Virtual assistants are becoming more common: there's Siri on the Apple iPhone and HomePod, Google Assistant on Android smartphones and Google Home, Microsoft's Cortana on Harman Kardon's Invoke speaker, and Bixby on the Samsung Galaxy S8.
But by far the most popular is Amazon's Alexa. Since appearing in the Echo Tap, Echo and Echo Dot speaker (and set to appear in a few more tablets and speakers) it's come out on top over its competition as either your smarthome's voice-controlled hub or your easy AI alarm clock.
If you're one of the many to have picked one up, but don't know if you're making the most out of its functionality (or have just purchased one and need to set it up), then here's everything you'll want to try.
MORE: Amazon Echo review
1. Give your Echo a new name
First on your list should be making your Echo feel like it’s your own, and you can do that by giving it a brand new name. Go into the Settings section of the Alexa app, tap the device name, and then hit “Device Name” to call it something special. Like ‘Hal’ or ‘Jarvis’ or ‘The Terminator’.
2. Choose what you say to wake it up
Speaking of names, while everyone knows that Amazon’s AI is called Alexa, that’s not the only thing you can call it. If you hit the “Wake Word’ button (it’s just a short scroll down from Tip 1) you can choose from “Alexa”, “Amazon”, “Echo” or, for Star Trek fans, “Computer”.
3. Set up request sounds
Want to make sure your Echo definitely heard you? Under the 'Sounds' menu are a couple of toggles so your speaker will make a sound at the beginning or the end of the request. Or both.
4. Say that again?
If you didn’t quite catch your Echo’s answer to a question, just say "Alexa, can you say that again?" and the speaker will repeat its last answer ad infinitum.
5. Stop it speaking
For those that want a bit of peace and quiet, you can hit the physical microphone button on the top of the Echo to mute the speaker. You’ll be able to say “Alexa” as much as you like without the Echo listening in.
6. Metric or Imperial?
Are you from the United States, Myanmar, or Liberia (or a Stonecutter, who keeps the Metric system down)? Or do you just long for the good old days before metres, litres and grams? Then you can ensure the Echo gives you all your measurements in Imperial units by going to Settings in the Alexa app, selecting your device and scrolling down to the toggle.
7. Tell it where you are
A lot of the Echo’s skills, as well as its ability to recommend nearby restaurants or utilities, rely on it knowing where you are in the world. So tap the Device Location option and put in your address
8. Get traffic information
That said, if you want to get traffic information between your home and your workplace, you’ll have to input your request manually. Under the main Settings section is a Traffic tab, so you can tell the Echo your start point, your destination, and even add a stop in the middle.
9. Manage where you get your news
You can ask your Echo to tell you the news, but you might not want to hear from every single broadcaster. By hitting the Flash Briefing button in Settings, you can add or remove the BBC, Sky or The Guardian as well as many others.
10. Set a 'Celebrity' alarm
Sick of the standard jingles to wake you up in the morning? How about Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May shouting at you instead? Under the Alarm section there’s the option of adding ‘celebrity’ voices (although in the UK this is restricted to the stars of Amazon’s The Grand Tour). Those in the US have the alternative options of Dan Marino, Jason Schwartzman, Alec Baldwin or Missy Elliot.
More after the break
11. Make voice purchases
You can make more general purchases from Amazon’s own site using your voice by activating it in the Alexa app under the Voice Purchasing setting. But if you’d like a little bit more security (to save pranksters ordering large quantities of random items on your behalf), you can add in a four-digit confirmation code for each purchase to keep your bank balance safe.
12. Give Alexa feedback
What makes the Echo so powerful is (obviously) its voice control, but there are times when Alexa gets it wrong. If it does, you can go to the Home section of the app, hit the drop-down arrow and see what Alexa heard - and send Amazon feedback on whether its AI got it right or wrong to help make it smarter.
13. Delete all voice commands
If you’re not happy with Amazon storing so much information about you, there is the option to mass-delete every recording. On Amazon’s site, navigate to the Manage Your Content And Devices section, then go you Your Devices and select your Echo or Echo Dot, and finally ‘Manage voice recordings’. From there, you can scrub anything you’ve said to Alexa off your account.
