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How to use Alexa

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Most people are used to talking to their phones, even if it’s only to ask Siri or Cortana to set an alarm or timer. Alexa is Amazon’s voice assistant, built into the Echo and Echo Dot, but you’ll also find Alexa in other speakers, plus Amazon’s Fire TV media streamer and also on its Fire tablets including the £49 Fire 7.

Here we’ll explain how to talk to Alexa, what you can ask her and how to use the multi-room music capability. There are also many funny things she can say.

Like any good digital assistant, you can speak to Alexa using natural language. In the US she can recognise individual voices and provide information specific to that person (such as what’s on their calendar) but she doesn’t need training: she will respond to anyone’s voice.

When speaking, you don’t have to say “Alexa” and wait for a response. Just look and check that the LED ring has lit up, and carry on speaking. Bear in mind that unlike Siri and Google Assistant, Alexa can’t take multiple commands at once.

How to use Alexa

Alexa, what’s new?

Cortana

Soon – probably by the end of 2017 – the virtual assistant built into Windows 10, Cortana, will be able to communicate with Alexa.

Amazon and Microsoft are working together so that you’ll be able to use the capabilities of both assistants regardless of whether you’re using a Windows or Amazon device. For example, you’ll be able to access Cortana to check and schedule meetings through an Amazon Echo, or turn on your smart lights when sitting at a Windows 10 PC, via Alexa.

Home Entertainment

Another update is that Alexa can now control some home entertainment kit, such as Sony 4K TVs running Android. You can say “Alexa, turn on the TV” and “Alexa, change channels to Dave”.

The good news for those with another brand of TV is that Logitech Harmony remotes also support the new controls, so you can control a much wider range of devices with Alexa through Harmony. And as the new skills are available to any manufacturer that wants to use them, more should announce compatibility shortly.

Voice calling and messaging

You can now send other Echo users messages and also make voice calls to them. Here’s how to send messages and make calls with Alexa.

What can I ask Alexa?

The basics

Alexa has a lot of capabilities, most of which you have to add via the Amazon Alexa app (get it for iOS and Android and Amazon Fire). Take a look through the available Skills and simply tap Enable to add that function.

But Alexa can handle a lot of general requests such as these:

  • Time: Alexa, what time is it?
  • Alarm: Alexa, set an alarm for weekdays at 7am
  • Snooze alarm: Alexa, snooze
  • Countdown timer: Alexa, set a timer for 10 minutes AND Alexa, how much time is left on my timer?
  • Sleep timer: Alexa, stop playing in 30 minutes
  • Volume: Alexa, turn up the volume OR Alexa, volume 5 [the range is 1-10]
  • Volume: Alexa, quieter OR Alexa, mute
  • Get help: Alexa, Help
  • Stop whatever is playing: Alexa, stop
  • Unit conversions: Alexa, what’s 100 miles in kilometres?
  • Capital cities: Alexa, what’s the capital of Colombia?
  • Maths: Alexa, what’s the square root of 64?
  • Weather: Alexa, what’s the weather like? [you need to set your location in the app first]
  • News: Alexa, give me the headlines [you can set up your Flash Briefing in the app]
  • Traffic [set up your start and finish points in the app]: Alexa, what’s my commute?

To check for delays on the railways, enable the National Rail Skill in the Alexa app. You can speak to Alexa to set up your home and destination stations. Here’s how to enable skills.

She can also handle general knowledge questions such as:

  • Alexa, how tall is Kilimanjaro?
  • Alexa, what’s the definition of putative?
  • Alexa, why is the sky blue?
  • Alexa, when is sunset today?
  • Alexa, who plays Mark in Peep Show?
  • Alexa, who is the lead singer of Jamiroquai?
  • Alexa, how far is it from Manchester to Birmingham?

You should also try saying, Alexa, good morning [you’ll hear an interesting fact of the day]

Music and audio playback controls

Alexa is great for playing music. You can either upload music to your Amazon account, or you can play music from Prime Music if you have a Prime subscription.

If you have an Amazon Echo (as opposed to an Echo Dot), you can pair it via the Alexa app with your phone’s Bluetooth and use it as a Bluetooth speaker to play music stored on your phone. You can then use Alexa to control playback using some of the commands below.

If you have an Echo Dot with a previously paired Bluetooth speaker then say “Alexa, pair”. However, an Echo Dot can also be used as a Bluetooth speaker itself, just like the big Echo.

