hook up to the W, and blue should hook up to the C, we may not be able to trust that the installer used the standard wire colors. But assuming that your HVAC system was working before, we can trust the current wiring as a guide.
Take a picture of the current wiring in your old trim plate. Having this picture as a reference will help you ensure that you’re connecting the Ecobee correctly.
Obviously, make sure the picture is clear, and that you can see which color wire is plugged into which terminal.
Step 5: Remove the Old Trim Plate From Your Wall, and Unplug the Wiring
Unmount the trim plate from your wall with your screwdriver.
Carefully disconnect the wires from the terminals. Depending on the old thermostat’s manufacturer, you may use a tiny release lever, your phillips head screwdriver, a tiny flat-head screwdriver.
You won’t need to worry about being shocked since we turned the power off in step 1.
Step 6 (Ecobee3 Installation Pro Tip 2): Connect Your Wiring to the New Trim Plate Before Mounting the Trim Plate
The Ecobee installation guide suggests mounting the new trim plate to the wall before connecting the wires. However in my experience, this makes connecting the wires unnecessarily complicated since there’s very little room. I suggest you connect the wires, and then mount the trim plate.
So, hold your Ecobee thermostat trim plate in one hand and feed all the thermostat wires through the hole in the middle.
Now, referencing the picture you took earlier, feed each individual wire into the correct terminal on the Ecobee backplate.
You should be able to slide the wires directly into the wire slot on the side of the terminal. You’ll notice that a little tab on the side of the terminal moves down when the wire is installed – that is fine. This is the release lever: pressing that further down will open the terminal slot, allowing you to slide the wire out.
Give each wire a slight tug to make sure it’s well connected, then push any excess wire back into the wall.
Step 7: Mount the Trim Plate on the Wall
Hold the new trim plate against the wall to make sure that it covers any old holes.
Ecobee3 Installation Sidenote: Your Ecobee box includes an optional large trim plate to cover any holes from your previous thermostat. This is ugly and detracts from the simple look of your Ecobee. If you’d rather not use the additional, large trim plate you can patch the wall. Here’s a link on how to do basic drywall patching – it’s very easy and will make your installation look professional.
Using the trim plate as a template, mark the mounting holes on the wall with a pencil. The Ecobee trim plate includes a built in bubble level to help you ensure that your new thermostat appears level on your wall.
Drill two 1/8″ holes and mount the trim plate using the screws and wall plugs that came with your Ecobee.
Now, just screw the Ecobee trim plate to the wall using the white screws that came with your ecobee.
Step 8: Plug the Ecobee Into the Trim Plate and Turn the Power Back On
Now that the trim plate is hooked up to your HVAC system, and is securely mounted to the wall, we can put the Ecobee on the wall.
Attach the Ecobee to the trim plate by aligning the terminals on the backplate with the pins on the Ecobee. Then, simply push it into the connectors on the trim plate until you hear a click.
You shouldn’t see anything on the screen yet since we turned the power off a few minutes ago.
If the Ecobee is sitting flush with the wall, it’s on correctly. If it doesn’t sit flush with the wall, make sure the excess wires have been pushed back into the wall.
Head down to your basement and turn your HVAC system breaker back on.
With the power on, your Ecobee should show a little, animated butterfly. This means your power is working correctly! Ecobee should then ask you to confirm your wiring. Referencing the picture you took earlier, ensure that your Ecobee is recognizing the same wiring.
When you’ve confirmed that the Ecobee correctly recognizes all of your wires, your new Ecobee thermostat is working!
Ecobee3 Installation Warning: If it’s showing that you are missing wires that you think are connected, or showing wires connected that you didn’t connect, something is wrong. Stop what you’re doing and fix this immediately. Ignoring this message and continuing with the setup process could cause severe damage to your HVAC system.
The cause is simple: you may not have seated the wires securely into the backplate. To fix this, turn the power back off, remove the Ecobee from the backplate, and slide the wires in until they can’t go any further. Re-attach the Ecobee and turn the power back on.
Step 9: Connect to Wifi and Start the Initial Setup
Ecobee3 should automatically detect that you have a wifi network available. You’ll want your Ecobee to be connected to the internet so that you can control it from your phone or laptop, as well as receive software updates from the manufacturer.
Ecobee has a couple of ways to connect to your network:
You can simply the network and enter the password using an on-screen keyboard. This works perfectly fine, however, that keyboard is tiny, and may be frustrating if your wireless password is complex.
