Alexa is the voice assistant belonging to Amazon. Straight out of the box, Alexa can already perform a wide range of tasks, like set timers, read the news headlines and weather forecast, tell jokes and answer general knowledge questions.
But this is just the surface of what Alexa is capable of. Dig a little deeper, and you will unearth the skills catalogue, which is full of additional things Alexa can be programmed to do.
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At their simplest, Alexa skills are like smartphone apps. They are created by developers from third-party companies. Some skills work entirely on their own, while others are required to make Alexa interact with something else, such as an online service like Spotify, or a smart home product like a Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner.
Introducing Echo Studio - High-fidelity smart speaker with 3D audio and Alexa
Some skills are games to play by talking to Alexa, while others can read stories to children, or talk you through meditation and exercise classes. Not all Alexa skills use the default Alexa voice to talk, as some are loaded up with a different voice that the developer has decided to use.
Unlike smartphone applications, which require a good understanding of computer programming, Amazon has made it easy for anyone to create an Alexa skill. Called Alexa Blueprints, the system helps users build an Alexa skill that is personalized to you, without doing any coding at all.
Also unlike smartphone apps, all Alexa skills are free to download and use. However, like many phone apps, some include additional subscription costs to unlock their full potential.
How to find and install an Alexa skill
The Alexa skills libraryGearBrain
You have a few different options here. First, you can speak to Alexa on your Echo smart speaker or display (or whatever device you have Alexa running on) and ask it to find a certain skill.
If you know the exact name of the skill, you can ask Alexa to enable it; just say: "Alexa, enable [skill name]". Also, if you ask Alexa to do something the assistant will sometimes identify the skill that task requires, then ask if you'd like it enabling.
Another option is to use the Alexa smartphone app. To find and enable a skill, open the Alexa app, then tap the menu icon in the top-left corner, and tap on Skills & Games. Browse around until you find the skill you want (or tap the search icon in the top-right corner), then tap on the skill and tap the Enable To Use button. If the skill has any additional purchases available, it will say so right below that button.
Just like an app store, you can read the description and check out star ratings and reviews of every skill before you enable it.
Finally, you can browse and enable skills on Amazon's website. Again, you can view descriptions, ratings and reviews here before enabling them.
A word of warning - while the situation has improved in the last year or so, the Alexa skills catalogue can be somewhat hit-and-miss. Some skills are essential and work well, like those for using Spotify, Sonos, and the Roomba vacuum cleaner we mentioned earlier.
All-new Echo (3rd Gen) - Smart speaker with Alexa - Twilight Blue
But some are of a fairly low quality, and add little to the experience of owning an Alexa product. Some skills from high-profile organizations like the BBC (one-star average review score) and Amazon-owned Ring (2.7 stars) have had their fair share of problems and criticism.
Often this stems from a faulty update which broke the skill's core functionality, resulting in a flood of one-star reviews. Even if the skill is fixed quickly, it takes a long time for new positive reviews to bring the average back up again. It is worth reading some reviews and checking the date they were written before dismissing a low-scoring skill.
Logging into an Alexa skill
Some Alexa skills ask that you log in to make the most of them. For example, you will have to share your Spotify login details with the Spotify skill before Alexa can be used to control your music. As a side note, you can enable the Spotify or Apple Music skills by saying: "Alexa, play [song name] on Spotify/Apple Music" and Alexa will help you get the relevant skill enabled.
Another example is the Xbox skill, which lets you turn your console on or off by asking Alexa, and you can even record a snippet of gameplay and save it by speaking to the assistant. To set this up, you need to link your Alexa and Microsoft accounts. When you tap on the enable button, the Alexa app asks you to log into your Microsoft account, and from there you can finish enabling the skill.
It's a multi-step process and required when hooking up Alexa with other devices, but only needs doing once for each skill you enable, and is simple enough to follow.
Echo Show 5 - Compact smart display with Alexa - Charcoal