This is a cross-posting of Love My Echo‘s Alexa 101 post, which I posted to that site on 12/20/16.
There will be MANY more owners of Alexa-powered devices by the end of this month and it occurs to me that there are a few essential bits of information that most Alexa device owners find helpful, and I should probably pass them on this week: for both the givers and recipients.
1. Be sure to deregister any Alexa devices you’ve purchased from your own Amazon account.
Unless you checked that little “this is a gift” box when you ordered it, that Alexa device was automatically registered to your Amazon account. If it’s still registered to your Amazon account, the recipient of your gift won’t be able to register it to their own account. Of course, if you’re intending to run the device for the recipient (e.g., an aging or disabled person), then you’ll want to keep it registered to your own account. Otherwise:
Go to Amazon > Your Account > Manage Your Content and Devices > Devices tab, and look for the new Alexa device(s) there. To deregister a device, click it to select and in its detail panel, click the deregister link.
2. Reassure the recipient there’s no Alexa service to sign up for, and no monthly subscription or service fees—beyond what the recipient is already paying for their existing WiFi connection.
This is a common misconception among people who don’t already own Alexa-enabled devices: that some kind of subscription or fee-based service is required to make the device work.
3. When you get tired of answering the recipient’s questions about Alexa and the device, send ’em here!
Specifically, use the email sharing link at the top of this post to send them a link to this post. Direct them to the Alexa Help Desk page and the The Basics post archive. If they like to have fun with Alexa, tell ’em to check out the Easter Eggs archive too: that’s where all the past Stupid Alexa Tricks posts are stored.
If they can’t find the information they’re seeking on the site, while I can’t help with individual troubleshooting and setup scenarios (for that they need to call Amazon, see #3 in the Alexa Recipients section below), and while I can’t say what Amazon’s future plans are for Alexa and Alexa devices (they don’t make that information public), I do answer other questions via email. They can use the Love My Echo Contact Form to shoot me an email.
1. Be sure to read the Getting Started insert that comes with the device: it’s short, and provides an up-to-date overview of Alexa functionality.
Alexa is an impressive piece of high tech wizardry, and you’ll get much more and better use of her if you start by getting the lay of the land.
2. Having trouble with Alexa mobile app installation? Use the web app in a browser instead.
The Alexa device instructions will tell you to install the Alexa mobile app and use it to set up your device, but you can also go to the web browser version of the Alexa app and complete setup there. You don’t really have to install the mobile version of the Alexa app at all. Note that you’ll be prompted to login to your Amazon account in the Alexa web app, just the same as if you’d used the mobile app, but it’s safe because the web app is an amazon.com site.
3. Having trouble with setup and connection to WiFi? Call Amazon Alexa/Echo Tech Support (1-877-375-9365 – 3am to 10pm PST, 7 days). Yes, they will be there, even on Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve.
Better still, during periods when Amazon expects there be a lot of new device owners or digital service users—Christmas week, for example—they staff up those support departments to ensure no one will be left hanging on hold for hours.
4. You don’t have to be a Prime member or have a paid subscription to any particular streaming music service to listen to music on your Alexa device.
There are numerous free services, and free versions of services, Alexa supports by default. Click here to see Amazon’s help topic about listening to music and media on Alexa (Amazon UK customers click here).
5. In the U.S., Alexa can read Kindle books that have Text-to-Speech (TTS) enabled.
This option is set by the publisher so it’s not available on all Kindle books, but where TTS is enabled Alexa can read the book to you, so long as you know the title. Click here for Amazon’s help topic about reading Kindle books with Alexa.
6. Are there two household members with separate Amazon accounts, and each wants to maintain a separate Alexa profile so Alexa can keep your music libraries, to-do lists, custom settings and so on separate?
See my post about how to set up a second Alexa profile: Yes, You CAN Access Another Household Member’s Music Library On Your Echo. It’s also applicable to Dot and Tap.
7. Alexa does not do open-ended internet searches (and neither do any other digital assistants, regardless of what consumers think), but Alexa can still answer plenty of questions if you know how to ask her.
