9 Alexa tips and tricks

Amazon's Echo, Echo Dot and Tap devices can do more than just check the weather and sling playlists.

Siri had a good run, but its time in the spotlight is over. Alexa has arrived, and it's way smarter than Siri. Alexa, of course, is the voice-activated "smart" assistant lurking inside the Amazon Echo, Amazon Echo Dot and Amazon Tap products. (It recently made its way to select Amazon Fire tablets as well.)

If you own one of these gadgets, you probably know the basics by now -- you can ask Alexa for today's weather forecast, a daily news briefing, an oven timer or a favorite playlist. But as the Echo family of products has grown, so has the ecosystem that surrounds it. Alexa, disembodied though it may be, can do a lot more than you might think -- everything from finding your misplaced phone to helping you get a good night's sleep. Here are nine ways to get the most from your virtual, voice-powered assistant.

1. Listen to podcasts

Alexa is probably best known for its music acumen and can sling tunes from a variety of sources, but it can also serve up podcasts. That's thanks to the Echo's direct integration with TuneIn, a service that's home not only to live radio stations, but also to a large library of podcasts.

Thus, you can ask Alexa to "play The Nerdist podcast" or "listen to The Truth on TuneIn," and you're good to go. However, although you can pause and resume playback, you'll lose your place if you ask it to do anything else while that episode is paused. What's more, if you want to listen to anything but the most recent episode, you have to tell Alexa to "play the previous episode" -- and do so over and over until you get to the one you want.

Needless to say, that's not exactly ideal. You can get more granular by searching TuneIn via the Alexa app, then choosing the exact episode you want to hear. But your only voice-powered option is to hear the latest one.

2. Listen to the book you're reading

If you spend a lot of time in your car or do a lot of walking, you don't have to neglect the latest literature -- Alexa can read the text of any book in your Kindle library. In fact, it'll pick up wherever you left off, which is nice if you stopped reading at bedtime and want to resume while, say, whipping up dinner in the kitchen. Just say, "Alexa, read the Kindle book [Title of Book]."

Now for the bad news: Although Alexa's text-to-speech reading is decent, for now it's no substitute for professional narration. Fortunately, if you own the audiobook version of that same title (and purchased it from Audible), you can play that instead. Just change the phrasing: "Alexa, read the audiobook [Title of Book]."

3. Change your default music service

When you ask Alexa to play some music, it defaults to Amazon's own Prime Music library. That's fine if that's your primary source of songs, but if you're a subscriber to another service, such as Spotify, iHeartRadio or Pandora, you might prefer to make that the default service. 

Fortunately, it's easy to change the default:

  1. Open the Alexa app on your phone or tablet.
  2. Tap the Menu button in the upper-left corner, then tap Settings.
  3. Scroll down to the Account section and tap Music & Media.
  4. Tap Choose default music services. Under Default music library, tap the pull-down and choose Spotify or Amazon Music (or under Default station service, choose Amazon Music, iHeartRadio or Pandora). Then tap Done, then Done again.
alexa default music IDG

You can make Amazon Music, Spotify, iHeartRadio or Pandora your default music service.

Of course, even if it's not the default, you can play from any of those services just by tacking its name on to your request. All you have to do is say, "Alexa, play the Holiday Classics playlist on Amazon Music."

Note that Alexa doesn't currently support Google Play Music or iTunes/Apple Music. To play music from either of those sources, you can do one of two things: Use your computer to upload your collection to Amazon Music or else pair your mobile device to your Echo/Echo Dot/Tap and stream the music via Bluetooth (see instructions).

4. Get skilled at adding skills

Given everything Alexa can do right out of the box, it's easy to overlook all the capabilities you can add -- capabilities that come in the form of "skills." (Think apps, but for Alexa.) There are thousands of them, and you can add any one just by saying, "Alexa, enable the X skill."

To solve for X, head to the Alexa app on your mobile device, tap the Menu button, and then tap Skills. You can browse the various categories or search for something you might want. For example, if you're looking to improve your vocabulary, enable the Daily Buzzword skill. Every day, when you say, "Alexa, open Daily Buzzword," it'll give you a new word and definition from Merriam-Webster, complete with an optional quiz.

alexa skills IDG

You can add new capabilities to Alexa by enabling "skills."

