Many of us have welcomed Alexa into our homes with one Amazon Echo device or another, 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 19 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.
We'll be updating this list regularly with new additions, and the latest picks here are marked as such. Now get to chatting up your robo-helper!
Using your smart speaker is a handy way to catch up on the day’s headlines, but most bulletins just spew all the news at you in one go, regardless of whether you care about Boris Johnson’s latest catastrophe or not. Alexa’s new BBC News skill allows you to skip stories like you’re skipping songs on a playlist, so if something boring about the royal family or rugby comes up, you can just tell your Echo to move on to the next one.
What is it about the human brain that makes it dredge up every stupid thing you’ve ever said as soon as your head hits the pillow and you just want to fall asleep? If you need something to distract it, Ambient Noise has nearly 50 soothing sounds to choose from to help you nod off, zone out or just concentrate a bit better. It features popular snoozecore hits such as rain on a window, ocean waves, and forest night, plus deep cuts and lesser-known jams including dishwasher, cat and cafe. Upgrade to the premium version and you can even combine two of them, meaning you could hear owl in shower (sexy) or frogs in fireplace (horrifying).
Alexa is capable of reading your Kindle books that have Text-to-Speech support, but it’s a bit like listening to a bedtime story read by HAL – not exactly soothing. If you’re an Audible subscriber, though, you can access your audiobooks via an Echo device and carry on listening where you left off, with a far less robotic narrator than Alexa. Well, that’s unless you’re currently working your way through R2D2’s autobiography. Wait til you get to the chapter about when he went on holiday to Cantonica with Chewie. It makes The Hangover look like Mary Poppins.
If you know how to say: “Tres cervezas por favor” you probably consider yourself a pretty accomplished Spanish speaker, but that’s nothing compared to Translated. This Alexa skill knows 37 languages (38 if you count English) from Arabic to Welsh via Basque and Thai. Just tell your Echo what you want to say and in which language and Alexa will read it back to you. Too fast? Get her to repeat it as many times as you want, or slow it down to really get the hang of the pronunciation.
If you’ve got the Dark Sky app on your phone you’ll know how handy it can be to have hyper-local weather info at your fingertips. Big Sky uses the same data source, so once you’ve told it where you live you can ask for a full rundown of the day’s forecast for the exact street that you live on. It’ll even tell you nerdy stuff like wind speed and barometric pressure if you want, and if you sign up for Premium you can turn on alerts for specific conditions.
To make the most of Mastermind’s talents you’ll need to install its companion app on your phone, but once that’s done it opens up a whole load of new voice-controlled powers. What can be done depends on whether you’re an Android or iPhone user, but you can send and receive calls and texts, keep on top of your notifications, check how much battery you’ve got left, and find your phone. Of course, your phone’s built-in voice assistant allows you to do this kind of stuff, but if it’s in your pocket or left in another room, Mastermind makes it more accessible.
There’s not a huge amount we miss about Kinect but there’s no denying that being able to turn your Xbox on with your voice was pretty handy. Rather than buying a second-hand sensor off Ebay, though, you can bring back the voice control by activating the Xbox Alexa skill. As well as turning your console on and off, you can launch games and apps, control playback of videos, adjust the volume and record gameplay clips.
Your Echo can access music from Spotify and your Amazon library, along with TuneIn and other services – but only the official BBC skill can tap into the Beeb's entire range of radio stations and a wealth of top podcasts. Pop on a station while you're fiddling around the flat, or take in an episode of Desert Island Discs if you please. There are never adverts and you can control it all with your voice, of course.
Some of the Amazon Echo devices are better than others at piping music into your home, but none can compare with the quality of Sonos speakers. Luckily, if you have a Sonos system in your home, you can now control it via the Sonos skill. It's still in beta as of this writing and may not be fully featured just yet, but you can request songs from Spotify Premium, Amazon Music, and TuneIn, as well as control music started from your phone via 80+ other services.
Many of the skills on this list are designed to help you do things, or simply entertain you – but what if you just need a moment to unwind, relax, and center yourself? Luckily, that's exactly what Guided Meditation is all about. As the name suggests, this skill is all about taking a break from your busy routine, or bouncing back after a frustrating day. Each session is short, between three and eight minutes apiece, and there are more than 60 available within.
Are you willing to open your mind a bit and actually learn something from your Echo? If so, then consider popping on the TED Talks skill while doing the dishes or lounging on the sofa. TED Talks feature a wide variety of experts that give concise, compelling speeches on a wide array of topics, from religion and politics to technology and memes. Chances are good that you've never even heard of some of the concepts you'll hear discussed, but you just might come away illuminated.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. You can even change the colour of a light just by asking Alexa.
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.
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.