How to get started with an Alexa smart home
Amazon’s virtual assistant makes it easy to assemble a voice-activated smart home. Here’s how to put her to work.
If you’re a regular reader here at CNET, then you’ve probably noticed an awful lot of stories about Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa — particularly the many ways in which she can take control of the connected home.
There’s good reason for that. Voice control has become the smart home’s gateway drug of choice, and Alexa’s been, with standardized control over lights, locks, and more as a core use case. In the meantime, Amazon’s sold millions of and smart speakers, and third-party manufacturers have put Alexa into everything from and to and .
In sum, Alexa is just about everywhere these days — and that means that there’s an ever-growing number of people looking for ways to put her to good use for a smarter, more convenient living space. If that sounds like you, and you’re looking for a little guidance on how to get started, you’ve come to the right place.
1. Get an Echo product (or don’t)
If you want an Alexa-controlled smart home, you’re going to need to invite Alexa in. For most people, that means picking up an Amazon Echo or Echo Dot smart speaker.
The latter of which is almost certainly your best bet. At just $50 and with all of the same Alexa functionality as the full-size Echo, it’s one of the best bargains in all of tech. Setting it up is easy, too — just plug the thing in and follow the Wi-Fi pairing instructions in the Alexa app on your mobile device of choice.
That said, you don’t actually need to spend a single cent if all you want is to take Alexa for a test drive. Download the Amazon app and log in with an Amazon account, and you’ll find a little microphone icon in the upper right corner of the home screen. Give it a tap and you can talk to Alexa, no speaker necessary. The Amazon app pitches it as a voice-shopping feature, but she’ll also control your smart home devices if you have any linked with the Alexa app.
2. Think about location
One other thing you’ll want to think about as you bring Alexa into your home is where you’re going to put her. You can use your Echo anywhere you like, so long as it’s in range of your home’s Wi-Fi signal and a power outlet. Whether that means you put it in the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, or living room is up to you, and the choice really depends on how you’re planning on using it.
The bedroom makes a lot of sense, especially if you’re thinking of using Alexa’s alarm feature to wake you up in the morning. Add smart home control to the picture, and you could tell Alexa to turn the lights off as you settle in for a good night’s sleep, or ask her to turn the thermostat down if the room gets too hot. Then again, if you watch a lot of movies and like to dim the lights before hitting play, then Alexa might be better off in your TV room.
That said, there’s nothing stopping you from taking an all-of-the-above approach by picking up more than one Echo product. The Echo Dot’s low cost — perhaps Alexa’s biggest advantage over rivals such as Siri and Google Assistant — comes into play nicely here, as you can get three of them for the same cost as a single Amazon Echo.
3. Set up your smart home devices
It probably goes without saying, but Alexa can’t control your smart home devices if you don’t have any smart home devices. The good news: There are lots and lots of different gadgets that’ll work — and our best-of list can help you pick one out.
My go-to recommendation is the $35. It’s cheap, it’s easy to use, and it’ll let you turn anything you plug into it on and off just by asking Alexa. Before you can do that, though, you’ll need to set the device up like normal. Like with most smart home gadgets, the companion app will walk you through the process in a matter of a minutes.
Part of that setup process typically involves giving your device a name. This is an important step because that name is what Alexa will use to identify the device when you give a command. To pick a good one, keep things clear, short, and as plain-spoken as possible. “Alexa, turn on the table lamp” is a heck of a lot easier than “Alexa, turn on Ry’s table lamp WeMo Mini.”
4. Sync your gadgets with Alexa
Once your devices are up and running, you’ll need to introduce them to Alexa to let her start controlling them. In a lot of cases, you’ll just need to say, “Alexa, discover new devices.” After about 10 seconds of scanning, she’ll add whatever gadgets she finds into the Alexa app, and you’ll be ready to start telling her to control them.
In other cases, you might need to pull up the Alexa app and enable a special skill before telling her to scan. Just go to the app’s smart home section and select “Smart Home Skills.” From there, you can search for the skill you want to enable — some, such as Lutron and Nest, might need you to supply your login credentials in order to authorize Alexa to take control.
5. Set up groups and scenes
If you’re using Alexa to control more than one or two devices, then you’ll probably want to start grouping things together so you can control more than one device at a time using a single Alexa command. You’ve got two ways to do this: groups and scenes.
Groups are just what they sound like — multiple devices tied together behind a single group name. For instance, if you have two smart bulbs in your kitchen called “kitchen light 1” and “kitchen light 2,” you might create a group called “kitchen lights” that includes both of them. Then, you could turn both lights on at once by saying “Alexa, turn on the kitchen lights.”
To make a group, just go to the smart home section of the Alexa app and tap on “Groups.” Select “Create Group,” then give it a name and select the devices you wish it to include. Easy enough.
Scenes, on the other hand, let you bring multiple devices to pre-established settings all at once. Scenes are a little different than groups, because you don’t create them in the Alexa app. Instead, you import scenes in from your devices themselves, provided that those devices’ apps offer a way to create them.
Lifx color-changing smart bulbs are a good example. In the Lifx app, you can create scenes that can bring several bulbs to specific color and brightness settings all at once. You could, for instance, make a scene called “July 4th,” that changes three smart bulbs to red, white, and blue. When you ask Alexa to discover new devices, she’ll find scenes like that one, too. From there, you can ask her to activate it by saying, “Alexa, turn on July 4th.”
6. Fine-tune as you go
You can improve your Alexa smart home setup as you go by making tweaks to your devices and the way you keep them organized. One of my favorite tricks is to put a single device into a group, then give it an alternate name in order to help expand Alexa’s vocabulary. For instance, if you have a “desk lamp” in your Alexa setup, you could stick it in a group of its own called “table lamp” so that both “turn on the desk lamp” and “turn on the table lamp” would work.
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Another trick along those lines: whenever you give Alexa a command, Amazon will log what she hears in the Alexa app. If she keeps getting tripped up by one of your commands, you can pull out the app, see what she’s mistakenly hearing, and then adjust your device and group names accordingly. As an example, in my home, I have a festive lamp for the holidays that I named “holiday lamp,” but Alexa kept hearing “hallway lamp” when I’d try to turn it on and off. All I needed to do was put the lamp into a group called “hallway lamp,” and voila, my command would work even when Alexa misunderstood me.
That kind of fine-tuning can help guide you through a gradual expansion of your setup. Start small, get comfortable with how Alexa works, and then build outwards, bit by bit. It won’t take long for your Alexa-powered smart home to take shape.