Congrats on getting an Amazon Echo speaker. They are without question the most popular choice among U.S. consumers and one of the most popular available around the world, but figuring out how to use this device with no screen (unless you got an Echo Show or Echo Spot) can be tricky.
Here’s 10 new, popular, or noteworthy ways to use an Echo speaker.
First, the basics
We’ll get into more of the intriguing and unique features introduced in the past year for the AI assistant, but it’s best to start with the most popular use cases. Create a reminder. Add an event to your calendar. Start a timer.
If you have more than one Echo speaker, then you can create a speaker group or send announcements to other speakers scattered around your home.
The best way to get started is to simply say “Alexa, what can you do?”
You should also download the Alexa app.
One of the best things to do, of course, is to just play music. You can connect services like Spotify, but since the last version of this story was written a year ago, Pandora Premium, Tidal, and even Apple Music have been made available for Echo speaker users.
Or if you have a Fire TV Stick, you can use your speaker to play videos on your television.
You can also speak with Cortana, part of the partnership between Amazon and Microsoft that lets you speak with Cortana via Echo speakers and Alexa via Windows 10 PCs.
Personally, I don’t find Cortana to be all that incredible, but it does have some particular skills that people may find useful, including the ability to ask for LinkedIn information about people you’re scheduled to meet, native Wunderlist support, and read and prioritize your emails.
Now, the fun stuff
1. Attempt a 20-minute conversation
I’ll be honest: When this list was first drafted, this item was somewhere near the bottom, more of an afterthought than a main event, but recent events moved it to the top of the pile.
Last week, Reuters reported that Alexa has told people during conversations in the past they should murder their foster family, as well as talking about defecating dogs and sex. Now I’m not a psychologist, but I don’t think that qualifies as healthy conversational topics.
This weirdness was generated by Amazon’s effort to make a conversational AI assistant, according to persons familiar with the matter, spurred by the Alexa Prize competition.
These kinds of incidents give conspiracy theorists who scream that Alexa is a mass surveillance device and the spawn of Satan reason to say “See, I was right” — but it’s not that simple.
The ultimate goal of the Alexa Prize of course is not to scare prospective Echo customers, but to find out what it takes to make a bot that can carry on a 20-minute casual conversation. That’s a worthwhile pursuit not just to sell more speakers, but to develop techniques that make people feel more at ease with an assistant, which could help with the global loneliness epidemic. It’s a way to speak with an AI assistant that’s much more like Rosie from The Jetsons than a mindless computer.
I can appreciate why people might get to the end of this section of the article and throw their Echo out the window, but like the Facebook AI that made its own language in 2017, this story is overblown. It’s also important to note that despite privacy issues and other hiccups that have taken place for some time now, there has been no mass exodus. Echo speakers continue to be the most popular among consumers buying smart speakers.
All that being said, you might want to give chatting a shot to see how far it takes you without espousing murder or speaking other nonsense.
This year’s Alexa Prize winner was able to maintain a conversation for nearly 10 minutes. That’s far below the 20-minute goal, but it’s a hell of a lot farther than you’ll get by just asking Alexa a question today.
To get started speaking with one of the finalist bots, say “Alexa, let’s chat.”
2. Set up Alexa Guard
If the idea of Alexa trying to convince you or your loved ones to commit murder is off-putting, one upside is Alexa Guard. Introduced alongside a bevy of new features in recent months, Alexa Guard alternates smart lights in your home to make it appear as if someone is in the house when you’re away, and if an Echo speaker hears the sound of breaking glass or a home alarm, you’ll get an alert.
This appears to be one of the only home security functions native to a smart speaker on the market today.
3. Place Skype calls
Video calls with Amazon’s Echo Show were initially limited to the kind that can be made with the Amazon Alexa app, but in recent weeks video calls were extended to Microsoft’s Skype, further extending a partnership between the two Seattle-area companies.
Just as the partnership to bring Cortana to Echo speakers and Alexa to Windows 10 PCs is intended to be a symbiotic relationship, Skype for Echo devices with a screen could help lift flat Skype unique user numbers and help Amazon keep at bay Facebook’s Portal, which can make video calls using Facebook Messenger, an app with 1.3 billion monthly active users.
4. Read your emails
Thanks to updates made just a few weeks ago, you can now say “Alexa, check my email” or ask Alexa if you got an email from a specific contact. This only continues to enhance the several ways Alexa is able to help you keep in touch with others.
In addition to Skype and Alexa app voice and video calls, Alexa can make free phone calls in the United States, Mexico, and Canada, and send text messages.
5. Enable Follow-up mode
Follow-up, introduced earlier this year for Echo devices, lets you think of conversations with Alexa in a different way. Rather than each interaction being broken down into a single command followed by a single response, if you, for example, ask about local restaurants and receive a response, you can then follow up with a question in the same context. This makes exchanges more like talking to a person and less like interacting with a computer that can’t be helpful for more than a single exchange.
