Amazon is adding voice control support to its Alexa app on Android and iOS. According to TechCrunch:
The addition of voice commands means users can speak directly to their handset the way they would an Echo — to play music, trigger Alexa skills and the like. The update is being rolled out over the course of the coming days through Google Play and Amazon’s own Appstore. A similar update is also on the way for the iOS App Store, but its timing is still up in the air, likely due to Apple’s stricter vetting process.
Unlike Google and Apple, Amazon doesn’t have a smartphone platform for its smart assistant. That puts Amazon at a disadvantage because it precludes users from activating Alexa with a trigger word on Android phones and iOS devices. Still, the move feels like a natural extension of the services surrounding Alexa and Amazon’s Echo products.
There’s precedent for this sort of app on iOS too. Astra is a simple iOS utility that acts like an Echo device. It’s registered in the Alexa app alongside any Echo products you own. Pressing the microphone button lets you issue the same commands you can to an Echo. It remains to be seen what Amazon’s update to the Alexa app will mean for Astra, but in any event, it will be interesting to see where Amazon’s push into mobile leads.
CES is a big, messy spectacle that has everything from vaporware and products you didn’t know you needed – and probably don’t – to truly cool new gadgets. We’ve been following the announcements this week and have rounded up a collection of the most interesting and promising gear we’ve seen so far. Many of these products have not shipped yet, so we haven’t had an opportunity to try them, but these are gadgets we will be watching closely throughout 2018 and that are likely to turn up again on MacStories later this year. CES doesn't end until Friday, so be sure to check back for updates on any additional announcements that catch our eyes.
For some people, weather apps simply answer questions like ‘Do I need a coat today?’ but their appeal is much broader. Weather apps are also about science and statistics. If you enjoy the geeky data side of tracking the weather, there’s no better way satisfy that interest than by collecting measurements yourself with a weather station like the one made by Netatmo.
Weather stations, like many gadgets, run from the simple to the complex. What I like most about the Netatmo Weather Station is that it’s easy to set up and modular. That means you can start with the core system that tracks basic weather data like temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, and air quality, and later, add wind speed and precipitation gauges if you want to dive deeper into tracking the weather.
It’s easy to get carried away with elaborate and expensive home automation projects when you’re just starting out. A better place to begin though, is with a simple, temporary setup that doesn’t cost a lot but will still give you a glimpse of some of the conveniences of home automation without making a big commitment. When I heard that iHome had introduced a reasonably-priced outdoor smart plug, I knew immediately that it and some holiday lights would make an excellent home automation starter project.
This is by no means a Clark Griswold-level undertaking. My family’s holiday decorations are fairly simple. In the front yard, we put up lights in the bushes and on the columns on either side of our front door. Inside, we have a Christmas tree in our living room with lights. The first step was to put up the outdoor lights the weekend after Thanksgiving on what turned out to be a mercifully warm day.
After the lights were up and working, I plugged them into the iHome’s iSP100 Outdoor SmartPlug, which I connected to an outdoor outlet near my front door. The iSP100 is about as simple as you can imagine. It has a short cord attached to a plastic box that holds its electronics. One end plugs into a standard US outdoor electrical outlet, and the other end takes two or three-pronged electrical devices.
A cautionary tale by Serenity Caldwell on smart home devices and having physical backups:
Two days after I installed my latest smart lock experiment, I jokingly said to my husband "We're going to be in trouble if our internet goes down. I don't know where the key is to this lock anymore."
"Worst case, we'll get our parkour on and break a window," he responded.
As I sit at my kitchen table writing this story after having to crawl through said window, I find his reply far less funny.
I'd like the moral of the story I'm about to tell you to be "Don't joke about things you don't want to happen." In reality, it is this: Your smart home devices can fail or make mistakes, and when they do, you better have an alternative.
I locked myself out of my apartment a couple of times (I’m terrible at remembering keys), but we have no smart locks installed. While the idea of Siri unlocking the door for me is tempting, I’m afraid I’d end up in a worse situation than Serenity somehow.
After a miscommunication in August, IKEA has added Alexa and HomeKit support to its Trådfri smart lighting system, which it originally promised back in May. The lighting system includes a gateway, remote controls, and LED lightbulbs that can be mixed and matched in different configurations at prices that are competitive with rival systems. For example, two Trådfri bulbs, a remote, and the required gateway costs $79.99 compared to two similar Philips Hue bulbs and a gateway for $69.99. Each gateway controls up to 10 lightbulbs using one of IKEA’s remotes, an iOS app, Amazon’s Alexa App, Apple’s Home app, or your voice via Amazon and Apple’s smart assistants.
