Many of us have welcomed Alexa into our homes with the Amazon Echo speaker, but the conversation can get awfully quiet at times.
See, Alexa is rather reserved: she's not going to start the dialogue, and you need to have the right talking points handy to have a meaningful chat. The voice assistant can do a lot of things, certainly, but it can take a while to figure out exactly what her capabilities are.
Luckily, we're here to help. We've already walked you through how to master the Echo with an array of skills, features, and tweaks, and now we're highlighting several of the top skills you'll actually want to use. You can activate these by asking Alexa, or by searching in the Skills section on the Alexa smartphone app.
All of these are relatively new in the UK, since the Echo has only been here for a couple months now, but any skills that had been available in the States for a while are denoted as "classics." Other UK-specific skills or otherwise fresh features are marked as newcomers, and in any case, this is a helpful cheat sheet for putting your Echo to work straightaway.
New: Just Eat
Alexa can help you out in the kitchen, but she can just as easily save you the hassle of slicing your fingers by ordering you a takeaway. With Just Eat, you can re-order recent meals you've previously ordered, select whether it's for delivery or pickup, and choose whether to pay with cash or card. You can even ask where your order is, too, if your tummy begins to grumble. Sadly, it can't eject prawn crackers directly into your mouth while you wait.
BabyMate is designed for parents who are under the immense stress of caring for an infant, and want to keep track of certain things - namely keeping score of how often they're feeding, sleeping, and… doing their business? BabyMate will tally all of that via your voice, so you don't have to fumble for your phone with your hands when they're so frequently full and/or filthy.
The "Uber of laundry" is a pretty spectacular service, as Laundrapp will pick up your dirty or wrinkled clothes and wash or dry-clean everything before returning them, ready to wear – and now you can set it up with the Echo. Ask Alexa to set a pickup time or to ask about prices, and you'll be able to arrange for that pile of stinky trousers to be cleaned without you lifting a finger. Truly, we're living in the future.
New: Name 10
Alexa can do so many things to help you around the home, but she can also just amuse you during moments of extreme boredom. Case in point: Name 10 is a simple skill that has Alexa hit you with a random query. Name 10 spells used in Harry Potter. Name 10 famous movie cats. Name 10 American presidents. And so on and so forth. There's no back and forth here – just the prompt from Alexa – but it could be a good way to get a conversation started with mates.
New: National Rail
If your commute involves a train, then you know well the feeling of being at the mercy of delays and mishaps. Luckily, you don't have to pull out your phone or hit the computer in the morning to get a glimpse of your gauntlet ahead: the National Rail skill on the Echo lets you query Alexa for an update on your commute or set up a new journey. No, it won't make the trains run on time, but at least it can prepare you for the voyage ahead.
Uber's refreshed mobile app looks like it'll offer a smoother way to order up a ride, but if you don't have your phone handy or are in a hurry, you can just ask Alexa to handle the details. Say, "Alexa, ask Uber for a ride," and you can get an UberX to your home within minutes. You can specify other rides too, like an UberXL, UberEXEC, or UberLUX, as well as get a status update or change your default pickup spot.
Amazon's Prime Music service has a limited library, but if you have a Spotify Premium account, you can access all of your tunes on the Echo. Just link your account under the "Music & Books" tab in the menu, and then you can request songs, albums, artists, and playlists whenever you please. You'll need to add "from Spotify" to the end of your request if you're juggling multiple services, otherwise just make Spotify the default to save that hassle.
Classic: Philips Hue
Having a truly smart home means that all of your devices play nice with each other, so being able to control Philips Hue lights with the Echo is a real treat. With either version of the Hue bridge, you can turn lights on or off and dim them, while the V2 bridge (square) has support for picking lighting scenes and controlling individual rooms. With an IFTTT applet, you can also change the colour of a light via Alexa, but only in the U.S. for now.
Classic: The Bartender
Liquor and mates are usually all you'd need to have a good time, but if you want to level up your party game a bit, ask Alexa to active The Bartender skill. It's multitalented: if you know the name of a drink but not its ingredients, just ask. And if you have certain spirits and mixers but don't know what to do with them, ask for drinks that feature a particular component. With more than 12,000 recipes, you're sure to hear something new to try.
Classic: 7-Minute Workout
Many of us get roughly zero exercise in an average day, so while seven minutes a day won't trim your gut in record time, it might help you feel a bit sprightlier. The 7-Minute Workout skill runs through a handful of simple exercises (remember jumping jacks?) that you can do in your flat with no extra equipment, plus there are simple illustrations in the Alexa smartphone app as a guide. It's surely worth seven minutes a day to boost your metabolism and energy, right?
If your smart home has more than just Hue bulbs, though, you might run into some control issues; Alexa plays nice with some connected home tech, but not others. But Yonomi can bridge the gap in many cases. We were able to create a concoction that turned on a Samsung TV, Sky Q box, and Sonos PlayBar at once, and another that turned on the telly when we stood on a Withings scale in the morning. Fun, clever, useful stuff indeed.