What Is Amazon Echo and Alexa, and How to Set Them Up

Step by step guide | Tips and tricks | Compatible devices | Comparisons with other smart speakers | and more...
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Updated: 20th Dec 2019
Published: 18th May 2019
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By Ricky Harewood

Ricky is our Head of content and has written a large amount of the content on SMARTHOME.news. He man Read More...

Alexa has carved out a niche as one of the best voice assistants with a wide range of capabilities. Taking the virtual assistant concept to a whole new high, she brings tons of value in smart device control and task execution. But in order to fully leverage the opportunity, it is essential to understand how she works, her range of skills, device options and set-up procedures.

So if you are already on the bandwagon or planning to jump aboard in the near future, here is a lowdown of everything you need to know about Alexa.

What is Amazon Alexa?

Amazon Alexa means different things to different people. The roles range from being a tireless personal assistant and parents’ helper, to being a kids’ playmate and so much more. What makes this possible is Alexa’s versatility as a voice service. Essentially, she responds to users’ voices to assist in getting things done.

With an ever-expanding skill set, Alexa constantly adds to her database, becoming better and better with more use.

What Does Amazon Alexa Do?

One of the most unique aspects of Alexa is the ability to manage a vast array of devices in the smart home. Knowledge of these abilities will allow you to personalize and enhance your experience.

The best part about bringing the virtual assistant home is the discovery phase, which often leads to lots of pleasant surprises. Looking for a cheat sheet to get you straight to the best part? Take a look at some of the things Alexa can do:

Control Smart Devices in Your Home

Have you ever had to crawl out of a warm bed and navigate over cold floors to turn up the heat? With Alexa, you can give the command from the comfort of your bed and get up when it’s all warm and toasty. You can also dim the lights, close the shades, tell Alexa to turn off the TV or change channels and so much more.

Help with the Kids

Alexa can work with you to make parenting a whole lot easier. She can read them a bedtime story, play games with them over Amazon Echo speakers, help them with their homework using online resources, tell them jokes and even make fart sounds to tickle the blues out of them. Ask Alexa to show you specific rooms to keep an eye on babies and toddlers or even adventurous teens.

Simplify Countless Tasks

Whenever you need an extra pair of hands, Alexa can make your work easier. She can make calls to contacts in your mobile phone, tell you the next step in a recipe, order a pizza for you, order groceries and even get them delivered. Pair her up with the right device and she can let you see who’s at the door, keep track of your medicines and turn off hazardous items like flat irons.

Alexa can also:

  • Play ambient sounds or soothing music to lull you to sleep
  • Stream music from services like Spotify
  • Set alarms and timers
  • Get news reports tailored to your requirements
  • Categorize smart devices into groups and enable them to work as a unit using a single command

The list of things Alexa can do is never-ending as Amazon is constantly updating her capabilities and functionality.

How Does Amazon Alexa Work

Alexa makes use of an online Amazon cloud service to interpret the commands a user gives to any compatible device. To get her to do your bidding, all you need is a “wake word” and a command. A majority of people simply use “Alexa” as the wake word while others say “wake up.”

Once the wake word activates the device, it records your speech and transfers the input to Alexa Voice Services cloud. The service digests the input and responds accordingly. Though this might sound like a ton of work, Alexa does it extremely fast, reacting almost immediately with an output.

Devices that Work with Alexa

There are three main categories of devices that allow you to access Alexa’s functionality. These are:

  • Devices that natively host Alexa
  • Amazon devices that work with Alexa
  • Third-party devices that work with Alexa

Devices That Natively Host Alexa

These devices have Alexa built-I, which means that they allow you to issue voice commands to control the virtual assistant. One of the most common lines of devices that fall into this category is the Amazon Echo range of speakers. Take a look at them:

1. Amazon Echo

This is a cylindrical speaker with seven built-in microphones. Currently in its second generation, it is approximately 2.5” and sports a mesh cover. You can swap out the covers to match your home décor. The speaker is capable of picking out your voice even in a noisy room.

2. Amazon Echo Spot

Essentially a smart alarm with a screen, this device can display information and do video calls. It is a great choice for your bedside.

3. Amazon Echo Dot

The Echo Dot is comparatively smaller than the Echo and features a fabric exterior. It is currently in the third generation and has both functional and aesthetic advantages over its predecessors.

4. Amazon Fire TV Cube

This is one of the most versatile devices in the range. It unifies a number of device capabilities into a single unit. Like the Fire TV, it supports Netflix and Prime Video and it can also work as a streaming stick.

