© Ian Knighton/CNET Ian Knighton/CNET
With Alexa and the range of Echo devices, -- including smart displays and smart speakers -- Amazon has built a robust service that can deliver seemingly endless information and control your home. But, are you actually taking full advantage of all it can do?
If you haven't yet unlocked the full potential of Alexa, the following seven voice commands will get you closer. These are the amazing things Alexa can do that you should start using now.
Welcome you home
What makes Alexa so useful is that it can plug into many other smart home devices. Connect your Philips Hue or LIFX smart light bulbs to your Echo and you can tell Alexa to turn on the lights.
Take it up a few notches and create a routine for when you arrive home so that when you say the magic words, such as "Alexa, I'm home" it can turn on your lights, play music and turn on the heat (or many other sets of actions).
Give your brain a break from remembering important info
Always forgetting your sister-in-law's birthday or to pick up your dry cleaning? Alexa can remember for you. Just say "Alexa remember [exactly what you want to remember]" and it will take care of the rest.
Act as a host
When you have friends or relatives staying at your house, inevitably they're going to ask what's the WiFi password or where to find an extra set of towels. Let Alexa handle it with a custom command (called Skills). With a Skills Blueprint, you can create a Custom Q&A for your home so that visitors can get answers without you.
Head to Amazon's Skills Blueprint page and pick the "Houseguest" option to create a guide with FAQs your guests might have while staying with you. When they arrive, they can ask "Alexa, where is the toilet paper?" or "Alexa, how do I turn on the shower?" and it will give them the answers.
The modern intercom
If you have multiple Echo speakers in your home, you can easily create an intercom system to tell the entire house that dinner is ready, or tell your roommates to keep the music down. To use this feature, you'll need to enable it in your Alexa app.
Make free phone calls
Hands-free and free phone calls are really easy with Alexa (maybe too easy, as this Portland family learned). Just say the command "Alexa, call [phone number]" or "Alexa, call Mom" and your Echo will dial the call.
It works for mobile numbers and landlines too. With an Echo Connect and a home phone service (either a landline or VoIP) your Echo can also receive calls and allow you to dial 911.
And what if you lose your phone? Well, Alexa can help you find that, too.
Alexa 101: What you should know about Amazon's AI assistant
1/28 SLIDES © Provided by CNET Amazon's virtual assistant Alexa is everywhere these days, having delivered in-home voice control to the masses. She can do all sorts of things if you ask nicely, she's popping up in more and more devices, and her capabilities are evolving quickly.It's a lot to keep up with, but we're here to help. Click through for a quick crash course on how Alexa works and what all she has to offer.
2/28 SLIDES © Provided by CNET Alexa is a virtual voice assistant -- like Siri, but separate from your phone. You'll find her in Amazon's Echo lineup of smart speakers. Each one includes a Wi-Fi connection and an omnidirectional array of microphones that can hear you from anywhere in the room. You'll say "Alexa" to get her attention, then give her your question or command.As you speak, the ring on the top of the speaker will light up blue to indicate that Alexa is listening and sending your audio to Amazon's servers. Those servers translate the audio into text and then figure out how Alexa should respond -- all of which happens in about a second.
3/28 SLIDES © Provided by CNET Amazon's Echo speakers are always listening for the wake word "Alexa" (you can also use "Amazon," "Echo," or "Computer"). They only start recording and transmitting your audio once they hear that wake word, or whenever you push the activation button on top to get Alexa's attention without saying anything. And again, your speaker will light up blue whenever this is happening.If you want, you can press the mute button to turn off Alexa's microphone. The speaker will glow red, and it won't respond to the wake word.Amazon keeps a history of your Alexa commands -- including the audio -- in the Alexa app for Android and iOS devices. You can delete specific recordings, or log on to Amazon's website to delete everything.
4/28 SLIDES © Provided by CNET The most common Alexa use is listening to music. You can choose between Amazon Music and Spotify as your default streaming service, and you can play stations and podcasts from iHeartRadio or Pandora, too. Want her to play some jazz music, or hit you with a little Bohemian Rhapsody while you cook dinner? Just ask. You can also listen to internet radio through TuneIn, including a new TuneIn Live premium subscription service that brings live sports broadcasts and network news into play.
5/28 SLIDES © Provided by CNET Speaking of news, you can also ask Alexa to read you the day's headlines by requesting your "flash briefing." You can customize the topics and sources she'll draw from in the Alexa app (including, ahem, CNET).
