Virtual/digital assistants are becoming more and more important in today’s consumer tech world. If your new device can’t connect to the internet, and it doesn’t have a virtual assistant built-in, it’s pretty much behind the times out of the gate. That’s why almost any major tech manufacturer has at least one or two products with these capabilities under their belt. Even appliance manufacturers are getting with the times and are bringing smart appliances to the mainstream. When it comes to virtual assistants, the one that rises above them all in terms of availability and third-party integration is Amazon Alexa.
What is Amazon Alexa?
So what is Amazon Alexa? Good question.
Alexa was introduced for the first time all the way back in 2014, side-by-side with the Amazon Echo – Alexa’s “home” and the only product at the time that had support for the virtual assistant. At this point, Apple’s Siri had been around for a good amount of time, but like today still, many people were underwhelmed by the overall functionality of voice assistants. All of that began to change once the Echo started landing on kitchen counters and living room end tables across the country. People soon realized that Amazon’s voice-activated virtual assistant could truly impact their level of productivity on a daily basis.
At launch, the Echo, powered by Alexa, had a limited, but still impressive set of features. We’ll get into all of the capabilities down below, but tasks such as adding items to your Amazon cart, setting timers, helping with recipes, and playing music were staples and truly lead to the eventual success of the device and assistant. Beyond the pure utility of having a virtual assistant at the ready, Amazon’s dedication to an open platform lead to a ton of third-party integrations with Echo which greatly increased the devices usability.
Not long after the Echo was released, other manufacturers began developing devices of their own to house Alexa. Fast forward to today, and with a simple search you can quickly find a host of products such as bluetooth speakers, alarm clocks, phones and even wearables that have Alexa built in. We’ll touch more on some of those devices below.
What can Amazon Alexa do?
Now you know the answer to ‘what is Amazon Alexa’, but what can it do?
As I mentioned above, Alexa is one of, if not the most feature-packed and integrated virtual assistant on the market. By putting together a smart ecosystem in your home or office that is built around Alexa, you can do some pretty impressive things. Using Alexa-enabled devices, and the skills that developers have created, you will also give you access to pretty much any information you could want to improve your day-to-day life. Take a look at the list below to see some of the things that Amazon Alexa can do. Keep in mind this is only the tip of the iceberg. With the countless third-party integrations available for Alexa, it would be nearly impossible to fit them all in one article.
Get Basic Information
As with any other virtual assistant, Alexa will gladly provide you with pretty much any basic information you need. If you are curious about the weather, the traffic on your way to work, sports scores, or headlines in the news, all you’ve got to do is ask. Querying your Alexa-enabled device with a question beginning with the name of the assistant, “Alexa” will return the information you are looking for. For example, try saying, “Alexa. Will it rain today?” or “Alexa. What’s in the news?” It’s worth noting that if you want to receive traffic updates, you’ll need to set up your commute information in the Alexa app ahead of time. In these settings you can save your beginning and end locations, as well as add additional stops along the way.
Alexa. Will it rain today?
Keep Yourself on Task
At launch, one of the downfalls of Alexa was that there was no direct reminder function. However, that has finally been remedied so, now, Alexa can help you stay on top of your to-do list. If you need to remember do something later in the day, simply say “Alexa, remind me to pick up donuts on my way to the office at 8:30 AM.” Your reminder will be stored and can be viewed with the Alexa app. You’ll also receive notifications from the app when it’s time for your reminder. On top of that, if you’re using an Echo, the blue ring will light up atop the device, and Alexa will give you the reminder audibly.
Help in the Kitchen
One of the biggest draws to Alexa, and the Amazon Echo in particular, when it first launched was the utility that it would provide in the kitchen, primarily with helping you keep your cabinets stocked with groceries (more on that below). For many people, the kitchen is the heart of the home, and it’s often where the Echo resides. If you do a lot of cooking, Alexa can be great for helping to find recipes. Third-party developers can create what are called “skills” which you can enable for your device. One of those skills particularly useful for cooking is AllRecipes. With AllRecipes, you will have access to over 60,000 recipes – all accessible by asking Alexa for recommendations. You can even tell Alexa what ingredients you have to work with, and you’ll get an appropriate suggestions.
For example, try saying “Alexa. Ask AllRecipes what I can make with salmon, asparagus and lemon.” Base on those ingredients Alexa and AllRecipes will find something suitable for you to prepare. The largest complaint with the AllRecipes skill is that when reading recipes aloud, it will only take you to about the second step before it asks you to refer to your Alexa app to continue the recipe. Don’t worry, though. There are a ton more recipe skills out there for you to try.
Control Your Smart Home
One of the benefits of having a smart speaker such as Alexa at the heart of your home is that you can control a number of devices using your voice. As I’ve mentioned, Alexa is the most integrated of all virtual assistants, and there are a ton of Alexa-enabled devices that you can use to build a pretty impressive smart ecosystem in your home. As you might assume, Alexa works well with Philips Hue lights. So if you want to turn on a few lights in your home before getting out of bed you can say “Alexa, turn on the living room lights.
Alexa. Turn on the living room lights.
