​Amazon Alexa ultimate guide: How to use and get more from your Amazon Echo

Everything you need to know about Echo and the Works with Alexa platform

Amazon Alexa: The missing manual

If you're the owner of an Amazon Echo smart speaker with Alexa, you have one of the best voice assistants available under your control. There's so much potential, but finding out what else Alexa can do besides the basics takes a bit of fathoming out. This is where our ultimate Alexa user guide comes in.

The premise of Alexa is simple – you can ask the digital assistant questions or command her to control the devices in your home. Alexa will then try and get you the information you need, or talk to the devices in your home to get them to do what you want. For that to work, smart home devices need to be Alexa compatible – look out for the 'Works with Amazon Alexa' sticker on boxes, which you'll no doubt see with growing regularity in the coming months and years.

Alexa also uses 'skills' to perform tasks and respond – these are apps built for the system. Common Alexa skills, for example, are TuneIn radio, so she can play your favourite station, or the BBC News for the latest headlines.

Amazon Echo & Alexa: What can it do?

The popularity of Amazon Echo speakers is causing a lot of people to jump on the bandwagon – and then ask, what exactly can Alexa do? And the beauty of those first weeks is trying things out, and being pleasantly surprised. But here's a helpful cheat sheet for things to do with your Alexa speaker:

  • Play radio stations
  • Stream music from key services
  • Set timers and alarms
  • Get tailored news reports
  • Ask web-based questions
  • Control smart home devices with your voice
  • Group together smart home devices to work together using singular commands
  • Make calls to contacts cellphones
  • Intercom between Echo speakers in your home
  • Play games
  • Play soothing sleep music or ambient sounds (and toggle off automatically)
  • Make fart noises

Most people use their Amazon Echo smart speaker to listen to radio stations, stream music from services such as Spotify or Amazon Music, set timers and alarms and control smart home devices including smart lights, connected thermostats and appliances. Of course, Alexa can also search the web and offer flash news briefings, weather reports, sports scores. It's a very versatile system.

And there are new features being added all the time. Alexa Calling and Drop In is a great way to stay in touch with those in your home, using your Alexa as an intercom from room to room and even house to house.

The Amazon Echo Show and Spot, with their displays, can show security cameras and let you check who's at the door. What's more, Amazon just announced cooking functionality, so you can tell compliant ovens and microwaves things like like "Alexa, defrost three pounds of chicken" or "Alexa, microwave for 50 seconds on low".

Best Amazon Echo speakers

There are two types of Alexa device – speakers with Alexa built in, and devices that simply work with Alexa, which usually means they can be controlled using your voice. It’s an important distinction, and we’re dealing with the former in this section – devices that natively host Alexa.

From the single speaker launched back in 2015, Amazon Echo has quickly split into a range of devices with markedly different features. Here’s a run-down of of the entire Echo range.

Amazon Alexa ultimate guide: How to use and get more from your Amazon Echo

Left to right: Echo, Echo Spot, Echo Plus, Echo Dot, Echo Show

Amazon Echo (second generation)

$99.99, Amazon

The key Amazon Echo is now in its second generation, with a shrunk-down design, and features a speaker and microphone built in. The new Amazon Echo uses a 2.5-inch woofer speaker inside and now has a mesh cover, which can be swapped for different colours to better blend in with your home décor. There are seven microphones built-in, with Amazon’s second-generation far-field technology designed to better pick up your voice in noisy environments. Check out our full Amazon Echo review.

Essential comparison: Amazon Alexa vs Apple HomePod

Amazon Echo Dot

$49.99, Amazon

Amazon Echo Dot is a slimmed down budget version of the full Echo, available at a fraction of the cost. It forgoes the proper 2.5-inch speaker element, and only included a 0.6-inch tweeter good enough for some basic audio feedback from Alexa. However, it can connect to existing speaker systems via auxiliary input. Check out our Echo Dot review.

Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition

$79.99, Amazon

Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition offers the standard budget smart speaker in a range of funky, rubberised colours. However, the $30 premium gets you more than a jazzy design. You get parental controls which locks kids out of your shopping lists, and the $2.99 per month FreeTime Premium feature (of which you get a year for free) blocks sweary music, opens up access to kid-friendly audiobooks and radio stations, and the neat Magic Word mode ensures they say please before they get what they want from Alexa.