5. Amazon Echo Kids Edition

In addition to sporting a funky design in a wide range of colorful rubber exteriors, this speaker has parental controls. This feature allows access to kid-friendly content, blocking out the rest and also keeps kids out of your shopping list. Notably, it incorporates a “Magic Word” mode, requiring children to preface their Alexa requests with the word ‘please.’

6. Amazon Echo Plus

This Dolby speaker system includes security sensors, a temperature sensor, and an appealing fabric exterior. Besides offering offline voice control, it allows you to connect directly to compatible devices, eliminating the need for a bridge.

7. Amazon Echo Input

With this device, you can turn literally any speaker into a smart one. Connect it via cable and Bluetooth and bring Alexa’s benefits to your home theatre system. It comes with four microphones to pick commands.

8. Amazon Echo Show

Echo Show was the first of Amazon’s Echo products to support video capability. It has a 7” screen with crisp HD image quality. Much like the Echo Plus, the Echo Show features Dolby surround sound and the ability to connect directly to compatible devices. Additionally, it can play back TV show recordings and support live TV. It also has Skype for video calls and you can use it as a nanny cam or baby monitor.

Amazon’s Range of Compatible Devices

Getting the full benefits of Alexa entails pairing her up with a range of devices to create a comprehensive ecosystem. Any device that has the “works with Alexa” accreditation is a fair game. Have a look at some of the most popular compatible devices:

1. Alexa Smart Plug

Use the smart plug to turn any device into a smart one. For instance, you could make your coffee maker smart to turn her on remotely and simplify the morning routine.

2. Amazon Basics Microwave

Though it’s not native Alexa, it can pair up with Alexa devices to take commands on cooking ready meals.

3. Amazon Echo Sub

The Sub, a new speaker on the Echo range, pairs with Echo, Echo Plus or both to enhance audio output.

4. Echo Wall Clock

Connect the Echo wall clock with native Alexa devices via Bluetooth. It is a smart clock that allows users to take a peek into the timers they set.

5. Echo Auto

With this device, you can turn any automobile into a smart car, allowing it to use your smartphone data to communicate with the Alexa neural network.

6. Fire Cast TV Recast

This over-the-air box records TV shows and can also fire them at other devices. However, to use it, you will require a Fire TV device.

Third-Party Compatible Devices

Through Amazon’s Alexa Voice Service, third parties can access APIs that enable them to interface with Alexa. The following are among the most popular products in the range:

1. Ring Video Doorbell 2

Exclusively compatible with Echo Show, this smart doorbell allows you to view and screen visitors at your doorstep.

2. Sonos

Sonos is a top of the range sound system that enables users to enjoy music in specific rooms of the house.

3. Nest

A leader in the smart thermostats market, Nest offers voice control over the home heating system. Turn the heat on or off and adjust the temperature to suit the mood and weather conditions.

4. Philips Hue

With Philips Hue bulbs as part of your Alexa ecosystem, you can turn the lights on and off, and even adjust hue and tone. Moreover, you can set pre-loaded scenes.

5. Hive

Hive offers a range of smart bulbs, plugs and thermostats for a complete smart home experience. Like the other products on this list, it comes with Alexa preset integrations. 

Also read: The Ultimate Guide to Amazon Echo and Alexa Compatible Devices

How to Set Up Alexa on Amazon Echo

Amazon Echo is at the heart of the Alexa smart home ecosystem as it is one of the few product lines with native Alexa functionality. So here is a simple guide to help you get the virtual assistant up and running from your Echo device:

Step I: Connect the Speaker to Power Supply

After unboxing your Echo device, attach the power cable and then plug it into your wall socket. An LED light will start circling on the top of the device and Alexa will prompt you to complete setup using the virtual assistant app.

Step II: Install the Alexa App on Your Phone

On your iOS or Android device (or Amazon tablet), download the Amazon Alexa app and install it. Create a user account on Amazon to start using the app and enjoying the virtual assistant’s features.

Step III: Add Device

Open the app and tap on the ‘Devices’ tab and then on the ‘+’ symbol. Choose ‘Add Device’ and then ‘Amazon Echo.’ Choose the model you have and the language you want to use. At this point, there should be an orange light on your device.

Once you see this light, tap ‘Continue’ and select the Wi-Fi network you wish to use. Enter Wi-Fi password and when it connects, it should bring the message “Your Echo is Online.”

Step IV: Start Using Alexa

Alexa should now be ready to go. If there is more than one Echo device, you will need to follow the above procedure for each one. For devices such as Echo Show, which have a screen, you will not need a smartphone or tablet to set up. Simply follow the instructions on the screen. ‘Alexa’ is the default wake word, but you can change it to “Computer”, “Amazon” or “Echo.”

