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Amazon Alexa: Everything you need to know about the digital assistant

Unlock Alexa's true potential with this definitive guide.
By
May 3, 2022
Amazon Echo 4th gen hero
Adam Molina / Android Authority

Digital assistants like Amazon Alexa are all the rage these days. Their concept is easy to understand, but you have to put in some work to get the most out of them. Each has its own set of features, limitations, and conventions, many of which aren’t clear from the outset.

That’s what this guide is for. It will teach you more or less everything you need to know about using Alexa on daily basis. That includes commands, which devices support it, and much more.

Amazon Alexa guide:


What is Amazon Alexa?

Amazon echo show 2019 screen 1

Alexa is Amazon’s digital assistant. It’s primarily voice-based, and competes with Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri. You can find it on various devices, including smartphones, smart speakers, TVs, and smart displays. It lets you play music and video, check the news and weather, communicate with people, and control a range of smart home accessories. The service is nominally there to help you get stuff done faster and easier, without the need to pull a phone out of your pocket or find a remote. Think of it as ambient computing.

It is however closely tied to the rest of the Amazon ecosystem. Shopping and order-tracking features are built in, and there are hooks for services like Audible, Prime Video, and Amazon Music, even if you don’t have to use them. If you want to use security products from Ring or Blink, though, you have no choice but to use Alexa for voice control, since Amazon owns the two brands.

Alexa made its debut in 2014 with the original Amazon Echo speaker. In addition to Amazon’s lineup, it’s also available on many products from third-party manufacturers.

Here: The best Alexa speakers


How to use Amazon Alexa

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Unless you mute them, most Alexa-powered devices are always listening for their wake word, which of course defaults to “Alexa.” Alternate options include “Echo,” “Amazon,” “Ziggy,” or “Computer.” You can choose one of these within the Alexa app by going to More > Settings > Device Settings, selecting your device from the list, tapping on the gear icon, and hitting Wake Word.

More: How to change Alexa’s name and voice

To use Alexa on a smart speaker or display, say the wake word followed by a command. A simple example of this would be, “Alexa, tell me what the weather is like.” You can discover more sample commands below, but as a rule, you can use natural language ― so long as any appropriate features and services are configured.

Using Alexa on smartphones isn’t quite as good as on smart speakers. The mobile app does support wake words, but only when it’s open and running. Additionally, the feature has to be turned on in the settings. Just open the Alexa app and go to More > Settings > Device Settings> Alexa on this Phone and toggle on Enable Alexa Hands Free. Otherwise, you’ll have to open the app and tap on the Alexa button to use voice commands.

Keep in mind that not every device supports all features. On a Fire TV Cube, for example, you can use Alexa to open a native YouTube app, but there is no such app on an Echo Show display. If you search for a YouTube video, a Show will redirect you to a web version instead.

For more comprehensive details on using Alexa, read our extended guide.


Alexa-powered devices

2020 Amazon Fire HD 8 review photos 5
Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

For obvious reasons, the most popular Alexa devices are Amazon’s Echo  speakers and displays.  There are also a variety of third-party products in the those categories however, available from brands like Meta, Polk, Sonos, and Ultimate Ears.

Amazon additionally includes Alexa on Fire OS-based tablets, media streaming devices, and TVs. Other products that have Alexa built in or are just compatible with the assistant include thermostats, lamps, smartwatches, security cameras, smart plugs, and many others. There are too many products to list here, so we’ve rounded up some of the more interesting ones below.

Amazon Echo 4th gen desk
Adam Molina / Android Authority

The list below contains some of the most useful Alexa commands, although the assistant understands many, many others.

General queries:

  • “Alexa, let’s chat.” – Start a conversation with Alexa, which can get pretty weird.
  • “Alexa, what’s the weather?”
  • “Alexa, what’s my flash briefing?” — Alexa delivers news from selected broadcasters.
  • “Alexa, what’s the traffic like?”
  • “Alexa, set an alarm for…”
  • “Alexa, set a timer for X minutes.”
  • “Alexa, what time is it?.”
  • “Alexa, what’s the date?”
  • “Alexa, cancel the alarm.”
  • “Alexa, show my calendar.”
  • “Alexa, show me the weekend forecast.”

Music:

  • “Alexa, play some music.” — This randomly plays music through Amazon’s music service.
  • “Alexa, play music by [artist].”
  • “Alexa, play the latest Stars of the Lid album.”
  • “Alexa, play The Crow by DJ Food.”
  • “Alexa, next.” — Skip to the next track.
  • “Alexa, restart.” — Restart the current song.
  • “Alexa, add this song.” — This adds the song you’re hearing to your library on compatible services, like Spotify or Amazon Music.
  • “Alexa, play [song] on Spotify.”
  • “Alexa, play [artist] station on Pandora.”
  • “Alexa, play [radio station] on TuneIn.”
  • “Alexa, what’s playing?” — This will tell you name of the song and artist.
  • “Alexa, stop playing in 20 minutes.”
  • “Alexa, set the volume to 4.”
  • “Alexa, louder” or “Alexa, turn up/down the volume.”
  • “Alexa, wake me up to [artist, song, genre, playlist, or album] at 8 AM.”

Restaurants:

  • “Alexa, find me a nearby [food type] restaurant.”
  • “Alexa, what restaurants are near me?”
  • “Alexa, find the address for the nearest Torchy’s Tacos.”
  • “Alexa, find business hours for the nearest Torchy’s Tacos.”