The downside perhaps is that after each exchange with an Echo speaker, you will notice that the ring around your speaker or Alexa indicator on your Echo Show still glows blue and green, indicating that the assistant continues to listen after every exchange, no matter what, for a range of 5-10 seconds.
Follow-up mode can be turned on in the settings section of the Alexa app.
6. Establish Routines
Introduced last year for the first time, Routines allow you to make custom commands or use a single voice command to execute multiple tasks. For example, you can make an “Alexa, good morning” voice command that turns on the lights, reads you the news, and starts your coffee maker, or a “Good evening” command that turns on all your lights, adjusts the thermostat, and plays your chill nighttime playlist.
While Routines used to be have to be set to a particular time or voice command, they can now be carried out using an Echo Button, triggered based on your location, or even begin when a smart home device’s motion sensors are set off.
That means you can make sure that any time a device like the Amazon Cloud Cam senses motion, it starts playing your favorite song or personal theme music.
Far more useful use cases: You can automatically send your spouse a message when you leave work, or get a traffic update when you set out to work in the morning.
7. Get artist updates
Of all the new ways to use Alexa introduced in 2018, this is hands-down one of my favorites. Say “Alexa, follow <an artist> on Amazon Music” or “Alexa, let me know when <an artist> has new music” and Alexa will remind you when your favorite artist releases a new album or song.
Sounds simple, but it’s kind of major when you consider it in the right context: Playing music is one of the primary reasons anyone understands what an Echo speaker is today. It’s likely one of the primary reasons why Amazon Music has expanded to dozens of countries around the world. If you can receive music updates alongside the very short list of proactive notifications Alexa sends today, it’s a serious value add.
This isn’t the kind of feature I’d use for more than 5 or 10 artists, but for those musicians and bands I love most, this is a pretty seriously delightful experience.
Look for every one of Alexa’s competitors to adopt this feature in 2019. It’s too obvious to be alone.
Also added to improve the music listening experience in recent weeks: Alexa recently gained the ability to recommend music playlists and, as previously mentioned, can now play your favorites from Apple Music, Pandora Premium, Tidal, and other popular or emerging streaming music services.
8. Set music alarm
This feature, introduced earlier this year for Alexa and then for Google Assistant, can be rather addicting. Instead of that nails-on-chalkboard annoyance that some alarms can imbue, pick the right song or album to kick off your day instead of an abrupt awakening that sends your blood pressure through the roof.
Personally, I made Speakerboxx-Love Below and the Soulful Chill playlist my two alarms in the morning, and I’m a changed man. Andre 3000 is exactly who I want to nudge me in the morning and say in not so many words that it’s time to wake up and tackle the day.
Particularly since competition is heating up around streaming music services, look for all of Alexa’s AI assistant competitors to adopt this feature in the year ahead.
One potential downside: If you and your partner love music, you might have a bit of a debate or disagreement every so often about the kind of music you hear when you wake up.
9. Explore Alexa skills
With more than 70,000 Alexa voice apps, called skills, Amazon has always maintained an advantage over its competitors in this category.
Skills can do any number of things, from taking actions with smart home devices to playing games, reading stories to kids, or helping you meditate.
All Alexa users can peruse skills in the Alexa app or the Alexa Skill Store online, but if you’re new to the idea, you may want to just say “Alexa, help me get started with skills” or visit this website.
Amazon is increasingly using the random questions or queries the assistant hears as an opportunity to recommend particular skills.
This is important because virtually every smart speaker has no screen. In the past year, the accuracy of these recommendations have seen some marked improvements.
For the owners of Echo Show devices, visual Alexa skills like Double Jeopardy are definitely worth giving a shot.
10. Go shopping
As you might imagine, Amazon Echo speakers are able to shop better than any other assistants out there.
They can add items to your Whole Foods or Amazon shopping carts, not just based on what you want but based on what you’ve purchased in the past. I’ve argued before that these speakers have a lot of power, but they’re essentially a Dash button with speakers.
I’d give you more instructions, but your Echo speaker is made to understand natural language, so just say “Alexa” and blurt out an item you want to buy.
While some people familiar with the matter say Alexa shopping is only used in 2 percent of queries and makes up an insignificant amount of money today, one estimate says voice shopping will be a $40 billion business by 2022, while RBC says Alexa will be a $19 billion business by 2021.
Voice queries — shopping or otherwise — will also be an important factor in Google’s effort to keep Alexa from eating part of the company’s search business in the years ahead. That’s why a Morgan Stanley analyst suggested this summer that Google should give everyone in the United States a free Home Mini.
So that’s it.
If you’re curious, check out this list of top things to do with a new Google Home speaker or Samsung’s Bixby, or check out last year’s list of top 10 things to do with an Echo speaker for more ideas.