Amazon now has a huge range of Echo devices, and there are plenty of other gadgets which now come with Alexa built in from TVs to headphones and even car stereos. It means the digital assistant is fast becoming omnipresent. But even if you have just the one Echo speaker, there's a lot you can do with Alexa.
Whether you want to know the basic commands for controlling music, through to setting up a routine so several things happen when you say a custom phrase, we'll explain everything you need to know. Here are our tips and tricks for using Alexa.
We're assuming that you have already set up your Echo and have the Alexa app on your phone. It's well worth spending a little while running through the ‘Things to Try’ section, which you'll find if you tap the menu button in the top-left corner.
If you have an Echo Show - one of Amazon's smart displays - you'll see Things to Try appear at the bottom of the screen. Unfortunately, there is no option to turn these off, but for the most part they are useful reminders of what you can say, as well as suggestions of new features you may not have used yet.
Things to Try - in the Alexa app - is divided up into many categories so just pick one and try saying a few commands. One section to look at is 'What's New' as this tells you the latest features.
From setting timers and alarms to finding out information and converting units and measurements, Alexa can be useful in many situations (especially when cooking).
Top tip: You must say Alexa first, but there’s no need to pause and wait. It’s no use saying “Stop the timer, Alexa” as all she will hear is “Alexa” with no command afterwards.
For example you can say “Alexa, what’s the weather on Sunday”. As long as you watch to see that the blue LEDs have lit up to indicate she has heard her name, keep speaking.
We’ve put together a quick-start list of what you can say to Alexa.
Alexa tips: Music & radio
One of the Echo’s main features is playing music. By default, Alexa will play from Amazon Music. But if you have a Spotify subscription you can say “Alexa, play Billie Jean from Spotify” to specify which service to use. You’ll need to configure your Spotify account first, so open the main menu in the Alexa app and tap on Settings > Music & Media. The same goes for Apple Music.
Tap on one of these services and then on ‘LINK YOUR ACCOUNT’.
Alexa also supports TuneIn, and this means you can listen to the radio. BBC radio is no longer available on TuneIn but you can still listen by saying "Alexa play Radio 2" and it will start playing. TuneIn is used for other radio stations, so your favourite FM or digital radio station should be there.
Top tip: If you have more than one Echo, you can add them to a group and have music play in sync on some or all of them. You’ll find the option to create a group under Devices > Speaker Groups.
Top tip: You can tell Alexa to play music on a specific Echo if you have more than one. First, make sure you’ve named your Echo. Usually it makes sense to name it after the room it’s in. Do this under Settings > Device Settings > [Your Echo device] > Edit Name.
Then you can say “Alexa, play festive music everywhere” or "Alexa, play 90s music in the lounge".
You'll see what's playing currently on the screen of an Echo Show or Spot, but you can ask "Alexa, turn on Song ID" to get her to announce the song artist and track title at the start of each song.
Reminders and lists
Alexa can remind you of things. Just say “Alexa, remind me to pay my TV licence tomorrow at 11am”. Obviously you won’t hear the reminder if you’re not within earshot, but she will remind you at that time nonetheless.
You can also check those reminders in the Alexa app, of course, so they don’t disappear after the set time and date.
Lists are separate to reminders. There are two: Shopping and To-do. Just ask Alexa to put something on a list by saying “Alexa, add cornflakes to my shopping list”. Then, when you’re in the supermarket you can check the list within the app.
The to-do list isn’t sophisticated enough to include deadlines, but you can similarly say “Alexa, add put out the bins to my to-do list”.
As well as Alexa’s core functions, you can enable a lot more by looking through the library of Skills.There are thousands, but some require you to have hardware (such as a smart light or switch) or a subscription to a particular service. Most, though, are completely free to use and will work straight away.
They include everything from a Skill to check train times through to games and ‘silly’ features like Meow Meow, where Alexa will make cat noises.
If you already know the name of the skill just say “Alexa enable the [name of skill] skill”. Otherwise, in the Alexa app, from the main menu choose Skills & Games and browse through or search. Star ratings help to see whether others think it's a good skill or not.
You can also create and customise your own personal Alexa skills, which is great for when you have house guests or when it's someone's birthday.
One of the best features is the ability to set up a series of actions which happen on your command. So although Alexa can’t accept multiple requests in one go (yet!), Routines is sort of a workaround for this.
You could configure, for example, that Alexa will turn on the lights and read your Flash Briefing when you say “Alexa, good morning”.
The former will happen only if you have compatible smart lights (see Control your stuff below). The latter is a built-in feature which gives you a news and weather update.
To customise the Flash Briefing, go to Settings > Flash Briefing. Tap the boxes next to the services you want included, and tap ‘Get more Flash Briefing content’ to add more.
Bear in mind that not all of the services offered are recorded audio: some use Alexa’s text-to-speech function. Unfortunately, this isn’t really good enough yet compared to listening to a pre-recorded news bulletin. But you can switch off anything you don’t like easily enough.
Many companies have added Alexa support for their smart home gadgets, including Wi-Fi light bulbs, smart plugs, security cameras, temperature and motion sensors, thermostats and radiator valves.
You’ll have to enable the relevant Skill, then enter your login details and authorise Alexa to control those devices through your account.
Then it’s just a case of learning exactly what to say to control them, as well as what’s possible. For example, you can group multiple smart bulbs and get Alexa to turn them on and off at the same time by saying "Alexa turn off the lights".
When naming any device, keep it as simple as possible to ensure Alexa doesn’t miss-hear you.
If you have an Echo Show or Spot, you can view the video feed from compatible cameras and video doorbells. Enable the Skill from the camera's manufacturer and enter your account details. Then say "Alexa, show me the front door" or use whatever name you have given that camera. Remember, rename your camera if the current name isn't easy to say or easy for Alexa to understand.
In some countries, you can enable Alexa Guard, which will listen out for smoke alarms and the sound of breaking glass, as well as turn on lights automatically to help protect your home when no-one is in.
Alexa can send messages and make voice calls to another Alexa users.
Once you allow her to access your phone (or tablet) contacts, she can identify who has an Echo or the Alexa app.
You can then say “Alexa, tell Marc I’ll be round in 15 minutes”. Your voice recording will then be played on their Echo when they check their messages.
Alternatively you can type your message in the Alexa app, and she will then read it out in her voice instead of using a recording of your voice.
For more details see our guide to Alexa messaging and calling.
There's also the ability to broadcast messages on all your Echo devices. Ask Alexa on any Echo and say "Alexa tell everyone dinner is ready" and she will announce it around the house.
Drop-In is another feature that means you can start a voice or video call with a trusted contact without waiting for them to first answer. It sounds a little odd, but when used between two Echos in the same home, or to video call the grandparents, it's a useful feature.
Fun things to do with Alexa
Amazon has given Alexa many witty responses: you just need to know what to ask. We’ve put together a list of 95 things you can ask Alexa to get funny responses. One quick example is "Alexa, tell us a joke".
And there’s a selection of games you can play. So try saying the following:
- Alexa, play 20 questions
- Alexa, play rock, paper, scissors
- Alexa, play Bingo
- Alexa, open the Wayne Investigation
- Alexa, open Geography Trivia
- If you’re playing a board game, say “Alexa, roll the dice”.