Smart speakers are taking over British homes. A recent YouGov survey found the number had doubled in three months, with around 10% of Brits owning one – and that 75% of these were Amazon Echo devices. The overwhelming majority are used for basic tasks like playing music and answering general knowledge questions – but with the right tips, tricks, skills and accessories you can get the Echo’s digital assistant Alexa to do just about anything…
Top hacks and tips
You can always mute the mics on an Echo device to stop it listening, but if you’re concerned you’ve been over-sharing, deleting your recordings and query history is the next step. Doing so is easy: you can select individual recordings in the Alexa app, or take the nuclear option and delete your daily, weekly, monthly or entire history through the Alexa privacy settings on the Amazon website.
If you have multiple Alexa devices you can use them as an intercom in your home. Just approach one and say: “Alexa, drop in on… (insert name of other Alexa device)”; then speak through it and hear whoever is on the other end.
Music all over the house
If you have multiple Echo speakers dotted around, you can use them to play multiroom music, similar to the way expensive systems such as Sonos work. Just add them to appropriate groups and play music to just downstairs, upstairs or all of them at the same time.
Once you’ve got voice control over lights and other bits, the next stage is to set up customised commands, or “routines” in Alexa speak. Creating them is simple via the Alexa app: just add devices, give the routine a name and set the actions. Want to turn off all the lights when you tell Alexa goodnight? Now you can.
What was the name of that light again?
Controlling lights and other smart home devices is great, if you can remember what they’re called. If you keep forgetting the light’s name, you can use Alexa groups to give each device multiple names. Every time you try to turn it on with the wrong name, create a group with that name and add the light to it. Next time you say that name, it’ll work just fine. You can have any number of groups with the same light or device in them.
Official accessories are few and far between, but Echo Buttons are little light-up buttons that you pair with your Echo via Bluetooth for playing games. Most of the options are quiz-based, with the Echo acting as your gameshow host. Up to four can be connected at any one time for party play.
Echo Dot battery
If you’ve ever wished you could put your Echo Dot somewhere without a power cable hanging out, or take it on the road with you, you’ll need a battery. There are several available for under £30, such as the Smatree Portable Battery Base that simply clips around the Dot and plugs into the power port on its side. However, since the Echo Dot uses micro USB for power you can use just about any USB battery pack – it just won’t look as pretty. You’ll still need wifi for it, but you can always use your phone as a hotspot.
‘Alexa, turn on the lights’
Once you’ve got your Echo set up as the beginnings of your smart home, voice controlled lightbulbs are one of the easiest and best upgrades you can make – just swap your dumb bulb for a smart one.
A variety are available from £10 upwards. Philips’s popular Hue bulbs can connect directly to the Echo Plus but need the Hue Hub with other Echo devices.
Alexa can switch bulbs on and off via voice or change their colour. Using routines you can also get them to turn on at sunset or any other time, or in combination with other bits, eg to flash red when someone presses your connected doorbell button.
‘Alexa, turn on the fan’
Smart bulbs are great, but you can also give Alexa the ability to control almost anything plugged into a power socket. Smart plugs cost from £10 upwards, with Belkin’s wifi-connected WeMo and TP-Link’s Smart WiFi Plug proving popular.
Once hooked up, Alexa can turn on or off anything plugged into it, including fans, lamps and coffee machines.
Alexa, show me the front door.
Using an Echo Show or Spot, you can have a live feed from cameras such as Google’s Nest or Amazon’s Ring. One of the best is the £179 battery-powered Ring Video Doorbell 2, which can be installed just about anywhere without wiring. Simply say “Alexa, show me the front door”, to see who’s calling.
Sonos via voice
The Echo’s speaker is adequate but if your ears are more demanding, Sonos’s excellent multiroom speakers are Alexa-compatible. The Sonos One has Alexa built in, but you can control any of the Play series of speakers via an Alexa device, including the Dot by adding the Sonos skill. Then it’s as simple as saying: “Alexa, play music on kitchen”, or whatever your Sonos speaker is called.
Alexa, how do you say ‘What’s the time?’ in Japanese?
If you’re learning a new language, or just curious, the Translated skill is worth a spin. It’ll translate phrases from English into 36 other languages,; all you have to do is ask. You can slow down the translation, or repeat it if you didn’t quite manage to catch it.
To add some celebrity stardust to your kids’ bedtime, turn to popstar Paloma Faith’s Paloma’s Bedtime skill. It’ll sing lullabies, read stories, play sleep sounds such as white noise, water or wind, and other bits. You have to like Paloma Faith, but it appears children frequently do.
If you’ve ever wished radio dramas or audiobooks were interactive, you need to check out the series of Earplay skills. They feature choose-your-own-adventure-style stories through Alexa. There are a few good free ones to choose from with shorts and demos of others that are worth your time.
‘Alexa, ask TrackR to find my phone’
Lost your smartphone again? Alexa can help you find it with the TrackR skill. Activate the free skill on Alexa, link it with the free app on your Android or iPhone, then simply ask Alexa to make your phone ring, even if it’s on silent.
Alexa can help you exercise. The 7-Minute Workout skill will guide you through an exercise routine. You can pause it to give yourself a breather, and there are images and tutorials available in the Alexa app on your phone to help you get the exercises right.