6/28 SLIDES © Provided by CNET If you like the speakers you already have, you can connect them with an Alexa device using an aux-out cable or a Bluetooth connection. That'll let you use the Echo speaker as your smart audio setup's microphone while the audio itself pipes through your existing sound system.
7/28 SLIDES © Provided by CNET Alexa has also proven to be a powerful platform for smart home gadgets. Pair her up with things like compatible smart lights and smart plugs and you'll then be able to control them using voice commands.
8/28 SLIDES © Provided by CNET The Alexa app lets you control and manage all of your Alexa-compatible smart home gadgets, or put them into groups to let Alexa control multiple gadgets with a single command (e.g., "turn off the living room lights.")You can also create a group of lights and then add your Echo to it to make those the default lights it'll turn on when you say, "Alexa, turn on the lights."
9/28 SLIDES © Provided by CNET The Alexa app's other key smart home tool is called "Routines." With Routines, you can create your own custom Alexa commands that trigger multiple actions all at once. For instance, saying "Alexa, goodnight," could turn off your lights and lock your smart lock.
10/28 SLIDES © Provided by CNET Another key Alexa feature worth knowing about is her ability to make calls and send messages. You can link up with other Alexa-enabled contacts in the Alexa app, then ask Alexa to make an Echo-to-Echo call, or send them a quick voice message. When you have an incoming call or message, your Echo will glow green.Amazon also uses this feature to let users with multiple Echo devices make intercom-style calls from one device to another. You can even use your Echo to call mobile numbers and landlines for free.
11/28 SLIDES © Provided by CNET Along with music, news, smart home control and calling and messaging features, Alexa can look up facts, tell you the weather, tell you a joke, make conversions, set timers and much, much more. She also comes packed with plenty of Easter egg responses -- for example, try saying, "Alexa, initiate self-destruct sequence."
12/28 SLIDES © Provided by CNET On top of all that, you can enable any of the tens of thousands of free Alexa skills -- essentially the Alexa version of apps. Each skill teaches Alexa a new trick. This one, from Capital One, will let you pay off your credit card bill with a voice command. Like all skills, you can enable it in the Alexa app, or just by asking Alexa to enable it herself.
13/28 SLIDES © Provided by CNET And yes, there are even skills from brands like Domino's that will let you order a pizza with a single voice command.
14/28 SLIDES © Provided by CNET If you plan on putting more than one Echo device into your home, you'll be happy to know that they include a feature called "Echo Spatial Perception," or ESP for short. ESP makes it so that only the Echo device closest to you will answer your command if more than one hears it.
15/28 SLIDES © Provided by CNET Amazon is gradually starting to offer Alexa devices in more and more countries. Along with the US, UK, Australia and Germany, Amazon will soon sell devices in Asia, too.
16/28 SLIDES © Provided by CNET So what are your options as far as Echo devices go? The first is the speaker that started it all, the Amazon Echo. It can comfortably fill a room with omnidirectional sound, and includes all of Alexa's basic features and skills. Plug it in and sync it up with the Alexa app on your phone, and you'll be all set.Now in its second gen, the Echo costs $100 in the US, £90 in the UK and AU$119 in Australia.
17/28 SLIDES © Provided by CNET The second-gen Echo also comes in a variety of interchangeable "shells" to help you find a look that'll fit in best with your home's decor.
18/28 SLIDES © Provided by CNET Alexa's other best-seller is the pint-sized Echo Dot. At just $50 in the US (or £50/AU$80 in the UK and Australia, respectively), it's the most affordable Alexa speaker of all, and also the most popular. It does everything that the full-size Echo does, and while the sound obviously isn't as powerful, you can still connect it with your existing speakers.
19/28 SLIDES © Provided by CNET On the other end of the price spectrum is the Amazon Echo Show, which adds a touchscreen into the equation. This adds a certain level of "glanceability" to the device, though we wish more Alexa features and skills would put the screen to good use. The cost: $230 in the US, or 200 in the UK. It isn't available in Australia just yet.
20/28 SLIDES © Provided by CNET The Amazon Echo Spot splits the difference between the Dot and the Show, packing a touchscreen into a much smaller Alexa speaker. Like the Show, we wish that the touchscreen provided more utility than it does, but it's still a pretty likable device (though, given that it's pitched as an alarm clock replacement, where it will stay pointed at you in bed while you sleep, we really wish that the camera had a physical privacy shutter).The Spot will set you back $130 in the US or £120 in the UK -- and like the Show, it isn't available in Australia yet.