14. Switch accounts
Since the Echo is made for home use, it’s possible you’ll have multiple people using it - each with their own Amazon account. If you want to switch between them, go to Settings in the Alexa app, select Household Profiles and follow the instructions there. After that, all you have to do is wake up your device and say “switch accounts’ (or “which account is this?” to check that you’re on the right one).
15. Stream from Amazon Music
Alongside TuneIn for radio, you can play a range of 40 million songs from Amazon Music - provided you’re a Prime subscriber. If not, there’s always the option of uploading 250 songs for free to Amazon’s servers using the Prime Music PC or Mac app.
16. Link a Spotify account...
For Spotify subscribers, you can go into the Alexa app to add your account to your Echo. Just hit the Music & Books menu in the left sidebar of the Alexa app to link the two.
17. ...and make that account your default service
If you your Echo to automatically play music from Spotify, rather than from Amazon’s own service, head to the Music & Media section in the app’s Settings and make Spotify your default.
18. Pair a Bluetooth speaker
Getting the most of out of your music is difficult using the built-in speaker on the Echo (and even more difficult using the smaller speaker in the Echo Dot). Happily, you can pair your voice assistant with any Bluetooth speaker by heading to the Settings menu once again, hitting Devices and then following the instructions there.
Separating the sound and the microphones out has the added benefit of the Echo more easily understanding you, as you don’t have to talk over what’s playing.
Using your skills
19. Add skills
One of the best things about the Echo and the Echo Dot are the number of apps - or ‘Skills’, as Amazon calls them - it works with. You can search through the (approximately) 10,000 skills in the Amazon Alexa iOS or Android app - or check out some of our favourites below…
20. Call an Uber
Possibly the most popular taxi app in the UK, you can ask for an UberX, UberXL, UberEXEC and UberLUX by saying “Ask Uber for a ride”. It doesn’t just come to your default location either, as you can change your location, check your ride status, or cancel it if you’ve changed your mind.
21. Food from Just Eat
By linking your Just Eat account with Alexa (using the app) you can have your Echo re-order your most recent meal by saying “ask Just Eat to re-order sushi” or “ask Just Eat to re-order Chinese”. Unfortunately, you can’t make complete new orders through the Echo yet, but the future will come sooner than we think…
22. Control your smarthome’s lights
Probably the most impressive thing the Amazon Echo can do is control your smarthome. If you’ve got Philips Hue or SmartThings lights, you can tell it to turn on the lights in specific rooms. If you want even more adjustability, you can set the degree of brightness, and even the colour.
23. Manage your Alexa lists with Any.do or Todoist
Creating a list using your Echo is relatively easy - just say “Alexa, add milk to my shopping list” or “Alexa, I need to buy bread”. If you’re an Any.do or Todoist user, though, you’ll have to link your accounts first by going into the Lists subcategory under Settings in the Alexa app.
24. Add a Microsoft, Apple, or Google Calendar
You can’t have a good virtual assistant if it doesn’t know your schedule, so Microsoft, Apple, and Google Calendar users can integrate their respective calendars with their Echo, to get updates about upcoming events.
It also means you can tell Alexa to add new activities to your calendar (by saying, unsurprisingly, “add an event to my calendar”). Alexa will ask some follow-up questions to verify the date, time, and name of the event, and then it’ll be viewable on your PC or mobile app.
25. Use IFTTT
For those that want to really get deep into what their Echo can do, then IFTTT (IF This, Then That) is your new best friend.
The app, which is available on iOS and Android, acts as a middleman between Alexa and your other apps that don’t yet have integration - so you can automatically add new list items to your iOS Reminders app, make your phone ring when the timer goes off, or have it close your garage door, mute your phone and turn off your lights all at once.
You can use either the preset Recipes to customise your Echo, or set your own instructions - either way, it’s clear that the full extent of what Amazon’s Echo will be able to do is yet to be reached.