Amazon Echo secret features: 11 cool tricks you didn't know your Alexa device can do

Amazon’s voice assistant can do a lot more than just play music and tell you the weather. Check out secrets of the Amazon Echo

Nik Rawlinson
26 Sep 2018
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Do you remember when Amazon was just an online bookshop?

Well those days are gone, because nowadays that online bookshop is ahead of the likes of Google and Apple in the AI game. With everyone's favourite virtual assistant Alexa, Amazon has become an unstoppable retail presence that undercuts competition through low prices and reliability.

Alexa entered our hearts through the Echo, the blue-tooth enabled speaker that does just about everything you want it to, from play music to order pizza.

But what else can the Echo do, once it's settled into your home? There are many more functions than just listening to the radio, however. Here's a guide to some of the clever ways you can adapt the Echo to your life, and make the most of some of its many capabilities.

Amazon Echo's hidden secret features

1. The name game

Out of the box, your virtual assistant is called Alexa – but opening vowels can be problematic for some stammerers, and there’s plenty of scope for confusion if you have a child or pet with a similar name. Happily, while Google, Apple and Microsoft are quite precious about what you call their assistants, Amazon gives you options: instead of addressing your Echo as “Alexa”, you can choose to say “Echo”, “Amazon” or – for Star Trek fans – “Computer”.

To change this setting, open the Alexa smartphone app, click Settings and tap on the device whose wake word you want to change. Click Edit on the wake word line and choose from the dropdown list. We’re using “Alexa” throughout this feature, but obviously, if you’ve chosen a different name then swap it as appropriate.

READ NEXT: The best Alexa skills to make the most of your smart speaker

2. Set up Multi-Room Music

If you have multiple Echo devices in your home, you can easily stream one playlist or radio station to several (or all of them) at once. But first you need to put them into groups: you can do this via the Alexa app by clicking Settings | Multi-Room Music.

You can create as many groups as you like, but note that each device can only appear in one group. So, if you have two Echos downstairs and two upstairs, you could create a “downstairs” group for the first two – but you couldn’t then also add them to a “whole-house” group.

To set up your first group, all you need to do is tap the Create Group button, followed by Multi-Room Music, give the group a name and tick the boxes beside the devices that should be included.

Now, if you want to play music on your two downstairs Echo devices, you can simply say “Alexa, play Kylie downstairs”. If Kylie’s not to your taste, modify the instruction as appropriate.

3. Create multiple profiles

Alexa will listen to anyone – but that doesn’t mean she has to treat everyone the same. If you set up separate profiles for each person in your household, you can switch between them to ensure that any music played, calendars accessed, and accounts used for shopping will be appropriate to that particular user.

Creating a new profile has to be done by the registered owner of the Echo device. Open Settings in the Alexa app, click Household Profile in the Settings section and then enter your account password. Now get the other member to log in using the same device and link your accounts.

A word of warning: when you tell Alexa to order an item from Amazon, the system will use whichever payment method is set up for the active profile – so to avoid mix-ups, it’s worth checking before you place the order. To do so, just ask “Alexa, which profile is this?”

4. Protect your purchases

On the subject of voice purchases, if you’ve got kids in the house you’ll probably want to set up a PIN code for online shopping, to ensure they don’t order a new LEGO kit every two weeks. To do this, scroll down to Voice Purchasing in the Alexa app and add the code in the “Require voice code” field. This will need to be spoken when making a purchase – so make sure they don’t overhear you.

5. Connect external devices

Everyone knows that the Echo, Echo Plus and Echo Show can stream music from various online sources. What you might not realise is that these devices can all also be used as external Bluetooth speakers, meaning you can – for example – use them to play music directly from your phone. To make the connection, either search for the Echo device in your phone’s Bluetooth menu, or simply make your phone discoverable and say “Alexa, pair Bluetooth” or “Alexa, pair phone”. (Note that the Echo Dot lacks this capability.)

Once connected, you can control the music with all the usual voice commands, including “play”, “pause”, “previous” and “next”, and volume. To close the connection, say “Alexa, disconnect Bluetooth” or “Alexa, disconnect phone”.

6. Use IFTTT

You probably already know about the free-to-use automation service IFTTT – the web service is now used by supermarkets among other parties. For home use, though, what’s perhaps more handy is the numerous Alexa integrations the service now offers.

To get started, go to ifttt.com/amazon_alexa and click Connect. Enter your password on the Amazon page that appears and authorise the connection. You can now use the pre-rolled applets to link Alexa to a huge range of services and devices – from a Roomba vacuum cleaner or a WeMo coffee maker to Facebook Messenger and Google spreadsheets. 

In our view, one of the most useful integrations is between Alexa and task management app Wunderlist: although Alexa already has a native shopping-list feature, Wunderlist is more flexible and works across almost every platform imaginable. 

To set it up, search IFTTT for “wunderlist” and you should see a result entitled “Add Amazon Echo shopping list items to Wunderlist”. Click the Turn On toggle switch, and on the next screen enter “[email protected]” in the “To:” field, before clicking Save.

Now open IFTTT’s settings (by clicking your name at the top of the IFTTT interface) and link your Google account. If you have more than one Google account, make a note of the one you used.

