Get the most of your Amazon Echo (and Alexa on your Fire TV/Stick)
Did you just get an
Congratulations…and say “Hello” to Alexa!
Alexa is the software that talk to you..and more importantly, listens to you, which comes on those devices.
It’s probably unlike anything you’ve had in your home, if we ignore mobile gadgets like SmartPhones and tablets.
Using the latter, you are probably familiar with Siri, or Google Now, or Microsoft’s Cortana.
Yes, Alexa (technically, the Alexa Voice Service) is similar to those…but it also has its own “parse-onality” as I call it…how it understands what you say, and how it replies to you.
The Echo has the advantage of being just about frictionless when you want to talk to it: it’s always listening for the “wake word” (currently, “Alexa” or “Amazon”, although I would guess it’s a tiny minority of people who use “Amazon”…too likely to have it wake up when you are talking about other things, and referring to the company, or the river, for that matter). I tell people I can just “ask the air” what time it is, for example. 🙂
Like a lot of technology, though, most people are very unlikely to be using it to its full potential…even to its full potential for their personal needs. Sure, it can do a lot of things you don’t need it to do…controlling devices you don’t own, for one thing. This post, though, is to help you get the most out of it for your purposes.
I’m not really going to differentiate here between the Echo and the Fire TV devices. With the FTV, you pick up a remote (or, importantly, use an app on your SmartPhone…you don’t need a voice remote to use Alexa) and talk to Alexa, rather than just “asking the air”. Outside of that, they are similar enough functionally, that it won’t be worth separating them.
Here, then, are some things you can do to get the most out of Alexa:
Get the app
You can work with Alexa using your computer and going to
but you’ll lose some important functionality. Alexa often sends you “cards” to the app, which lets you carry around your information when you leave the house. Currently, Alexa is a “home body” (without a body) 😉 . I expect that to change at some point, with your car and your phone allowing you to actively interact with Alexa. Right now, Alexa can send information to your phone, but doesn’t receive your verbal communications that way. That will make a big difference when I can talk to Alexa through my phone.
You might ask why I would want to do that when I do have a digital assistant (Siri/Google Now/Cortana) on my phone…why don’t I just use that?
Alexa knows things about me, and I want access to that (see Settings and Skills below).
I also just like Alexa better…I find her more…I’m going to say “charming”. 🙂
Let’s take the example of having Alexa put something on your shopping list. “Alexa, add triple A batteries to my shopping list.” It doesn’t do me much good if I get to the store, and I don’t have that list with me.
If you get the free Alexa App
- Amazon Alexa in the Amazon Appstore (at AmazonSmile*)
- Amazon Alexa at Apple’s iTunes
- Amazon Alexa at Google Play
you’ll have a much richer and more mobile experience.
I’m going to write the rest of this as though you are using the app, but the same options are available through the website. It will just make this post easier to read.
You can tell Alexa things about yourself that she can use in helping you, and you can tell her the way you want some things done (I do temperatures in Celsius, for one thing, and I have Alexa set to give me my weather with that scale).
In your Alexa app, you’ll see a menu (three horizontal lines in your top left corner of your phone/tablet). Tap that, then tap “Settings” (you may need to scroll down to see it).
Which settings are available may change pretty quickly…they keep adding features to Alexa!
The basic technique here is to tap one of the categories, and then make your selections.
Right now, these are the first categories under “Account”:
- Music & Media (connect to your Amazon Music account, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and/or Tune/In…you may be able to use the service without connecting, but it won’t have your personal preferences)
- Flash Briefing (when you ask Alexa for the news, this determines which sources she’ll use)
- Sports Update (set your teams)
- Traffic (pick one default start and one default stop address)
- Calendar (connect to your Google calendar((s)))
- Connected Home (link to your home automation devices)
Settings affect things provided by Amazon. Skills are third party abilities for Alexa…you can think of them as apps.
Start at the menu as above, then tap “Skills”.
Skills are being frequently added, so again, I’m not going to try to be comprehensive here, just give you the techniques to work with any skill.
Tap a skill, and you will find out a lot more about it…which may include an opportunity to set things up for that app. A public transit schedule app might have you enter your home station/address. You may also be able to do that verbally, or the app description may direct you to a website to set up an account.
Just as apps are what can really make a SmartPhone fun and helpful, that’s what is going to happen with Alexa Skills. We have barely scratched the surface of what’s coming.
Alexa can interact with a wide variety of apps (Twitter, FitBit, Box…) through
IFTTT (If This Then That)
which lets a “trigger” in one app case something to happen in another app. We can do that with custom voice commands through Alexa. I can say, “Alexa, trigger turn off the TV” on the way out of the house, and my TV shuts off (and if I’m watching Fire TV, it goes to Home first). I do that by having Alexa talk to IFTTT and IFTTT talk to our Harmony remote (see How to use the Amazon Echo and a Logitech Harmony to put on your TV shows).
You do need to set up a free account at IFTTT, but I think you’ll find it well worth it.
I only got into home automation because I got an Echo.
Before Alexa can turn on your lights, you need lights with that capability. Here’s a page to get you started:
isn’t necessary, it is definitely an enhancement. I can use the voice remote from another room. When our Echo is playing loudly in the family room, so I can hear it in another room, it’s hard for Alexa to hear me shouting a command. The voice remote means I can speak normally (and I don’t even need to say, “Alexa…”).
Speaking of being in another room, more than one Echo can also make sense. 🙂
I write about the Echo/Alexa in this blog, but I’d recommend two other sources.
You can sign up for Amazon’s own free Echo e-mail newsletters at
The other one I would strongly recommend is April Hamilton’s free
blog (which is not connected to my blog, I Love My Kindle…we just happened to choose similar names).
April is both an author and a developer of Alexa Skills, so she is able to write informatively and entertainingly from an insider’s perspective.
April’s blog is absolutely part of a strategy to get the most out of Alexa.
To be clear, I’m not associated with that blog except as a reader of it, although we have had some correspondence.
Alexa is the future…make sure yours is as bright as it can be. 🙂
Feel free to share other things you’ve found that have helped you optimize Alexa, or to ask more question of me and my readers, by commenting on this post.
For more information on the Echo and Alexa, see The Measured Circle’s Echo Central.
Join thousands of readers and try the free The Measured Circle magazine at Flipboard
* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. Shop ’til you help!
This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the The Measured Circle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.