Since the invention of smartphones, we've been able to chat with our loved ones via video calls on-the-go, make a shopping list by talking into a speaker, and connect with the world around us on social media, amongst other things. Technology gave us a lot, but it wasn't finished there.
Then came the smart home, where everything from lightbulbs, TVs, doorbells and more could now be controlled from a small device on your kitchen counter - enter, Alexa.
Amazon’s Alexa devices, in all their shapes and sizes, are leading the way for smart home technology, allowing users to easily kit out their homes with voice-controlled equipment without breaking the bank.
They are neat and stylish devices that can help streamline, organise and declutter your space and life, along with keeping you connected with your family and friends, all without even pressing a single button.
By combining voice control with extremely handy functions like weather checking, news updates, list-making and video chatting, these little gadgets have quickly become a necessity in the modern household.
But what else can Alexa do? Here are ten things that you might not know about Alexa:
Multi-room audio and EQ
This is a great feature for gatherings, or when working and moving around the house. Alexa will allow the user to play the same music, radio or audiobook across compatible Alexa devices and speakers simultaneously via Multi-Room Music. There are both default and customisable Multi-Room Music groups, allowing devices to be included or excluded as necessary, and these groups are created and managed with the Alexa app, under ‘Set Up Multi-Room Music’.
Though the Alexa range has respectable speakers, some users value the ability to tinker under the audio hood. Alexa-enabled speakers can be customised with bass, mid and treble. Access to this feature can be attained with a voice command, or with setting navigation via an Echo’s touchscreen or the Alexa app.
Voice, video and Alexa-device calls
Alexa makes staying connected incredibly easy. Compatible Alexa devices are able to make calls, both voice and video (Echo or Portal range), to anyone in a user’s smartphone contact list with a simple voice command. Incoming calls can also be set to alert via Alexa devices, avoiding the need to madly scramble for a phone. If a contact also has an Alexa device ready to receive calls, direct Alexa-to-Alexa calls are possible.
Alexa Communication set-up and preferences can accessed with the Alexa app, under ‘Communicate’. Depending on the available device, calls and video chats can operate through the app, an existing landline, a directly connected EE or Vodafone account, or Skype.
Due to their screen and camera, Echo Show devices can also be used to view and communicate with Ring doorbell and home security devices.
The smart-home command centre – Zigbee
There’s a lot of techno-jargon behind the mechanics of Zigbee devices, but the bottom line for consumers is that it allows smart devices to communicate with each other, regardless of the manufacturer. This is why an Echo Show and Echo Plus can communicate with the likes of Portal By Facebook, Google Nest thermostat and Philips Hue smart bulb.
Without Zigbee-certification, a user looking to invest in smart technology would need to have multiple smart-hubs to communicate with their devices, whereas this can be centralised with an Echo Show or Echo Plus.
Stuck on what to do for dinner, or looking for something new to try? Alexa is here to help. Utilising some of the in-built skills, Alexa can find the user a recipe from either a specific or general voice command. We’d recommended trying for recipes directly from BBC Good Foods, as its selection tends to be both reliable and delicious. Here are a few questions to get the ball rolling: “Alexa, ask BBC Good Food for a quick Italian recipe”, “Alexa, ask BBC Good Food for a chocolate brownie recipe”, or “Alexa, ask BBC Good Food for a Mexican recipe with beef”.
The same process goes for cocktails too, with Alexa boasting a staggering array of mixology knowledge, spanning from the basic “how to make a gin and tonic”, to “a cocktail with bourbon” or “a Blue Magarita”.
Fitness routines and workout ideas
Thanks to the Alexa skill library, you can pull up a workout plan to stay active. The fastest way to get a fitness routine is to ask Alexa to begin a seven-minute workout, which will trigger a timed HIIT routine of mixed, full-body exercise. The same kind of process can be enacted for yoga.
As to be expected, Alexa’s wider integration and compatibility provides access to an array of fitness skills, apps and devices. Some of the most rewarding include syncing a FitBit to keep progress tracked and updated, and asking Alexa to initiate Stop, Breathe & Think, an on-demand mindfulness and meditation app.
Track orders and show exclusive deals
It’s common knowledge that Alexa devices allow users to purchase items with a single voice command. What is less well-known is that orders can also be tracked. A simple “track my order” or “where’s my stuff” command will give the user an update on their order's progress, informing them of a delivery date. Alexa will also highlight exclusive deals when asked, providing a run and details on some of the hottest price-drops, all of which can be purchased with a voice confirmation.
