Virtual assistants are becoming more common: there's Siri on Apple iPhones 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 on the first-gen Echo in 2016, it has since spread to a new Echo speaker, a tiny Echo Dot, the larger Echo Plus - and even found its way into smart-clocks and smart-displays like the Echo Spot and Echo Show, plus hi-fi kit like the Echo Link Amp.
If you're one of the many to have picked up an Amazon Echo speaker (or the Dot or the Spot or the Plus), but don't know if you're making the most of its functionality or are wondering what to ask Alexa next (or have just purchased one and need to set it up), here's everything you'll want to try on your new Echo speaker.
MORE: Amazon Echo Plus 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 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 (and listening in)
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 all 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
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. ...and your sport
Saying "Alexa, sports update" will give you a rundown of news and match fixtures for your favourite sports team. Go into the app settings and click the Sports update, which will give you the option to search for specific teams or find national teams. Not all sports are covered, however, so if you're really into some niche Winter Olympics events you might be out of luck.
11. 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.
12. Talk to other Echo users
If you give the Alexa app access to your smartphone's contacts, you'll be able to start a voice call (over wi-fi) with any other Echo device owner that has done the same - great for keeping up with loved ones from afar, or saving your voice by calling your kids upstairs to come down for dinner.
13. Change your background
This is just for Echo Spot users, but if you go into the settings menu you can change the screen's wallpaper from its default blue to Onyx, Bold Teal, Modern Fuschia, one that looks like an owl and one that looks like a vinyl record (among many others) for added personalisation.
14. Make voice purchases
You can shop from Amazon’s own site using your voice by activating it in the app's 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.
15. 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.
16. Use a Routine
Find yourself asking the same commands every morning? Set up a Routine - a chain of 'Skills' that will automatically play itself at a certain time or when you say a command phrase.
To set this up, go to the Routine sub-menu in the app's Accounts section, hit the plus sign, tap "When this happens" and then select either "When you say something" or "At scheduled time" and start adding skills. Alexa will then activate your smart lights, play music, or activate your Flash Briefing (or any other actions that you set up) all in conjunction.
17. 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. Log into Amazon’s website, navigate to the Manage Your Content And Devices section, then go you Your Devices and select your Echo speaker, and finally ‘Manage voice recordings’. From there, you can scrub anything you’ve said to Alexa off your account.
18. 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).
Sound and vision
19. Stream from Amazon Prime Video
While it's limited to just Amazon Video content at the moment, hopefully Google and Amazon will put their differences aside to bring YouTube back...
20. Stream from Amazon Music
Alongside TuneIn for radio, you can play around 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.
21. 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.
22. ...and make that account your default service
If you want 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 music player.
23. Wake up with music
You can also set some songs or a playlist, through Spotify or Amazon Music, to wake you up or alert you to an alarm. Say "Alexa, wake me up with..." or "Alexa, set an alarm to..." and specify a time - you're ready to go.
24. 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
25. 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…
26. 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.
27. 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 sometimes comes sooner than we think…
28. Control your smart home’s lights
Probably the most impressive thing the Amazon Echo can do is control your smart home. 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.
The Echo Plus, meanwhile, has a built-in hub which allows you to detect devices through a voice command (“Alexa, discover my devices”) so you can bypass the Philips Hue hub for a smoother integration.
29. 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.
30. Add a Microsoft, Apple, or Google Calendar
You can’t have a good virtual assistant if it doesn’t know your schedule. 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 computer or mobile app.
31. 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 free app, which is available on iOS and Android, acts as a middleman between Alexa and your other apps that don’t yet have integration. Through IFTTT, 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 IFTTT's 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.