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Working remotely? Here's how to build the perfect Alexa-powered smart home

Hey Alexa, check my email, calculate these numbers, make coffee, jot down these notes, and vacuum the floor. Thanks, love you!

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There’s no better time to build a smart home than now when you’re probably working from home because the world is in disarray. So stop putting off this weekend project and let’s just do it. Don’t lie to yourself. You have tons of time.

Where do you even start? Which platform do you use? Which devices do you get? How do you connect stuff together? How do you make “dumb” devices “smart”? What kind of automation can you achieve?

These are all good questions and there’s so much you can do now. (More than what existed when I started cobbling together my smart home five years ago when things were just getting started.)

With a million and one ways to build a smart home, this guide is going to focus on creating one designed specifically for boosting work and productivity. Let's face it: we’re gonna be working at home for the foreseeable future and it’s easier to justify a smart home that works for you than one that’s just convenient.

Alexa FTW

There are two main ways to control a smart home: voice and touch. Using voice control is the easiest. You literally just tell your digital assistant of choice to do something — it’s completely hands-free, which is why I prefer it. Touch is slower since you have to open your phone or tablet or smartwatch and then tap a button. It’s just not as intuitive and seamless as an experience. In my opinion, a smart home should weave invisibly in the background of your life and require minimal effort to activate after setup.

Despite the Google Assistant having near parity with Amazon's Alexa, for newbies, Alexa is the way to go. Why? Because Alexa has more third-party device support, more "skills," and has what I consider to be vital for working: support for email.

And while some people are recommending you unplug your smart speaker while you’re working from home — there’s no telling if Alexa might accidentally pick up a false trigger phrase and start recording any confidential chatter — I’m not so worried about that. All of Amazon's Echo devices have a kill switch, which when activated, mutes the microphones.

Start with a smart speaker

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Best overall Echo — Personally, I have no interest in upgrading my smart home too often, which means I prefer a control center that’s more future-proof. I recommend the Echo Plus for its built-in Zigbee smart home hub, which will give you the widest support for third-party devices.

Best Echo on a budget — Get the regular Dot with Clock (or the Echo Dot if you don't need the clock) if you're on a tighter budget or want to add a smart speaker in multiple rooms. You can usually pick up a couple of Dots for the price of one Echo Plus.

Best Echo for sound quality — For the loudest sound with strong bass, get the excellent Echo Studio, which also has a Zigbee hub like the Echo Plus, but costs $50 more.

Mood lighting

Now that you got a smart speaker, the first and easiest thing to set up next is lighting. Studies have shown that different kinds of lighting can affect how productive you are. Some people concentrate better with cooler lights (bluer lights like fluorescent) and others (like me) work better and smarter when the lighting is warmer (yellower like lamps).

Philips sells my go-to smart light bulbs. They make a variety of different types with various different screw threads. The basic Hue White provides a soft white light and is dimmable so it can be gentler on your eyes in the morning and night. Philips also sells the Hue White and color ambiance bulbs, which can output 16 million different colors and are dimmable as well.

I like to keep my lighting simple with a warm light yellow hue, but don’t let me stop you from working on spreadsheets or drafting up a presentation in club vibes with neon pink or green lighting. This is your office so go wild.

More affordable smart light bulb alternatives include the LIFX like the Mini 800-Lumen LED Light Bulb or Eufy Lumos Smart Bulb. These are the ones I own and have tried before. Like regular light bulbs, lower prices usually mean shorter longevity. Make sure to take notice of how many hours a light bulb is rated for and how many switch cycles it has.

If you really have money to burn, check out Dyson’s Lightcycle Task Light. This drafting tool-inspired light can continuously adjust the color temperature and brightness based on the position of the sun during the day. Dyson says the auto-adjusting light also helps reduce the amount of harmful blue light that studies have shown make it harder to fall asleep at night. While the Lightcycle is smart in that it’s controllable with an app, it doesn’t connect directly to Alexa. To make that happen, you’ll need to plug it into a smart plug.

While I highly recommend setting up a dedicated working space with a desk and chair, working at home also means the freedom to work in bed or on a couch. Think about each space you have and what kind of lighting is suitable for them.

Smarten up dumb devices

Speaking of smart plugs… they’re the easiest way to turn your “dumb” devices smart. Really, smart plugs are just simple on/off switches. Connect a device’s power plug prongs into a smart plug and — boom — it’s taking orders from Alexa, bab

Our top pick is the WeMo Mini Smart Plug. It's cheaper than Amazon's own Smart Plug and also supports other the Google Assistant and Apple HomeKit (in case you ever want to add those platforms into the mix later).

I’d avoid Kasa smart plugs. From personal experience, I have one (still do) and it’s really flaky. I’ve got it hooked up to an old IKEA desk lamp and, for some reason, it always seems to bug out every few weeks and I end up having to reset it. I really should swap it for a WeMo one.

Connect smart plugs to desk lamps, lights, coffee makers, fans, air purifiers, humidifiers, air conditioners. You name it and a smart plug can help turn them on and off without you needing to lift a single finger.

Starter pack

Now that you have some basics for the smart home, it’s time to spiff things up with a couple of extras. You don’t need all of them. But here are a few good starter items.

These battery-powered roller blinds are modern-looking, are excellent at blocking out sunlight, and super easy to install. FYRTUR blinds work with Alexa, Google Home, and HomeKit. They come in eight different sizes to fit a range of windows. A remote control is also included in the box.

Another good addition for your desk is the Echo Show 5 smart display and its 5.5-inch screen. Amazon sells a larger 8-inch and 10.1-inch version, but they take up too much desk space IMO. Best of all: it supports both Alexa video calls and Skype.

