Alexa: The Ultimate Guide to Amazon’s Virtual Assistant

Alexa, who are you?

Alexa is Amazon’s virtual assistant. Similar to Siri on iOS or Google Now on Android, Alexa is summoned and interacted with by your voice. This means that it (she?) can complete tasks and answer questions without ever needing a keyboard, mouse, computer or phone.

Alexa powers the Amazon Echo Dot

Alexa, are you the same thing as the Amazon Echo?

Alexa is not the same thing as the Amazon Echo. Alexa is the virtual assistant inside the Amazon Echo and the rest of Amazon’s smart speakers. The Echo, Echo Dot and Amazon Tap are essentially delivery vehicles for Alexa functionality.

The Echo, Dot and Tap are smart speakers that sit on a counter or table. While the Echo and Dot are “always on” and listening for you to interact with them. When you want to use Alexa, you simply say her name, followed by the command.

The Tap is closer to a portable bluetooth speaker. It has Alexa capabilities, but you can’t activate Alexa with your voice – you need to press a button.

The Echo is the speaker, and Alexa is the virtual assistant in the cloud waiting to execute your command.

Alexa, play music.

One of the most popular features of Alexa is her ability to find and play music.

You can ask her to play a certain kind of music (“play dinner music”), music by a specific artist (“play music by Bruce Springsteen”), or a specific song (“play Born to Run”).

She will also let you control the music with your voice. You can tell her to skip the song, replay the song, and even turn the volume up and down. Amazon boasts that the Echo, Dot and Tap can hear you over the music, so you shouldn’t need to yell at her to replay Bohemian Rhapsody.

Alexa primarily uses the Amazon Music service. Amazon Music is a catalog of about 2 million songs, and is included with your Prime membership. You can also access Amazon Music by purchasing an Amazon Music Unlimited membership for $9.99/month, or $7.99/month if you’re already a Prime member.

Alexa Can Play Music and Books

  • Can Alexa work with Spotify? Yes. Amazon lets you choose Spotify as the default music choice. This let’s you control Spotify with standard Alexa commands, but using the music from your Spotify library.
  • Can Alexa work with Apple Music? No, Apple Music doesn’t work with the Echo, Dot or Tap.
  • Can Alexa play iTunes? Sort of. You can’t control your iTunes library with your voice, but there are ways to play your iTunes music on your Echo device. You can use the Amazon Music app on your computer to upload your personal music collection to My Music. After it’s uploaded to Amazon, you can play it back using your voice through Alexa. My Music only allows 250 songs for free. If you want to upload more than 250 songs, you’ll need to buy an Amazon Music subscription.
  • Can Alexa control Sonos? Not yet, but soon. Sonos has partnered with Amazon to bring Sonos functionality to Alexa devices. There are rumors that Sonos functionality will be available in early 2017, but there has been no official word from either Sonos or Amazon.

What else can Alexa play?

  • Can Alexa play podcasts? Yes. In typical podcast players, you need to subscribe to a podcast to get the latest edition pushed to your device. However, with Alexa, you can just ask for the latest episode and it will play automatically. Just say “play the Planet Money podcast”.
  • Can Alexa play video? No. Neither the Echo, Echo Dot nor Echo Tap have a screen.
  • Can I use Alexa with a bluetooth speaker? Maybe. The Amazon Echo Dot can connect to a bluetooth speaker to play music and commands. (You can even tell it to connect or disconnect the speaker, which is particularly cool.) The Echo and the Echo Tap can only use their internal speakers.

Alexa Inside an Amazon Echo

Alexa, what is the weather?

Alexa knows your location and will respond with the current temperature and forecast for the rest of the day. I have found this surprisingly faster than using my phone, and equally as accurate.

Alexa, what’s the score of the Bruins game?

If a game is actively happening, she will respond with the score and time remaining (which is amazingly up-to-date). And when there isn’t a game currently being played, she will respond with the opponent and score of the last game played.

Alexa Shopping List

Alexa, add eggs to my shopping list.

Alexa will store a shopping list for you, which is helpful when you’re elbow-deep in cinnamon roll dough and need to remember to buy more cornstarch. While you’re near your Echo, it can read back the list to you.

What’s more helpful is that you can view and check off shopping list items inside the Alexa app on your phone or on the Amazon website. It will even print your shopping list, if she can find your printer.

What is an Alexa skill?

An Alexa skill is like an app on your phone: it’s a piece of software that adds functionality to your Alexa. Amazon has a marketplace of all available Skills on it’s website or inside the app on your phone. You can also enable or disable a skill from the website, through the app, or by speaking directly to Alexa, “add the (name) skill”.

Adding a skill lets you do things such as automating your home, listening to the news, and more.

Some skills are developed by Amazon, but the majority of skills are created by third-party developers. Amazon has created the Skills Kit to facilitate the development of these skills.

Alexa Skills

Alexa, automate my home.

Alexa lets you automate the devices in your home with your voice. This means that you can tell it to turn on the lights, change the thermostat or lock the house with just your voice. It’s similar to how a smart hub works.

Alexa Smart Home Skills

What smart hubs will Alexa work with?