Amazon Echo Show

$229.99, Amazon

Amazon's Echo Show adds a screen into the mix, so you can advantage of visual apps as well as audio skills. This can include video calling, weather apps, video doorbells and recipe apps – all controlled by voice, naturally. Read our full Echo Show review.

Amazon Echo Plus

$149.99, Amazon

The new Amazon Echo Plus includes a smart home hub built in – a Zigbee hub that makes adding things like Philips Hue to the mix a much more straightforward process. By adding a smart home hub at a hardware level, the Echo Plus will automatically find compatible devices on your network. What’s more, this means it’s able to meld devices together, turning off multiple devices at the same time. Check out our full Echo Plus review.

Amazon Echo Spot

$129.99, Amazon

The newest Echo is the Spot, a smart alarm which features a built-in screen. That means that, like the Echo Show, it is able to do video calling and display information – but as a bedside companion. Read our full Echo Spot review.

Amazon Fire TV Cube

he all-new Fire TV Cube blends a number of Amazon devices into one, for a truly unique Alexa-based proposition. Firstly, it works as a streaming stick, and like the Fire TV 4K has Alexa built-in for your queries and supports Netflix, Prime Video, HBO GO, Hulu, Sling, PlayStation Vue.

However, the TV Cube goes one further by aping the Echo Show by using your TV screen to visually show off things like weather forecasts and recipes – as well as the standard audio feedback of a standard Echo device.

The $119.99 smart streaming box and Alexa device is up for pre-order with shipping on 21 June. It's US only for the time being.

$119.99, amazon.com


Amazon Alexa guide: The missing manual for your Amazon Echo

Third party Alexa devices

Alexa devices don't just come from Amazon’s factory. You can also buy other devices which have Alexa built in thanks to Amazon's Alexa Voice Service (AVS), a cloud-based service that provides APIs for third-parties to use to interface with Alexa.

Why would you want to buy an unofficial product? Well third party companies are bringing functionality to the table that Amazon isn't providing.

Sonos One

$199.99, sonos.com | Amazon

The Sonos One brings Alexa into the classic Sonos Play:1, offering the best quality audio of any Amazon-powered smart speaker to date. You can ask the Sonos One for tracks from Amazon Music and Spotify, and AirPlay functionality is due to land in 2018.

Triby Smart speaker

From $199, invoxia.com | Amazon

A nifty little speaker with a magnetic mount, Triby blends smart home systems to unique effect. Alexa is on board with both wake word and tap-to-wake functionality, and the physical buttons on the front hook up scenes for HomeKit and other manual actions.

Ecobee Switch+

$99, shop.ecobee.com

Amazon Alexa voice controls are built right into this light switch, which points to a future where voice assistants live inside everything in the house. Yours for $99 a pop.

Garmin Speak

$229, garmin.com | Amazon

A neat in-car system, the Garmin Speak Plus is a dash-cam with Alexa built in. It's a bridge between your smartphone that provides the data connection and your in-car audio system for the feedback. Think directions, smart home control and getting information, hands free, on the move.

C by GE LED table lamp

$149, cbyge.com | Amazon

Alexa in a stylish table lamp – the C by GE shows that you don't have to fill your home with speakers to get Alexa everywhere.

Alexa on Windows 10 PCs

Alexa will appear on PCs from the likes of Acer, Asus, HP and Lenovo. Most of the Alexa-enabled PCs will be ready for purchase by the end of the year, though Acer is ready now.

When you boot up your PC, you can use this method:

1. Open the Start Menu.
2. Click the Alexa icon.
3. Sign in to your Amazon account.

Or, you can use this method:

1. Click on the Windows search bar.
2. Type Amazon Alexa.
3. Sign in to your Amazon account.


Amazon Alexa ultimate guide: How to use and get more from your Amazon Echo

How to set up your Alexa speaker

Getting your Amazon Alexa speaker set up and ready to go is pretty hassle free. Just follow these steps to getting Alexa set-up.

1. Download the Alexa app on your smartphone or tablet. It's available via iOS/Android and of course there's a Fire OS version if you own one of Amazon's own devices. You'll need to log in with your Amazon ID (we're assuming you have one, or you'll need to create one), and this will now be your account for Alexa. Naturally, if you have an Amazon account with Prime, make sure you use that for the set-up.

2. In the app go to menu > Settings > Set up new device. When that's done, choose the type of Amazon Echo you're going to be adding.

