10 things you didn’t know Alexa could do

Get more out of your Alexa - it's not just about weather updates and news bulletins

10 things you didn’t know Alexa could do

by William Lobley |

Once upon a time, the smart home didn’t exist. Occasionally you would encounter terms like ‘home automation' or ‘the Internet of Things,’ but typically, an accessible, affordable and efficient voice-controlled home was considered some far-off point. A quick chat about football scores with Siri on your new iPhone - sure, that’s doable. But an entire house of interconnected doorbells, lights, smart TVs, kettles and robot vacuum cleaners was a step too far - the thing of sci-fi.

And then Alexa came along, and everything changed. Quickly.

It’s not that other tech companies weren't working on smart home and voice assistant technology. Apple and Google were - and still are - developing truly ground-breaking smart technologies. However, with the might and influence of Amazon behind it, Alexa has captured consumer imagination to an extreme degree.

Alexa isn’t the preserve of sci-fi fans, tech gurus and people with plenty of cash. It’s an affordable and convenient device that appeals to just about everyone, not only the tech-literate.

Amazon’s Alexa, in all shapes and sizes, is leading the way for smart home technology, allowing users to easily kit out their abodes in voice-controlled equipment without breaking the bank. Both in standalone units and as pre-installed features, the unassuming and unobtrusive service can help streamline, organise and declutter a person's house and life. By attaching easy-to-use voice control with useful day-to-day functions like weather checking, news updates, list-making and video chatting, the service has embedded itself into the modern household.

But Alexa can do much more than keep you updated with national headlines and local wind speed. Here’s our quick guide to ten things that you might not know about Alexa:

Pump up the volume - Multi-room audio and EQ

Multi-Room Music

This is a great feature for parties, or when working and moving around the house. Alexa will allow the user to play the same music, radio or audiobook across compatible Alexa devices and speakers simultaneously via Multi-Room Music. There are both default and customisable Multi-Room Music groups, allowing devices to be included or excluded as necessary, and these groups are created and managed with the Alexa app, under ‘Set Up Multi-Room Music’.

Though the Alexa range is chocked with respectable speakers, some users value the ability to tinker under the audio hood. Alexa-enabled speakers can be equalized with bass, mid and treble all being customisable. Access to this feature can be attained with a voice command, or with setting navigation via an Echo’s touchscreen or the Alexa app.

Stay connected – Voice, video and Alexa-device calls

Video call on Echo Show 10

Alexa makes staying connected incredibly easy. Compatible Alexa devices are able to make calls, both voice and video, to anyone in a user’s smartphone contact list with a simple voice command. Incoming calls can also be set to alert via Alexa devices, avoiding the need to madly scramble for a phone. If a contact also has an Alexa device ready to receive calls, direct Alexa-to-Alexa calls are also possible.

The calls are actioned over WiFi, and Alexa Communication set-up and preferences can accessed with the Alexa app, under ‘Communicate’. Depending on the available device, calls and video chats can operate through the app, an existing landline, a directly connected EE or Vodafone account, or Skype.

Due to their screen and camera, Echo Show devices can also be used to view and communicate with Ring doorbell and home security devices.

Related: The best wireless speakers | Smart hubs with cameras

The smart-home command centre – Zigbee

Alexa turning off light via Echo Show

There’s a lot of techno-jargon behind the mechanics of Zigbee devices, but the bottom line for consumers is that it allows smart devices to communicate with each other, regardless of the manufacturer. This is why an Echo (4th gen), Echo Show 10 and Echo Studio can easily communicate with the likes of Portal By Facebook, Google Nest thermostat and Philips Hue smart bulbs.

Without a device with a built-in Zigbee smart home hub, a user looking to set up a smart home would need to have multiple extra devices to communicate across their smart tech.

Gourmet dinner on demand (nearly) – Recipe ideas

Cutting onions following Amazon Alexa recipe

Stuck on what to do for dinner, or looking for something new to try? Alexa is here to help. Utilising some of the in-built skills, Alexa can find the user a recipe from either a specific or general voice command. We’d recommended trying for recipes directly from BBC Good Food, as they’re selection tends to be both reliable and delicious.

Here are a few questions to get the ball rolling: “Alexa, ask BBC Good Food for a quick Italian recipe”, “Alexa, ask BBC Good Food for a chocolate brownie recipe”, or “Alexa, ask BBC Good Food for a Mexican recipe with beef”.

The same process goes for cocktails too, with Alexa boasting a staggering array of mixology knowledge, spanning from the basic “how to make a gin and tonic”, to “a cocktail with bourbon” or “a Blue Magarita.”