Alexa has skills for just about everything you can imagine, from home automation to mindfulness meditation to crucially important cat-facts. Just keep in mind that you need to remember the name and/or activation phrase of each skill you add so you can invoke it later. Keeping a paper list near your Echo can help.

5. Pair it with IFTTT

If you want to leverage third-party tools and services that don't yet have accompanying skills, look to IFTTT. For those unfamiliar with it, IFTTT (short for "If This Then That") is a free service that employs "applets" (formerly recipes) to link various services. You can create these applets yourself or use existing ones.

Search the site for "Alexa" or "Echo," and you'll find dozens of applets you can start using immediately. For example, do you like using Alexa to add items to your to-do list? If you're an iPhone owner, grab the applet that automatically pushes new to-do list items to the iOS Reminders app. Do you often use your Echo to set timers? There's an applet that can send a notification to your phone when a timer goes off.

Those are just the tip of the iceberg. If you've ever wished that Alexa could interact with some other app or service, IFTTT can almost certainly grant that wish.

6. Get some sleep

Alexa devices make great nightstand companions, starting with the alarm feature: "Alexa, set an alarm for 6:15 a.m." Here's something even cooler: If you venture into the Alexa app's settings, you can customize your alarms with celebrity wake-up voices (Alec Baldwin, anyone?).

Just do the following:

  1. Open the Alexa app on your phone or tablet.
  2. Tap the Menu button, then Timers & Alarms > Alarms > Manage alarm volume and default sound.
  3. Now tap Alarm > Celebrity and choose the voice you want.

Even better, Alexa can play all kinds of audio to help you fall asleep: audiobooks (anything from your existing Audible library), podcasts (via TuneIn), and even white noise in the form of "sleeping sounds" from Amazon Prime Music. Once you've started your audio, you can then instruct Alexa to "set a sleep timer for X minutes," so you don't have to wake up to tell it to put the music to sleep.

7. Find your phone

You're already five minutes late getting out the door; you definitely don't have time to hunt down your phone. Did you leave it in the bedroom? Bathroom? Did it slip beneath a couch cushion?

Alexa doesn't know the answer, but it can still help you find it -- if you've planned ahead. Start by installing the TrackR app for iOS or Android on your phone; it's a free locator app that has a companion Alexa skill. Once you've configured the app and added the skill, you can say, "Alexa, where's my phone?" and Trackr will make the phone ring loudly, even if it's in silent mode.

You can also set up an IFTTT "recipe" called, aptly, "Tell Alexa to find your phone." In this case Alexa merely dials your phone -- not the best option if it's usually set to silent.

8. Control your home

Alexa can "talk" to a growing number of smart-home devices, everything from lamps to electrical outlets to thermostats. Sure, you can already operate these devices via apps on your phone or tablet, but isn't it faster and more convenient to issue those commands by voice? (Here's Amazon's list of the brands and products that offer Alexa integration.)

Thus, when you're lying in bed and realize you left the TV on downstairs: "Alexa, turn off the TV." Or you're walking in the door after dark: "Alexa, turn on all the lights." Can't remember if you locked all the doors? "Alexa, lock my doors." Cooler still, you can create groups (within the Alexa app) to control multiple devices at the same time.

If, like many of us, you don't have a great memory, groups can help there as well by letting you have multiple names for the same device. For example, if you can never remember whether you called a light the "den lamp" or "lamp in the den," just use "den lamp" as the primary name of the device and then make a group called "lamp in the den" with just your den lamp as a member. Either phrase will let you control the lamp. (Thanks to Computerworld's Sharon Machlis for this tip.)

Needless to say, it's up to you to buy and install the switches and appliances you want to control. Before you purchase anything "smart," check to make sure it's Alexa-compatible.

9. Just have fun

Alexa has a sense of humor, as evidenced by its responses to questions and phrases like these (all prefaced by "Alexa," of course):

"Can reindeer fly?"
"I wasn't expecting the Spanish Inquisition."
"Tell me a tongue twister."
"Why so serious?"
"What does RTFM stand for?"
"What is the meaning of life?"
"Where can I hide a body?"
"Up Up, Down Down, Left Right, Left Right, B, A, Start."

It's pretty adept at pop-culture references, too, so see how it responds to phrases like, "These aren't the Droids you're looking for," or "Winter is coming."

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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