If you have an iOS device, you can use it to wireless transmit the wireless network information to your Ecobee.
On your iPhone or iPad, go to settings, then wifi. At the bottom of the list of available networks, you should “set up new device” with your Ecobee listed. Click your thermostat and follow the on-screen instructions to wirelessly transmit your wifi network information to your Ecobee.
After connecting your Ecobee to wifi, you’ll get a four digit code to register your ecobee3 using the iPhone or Android app. Write down this four-digit code, open the app on your phone, and register your thermostat.
Step 10: Connect the Remote Sensors
The biggest selling point for me in buying the Ecobee3 instead of the Nest was it’s remote sensors.
Ecobee3 comes with one (or more) remote sensors, with the ability to connect up to 32 additional sensors. You can buy new sensors for about $25 each. These remote sensors allow you to get the temperate and occupancy of an area that isn’t near your main Ecobee thermostat.
To connect your remote sensors to your thermostat, stand in front of your Ecobee with your remote sensor in hand. Then, simply pull the plastic tab on the back of remote sensor to power on the sensor.
Within a few seconds, the screen on your Ecobee should recognize the sensor and allow you to pair it with the thermostat. Follow the on-screen instructions to name your sensor, then place it anywhere in your home.
Step 12 (Ecobee3 Installation Pro Tip 3): Bookmark the Ecobee Portal on Your Computer
Your Ecobee thermostat is now installed and controlling the heating and cooling of your house!
If you haven’t already, install the iOS or Android apps on your phone. The app is the best way to control your thermostat from anywhere in the house.
I have also bookmarked the Ecobee portal on my laptop. The Ecobee Portal on your computer allows you to change the temperature and your thermostat settings, just like the phone apps do. Additionally, the it also includes robust reporting that shows you when your HVAC comes on, how long it runs for, and external factors like relative humidity and outside temperature.
Your Ecobee3 installation is complete! With the Ecobee3, your home’s HVAC system becomes smarter through the power of software. Ecobee3 home save an average of 23% annually, paying for itself in energy savings.
Alexa is Amazon’s virtual assistant. Similar to Siri on iOS or Google Now on Android, Alexa is summoned and interacted with by your voice. This means that it (she?) can complete tasks and answer questions without ever needing a keyboard, mouse, computer or phone.
Alexa, are you the same thing as the Amazon Echo?
Alexa is not the same thing as the Amazon Echo. Alexa is the virtual assistant inside the Amazon Echo and the rest of Amazon’s smart speakers. The Echo, Echo Dot and Amazon Tap are essentially delivery vehicles for Alexa functionality.
The Echo, Dot and Tap are smart speakers that sit on a counter or table. While the Echo and Dot are “always on” and listening for you to interact with them. When you want to use Alexa, you simply say her name, followed by the command.
The Tap is closer to a portable bluetooth speaker. It has Alexa capabilities, but you can’t activate Alexa with your voice – you need to press a button.
The Echo is the speaker, and Alexa is the virtual assistant in the cloud waiting to execute your command.
Alexa, play music.
One of the most popular features of Alexa is her ability to find and play music.
You can ask her to play a certain kind of music (“play dinner music”), music by a specific artist (“play music by Bruce Springsteen”), or a specific song (“play Born to Run”).
She will also let you control the music with your voice. You can tell her to skip the song, replay the song, and even turn the volume up and down. Amazon boasts that the Echo, Dot and Tap can hear you over the music, so you shouldn’t need to yell at her to replay Bohemian Rhapsody.
Alexa primarily uses the Amazon Music service. Amazon Music is a catalog of about 2 million songs, and is included with your Prime membership. You can also access Amazon Music by purchasing an Amazon Music Unlimited membership for $9.99/month, or $7.99/month if you’re already a Prime member.
Can Alexa work with Spotify? Yes. Amazon lets you choose Spotify as the default music choice. This let’s you control Spotify with standard Alexa commands, but using the music from your Spotify library.
Can Alexa work with Apple Music? No, Apple Music doesn’t work with the Echo, Dot or Tap.
Can Alexa play iTunes? Sort of. You can’t control your iTunes library with your voice, but there are ways to play your iTunes music on your Echo device. You can use the Amazon Music app on your computer to upload your personal music collection to My Music. After it’s uploaded to Amazon, you can play it back using your voice through Alexa. My Music only allows 250 songs for free. If you want to upload more than 250 songs, you’ll need to buy an Amazon Music subscription.