3. Now just plug in your Alexa device and sit back and wait. It will go through its cycle, displaying a spinning blue light before changing back to orange. This means it's in pairing mode, so in the Alexa app feed it your Wi-Fi settings. You can opt for these to be stored and used by future speakers at set up.

4. If you need to put your speaker back into pairing mode then just press the button on the top.

5. You're now good to go – just say "Alexa" and look below for some cool things to ask.


Alexa complete guide

Best Amazon Echo commands

There are so many Alexa commands for so many types of people, it would take an entire feature to list the best – and luckily, we’ve done just that in our essential guide. But if you’ve just fired up your Amazon Echo for the first time, don’t be dumbstruck.

"Alexa, play [artist] name."

"Alexa, set timer for [xx] minutes."

"Alexa, what's the weather today?"

“Alexa, set alarm for 7.30am” and then “Alexa, snooze!”

"Alexa, play [radio station]."

“Alexa, volume 4” (choose number between 1-10)

"Alexa, what will the weather be like tomorrow?"

"Alexa, what's in the news?"

While these are some simple ideas to get started, check out our full guide to Amazon Alexa commands to become a power user.


Alexa complete guide

Essential Amazon Alexa skills

Alexa uses skills to add extra features and connect with smart home products – and these are the secret to making your Echo be more than just what happens out of the box. Think of skills as like the apps you install on your smartphone – there’s a huge collection of different ones to choose from. We’ve devoted an entire article to Alexa skills, but here’s five to get you started.

Amazon Story Time

Just ask "Alexa, ask Amazon Storytime to read me a story"to get a narrated story – aimed at kids between 5-12 – from the Amazon Rapids app library and Audible.

BBC News

Get the latest world headlines from the BBC World Service added to your flash briefing. Just say "Alexa, what's my flash briefing?"

Big Sky

The ultimate weather app, it's not only for forecasts but you can ask "Alexa, tell Big Sky to give me a weather fact".

Ambient Sounds: Various

If you want something to drift off to sleep to, say "Alexa play Ambient sounds"; you'll get a list of the entire range of ambient sounds. Otherwise, just say "Alexa play ocean sounds" to go straight to the water's edge.

Spotify

The daddy of music skills for Amazon Alexa devices, Spotify is the only service, other than Amazon Prime Music, which can be selected as a default music destination.

Check out our round-up of the Amazon Echo Skills you need to download.


Alexa complete guide

Brilliant Amazon Echo easter eggs

Unlike many voice assistants, Alexa has a fun side. There are thousands of fun and quirky things you can ask Alexa, and you can see a better run down in our dedicated Amazon Alexa Easter eggs guide. But try these commands to have a little down time with your virtual assistant:

“Alexa, tell me a joke”

“Alexa, I’m home”

“Alexa, talk like Yoda”

“Alexa, roll a dice”

“Alexa, play 20 questions”

Check out more brilliant Amazon Echo Easter eggs in our full guide.


Amazon Alexa guide: The missing manual for your Amazon Echo

Amazon Alexa and the smart home

When it comes to controlling the smart home, Alexa has become the best platform out there. Its mix of top-drawer voice recognition and the sheer number of supported devices that play nicely within its ecosystem makes it an extremely powerful gateway to the smart home.

Well, first you're going to need some smart home devices. You know, bulbs, thermostats, plugs, that kind of stuff. We've listed some below, which links out to our big list of Alexa compatible devices. We'll taken it as a given that you've got that far.

Top bargains for Alexa-compatible gear

Lifx smart light bulb
Lifx smart light bulb
$54.99
Kasa smart Wi-Fi plug
Kasa smart Wi-Fi plug
$29.27
Nest Cam Indoor
Nest Cam Indoor
$190.95
Philips Hue starter pack
Philips Hue starter pack
$54.99

The Ambient may get a commission



Amazon Alexa guide: The missing manual for your Amazon Echo

Best Alexa compatible devices

As we mentioned earlier, devices don’t have to have Alexa built in to slot into your ecosystem. Alexa and Amazon Echo really start to make sense as smart home gateways when you plug in compatible smart home devices.

There are scores of devices that boast “Works with Alexa” accreditation, and even more in the pipeline, due to land in the next few months. But here are the brightest stars in the Alexa ecosystem.

