You’ve probably heard of Alexa, and if you don’t own one you may well have wondered what all the fuss is about. The good news for either yourself or someone else you think might enjoy this futuristic virtual assistant, is it’s remarkably easy to set up and use.
Alexa can help simplify everyday tasks such as checking the weather forecast, shopping, reminders and more, plus provide a bit of help and companionship in these difficult times. No need to fiddle with a computer or smartphone – just ask Alexa.
As we all continue to spend more time at home during the coronavirus pandemic, Alexa can also really help you keep in contact with friends and family, and not feel isolated.
Whether you want to see what all the fuss is about and try out a voice assistant for the first time, or know someone who might benefit from voice assistant to give them company and help out with task in the home, we guide you through the first steps of using an Alexa device.
Best smart speakers The easiest way to use Alexa is with a smart speaker, so find out which are the best you can buy.
How to set up Alexa
First, you’ll need to set up your Alexa device. Alexa needs an internet connection to work and usually connects to your home wi-fi.
The easiest models to set up tend to be smart displays with screens, such as the Amazon Echo Show 5 (pictured below) because you can just follow the on-screen instructions to set it up after plugging it into the mains, where you will be prompted to connect it to your wi-fi network.
You’ll need to create an Amazon account if you don’t already have one and this requires an email address.
Using Alexa is free and you don’t need to enter any payment information. Some extra services provided through Alexa may require a subscription, as we explain below. If you have a smartphone, it’s worth installing the free Alexa app as well, as this will allow you to adjust settings for your Alexa device.
Most Alexa devices will have some physical buttons on the device itself to change the volume and mute the device, for when you don’t want Alexa to hear or disturb you. Alexa is a service provided by Amazon, and its popular Amazon Echo devices display a clear red ring so you can easily tell when it’s muted.
You can also do this by simply asking Alexa. For example, say: ‘Alexa, turn up the volume’ or ‘Alexa, mute.’ If you just want it to stop talking to you at any time, simply say: ‘Alexa, stop.’ It’s that easy – just remember to say ‘Alexa’ before you ask it to do anything.
Below, we’ve selected five basic things you can ask Alexa that will make your everyday tasks just that bit simpler.
Five Alexa commands to get you started
1. Check the weather forecast and time with Alexa
Just say: ‘Alexa, what’s the weather like?’ or ‘Alexa, what’s the time?’
There’s no need to wait for the weather update on the wireless or fiddle about with your smartphone. Just ask Alexa at any time. Plus Alexa knows where you’re asking from, so you’ll get a more precise, local forecast.
If you have poor eyesight, it’s also handy to ask Alexa the time rather than having to put on your glasses.
If you’re planning an outing, try asking Alexa the weather forecast at different times or places, such as: ‘Alexa, what’s the weather like tomorrow,’ or ‘Alexa, what’s the weather like in Windsor this weekend?’
2. Ask Alexa to play the radio or read books
‘Alexa, ask the BBC to play Radio 4.’
‘Alexa, ask Global Player to play Classic FM.’
There’s no need to get up to turn on a DAB radio, or buy a new radio if yours is playing up, as an Alexa device can play all internet stations available, which includes all BBC radio stations, Classic FM and most others.
Alexa plays radio stations through a service called TuneIn by default – for radio stations TuneIn supports, you just need to say ‘Alexa, play…’ and name the radio station. Some stations, from broadcasters including the BBC and Global (which includes Classic FM), need to be accessed through Alexa skills, by using phrases like the examples above. Alexa will guide you through the skill’s set-up when you ask to use the service.
If you’re more in the mood for a book, Alexa can also read to you from an audiobook. Amazon’s audiobook service is called Audible – it does require a subscription, but a free trial is available to see if you like it before you commit. To get started, simply ask: Alexa, read Treasure Island from Audible.’
3. Add items to a shopping list
‘Alexa, add milk to my shopping list.’
We all know how frustrating it is to arrive at the supermarket only to realise you’ve forgotten your shopping list. With Alexa you don’t even need to search for a pen – simply ask Alexa to add any items you need to its virtual shopping list.
If you have a smartphone, you can view all the items you’ve added to your shopping list in the Alexa app and tick things off as you go.
If you’d rather not go to the shops, you can also buy from Amazon directly through Alexa. This requires an Amazon Prime subscription, but can be particularly useful for repeat purchases. An Amazon Prime subscription usually means you’ll get what you need as soon as the next day, although Amazon has been prioritising some deliveries over others during the coronavirus pandemic.
