The Amazon Echo has been kicking about in Australia for a while now. It's not perfect, but if you're keen to join the future of intelligent homes, now is the time to get on board. Whether you're you're thinking of getting an Echo, hear people talking about "Alexa," or not sure what the one you have is capable of, here are some of the best things you can do with it.
When the Amazon first released the echo with this ridiculous ad, I had a very hard time taking it seriously. It seemed like a silly niche product in an already overcrowded market of Bluetooth speakers. After I got my hands on one though, I started to play with all the ways it integrates with other devices. Soon after, I came to love it. In this post we'll take a look at some truly awesome things the Echo can do, but also how to do them well.
Play Virtually Any Song Just By Asking
The Echo is a speaker. It plays music. You get that. But it does so in so many wonderful ways that we need to talk about it. When the Echo launched, you could only play music from your smartphone, like any other Bluetooth speaker, by requesting music available via Amazon Prime Music, or asking for songs you've uploaded to Amazon Cloud Drive yourself. Amazon's library is big enough that you can ask for a song and get it in most cases, but you can also request playlists or play by artist. The Echo can sometimes offer a playlist for your mood, or for a specific holiday. If you want to know what I'm talking about, try some of these commands:
- Alexa, play some Christmas music.
- Alexa, play some meditation tracks.
- Alexa, play some Adele.
- Alexa, play playlist _________. (Fill in the blank with the name of a playlist you created in your Amazon Music/Amazon Cloud Player account and the Echo will get things started.)
Those were the early days, but now you can use Spotify, too. If you pay for Spotify Unlimited and want to access everything it has to offer through the echo, you only need to ask (after you link up your account, of course):
- Alexa, play Tony's Got Hot Nuts from Spotify.
- Alexa, play songs by L'il Johnson from Spotify.
You can also ask for playlists, genres, and even composers so long as you end your commands with from Spotify. You can find a full list of commands here if you'd like to explore.
Find New Features
Isn't it nice to know when you get feature upgrades? Normally you have to subscribe to an email list and then actually read the email that tells you about the new features, or just look them up online when you remember. With the Echo, you can just ask:
Alexa, what new features do you have?
Whenever Amazon adds something new, they program an explanation into Alexa and she'll give you all the details by just asking that question.
Build and Control a Smart Home, Even If You Rent
The Echo integrates with a variety of home automation hubs, such as Wink, Insteon, and SmartThings. You can also hook up other smart devices like Philips Hue Lights, Belkin WeMo, Sensi, Ecobee, and more (thanks to some of the previously-mentioned hubs, and you can find Amazon's up-to-date list here). I always thought a voice-controlled smart home was out of reach because I rent and don't have a lot of money, but the Echo changed that. Now I can control my lights, the temperature of the apartment, and even turn on my video recording setup with a simple command. This is, by far, my favourite service the Echo provides.
Voice commands differ somewhat based on the devices you use and what you name them in the Alexa app (or online, if you're sneaky). I can't give every example, but I can offer a few I like to give you an idea:
- Alexa, turn the bedroom lights on. (I have a set of Philips Hue lights that are specified as the bedroom lights for Alexa, so she knows which ones to access when I refer to them as such.)
- Alexa, turn the bedroom lights to 50%. (Want less light in a room? Just specify a percentage!)
- Alexa, turn the heat up to 72. (If you have a connected thermostat like the Nest or Ecobee 3, you can set it up to respond to a command like this.)
- Alexa, turn video mode on. (When I want to record a video, this command triggers a couple of Belkin WeMo smart switches in my home that I named "video mode" in the Alex app. This turns the camera on and lights the room for recording.)
You can do much, much more with your home automation devices with integration hubs. I have a Wink hub that I haven't even got around to setting up yet that will open up far more home automation possibilities for me. That used to be the only option, but if you have any hub it probably works with the Echo these days. Just add your devices in the Alexa app and play around with the all the fun possibilities.
Get the Weather (and Other Useful Information)
You can find the weather in all sorts of places. The same goes for the time. But have you ever been putting on your underwear and wondered what time it was, halfway through, and then fell over trying to get to your phone because you're a moron who can't finish putting on his clothes first? Probably not, unless you're me, but I bet you can think of a time where you wanted to know basic information a glance could provide you if you were only your phone, computer, or whatever device you prefer were in reach. It's simple and lazy, but incredibly convenient. Try these commands:
- Alexa, what's the weather? (She'll tell you in far more detail than you want, but you'll get the highs and lows and chance of rain so don't worry. If you want to know the weather somewhere you aren't just add "in New York City" or wherever you please.)