Other Alexa-enabled devices include the Samsung SmartThings Hub, Lifx bulbs, Belkin WeMo, Nest thermostats, August smart lock and much more. One of the coolest products to make use of Alexa is the Neato Botvac. The smart vacuum cleaner can be activated with your voice so you can put it to work whenever you need it.
Not only is Alexa good for information and controlling other devices in your home, but it can also provide entertainment for you and your family. If you find yourself stuck at home one night without much to do, there are a number of games that Alexa can start up for you. Try asking Alexa to play Bingo, Rock Paper Scissors, or Black Jack. You can even ask Alexa for a round of Tic Tac Toe. Since everything is played by voice you’ll have to speak the position you would like to place your mark, such as “bottom right” or “top left”.
Play Your Music
Alexa’s primary home is still in the Echo. Better yet, the entire line of Echo products – most of which have built-in speakers. And, what good would a smart speaker of any caliber be if it couldn’t play music? If you have one of these devices, you can use one of a few music services to play your favorite tunes throughout your home, office, or on the go. Simply say “Alexa. Play my dinner time playlist.” Based on the services you’ve selected in the Music section of the Alexa app, the voice assistant will find the playlist and do just that.
Amazon Prime members have access to a library of about two million free songs of which you can play through your Alexa device, but if that’s not enough, you can subscribe to Amazon Music Unlimited for access to tens of millions of songs. The other great thing about Alexa and the Echo devices it is on is that you can stream music to them via Bluetooth which is something that isn’t yet enabled for other devices such as the Google Home.
Spend Your Money
Alas. We’ve gotten to the part that everyone loves to talk about most. Yes, Alexa is an Amazon product, and at the end of the day, Amazon has to look out for themselves too. Beyond Alexa’s capabilities in entertainment, smart home control, and productivity, the virtual assistant can also help you purchase things from Amazon. Remember when I said Alexa could help you in the kitchen? Well, another big feature that was touted at release was Alexa’s ability to add everyday items to your Amazon cart. For instance, say you are baking a homemade pizza and use the last of your favorite sauce. No worries. Say “Alexa. Add [insert your favorite sauce here] to my shopping cart.” Your wish will be granted.
Alexa. Order more Dawn dish soap.
Taking it a step further, you can now also place orders via Alexa. Yes, that’s correct. You can buy things with your voice using Alexa. To do this you will need an Amazon Prime membership (or at least the 30-day trial). You’ll also need to have a valid card setup in your account. With a voice prompt such as “Alexa. Order more Dawn dish soap.” Alexa will look at your previous order history as well as other Amazon Choice items to find what you are looking for. If Alexa needs more information, you will be walked through a series of questions to complete the order. To fine-tune how ordering is handled with Alexa on your devices, check out the Alexa app for purchase settings.
What devices are Alexa-Enabled?
Being able to ask a virtual assistant for the forecast is all well, but if you don’t have a device that allows you to access it, you’re out of luck with this one. Fortunately, there are tons of devices of all shapes, sizes and price ranges that come with Alexa built-in. If you need to get your hands on a devices like that, take a look at this list below. Also, don’t forget to check out our complete list of the best smart speakers.
Amazon Echo & Echo Plus
[Price: $100 – $150]
The Amazon Echo was the first home to Alexa, and boy how the Echo line has grown as of late. You may have seen that Amazon recently released the “All-New” Echo, which contains the same basic functionality as the original, except now in a more compact, more stylish shell. Amazon claims this new & improved smart speaker, though smaller, has improved audio quality from its predecessor. The device packs in a 2.5″ subwoofer and a 0.6″ tweeter, both with Dolby processing, that fire in opposite directions of one another to create an immersive audio experience. Of course, with Alexa on the all-new Echo, you can search for your music with your voice, filtering by genre, era, or even lyrics. The all-new echo comes in a few different “flavors” including charcoal fabric, heather grey fabric, oak finish, sandstone fabric and more.
The release of the all-new Echo was coupled with the release of the Echo Plus. The Echo Plus has a nearly identical form factor in comparison to the 1st generation Echo but also boasts improved performance in the audio department with Dolby processing. The speakers in the Echo Plus are nearly identical to that of the all-new Echo, at 2.5″ for the woofer, and 0.8″ for the tweeter. However, the big draw for the Echo Plus and the reason you might want to spend the extra $50 is the built-in smart hub that can be used to control a range of smart-home products with the ZigBee protocol. Whereas the other Echo products can control many wifi-enabled smart home products, the ZigBee smart hub that’s built into the Echo Plus broadens its capability, and in many cases, cuts out the need to have a separate hub.
Echo Dot & Tap
[Price: $50 – $130]
Also in Amazon’s first-party lineup are the the Echo Dot and Echo Tap
If you have purchased any of the Echo products and want to make Alexa more accessible throughout your home, the Echo Dot is what you need. This little puck packs in all of the same Alexa features that you would find within the original Echo, but in a much smaller form factor, and a much smaller price. The biggest sacrifice here is the exclusion of the large speakers inside of the all-new Echo and Echo Plus. You can still play music from the Echo Dot, but don’t expect much from it. You can, however, connect the Dot to other speakers and play music through them.
