Post Publication Date: 10/30/18 – There are lots and LOTS of smart home devices now available that are compatible with Alexa devices, but there are big, important differences between works with Alexa vs. Alexa built in.
Alexa Built In Is Better
From smart plugs to smart security cams and everything in between, it seems there’s no shortage of “works with Alexa” devices for consumers to choose from. However, “works with Alexa” just means the device is compatible with the Alexa voice service, that it can receive messages from that service and send messages back to it. “Alexa built in” means the device actually runs the Alexa voice service software internally. So what’s the difference, and why does it matter?
Devices that are compatible with the Alexa service, but do not have it built in, can only receive Alexa voice commands you issue to a separate Alexa device.
In other words, you need to own a separate Alexa device, like an Echo or Dot, in order to control these devices with Alexa voice commands. The manufacturer may supply its own mobile app that can accept voice commands, but this would be totally separate from the Alexa voice service. An example of this type of device is the smart plug multipack below:
Devices that have Alexa built in run the Alexa voice service themselves and can accept Alexa voice commands directly, without the need for a separate Alexa device.
If the item with Alexa built in doesn’t have any microphones to receive voice commands, it will be able to accept Alexa voice commands via the Alexa app. One example of this is the Amazon Smart Plug shown below (UK readers click here) (Canadian readers click here):
Any device with the Alexa voice service built in is an Alexa device. At first these devices don’t sound so different from an Alexa compatible device, but there’s one very crucial distinction:
The Alexa voice service can communicate with Alexa devices located on separate WiFi networks, provided all of the Alexa devices involved are registered to the same Amazon account.
Why Communication Across Multiple WiFi Networks Matters
WiFi routers all have upper limits on the number of devices and quantity of bandwidth they can provide. If you’re bumping up against your router’s limits, you might have to buy a second WiFi router to set up a second network.
The Alexa voice service can “see” and interact with all other Alexa devices that are currently powered on and registered to your Amazon account, even if those devices are on separate WiFi networks. I have even heard from readers who use this capability to control their Alexa devices many miles from their homes, such as at a second or vacation home. So long as the remote Alexa device is registered to their own Amazon account, it works.
I’ve previously posted about people using an Echo at work and not being able to control their smart home devices from that Echo, but that’s because most people with an Alexa device at the office don’t have it registered to the same Amazon account as the devices at their home: this is to keep their primary Amazon account secure. I didn’t explicitly state that the underlying limitation is the Amazon account registration, not the fact that the devices are on separate WiFi networks.
As of this writing and barring some advanced techo-geeky tricks, the only way for Alexa devices on the primary network to communicate with or control smart devices on the second network (devices that ‘work with Alexa’ but do not have Alexa built in) is to add an Alexa device like an Echo or Dot to the second network. The Alexa device added to the second network can communicate with Alexa devices on the primary network via the Alexa voice service so long as all the Alexa devices involved are registered to the same Amazon account.
The advantage of getting smart devices with Alexa built in is that their Alexa voice control capabilities do not require the use of a separate Alexa device, even when there’s more than one WiFi network involved in your smart home setup.
How To Tell If Alexa’s Built In Before You Buy Smart Home Devices
With the explosion of “works with Alexa” designations popping up all over Amazon and elsewhere, it can be difficult to tell at first glance whether the device you’re looking at is merely compatible with Alexa, or is a true Alexa device in its own right.
Amazon has recently created a separate Alexa Built In Department page (US only at present, should be rolling out to international stores soon), and any product you find there definitely has Alexa built in.
Alternatively, you’ll need to read smart home device descriptions very carefully to determine whether they’re merely compatible with Alexa or have Alexa built in. On the product page, look for:
– a “separate Alexa device required” type of disclaimer
– any instruction to use the manufacturer’s own app to control the device via voice commands
– an explicit “Alexa built in” statement on the product page
Amazon will not allow third party manufacturers to label their products as “Alexa built in” unless those products are true Alexa devices, and to date, Amazon’s always been involved in integrating the Alexa service into third party products.
Works With Alexa is not the same as Alexa Built In: where possible, always buy the Alexa Built In product.