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If you got an Amazon Echo Dot or Echo Spot this holiday season, you weren’t alone. According to Amazon, “tens of millions” of Alexa-enabled devices were sold this holiday season. If you’re the new owner of an Echo smart speaker from Amazon, or other speakers with Alexa inside like the Sonos One, congrats. Here’s 10 essential tasks to learn to do with Alexa, the most popular AI assistant for smart speakers on the market.
1. Learn the basics
You can start by saying “Alexa, what can you do?” to learn about your AI assistant’s capabilities, but some of the simplest and most commonly used features for Alexa include:
- Create reminders
- Create alarms
- Add events to your calendar
- Add items to your to-do list or shopping list
- Get traffic info for your commute to work
- Weather update
To configure settings for all this and more, you have to download the Alexa app and visit the Settings section. This won’t be the last time the Alexa app is mentioned in this article. It’s an integral part of interacting with a device with Alexa inside, which is probably why Alexa and Google Home app downloads are at the top of Android and iOS app marketplaces today.
In addition to sharing your location for traffic and weather info, in the Settings section you can connect streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, link your calendar, and teach Alexa things like your favorite sports teams and the sound of your voice.
Alexa began to allow synchronization between Alexa to-do lists and productivity apps like Picniic this fall, but when it comes to your to-do lists, chances are you already have a favorite app to keep track of what you need to get done. If you don’t want to use Alexa for this purpose in the future, you can connect your favorite productivity app such as Wunderlist or Todo with your Alexa to-do or shopping lists by using IFTTT applets.
Applets can also be used to, for example, have Alexa call your lost phone, or send a tweet every time you play a song (a personal favorite of mine).
One fun recently added feature is Alexa can now make music alarms, so you can wake up to “Get On Up” by James Brown every morning at 7 or randomized music by artist or genre. If you forget the song name, you can just tell Alexa the lyrics you remember to create an alarm.
You’ll notice that none of the features listed with bullets above mention instructions. That’s because you can just talk to Alexa in a natural, conversational way and she (Amazon says Alexa is a she) should be able to understand what you want her to do, because Alexa uses a form of AI known as natural language understanding to recognize your intent.
2. Play with skills
This is where Alexa really shines in comparison to its competitors. Roughly a year ago, there were about 5,000 skills available. Today there’s more than 25,000 voice apps in the Alexa Skills Store.
Skills really do run the gamut of experiences and services. Some draw on a broad corpus of knowledge, while others are literally fart apps. There are skills to hear people sing with turkeys, to play Jeopardy!, to make a payment with American Express, or to tip your Lyft driver (or hail a ride).
Some skills are even made especially for interacting with gaming hardware or smart home devices.
After you enable a skill in the Skills section of the Alexa app or with a web browser, just say “Alexa, play [name of skill].”
If you aren’t interested in going through the Alexa Skills Store, you can just say “Alexa, help me get started with skills” and Alexa will hit you with a few skills to try out, like Daily Quotes to hear natterings from people like Taylor Swift or Albert Einstein, or The Tonight Show to hear Jimmy Fallon’s latest monologue.
Virtually every Alexa skill is free to use, but Amazon began to introduce paid subscriptions for Alexa skills in late October for game skills like Ultimate History Quiz, Teen Jeopardy!, and Sports Jeopardy! Amazon Prime members can play Double Jeopardy! for free, while other Alexa device owners can pay $2 a month for an extra round of Jeopardy! on weekdays.
In the past year, Alexa has learned to help people a bit more with skill discovery that doesn’t require you to explicitly state the name of a skill. For example, you can say “Alexa, I need a ride” instead of saying “Alexa, open the Lyft skill.” You can also say “Alexa, help me cook dinner” to receive skill suggestions.
You can also ask Alexa to give you a recipe based on dish name or ingredients, and she will send a recipe suggestion from Allrecipes to the Alexa app. To unlock the true potential here, though, you really need an Alexa-enabled speaker with a visual face like the Echo Show for on-screen instructions and instructional videos from Food Network or Allrecipes Alexa skills.
It may not be well known, but more than half of all Alexa speakers are placed in the kitchen, which is why Alexa has some features especially made to help you prepare and serve a meal.
3. Get to know Alexa’s personality
Did you know Alexa is a feminist? Or that she’s a Seattle Seahawks fan? Or that earlier this year she attempted to pick the winner of Best Actor at the Academy Awards? Alexa was made to help you get things done, but part of the delight in the Alexa experience is asking some of those random questions that pop into the heads of humans (or that reflect the traits Amazon wants to be associated with its brand).
In that spirit, Alexa can tell you jokes, sing songs, and answer questions like “What’s the meaning of life?” or “What’s your favorite thing to do?” Give it a shot. On a more serious note, Alexa is also made to respond when if a person says they’re sad or depressed, and members of the hundreds of people part of the Alexa team at Amazon are working to make Alexa smarter about recognizing human emotion through the sound of your voice.
