What is Alexa and how does it work? It's a question we get asked more than any other.
The basic premise of Amazon's voice assistant is simple - you ask questions, give commands and receive responses - but there's a surprising amount of depth to its capabilities.
This is where our complete guide to Amazon Alexa comes in.
In this missing manual, we'll be talking through very basics, such as how to set your Alexa device up, what you can do and whether you need to pay, as well as the more in-depth features, such as connecting other smart home gadgets and downloading skills.
Update: This article was updated in February 2020 to reflect new Echo devices and reviews.
Jump to the Alexa information you need
What is Alexa? What can Alexa do?
The popularity of Amazon Echo speakers is causing a lot of people to jump on the bandwagon â and then ask, "What can Alexa actually do?". The beauty of those first weeks is trying things out, and being pleasantly surprised. However, here's a helpful cheat sheet for things to do with your Alexa speaker.
Things Alexa can do
- Play radio stations
- Stream music from Spotify, Apple Music and more
- 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 single commands
- Make calls to contacts' cellphones
- Intercom between Echo speakers in your home
- Play games
- Play sleep music or ambient sounds (and toggle off automatically)
Most people use their Amazon Echo smart speaker to listen to radio stations, stream 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 and more. It's a very versatile system.
And there are new features being added all the time. Alexa Calling and Drop In are both great way to stay in touch with those in your home, using your Alexa device as an intercom from room to room, and even house to house.
The Amazon Echo Show range and Echo Spot, with their displays, can show security cameras and let you check who's at the door.
Another really important thing to be aware of is that you don't need to pay to use Alexa.
Whether you want to set up an account and use the app, download skills or connect to other devices, there's no kind of monthly fee attached to the Amazon ecosystem.
The only things you need to be aware of, with regard to payments, is that linked subscription services (like Spotify Premium) will still require you to pay for full support, and you can also use your Echo speaker to shop (more on that below).
There are two types of Alexa device â ones that simply work with Alexa, and ones with Alexa built in, which usually means they can be controlled using your voice. Itâs an important distinction, and weâre dealing with the latter in this section â devices that natively host Alexa.
Check out our round-up of the best smart speakers with Alexa.
Amazon Echo (3rd generation)
The Amazon Echo ($99.99) is now in its third generation, with a refined design that matches the Echo Plus from 2018.
It also borrows much of the same sound technology that features on the more expensive Plus, now featuring Neodymium drivers and a 3-inch woofer. The now-familiar fabric cover is again available in Sandstone, Charcoal, Heather and an all-new Twilight Blue.
Check out our initial verdict of the third-gen Amazon Echo ahead of its full release.
Amazon Echo Dot (with clock)
The Echo Dot ($49.99) was, in 2018, given its first true update since it was first released, and, like the EchoShow, its new design is much friendlier to place within your home.
A fabric makeover has hidden away the ugly plastic of the original, and new drivers make the sound a whopping 70% louder. That means it wonât beam out the same sub-par sound as the older versions when pushing up the volume.
And, guess what, in 2019 we saw the Echo Dot with Clock ($59.99). The only difference is, well, the clock - and the price tag, which is $10 more than the standard model.
Amazon Echo Studio
Completely new for 2019, the Echo Studio ($199.99) is Amazon's answer to Apple HomePod, Google Home Max and Sonos.
Alexa finally has a high-end speaker to call home, and this one comes packing three mid-range drivers with a directional tweeter in the front, and a 5.25-inch woofer at the bottom. Amazon also touts the 3D audio of the Studio, which also supportsDolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio.
Read our first impressions of the Amazon Echo Studio ahead of its release this November.
Amazon Echo Plus
Amazon's Echo Plus ($149.99) smart home hub has Dolby speakers, a temperature sensor, security sensors and a fabric cover reminiscent of the Echo's refresh.
Itâs also a Zigbee hub, allowing you to connect it directly to compatible devices without a bridge, and there's also offline voice controls.
Check out our full Echo Plus review.