Alexa can answer plenty of factual questions without any special rules for asking, and when that doesn’t work asking Alexa to “Wikipedia [person, place, thing, event, etc.]” usually will.
There’s a lot Alexa can answer with a plain question, like—say the wake word first, if using a Dot or Echo—: “how many pints in a gallon”, “what’s the tallest mountain on Earth”, “what’s the temperature on the Moon”, “what’s the population of New York City”, “what’s the current time in [city and country anywhere in the world]”, “when will sunset be on [date, up to one year in advance]”, “when will sunrise be on [date, up to one year in advance]”, and so on.
Among other things, Alexa can do math (e.g., “what’s 2,463 divided by 14”), unit conversions (e.g., “convert 3 miles to kilometers”), tell you the current weather and weather forecast for anywhere in the world, tell you when the next full moon will be, tell you how many days it will be till a certain day (e.g., “how many days till Valentine’s Day”) up to a year in advance, and tell you what day of the week a certain date will fall on (e.g., “what day will June 3 be”) up to a year in advance.
Thanks to Yelp integration, Alexa has local business information too. Try queries like, “is there a supermarket nearby?” “is the post office open?” and so on. Alexa will send phone number and address details to the Alexa app—which, don’t forget.
8. Unless money is no object for you, resist the urge to go nuts with purchases of smart home devices Alexa can control: it’s still the early adopter phase for smart home, which means smart home devices are only going to get cheaper and less buggy, and offer more and better functionality going forward with each new generation.
I’m not saying you should avoid such purchases altogether, I’m just saying don’t get too heavily invested in any smart home devices that may eventually be discontinued, or be replaced by a totally new and not backward-compatible version of the hardware or software.
For example, early adopters of the Philips HUE smart home lighting system have their war stories. Many invested heavily in the first generation HUE system specifically because Philips advertised it as compatible with several non-Philips smart bulbs, which were less expensive than the Philips-branded bulbs, and were shocked when a software update yanked support for the third-party bulbs. You can read my full post about it here.
Stories like that are why it’s safest to invest only in relatively inexpensive, individual pieces of smart home tech that don’t require you to buy an entire system. The only smart home devices I’ve bought so far are a few LIFX multicolor smart bulbs (Amazon UK customers click here for white version of bulb), and I’m eyeing the TP-Link Smart Plugtoo (Amazon UK customers click here). These devices don’t cost an arm and a leg, don’t require installation and setup of a whole, complex system, are natively supported by Alexa, and will still work as “dumb” devices if support for their smart features is ever pulled in the future.
9. Unless you have a photographic memory, resist the urge to enable a bunch of Alexa skills right away.
You need to know the correct command to launch each one, so it’s best to try them out two or three at a time. It’s easy enough to disable those you ultimately decide against, and then you can enable new ones. There are literally thousands of skills available, so expect to take your time exploring the Skills tab in the Alexa mobile and web apps.
Once you start using Alexa skills, check out this post about universal Alexa commands, which includes a list of universal skill commands.
10. Get ready for change.
Alexa gets smarter and better with each new software update, but each new software update has the potential to change existing functionality too. Amazon’s Alexa engineers are hard at work making Alexa’s comprehension of plain English better and more flexible, and when they update Alexa with a new, simpler version of a command you’re used to using, the old version of the command may not work anymore or may give a different result.
Be prepared to experiment with slightly different wording when a tried and true command suddenly stops working, and know that when it happens, it’s because Alexa’s going through some growing pains—but it also means she’s getting smarter! Click here to read my post about Alexa’s growing pains with respect to smart home devices, which offers some tips to ensure your smart home setup will be only minimally impacted by future Alexa software updates.
11. Subscribe to Love My Echo’s email list to get tips, tricks, Stupid Alexa Tricks, Alexa news, freebies and more each week.
It’s free, you can unsubscribe at any time, I do not share my subscribers’ information with anyone else, I do my best to be inclusive of UK Alexa users, and there’s even the option to subscribe only to a weekly digest that goes out on Saturdays, or to a once-weekly post directed toward those who are interested in topics related to Alexa software development. Click here to subscribe, so you’ll always be up to date with the latest Alexa help and information.