4. Ask questions
Alexa can draw on web searches and sites like Wikipedia to answer your questions about a variety of topics, such as history, famous people, or metric conversions. Analysis by the firm 360i this summer found Alexa to be lacking in comparison to Google Assistant, but Alexa’s no slouch. Try to stump her.
The history of virtually every action you take with Alexa can be found in your main feed in the Alexa app, so if you want to follow up to get more information about a question you’ve asked, you should be able to find a link here.
5. Get notifications
One unique new addition to Alexa that arrived in recent weeks is the ability to deliver proactive notifications. Skills with proactive notifications can flash Alexa’s ring of LED lights or make a sound to get your attention. Unlike your smartphone, these notifications weren’t designed to chirp at you all day. An audio notification is only supposed to sound once, while notifications shown with lights glow until the user asks “Alexa, what did I miss?”
The first skills with push notifications are Washington Post (owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos), AccuWeather, and Life360. Additional skills will gain the ability to send push notifications in 2018, Amazon announced last month at AWS re:Invent.
6. Go shopping
Prime members can use Alexa to place orders, reorder items, or cancel orders of Prime items from the Amazon marketplace. Alexa remembers your recent purchases, so you can say “Alexa, reorder paper towels,” and your AI assistant should understand the specific kind of paper towels you like best and the size of your previous order. Or you can just say “Alexa, order [item]” and Alexa will suggest items to purchase or send additional search results to your phone.
Placing orders with Alexa has been available for more than a year now, but this spring, Amazon extended Prime Now service for the delivery of groceries and other items within two hours to select cities across the United States. To order with Prime Now, just say “Alexa, order [item] from Prime Now.”
To avoid having a bunch of doll houses sent to you because your mischievous kid said something to Alexa, you can set up personalized voice identification or change the settings in your Alexa app to require a code be entered to verify each purchase. Sort of seems like picking up your phone to share a code for each purchase defeats the purpose of shopping with your voice, but it’s an option.
7. Listen to music, news, or audiobooks
Alexa can play you millions of songs from streaming services like IHeartMusic, Spotify, or Amazon Music. With Alexa you can ask for music by artist, genre, or (with Amazon Music) based on your activity: if you’re cooking, studying, working out, or about to go to sleep. You can even ask Alexa to play music popular in your city. Choose a default streaming service in the Settings section of the Alexa app.
Want to know the artist you’re listening to? Ask “What’s playing?” You can also use your voice to turn the volume up or down, skip to the next song, or start a song over.
News and information offerings for Alexa can be chosen from the Flash Briefings section of the Alexa Skills Store or Alexa app. Any time you say “Alexa, what’s in the news?” you hear your flash briefing. Things like daily devotionals, inspirational quotes, and the like can be sprinkled in along with your daily news digest.
The order of your briefings can be set using the Alexa app. If you’re enjoying this story, one skill you may want to enable is the Alexa Things to Try skill from Amazon to get a steady stream of Alexa feature updates.
When connected to Kindle or Audible accounts, Alexa is also able to play audiobooks, but Alexa can also read books to you that aren’t narrated by humans.
8. Make phone calls or send messages
As of September, Alexa makes free phone calls to phone numbers in Canada, Mexico, and the United States. You can also make voice and video calls using Alexa’s DropIn function, though these calls can only be placed to others with the Alexa app or an Alexa-enabled device at home. These interactions can be seen in the conversations tab of the Alexa app.
Unlike Google Assistant, Alexa is not yet able to send text messages, but it can send messages to other Alexa device owners using the Alexa app.
9. Connect with smart home devices and create Groups
Alexa can connect with and control a broad range of smart home devices. This most commonly means light bulbs but also includes light plugs and appliances like robot vacuums, dishwashers, coffee makers, and sprinkler and security systems.
After you’ve got your smart home devices connected with Alexa, you can create Groups to take collective action. This allows you to, for example, say “Alexa, turn off everything in the living room.”
Assigning devices to different rooms or creating groups also lets you treat Alexa devices like a home intercom system to broadcast your voice throughout your residence, whether you’re there or not. This feature was brought to the AI assistant in June.
Also among recently added smart home capabilities, Alexa is now able to stream live video from security cameras to televisions using a Fire TV stick or Echo Show, and earlier this month, multiroom support for streaming music with Spotify became available for the first time.
10. Custom voice commands
Routines were first made available in late October and allow you to create custom voice commands or schedule events such as playing traffic, news, or weather reports. Routines, for example, can be created so that when you say “Alexa, I’m home” the lights turn on and the news begins to play, or say “Alexa, I’m heading out” and smart home devices can turn off.
Routines give Alexa the ability to carry out multiple tasks with a single utterance for the first time.
The ability to take multiple actions with a single utterance makes a lot of practical sense. The ability to make Alexa say “Let’s party” every time I say “Alexa, it’s the weekend” is something stupid I can do when my friends and family come over to visit. That’s a win either way.
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