Amazon Alexa Smart Home

What are Alexa skills?

Amazon Alexa skills
It's easy to add skills to Alexa - finding good skills is rather trickier.

The Amazon Echo is a great device straight out of the box. After all, Amazon pre-ships it with all your account details, so the only setup hurdles are adding it to your network (here’s how to solve the BT Home Hub problems) and getting to grips with the Alexa phone app.

Cleverly, though, you can add extra abilities – or as Amazon calls them, Alexa skills.

For instance, you might love film trivia: if you enable the Movie Facts skill and then say, “Alexa, ask Movie Facts to tell me a fact” then it will hit you with a film tidbit. (Did you know Sean Connery wore a wig in every Bond performance? Nope, nor did I.)

Not all skills are so, well, trivial. The British Red Cross has created a first aid skill, so if you’re caught in an emergency you can say “Alexa, ask First Aid how to help someone having an asthma attack”.

One potential “gotcha” is that skills don’t automatically work; you need to manually enable each one on your Echo. Which means the process goes: 1. Find skill you’re interested in. 2. Enable it. 3. Use it.

You might think that step one, finding skills, is easy. And it is. It’s finding good skills that’s tricky.

Right now, finding a skill feels like the early, pre-Google days of the web. Instead of entering a search term (either on the Amazon website or in the app) and knowing that you’ll discover a great skill, you’ll find yourself perusing an endless list based on categories.

Fortunately, the web has stepped up with a number of handy guides to the best apps. Here’s one from Wired, another from Wareable, and this one from Lifehacker. (I’ve also included a short selection of our favourites at the bottom of this article.)

So let’s assume you’ve found a skill you love the sound of. Next, you need to enable it – again, done via the web or the app.

And now you can use the skill. Which, again, is a little trickier than it sounds. Alexa likes commands done in a certain way, so even though I have Movie Facts enabled on my office Echo I can’t just say, “Alexa, tell me a movie fact”. Instead, I have to say “Alexa, ask Movie Facts to tell me a fact”.

But, so long as you use the formula, “Alexa, ask [name of skill] to [do its thing]” then you should be okay.

Got a favourite skill? Then we’d love to hear about it via the comments below. For now, here are our top choices.

  1. BBC from TuneIn radio – just a great way to listen live to BBC radio. It also supplies “flash briefings” – say, “Alexa, what’s my flash briefing?”
  2. The Guardian – ask it for headlines and then get audio versions of stories you’re interested in.
  3. First aid by British Red Cross – although hopefully you’ll never need to use it
  4. Jamie Oliver – handy source for recipes, but note you’ll need to sign up to Jamie Oliver’s service (no charge)
  5. Plex – a great way to play videos you have ready on your Plex-enabled device
  6. Beat the Intro – a simple but fun daily game where you have to guess the musical intros… best played with friends!

About the author

Tim Danton

Tim Danton is editor-in-chief of PC Pro magazine and has written about technology since 1999. He enjoys playing with gadgets, playing with words and playing tennis.

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