Amazon Echo Show
The Echo Show 2018 ($229.99) doesnât just look better, either â it now works as a Zigbee hub, just like the Echo Plus. Thereâs also Dolby stereo sound, Skype for video calls, support for live TV through Prime Video and even the ability to play back TV recordings when paired with the new Fire TV Cast.
Amazon Echo Show 8
The Amazon Echo Show 8 ($119.99) is the latest addition to the range, but it sits right in the middle of the standard, 10-inch Show and the Show 5.
As you might imagine, this model follows the trend of its smaller sibling and packs an 8-inch screen, and it also manages to include a Zigbee chip, making it the cheapest Echo device that can act as a wider smart home hub.
Amazon Echo Show 5
The Echo Show 5 ($89.99) - named after its screen size, not the generation - is the third different version of the device currently available.
And it's really a more advanced version of the Echo Spot, which means you're still likely to be able to put it on your bedside table and tap into the power of Alexa.
Try our Amazon Echo Show 5 review.
Amazon Echo Spot
The Echo Spot ($129.99) is a smart alarm which features a built-in screen. That means that, like the Echo Show, it can do video calling and display information â but as a bedside companion.
Read our full Echo Spot review.
Amazon Fire TV Cube
The Fire TV Cube ($119.99) 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 and PlayStation Vue.
A new version of the Fire TV Cube is coming on 10 October with better Alexa performance, and will be available in Europe for the first time.
Amazon Echo Input
The Amazon Echo Input ($34.99) turns regular speakers smart â simply hook it up via Bluetooth or 3.5mm audio cable and Alexa will take over. There's no speaker power here, but the 12.5mm device does have four microphones in order to pick up your commands.
Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition
The Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition ($69.99) was given a second-gen refresh earlier this year, matching the third-gen standard Dot but with a fancy rainbow design. However, the $20 premium gets you more than a jazzy look.
You get parental controls, which locks kids out of your shopping lists, and the $2.99 per month FreeTime Unlimited feature (of which you get a year for free) blocks sweary music, opens up access to kid-friendly audiobooks and radio stations.
Also, the neat Magic Word mode ensures they say please before they get what they want from Alexa. Unfortunately, though, this one's not available outside the US just yet.
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.
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 â just say "Alexa" and look below for some cool things to ask.
There are so many Alexa commands for so many types of people, it would take an entire feature to list the best â and luckily, weâve done just that in our essential guide. But if youâve just fired up your Amazon Echo for the first time, donât be dumbstruck.
"Alexa, play [artist] name."
"Alexa, what's the weather today?"
âAlexa, set alarm for 7.30amâ and then âAlexa, snooze!â
"Alexa, play [radio station]."
âAlexa, volume 4â (choose number between 1-10)
"Alexa, what will the weather be like tomorrow?"
While these are some simple ideas to get started, check out our full guide to Amazon Alexa commands to become a power user.
Essential Amazon Alexa skills
Alexa uses skills to add extra features and connect with smart home products â 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 â thereâs a huge collection of different ones to choose from. Weâve devoted an entire article to Alexa skills, but here are five to get you started.
Amazon Story Time
Just ask "Alexa, ask Amazon Storytime to read me a story" to get a narrated story â aimed at kids between 5-12 â from the Amazon Rapids app library and Audible.
Get the latest world headlines from the BBC World Service added to your flash briefing. Just say "Alexa, what's my flash briefing?"
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.
The daddy of music skills for Amazon Alexa devices, Spotify can be can be selected as a default music destination and play all your tunes.
Only a recent addition to the pack, Apple Music is now a live skill through Alexa â and you can make it your default player, just like Amazon Music Unlimited and Spotify.
Check out our round-up of essential Amazon Echo Skills you need to download.
Brilliant Amazon Echo Easter eggs
Unlike many voice assistants, Alexa has a fun side. There are thousands of silly 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:
âAlexa, tell me a jokeâ
âAlexa, Iâm homeâ
âAlexa, talk like Yodaâ
âAlexa, roll a diceâ
âAlexa, play 20 questionsâ
Check out more funny things to ask Alexa.
Amazon Alexa and the smart home
When it comes to controlling the smart home, Alexa has become the best platform available. The sheer number of supported devices that play nicely within its ecosystem makes it an extremely powerful gateway to the smart home. Before you can enjoy it, though, you're going to need some smart home devices.
