Amazon’s Alexa has been slowly evolving from its humble roots as a simple voice assistant into an actual home automation ecosystem, and last week we looked at setting up Alexa’s new ‘Routines’ — a new feature that debuted last fall for handling multiple home automation tasks with a single Alexa command or at a scheduled time. In the process of that, we touched on a few other Alexa home automation features that we decided were worth a closer look.

At one time, smart home systems were simply about controlling an occasional lightbulb or smart plug, and Alexa’s origins in the home automation space were initially just to facilitate this by allowing voice commands to perform these simple tasks (which otherwise required you to interact with a smartphone or a switch). However, as more products have flooded the market and become accessible to the average consumer, the whole nature of home automation has gone far beyond lights, switches, and even thermostats, to the point where you can now have a fully automated home, and Alexa has grown with it into a voice assistant that can conceivably reach every corner of your house, controlling everything from your lights to your coffee pot.

Groups

Of course, with the growth of smart home devices, it’s become necessary to actually organize them in some way. Home automation vendors have taken various approaches to this. Apple’s HomeKit explicitly lays out a sophisticated structure of zones, rooms, groups, and scenes, while other platforms such as Google Home and Philips Hue limit themselves to organizing your devices into a flat structure of “Rooms.”

Amazon’s approach, on the other hand, is refreshingly unique in its simplicity. Eschewing any kind of a fixed structure, Alexa instead allows users to simply organize their devices into generic multi-purpose “Groups.” Although Amazon clearly intends groups to be used primarily for rooms, they can in fact be used to organize your Alexa-controlled devices in any way you like, and unlike the “Rooms” structure of most other smart home platforms, with Alexa you can actually assign any of your devices to more than one group.

Creating a Group

You can create a standard Alexa group by going to the “Smart Home” section in either the Alexa web app or mobile app and selecting the “Groups” tab. If you haven’t created any groups yet, you’ll just see a big blue button that you can tap to create your first one.

You’ll be prompted to supply a name for your group, which is what you’ll refer to it as when speaking with Alexa (e.g. “Alexa turn on the master bedroom”). The Alexa app offers some pre-defined room names here as suggestions; you can pick one of these or simply type in whatever you want. Amazon does recommend, however, that you keep the names short — only a few syllables — and that you avoid using names that start with the same first word.

Once you’ve named your group, the next screen will present you with a list of all of your Alexa-enabled devices, in alphabetical order. Tap on all of the ones that you want to include in your new group, tap the “Save” button, and you’re done.

Using a Group

Once you’ve created an Alexa group, you can issue smart home commands to the group in much the same way that you would for an individual device — just use the group name instead of the device name. You can even issue commands to a group that only apply to certain types of devices — such as asking Alexa to adjust the temperature or to dim the lights — and Alexa will pass those on to the appropriate devices. For example, telling Alexa to adjust your bedroom temperature will naturally only affect the thermostat in your bedroom, and you can tell Alexa to dim the lights without worrying that she may not know how to “dim” your thermostat.

Creating an “Alexa-Enabled” Group

Last fall, Amazon introduced a new enhancement to smart home groups in the form of “Alexa-enabled groups.” While this title is a bit confusing — after all, any smart home group can be controlled by Alexa and is therefore presumably “Alexa-enabled” — what it actually refers to is including an Amazon Echo device as part of your Alexa group. This allows you to omit the group name when referring to the devices in the same room. For instance, you can walk into your bedroom and simply say “Alexa, turn on the lights” instead of “Alexa, turn on the master bedroom lights.”

To “Alexa-enable” a group, simply include one of your Amazon Echo devices in the group by tapping on it when creating or editing the group. Once you’ve done this, you’ll also see the group identified as “Alexa-enabled” on the main “Groups” list. Again, however, don’t be confused by this terminology — all of your Alexa groups can still be controlled by Alexa in the same way, regardless of whether they’re “Alexa-enabled” or not. Note also that while you can add normal smart home accessories to multiple groups, an Echo device can only be assigned to a single Alexa group at a time.

Summary

We kind of like the way that Amazon has used an open-ended “groups” model for Alexa, as it provides extra flexibility. In part two, we’ll look at how “Scenes” fit into the picture, and some ways in which Amazon’s Alexa Groups can be extended beyond simple room configurations.

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