Amazon’s Echo, Dot, Tap and Show are popular voice-activated home assistants, recently featured in funny ads during the Super Bowl. People with disabilities have learned that these devices can do more than play music and search the web. Linked to smart home modules, for instance, they allow voice control of lights, appliances, doors, fans and window blinds. You can make shopping lists on the fly, keep track of your blood pressure readings, even ask the modules to remind you to take your medications. But until recently, you could not use them to make phone calls or get emergency help when needed.
That’s changed. You’ve always needed a smart phone and wifi to use the Amazon devices, because they’re configured using an app on the phone. Now with a few taps on the app, you can share your contacts list (works for both iPhone and Android) so you can simply say, “Alexa, call [name of the person]” and voila! Your call goes through and the Amazon device becomes a speakerphone for both talking and listening. (You can also call by reading off a phone number.) All of these wifi-based calls are free. That’s cool, but keep in mind that the Amazon voice-activated assistants don’t take incoming calls (except from another Echo) and sadly, you still can’t ask Alexa to call 911. For that, you need another Amazon product, the Connect ($27.99 on Amazon, of course). It’s a black box that looks something like a wi-fi router, which it sort of is, and you plug it into your landline phone. Which means to make a Connect work, you need both a smartphone (to run the Alexa app) and a landline phone, all just so you can call 911 (which, of course, you could do without all this hassle directly from either of those phones).
If you read the customer comments on Amazon’s Connect purchase page, it’s clear that this product can be a challenge to set up. People complain of connection problems and delayed and dropped calls, etc. But for now, if you want your Amazon device to call a first responder, you have to add a Connect. That’s better than the Google Home devices, which won’t call 911 at all, of course, but still not as useful as a smartphone used by itself. With your smartphone, you can do everything any of the voice-activated home appliances can do, and since a phone’s most basic feature is handling calls, of course you can make voice-activated emergency calls. Just say “Siri, call 911” from an iPhone or “Hey Google, call 911” from an Android phone, and help is on the way. Another advantage phones have over voice assistants is their portability. Keep yours in your pocket, wear it on your belt, or hang it around your neck on a lanyard. No matter where you are, you can always use your phone if you’ve fallen and can’t get up. That’s a feature the stationary desktop voice assistants will never be able to beat.
Interested in setting up your Amazon device to make phone calls? Here’s Amazon’s online instruction page: Amazon Echo How To