Alexa is the name of Amazon’s virtual assistant. You’ll find Alexa in the company’s Echo smart speakers, its Fire TV media streaming sticks and Fire tablets, plus its Echo Buds headphones.
But you can also use Alexa simply by installing Amazon’s free Alexa app on your phone: you don’t need to buy a device. Alexa can also be found in many other devices from other manufacturers, including dash cams, TV sound bars and Bluetooth speakers.
At a very basic level, you can ask Alexa simple questions such as “what time is it?” but she can also control smart home devices, allowing you to turn lights on and off – or even open the garage door – with your voice.
With Routines, you can speak a single command and make several things happen at once, which can save a lot of time.
However, whether you just want a brief overview of what’s possible with Alexa or to discover more features, you’re in the right place.
What can I use Alexa for?
Alexa can answer general questions, set timers, play music, read news headlines, give you a weather forecast, tell you sports scores and much more. She can remind you of birthdays, appointments, meetings and simply to put the bins out. She’ll manage your shopping lists and to-do list, but also lets you call and message friends and family, and even broadcast messages around your home such as “dinner’s ready”.
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Like any good assistant, you can speak to Alexa using natural language. In some countries including the US and UK, Alexa can recognise individual voices and provide information specific to that person (such as what’s on their calendar) but will respond to anyone’s voice for general requests, questions and commands.
When speaking, you don’t have to wait after you say “Alexa”. Just say Alexa and carry on speaking.
Alexa can do a lot out of the box, but for some things, you will need to enable a ‘Skill’. You can search or browser the available Skills in the Alexa app and simply tap ‘Enable’ to start using it.
Alexa can handle a lot of general requests such as these:
- Alexa, what time is it?
- Alexa, set an alarm for weekdays at 7am
- Alexa, snooze (snoozes the alarm)
- Alexa, set a timer for 10 minutes (Also say, “Alexa, how much time is left on my timer?”)
- Alexa, stop playing in 30 minutes (Sleep timer)
- Alexa, turn up the volume OR Alexa, volume 5 [the range is 1-10]
- Alexa, quieter OR Alexa, mute
- Alexa, Help
- Alexa, stop (works for a variety of things, but also try “Alexa, exit” if you’re in a Skill)
- Alexa, what’s 100 miles in kilometres?
- Alexa, what’s the capital of Colombia?
- Alexa, what’s the square root of 64?
- Alexa, what’s the weather on Saturday? (Set your location in the Alexa app first)
- Alexa, give me the headlines (Set up your Flash Briefing in the app)
- Alexa, what’s my commute? (set up your start and finish points in the app)
She can also handle general knowledge questions such as:
- Alexa, how tall is Kilimanjaro?
- Alexa, what’s the definition of putative?
- Alexa, why is the sky blue?
- Alexa, when is sunset today?
- Alexa, who plays Mark in Peep Show?
- Alexa, who is the lead singer of Jamiroquai?
- Alexa, how far is it from Manchester to Birmingham?
TIP: Try saying, Alexa, good morning as you’ll hear an interesting fact of the day.
Music and audio playback controls
Alexa is a convenient way to listen to music, but you’ll need to subscribe to Amazon Music or another supported streaming service if you want to ask for specific songs. You can listen to the radio for free, however.
If you want Alexa to play music from an Apple Music or Spotify Premium account you need to change the default music provider in the Alexa app under Settings > Music & Podcasts.
This is what to say:
- Shuffle all music: “Alexa, play some music”
- Play an artist or album: “Alexa, play Michael Bublé” OR “Alexa, play Back to Black”
- Play a genre of music: “Alexa, play some jazz”
- Skip to the next track: “Alexa, next”
- Play the last song: “Alexa, previous”
- Repeat a song: “Alexa, restart” OR “Alexa, play that song again”
- Start a playlist (you need to create these first in the Amazon Music app): “Alexa, play the 1980s playlist”
- Get the name of a song: “Alexa, which song is this?”