Best Alexa compatible devices
As we mentioned up top, devices donât 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 Alexa compatible smart home devices.
There are scores of devices that boast âWorks with Alexaâ accreditation, with even more due to land over the course of 2019. But here are the brightest stars in the Alexa ecosystem, including some devices from Amazon itself.
Alexa Smart Plug
Buy now: Amazon | $24.99
It may not be as sexy as a new speaker, but Amazon is now officially in the smart plug business. The Alexa Smart Plug doesn't have the smart assistant built into the plug itself, but it can be remotely controlled by Alexa. That means it has the ability to turn any 'dumb' device smart. So, for example, Alexa can now turn your regular coffee maker on, and also include it in a routine.
Buy now: Amazon | $129.99
Also joining the long list of Alexa speakers is the Echo Sub. This pairs with an Echo or Echo Plus to deliver 100W of bass through a six-inch woofer, which should nicely round out the sound when playing music through Echo speakers. Pairing with two will create a 2.1 configuration.
Amazon Echo Glow
Buy now: Amazon | $29.99
Amazon now has a bedside light designed with kids in mind, first announced at its September event and releasing in November. It's small, it changes colors, and it'll act as a companion device to an Echo running in your home.
Users can ask the digital assistant to provide a flickering motion, but it'll also be able to work in conjunction with sleep timers and music.
Amazon Echo Flex
Buy now: Amazon | $249.99
Well and truly one-upping last year's AmazonBasics Microwave, discussed above, Amazon announced the Smart Oven at its 2019 September event.
Acting as a four-in-one, the small oven is able to cook, air fry, microwave and keep your food warm. Like the microwave released last year, this doesn't feature built-in Alexa, but you can connect the device to the voice assistant and ask it to cook specific meals. Clever stuff.
Buy now: Amazon | $199
The Ring Video 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 time-wasters.
The leader in smart thermostats, and now part of the Google family, Nest works with Alexa to offer vocal control over your homeâs heating, and is expanding further all the time. Set your heating to certain temperatures, or turn it off â itâs a natural way to take control of your smart heating.
Like Nest, the smart thermostat can be controlled using baked in Alexa integrations â 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.
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.
Sonosâ Alexa integration, in many ways, makes more sense than Sonosâ own Alexa speaker. The integration enables you to play music in specific rooms of your house, and play, pause and adjust volume. It can be pretty flaky around multi-room audio and third party services, but the integration is constantly improving, and is a game-changer for Sonos users.
Wyze is the new kid on the block in many ways - bringing affordable, good smart lighting and other tech to the table. Needless to say, you can connect Wyze devices to Alexa to gain voice control and other options. The integration isn't too deep yet, but we anticipate Wyze working on this over time.
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.
Take a look at our guide to adding and controlling devices with your smart speaker. You can also remove devices from Alexa at any time.
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 follow these steps:
1. Open the Alexa app
2. Head to 'Smart Home'
3. Select 'Groups'
4. Tap 'Add group'
5. Choose 'Smart Home Group' and give it a name.
6. 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 Routines with Alexa
A nice 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.
Alexa shopping commands
If youâre an Amazon junkie for ordering, your Echo speaker can help you order items faster.
If you find youâre running low on a certain thing, thereâs no need to reach for your phone and open the app. Just tell Alexa using the following commands.
âAlexa, order dog food on Amazon Primeâ â If 1-Click ordering is turned on, this will automatically have the item sent to you and you'll be charged.
âAlexa, add toilet roll to my cartâ â This adds to your cart but doesn't purchase.
âAlexa, cancel that orderâ â You have 30 mins after ordering for this to work.
"Alexa, whereâs my stuff?" â Alexa will run through all pending deliveries.
âAlexa, re-order toilet rollâ â Alexa will search previously purchased items to suggest the brands you like.
Amazon Echo tips and tricks
If youâre looking to get even more from your Amazon Alexa tech, youâre in the right place. Weâve compiled the power usersâ guide to Alexa â so please go read that â but hereâs a taster of what you can expect in our Alexa tips and tricks:
When you've been using Alexa for a while, it can get a little verbose for common commands. Enable Brief Mode and you can replace a lot of what it says with a simple beep â you won't look back.
