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Here’s everything you need to know to master Amazon’s virtual assistant.
Amazon Alexa is one of the most popular digital assistants today. Housed in Echo products, a growing number of third-party hardware accessories and the Alexa smartphone app, you can ask Alexa all sorts of things—and her capabilities are constantly evolving. Think you know everything there is to know about Amazon’s Alexa? Think again. Whether you’ve used Alexa before or you just plugged in your Echo Dot for the first time, we’ve got tips, tricks, and information that can ensure you’re maximizing your use of this virtual assistant. Here’s how to use Alexa like a pro.
What is Alexa?
Alexa is Amazon’s virtual assistant that lives within Amazon Echo products and hardware accessories, including headphones, car speakers, and smart home products. You can use Alexa to answer general questions, deliver short audio news briefings, play music, control smart home products, and more. Alexa uses what’s known as “on-device keyword spotting” to detect her wake word (“Alexa”). Once she hears that wake word, she streams what you say to the cloud for analysis, and returns with a response.
In the Alexa app, you can change the wake word—particularly useful if you have someone named Alexa, Alex, or something similar in your home—and also see a history (with links to audio clips) of all the recent queries you’ve asked the assistant.
How to use Alexa: Getting started
Once you’ve got an Alexa-enabled product set up in your home (or car), here’s what you need to do. Download the Alexa app from the App Store or Google Play on your phone or tablet, and select “Set up a new device.” Then log in with your Amazon account information. You’ll want to make sure your phone is connected to the same Wi-Fi network that you’ll use for your Echo device, and enter in those network credentials in the app when prompted.
From there, you can go into the app’s settings to customize your Alexa. You can do this by tapping the three-line icon in the upper left, or the gear icon in the lower right of the home screen.
1) Personal settings
Tap the gear icon, then tap the top option in the menu, “[Your name]’s Echo.” This is where you can edit the device’s name, customize the sounds that it plays (and at what volume), and add a street address if you’d like to truly customize your weather, time zone, and other location-focused features. Here you can also enable “Do Not Disturb”—like your phone, you can also schedule your Echo to automatically enter “Do Not Disturb” mode during certain times of the day, like when you’re usually sleeping.
2) Music and media
Next, you’ll want to connect your favorite music and TV services to your account. Amazon Music will already be enabled, but you can link up Spotify, Pandora, or iHeartRadio accounts. You can also select which you’d like to make your default music service on the device. Once that’s done, when you ask Alexa to play music for you, she’ll automatically use that service. However, you can also specify what app you want to use, saying something like “Alexa, play Beyoncé on Spotify,” for example.
3) Flash briefing
For many, Alexa’s Flash Briefings are one of the most useful features of the device. In this section, you can select which news sources you’d like to hear news and headlines from, as well as what order they’re read through. Then, when you tell Alexa to read you your Flash Briefing, she’ll give you brief snippets of what’s happening in the world that day. It’s a great way to get a brief overview of current events and trending news topics. You can also lump in the day’s weather forecast and trending music news, too.
Below this section in the app’s settings, you can also add in your work address so you can get traffic updates for your daily commute. You can also select your favorite sports teams for Alexa’s Sports Update. Then, when you say “Alexa, what’s my Sports Update,” she will tell you recent scores from games and information about their upcoming schedules.
4) Calendar and lists
By linking your email account, as well as the account of any to-do apps like Any.do, AnyList, or Todoist, you can use Alexa to manage your schedule or add items to your to-do lists.
5) Alexa account settings
Under this section, you can select whether you’d like to receive push notifications on your phone when you set a reminder with Alexa and set your notifications preferences for Amazon purchases. For example, you can get a notification when items are delivered or out for delivery, and you can get reminders for items you’ve previously bought on Amazon. You can also customize your Voice Purchasing settings to require a four-digit voice-based code to be spoken before purchases go through. Here you can also create a voice profile to better personalize your experience with the assistant.
