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Smart Home

Alexa Guard goes live, lets your Echo speakers listen for trouble

We're testing out Amazon's new security mode for Alexa-enabled smart speakers. Here's what you need to know.

Ry Crist/CNET

"Alexa, I'm leaving."

"OK -- I'll be on guard."

That's the gist of Alexa Guard, a new feature from Amazon that lets your Echo devices keep an ear out for trouble when you're away from home. If Alexa hears something after you've put her into Guard mode -- a smoke alarm ringing or the sound of shattering glass, for instance -- she'll send you a notification. If you're an ADT or Ring subscriber, she'll notify your home security monitoring service, too.

Another feature: If you want, Alexa will cycle your smart lights on and off while you're away to make it look like you're home.

First announced back in September, Alexa Guard is now rolling out to Amazon's customer base in the US. I was able to turn the feature on in my own home over the weekend, and spent some time testing it out. Here are some early takeaways:

In Guard mode, Alexa sent me swift notifications whenever I played the sound of glass breaking or an alarm going off.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Yep, it works!

With far-field microphones in every Echo device, Alexa is already a pretty good listener. Alexa Guard puts those mics to use by listening for the sound of glass breaking or the sound of alarms when you aren't home.

The Guard section of the Alexa app gives you a timeline of events as you come and go -- along with the option to replay audio of potential concerns.

Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

And, my early impression is that it works pretty well! I didn't have a spare window to smash at my place, but I played a YouTube video of glass break sound effects near one of my Echo devices, and immediately received a notification on my phone that Alexa heard something that sounded like glass breaking. The same thing happened when I tested with the sound of a smoke alarm going off.

Note that some other security providers offer ways to listen for trouble, too. In some cases, the hardware might be more refined than what Alexa is offering. For instance, SimpliSafe offers an optional glass break sensor as part of its system's offerings. That sensor wouldn't fire off in my tests when I played sound effects -- I actually had to break a piece of glass in order to trigger it (SimpliSafe even says it can distinguish between the sound of a window getting smashed and the sound of someone dropping a dish).

Amazon's algorithm doesn't seem to be as advanced as that, but it's still an additional layer of protection while you're away. And when Alexa hears something, her notification offers the immediate option of using Drop In to listen through your Echo device. If you wanted, you could even broadcast yourself telling the potential intruder that you're calling the police as a means of scaring them off.

If you secure your home with a professional monitoring service through Ring or ADT, Alexa will forward any Smart Alerts about alarms or broken glass to them, too.

Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

Alexa can't call 911

Still as Amazon notes as you're confirming setup in the Alexa app, "Alexa Guard is not a replacement for an alarm system or life safety devices. Amazon does not monitor Smart Alerts and cannot contact emergency services on your behalf."

That last bit is really important. Say you're out on vacation with Alexa Guard turned on. Your Echo device at home hears the sound of your smoke detector going off, and Alexa sends you a notification. Unfortunately, you're playing in the hotel pool with the kids, and you miss the notification. Alexa won't act on your behalf at this point the way a professional monitoring service would. It's on you to see the notification and act accordingly.

That said, if you subscribe to a professional home monitoring service through ADT, Alexa will forward those Smart Alerts to them. With Ring, Amazon says that users can request dispatch of emergency responders directly from the Ring app if they are subscribed to the Ring Protect Plus plan. 

And if you're using an Alexa-compatible home security system that she can already arm and disarm with voice commands, you'll be able to set it so that happens automatically whenever you turn Guard mode on and off. And if you're disarming your system, she'll still ask you for a numerical PIN code before doing so. That's a touch that saves you from needing to give two separate voice commands as you come and go. Just say, "Alexa, I'm leaving" when you're walking out the door, then "Alexa, I'm home," followed by your PIN code when you return.

Away Lighting is smart and simple

You can use the Alexa app to view a list of the lights Alexa turned on and off during Away Lighting. Note that grouped lights like my "Bedroom Ceiling Lights" were automatically kept together without me needing to do anything.

Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

Along with listening for trouble, Alexa Guard will let the assistant toggle your smart lights on and off while you're out to make it look like you're home -- and potentially deter any would-be burglars from attempting a break-in.