Alexa doesn't have a guest mode like Google Assistant quite yet, but if you want visitors to your home (or Airbnb customers) to enjoy the benefits of your Echo speaker, you can fudge it using Amazon Blueprints. Follow our guide to find out how.
Music is a huge part of Alexa's make-up â and it does a pretty good Sonos impression, letting you play fully in sync music across multiple Echo speakers.
This means you can move between rooms in your house and get a good audio experience, or do a better job of filling sound in a big room.
Alexa can listen out for suspicious activity such as breaking glass or smoke alarms, and alert you if it hears something.
To activate it, just say âAlexa, Iâm leavingâ and the assistant will reply to let you know it's on guard. This only works in the US for now.
With whisper mode, Alexa will respond more softly if you, well, whisper your command, instead of speaking normally.
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 â 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.
Apple surprised us all by giving Echo users access to its music service, meaning you can control all your Apple Music tracks using your voice. Check out our guide to get it set up.
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 insanely long list of smart home tech compatible with Alexa, but there's still plenty trying to go it alone. Try downloading controller apps like Yonomi or IFTTT, which can become the middle man between your devices.
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 â check out our guide to every Alexa Sonos command you need to know.
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 and solve that problem. Go to Settings > Music & Media and choose Spotify from the list. As you were.
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.
Want Alexa to respond to a different name? You can change the wake word to 'Computer' or a whole range of things. Go on, dare to be different.
If Alexa's speaking a little too slowly or quickly for comfort, you can now change its speed. Just say, "Alexa, speak slower." Or, to make it speak faster â you guessed it â say "Alexa, speak faster."
Alexa Drop In and Calling
The Alexa Calling feature enables you to make calls between Alexa devices or via the Alexa app â 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.
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 â but they have to opt-in to the service first.
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 Echo FAQs
We try to answer some of the questions we're asked most about Amazon Echo and Alexa.
Alexa has got much better at playing podcasts thanks to some decent new skills. Check out our guide for a full explainer.
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.
You can control your Fire TV â and with it elements of your actual TV set â using your Echo speaker (or, if you're using the Fire TV Cube, without needing any additional devices). 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.
Yes, with the Sonos 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 Studio has been developed to pack more punch in the audio department.
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 do I reset my 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, then blue. You'll then need to head to the Alexa app and start set-up as new.
Follow our how to reset Echo guide for full details.
Can an Amazon Echo be hacked?
Any connected device in your home can be hacked â 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 â but again, it's a highly complex process that would be near impossible to pull off. But yes, connected technologies carry that risk.
Latest Alexa features
Alexa Hunches is a feature that better understands your routines and suggests things to you.
So, for example, if you tell Alexa you're about to go to bed, it'll let you know if your front door is unlocked, or your basement light is still on.
An update to this feature landing before the end of 2019 will also suggest routines you may want to set up based on your daily habits.
Amazon says you can link your Gmail, Outlook.com, Hotmail and Live.com accounts to Alexa, and ask "Alexa, check my email" for a summary of your messages from the last 24 hours.
You can read, reply, delete or archive messages, and check for messages from specific people.
Amazon's Alexa-for-kids service now offers routines on FreeTime-enabled Echo speakers, so you can turn out the lights and play sleep sounds.
You can now stagger Alexa routines, so if your alarm goes off at 7am you can have the headlines read at 7.30am, for example.
Alexa is getting better at tracking down nearby businesses and restaurants. Ask "Alexa, where is the nearest Trader Joe's?" or you could ask, "Alexa, what's the number for Domino's?".
Local Voice Control
If your network is down, Local Voice Control will take the Zigbee element of the Echo Plus or Echo Show and use it so you can still exert some smart home control.
If you want the smart assistant to play music from Spotify and do it at a certain volume, it will also be able to do so.
That's right, Alexa is going to be appearing 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 the Acer model is ready now.
When you boot up your PC, you can use this method to activate the service:
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.