How to get started with Amazon Alexa: A complete guide to what it can do

A starter kit for life with an Amazon Echo smart speaker and the Alexa voice assistant

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If you've just bought your first Amazon Echo speaker - or other Alexa device, like a Sonos One - it can be tricky to get your head around exactly what the voice assistant is capable of.

The lack of a conventional user interface can make this tough, as it's difficult to know exactly what to ask Alexa, and what you can tell Alexa to do. That's why we have compiled this comprehensive guide, which aims to cover all of Alexa's main features.

All of these features are available from the moment you switch on your Alexa device and log into the companion smartphone app for the first time. We know a major feature of Alexa is its ability to control smart home devices, but with thousands of compatible products out there, we have decided to keep this article focused on the basics.

Does Alexa record everything I say?

First up, let us get this out of the way. The microphones of your Echo speaker are constantly on and listening for the 'Alexa' hot word, which brings the device to life and starts recording. Once you have finished speaking, this recording is quickly sent to Amazon's servers and analyzed, before an answer is sent to your Echo, ready for Alexa to say a couple of seconds later.

This recording is saved on Amazon's server, and you can listen to it through the Alexa app. You can also delete these recordings (from the app and the server), although Amazon claims that doing so will prevent Alexa from learning your voice and becoming more accurate over time.

But Alexa can make mistakes. Echo speakers will often start listening by mistake, thinking they have heard 'Alexa' when they have not. This can be annoying, especially when Alexa says: "Sorry, I didn't catch that" out of nowhere.

It can also be a little creepy, especially when Alexa records a conversation and sends a recording of it to someone you know. Thankfully, there is a mute button for when you want to switch the microphones off.

Amazon Alexa logo Yes, Alexa does record everything you say to her Amazon

How to delete Alexa recordings

As we mentioned above, these recordings can be deleted by heading into the Alexa smartphone app for iPhone or Android. Just follow these instructions:

  1. Open the app
  2. Tap the three-lined icon in the top-left corner
  3. Tap on Settings
  4. Tap on Alexa Account
  5. Tap History

From here you can view and listen to all of the times Alexa has recorded you speaking with it. Tap on a recording then tap Delete Voice Recording to remove it from the app and Amazon's server.

How to change Alexa's name

You might want to change the word Alexa responds to, perhaps because you have a family member of the same name. To do this, open the Alexa app then follow these instructions:

  1. Tap on the three-lined icon in the top-left corner
  2. Tap Settings -> Device Settings
  3. Scroll to the Alexa device you want to change the name of

Now tap on Wake Word then pick from the options, which are:

  • Alexa (default)
  • Echo
  • Computer
  • Amazon
  • How to teach Alexa your voice

Once given permission, Alexa can learn your voice. This leads to the assistant addressing you by name, and being able to quickly order things from your Amazon account whenever you ask.

Alexa will also know who to call or message when you ask, as it will access the right person's contacts book, and content like music and the flash news briefing can be tailored so that each user gets what they want.

To get started, open the Alexa app, tap the icon in the top-left, then Settings -> Alexa Account -> Recognized Voices -> Your Voice.

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Photo of the Amazon Echo Dot The $49 Echo Dot has the same Alexa features as all other Echo speakers Amazon

How to change Alexa's accent

Although every option is female (unlike with Google Assistant and Apple's Siri), you can change both the language and accent of Alexa's voice. To do this, follow these instructions:

  1. Open the Alexa app
  2. Tap on the menu icon in the top-left corner
  3. Tap on Settings, then Device Settings
  4. Find the device whose voice you want to change, and tap on it
  5. Tap on Language, then make your selection

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What are Alexa skills?

You can think of skills like small apps for Alexa. There are currently, as of summer 2019, over 80,000 of them, and most are free. Some are must-have if you own relevant devices; for example, you'll need to enable the Sonos app to make Alexa play nice with your connected speakers.

Other useful skills include those produced by news companies like Reuters and the BBC, and guided meditation skills from the likes of Headspace and Calm.

To enable a certain skill, you can either ask Alexa directly (if you know what the skill is called), or you can browse the skills store on the Alexa app or through the Amazon website.

Playing music, radio, podcasts and audiobooks with Alexa

This is a real cornerstone of the Alexa experience and it's easy to setup - as long as you have an account with Amazon Music (included with Prime), Spotify, Apple Music or Deezer. You can also get free radio stations from TuneIn, simply by saying: "Alexa, play [name of radio station]".

To add a music service (beyond TuneIn) to your Alexa account, open the Alexa app, tap the icon in the top-left, then Settings -> Music -> Link New Service.