- Listen to the radio: “Alexa, ask BBC to play Radio 4”
- Play music over Bluetooth: “Alexa, connect to my phone”
TIP: Radio stations are played from a ‘Service’ such as BBC, Global Player, Planet Radio or TuneIn. Sometimes you need to know which service broadcasts the station you want to listen to. And you need to say “Alexa, play [name of station] from [name of service]”. For example, “Alexa, play Heart UK from TuneIn” or, “Alexa, ask TuneIn to play Heart UK”.
You can also add songs to playlists, create new playlists and more. You can even ask Alexa to play a song from a band you heard a few weeks ago, but can’t remember the track name.
- “Alexa, play me the Jamiroquai song I heard last month”
- “Alexa, play me pop music I was listening to three weeks ago”
- “Alexa, play music that I was listening to earlier today”
- “Alexa, play jazz songs I haven’t heard recently”
There are also ways to play similar music to what you’re listening to:
- “Alexa, play more like this”
- “Alexa, play songs similar to ‘Easy like Sunday Morning'”
- To do this for an artist and era, “Alexa, play songs like 80s Rick Astley”
You can also make playlists, and add to them using these commands while listening to Amazon Music:
- “Alexa, add this song to my playlist”
- “Alexa, add this to my ‘Studying’ playlist”
- “Alexa, create a new playlist from this song”
- “Alexa create a new playlist”
Audiobooks & podcasts
- Play an audiobook (you need an Audible or Prime subscription): Alexa, play [title of book] on Audible OR Alexa, play the book [title]
- Skip chapters: Alexa, next chapter OR Alexa, previous
- Read a Kindle book: Alexa, read me my Kindle book [then say the title of the book]
Some audiobooks are recorded speech, but others are read out by Alexa. And although Alexa sounds quite human, it can be hard to listen to a book as the intonation and pronunciation isn’t always very good.
For podcasts, Alexa will use TuneIn by default. Admittedly, listening to podcasts can be a little frustrating as it can be hard to get the episode you want, and difficult to discover something you might actually want to listen to.
There are Skills including AnyPod and Stitcher that you can enable to improve things, but it can be simpler to use your favourite podcast app on your phone and simply use your Amazon Echo as a Bluetooth speaker to listen and just leave Alexa out of the equation.
If you have several Echo devices, you can create a Speaker Group in the Alexa app and play music in sync on all of them. This will work no matter whether you’ve chosen Amazon, Apple or Spotify as the music source.
To create a group, tap on the Devices icon at the bottom of the home screen in the Alexa app then tap the ‘+’ symbol top right and choose ‘Combine speakers’. Follow the on-screen prompts, and then you can ask Alexa to play music by saying, “Alexa, play Maroon 5 downstairs”, assuming you named the group ‘downstairs’.
If you group all your Echo devices, you can say “Alexa, play music everywhere”.
Alternatively, you can ask Alexa to play music on a specific Echo device, so you could make calming lullabies play on your Echo Dot in the baby’s room, even if you’re talking to Alexa on your Echo in the kitchen, for example.
For more, see our step-by-step guide to creating groups with Alexa.
It’s worth noting that multi-room isn’t supported on some Alexa devices made by other companies. If you want know more, read about music on Alexa.
Controlling smart home devices is one of Alexa’s best features.
Because Alexa is so popular, most smart gadgets support the assistant. This means you can control light bulbs, thermostats, plugs, switches and more.
Alexa works with Nest, Philips HUE, LIFX, Netatmo, Hive, LightwaveRF, Smart Things, Honeywell Total Connect Comfort, digitalSTROM, MyFox and tado. Plus, Yonomi lets you control some other devices not directly supports, such as Logitech Harmony controls and Sonos systems.
In the Alexa app, tap the three horizontal bars (labelled More), then tap on Skills & Games. Now you can search for your product or service and see if it is supported.