21/28 SLIDES © Provided by CNET One nice perk about both touchscreen devices -- you can make voice-activated video calls with other Alexa users.
22/28 SLIDES © Provided by CNET The addition of a screen also lets you ask Alexa to show you the feed from compatible smart home cameras like the Nest Cam, Netgear Arlo, the Ring Video Doorbell, and Amazon's own Cloud Cam.
23/28 SLIDES © Provided by CNET Another option: the Amazon Echo Plus, which takes the original Echo's form factor and adds in a Zigbee radio. That radio can communicate directly with popular smart bulbs from brands like Philips Hue, which means Plus users don't need an additional hub plugged into their router in order to use them. It costs $150 in the US, £140 in the UK, and AU$230 in Australia.
24/28 SLIDES © Provided by CNET The Echo Plus doesn't offer interchangeable shells like the basic Echo does, but it does come in your choice of three colors: silver, white or black.
25/28 SLIDES © Provided by CNET Available in the US only, the Amazon Echo Look is a $200 camera that takes Alexa-activated selfies. You can use it to compare different outfits, and even let an algorithm tell you what to wear. It's a bit of an oddball in the Echo lineup, and you have to request an invitation to buy one.
26/28 SLIDES © Provided by CNET You can also bring Alexa into your home by getting an Amazon Fire TV streamer with the Alexa voice remote. It doesn't have all of the Alexa features you'll get with the Echo (you have to push a button instead of saying a wake word, and it can't call or message anybody, for instance), but it can still answer questions and control smart home gadgets -- plus, you can ask Alexa to find you something to watch.The cost of a current-gen 4K streamer with HDR support and the voice remote included? $50 in the US, or £60 in the UK. The voice remote isn't currently available in Australia.
27/28 SLIDES © Provided by CNET One thing to watch for as Alexa continues to mature is how deeply she ultimately integrates with home entertainment. You can already use Alexa to control compatible smart TVs, as well as compatible TV services like Dish and DirecTV. More video and entertainment superpowers are in the works, too.
28/28 SLIDES © Provided by CNET Outside of Amazon's own Alexa devices, we're seeing a major boom in Alexa devices from third-party manufacturers, too. That's because Amazon opened up the software that powers Alexa to outside developers. If you make a gadget that includes a microphone, a speaker, and a Wi-Fi connection, you can add in Alexa with just a few lines of code.The result: Alexa everywhere. Just to name a few examples, we've seen her in lamps, thermostats, refrigerators, cars, alarm clocks, light switches, TVs, dirt cheap speakers, and even walking, talking robots that teach you yoga (yes, really).Just keep in mind that a lot of these third-party devices are missing a couple of key Alexa features like ESP and calling/messaging. If you're thinking of buying one, make sure that it can do everything you want it to do, first.
Manage your schedule
Like any good personal assistant, Alexa can help you stay on top of your calendar and let you make changes quickly. Just sync your calendar account from Google, Apple or Microsoft in the Alexa mobile app to get started (here's how to set it up). Then ask "Alexa, what's on my calendar for tomorrow?"
If you can't make a meeting, just say "Alexa, move my 1 p.m. meeting tomorrow to 3 p.m." or "Alexa, cancel my 9 a.m. event."
© Provided by CNET Amazon announced the Echo Show 15 at the September 2021 launch event.
Use Alexa with other smart devices
Being able to ask Alexa to "turn on the lights in the kitchen" is really satisfying, especially when you're arriving home late at night with your hands full. Likewise, it feels powerful to turn on your TV with just your voice.
Within the Alexa app on your phone, you can connect the compatible smart devices in your home so you can control them. The possibilities are (almost) endless.
Check out the 50 Alexa Skills worth using and if you want to know everything Alexa can do, we've got that, too. Want even more Alexa? Check out these recommendations:
Best Alexa devices of the yearBest cheap Alexa devices of 20213 reasons why you should take your Alexa devices outsideEvery Alexa command you can give your Amazon Echo smart speaker or displayAmazon is bringing Custom Sound detection to Echo devices
What are your favorite Alexa commands? Share them in the comments.
First published on June 9, 2018 at 8 a.m. ET.