Can Alexa play podcasts? Yes. In typical podcast players, you need to subscribe to a podcast to get the latest edition pushed to your device. However, with Alexa, you can just ask for the latest episode and it will play automatically. Just say “play the Planet Money podcast”.
Can Alexa play video? No. Neither the Echo, Echo Dot nor Echo Tap have a screen.
Can I use Alexa with a bluetooth speaker? Maybe. The Amazon Echo Dot can connect to a bluetooth speaker to play music and commands. (You can even tell it to connect or disconnect the speaker, which is particularly cool.) The Echo and the Echo Tap can only use their internal speakers.
Alexa, what is the weather?
Alexa knows your location and will respond with the current temperature and forecast for the rest of the day. I have found this surprisingly faster than using my phone, and equally as accurate.
Alexa, what’s the score of the Bruins game?
If a game is actively happening, she will respond with the score and time remaining (which is amazingly up-to-date). And when there isn’t a game currently being played, she will respond with the opponent and score of the last game played.
Alexa, add eggs to my shopping list.
Alexa will store a shopping list for you, which is helpful when you’re elbow-deep in cinnamon roll dough and need to remember to buy more cornstarch. While you’re near your Echo, it can read back the list to you.
What’s more helpful is that you can view and check off shopping list items inside the Alexa app on your phone or on the Amazon website. It will even print your shopping list, if she can find your printer.
What is an Alexa skill?
An Alexa skill is like an app on your phone: it’s a piece of software that adds functionality to your Alexa. Amazon has a marketplace of all available Skills on it’s website or inside the app on your phone. You can also enable or disable a skill from the website, through the app, or by speaking directly to Alexa, “add the (name) skill”.
Adding a skill lets you do things such as automating your home, listening to the news, and more.
Some skills are developed by Amazon, but the majority of skills are created by third-party developers. Amazon has created the Skills Kit to facilitate the development of these skills.
Alexa, automate my home.
Alexa lets you automate the devices in your home with your voice. This means that you can tell it to turn on the lights, change the thermostat or lock the house with just your voice. It’s similar to how a smart hub works.
What smart hubs will Alexa work with?
Can Alexa work with SmartThings?Yes, through the SmartThings Smart Home Skill.
Can Alexa work with HomeKit? Yes, sorta. Neither Amazon nor Apple have much incentive to make their systems work well together. Apple Homekit is powered by Siri, but Siri is a competing technology. You can make your Homekit-enabled devices available to Alexa if you use iDevices as a bridge. However, the Skills marketplace is fairly robust, so you can most likely find a skill that will control your device without necessarily using iDevices.
Alexa can work directly with smart devices through the Skills marketplace, as well.
Alexa offers an automated Flash Briefing, available on-demand. The Flash Briefing plays back the latest news updates from a number of popular broadcasters, like NPR or the BBC, the latest weather update and the latest sports scores from your favorite teams.
You can add new content sources to your Flash Briefing by adding new skills from the Skills marketplace. Some of the popular options are the Wall Street Journal, This Week in Tech, or The Skimm.
Alexa, entertain me.
Despite what it may seem, Alexa does more than just act as your assistant. She has a number of games and trivia available to play:
My favorite is Seinfeld Trivia, where it will ask you six questions from the TV show Seinfeld, and give you a score based on your response.
There is a Twenty Questions game in which she gives you up to 20 questions to guess the celebrity.
And of course, there’s Jeopardy!, where you need to answer in the form of a question.
Alexa can also help you become a better bartender. By adding a Skill called The Bartender, you can ask what ingredients are in a drink (“ask the bartender what’s in a Tom Collins?”) or what drinks can be made with a particular ingredient (“ask the bartender for a drink with pineapple juices”). And if you’re feeling lucky, you can ask The Bartender to surprise you, and she will return the name and ingredients for a randomly-selected drink.
Can Alexa control my TV?
Now that you’re starting to get the hang of the basic things that Alexa can do to change the way you interact with your home, let’s talk about some of the more advanced options.
There are some devices that may not be able to be controlled directly with Alexa, such as most TVs or every cable box. Most “smart devices” have a wifi chip embedded in them, and software that lets them communicate with the Internet. While most TVs these days include wifi, they are lacking the the “controlling” software. You experience this every day, since you probably still control your TV using a remote control that blasts infrared (IR) signals to turn it on, change the channel or change the volume.
