16 incredibly useful things Alexa can do on Amazon Echo

Alexa has grown into a pervasive personal assistant. We were curious about what features the Alexa team loves that many of us haven't noticed. Here we spotlight ten slick features you may have missed that are sure to make you feel more at peace with our robot overlords.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
(Image: Shutterstock)

Back in the days when I was a product developer, there were always a few features that I was particularly proud of that customers, resellers, and reviewers tended not to notice. Usually, this was because bigger features provided a competitive advantage or garnered more attention. Even so, I always felt that some of the lesser-known carefully crafted features deserved more love.

That's why we have this article series. I'm pointing out some of the cooler features I've been looking at for each product spotlighted. I also reached out to the product designers and internal champions and asking them what features they wish were more well-known. Then, I'm sharing those features with you. I've previously covered some of Google's favorite features. Now it's time for the Amazon Echo.

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1. Song ID

This one is new and pretty cool -- as long as you're using Amazon Music. If you ask Alexa to "turn on Song ID," she'll introduce the song and artist before playing. For example, when I asked Alexa to play rock music on Amazon Music, she introduced, "Playing first, We will rock you, remastered 2011, by Queen." Next up, she said, "This is Carry on wayward son, by Kansas," before playing. So, she also has pretty good taste.

2. Routines

Routines allow you to automate a series of customizable actions using the voice commands of your choice. For example, say, "Alexa, good night," to have Alexa turn off the lights, lock the door and play sleep sounds. You can also create Routines based on the time of day -- for example, you can set up a good morning routine where turning off your alarm will trigger Alexa sharing a fun fact, an update on the day's weather, and a playlist of songs from Amazon Music.

Also: Govee Lyra: a constellation of lights in a stunning light bar (plus an Alexa hack)

I use routines to turn off blocks of lights, like all the ceiling lights. I also use them to turn on lights when it's time to wake up, and to control the hall light, as I discussed a few weeks ago.

3. Externally triggered routines

Routines can be triggered by voice command, reaching a certain time in the day, being at a certain location, various smart home triggers (like a motion sensor), some alarms, and even the sound of breaking glass. But Alexa routines can't be triggered by, say, a sale coming into your Etsy shopping cart or when a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit in the San Francisco Bay Area) train is delayed.

For these external triggers, you'll need to install the Voice Monkey skill. This is a free skill that links to IFTTT, Zapier, RESTful API, and some other smart home platforms. Setting up these links is not a super-easy process, but if you want Alexa to let you know your train has been delayed by turning all your lights orange, Voice Monkey can do it.

4. Integrate Android Tasker automation with Alexa

Okay, so we're going to get very geeky for a minute. One of my absolute favorite tools on Android is Tasker. It's a scripting/ programming environment that lets you customize a whole lot of how your Android device functions. You actually need three apps. The First is Tasker. Next is AutoVoice, which allows you to create custom voice commands for Google Home and Alexa through the Alexa app. And, finally, you need the Alexa app.

Once you have all three, you can use Tasker to program just about everything. Do you want the lights in your house to change to a cooler white when you rotate your phone from portrait to landscape? You can do it with this.

5. Delete everything Alexa has recorded

Alexa doesn't record active conversations within its "ear" shot. But it does record requests after hearing a wake word -- and it sometimes records comments after it thinks it heard a wake word. If you want Alexa to delete everything it's heard -- both locally and in the Amazon cloud, just say, "Alexa, delete everything I've said."

6. Send money to your kids

Sometimes, it feels like you're just a human wallet to your kids. But they need you. If they're far away and you want to send them a few bucks via PayPal (and you do this regularly), hook up the PayPal skill and connect it to your PayPal account. Note that this only works in the US and works based on your top contacts. But if you have all that set up, you can say, "Alexa, send $10 to Bobby." And then, "Alexa, play the Ain't got no money blues by Jason Earle." Yeah, just because.

7. Get a pizza

I can't recall if I've talked about this skill before, but nothing is more satisfying than saying, "Alexa, open Dominos and place an order." Now, obviously, you'll have to link your Dominos skill to Dominos.com, and you'll need to set up an ordering profile. Your local Dominos will fulfill your most recent order or any Easy Order you've set up. Sit back and wait. Pizza will soon be at your door. Heartburn, well, that's going to be about two hours later. But it was worth it, right? 

More great ideas

Here are some more great ideas you can choose from.

