How this Local GR Family Uses Amazon Alexa at Home

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“Alexa, tell me a joke!”

We hear this all of the time in our home.

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You’ve probably heard about Alexa, but if you haven’t seen it in action, it’s a bit difficult to comprehend.

Who is Alexa? Alexa is a personal assistant, developed by Amazon. I once read that “Alexa” is to Amazon devices like “Siri” is to Apple devices.

Alexa can “live” on a variety of devices (the number is continually growing). Programmers around the world are working on new “skills” for Alexa all of the time – so Alexa’s abilities are constantly expanding. Kids really love the games and music but there’s more too it than that.

You Have to Talk to Alexa to get her Going

Currently, there are four wake words for the Amazon Alexa devices. “Alexa” is one of them that you can select. The others you can choose are “Echo,” “Amazon” or “Computer.” It would be fun to give a personalized name to your devices but currently, these are the options.

How We Started

We first got an Amazon Echo about 2 years ago and have been using it in our main living space.

Since then we’ve acquired Amazon Alexa on our Ecobee4 thermostat, in the office, and three echo dots. The echo dots are in the basements and my girls each have one in their rooms. Finally, our Kindle Fire tablets have Alexa on them.

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Amazon Echo and Echo Dot Devices

Setting Up the Devices

To get going, you need to download the Amazon Alexa app. After that, it’s a quick and easy setup to get devices going via the app.

I do have an Amazon prime account, although you don’t need one to use Alexa. I don’t subscribe to a paid music library. I do have the ability to play music from Pandora on the Alexa devices and there is Bluetooth capability, so I can ask Alexa to connect to my device.

Once connected I can play from a music library on my phone or iPod and easily play saved podcasts or audible books.

Through the app, I can enable thousands of skills. Skills are kind of like apps for Alexa.

Our Favorite Ways to Use Alexa

As I mentioned, we are constantly finding new ways to use and enjoy Alexa.

In our main living area, our Alexa Echo frequently plays music, tells us the weather for the day, tells jokes, plays specific songs upon request, makes Amazon purchases (I have set up a passcode that will be required before the order is placed. This helps to safeguard against accidental purchases), sets kitchen timers and reminders, and adds items to my shopping list. I recently enabled “The 7-minute workout skill” and hope to make that part of each day.

Alexa makes phone calls for us. Alexa can call most mobile and landlines in USA, Canada, and Mexico at no additional cost. We do not have a home phone line and this has been such a wonderful skill! My kids can now say “Alexa, call Mom” and if I’m at the grocery store, my phone will ring, and I can talk to them. At this point, I cannot make calls to a home Alexa device from the grocery store.

Another important bit of information to be aware of: Alexa cannot call 911. There is a way to set this up, but you need to have a home phone line and a $35 Echo Connect accessory. There is a skill called “Ask my Buddy” that is not a substitute but can notify an emergency contact if you need help and can’t use your phone.

We Gave our Kids Echo Dots for Christmas

My girls got echo dot devices for their bedrooms as a Christmas gift and use them daily to listen to music and often as a morning alarm. They set an alarm to wake them up a certain time to a favorite song. In the evenings, they will sometimes use Alexa to read to them from Amazon Storytime. Of course, there are a lot of fun skills that they play with such as The Magic Door, Weird Facts and Silly Things.

For me, one of the BEST parts of them having echo dots in their room is that I can “Drop In” on them to talk to them, instead of going upstairs or yelling up the stairs! In the evening, my girls love to read. From the Alexa app on my phone, I select the device that I want to “drop in” on and then I am automatically connected, and I can start talking. If they are listening to music, the music is paused and I call them down for dinner or remind them to shut their lights off in 5 minutes.

As I mentioned, we are frequently adding new skills and learning new ways to use Alexa. At this point, we do not have smart home devices. However, there are TV’s, remotes, lights, switches, security cameras, lawn sprinkler controller, vacuums, locks and many other devices that can be set up and controlled by Alexa.

So, about that joke question?  My answer from Alexa … “Why does Waldo always wear stripes?   Because he doesn’t want to be spotted!”

About the Author

Miriam Flannigan lives in Grand Rapids with her husband, twin 10-year-old girls, and 5-year-old son.

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