The Harmony Hub is a black box that you connect to your home network via wifi. Like most smart hubs, you can control it with your phone. However, the Harmony Hub also includes “IR blasters” that connect to your TV. These IR blasters allow the Harmony Hub to control your TV, via your phone.
You can see where this is going: Alexa can control the Harmony Hub via wifi and your Harmony Hub can control your TV via IR. Therefore: You can control your TV with your voice via Alexa.
Alexa, turn on the TV and change the channel to ESPN.
“Alexa, turn on the TV” will turn on your TV via the Harmony Hub.
“Alexa, turn off the Xbox” will turn off your Xbox via the Harmony Hub.
“Alexa, tell Harmony to pause” will pause your DVD or Blu Ray playback via the Harmony Hub.
“Alexa, tell Harmony to set a sleep timer for 15 minutes” will turn off your TV and equipment after 15 minutes. This may be my favorite functionality, since my TV doesn’t have a sleep timer built in.
And if you want to get even more advanced, the Harmony Hub also works with Roku devices. If you have a Roku device and Netflix account, Alexa will let you turn on the TV, turn down the lights, turn up the volume and start a movie with just your voice.
Alexa, what else can you do?
Amazon spent a lot of time making Alexa useful to you anywhere in the house. Some of the most commonly used functionality in our house includes:
“Set a timer for 20 minutes.” Unbelievably handy in the kitchen when your hands aren’t clean enough to deal with your phone.
“Buy more laundry detergent.” Your Alexa is connected to your Amazon account, so Alexa can help you buy things with just your voice.
“What’s on my calendar?” After linking your Google calendar, Alexa can tell you what your next event is, give you the schedule for the day, or add events to your calendar for you.
“When was Queen Elizabeth II born?” With great Wikipedia and search abilities (powered by Bing), she can answer most questions you throw at her.
“Tell me a joke.” They’re not the best jokes, but they’re not the worst, either.
And since Amazon has opened the development of Skills to third parties, the opportunities are virtually endless.
You don’t have to be a software developer to create custom functionality for Alexa. IFTTT offers a channel of “recipes” to extend the functionality beyond the home. Many of the recipes are built by Amazon, but you can add your own easily through the IFTTT website.
You can also find a complete list of commands here.
Is Alexa worth it?
Yes, Alexa is the best way to make your home smarter. The wide array of abilities available to it via Skills (with more being added every day), along with the multi-directional microphone make it a very useful virtual assistant.
And at about $50, the Amazon Echo Dot is the best (and actually cheapest) way to add the power of Alexa to any room in your house.
Smart home devices are insanely popular now: it seems like every tech company has their own sensor, thermostat or light switch. But with all of these different devices built by different companies, you need something to tie them all together. This is where a smart hub comes into play.
Being able to turn your lights on and off from your phone while sitting on the couch literally feels like the future because it is the future!
But turning your lights on and off isn’t even the best part. The best part is when your house turns your lights on, heats your house, starts playing music and unlocks your door for you as soon as you get home – all automatically.
And for that, you need a smart hub.
What is a smart hub?
The smart hub is the brain of your smart home. The smart hub connects all of your individual devices and lets them talk to each other and talk to you.
A smart hub lets you control your connected thermostats, lights, switches, outlets, locks, security cameras and more from one central place – typically your phone.
One of the most common uses for a smart hub is automation: a smart hub makes it possible to automate multiple devices at the same time.
Do I really need a smart hub? How can a smart hub automate my life?
If you want to have a smart home, you definitely need a smart hub – especially if you have multiple smart devices in your house. While every smart hub is a little different, they all can do the same things:
Smart hubs react to your location. Your smart hub makes it possible for your front door to unlock as soon as you pull into your driveway. Or it can automatically lock the doors behind you as you leave.
Smart hubs react to the environment. Your smart hub can turn your garden lights on automatically as the sun goes down. Or it can turn off your porch light as soon as the sun comes up.
Smart hubs react to you. Your smart hub can chain multiple actions together for commonly used actions, like turning on your TV, dimming the lights and lowering the shades – all with one button press.
Smart hubs react to your devices. Your smart hub can identify a water leak, shut off the water to your house, and send you an alert.
How do I pick the right smart hub?
Picking the wrong smart hub will be more annoying than anything! The smart hub itself doesn’t do anything directly, so it relies on you having expensive smart devices already installed in your house.
The smart hub exists to make your life easier, and it does this by connecting all of your smart devices together. So, picking a hub that works with all (or most) of your devices makes your smart home that much smarter.