Adding Smart Home Devices to Amazon Echo

To add any of the above devices other than the Echo Plus to your smart home network, you will start by following the manufacturer’s instructions. Once you are done, go to your Alexa app and click on the ‘Skills’ tab.’ From here, you can download the skill needed to operate the device. Sign in and allow Alexa to take control of the device. After following these steps, the device should appear on the app’s Smart Home section.

What You Can Do with Alexa

  1. Creating Groups

When creating a smart home hub, one of the features you will find most exciting is the creation of groups for devices. From the smart home section on your app, simply add the devices you wish to include in a group. Go to ‘Smart Home’ and tap on ‘Groups’ then ‘Add Group.’ Tap on ‘Choose Smart Group’ and name the new group. Select the devices you want to add to the group and it’s ready to go.

To illustrate the value of this feature, consider the convenience of adding all downstairs lights to a group. At bedtime, you would only need a single command to get Alexa to switch them all off.

  1. Creating Routines

Creating a routine is a great way to merge multiple actions into a single command. For example, you could set a bedtime routine to trigger a series of actions. A typical bedtime routine possibly includes turning off all other lights and turning your bedroom light on. It could also include putting on ambient music. Group all these activities under one routine and set a trigger word e.g. “Alexa, bedtime.”

  1. Using Amazon Echo

Through your Amazon Echo, Alexa can introduce tons of functionality to your ecosystem. Here are some ways to optimize this opportunity:

Turn on whisper mode – If you want Alexa to respond to your requests softly, whisper to her and she will get the hint.

Activate Brief Mode – With time, you might feel like Alexa talks too much. To get this under control, activate Brief Mode and she will respond with a beep.

Activate Alexa Guard – Let her know when you’re leaving the house and the virtual assistant will be on the lookout for suspicious sounds and activities. In case she detects something out of the ordinary, she will send you an alarm.

Get traffic details – Input your work or kids’ school address into your app and Alexa will give you traffic details.

Mute the wake word – If you don’t want Alexa to respond to her wake word, press the mute button on your Echo. To unmute, press again.

  1. Importing Scenes

Your virtual assistant can also detect scenes that you have set up on different ecosystems and import them. To ensure the automation of this process, always add relevant skills when setting up.

  1. Shopping with Alexa

Amazon junkies can automate the shopping process by telling Alexa to order, give delivery notifications and even re-order favorite items.

  1. Drop In

You can use this feature to call another Alexa speaker within your ecosystem, like an intercom between different rooms.

Amazon Alexa Competitors

  • Google Assistant vs. Amazon’s Alexa

Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa, is now a household name, by virtue of early arrival on the scene. While the two have lots in common, Alexa supports a wider range of devices, offering more extensive smart home integration.

However, Google assistant is giving her a run for her money in more ways than one. Assistant is more natural than Alexa in her ability to understand context. Moreover, Google has far superior search abilities.

When all is said and done, Alexa is still in the lead when it comes to numbers, being connected to the top retailer globally. But the battle is far from over as both are constantly churning out new features and improving their offering. Only time will tell who will emerge victoriously.

Read also:

The Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Getting Started with Google Home and Assistant

The Ultimate Guide to Using Your Google Home and Assistant – All the Cool Tips and Tricks We Could Think Of

  • Alexa vs. Apple HomeKit

Apple HomeKit is yet another Alexa competitor, which is built around the iPhone, and has Siri as its voice assistant. While both smart home ecosystems let you create routines, HomeKit takes it a notch higher. Its routines have the added benefit of making use of your phone’s GPS to initiate scenes. As such, it intuitively kickstarts processes, like turning on the lights when you get home. Additionally, instead of commanding your smart home by voice, you can use Home App which is not possible with Alexa.

However, Alexa is still in the lead when it comes to the sheer variety of smart home features, compatible devices and customization options.

Read also: The Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Getting Started with Apple HomePod and Siri
  • Alexa vs. Cortana

Microsoft’s AI virtual assistant Cortana, another Alexa competitor, was originally launched with Windows Phone 8.1 and is now on Windows 10. With time, it has become available for download on iOS as well as Android.

For smart home enthusiasts, you can already take voice control over your home with Cortana using your PC, smartphone or Harman Kardon Invoke smart speakers. Since it integrates with Microsoft software, Cortana is great for work planning. It also allows you to make Skype voice calls.

However, its greatest downside is its limited range of compatible devices compared to Alexa. Microsoft is yet to launch its own smart speaker for the system and few third parties have integrated the AI framework. There are plans to get Cortana and Alexa to work together. This could be the boost Cortana needs to get more widespread adoption.

Read more: The Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Getting Started with Cortana and Harmon Kardon Invoke