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 its range of Echo devices, but you’ll also find Alexa in other speakers as well as on Amazon’s Fire TV media streamer and tablets including the £49 Fire 7.
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.
New Alexa features
These are the latest skills Alexa has learned:
Alexa can now let you use your Echos as a public address system: you can make announcements that are heard throughout the house.
You could say “Alexa, announce that dinner is ready,” and she will repeat your message “Dinner is ready” in your voice on all other compatible Echo devices. If you’d rather say something less format, use the phrase “Alexa, tell everyone [insert your announcement here]”.
The feature starts rolling out in the UK on 20 April.
Fire TV control
If you own both a Fire TV and Amazon Echo you can use Alexa to play videos: no remote controller required.
The feature has been available in the US for a while, but now UK owners can join in the fun.
If you have just one Fire TV, you merely need to ask Alexa (on your Echo) a question involving the Fire TV, such as “Alexa, play the Grand Tour on my Fire TV”. All being well, it should pair automatically and you’ll have hands-free control over searching for shows, fast-forwarding and more.
Many Fire TVs come with an Alexa remote, but if you have any Amazon Echo and any generation of Fire TV or Fire TV Stick, you’ll now be able to use Alexa without pressing and holding a button.
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?
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]
Alexa is great for music although, as you might expect, only truly good if you subscribe to Amazon Music or have a Prime subscription which includes the basic version of it.
Here are some of the things you can say:
- 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
Recently, new commands have been added so you can add songs to playlists, create new playlists and more. Also, you can now make even more natural requests such as asking Alexa to play a song from a band you heard a few weeks ago, but can’t remember the track name.
- “Alexa, play me the Jamiroquai song I heard last month”
- “Alexa, play me pop music I was listening to three weeks ago”
- Or even try, “Alexa, play music that I was listening to earlier today”
- “Alexa, play jazz songs I haven’t heard recently”
There are also ways to play similar music to what you’re listening to:
- “Alexa, play more like this”
- “Alexa, play songs similar to ‘Easy like Sunday Morning'”
- To do this for an artist and era, “Alexa, play songs like 80s Rick Astley”
You can also make playlists, and add to them using these commands while listening to Amazon Music:
- “Alexa, add this song to my playlist”
- “Alexa, add this to my ‘Studying’ playlist”
- “Alexa, create a new playlist from this song”
- “Alexa create a new playlist”
In August 2017, Amazon added the ability to create a group of Echo devices through the Alexa app. Then in December, Spotify support was added so that you can choose a default streaming service for multi-room audio.
Once you have created a group (choose Smart Home > Groups from the main menu in the Alexa app) you can ask Alexa to play music 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 has also just been added.
- Play an audiobook (you need an Audible subscription): Alexa, play [title of book] on Audible OR Alexa, play the book How to use Alexa on Amazon Echo
- 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).
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
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.
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.
Would you like to make sure that Alexa isn’t saving your voice requests? Have a look at our guide here.