News and weather with Alexa

Above simple but useful Alexa feature is how it can read out the day's news headlines and weather forecast. Just say a phrase like "Alexa, what's the weather today?" or "Alexa, what's in the news?"

You can adjust what appears in the news briefing by opening the Alexa app, tapping the menu icon in the top-left, then heading to Settings -> Flash Briefing and add a news source, then toggle on or off which you want Alexa to read out.

To find out the weather for a different day or place, just ask. If Alexa is giving you the wrong local weather when you don't specify a location, check the assistant knows where it is. To do this, go to Settings -> Device Settings, pick your Echo device from the list, then tap Device Location and fill it out, then tap Save.

Photo of an Amazon Echo Dot on a hotel bedside table Alexa can make for a convenient holiday companion GearBrain

How to sync your calendar with Alexa

Open the Alexa app and go to Settings -> Calendars to log into the calendar service you use and synchronize it with Alexa. Gmail, G Suite, Outlook, Office 365 and Apple iCloud are all supported.

Once you have logged in, you can ask Alexa about your day, add appointments to your calendar, or make changes to ones which already exist. Do bear in mind that anyone in the room could ask Alexa about these appointments, so if your Echo is in a communal room you might not want to switch this feature on.

Managing reminders, alarms and timers with Alexa

You can either add a reminder in the Alexa app, or say: "Alexa, remind me to take the garbage out at 7pm every Wednesday" and the smartphone app will alert you at the right time.

Setting an alarm works in the same way; just say: "Alexa, set an alarm for 7am every weekday", or set it manually in the app. You can also set Alexa to wake you up with a radio station, although musical alarms are only possible on Echo devices; speakers with Alexa, like the Sonos One, cannot do this.

Timers can be set by saying: "Alexa, set a timer for x minutes", or you can give the timer a name and set several different ones at once - this can be particularly useful when cooking. Any timer can be checked on or canceled at any time; just ask how long is left, or tell Alexa to cancel it.

How to translate and use Alexa as an interpreter

Asking Alexa to translate is as simple as saying: "Alexa, what is [phrase] in [language]" and she will tell you.

Alternatively, you can enable the Translated skill, which translates English into 36 languages and has the added benefit of speaking more slowly or repeating itself when you ask.

What are Alexa Routines?

Routines are how you can make Alexa perform partially autonomously. Once set up, a routine could, for example, have Alexa switch on your bedroom smart lights, activate a smart plug attached to a heater, then read out the news and weather forecast, followed by your calendar entries for the day - all from you saying: "Alexa, good morning".

Another routine could have Alexa switch the lights off and lower the heating when you say goodnight.

Routines are set up in the Alexa app. Just tap on the menu icon in the top-left, then tap Routines and the plus icon in the top-right to get started.

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Stock imagine of an Amazon Echo smart speaker The Amazon Echo iStock

What are Alexa Hunches?

Only available in the US for now, hunches is a way to keep track of how you use your smart home devices. Alexa checks how you use your devices - smart lights, for example - on a daily basis, then when you say goodnight (assuming you have a 'goodnight routine setup), Alexa will check that your lights are all off as usual.

If Alexa thinks you have forgotten to switch a light off, it will let you know, then ask if you'd like it turning off.

To get started, say: "Alexa, do you have any hunches?" or open the Alexa app and head to Settings -> Hunches. The system works for connected lights, plugs, door locks and switches.

How to use Alexa as a home intercom

If you have two or more Amazon Echo smart speakers, you can use the Drop-In feature to act like an intercom, or broadcast recorded messages to every Alexa speaker in the home.

Dropping in lets you listen through the microphone of another Alexa device - handy if you want to check on your baby's bedroom. Just say "Alexa, drop in on [room name]" and, assuming you have named your Echo speakers after the rooms they are in, it'll work just fine.

To broadcast a message to every Alexa speaker on a network at once, say: "Alexa broadcast [your message]". This is useful for telling the household you are heading out, or that dinner is ready.

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Protect your home with Alexa Guard

Alexa offers a very simple home alarm system, called Alexa Guard. When enabled, the system will alert you via the Alexa smartphone app when broken glass or a smoke or carbon monoxide alarm is heard nearby.

Once alerted, you can use the Drop-In feature to listen in, and interact with anyone you suspect may have broken into your home.

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Playing games with Alexa

Say: "Alexa, let's play a game" and she'll give you some options of gaming skills to enable. There's Trivial Pursuit, Blackjack, unofficial versions of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and Deal or No Deal, an official Jeopardy! skill and many others to pick from.

There are also several choose-your-own-adventure games, like The Magic Door, and problem-solving games like Escape The Room. Just ask Alexa to open one of these games to get started.

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