Between Google Home, Amazon's Alexa and Apple's Siri, 2016 has been the year of the voice-activated digital home assistant. They all have their pros and cons, but it's Alexa that's gaining the fastest traction at the moment, driven most effectively by the very low price of the Echo Dot, a mini Bluetooth and WiFi speaker that goes for as little as $39.99, and has been one of this season's top-selling tech devices.
The under $40 price tag on the Echo is likely what's been diving Alexa's popularity. After all, Google Home is $129 and Siri is a feature only available in Apple devices — iPhones, laptops, and tablets — which aren't exactly budget items.
But for me, Alexa's most interesting attribute is the one that makes it different from its competitors: Alexa is tied to the world's largest online retailer. Can using Alexa actually save you money? That's what I'm here to test. I just got an Echo Dot, and after playing around with it for a few days, I've found a few ways to use this robot assistant to save, and a few traps you should watch out for.
Before I dive in, I want to mention how flawless Alexa's voice recognition software is. It works out of the box with no voice training needed and it can understand the same question phrased many different ways. It even can hear you clearly from quite a distance — when my house was quiet, I was able to get it to hear me from several rooms away. I also like that I can ask Alexa for updates on any deliveries I have coming from Amazon. This is useful for knowing when packages are set to arrive or if delivery dates suddenly change, and it only takes a second. I don't have to log in and take the time to click through several pages of my account. I just ask and I get an answer.
What's the deal with Alexa-exclusive deals?
"What are today's deals?" is one of the first questions you learn to ask Alexa. You can vocally order any one of these deals whenever you want, so long as you allow for ordering via Alexa in your account settings. If you'd rather see the list with your eyes, you can find it on Amazon, but in order to actually get the prices you hear from Alexa, you'll have to order from Alexa.
Some of these deals are actually pretty good. For example, one I've seen a few times is the WeMo Switch Smart Plug, which allows you to control lights over WiFi from an app or through Alexa. It's been on sale for $29.99, but if you get it through Alexa, you get it for $19.99, one of the best prices we've seen. It's also been good for some high ticket items. At the time of this writing, Alexa users could get Canon EOS Rebel T6 DSLR Camera with a lens for $389, which was $60 and the lowest price we found for it online. That's a pretty amazing discount.
You do have to be careful, though. Not all the deals will be worth it. I saw a 6qt KitchenAid Mixer on the list for $245.08, for example, which was a pretty good price, but definitely not the lowest on the market. It's always a good idea to double-check the Amazon price against other stores online, or check out pricing history, before you impulse purchase a bigger-ticket item. Also, remember that shipping applies to orders under $49 if you don't have a Prime account. (But why wouldn't you have a Prime account?!)
How to use Alexa to save on music streaming.
One of my favorite features of the Echo and Echo Dot is the devices' ability to stream music on demand. In the mood for some Jazz, but don't feel like getting up to turn on the radio or find your phone? Simply say: "Alexa, play some jazz," and before you know it, you'll be tapping your foot to the smooth sounds of a sax. Alexa can broadcast set playlists from several different streaming services, including Amazon Music, Prime Music, Spotify, Pandora, TuneIn Radio, iHeartRadio, and Audible.
Prime Music comes free with an Amazon Prime subscription, Spotifiy and Pandora are free (with ads) and can deliver any number of music options, and Tune-in Radiocan deliver the streams of local stations. I often listen to my local NPR station through the latter, just as a I would with a radio. In fact, I have my Echo Dot plugged into my old (but great-sounding) Tivioli radio. Instead of using the radio dial and getting spotty reception, I just use Alexa instead, and I get great sound from the speaker. I can also turn it on and off with a simple voice command. I love it!
Finding travel deals with Alexa.
A lot of travel companies have been working quickly to make their services compatible with Alexa. For example, Kayak, which aggregates prices from several different discount travel sites, integrates with Alexa to allow verbal travel research. Have a tight budget and a flexible travel bug? Ask, "Alexa, where can I go for $400?" and Alexa will tell you. The only thing it won't let you do right now is book the deal you want, which makes this service nice but a little pointless. Sure, you can research good travel deals, but you have to actually go online to book any of them, and as services like Kayak don't publish flight rates by closed discount carriers like Southwest, that makes the research a bit incomplete.
Alexa turns your house into a smart house.
While the upfront cost for turning your home into a voice-activated smart house isn't cheap, it can save you money in the long run. Alexa works with home devices such as the popular Nest Thermostat, and WiFi-enabled lighting systems like Philips Hue. Instead of having to configure these devices using an interface, you can set them up to respond to voice commands. For example, simply by saying, "Alexa, I'm leaving," you could set your heat to automatically turn down, and all the lights in your house to shut off. While that might not save a ton of money in a single day, this new habitual behavior could translate into major savings over time.
Using Alexa to avoid Uber surge prices.
This is a small thing, but I've found it very handy. You can order an Uber over Alexa and — while there is no discount there — it will tell you whether or not there's currently a surge price on your ride. While you can do this in the Uber app as well, it's still a cool feature that takes a lot of stress out of the process of getting a ride.
All in all, Alexa can definitely save you money if you use it right. Between the long-term savings you can get by linking your thermostat and lighting systems, the many (free!) on-demand musical options and the Alexa-exclusive deals, this is one robot I plan to live with for a long time.
This article first appeared in Brad's Deals.