Virtual assistant helps connect your home

Echo, at $180, is a wireless speaker combined with a virtual assistant called Alexa. The new Echo Dot is Alexa without the big speaker.

The Dot has a tiny speaker so you can interact with Alexa, but it really shines when you connect it to speakers you already own through an aux-out port or Bluetooth. Say you have a system that plays in separate rooms. Connect to Echo Dot, and you can say, “Alexa, play my James Taylor station from Pandora,” and the music is funneled all over the house.

Many better clock radios also have an aux-in jack, allowing another companion to the Dot.

The Dot looks exactly like an Echo with the top 2 inches chopped off. It has the same array of microphones around its top edge, which rotates to adjust the volume.

Like the Echo, the Dot is always listening for its trigger word, which is Alexa by default, but it can also be changed to Echo or Amazon. When the trigger word is spoken, the top of the Dot lights up with blue LEDs. Whatever you say next is transmitted instantly to Amazon’s server for translation, and your command is transmitted back.

There is an Alexa companion app for your smartphone or tablet that lets you configure the Echo or Dot, including a snippet of your voice to match up. You can also help the Dot’s voice recognition by using the voice training portion of the app. You will be asked to read aloud 25 different phrases that will help Alexa understand your commands.

Amazon’s been busy adding features to the Echo, including compatibility with many home automation hubs and products. For example, lights and thermostats can be connected.



App helps create informed shoppers

The idea behind GoodGuide is that instead of being a slave to advertising while shopping, people can make informed choices. The app has a database of more than 200,000 products, including food and skin care products. It details how much particular goods affect the environment and your health and whether the products are energy-efficient. GoodGuide’s clear graphics and simple interface make it easy to search for a particular product. There is even a built-in bar code scanner, which can be handy in a supermarket.