  • Shuffle all music: Alexa, play some music
  • Play an artist or album: Alexa, play Michael Bublé  OR Alexa, play Back to Black
  • Play a genre of music: Alexa, play some jazz
  • Skip to the next track: Alexa, next
  • Play the last song: Alexa, previous
  • Repeat a song: Alexa, restart
  • Start a playlist (you need to create these first in the Amazon Music app): Alexa, play the 1980s playlist
  • Play music on Spotify (requires subscription): Alexa, play Michael Jackson on Spotify
  • Get the name of a song: Alexa, which song is this?
  • Listen to the radio: Alexa, play BBC Radio 4 on TuneIn [you have to say “in TuneIn” for it to work]
  • Play music over Bluetooth: Alexa, connect to my phone

Multi-room music

In August 2017, Amazon added the ability to create a group of Echo devices through the Alexa app. Once this is done, you can ask Alexa to play music on that group by saying, “Alexa, play Maroon 5 downstairs”, assuming you named the group ‘downstairs’. 

If you group all your Echo devices, you can say “Alexa, play My Music everywhere”.

Alternatively, you can ask Alexa to play music on a specific Echo device, so you could make calming lullabies play on your Echo Dot in the baby’s room from your Echo in the kitchen, for example.

This works in the US, UK, Germany and Austria on Echo and Echo Dot. US users can also include the Echo Show in their groups. You can play music from Amazon Music and TuneIn. Spotify support is coming soon.

In the US, you can also stream from Pandora and iHeartRadio – SiriusXM support is coming soon.

Currently the feature doesn’t work on non-Amazon devices that have Alexa built in, such as the Jam Voice

Audiobooks

  • Play an audiobook (you need an Audible subscription): Alexa, play [title of book] on Audible OR Alexa, play the book [title]
  • Skip chapters: Alexa, next chapter OR Alexa, previous
  • Read a Kindle book: Alexa, read me my Kindle book [then say the title of the book]

Alexa’s text to speech isn’t nearly as good as a proper audiobook, but it is one way to get her to read aloud books without an Audible subscription (but you still need to have purchased Kindle books).

Smart home

In the UK, there’s some support for smart light bulbs, thermostats and more. We expect this to expand rapidly, but for now, Alexa works with Nest, Philips HUE, LIFX, Netatmo, Hive, LightwaveRF, Smart Things, Honeywell Total Connect Comfort, digitalSTROM, MyFox and tado. Plus, Yonomi lets you control some other devices not directly supports, such as Logitech Harmony controls and Sonos systems.

In the Alexa app, tap the three horizontal bars (or just swipe to the right), then tap on Skills. Now you can search for your product or service and see if it is supported.

In general, once you enable the skill, you will need to log into the account for your smart product and authorise Alexa to use it. If there are multiple products, such as lights, you can usually group these or name them individually so you can control them together or separately.

Some examples, once this is all set up, include:

  • Alexa, set the temperature in the Hallway to 20 degrees
  • Alexa, tell Hive to boost my heating
  • Alexa, lower bedroom by 3 degrees
  • Alexa, turn on the lights in the lounge
  • Alexa, turn off the kitchen light
  • Alexa, tell Hive to turn on the kettle [this uses a smart plug]

Of course, there are many other skills available which cover a multitude of areas. Recently, easyJet released a skill. You can simply say “Alexa, enable easyJet”, then “Open easyJet”. You don’t have to know your flight number, but it helps. However Alexa can get your flight status if you know the departure and arrival airport names.

Shopping, to-do lists and calendar

The Alexa app has a built-in to-do list and shopping list, and can sync with your Google calendar. You can then say:

  • Alexa, add washing up liquid to my shopping list
  • Alexa, add Go Shopping to my calendar on 15th November at 3pm
  • Alexa, remind me to weed the garden
  • Alexa, what’s on my calendar?
  • Alexa, put get the car serviced on my To-Do list

Reminders

Recently Amazon added the ability to schedule reminders. You can now say, “Alexa, remind me to buy a birthday card on Thursday at 1pm”, and on that day at that time a blue light ring will appear on the Echo device and Alexa’s voice will remind you to buy the card. The reminders also appear in the Alexa app on your phone.

Named timers

You can give a specific name to a timer which is really handy when setting multiple timers at once. For example, you can ask Alexa to set a pasta timer and also to set a garlic bread timer, and when the timer goes off, Alexa will state which timer is up.

Since there’s no screen on the Echo, you can check the amount of time left on specific timers (or even cancel it). Just say, “Alexa, cancel the pasta timer” or “Alexa, how much time is left on my garlic bread timer?” Active timers can also be seen in the Alexa app.

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