Amazon’s New Smart Plug Offers Easy Home Automation With a Hint of Monopoly

Cheap, fast, and in Alexa’s control

Images courtesy the author

If you’ve always dreamed of turning on your lights by screaming at the wall, Amazon has a product for you. The Amazon Smart Plug ($24.99) is a compact dongle that plugs into an existing electrical outlet in your home or office. Any light, appliance, or other device that you plug into the dongle can then be controlled using Amazon’s Alexa smart assistant (and only Amazon’s Alexa smart assistant — more on that below).

Want to retrofit an existing desk lamp so you can control it with your voice? Hook the lamp into an Amazon Smart Plug, plug it into the wall, and follow the setup instructions in the Alexa app on your phone. Within about a minute, you’ll be able to control the lamp by name, using the Alexa app on your phone, your Amazon Echo, or any other Alexa-enabled device.

Personally, I use smart plugs for the lights in my home office. This allows me to perform various magic, like switching them on and off by speaking to my Fitbit Sense smartwatch.

At a hardware level, the Amazon Smart Plug likely uses a beefy 120-volt relay, connected to a Wifi chip. When it receives a signal from Alexa over your home Wi-Fi network, it toggles power to your appliance on or off. Relays can control a ton of power — Amazon says that its smart plug can handle current up to 15A (1,800 watts at 120 volts), which is enough to control high-wattage devices like a coffee maker or window air conditioner.

Beyond voice control, the Amazon Smart Plug integrates with other Alexa functions, like Routines. These allow you to perform certain smart home tasks on a timer. I’ve used smart plugs paired with a Routine to switch a backyard fountain off at night and on in the morning.

Whether you consider this a great deal or evidence of monopolistic behavior (or both) probably depends on your own feelings toward Amazon.

Amazon recommends using Routines and their Alexa Guard function to switch lights on and off when you’re traveling (whenever that’s possible again), giving your home a lived-in look. I’m planning to use Routines and a coop-safe lamp to keep my backyard chickens laying when the days get shorter over the winter.

Of course — as with all things Amazon — there’s a catch. As Amazon says in the smart plug’s fine print on its product page, “Amazon Smart Plug is optimized for simple setup and exclusive use with Alexa. Amazon Smart Plug does not support other voice assistants or smart hubs.”

That’s right — this smart plug plays nicely with Amazon, but it won’t work with Google Home, Samsung’s SmartThings, or any other home automation system. This sets it apart from competing devices like the Kasa plug from TP-Link, which is nearly identical to the Amazon Smart Plug in terms of power capacity, price, and appearance, yet works with most home automation platforms on the market. In essence, using the Amazon Smart Plug locks you into using the Alexa system to control your smart home.

The Amazon Smart Plug (top) is almost identical to TP-Link’s Kasa (bottom)

This is almost certainly deliberate. Smart assistants are fast becoming a commodity product. There isn’t much difference between the basic capabilities of a Google Home and an Amazon Echo. Amazon is likely hoping that if you’ve installed a bunch of Amazon Smart Plugs that only work with your Echo, you’ll keep it and ditch your Google Home the next time you upgrade.

To this end, Amazon often sells its smart plugs at absurd discounts. On Prime Day, I got one for just $5.40. Whether you consider this a great deal or evidence of monopolistic behavior (or both) probably depends on your own feelings toward Amazon. But the Amazon Smart Plug’s Alexa-exclusive restriction is something to be aware of before investing in lots of the devices.

If you like Alexa and couldn’t care less about interfacing with multiple home automation platforms, the Amazon Smart Plug is a great buy — especially when Amazon offers it at fire-sale prices. It’s also a perfect choice if you’ve never tried home automation before, and want to dip in a toe for cheap. If you’re building a more complex home automation system, though, you’ll likely find the Amazon Smart Plug’s lack of integrations limiting. In that case, ditch Amazon’s ecosystem lock-in, and buy a Kasa instead.

Co-Founder & CEO of Gado Images. I write, speak and consult about tech, privacy, AI and photography. tom@gadoimages.com

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