Amazon's smart speakers -- the Echo, the Tap, and the Echo Dot -- are home to Alexa, its virtual voice assistant. She's a capable helper. Ask her to stream music, give you the weather forecast, or tell you a joke, and she'll happily comply.
She can also control a growing number of smart home gadgets -- from connected lights and switches to smart thermostats and DIY security systems. But with a fairly wide range of options, finding the right devices to start with can be a bit confusing. So here, let's run through some of your options, category by category.
Smart lighting is one of the fastest ways to start building a smart home, since all you need to do is swap your lights out for connected bulbs. Once they're set up, Alexa can control them -- just give each light a name, group them as you see fit in the Alexa app, then tell her to turn lights on and off or dim them up and down. Here are your options:
- Philips Hue White Starter Kit - $80, comes with two bulbs, additional bulbs $15 each
- Philips Hue White Ambiance Starter Kit - $130, comes with two bulbs, additional bulbs $30 each
- Philips Hue White and Color Starter Kit - $200, comes with three bulbs, additional bulbs $60 each
- Stack LED Downlight Starter Kit - $100, comes with two bulbs, additional bulbs $45 each
- Ledvance Lightify Starter Kit - $60, comes with one bulb, additional bulbs $30 each
- Lifx White 800 LED - $40
- Lifx Color 1000 LED - $60
- GE Link LED - $15, requires hub
- Cree Connected LED - $15, requires hub
How to choose the best bulb
Do you want to control a lot of lights throughout your house? If so, go with bulbs that use a dedicated, far-reaching network called Zigbee instead of Wi-Fi.
Of these, Philips Hue has the broadest compatibility with third-party devices and services. For instance, you can control the bulbs with both Alexa and Siri voice controls. All of the Hue starter kits include the same hub, so start with the cheaper, white-light-only kit, then add in those pricey color-changing bulbs a la carte, as needed.
Alexa can't change the colors of bulbs like those -- she can only turn things on and off or dim them up and down. However, that isn't the case with Lifx, one of Hue's top color-changing competitors. On top of native Echo integration, Lifx offers an additional Alexa skill that, when enabled, teaches Alexa how to change colors on command (you just need to tack "tell Lifx" onto your command, as in "Alexa, tell Lifx to change the kitchen lights to pink.")
One final option: the $80 iDevices Socket, an Alexa-compatible screw-in adapter that lets you smarten up any bulb you choose.
Smart switches and plugs
Smart plugs are an easy smart home starting point -- just plug them in to an outlet and plug something else in behind them, and you'll be able to turn that thing on and off using your phone. It's a plug-and-play simple means of automating a lamp or smartening up a desk fan.
If you're up for a slightly more involved installation, try a smart light switch. You'll need to wire it into your wall, but the extra work is often worth it, especially if that switch controls several lights at once. Here are your options:
- Belkin WeMo Switch - $40
- Belkin WeMo Light Switch - $50
- Belkin WeMo Insight Switch - $50
- Lutron Caseta Wireless Dimmer Kit - $100, comes with one switch, additional switches $60 each
- Lutron Caseta Plug-in Lamp Dimmer Kit - $230, comes with two plugs, additional plugs $60 each
- TP-Link HS100 Smart Plug - $30
- TP-Link HS110 Smart Plug with Energy Monitoring - $40
- iDevices Switch - $50
- iDevices Outdoor Switch - $80
How to choose the best switch
For seamless control of your lights, the most affordable option is the Belkin WeMo Light Switch, which you'll need to hardwire into the wall. It's the only smart light switch that doesn't need an extra hub to work with Alexa. We've used a bunch of these in the CNET Smart Home, and while the app is a little laggy sometimes, the Alexa controls work like a charm.
That Belkin switch won't let you dim the lights, though. If that's important to you, choose the Lutron Caseta Wireless Dimmer Switch, which requires Lutron's Smart Bridge. It's more expensive than Belkin, but it does a a great job with dimming, and also includes built-in support for Apple HomeKit. That brings Siri controls into play alongside Alexa.
The rest of these options are all plug-in adapters. None of them require a hub and none of them will let you dim the lights (except for Lutron, again), but there are still a few small differences. Belkin's plugs work with IFTTT, which is offers an optional additional layer of automation possibilities. The WeMo Insight Switch, the iDevices Switch, and the TP-Link HS110 will all track the energy usage of whatever you plug in behind them. And both iDevices Switches also work with Apple HomeKit. If any of those extra perks appeals to you, then buy accordingly. If not, I say just go with whatever's on sale.
Smart thermostats let you use your phone to control the climate in your home -- you can kick the heat up in the middle of a cold night without getting out of bed. With Alexa in the picture, you won't even need your phone. Just say something like, "Alexa, change the temperature to 75 degrees." Here are your options:
- Ecobee3 Wi-Fi Thermostat - $250
- Nest Learning Thermostat - $250
- Honeywell Wi-Fi Touchscreen Thermostat - $210
- Venstar T7900 Colortouch Thermostat - $200
- iDevices Thermostat - $150
- Emerson Sensi Wi-Fi Programmable Thermostat - $130
How to choose the best thermostat
Nest might seem like the obvious choice, despite its high cost, thanks to broad third-party support and an exceptional design.
Ecobee is a better choice for Echo, though -- its thermostat was actually the first to sync up with Alexa, and Amazon liked it enough to invest heavily in the company earlier this month. It works with HomeKit (Nest doesn't) and includes a remote temperature and occupancy sensor to help keep you comfortable in rooms that run a little warmer or colder than the rest of your house. Nest doesn't offer anything like that.
If you want to spend a little less, your options are growing fast. Amazon is making it easier for developers to make thermostats that work with Alexa, so new options are added often.
If you just want the least expensive one, go with the Sensi Wi-Fi thermostat from Emerson. It's not much to look at, and it doesn't have a lot of the extra bells and whistles that you'll get with Ecobee or Nest, but it'll get the job done.
Other Alexa-compatible devices
Alexa works with a lot more than just lights and thermostats. For instance, you can connect her with the Automatic car monitor, a gadget that tracks your vehicle's location, mileage and maintenance needs. If you'd rather track the whereabouts of your keys, connect her with the TrackR Bravo tag, which helps you find lost items.
For even more options, try an Alexa-compatible smart hub. These include Wink, SmartThings, Insteon, Nexia, and most recently, Lowe's Iris. Once Alexa's on board, she'll be able to control any lights, switches, or plugs that are tethered to that hub. That brings a lot of additional products into play, like platform-specific light switches and bargain-brand smart bulbs.
No matter what you go with, keep in mind that we expect Alexa to keep getting smarter. That means that the best approach is probably to start small, then build your setup gradually, bit-by-bit. As you get more comfortable with Alexa, you'll have a better sense of what works for your home, what you want to hold out for, and what you can safely skip. As cool as Alexa is, your home is only smart if it makes sense for you.