Be a personal trainer – Fitness routines and workout ideas

Yoga stretches

Thanks to the Alexa skill library, the smart assistant can just as quickly pull up a workout plan as give directions to the nearest takeaway. The fastest way to get a fitness routine is to ask Alexa to begin a seven-minute workout, which will trigger a timed HIIT routine of mixed, full-body exercise. The same kind of process can be used for a yoga routine.

As to be expected, Alexa’s wider integration and compatibility provides access to an array of fitness skills, apps and devices. Some of the most rewarding include syncing a Fitbit to keep progress tracked and updated, and asking Alexa to initiate Stop, Breathe & Think, an on-demand mindfulness and meditation app.

Related: Which Fitbit should you choose?

Be your Amazon PA – Track orders and show exclusive deals

Signing for a package

It’s common knowledge that Alexa devices allow users to purchase items with a single voice command. What is less well-known is that orders can also be tracked. A simple “track my order” or “where’s my stuff” command will give the user an update on their orders progress, informing them of a delivery date. Alexa will also highlight exclusive deals when asked, providing a run and details on some of the hottest price-drops, all of which can be purchased with a voice confirmation.

Keep that temperature equitable – Thermostat control

Hive thermostat on the wall

Hive, Honeywell Home and Google Nest thermostats can all be combined with Alexa to provide supreme voice control over a home’s heating, allowing both accuracy and flexibility. Individual radiators can also be modified with smart-controlled thermostats, from trusted brands like Drayton, Bosch and tado°, to allow specific and accurate room temperature control. Long gone are the days of turning a radiator dial to five and hoping for the best.

Even in Alexa’s impressive and ever-growing integration catalogue, this particular ability stands out as an important and ground-breaking development, saving time, money and energy.

Are you not entertained? – Smart TV control

Smart TV

Bringing Alexa into play with a smart TV is a joyful thing, allowing the user to access their favourite channels, streaming and on-demand services, recordings and on-screen apps with simple voice commands. This process may seem to some as superfluous, however, in practice it can really speed up TV menu navigation and catalogue searches.

Alexa communication can be achieved in a number of ways, depending on the user's arrangement and available devices. Amazon Fire TV devices are all loaded with full-Alexa integration, and come in the form of the Fire Stick (Lite and 4K versions are available), Fire Cube and JVC 4K Fire Smart TV. Alexa sits at the heart of all these devices.

Some smart TVs can be linked to Echo devices to have Alexa effectively bolted on to their pre-existing smart TV capabilities. This allows those without Amazon Fire devices to still integrate their TV into a smart-home eco-system.

Related: The best 50-inch smart TVs | Best 43-inch smart TVs

Break it all down – Explaining itself

Echo Studio

Alexa wants users to know how to get the most from it, and because of this, the AI can be very open about how it operates. If a user is a little unsure of what their Alexa device can do, all they need to do is ask, “Alexa, what can you do?”, and it will list off its capabilities. This can be of great help to anyone new to smart home products, or who may feel a little overwhelmed by the 100,000+ skills available in Alexa’s arsenal.

Similarly, if a user has asked Alexa to perform a task or answer a question and the response wasn’t quite right, the device can explain itself. Asking “why did you do that?” will have Alexa layout the reasoning behind a specific action or response, allowing the user to better understand how Alexa thinks, or where the user could’ve been clearer, hopefully improving human-device communication in future.

Automate a home – Routines

Smart lightbulbs

“Alexa, good morning”: Smart bulbs turn on in the kitchen, new headlines and a weather report begin. “Alexa, let’s relax”: Living rooms bulbs dim and the Echo Plus starts to play some Miles Davis (or Coldplay, there’s no judgement here). At 10.30pm, the landing smart bulbs come on at 30% brightness, while the kitchen lights turn off and Hive thermostat makes sure the temperature is right for the user’s perfect sleep. How do all of these events trigger at once? With Alexa’s Routines.

Simply put, Routines helps users get the most out of their smart devices by automating how they work together, and they can be as simple or as complicated as desired. Routine triggers are also customisable, capable of being actioned at a scheduled time, or with a user-defined phrase. This feature often goes underused as it can seem like an intimidating, high-tech process, when in truth they’re extremely quick and easy to set up.

The Routines menu can be found in the Alexa app, where the user can add actions telling Alexa what to do and on what device.

William Lobley is a Content Writer and reviewer for WhatsTheBest, specialising in technology, gaming and outdoors. He also writes for Empire Online.

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