The addition of Alexa and HomeKit support means the Trådfri lighting system can be integrated with smart home accessories from other companies and controlled with any Alexa or Siri-enabled device. The IKEA Trådfri app, which can be downloaded for free from the App Store, lets users control their Trådfri lights, customize settings like the warmth of the the light, and set timers.
The release of HomeKit-enabled devices has accelerated this year. An increasing number of manufacturers like IKEA are also hedging their bets by integrating Alexa support alongside HomeKit support, which is good for consumers who benefit whether they’ve chosen one system over the other or assembled a hybrid Alexa/HomeKit environment.
Amazon has introduced a new Alexa-enabled home security camera called the Cloud Cam and an in-home delivery service for Prime members. The Cloud Cam is an Internet-connected smart camera that records video at 1080p resolution. Amazon is selling it as a stand-alone product and as part of its new in-home delivery service called Key.
The Cloud Cam, which will be controlled by a yet-to-be-released Cloud Cam app, is available for pre-order with shipments beginning on November 8th. One camera costs $119.99, but it can also be purchased in bundles of two for $199.99 and three for $289.99. Each camera support’s Amazon’s Alexa smart assistant, motion detection, two-way communication, night vision, and has a wide angle lens that saves video clips from the past 24 hours from up to three cameras. Amazon is also selling subscriptions that range in price from $6.99/month to $19.99/month for storing clips for a longer period, distinguishing between people and motion from other sources like pets, zone control, clip sharing, and connecting to more cameras.
Amazon’s Cloud Cam plays an important role in the company’s new US-only Key delivery service too. When paired with certain third-party smart locks, which Amazon is bundling with a Cloud Cam for $249.99, Prime customers can use their Cloud Cam and an iOS app to let Amazon Logistics’ delivery people unlock their home and leave packages inside. The service is currently limited to Amazon Logistics’ delivery people who make deliveries in 37 US cities. Key can also be used to grant home access to third-party services like house cleaners and dog walkers.
Prime members who sign up for Key will be alerted by a forthcoming Amazon Key app when a delivery driver arrives with a parcel and can watch the delivery live or view a recorded video clip later. Access can also be limited to certain times of the day and be granted on a one-off or recurring basis. When a delivery driver arrives, they scan the package’s bar code, which is transmitted to the cloud and in turn, starts the Cloud Cam and unlocks your door. After leaving the delivery inside, the driver locks your door with a swipe of an app.
The combination of Alexa support and the Key delivery service set the Cloud Cam apart from other smart home security cameras. Of course, the greatest difficulty for Amazon is likely to be convincing customers to trust delivery drivers to unlock their homes even if a camera is watching.
The market for smart home devices continues to heat up with new products and updates being released almost every day. Of note today are a trio of announcements:
- Nest released its Thermostat E smart thermostat, a cheaper version of its flagship product made of white plastic with a frosted glass surface. The new device begins shipping tomorrow for $169, a nice price reduction for anyone who want a thermostat that fades into the background more than the $249 Nest thermostat does. Unfortunately, neither device supports HomeKit.
- Philips Hue Starter Kits gained another bulb. Instead of three bulbs, the starter kits now comes with four bulbs for $99 (White), $149 (White Ambiance), and $199 (Color) plus a hub, making them a slightly better value for anyone who want to get started with lighting automation. Philips is also adding the ability to sync with movies, games, and music soon.
- Libratone, announced Alexa and AirPlay 2 support for its Zipp and Zipp Mini WiFi and Bluetooth-enabled home speakers. Unlike the Echo, Alexa can only be invoked by pressing a button on the Zipp speakers, which do not have a persistent microphone connection. AirPlay 2 is expected to be added as a firmware update after iOS 11 is released by Apple.
Koogeek may not be a name brand that jumps to mind when you think about home automation, but the company has built a substantial lineup of HomeKit-enabled devices. I’ve had a Koogeek smart plug for about a year and recently received a Koogeek lightbulb socket for review. I’m fairly new to home automation and have found both products to be a good way to dip your toe into home automation despite some limitations.