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.
What else can Amazon Echo & Alexa do?
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 with its screen 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".
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.
Left to right: Echo, Echo Spot, Echo Plus, Echo Dot, Echo Show
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.
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'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.
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.
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.
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.
The leader here is Sonos, which recently built Alexa into its new Sonos One speaker (pictured above), but Lenovo is another notable example. They both add Alexa’s smart assistant into the body of a speaker.
But from CES 2018, Alexa has started appearing in a host of devices. The Polk Audio soundbar is one such idea, as well as the Honeywell Smart Security System which doubles as a home camera and Alexa smart speaker. Then there's the FirstAlert Onelink Safe & Sound which puts Alexa into a smoke detector and the Kohler Verdera Voice Lighted Mirror – a bathroom mirror which does much the same.
It’s not just speakers though – Alexa also appears in smartwatches (the CoWatch), cars (via Ford SYNC 3 AppLink and Garmin Speak) and even desk fans (C by GE LED table lamp).
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.
While these are some simple ideas to get started, check out our full guide to Amazon Alexa commands to become a power user.
Perfect soft boiled egg
“Alexa, set timer for 6 minutes and 30 seconds”
Simple wake-up call
“Alexa, set alarm for 7.30am”
Work out if you need your umbrella
“Alexa, what’s the weather like today?”
Play your favourite band
“Alexa, play The War on Drugs from Spotify”
Play radio stations quickly (requires TuneIn skill which is pre-installed)
“Alexa, play BBC 6Music”
Switch volumes quickly (between 1-10)
“Alexa, volume 4”
Drift off to sleep with the sound of birds
“Alexa, play nature sounds for sleep”
Turn your Echo into a Bluetooth speaker
“Alexa, pair my phone”
Name that tune
“Alexa, what song is this?”
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 you really need to download before you start.
For those who want to meditate and gain a clear mind, try this skill on for size. It's really just relaxing sounds that play for a minute, but hey, maybe that's all you need to recharge.
The Daily from The New York Times
Every day, five days a week, for 15 minutes, The New York Times puts together an audio briefing of the most essential news you need to know before you start your day. It's in-depth and a good companion to your morning cup of coffee.
Now that there's an Alexa-enabled Sonos smart speaker, there needs to be a way to control said speaker with Alexa. Enter the Sonos skill, which will allow you to do just that. Want to play some jazz in the kitchen? Or turn down the volume in the living room? Your wish is Alexa's command.
It's time to get precise with your voice-controlled lighting. Philips Hue and Alexa play nicely together, meaning you can say things like "Alexa, dim the living room lights to 20%" from the comfort of your favourite chair. The only problem is that she can't change the colours of the bulb – we hope that changes soon.
Check out our round-up of the Amazon Echo Skills you need to download.
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”
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 (still far from perfect, but as good as it gets) and the sheer number of supported devices that play nicely within its ecosystem makes it an extremely powerful gateway to the smart home.
So how do you go about setting up your Amazon Echo or Alexa-powered device to be a smart home controller?
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.
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.
Those with an Amazon Echo Plus can scan the network for devices without installing specific skills, and in many instances, without using the native app for the particular product. A neat example is Philips Hue, which is bundled with an Echo Plus. Plug in the bulb and Alexa will find it, and be able to control it (on and off) as well as alter brightness. However, advanced functionality and scenes will still require you to use the Philips Hue bridge and app.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’ 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.
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.
Alexa can make calls to your contacts so long as that person has an Echo or the Alexa smartphone app. To dial them up for a chat you can simply say "Alexa, call Dad" or call them by tapping the on their name in the app. To answer an incoming call on your Echo, just say "Alexa, answer".
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.
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 Echo FAQ
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.
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.
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.
Can Amazon Echo make calls?
Yes, they can. The Alexa Calling feature enables you to make calls between Alexa devices or via the Alexa app – you can just say Alexa, drop in on [contact name]." There's another feature called Drop In, which enables you to use Echos as an intercom within your home. Just say "Alexa, drop in on the [say Echo device name]." Check out our full guide to Alexa Calling and how to Drop In with your Amazon Echo.
Can Amazon Echo work with Sonos?
Yes, existing Sonos systems can be made to work with Alexa by installing the skill. You can ask Alexa to play music from Amazon Music or Spotify on your Sonos devices, or if you're using an unsupported service, you can still pause, skip and stop playback.