A year ago, I walked into a Best Buy store in San Francisco and bought myself an Echo Dot. It was late at night and the store was full of feckless shoppers pawing at rows of HDMI cables trying to decide what to buy. But I knew what I wanted. I wanted an Echo -- that tantalising portal to the world of Amazon. And I was on the other side of the world trying to get it.
Small problem: The Echo wasn't going to work in Australia. At the time, Australia didn't even have Amazon online let alone the full ecosystem to support a smart home device designed for Americans. I bought one anyway, and smuggled it back to Australia, but soon discovered that set up was a Sisyphean exercise in concealing my location, spoofing my credit card details and generally trying to pretend I wasn't Australian.
Now the Amazon Echo has finally arrived Down Under and those struggles are a thing of the past.
So, if you've bought an Amazon Echo (or the Amazon Echo Plus or Echo Dot), how do you get the most out of your new smart speaker in Australia? Here's a step-by-step guide on inviting Alexa into your home, and into your heart. Aww...
The basic set-up
Get an Amazon account
Like Google Home users need a Gmail account and Apple HomePod users need an iPhone, you're going to need Amazon to get started. Head to Amazon.com.au and sign up -- this will also give you access to the Kindle store, Amazon Prime Video and all the wonders (wonders?) of Amazon's online store. We promise they're going to have good stuff on their eventually…
Download the app
You'll need to download the Alexa App for iOS or Android, and follow the instructions on your phone to set up your new Echo on your home network. You need to do this via Wi-Fi, so make sure you have your Wi-Fi password ready and your phone is using your home Wi-Fi network.
Add your home address for weather
Your Echo will recognise your Aussie address, and give you local weather in your area. If you haven't already got your address linked to your account for Amazon orders, go into Settings and select your device from the list, then add your address to Device Location.
Add your work address for traffic
Also under Settings in the Alexa App, under Alexa Preferences, is an option called Traffic. If you pop in your work address (or an address you commonly drive to) you'll be able to hear real-time traffic details for your commute. Particularly good if you experience the horrors of peak hour traffic every day.
Alexa, entertain me
Time to speak 'strayan
Alexa is designed to respond to your voice and the natural way you speak. Australian Echo devices have been specifically geared to understand Australian accents and slang. That said, if you're a full-blown Scotsman living in Australia, Alexa may have a little more trouble. But she's still pretty smart.
Play some local music
Alexa is you hook-up for good tunes. Head to Music & Books from the main Alexa app menu and log in to your Spotify account to play music on your Echo. Now, you can just call out "Alexa, play Jimmy Barnes" and then skip tracks or control volume with your voice. You'll also find radio stations, accessed through iHeart Radio (you'll need to have a free account) or TuneIn -- all the locals like Triple J and Triple M are here.
Sync your Kindle account
If you have a Kindle, you can get Alexa to read your eBook to you. You can find a list of your synched Kindle books under the Music & Books menu. Nothing like the dulcet tones of an AI assistant reading you the poetry of Yeats.
Set up local news
A bunch of local news outlets feed news updates to Amazon which you can hear as part of a "Flash Briefing." You'll find them in the Skills section of your Alexa app under Categories > News. After you choose an outlet, such as ABC or Ten News, you can hear the latest headlines by saying "Alexa, read me the news" or "Alexa, give me my Flash Briefing."
Learn some sweet skills
A "skill" is what Amazon calls the actions you can run on your Echo, just by calling out a particular command. You'll find a bunch of third-party skills on the Alexa app to help you do everything from ordering pizza to ordering an Uber.
While Australia has roughly a third of the skills available in the US, there's still plenty to choose from. Search through Skills from Uber, the major banks, White Pages, Domino's, Taste and Dimmi. Some of these skills require you to link an existing account, but once you do, you can order book a restaurant or get recipe ideas for dinner, just by asking.
Turn your house into a smart home
Set up your smart bulbs and switches
Alexa doesn't just run commands through your Echo speaker -- the smart assistant can also be used to control smart devices around your home. Whether it's internet-connected lightbulbs from Hue or Lifx, or a Belkin WeMo smart switch, you can turn off the lights or switch on the kettle using your voice. Alexa works with ZigBee smart devices -- you can find a full list of those here.
Amazon's top-of-the-line Echo Plus has its own smart home hub built in, so you can just use the Alexa app to find and set up smart devices on your home network. For the Echo and Echo Dot, you'll need to download the companion app for each smart accessory (e.g. the Philips Hue app), though once you've set up the devices through those apps, you'll be able to control them with Alexa.
Get into a routine
If you want to turn off your music, switch off the heater and leave a single light on when you leave the house for the weekend, you can control all those actions through an Alexa routine. You can set up certain actions to take place at particular times or whenever you say a certain phrase. You may schedule the front lights to come on every day at 5 p.m. or you could set it up to switch on the kettle and play the news when you say "Alexa, good morning.".
Getting the most out of Alexa
The Echo can work as a simple speaker for playing music, or it can be a central computer that controls everything in your home -- it's ultimately down to how you set it up, what you pair it with, and which skills you activate. Have a tinker, work out what suits you and get ready to start doing everything just by yelling at that one speaker in your living room.