You can enable the feature with a single tap when you're turning Alexa Guard on in the Alexa app for Android and iOS devices. Once you do, the app will list all of your smart lights, and include them all in Away Lighting by default. If there are any you'd like left out, just uncheck them.

The feature asks for your zip code when you're setting it up -- Alexa uses that zip code to know what time sunset is in your area each night. Away Lighting will only run when it's dark out.

From there, you should be all set. When Alexa Guard is active and set to Away mode, your lights will automatically cycle on and off. The feature worked well when I tested it, and was even smart enough to automate some lights in tandem where it made sense -- "Bedroom Ceiling Light 1" and "Bedroom Ceiling Light 2," for instance. I didn't need to set that up; Alexa just figured it out.

I also appreciated that the Alexa app gives you a detailed rundown of Alexa's automated moves during Away Lighting. That's good for micro-managers (and, admittedly, for guinea pigs like me that want a closer look at what Alexa's up to).

The only hiccup I encountered: a smart plug that the Alexa app was reading as a light. It was a leftover from a recent review where I had it hooked up to a space heater, and since the Alexa app was reading it as a light and not a plug, Alexa included it in Away Lighting by default. That's obviously not good -- you don't want your space heater to automatically turn on and off while you're away from home.

I reported that issue to Amazon, and the issue has since been addressed: The plug in question will now register as a plug when you sync it up with Alexa. Ideally, the certification process for "Works with Alexa" gadgets should catch issues like these before the integrations even go live, especially now that Alexa wants to turn things on and off on our behalf.

It doesn't work with every Echo

I've got a couple of Echo devices in my home -- a first-gen Echo in the living room, a second-gen Echo Dot in my bedroom and a first-gen Echo Plus that I picked up on sale a while back to serve as a hub for cheap Zigbee smart bulbs. I keep that one in the bathroom for shower-time singalongs.

However, when I enabled Alexa Guard, my Echo and Echo Dot didn't come along for the ride. Only current-gen Echo and Echo Dot speakers will work, along with the Echo Show, Echo Plus, Echo Spot and the Echo Input. Amazon says, "We will support additional Echo devices once the feature is generally available," so maybe older-gen Echo and Echo Dot hardware will be brought on board sometime soon. 

It isn't immediately clear to me why that wouldn't be possible on a technical level, but I've asked Amazon for clarification and will update this space once I hear back. Perhaps the retail giant wants to nudge its Alexa users to replace their existing Echo devices with new ones -- that seems pretty stingy to me, especially given Amazon's mantra that "Alexa is always getting smarter." The pitch has always been that you buy an Echo device, then reap the benefits of new features as Amazon develops them.

There's room for Guard to grow

It's clear that Amazon sees significant potential for Alexa in the DIY home security category. The company already owns the smart security camera brand Blink; in the beginning of 2018, it acquired the popular video doorbell startup Ring, too. Shortly thereafter, it started offering Alexa-centric home security packages that bundled DIY systems with an Echo Dot for voice arming and disarming. Just recently, the Alexa team added new software support for things like motion detectors and security keypads.

In short, there's an awful lot of movement here -- and a lot of competition, too. Aside from established players in the home security industry and the slew of DIY security startups we've seen in recent years, Google already offers app-enabled, DIY security via Nest Secure, and Apple offers plenty of security-minded automation via Apple HomeKit. Neither of those leverage the microphones that make Siri or the Google Assistant work, though. Amazon is out in front here, at least in that regard.

Along with bringing existing Echo hardware into the fold, I'd expect Amazon to make use of the soon-to-be-released Echo Auto, as well. That in-car Echo device will be able to track when you come and go -- automatically putting Alexa into Home mode whenever you park in the driveway seems like a natural fit. I'd also like to see Amazon do more to bring cameras into play. I use a couple of Blink cams in my place that I picked up on Black Friday -- right now, they don't factor into Alexa Guard at all.

At any rate, we'll keep an eye on the feature as it finishes rolling out and as Amazon continues improving it. By all early indications, it looks to be off to a good start.

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