Giving Amazon Echo the keys to the CNET Smart Home

Voice control makes so much sense for smart-home control that we're switching as many pieces as we can to the Amazon Echo.

Rich Brown Former Senior Editorial Director - Home and Wellness
Rich was the editorial lead for CNET's Home and Wellness sections, based in Louisville, Kentucky. Before moving to Louisville in 2013, Rich ran CNET's desktop computer review section for 10 years in New York City. He has worked as a tech journalist since 1994, covering everything from 3D printing to Z-Wave smart locks.
Expertise Smart home, Windows PCs, cooking (sometimes), woodworking tools (getting there...)
Rich Brown
3 min read

Editor's note: A week after this story published, Amazon announced that it will soon be integrating the Nest Thermostat directly with Alexa. We will re-evaluate once that integation is live, but for now we are sticking with Ecobee.

We've spent the last few months documenting our approach to building a smart home from scratch. We've added two Nest thermostats, two Chamberlain garage door openers, a SmartThings home automation hub, smart LEDs from Philips and a mish-mash of other components.

We also added an Amazon Echo voice assistant to the house, and we've come to realize it's the most valuable component in there. Alexa, the speech recognition engine that comes with Echo, is by far the easiest way for multiple family members to control smart home products.

"Alexa, turn on the garage lights."

It's gotten to the point that Echo-compatibility is one of the first things we look for when we bring a new smart device over to potentially add it to the house. We've also become irritated at the things we've already installed that don't work with Echo.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

It's time to fix all that.

The Nest Thermostat, for example, doesn't work with Echo out of the box. Instead, you need to use a third-party Echo app to link the two called Reflect Connect. That means a clunky extra verbal command. "Alexa, tell Reflect to turn up the heat."

Chamberlain's MyQ garage opener doesn't even have a workaround.

For that reason we'll be swapping out both of those products. Instead of Nest we're going with the Ecobee 3, which the Echo supports directly. We're also replacing the MyQ for the Garageio opener.

We'll need to say "Alexa, tell Garageio," to issue a command, but that's better than no integration with Echo. We also like Garageio because it supports automations through IFTTT. Chamberlain won't let its MyQ opener do anything automatically out of concern for consumer safety. That's a reasonable worry, but we'd rather have the choice.

We're also reconsidering the SmartThings home automation hub. Its interface is too cumbersome for setting up basic automations that aren't security-related. We still need SmartThings for security, but we're going to try to rely on IFTTT For most of our single-device automations.

Here's everything the Amazon Echo can do

See all photos

As much as we like Echo, it's not perfect. It can't support multi-device automation commands (aka scenes) so we'll need to rely on IFTTT to be able to issue a command like "Alexa, trigger morning mode" ("trigger" is what you need to say for an IFTTT command). SmartThings might be able to help here, too.

By switching to Echo-compatible Ecobee thermostats, we'll also lose compatibility between the Nest Thermostat and the Nest Protect smoke detector. That link isn't useful enough to upset us much. Echo also doesn't have direct support for any smoke detectors right now, either, so we'd rather stick with the Protect, which remains the best smart smoke and CO detector available.

We'll find other things that won't work with Echo or Alexa yet. As much as we like Alexa, she still can't save us from smart-home fragmentation, at least yet. Amazon has been adding new supported devices and services like Uber and Spotify to Alexa weekly, and at a faster clip than other smart-home platforms are expanding their own web of devices.

We'll have a few stories up over the next day or so talking about the specifics of adding Ecobee and Garageio to Echo and our smart home. You can already read how we built our lighting setup around Alexa. So far it works great.