Ring Video Doorbell 2

The smart doorbell works exclusively with the Amazon Echo Show, the first Alexa-powered device with a screen. When someone rings your doorbell, the video feed will be displayed on your Echo Show, so you can screen important callers from annoying timewasters.

Nest

The leader in smart thermostats, Nest works with Alexa to offer vocal control over your home’s heating. Set your heating to certain temperatures, or turn it off – it’s a natural way to take control of your smart heating.

Hive

Like Nest, the smart thermostat can be controlled using baked in Alexa integrations – but Alexa control permeates the Hive experience. Control of Hive plugs and bulbs is also part and parcel of the experience, making it one of the most complete smart home systems available.

Philips Hue

Alexa has been able to control Philips Hue bulbs since the get-go. Not only does that mean turning your lights on and off, but you can quickly change tone and hue, as well as setting pre-loaded scenes.

Sonos

Sonos’ Alexa integration, in many ways, makes more sense than Sonos’ own Alexa speaker. The integration enables you to play music in specific rooms of your house, and play, pause and adjust volume. It’s still in beta, and it’s pretty flaky around multi-room audio and third party services – but the integration is constantly improving, and is a game-changer for Sonos users.


Amazon Alexa ultimate guide: How to use and get more from your Amazon Echo

How to add smart home devices to Alexa

If you have any kind of Amazon Echo device other than the Echo Plus, you will need to set up those devices as per the manufacturers' instructions, then head to the Skills tab within the Alexa app. Download the required skill for your device, sign in, and you'll then give Alexa control of that device. Paired devices will then appear within the Smart Home section of the app.

Check out our full guide to adding and controlling devices with your smart speaker.

How to create groups with Amazon Alexa

Where things get really smart with using Amazon Alexa as a smart home hub is that it can take over control of a host of devices. By creating groups from within the Smart Home element of the Alexa app you can add any device into a single group, which can be controlled by voice.

To start a group simply head to the Alexa app > Smart Home > Groups > Add group. Choose Smart Home Group and give it a name. Tick the devices you'd like to add, and then you're done.

A fine example is lighting, where you can add all your bulbs from the downstairs into one group and control it with "Alexa, turn off downstairs lights", before you go to bed for example. Of course, you might not want every light turned off or on, so you can also separate them into other groups: "main lights", "lounge lights" etc.

Import scenes into Amazon Alexa

Alexa will also detect and import set scenes which have already been set up within specific ecosystems. During a scan of your network, scenes will be added to the Alexa app, as long as they're set up and you've installed the relevant skills.

Once registered in the app, you can then ask Alexa to control them.

How to create smart home Routines with Alexa

A new Alexa feature is Routines, which enable you to merge multiple smart home actions into one command. That could mean saying "Alexa, bedtime" and having all your downstairs lights turn off, and your bedroom lights turn on. This differs to Groups because a Routine can control the state of a device (e.g. the brightness of a light) and also lets you add music, radio or podcast choices.

Check out our guide to Alexa Routines for a guide to setting yours up.


Amazon Alexa ultimate guide: How to use and get more from your Amazon Echo

Amazon Echo tips and tricks

If you’re looking to get even more from your Amazon Alexa tech, you’re in the right place. We’ve compiled the power users’ guide to Alexa – so please go read that – but here’s a taster of what you can expect in our Alexa tips and tricks:

Change Alexa's accent

Okay, a non-useful but really interesting tip to start. Alexa has a ton of accents to choose from and you can change them within the app. Australian, Indian, British, Canadian – the list is expanding quickly. Just go to Settings > Language within the Alexa app to change things up. We've also made a list of all the Amazon Alexa accents if you're curious.

Use Alexa EQ to change bass and treble

A new feature enables you to ask Alexa to change audio levels including bass and treble. Read our guide for a list of commands you can ask.

Use non-supported smart home tech

There's an almost exhaustive list of smart home tech compatible with Alexa, but there's still plenty trying to go it alone. Try downloading controller apps like Yonomi of IFTTT, which can become the middle man between your devices.

Use Alexa to control Sonos speakers

While there are Sonos speakers with Alexa built in, you can get the features retrospectively. The Alexa Sonos skill enables you to take voice control of any of the company's speakers – check out our guide to every Alexa Sonos command you need to know.

