Amazon Alexa Smart Home

What can Alexa do? And what do people actually use it for?

What can Alexa do
Ask Alexa: she can do much more than play Olly Murs

There are thousands of possible uses of Alexa, but here at The Big Tech Question we’re not only interested in what Alexa can do – we want to know what Echo owners actually do with their virtual assistants. So, via Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, I asked my extended network of techie and non-techie friends how they used their Echo. I’ve already added the Ocado skill!

what can alexa do
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What can Alexa do: Music streaming

Streaming music was by the most common use of the Echo/Alexa in my straw poll of users. And little wonder, bearing in mind that Alexa normally lives in a highly respectable speaker. People use it to control Spotify and Sonos systems, but someone probably needs to tell Amazon that nobody mentioned Amazon Music. Bagsy not me.

“Alexa, play some upbeat tunes.”

What can Alexa do: Fact-checking/trivia

If you don’t know who this man is, you probably shouldn’t be taking part in pub quizzes

While Alexa isn’t clever enough to answer “Who was, you know, the blonde one, in that film, with Bill whatshisname?” it would be a welcome guest in any pub quiz. Indeed, almost half the people who commented said they used their Alexa to check facts and ask trivia. One of my friends even asked both Alexa and Google Home 1,000 questions from Trivial Pursuit to see who was the cleverest. But that’s for a different article.

“Alexa, who was the first person to land on the moon?”

What can Alexa do: Kitchen timer

what can alexa do
If your kitchen looks this neat, you’re doing it wrong.

The Echo has inveigled its way into kitchens across the land, with many people using it to keep track of times. Although it isn’t clever enough to set multiple alarms with the one command – saying “Alexa, set a timer for 15 minutes and two minutes” will set a timer for 17 minutes – it can keep several separate timers going at once.

“Alexa, set a timer for 15 minutes.”

What can Alexa do: Control your lights

No surprise here. If you want a smart home then of course you want to switch on lights at a command. “I don’t have a light switch in my living room, where our front door opens into,” wrote David Biggins on Twitter. “So, I use it to turn on/off my smartbulb for entrance and egress.”

Naturally, there are other smart home things that people use Alexa for too, such as smart plugs and thermostats.

“Alexa, turn on my living room lights.”

What can Alexa do: News headlines/Flash Briefing/weather updates

Want to catch up with the world as you sink your first cup of coffee? Then the Flash Briefing is an excellent way of doing so. You can customise it in Settings within the Alexa app: for instance, I start with a word of the day, the Best of Today podcast from Radio 4 and a weather forecast. But clicking on “Get more Flash Briefing content” opens up a whole world of options.

“Alexa, flash briefing”

What can Alexa do: Radio

It turns out that Echos around the country double up as a radio for much of the time, and little wonder. With integration for TuneIn Radio built in, you can name your station and play whatever you like.

“Alexa, play Capital FM”

What can Alexa do: Create shopping lists/order shopping

If you use an online shopping service then you may find it allows you to directly add items to your shopping list. For example, if you shop on Ocado, you can enable the Ocado skill. Once you’ve linked your Amazon and Ocado accounts, saying “Alexa, ask Ocado to add organic bananas” will indeed add bananas to your order. Just want to create a basic list? Then you don’t need to add a skill; just tell Alexa to add it to your list.

“Alexa, ask Ocado to add almond milk”

What can Alexa do: Help you sleep

If you need help drifting off, then follow the example of fellow Echo owners and ask it to play white noise, rainfall or your choice of serene background sounds. In fact, saying “Alexa, help me get to sleep” will provide several options.

“Alexa, play Sleep Sounds” 

What can Alexa do: Entertain your kids

While the novelty of your Echo making barking noises and meowing may eventually wear off, I admit that it’s kept my children entertained in the past. Enabling these animal imitations means exploring the Echo’s skills, which you can either do via the Alexa app or by voice. It’s well worth checking out all the amusing things you can say to your Echo too.

“Alexa, meow like a cat”

What can Alexa do: Make calls and be a walkie-talkie

Amazon Alexa voice calls
Call me: you can now chat with friends using your Echo speaker

If you own multiple Echos then it’s simplicity itself to give them different names (Living room, Main bedroom, Lisa’s room) and use the Echo as a giant, stationary walkie-talkie. You’ll need to enable the Drop In within the Alexa app, but once you do saying, “Echo, drop in on Main bedroom” will initiate a walkie-talkie style session.

The Echo doesn’t need to be in the same house. My friend Guilia’s Mum uses it to easily make contact with members of the family, because it’s easier to do so than hit all the right digits on a phone.

“Alexa, drop in on Barry Collins”

What can Alexa do: Basic maths and unit conversion

Quite a few people use Alexa to help with homework, including to check their mental arithmetic. And, in the kitchen, it’s incredibly useful to ask Alexa to convert a figure in grams to ounces, and vice versa.

“Alexa, what’s 50 grams in ounces?”

What can Alexa do: Tell you local store opening times

While it’s a bit of a pain for Alexa to detail what’s on at the cinema, it’s brilliant at localised questions with specific answers. The perfect example: find out what time your local branch of a shop is open until.

“Alexa, what time does Tesco shut tonight?”

What else can Alexa do?

To end, here are a few other things that people do with Alexa:

  • Check spellings
  • Act as a simple Bluetooth speaker
  • Tell (awful) jokes
  • Recap sports results
  • Act as a thesaurus
  • Tell bedtime stories (via Audible)
  • Traffic updates

Is there something you do with your Echo that we’ve missed? Or perhaps you have a better way to do something than I’ve suggested. Then let us know in the comments below.

Read this next: How do I make Alexa play exactly the music I want

Acknowledgements: With thanks to @Adagis on Twitter, Aidan Finn, Alan Robertson, Alexandru Voica (who points to this article on how the Ocado skill works), Alex Bloor, Anthony White Benny Har-Even, Claire Scrase, Daniel Hedley, Davey Winder, David Biggins, Gareth Halfacree, Graeme Curtis, Giulia McCarthy, Joe Cowell, Jonathan Bray, Jon Hinton, Kevin Pocock, Lise Smith, Mark Newton, Martin Cooper, Natasha Humphries, Paul Ockenden, Richard Gaywood, Richard White, Robin Daunter and Timothy Morris.

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. Email tim@bigtechquestion.com

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