6) Smart home products
If you have connected lights, thermostats, or other Wi-Fi-connected products in your home, they may be compatible with Alexa control. First, set up these products according to the manufacturer’s guidelines, ensuring they’re on the same network as your Echo unit. If you have Phillips Hue products, you can then tap “Discover devices” within the Alexa app. For other products, first search for their skill in the Skills section of the Alexa app’s menu. Next, tap Enable, and then follow any on-screen prompts.
Depending on what Alexa-enabled device you’re using, its hardware buttons and capabilities will differ. However, we’ll share some hardware-focused tips for some of Amazon’s most popular Alexa products, such as the Echo and Echo Dot. On Echo devices, the blue LED ring at the top illuminates to let you know when Alexa is listening.
While many Echo devices now have plus and minus buttons for adjusting the volume, on some older Echo models—and the Echo Plus—you can twist the top of the device clockwise or counter-clockwise to adjust Alexa’s speaking volume (or the volume of whatever music you’re playing).
How to use Alexa: tips and tricks
OK, so you’ve got your app setup and you understand how the hardware works. Now what? Here’s a rundown of all the things you can use Alexa for.
Below are some of the most common things you may use Alexa for.
You can set regular, repeating reminders (or one-off reminders) for important tasks like taking out the recycling each week, the monthly rent payment, and more.
2) To-do lists
You can create, organize, and customize lists of any kind with Alexa. First, say “Alexa, create a list,” and then you can build a specific grocery list, packing list, or any other kind of list you can think of. These are stored in the Alexa companion app. Alternatively, you can use a third-party to-do list such as any.do, AnyList, or Cozi.
You can use Alexa to find out whats next on your calendar, or edit it. To do this, ask Alexa to add an event to your calendar. You can also send an invite to another contact to be a part of that event via Alexa as well.
4) Amazon ordering
Instead of heading to the store or opening Amazon on the desktop, you can reorder household staples such as toilet paper or laundry detergent using Alexa.
5) Restaurant ordering
You can also order a variety of non-Amazon things, such as food from GrubHub, Domino’s, or Pizza Hut by downloading their respective skills. You can also order a Starbucks drink ahead of time using Starbucks’ Reorder skill.
6) Calls and messages
You can use Alexa to send a message or make a call by saying a command such as, “Alexa, call dad.” If you have multiple Echo units in your home, you can use Amazon Alexa devices as an intercom system.
7) Facts and stats
If you’re wondering a question about the world, you can ask things like “Alexa, when is the first day of spring?” or “Alexa, what is 84 times three?” You can ask her for a variety of information about sports, TV shows, and movies, including things such as giving you a quote from Game of Thrones, who is the top-paid female actress, or information about how many touchdowns a certain football player has made.
You can ask Alexa to play music from a specific app, such as Spotify, or ask her to play a specific playlist, artist, or streaming radio station.
Alexa wouldn’t be complete without a handful of fun, quirky responses and features. A handful of Alexa’s most notable Easter eggs can be found here, but we’ve gathered a few more that fun-loving Alexa users may enjoy. You can say:
- “Alexa, flatter me.”
- “Alexa, what’s your favorite hobby?”
- “Alexa, what’s your favorite song?”
- “Alexa, you have mad skills.”
- “Alexa, tell me a pun.”
- “Alexa, can you sing in auto-tune?”
- “Alexa, inspire me.”
- “Alexa, tell me a light bulb joke.”
- Holiday-related queries (which you can ask any time of year) such as “Alexa, give me a Thanksgiving limerick” or “Alexa, sing a Christmas rap.”
If you can think of a query, there’s a good chance that Alexa has a response, unless it is something particularly offensive. And her capabilities are constantly expanding—if you try asking her something once and she has no response, she may be able to do it a month or two later.
Christina Bonnington is a tech reporter who specializes in consumer gadgets, apps, and the trends shaping the technology industry. Her work has also appeared in Gizmodo, Wired, Refinery29, Slate, Bicycling, and Outside Magazine. She is based in the San Francisco Bay Area and has a background in electrical engineering.