  • Can Alexa work with SmartThings? Yes, through the SmartThings Smart Home Skill.
  • Can Alexa work with Wink? Yes.
  • Can Alexa work with Insteon? Yes.
  • Can Alexa work with HomeKit? Yes, sorta. Neither Amazon nor Apple have much incentive to make their systems work well together. Apple Homekit is powered by Siri, but Siri is a competing technology. You can make your Homekit-enabled devices available to Alexa if you use iDevices as a bridge. However, the Skills marketplace is fairly robust, so you can most likely find a skill that will control your device without necessarily using iDevices.

Alexa can work directly with smart devices through the Skills marketplace, as well.

Alexa, tell me the news.

Alexa offers an automated Flash Briefing, available on-demand. The Flash Briefing plays back the latest news updates from a number of popular broadcasters, like NPR or the BBC, the latest weather update and the latest sports scores from your favorite teams.

You can add new content sources to your Flash Briefing by adding new skills from the Skills marketplace. Some of the popular options are the Wall Street Journal, This Week in Tech, or The Skimm.

Alexa, entertain me.

Despite what it may seem, Alexa does more than just act as your assistant. She has a number of games and trivia available to play:

  • My favorite is Seinfeld Trivia, where it will ask you six questions from the TV show Seinfeld, and give you a score based on your response.
  • She also offers a game called The Magic Door, that’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure style game that you navigate with your voice.
  • There is a Twenty Questions game in which she gives you up to 20 questions to guess the celebrity.
  • And of course, there’s Jeopardy!, where you need to answer in the form of a question.

Alexa can also help you become a better bartender. By adding a Skill called The Bartender, you can ask what ingredients are in a drink (“ask the bartender what’s in a Tom Collins?”) or what drinks can be made with a particular ingredient (“ask the bartender for a drink with pineapple juices”). And if you’re feeling lucky, you can ask The Bartender to surprise you, and she will return the name and ingredients for a randomly-selected drink.

Can Alexa control my TV?

Alexa Controls Your TV With the Harmony Hub

Now that you’re starting to get the hang of the basic things that Alexa can do to change the way you interact with your home, let’s talk about some of the more advanced options.

There are some devices that may not be able to be controlled directly with Alexa, such as most TVs or every cable box. Most “smart devices” have a wifi chip embedded in them, and software that lets them communicate with the Internet. While most TVs these days include wifi, they are lacking the the “controlling” software. You experience this every day, since you probably still control your TV using a remote control that blasts infrared (IR) signals to turn it on, change the channel or change the volume.

The Harmony Hub is a black box that you connect to your home network via wifi. Like most smart hubs, you can control it with your phone. However, the Harmony Hub also includes “IR blasters” that connect to your TV. These IR blasters allow the Harmony Hub to control your TV, via your phone.

You can see where this is going: Alexa can control the Harmony Hub via wifi and your Harmony Hub can control your TV via IR. Therefore: You can control your TV with your voice via Alexa.

Alexa, turn on the TV and change the channel to ESPN.

  • “Alexa, turn on the TV” will turn on your TV via the Harmony Hub.
  • “Alexa, turn off the Xbox” will turn off your Xbox via the Harmony Hub.
  • “Alexa, tell Harmony to pause” will pause your DVD or Blu Ray playback via the Harmony Hub.
  • “Alexa, tell Harmony to set a sleep timer for 15 minutes” will turn off your TV and equipment after 15 minutes. This may be my favorite functionality, since my TV doesn’t have a sleep timer built in.

And if you want to get even more advanced, the Harmony Hub also works with Roku devices. If you have a Roku device and Netflix account, Alexa will let you turn on the TV, turn down the lights, turn up the volume and start a movie with just your voice.

Alexa, what else can you do?

Alexa Has a Lot of Skills

Amazon spent a lot of time making Alexa useful to you anywhere in the house. Some of the most commonly used functionality in our house includes:

  • “Set a timer for 20 minutes.” Unbelievably handy in the kitchen when your hands aren’t clean enough to deal with your phone.
  • “Buy more laundry detergent.” Your Alexa is connected to your Amazon account, so Alexa can help you buy things with just your voice.
  • “What’s on my calendar?” After linking your Google calendar, Alexa can tell you what your next event is, give you the schedule for the day, or add events to your calendar for you.
  • “When was Queen Elizabeth II born?” With great Wikipedia and search abilities (powered by Bing), she can answer most questions you throw at her.
  • “Tell me a joke.” They’re not the best jokes, but they’re not the worst, either.

And since Amazon has opened the development of Skills to third parties, the opportunities are virtually endless.

You don’t have to be a software developer to create custom functionality for Alexa. IFTTT offers a channel of “recipes” to extend the functionality beyond the home. Many of the recipes are built by Amazon, but you can add your own easily through the IFTTT website.

You can also find a complete list of commands here.

Is Alexa worth it?

Yes, Alexa is the best way to make your home smarter. The wide array of abilities available to it via Skills (with more being added every day), along with the multi-directional microphone make it a very useful virtual assistant.

And at about $50, the Amazon Echo Dot is the best (and actually cheapest) way to add the power of Alexa to any room in your house.