Anyone who needs coffee to start their day should consider the Hamilton Beach Smart Coffee Maker. You can use voice controls to turn it on and off and adjust brew strength. It’s a luxury and convenience, but so is everything in a smart home. Stop making your own coffee like you're an intern.

You're going to be shedding a lot more skin with all the time you're now spending at home. Unless you actually enjoy vacuuming, you should automate it. This affordable robot vacuum costs hundreds less than a Roomba and can be controlled with Alexa voice command.

Completely wireless and battery-powered, these Blink security cameras are great for parents who want to keep a watchful eye on children in other rooms. Listen, the kids don’t want to be stuck at home all day long, either. It pairs great with the Echo Show Alexa smart display for office monitoring.

Work with your voice

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The great thing about having Alexa around is that it’s almost like having a real assistant. While asking Alexa to tell you the weather and play music are likely going to be the most common things you use a smart speaker or smart display for, there are ways to use voice computing to increase productivity.

Timers and alarms — Sure, definitely set alarms for waking up and use timers for cooking. But for work, set them up with the Pomodoro Technique to help you focus on tackling tasks.

Calculations and converting currency — If I need to quickly add or subtract a string of numbers, I just ask Alexa. Ditto for calculating percentages, converting units and currency, and looking up definitions. This is one perk I can’t have in the office or all my colleagues would strangle me for talking to Alexa all day.

Read and reply to emails — Checking email blows. Most of it’s junk. So why not make Alexa read your emails while you do something more important. Alexa can read emails from the last 24 hours from Gmail, Hotmail, Live, and Outlook accounts, and you can even send replies and delete them with your voice.

Strangely enough, there’s no native email support for Google Home smart speakers. How is this possible when Google makes Gmail?! I don’t know, but this very reason alone is why Alexa is the smart home platform king when it comes to productivity.

Manage calendar — Alexa can also tap into your Google Calendar. It pairs great with the Echo Show 5. One thing to note: they only pull from a main Google account’s calendar. G Suite, imported, and other calendars (like birthday and holiday calendars) aren’t supported.

To-do lists and notes — I get ideas for stories or projects when I’m least expecting it. There are tons of Alexa skills to help you jot down ideas using voice commands like Todoist and My Notebook note taking skill. But I've found a basic "Alexa, note this down" or "Alexa, create new note" is the simplest way to dictate a note for saving in the Alexa app. Same applies for to-do lists. Shame, there's no way to connect Alexa to Google Keep or Apple Notes.

Automate

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The coolest thing about a smart home isn’t that everything is connected and can be activated with voice command or a tap on your smartphone or smartwatch. but that devices can be grouped together and automated.

Setting up your smart home for automation takes a little bit of work, but when done correctly, it can save you a lot of time.

Popular automations, or routines as Amazon calls them, include ones that are set for different times during the day. For example, you might have a routine for the morning that does a bunch of things, one for when you go to bed, a routine for when you leave your home and return back, etc.

Everyone’s routine is going to be different. Since I’m working from home now, I created one called “power on.” Whenever I tell Alexa to “power on,” the following happens:

  • IKEA desk lamp I bought 10 years ago turns on via a smart plug
  • Electric kettle turns on and starts boiling water for tea via a smart plug
  • Philips Hue light bulbs in my bathroom turn on
  • Alexa tells me the weather
  • IKEA blinds roll up
  • Alexa reads the day’s upcoming schedule from my Google Calendar
  • Alexa reads my email summary
  • Alexa reads a news flash briefing

By the time this routine finishes, I’m already out of bed, have finished brushing my teeth, made tea and am ready to sit down at my desk and log into Slack to connect with the Input squad.

After work, I use another routine called “power off” to roll down the IKEA blinds, turn on and dim the Philips Hue smart lights in my living room, and switch on my TV via a Fire Cube TV for some quality time on Netflix.

Is any of this necessary? Honestly, no. But it’s cool as hell we can all live like Tony Stark without having to hire a professional to make it happen.

The best part is that a smart home can be as simple or complex as you want it to be. I recommend writing down a list of things you want to automate — list them out exactly like I have above — because it’ll help you figure out the kind of automation you want. From there, you can tackle how to include each step. Like will you need to buy new smart devices or appliances? Maybe a smart plug is all you need to convert a “dumb” device into a connected one. And then get to work searching for any necessary skills you’ll need.

Tips to keep in mind

Unless you’ve already done this before, I can promise you that setting up a smart home and getting all your devices to talk to one another will not go perfectly the first time. There’s always some troubleshooting to be done.

Stick to one platform — It might be tempting to bolt on other smart home platforms like Google Home to get the Google Assistant for things like search, but my advice is to hold off in the beginning. Otherwise things get really chaotic if one part of your smart home breaks. Trust me, I've been there many times.

Simplify wherever possible — Some smart devices require extra hubs of their own that need to be plugged into power or connected to your router. While these may have fancier features, for beginners, I recommend steering clear of these. Hubs add extra complexities to a smart home system and can be frustrating to troubleshoot if anything needs resetting later.

Protect your privacy — Look, reading terms and conditions is no fun. But if you’re at all worried about privacy, dig into it. Amazon lets you opt-out and delete voice recordings, which you can do on within the Alexa app or use the command "Alexa, delete everything I said today." Alexa will become dumber and slower as a result, but the privacy may be worth it to you. Similarly, products like Ring doorbells have been slammed by privacy experts for being the subject of serious hacks and being used as unwarranted surveillance devices. You might want to avoid such products.