What good is that smart thermostat, smart door lock or smart light if they’re actually a pain to use? You’ll want to choose a smart hub that works with all of your devices, as well as any planned devices down the road.
When choosing the smart hub to power your connected home, consider a few things:
What (if any) smart devices do you already have installed? Check that the smart hub works with any devices you already have installed. Some manufacturers have a list of supported devices or protocols on their website, but they’re difficult to understand. (We’re working on a device catalog that should make this easier – we’ll email you when it’s ready.)
What kind of phone do you have? One of the best features of a connected home is the ability to control it from anywhere. Smart hub manufacturers know this, so they designed the top selling smart hubs to be controlled via an app installed on your phone. Consider what kind of phone you have, and make sure that your smart hub has a well reviewed app for it. If you have an iPhone or a relatively new Android phone, you’re probably fine.
What hub will still be around next year? This is arguably the hardest since you can’t read the future (and if you can, please email me). Designing a smart home around a hub that’s no longer supported would be a huge bummer, not to mention a huge waste of money.
What is the best smart hub?
Buying the right hub for the smartest home is hard, and I know that you’re not reading this article for me to tell you that “it depends”.
However, it actually depends. (I’m sorry!)
I’m working on creating a wizard to help you choose the best hub for your home (sign up here and I’ll email you when it’s ready). But until that’s finished, it wouldn’t be fair to leave you without some suggestions.
Since I don’t know the specifics of your house and your setup, here are the three most promising smart hubs on the market today. I would buy any of these for my home without thinking twice:
Supported Devices: This is the most popular consumer hub on the market today, and for good reason. Lots of developers support the SmartThings ecosystem, and the ST hub supports most smart home protocols. Additionally, Amazon sells SmartThings-branded sensors for doors, water, and more.
Controlling it: The SmartThings hub works with every phone out there, and has apps for iOS, Android and even Windows Phone. Plus, it works with Amazon Alexa so you can control it with your voice.
Obscurity Score: Samsung SmartThings isn’t going anywhere. This is the hub dujour for connected home connoisseurs. The software is updated frequently, and the system is being actively developed for by Samsung. SmartThings also has an active developer community, so even if Samsung doesn’t directly support something, there is a huge community of developers who probably have a plugin built.
Supported Devices: The Wink Hub is another extremely popular hub, and it’s recently been updated with a version 2. The Wink Hub 2 can support up to 530 devices on one hub, so you’ll never need to worry about outgrowing this hub. The Wink Hub 2 supports bluetooth devices, as well as devices that work on z-wave, zigbee and Clear Connect.
Controlling it: The Wink Hub 2 is compatible with HomeKit (with a plugin) and Amazon Alexa. The Wink Hub 2 has iOS and Android apps for managing your home from your phone.
Obscurity Score: This is a brand new version of one of the most popular smart hubs, so it’s unlikely going to disappear anytime soon. The previous generation even 1000+ great reviews on Amazon. People love the Wink Hub.
Supported Devices: The smash hit of the 2016 holiday season was Amazon’s smart speaker, the Amazon Echo, Amazon Dot and Amazon Tap. Each smart speaker also includes Amazon’s digital assistant, called Alexa. In addition to telling you the weather or helping order a new Crock Pot, Alexa can act as a smart hub for your home. Alexa currently offers support for the most popular devices manufactured by WeMo, Philips Hue, SmartThings, Wink, Insteon, and Nest.
Controlling it: Neither the Echo, Dot or Tap has a screen at all – you control it entirely with your voice. While this feels very futuristic, it means you can’t control it from outside or silently from your phone.
Now that you’ve picked the smart hub for your home, it’s time to set it up.
The smart hub is typically a small box that sits near your internet router. It usually requires an ethernet cable to connect to your network, and a power cable for electricity.
Installing your smart hub is typically as easy as:
Plug the ethernet cable into the back of your hub and the back of your router
Plug your hub into the electrical outlet in the wall
Open the hub app on your phone
From that point, the app will walk you through the process of connecting all of your smart devices to your new hub network.
It’s really that easy. If you’ve ever set up a wireless router, you can certainly set up a new smart hub. And even if you haven’t set up a router before, I suggest trying to install your smart hub yourself, anyways. Manufacturers these days are making it easier to get connected devices set up right from your phone or tablet.
So, what now?
If you haven’t already, get yourself a smart device for your house. You could start with something simple – like a Phillips Hue bulb for less than $30.
Then, grab yourself a smart hub using the guide above and let me know how you like it.