How to use the Amazon Echo and why you should get one

As Amazon regularly adds new functionality, the Echo continues to grow more useful. In fact, it's now the most-used gadget in my home.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor

During the last 12 months, the unique and multi-functional Amazon Echo has become the most-used gadget in my home. As Amazon regularly adds new functionality, the Echo continues to grow more useful. Whether you've been considering getting an Echo for a while or only recently became aware of it through commercials aired during the Super Bowl, this guide will show what the Echo can do and why it should have a place in your home.

See related: Amazon Echo: It's the most used gadget in my home | Amazon Echo review: A perfect 10 | CNET Review: A smarter wireless speaker

What is it?

The Echo is a round black cylinder with an audio system inside. It is always connected to the cloud via wi-fi giving it a vast online resource to tap. The Echo interacts with you by voice, and answers to the name Alexa. If you don't like the name you can call it Amazon, but talking to Amazon in your home is creepy.

Alexa, or the Echo, understands queries and commands issued in natural language. The Echo is always listening for interaction through its array of microphones that pick up this interaction from a great distance and from anywhere in the room. Getting the Echo's attention is done by beginning commands with its name, i. e. "Alexa".

The Echo works best with Fire Tablets, although it's also fine with iOS and Android devices. There are Alexa apps for controlling the Echo on both platforms. The app is used to configure the Echo, and lists the latest interactions with it.

The Living Room

Echo can be connected via its app to the major audio streaming services, including Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Amazon's Prime Music. Once it's connected, you can tell the Echo things like "Alexa, play the ZZ Top station on Pandora".

You can pair your phone or tablet with the Echo over Bluetooth and use it as a wireless speaker. Once paired, you connect/disconnect it by telling Alexa to do so. Once connected, open the app on the phone and play music normally and it plays through the Echo speaker system. It's not the best audio system, but it's good enough for casual listening.

The many sides of Amazon Echo

Music playback can be controlled by voice using standard commands, such as Next, Previous, Stop, and Pause. You can even tell Alexa to turn the volume up or down.

Echo doesn't just play music; it also serves as a portal to most information you can find online. It quickly becomes habit to ask Alexa when you are wondering about something. This is useful as Echo responds to queries with a concise, spoken response. This saves you from looking through all the responses to typical online searches, and it doesn't interrupt what you are doing as web searches do. For most anything you ask, Alexa can search and tell you pertinent information while only rarely having to ask what you meant. Echo has an uncanny ability to interpret your questions.

These can be specific as "Alexa, convert 142 mm to inches" and "Alexa, how much does a gallon of water weigh?". I often ask Alexa when my favorite home sports teams play next. I get a quick answer complete with when, where, and whom they are playing.

You can listen to Audible audiobooks and Kindle Unlimited books using the Echo. Tell Alexa to read "Catcher in the Rye" or any book in your Amazon book collection. Don't use either audiobook service? Echo will read any Kindle book on demand.

On the way out the door, you can order a ride from Uber by voice with the Echo. With the new Echo apps, new functions are being added by third parties all the time. You can find them on the Echo section of Amazon. There are frivolous apps, but some useful ones, too. Echo owners in New York may find the subway status app to be useful before heading out for their daily commute.

In the kitchen

Echo can do a lot to help with meal preparation. Recipes can be requested when needed, and Echo can convert volumes of listed ingredients. Ask Alexa how many tablespoons are in X ounces of flour, for instance, and get immediate results.

Having a dinner party for 12 and a recipe for 8? Use Echo's ability to solve math equations to convert the amount of each ingredient on the fly. Better yet, have Echo order you a pizza from Domino's and avoid cooking.

Since the kitchen is the family hub, putting Echo there is sensible. Check the calendar to see what's on the plate for the day. You can get traffic and weather updates for the day with Echo. Listen to the daily news on demand. Get information about movies showing in the area.

In the bedroom

Forgo your other alarm clocks, and tell Alexa to set an alarm at 5 am. Echo will dutifully sound the alarm when you need it.

Get warm and cozy under the covers and use Echo's ability to work with smart appliances to turn off the lights. Echo works with Philips Hue, SmartThings, Insteon, Wink, and WeMo devices, making them controllable by voice. Get a WeMo-enabled coffeemaker and Alexa can get it going in the morning.

Get one

What the Amazon Echo can do for you is limited only by your imagination. The examples detailed in this article just scratch the surface of what you can do by talking to the invisible assistant in the room. Echo is always on, always connected to the cloud, and always waiting to help.

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