Amazon’s Alexa is getting a slew of useful new features ahead of the holiday season. The Seattle company announced this morning that users of its ubiquitous voice assistant can now set location-based routines and reminders, discover and call local businesses and restaurants via voice requests, sift through multiple email inboxes for important messages, and much, much more.
The enhancements — a few of which were announced at an event in September — are rolling out to Alexa users starting today and will be available to all U.S. customers in the coming days.
So what’s new, specifically? Well, the aforementioned location-based routines — which use your phone’s location and can be configured via the latest Alexa companion app for Android and iOS — let you trigger actions when you enter or leave the gym, work, or some other geofenced location. You can create a routine that switches off the living room lights when you leave home, for instance, or flips on central heating when you pull up to the driveway.
Location-based reminders work in much the same way. Saying a command like “Alexa, remind me to wash the dishes when I get home” will queue up a notification when you approach the specified destination. Unlike location-based routines, they’re device-agnostic to a degree — if you set a location-based reminder for someplace without a nearby Alexa device, you’ll receive a push notification through the Alexa app.
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On the email front, Alexa now responds to voice commands like “Alexa, check my email” and “Alexa, did I get an email from [contact]?” — both of which yield a summary of new and important messages from the last 24 hours. (The latter lets you set up a one-time notification so you don’t miss new messages from that contact.) Messages can be deleted, replied to, or archived with voice commands, and Gmail, Outlook.com, Hotmail, and Live.com are currently supported. They’re protected with a personalized voice PIN and can be managed individually by household members through the Alexa app.
In addition to the new location-based and email features, Alexa now returns information about local businesses when you request it by voice. Ask “Alexa where is the nearest Whole Foods?” for example, and you’ll get an address. Follow it up with “Alexa, call them,” and the assistant will place a phone call.
And that’s not all that’s new. Routines now support sleep timers for music, making it easier to create routines that play songs or white noise on a schedule. They also support wait actions and notifications, letting you program Alexa to perform tasks at specific intervals and send a push alert as part of a routine. Do Not Disturb can now be enabled as part of routines. And routines can stop audio on any or all of your Alexa devices.
Last, but not least, Alexa Timers have been improved. You’re now able to add and remove time with voice commands, like “Alexa, add five minutes to my timer.” And parents can set up “kid-friendly” routines using the Echo Dot Kid’s Edition or any Echo, Echo Dot, or Echo Plus with FreeTime enabled. (FreeTime, for the uninitiated, is an optional monthly subscription service that offers access to content titles for children ages three to 12 years.) Customizable preconfigured routines will also be available for parents, Amazon said.
The new features come days after Amazon’s Alexa team launched a self-learning system that “detects the defects in Alexa’s understanding and automatically recovers from these errors” without the need for human intervention. Amazon also recently rolled out a dialogue-driven music playlist feature that allows users to find new playlists through voice. And last week the company announced Alexa Answers, a feature that lets customers tackle uncommon questions by submitting answers that may be distributed to millions of Alexa users around the world.
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