The Echo Tap is Amazon’s portable Bluetooth option. This smart speaker acts just like any other portable Bluetooth speaker in that you can play music from your Bluetooth enabled devices (phone, computer, etc.) and get quite good sound out of it. When the device is connected to WiFi or a mobile hotspot, you have access to the same Alexa services as with the other devices in the series. The Tap comes with a great little docking station, so when you return home from your adventure, you can place the Tap on its dock and use it like any other Alexa device.
Echo Show & Spot
[Price: $130 – $230]
If you prefer a screened interface when using Alexa, you can check out Amazon’s Show and Spot.
The Echo Show has all of the same Alexa capabilities but has one quite obvious addition – a large 7″ screen. A screen is something that many users practically begged for with the rise in popularity of not only the Amazon Echo but smart speakers in general. While it’s great that these devices can audibly serve you with information, many users were interested in being presented that information visually as well. The Echo Show takes full advantage of the screen, giving you the access to many practical applications such as a calendar, the weather, and photos. You also have access to more entertainment-oriented services such as Amazon Prime Video. But the number one addition that the Echo Show brings with its screen is the ability to video call other Echo Show users or anyone who has the Alexa app.
Then there’s the newer addition to the lineup, the Echo Spot. Obviously, this has a much smaller screen, coming in at 2.5″ in a round form factor. Let’s be honest, this is a cute little device. Like the Show, the Echo Spot allows users to hold video calls, view their calendar, see song lyrics and more. The device also takes advantage of the 2nd generation far-field voice recognition. So, though this was designed to fit well in any room, you’ll still be able to solicit information from a distance. If you like the idea of having multiple devices from which you can access Alexa throughout your house, but want something a little more capable than the Echo Dot, this could be a good option for you.
Of course, Amazon’s first-party speakers are a solid bet, but now, there are many lesser-known brands popping up with devices that are nothing to scoff at. First on that part of our list is the Fabriq Chorus smart speaker. This portable Bluetooth speaker is powered by Amazon Alexa, so you have access to all the same capabilities as you would with an Echo. In fact, this device is very reminiscent of the Echo Tap in form and function but comes in at about $30 less.
As you might be able to tell by looking at the pictures, Fabriq’s line of products focuses heavily on style, with the Chorus coming in a patterned blue or patterned white color. Outside of the style, the Fabriq chorus has a very practical kickstand that folds into the side of the device and preventing it from rolling away when placed on a hard surface. The Fabriq Chorus also has a charging dock that lets you continue using the voice services when it’s plugged in at home. One of the more interesting features of this device is that, when connected to WiFi, you can chain up to 10 speakers together to have synced audio playing throughout your home.
If you’re looking to save a little dough and have something to carry around, this is a good bet as long as you can stand the patterns.
Let’s get this out of the way; this is not the best looking device by any stretch of the imagination. Ok, I said it. But seriously, outside of general aesthetics, there is definitely an audience for this device. Triby, from Invoxia, is a portable, Alexa-powered Bluetooth and WiFi smart speaker that comes loaded with a couple of unique features. First, you might notice the e-ink display on the face of the speaker. This is used to display relevant information such as timers that are set, names of songs that are playing, or even messages from family members sent via the Triby app.
The form factor of the Triby is certainly interesting, to say the least. But, its internal battery and magnetic back make it that much more versatile than some of the other options on this list. Unlike the stationary units on this list such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home, you can take Triby into any room with you and when you’re finished, slap it back on to your refrigerator. There’s also a nifty little built-in flag that extrudes from the side of the device to indicate when you have an incoming message.
We’ve covered a device that is reminiscent of the Echo Tap, well, here’s one that could be compared to the Echo Dot. JAM’s smart speaker is compact in size, and also in price. Compared to it’s Echo counterpart, this little guy will save you about $10, and given the extra bit of size, you can expect a little better sound quality than the Dot. However, in terms of functioning as a smart speaker, the JAM smart speaker doesn’t quite measure up. It’s unfortunate that you can’t activate Alexa with a wake word like you can with the actual Echo devices. Instead, you’ll have to reach over and tap the action but to make it work.
Outside of the inconvenience of not being able to use your voice to activate Alexa, the JAM smart speaker has a couple of things going for it. If multi-room audio is something you’re interested in, you may have found a relatively cheap solution. Though some users complain about the challenging setup and pairing process, once you get the system going, you’ll have synced multi-room audio. Keep in mind, anytime you have a little speaker like this, you aren’t going to be blown away by the volume or audio quality. As long as you’re ok with that, this is a great entry point to the world of smart speakers.
Alexa is a very versatile and well-integrated virtual assistant that has a lot to offer users. Whether you just want the ease of access to information such as weather, traffic, sports scores and upcoming calendar events – or if you are more savvy and want something that can control your smart home products, Alexa has a little something to offer everyone. And, as you can see from the list above, there is no shortage of products that house Alexa. Virtual assistants have come a long way since they first came to market, and with the likes of Google Assistant and Siri also looming around, it really comes down to which ecosystem interests you most when choosing which assistant will become your go-to.
What do you think of Amazon Alexa? Do you use it, and if so, how do you use it? Let us know in the comments below!