Guidemaster: Everything Amazon’s Alexa can do, plus the best skills to enable
If you’ve just introduced one of Amazon’s Echo devices into your home and feel a little lost, you’re not alone. The promises made by Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa are vast, and it’s difficult to know where to start when you want Alexa to do something more than set a cooking timer or tell you tomorrow’s weather forecast.
Aside from Alexa’s basic features programmed by Amazon, there are thousands of Alexa skills to choose from; skills are features made by third-party developers that help Alexa do more than just the Amazon-sanctioned basics, and many of them integrate with other services, apps, and products. Each skill has to be enabled in the Alexa mobile app (or from your account on Amazon.com) before Alexa can use it.
Enabling a skill is almost like installing an app on a mobile device—simply enable a skill you want and Alexa will be able to use that skill until you disable it. There are more than 25,000 Alexa skills now, and while Amazon has improved the interface through which you can search for and discover skills, it’s still not the easiest to work with. Here, we’ve outlined Alexa’s main features and the best third-party Alexa Skills that you can enable now to use with Amazon’s virtual assistant.
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Alexa is built to tell you even the most mundane information about your day and anything else you want to know about. You can use voice commands to have Alexa tell you the time and date as well as anything that might be on your calendar, provided that you’ve linked a calendar in the Alexa mobile app.
Even if something isn’t listed on your calendar, you can ask Alexa to set reminders and alarms at any time. For example, saying “Alexa, remind me to register for swim classes at 8pm” will have Alexa tell you “register for swim classes” at 8pm that day. Alarms work similarly and come in handy, particularly when you’re cooking and don’t have a hand free to set an egg timer or a timer on your oven. Your Echo device will jingle when the alarm goes off, and you can tell Alexa to “stop” to end the alarm tone.
Alexa can add things to your to-do list as well, which you can review either in the Alexa app or by asking it “what’s on my to-do list?” We’ll talk about shopping lists in another section, but Alexa’s to-do list feature is useful for the busiest of us who rarely have a pen and paper handy. Using your voice to ask Alexa to add things to your to-do list ensures you won’t forget even the most random tasks that come to mind.
All of the previously detailed features are like the utility section of an app store—they’re often overlooked, but you’ll need them at some point throughout your day. But Alexa can also provide more specific information and from different sources. Alexa can deliver weather forecasts, recent news headlines, and general information about sports, movies, and music. For example, asking “Alexa, what’s my Flash Briefing?” will prompt the assistant to read off all the news from your selected sources in your Flash Briefing. You can choose the news sources you prefer in the Alexa app and rearrange the order that Alexa plays them (NPR, Bloomberg, AP, and more are options). Rather than watching the news in the morning, you can listen to it as Alexa plays each segment from each of your news sources.
If you’re curious which band plays a song you heard at the gym, Alexa can probably tell you. The assistant can also tell you band members’ names and song and album titles. The same can be said for movies: Alexa can identify actors and actresses and which movies they are in and even give you movie times at local theaters. If you’re curious who won the big game the night before, Alexa can tell you scores by team and individual player stats.
General commands to try:
- “Alexa, what’s on my calendar for today?”
- “Alexa, remind me to pick up Jodie at 3pm.”
- “Alexa, set a timer for one hour.”
- “Alexa, add clean the kitchen to my to-do list.”
- “Alexa, what’s my Flash Briefing?”
- “Alexa, who sings ‘Bad and Bougee’?”
- “Alexa, did the Broncos win last night?”
The Music, Video, and Books section of the Alexa app is your gateway to all kinds of media that Alexa can control. You’re not limited to Amazon-controlled media, although Alexa will pull media from Amazon accounts by default unless you tell it differently. Linking your various accounts in the app will allow Alexa to control music, video, and audiobook playback from any Echo device.
If Spotify is your music service of choice, you can ask Alexa to play anything “from Spotify” so it’ll draw that content from there rather than Amazon Music. You can also play radio stations from iHeartRadio, TuneIn, or Pandora, as well as ask Alexa what song is currently playing. If you’re in the mood for a specific type of music, you can ask Alexa to play songs by artist, genre, or theme as well.
Amazon owns Audible, arguably the leading provider of audiobooks, and you can link an Audible account to Alexa so it can read your audiobooks to you from an Echo device. You can ask it to start reading a specific book or pick up where you left off in an audiobook you already started. You can also skip to different chapters and set a “sleep timer,” or a time for Alexa to stop reading in the future. These controls also work for Kindle books you may have purchased from Amazon that also provide access to the audiobook version.
Media commands to try:
- “Alexa, play Deep House Relax playlist from Spotify.”
- “Alexa, play Z100 on iHeartRadio.”
- “Alexa, play the book Animal Farm.”
- “Alexa, skip to chapter 10.”
- “Alexa, resume my book.”
- “Alexa, stop playing in 30 minutes.”
Calling and messaging
Amazon recently added calling and messaging to Alexa, allowing you to connect with anyone in your contacts or any phone number just by using your voice. After completing the setup in the Alexa app, linking your phone number, and allowing Alexa access to your contacts, you can use voice commands to make hands-free calls and messages. If someone calls you, you can also use Alexa to answer the call.
Sending messages with Alexa is just as easy. Simply say, “Alexa, message Tom,” and Alexa will grab that contact from your list. The voice assistant will then ask you to say the message you want to send. Once you do that, Alexa will send it as a text message to your contact.
Drop In is a new feature that lets you communicate with others who have Echo, Echo Dot, and Echo Show devices. It’s a calling feature that only works on Amazon-made Alexa devices, allowing you to “drop in” on others and chat with them. You can also drop in on other Echo devices in your household, so you can use your main Echo in the living room to talk to your children in their room if they have a compatible Echo device. It’s similar to an intercom system when used between different Echo devices in the same household. You must enable Drop In in the Alexa app before you can use it, and you must approve which contacts you want to let drop in on your Echo devices. This makes Drop In a bit more secure, but you can’t immediately decline a drop-in call.
Calling and messaging commands to try:
- “Alexa, call 555-5555.”
- “Alexa, message Mom.”
- “Alexa, hang up.”
- “Alexa, drop in on Cheryl.”
- “Alexa, drop in on Katie’s room.”
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