Shopping and to-do lists:

  • “Alexa, create a to-do list.”
  • “Alexa, add ‘buy food for cat’ to my to-do list.”
  • “Alexa, add pizza sauce to my shopping list.”
  • ”Alexa, what’s on my shopping list?”
  • “Alexa, I need to make an appointment to see the vet.”
  • “Alexa, what’s on my calendar for tomorrow?”
  • “Alexa, add [event] to my calendar for [time/date].”

Purchasing:

  • “Alexa, order an Echo.”
  • “Alexa, ask Uber to request a ride” or “Alexa, ask Lyft for a ride.”
  • “Alexa, shop for new music by [artist].”
  • “Alexa, track my order.”
  • “Alexa, buy more laundry detergent.” — You can re-order items on Amazon this way.
  • “Alexa, search for [artist] on Amazon.”

Fun easter eggs:

  • “Alexa, good morning.”
  • “Alexa, how are you?.”
  • “Alexa, beam me up.”
  • “Alexa, tell me a joke.”
  • “Alexa, party time!”
  • “Alexa, tell me a riddle.”
  • “Alexa, are you Skynet?”
  • “Alexa, nice to see you, to see you…”
  • “Alexa, would you like to play a game?”
  • “Alexa, what’s the first rule of Fight Club?”
  • “Alexa, will you marry me?”
  • “Alexa, open the pod bay doors.”
  • “Alexa, when am I going to die?”

More: Here’s a complete list of the best Amazon Alexa commands

Not all of these commands work on every device, and you’ll have to enable Alexa skills to use some of them.


Skills

Amazon Alexa skills what's the time

Skills are what make Alexa shine. Effectively, they’re third-party apps that bring new functionality. You can enable the Kayak skill, for instance, and check flight prices by saying, “Alexa, ask Kayak how much it costs to fly from New York to Boston.” Skills are sometimes required for services and accessories ― you can’t connect an Ecobee thermostat to Alexa, for example, without enabling its skill during setup.

You can browse skills in the Alexa app by going to Menu > Skills & Games. More than 100,000 of them are available, and they’re typically free, though some offer paid features. We’ve compiled a list of a few excellent Alexa skills, which you can check out below. Visit Amazon’s website to discover even more.

Finance:

  • Coinbase — Check real-time Bitcoin and Ethereum prices.
  • PayPal — Check your balance and send as well as request money.
  • YNAB — Check category balance and create new transactions.

Shopping:

  • Best Buy — Research products, check the deal of the day, and find a store near you.
  • Macy’s Orders — Track your package.
  • Woot — Check various daily deals.

Health and fitness:

Productivity:

  • UPS — Track your packages, find a UPS location, and get a shipping quote.
  • Calculator — Make calculations.

Read next: A look at some of the best skills and apps for Alexa


Smart home products

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Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

Just like Google Assistant, you can use Alexa to control compatible smart home accessories. These include lights, thermostats, and cameras, among many others. Control options include voice, the Alexa app, or on an Echo Show, a touchscreen interface.

Related: These are the best smart home gadgets around

To connect accessories with Alexa, launch the app and enable relevant skills, which link third-party accounts. Open More > Skills and Games, and use the search box up top to find the things you’re looking for. Typically this will populate Alexa’s device list with accessories you’ve previously set up. If not, go to the Devices tab and tap the plus icon, or else ask Alexa to “discover my devices.”

Smart home products compatible with Amazon’s assistant carry a “Works with Alexa” badge. Be on the lookout for this when shopping, because some accessories may only be compatible with platforms like Google Assistant or Apple HomeKit. Amazon has a dedicated Works with Alexa page on its website, where you can get a sense of what’s available.

An important topic we haven’t addressed yet is routines. These are created in the Alexa app, and can automate most things Alexa is capable of, such as changing volume, playing music, or using Alexa Guard. Routines are most important in the smart home realm, because you can use these to trigger accessories based on things like sensors, voice commands, or the time of day.  A “good night” routine might turn off all your lights, lock your doors, lower your thermostat, and start playing ambient music from your nightstand Echo ― all at once.

Learn: How to use Alexa routines


Amazon Alexa vs Google Assistant

Google Assistant stock photo 2
Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

Alexa and Google Assistant are similar in many ways. They both allow you to control devices with voice commands, and can quickly check the weather, play music, ask questions, and so forth. Each is available on smartphones, smart speakers, and tons of other products.

There’s more to say in the link below, but a shorthand way to think of the differences between the two is that Alexa is mainly a smart home hub and a way of interacting with third-party services. Google Assistant, having been created for phones, is much closer to a comprehensive personal aid, even if Alexa has some advantages.

Google’s platform is not only better at answering knowledge questions, but can control settings on Android phones, and in some cases handle phone reservations for things like restaurants and haircuts. Since Assistant is baked into both Android and products like the Nest Hub, it’s often preferable for calendar and reminder notifications, since you know they’ll be mirrored wherever you go.

Within the smart home arena, Alexa is arguably superior. There’s a lot of overlap in capabilities, but there’s a longer list of Alexa-compatible products, and the Alexa app is easier to use than Google Home. That’s especially true when it comes to routines. You may still prefer Assistant, however, if you use Google Cast or you’re heavily reliant on Google services such as YouTube. There’s no Cast support or native YouTube app on Amazon smart displays, and no Alexa speaker supports YouTube Music.

Read more: Alexa vs. Google Assistant