Set Spotify as your primary music source

Spotify users have probably noticed that the Amazon Echo doesn't have a skill. You can summon music from Spotify via Echo, but annoyingly, Alexa always prefers Amazon Music. Well, you can set Spotify as your Echo's default music service. Go to Settings > Music & Media and choose Spotify from the list. As you were.

Delete all your Amazon voice recordings

Some people will be surprised to know that Amazon stores recordings of your voice in the cloud, which not everyone will be comfortable with. If you want rid, you can delete all voice data by heading to www.amazon.com/myx. Check out our guide on how to delete your Amazon Echo voice data for a full run-down.


Amazon Alexa ultimate guide: How to use and get more from your Amazon Echo

Alexa Drop In and Calling

The Alexa Calling feature enables you to make calls between Alexa devices or via the Alexa app – newly supported on iOS, Android phones and tablets, including Amazon Fire products as well. To make an Alexa call you can just ask "Alexa call [contact name]," or go to the Conversations tab within the Alexa app and pick a contact from there.

You can only call contacts in your phone book who have themselves own an Amazon Echo speaker and have registered for the service.

Drop In works slightly differently. Drop In with Alexa enables you to call and talk to another Alexa speaker, without anyone answering the call. This is essentially an intercom between rooms in your house. Just say "Alexa, drop in on the [say Echo device name]" to be patched into other areas of your home, and immediately get two-way audio. There's no opt-in approval for Drop In within registered Echo devices on your network..

And there's one final way Drop In works. You can Drop In to any of your contacts who own an Amazon Echo speaker – but they have to opt-in to the service first. Given that your friends and family can essentially wiretap your home it's not a hugely popular.

Check out our full guide to Alexa Calling and how to Drop In with your Amazon Echo and also take a look at taking things further with an Echo Connect.


Amazon Alexa ultimate guide: How to use and get more from your Amazon Echo

Amazon Echo FAQs

We try to answer some of the questions we're asked most about Amazon Echo and Alexa.

Can Echo play iTunes/Apple Music?

Simply put, no. Apple Music isn't a compatible streaming service, so you can't ask Alexa to play songs or find artists. You can, however, pair a standard Echo with your phone, which isn't quite the same, but it's at least useful.

How to play podcasts with Alexa

Alexa has got much better at playing podcasts thanks to some decent new skills. Check out our guide for a full explainer.

How do you control lights with Alexa?

Essentially, you just set up your smart bulbs as per the manufacturer's instructions and head to the Alexa app > Smart Home and then scan your network. Check out our full guide for how to use Alexa with smart hubs, and how you can reduce the number of hubs in your house.

Can you control Amazon Fire TV using your Echo speaker?

You can control your Fire TV – and with it elements of your actual TV set – using your Echo speaker. That means turning on your TV, watching shows and starting services like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video. Check out our full guide to everything you need to ask.

Can you control Sonos with Alexa?

Yes, with the new skill, any Sonos speaker will play nicely with any Amazon Echo. It's a really nice and cheap way to get voice control, and even the Amazon Echo Dot will suffice. Just download the skill and link your accounts to get started.

Which Amazon Echo has the best sound quality?

Echo devices aren't known for epic sound quality, but the Amazon Echo Plus has been upgraded to pack more punch in the audio department, with a slightly bigger internal speaker than the standard second-generation Echo. It's still no world-beater, and if you're looking for a top Alexa-packing speaker, the Sonos One is a better bet.

Can you sync Alexa with your calendar?

Yes! Google, Microsoft, Apple and Microsoft Exchange calendars can all work with Alexa, so you can add events and get notifications from your day. Check out our guide to get your calendars syncing with Alexa.

How to reset Amazon Echo

Look for the the reset button on the base of your Echo and push a paperclip in until the light ring turns orange, and then blue. You'll then need to head to the Alexa app and start set-up as new.

Can Amazon Echo be hacked?

Any connected device in your home can be hacked – and is vulnerable to anyone with serious intent. Alexa does store voice recordings in the cloud, which again could theoretically be accessed in an attack. A proof of concept attack in August 2017 showed that malware could be installed onto an Echo to make it eavesdrop on a user – but again, it's a highly complex process that would be near impossible to pull off. But yes, connected technologies carry that risk.


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1 comment

  • Legend

    Just updated Alexa app on iPhone , within thirty seconds I was able to press microphone and add Husband’s holiday essentials to my shopping list as he waffled on. Brilliant.

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