- Alexa, what time is it? (She'll tell you! Again, you can ask for the time in a specific location as well. I find this super helpful when scheduling phone meetings and interviews with folks in other time zones.)
- Alexa, what's my commute? (If you input your home and work address, she'll tell you what traffic is like and about how long it will take. This feature is pretty terrible because you only can specify one route at the moment, but it's still good to know.)
You can also set up news briefings and other information in the Alexa app so you can ask her a lot more.
Listen to a Book or Article
Unsurprisingly, the Echo integrates with another Amazon company: Audible. If you have audiobooks from Audible, you can listen to them on the Echo with simple voice commands and sync your place. You can even set up a sleep timer so you can fall asleep to a good listen. Let's try it:
- Alexa, play audiobook Animal Farm. (If you have a copy of George Orwell's Animal Farm in your library, it will play. Swap for any book you have in your library.)
- Alexa, resume my book. (Whatever book you were last listening to — probably Animal Farm — Alexa will resume it for you with this command.)
- Alexa, go back. Alexa, go forward. (If you want to go forward or back in the book by 30 seconds, these commands will do that for you.)
- Alexa, stop reading the book in 30 minutes. (This will set a sleep timer and the book will stop after 30 minutes, or whatever amount of time you specify.)
You can find more fun Audible commands here, but that's not all you can do with books. Amazon also offers several Kindle books that don't have audio companions but you can hear through voice synthesis.
- Alexa, read Dump Dinners: The Absolute Best Dump Dinners Cookbook with 75 Amazingly Easy Recipes. (Yes, if you own this Kindle book, Alexa will read it to you.)
- Alexa, pause. (You should know this command when listening to a cookbook called Dump Dinners. It will stop her from reading it.)
Alexa can also read Wikipedia articles. These commands should suffice:
- Alexa, wikipedia Lifehacker. (You can also say wiki if you prefer, but I find the full name less cumbersome to speak aloud. Either option will give you a short description of whatever topic you asked for.)
- Alexa, read more from Wikipedia. (She'll tell you to say this if you want to know more about a topic you requested, but I'm telling you in advance.)
No more reading for you! Alexa can replace your parents and you can time travel back to your childhood days when your mother read you cookbooks and Wikipedia articles before bed.
Use Alexa as a Kitchen Assistant
When the Echo was first announced, pundits joked about how Alexa will make for a great kitchen assistant, but nothing else. Well, she certainly does lots of other things, but she still does a great job helping you out with food preparation. She can convert measurements and units for you, and she can set timers so you don't burn the food you measured properly:
- Alexa, how many tablespoons are in a stick of butter?
- Alexa, set a timer for 10 minutes.
If all of that's not enough, don't forget that she can read Dump Dinners: The Absolute Best Dump Dinners Cookbook with 75 Amazingly Easy Recipes to you anytime you want! If you don't have time and practically no energy to cook and read, just let Alexa tell you how to dump your dinner in a pan and make magic happen. It will be like you didn't even cook.
Do Practically Anything Else with IFTTT
The Echo also connects to IFTTT. You can automate anything with it, and it can even save you money. Just for an idea of its possibilities, check out our IFTTT tag page. The Echo always kind of worked with it, but it's gotten a lot better in recent weeks. You can now trigger entire recipes with a simple voice command (after setting things up, of course):
- Alexa, trigger "party time." (This command triggers a popular, more complex Philip Hue Light recipe called Party Time. You can view it here and see why this method offers more options than the direct Philips Hue integration from Amazon.)
- Alexa, send me my shopping list. (You can ask Alexa to add an item to your shopping list by saying Alexa, add batteries to my shopping list. It's then available through the speaker or in the Alexa app, but this recipe can automatically email the contents of that list to you to make this feature actually useful. You can do this with your to-do list as well!)
Not everything requires a voice command. You can also have IFTTT log the songs you listen to in a spreadsheet for easy playlist-making later. If you know IFTTT, you know the possibilities come close to endless, and you don't have to use any of these pre-written recipes — or you can customise your own. Then tell Alexa to trigger them and be amazed.
Adam Dachis is a Los Angeles-based writer and consultant. You'll find him writing and making stuff over at Awkward Human, including his podcast the Awkward Human Survival Guide.