8. Announcements

Announcements is a communication feature customers can use to make one-way announcements to all of their other supported Alexa-enabled devices, including Echo, Echo Show, and Fire TV devices. Customers can say, "Alexa, announce that dinner is ready," or, "Alexa, announce that it's bedtime," and Alexa will broadcast those announcements on all of their other devices.

My wife and I use announcements all the time. We have a relatively large house, and when I'm in the workshop, or she's in her crafting space, it's a great way to "yell" from one end of the house to another.

9. Reminders

Alexa can proactively tell you when things are happening. For example, you can have Alexa remind you when your favorite TV show is going to be on. You can also set recurring reminders or even set reminders based on location. Additionally, Alexa customers can assign reminders to other household members by simply asking Alexa or using the Alexa app.

This, too, we use all the time. I often set a 3D printing reminder that will tell me to check the status of a long printing process. And, of course, we use it for preparing food, along with timers.

10. Drop In

Drop In can be used to create an instant connection to other Alexa devices in your household, like a two-way intercom, or use group Drop In to instantly connect all of your Echo devices into a group conversation. You can also use Drop In to connect with close contacts who have granted you Drop In permissions.

A few years ago, there was some concern over this feature, but it seems to have blown over and is now used quite often by many households.

11. Hands-free calling

With Alexa, you can easily make hands-free voice or video calls to anyone who has a supported Alexa-enabled device or the Alexa app. You can just say, "Alexa, call [contact name]," to get connected.

12. Emergency contact

After you register for Alexa Communication and add your contacts, you can select any contact with a supported U.S. number as your household's emergency contact in the Alexa app. Alexa will attempt to call and text your emergency contact when you or someone in your house says, "Alexa, call for help."

13. Grocery Help

Have Alexa help you stay on top of your shopping needs by add items to your list. Just say, "Alexa, add spaghetti and meatballs to my shopping list." You can check the list in the Alexa app while on the go and even share it digitally with someone who may be helping you with your grocery shopping. Alexa can also help you determine what you can use as a substitute ingredient or order the item via Amazon Fresh or Whole Foods Market in select areas.

Also: AnyList: The one Alexa feature that makes it worth letting her spy on us all she wants (according to my wife)

Oh, we so use this feature. We have Alexa's lists hooked up to AnyList. We have a grocery list, a Costco list, a Harbor Freight list, a Home Depot list, and more. Just this morning, I said, "Alexa, add strawberries to Costco," since I'd just polished off the last of them and didn't want to forget to get more.

14. Multiroom Audio

Speaker groups allow you to play music, podcasts and news on multiple Echo devices at once, providing a multi-room audio experience. In the Alexa app, you can create custom speaker groups, such as "Upstairs," "Bedrooms," or "Downstairs." You can also just say, "Alexa, play music everywhere," and music or audio will play together on all the supported devices throughout your home.

15. Reading Sidekick

Reading Sidekick is an Alexa learning experience that helps young readers build fluency and foster a love for reading. It works with hundreds of titles and is a great companion to help supplement cherished reading time kids have with their parents and teachers. 

To get started with Reading Sidekick, a child with an Amazon Kids+ subscription can pick up a compatible physical book or eBook and say "Alexa, let's read" to any Amazon Kids-enabled Echo device. The child then tells Alexa the book's title, and Alexa asks how much do they want to read: a little, a lot, or taking turns.

Sadly, our very good little boy Pixel, isn't much of a reader. He also doesn't like keyboards (especially on laps) or mice. But he does love staring at the TV and barking like crazy if he sees a horse or another dog.

16. Celebrity Personalities

You can customize your Echo devices with three celebrity personalities -- Shaquille O'Neal, Melissa McCarthy, and Samuel L. Jackson. Just say, "Alexa, introduce me to Melissa" or "Alexa, introduce me to Shaq" to get started. You can hear the latest weather report in their voice, hear a joke, or hear a personal story. 

This is a cool feature, but in my opinion, it is vastly underutilized. Our GPS got us all across the country with the dulcet tones of Snoop Dogg navigating us through unfamiliar territory. We need so many more celebrities represented here, as well as better wake words. I like Ziggy, but it really needs to be voiced by Deborah Pratt or Dean Stockwell rather than the generic female or male voice. What? I loved Quantum Leap.

Wrapping up

So there you go. Ten awesome features that should help you and Alexa bond even more.  Is there another product where you'd like to know what hidden or lesser-known features the vendor most wishes to spotlight? What is your favorite Alexa features? Share with us in the comments below.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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