May 31, 2017

Using the Amazon Echo Dot in Canada

Amazon's Echo Dot digital assistant gives me access to weather, alarms, timers, CBC radio news, and voice-control of my Nest thermostat.

Priced at $US 50, the Echo Dot is not yet deliverable to Canada, from either or But I was able to order one from New York's B&H Photo-Video. With exchange, duty, shipping, and taxes, the cost was $CDN 100. [5-Dec-2017 Update: Released in Canada at introductory pricing of $CDN 50.]

The Echo Dot must be continually powered — it comes with a standard USB-to-micro-USB cable and 1A wall charger. It connects to the Internet through your home Wi-Fi. It has a built-in speaker, but can also play audio through a Bluetooth-attached speaker.

You can download the Amazon Alexa iOS app to configure your Echo Dot from your iPhone, but for me, a more reliable approach to configuration, was to use the website. With either interface, you will are prompted to join your iPhone or laptop to a Wi-Fi network created by the Echo Dot for initial configuration. Once configuration is complete, your Echo Dot connects to the Internet via your home Wi-Fi network.

Canadian Gotchas
Because the Echo Dot is not yet officially supported in Canada, you cannot configure it with your Canadian home location. And some features like purchasing products on Amazon are not currently enabled for Canadians. But you can work-around some of these limitations, viz:
  • Alexa, what is the weather in Ottawa, Canada? 
  • Alexa, what is forecast this week for Ottawa, Canada?
[15-Nov-2017 Update: now configurable for Canadian locations.]

While it needs Amazon's cloud servers for voice-to-text conversion, the Echo Dot is able to recognize Alexa without any external help. Only after hearing and recognizing Alexa does it send any subsequent audio to Amazon's cloud servers.

Because the Echo Dot has built-in support to recognize its name, Alexa, I found response to voice commands noticeably faster than when I invoke Siri on my iPhone by saying "Hey Siri."

If you have several Echo Dots—I have one in the kitchen and one on my night table—you should arrange them so only one can hear you at a time. If that is not possible, you can configure one to answer to Alexa, another to answer to Echo and a third to answer to Amazon.

Voice Commands
Out of the box, Echo Dot understands commands like:
  • Alexa, what time is it? 
  • Alexa, what day is it?
  • Alexa, what is the square root of 2?
  • Alexa, what is 13% of 49.99?
  • Alexa, tell me a joke
  • Alexa, set volume level to [1-10]
  • Alexa, sing Happy Birthday
  • Alexa, what is the definition of [word]?
  • Alexa, who won the hockey game?
  • Alexa, Wikipedia: [subject].
  • Alexa, play my Kindle/Audible book
  • more via
Echo Dot's capabilities can be enhanced by a growing list of 3rd party add-ons called "skills." One of my favourites is CBC Radio One Hourly News updates, which gives me a news summary:
  • Alexa, Flash Briefing
Echo Dot can also play arbitrary internet radio stations:
  • Alexa, play [Radio station] in TuneIn
…but I found this problematic, as you need to (a) find the TuneIn Radio station designation and (b) get Echo Dot to recognize it. In my case, after finally getting "Premier Ottawa-Gatineau" recognized, I never change my TuneIn station, for fear I won't be able to get it back to this station. Hence:
  • Alexa, play TuneIn
…which plays the last TuneIn station I configured, "Premier Ottawa-Gatineau."

While the Echo Dot works with a variety of IoT devices, the device I happened to have at home was a Nest thermostat. After configuring my credentials into the Echo Dot application, I'm able to issue commands, such as:
  • Alexa, what is the thermostat set to?
  • Alexa, what is the temperature inside?
  • Alexa, set the thermostat to 26.
In the kitchen the Echo Dot is a hands-free timer:
  • Alexa, set a timer for 2 minutes
  • Alexa, set a pasta timer for 9 minutes
  • Alexa, cancel the 2 minute timer
  • Alexa, set an alarm for 8 24pm
  • Alexa, clear all alarms
The list of built-in Echo Dot features, 3rd-party enhancement "skills", and IFTTT applets continues to grow:

Frustrations - Apple Ecosystem Integration
In addition to the limitations due to Echo Dot not yet being supported in Canada, integration with the Apple eco-system can be challenging. Amazon Music Unlimited (US only) and Spotify are supported; Apple iCloud Music Library is not. IFTTT can provide some workarounds, as do Amazon's regular Echo functional updates, viz:
In the News…