Our favourite Alexa devices
Let's take a quick break away from the countdown to take a look at some of the top Alexa-ready products:
The best devices with Alexa
1. Fire Stick 4K
The Fire TV Stick 4K converts any HD TV into a state-of-the-art smart TV, with access to Netflix, Prime, BBC iPlayer, Disney+, Freeview and more.
2. Echo Dot
The Echo Dot is a small addition to a household . that makes a big difference. We find it works well in a kitchen or bedroom as an introduction to Alexa, or as a supplementary device for a wider smart home setup.
3. Echo Plus
The Echo Plus serves three functions. One, it brings us rich, vibrant and high-volume music. Two, it provides us with Alexa. Three, it's a Zigbee smart hub, so it can act as the centre control for all our smart home needs.
4. Echo Show
The Echo Show is hugely versatile, providing its user with video calling capabilities, a 10-inch HD screen for streaming, recipe breakdowns and song lyrics, and acts as a central smart home hub thanks to its Zigbee integration.
5. Echo Studio
The Echo Studio spoils us. Its 5.1 surround sound speakers sound huge and rich, while its Alexa capabilities allow it to communicate flawlessly with our smart TV for total film and TV immersion.
Now, back to the list we go.
Hive, Honeywell Home and Google Nest thermostats can all be combined with Alexa to provide voice control over a home’s heating, allowing both accuracy and flexibility. Individual radiators can also be modified with smart-controlled thermostats, from trusted brands like Drayton, Bosch and tado°, to allow specific and accurate room temperature control. Long gone are the days of turning a radiator to ‘5’ and hoping for the best.
Even in Alexa’s impressive and ever-growing integration catalogue, this particular ability stands out as an important and ground-breaking development, saving time, money and energy.
Smart TV control
Bringing Alexa into play with a smart TV is a joyful thing, allowing the user to access their favourite channels, streaming and on-demand services, recordings and on-screen apps with simple voice commands. This process may seem to some as superfluous, however, in practice it can really speed up TV menu navigation and catalogue searches.
Alexa communication can be achieved in a number of ways, depending on the user's arrangement and available devices. Amazon Fire TV devices are all loaded with full-Alexa integration, and come in the form of the Fire Stick, Fire Stick 4K, Fire Cube and JVC 4K Fire Smart TV. Alexa sits at the heart of all these devices.
Some smart TVs, like the LG 50UM75 or Samsung UE50RU74, can be linked to Echo devices to have Alexa effectively bolted on to their pre-existing smart TV capabilities. This allows those without Amazon Fire devices to still integrate their TV into a smart-home eco-system.
Alexa wants users to know how to get the most from it, and because of this, the AI can be very open about how it operates. If a user is a little unsure of what their Alexa device can do, all they need to do is ask, “Alexa, what can you do?”, and it will list off its capabilities. This can be of great help to anyone new to smart home products, or who may feel a little overwhelmed by the 100,000+ skills available in Alexa’s arsenal.
Similarly, if a user has asked Alexa to perform a task or answer a question and the response wasn’t quite right, the device can explain itself. Asking “why did you do that?” will have Alexa layout the reasoning behind a specific action or response, allowing the user to better understand how Alexa thinks, or where the user could’ve been clearer, hopefully improving human-device communication in future.
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“Alexa, good morning”: Smart bulbs turn on in the kitchen, new headlines and a weather report begin. “Alexa, let’s relax”: Living rooms bulbs dim and the Echo Plus starts to play some Miles Davis (or Coldplay, there’s no judgement here). At 10.30pm, the landing smart bulbs come on at 30% brightness, while the kitchen lights turn off and Hive thermostat makes sure the temperature is right for the user’s perfect sleep. How do all of these events trigger at once? With Alexa’s Routines.
Simply put, Routines helps users get the most out of their smart devices by automating how they work together, and they can be as simple or as complicated as desired. Routine triggers are also customisable, capable of being action at a scheduled time, or with a user-defined phrase. This feature often goes underused as it can seem like an intimidating, high-tech process, when in truth they’re extremely quick and easy to set up.
The Routines menu can be found in the Alexa app, where the user can add actions telling Alexa what to do and on what device. Routines are controlled and compatible with the Amazon Echo, Dot, Show and Plus.
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