Finally, sign in to Wunderlist and open your account settings, again by clicking your name at the top of the sidebar. Click “Add or manage your email addresses”, and make sure that the email address you just linked to IFTTT is allowed to add items to your list by email. Now, when you tell Alexa to add something to your shopping list, it will be forwarded onto Wunderlist, ready for you to pick up on the web or on your phone.

7. Create your own routine

If you frequently fire off the same string of commands in a row, why not create a routine, so you can launch the sequence with a single instruction and save time?

To do this, tap Routines in the Alexa Account section of the Alexa app, followed by the “+” to get started. Tap “When this happens”, then “When you say something” and type the trigger phrase. We’re using “Alexa, open the office” to set up a routine that will run when we get to our desk in the morning.

Save the phrase, then tap “Add action” and choose what should happen from the News, Smart Home, Traffic and Weather options. In the example image above, we’re turning on two lights and asking Alexa to tell us what the day’s weather is.

8. Use Alexa remotely

Did you know that you can communicate with Alexa even when you aren’t within range of its microphone? One way is to use the official Voice Remote: this connects to the Echo over Bluetooth, so you can still control your Echo even if you’re a room or two away. But if you don’t want to shell out £20 there are ways to talk to Alexa for free.

One option is to use the Echo Sim site, which is effectively a virtual Amazon Echo that runs in a web browser. To use it, you have to log into your Amazon account. Once that’s done, you can access all your personal information and skills, and even control any smart home devices you have configured. Just remember to allow the site to access your microphone, hold space on the keyboard while you speak, and prefix your command with “Alexa” as you usually would.

Americans – but not yet Brits – can also use the Amazon Shopping app. This lets you tap the microphone and say whatever you’d usually say to Alexa. In this case, you don’t need the wake word as she’s already listening, so “tell Hive to set my thermostat to 20 degrees” will work without an introduction. Hopefully we Brits will get the same capability soon.

9. Use Alexa as a hands-free phone

You might well have seen Amazon’s saturation advertising for Alexa recently – some of which focuses on its ability to act as an intercom or a hands-free speakerphone. This may sound like complicated stuff, but it’s easy to set up. 

To enable Alexa’s intercom capabilities, first open the Alexa app and make sure that all your devices have logical names (we suggest you name them after the rooms they’re located in). If you need to change a name, click through Settings, select the one that you want to adjust, and then tap Edit on the “Device name” line. 

Once you’ve done this you can easily open a channel between two Echo devices using the “drop in” command. For example, to call from the bedroom to an Echo speaker in the kitchen, just say “Alexa, drop in on the kitchen”.

A word of warning: as soon as you activate this feature your microphone will go live – so don’t make any snarky comments while you’re waiting for whoever’s in the kitchen to reply.

Setting up phone call capabilities is only slightly more involved. First, openxthe Alexa app on your phone and tap the speech bubble on the toolbar. When you originally set up the app you’ll have been asked for your phone number, and for authorisation to pull in your contacts from your address book – and now you should see them here.

To call or text one of these contacts, tap the person icon at the top of the screen and then select their name. You will see options to send either a text or call. Texts will be read out by the recipient’s Echo device, as well as appearing on their phone, while a phone call will make their device ring so you can speak hands-free.

What if you don’t want to be disturbed? Tap a name and use the “Allow Drop In” switch to enable or disable their access. Scroll to the bottom of their card and there’s a link to block them if you desire.

10. Personalise your Flash Briefing

A Flash Briefing is Amazon’s name for a quick info dump that draws content from multiple sources, such as news publishers, weather forecasters and exchange rate trackers. To set one up that’s personalised just for you, open the Alexa app and click Flash Briefing in the Settings section. Click “Get more Flash Briefing content” and select the elements you would like to add: you will find options such as BBC World Service, The Guardian, MTV and the Joke of the Day.

Each one you add will be automatically enabled, but you can remove any source from the briefing if you choose: just return to the Flash Briefing section and toggle the switch beside each one’s name.

You can enable sports content within the Flash Briefing, too – but Alexa already knows a lot about football and other sports. Click Sports Update on the Settings screen, then use the search box to find the teams you’re interested in. As well as the huge Premier League clubs, you will also find local teams such as Leatherhead and Taunton Town – although, tragically, Lewes FC is missing from the list.

11. Say goodbye, Alexa

If you’re upgrading from a Dot to a Plus, or from a regular Alexa to a Show, you might be tempted to pass your old device on to a friend, or sell it online. Before you do, make sure you deregister it so that the new owner can’t place online orders using your account. Open the Alexa app, click Settings, then click on the name of the device you’re getting rid of. You will find the deregistration option in the About section.

Don’t worry about the record that Alexa keeps of things you’ve said to her: this won’t follow the device to its new home. However, if you ever want to purge this information from your own account, you can delete individual recordings from the homepage of the Alexa app, or switch to your Amazon account to delete the lot.

To do this, log in at amazon.co.uk, click Your Account, and find the link to “Manage Your Content and Devices”. Switch to the Your Devices tab, click the three dots beside the names of each of your Echo speakers, and choose “Manage voice recordings” on each one. Read the disclaimer and click Delete to wipe the slate clean.

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