In general, once you enable the skill, you will need to log into the account for that smart device (such as Philips Hue) and authorise Alexa to use it.
For the best experience, you should create groups so that you can control all the lights and plugs, say, in one room by saying “Alexa, turn on lounge”, rather than asking for each device to be switched on individually. Also, if you have an Echo in each room, you can assign them to rooms. This means that you can go into the lounge and say “Alexa, turn on the lights” rather than saying the room name.
Another way to control multiple devices, and schedule lights to turn on and off when you want, is to use Alexa Routines.
Some examples, once this is all set up, include:
- Alexa, set the temperature to 20 degrees
- Alexa, tell Nest to boost my heating
- Alexa, lower bedroom by 3 degrees
- Alexa, turn on the lights in the lounge
- Alexa, turn off the kitchen light
- Alexa, turn on kettle [this requires a smart plug]
For a step-by-step guide, read how to control your lights with Alexa.
Shopping, to-do lists and calendar
The Alexa app has a built-in to-do list and shopping list, and can sync with your Google calendar. You can then say:
- Alexa, add washing up liquid to my shopping list
- Alexa, add Go Shopping to my calendar on 15th November at 3pm
- Alexa, what’s on my calendar?
- Alexa, put ‘get the car serviced’ on my To-Do list
Alexa can also schedule reminders. You can say, “Alexa, remind me to buy a birthday card on Thursday at 1pm”, and on that day at that time a blue light ring will appear on the Echo device and Alexa’s voice will remind you to buy the card. The reminders also appear in the Alexa app on your phone.
You can give a specific name to a timer which is really handy when setting multiple timers at once. For example, you can ask Alexa to set a pasta timer and also to set a garlic bread timer, and when the timer goes off, Alexa will state which timer is up.
Since there’s no screen on some Echos, you can check the amount of time left on specific timers (or even cancel it). Just say, “Alexa, cancel the pasta timer” or “Alexa, how much time is left on my garlic bread timer?” Active timers can also be seen in the Alexa app, and on the screen if you have an Echo Show or Spot.
Fire tablet / Fire TV
Everything above works on a Fire Tablet and most on the Fire TV. But with these devices you have extra options thanks to the screen. These also apply to the Echo Show and Spot, which have screens too.
- Alexa, play Episode 1 of the Grand Tour
- Alexa, next episode
- Alexa, rewind 30 seconds
- Alexa, pause
- Alexa, show films with Brad Pitt
- Alexa, open Netflix
Have both a Fire TV and an Echo in the same room? Then you can pair them and use your Echo’s hands-free Alexa control instead of the Fire TV’s remote. The process should be largely automatic if you have only one Fire TV on your Amazon account: simply ask Alexa on your Echo to pair with the Fire TV.
If you have more than one, follow these steps:
- In the Alexa app, go to the menu and select Settings.
- Tap on TV & Video and tap Fire TV.
- Follow the instructions.
- Tap Link Devices to confirm your selection.
If you have a compatible Fire tablet, you can say “Alexa, enable show mode” and she will change the screen to one similar to the Echo Show. You can buy the Show Mode Charging Dock for the Fire HD 8 and HD 10 which makes them much more usable in this mode.
Some of the latest skills Alexa has learned include:
Alexa Guard (US only)
When you leave home say “Alexa, I’m leaving” and she can send you alerts if she hears certain sounds such as glass breaking, smoke alarms beeping or carbon monoxide detectors going off. If you have the necessary smart home kit, she can also turn lights on and off intelligently to make it seem like someone is home. There’s also integration with some alarm systems (including Ring and ADT).
Hunches (US only)
Alexa learns when you tend to switch your smart lights and switches on and off. So when you say “Alexa, Good Night” she can tell you “By the way, your outdoor light is on. Do you want me to turn it off?”. Hunches is enabled by default, but you can manage them in the Alexa app by tapping More > Settings > Hunches.
Would you like to make sure that Alexa isn’t saving your voice requests? Have a look at our guide here.