Setting Up Amazon Alexa Routines

A few weeks ago we looked at setting up Google Home Routines following Google’s rollout of the new home automation feature. As we noted at the time, however, Google is the last major player on the field here; Apple’s introduced home automation routines in HomeKit (where they’re called “Scenes”) back in 2015, and Amazon opened up its own Alexa routines to end users last fall, after introducing them as a developer-only feature back in 2016. Today we’ll take a closer look at Amazon’s implementation of Routines in Alexa and what they can do for your home.

Perhaps not surprisingly due to its head start, Apple is the 800 lb. gorilla in the room when it comes to this particular kind of automation. However, this doesn’t mean that Alexa Routines don’t provide their own unique benefits — since Alexa is primarily a voice assistant, its Routines allow you to do more than just control home accessories, and also provide for more natural language parsing. Alexa Routines can also be scheduled to run at specific times rather than just calling them up by voice, and you can create as many custom routines as you like — both features that Google Home still lacks.

What Alexa Routines can do

Amazon’s Alexa Routines can control a variety of home automation devices, as well as play music from Amazon Music, Spotify, or most other Alexa-supported music services, read news, traffic, and weather, and even speak back arbitrary phrases, sing a song, tell a joke, or tell a story.

Much like Google Home, Alexa Routines can also be triggered by any arbitrary key phrase, beginning with the keyword “Alexa” in this case, although you can’t configure more than one key phrase for the same routine.

Routines can also be triggered at a specific time of day, which can be set to repeat every day, on a single day of the week, or only on weekdays or weekends, although you can’t select multiple days of the week, or set up schedules based on events like sunrise or sunset. You can also can’t have the same routine triggered by both a voice command and by scheduling a time — you have to pick one or the other.

What Alexa Routines can’t do (yet)

Like Google Home, the biggest limitation of Alexa’s Routines so far is device support. While Alexa itself can control a huge range of home automation accessories, devices supported by Alexa’s Routines are far more limited, and seem to be mostly relegated to lights and smart plugs at this point, so even thermostats are out (even though rather ironically the ecobee4 includes native Alexa support). This means that while you can create a “Good Night” routine to turn off all of your lights, you’ll still need to issue separate commands to Alexa to make sure your thermostat is turned down and your doors are locked.

Further, although you can use any third-party Alexa speaker for home automation, the ability to have Alexa speak back to you as part of a routine is limited to the company’s own first-party Echo speakers; you can trigger a routine from any Alexa-capable speaker, but you’ll have to configure the routine to assign audio responses to come from an Echo speaker, or you’ll be told that Alexa can’t do that when calling up your routine.

Setting up an Alexa Routine

Alexa Routines are most easily set up via the Amazon Alexa app for your iOS or Android device, and can be accessed from the “Routines” section of the main menu.

Alexa includes one pre-built routine — Start my day — to get you started, which will report the weather and play the news from your flash briefing by default. Unlike Google Home, however, there’s nothing special about this routine, and you can easily customize it or delete it altogether if you prefer.

You can add a new routine by tapping the plus button in the top right corner of the Alexa app, which will take you through a step-by-step process of first choosing what will trigger the routine — a voice or schedule — and then adding one or more actions to the routine. For example, to set up a “Good night” routine, you’d choose to use a “voice” action and then simply type in “Good night” where Alexa prompts you to enter a phrase. Note that the Alexa app also provides a few examples, so if you like these, you can simply tap on the example instead of filling it in and save you the trouble of typing it out.

Once you’ve established the when, it’s time to choose the what. Tapping Add action brings you to a list of all of the various things an Alexa Routine can do, with home automation control naturally found under the Smart Home category.

Alexa helpfully provides three possibilities here: You can control an individual device, control a group of devices (such as all of the lights in a bedroom), or activate a scene from a supported platform such as Philips Hue or Lutron Caséta. Each category provides a list of available options, although it’s worth noting that the device selection screen will include all of your Alexa-capable devices, regardless of whether or not they’re supported by Routines; it would have been nice to see some filtering here, since tapping on an unsupported device will simply give you an error message that it’s not supported.

If you choose to activate a scene, there aren’t any other options — the Alexa Routine will simply trigger the selected scene, which will turn lights on or off according to however you’ve set it up in that vendor’s own app. When controlling individual devices you can choose to set the on/off state, intensity level, or color, subject to what the device is capable of.

Unfortunately, controlling devices as a group only provides a binary on/off option, even if all of the devices in the group provide dimming or multicolor capabilities. Of course, you can simply add each device as an individual action, or if all devices are from the same vendor, set up a scene in that vendor’s app instead.

Summary

Alexa’s Routines are a fairly powerful enhancement to the platform, which previously only provided voice control for individual accessories, with limited grouping capabilities. Now that we understand the basics, in our next part we’ll look at some practical applications and examples for using Alexa Routines in your home.

Jesse Hollington

Jesse Hollington

Jesse Hollington is based in Toronto, Canada, where he lives with his daughter, Victoria. He is the author of iPod & iTunes Portable Genius, and works as a senior editor for iLounge.com. Prior to becoming a writer, Jesse ran his own information technology consulting practice and served as an officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force Reserve.

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