4. Call or ‘drop in’ on friends or family
Amazon’s own Amazon Echo speakers allow you to call most UK landline and mobile numbers for free.
This isn’t possible on all third-party Alexa speakers, such as those from Sonos or Bose, but any Alexa device allows you to use a feature called Drop In. With this you can call anyone for free that you know has an Alexa device, just like using a landline – all you need to do first is add them to your Alexa contacts in the Alexa app. Think of it like leaving a phone line open as you potter around at home or cook dinner – it can be a great way to catch up or keep in touch with loved ones just by chatting away.
If your Alexa device has a screen, you can also use it for video calls so you can see who you’re talking to. The Facebook Portal, pictured above, has been a popular choice recently for those looking for an Alexa device specifically designed for video calls. It supports WhatsApp calls – the same free service as the app many people use on their smartphone.
5. Use Alexa to set reminders
It can be very hard to manage life at home during this time and Alexa can prove very useful.
You can use Alexa as an alarm clock:
‘Alexa, wake me up everyday at 7am.’
Or to remind you of something:
‘Alexa, remind me to put the bins out at 7pm tonight.’
Or as a timer:
‘Alexa, set a timer for 30 minutes.’
If you schedule in lots of events into a digital calendar supported by Alexa, such as Google Calendar, Apple Calendar or a Microsoft one, you can connect it to Alexa in the Alexa app on your smartphone.
Alexa can then remind you when an event is coming up, or you can ask Alexa for your schedule for the day by asking: ‘Alexa, what’s on my calendar?’
For more things Alexa can help you with, see our Alexa commands guide.
How to buy a basic voice assistant
Basic voice assistants can be bought for less than £100 – around the same price as a DAB radio.
Amazon advertises its entry-level Echo Dot (£40) quite heavily and it’s often on sale for even less, but there are plenty of devices to choose from, and they come in all shapes and sizes.
The first decision to make is if you’d like your Alexa device to have a display. A screen can make Alexa easier to use, as it can prompt you with visual cues as well as talk to you. A popular choice is the Amazon Echo Show 5 for around £60.
If you don’t want a screen, the cheapest way to conveniently access Alexa is by getting the add-on device called the Amazon Input for only £35. If you have a hi-fi stereo or Bluetooth speaker at home, you can connect the Amazon Input to it and you’ll hear Alexa through your existing speaker.
If you’re willing to pay a bit more, you can also get extra features. For example, the Pure StreamR Splash (£120, pictured above) is portable and waterproof, so you can take it out with you in the garden. It’s also designed to be familiar to those used to Pure’s radios. It uses the internet connection on your smartphone, rather than connecting directly to your home wi-fi.
If you’re looking for an Alexa speaker to replace an ageing hi-fi stereo, you’ll need to pay more to get better sound quality so your music will be as great an experience as using Alexa.
Popular models with better sound quality include the Amazon Echo Studio (£190), Ultimate Ears Megablast (£200), Bose Portable Home Speaker (£279) and the costly Sonos Move (£399). The latter three of these are also portable with batteries so you can move them around your home more easily.
What are Alexa skills?
When you start getting to know Alexa a bit more, you might find that when you ask her something, she recommends accessing a service using an Alexa skill. Alexa supports thousands of commands by default, but you can add to what she can do by adding skills. For example, the BBC skill allows you to listen to BBC radio stations, podcasts and more (you also need to set up a BBC account), and other skills allow you to link to existing subscription services like Apple Music.
You can listen to fitness routines, play games, add support for different languages and get recipe ideas by adding different skills, many of which can be set up simply by following Alexa’s prompts.
To find out what’s on TV tonight, you could try:
‘Alexa, enable the UK TV Guide skill.’
And if you frequently misplace your smartphone, you can ask Alexa to enable the Find My Phone skill – then just ask: ‘Alexa, find my phone’ and it will ring at full volume.
More advanced features: smart home and routines
It’s easy to get started with basic Alexa commands, but it’s capable of far more. A voice assistant can be the center of your smart home, and you can set it up to control a range of electronics and appliances such as smart lights and smart plugs, so you can control them with your voice. We’d recommend getting to know Alexa well before embarking on this, but if you’re interested, see our expert guide to how to set up a smart home.
Often a lot of time at home is spent doing repetitive tasks, so you can save a great deal of time by setting up Alexa routines.
For example, with smart lights and a smart thermostat installed, you could set up Alexa so when you say: ‘Alexa, good night’, it both switches off your lights and turns down the heating without you needing to lift a finger.
Alexa and privacy: is Alexa safe to use?
Since Alexa devices have microphones and are connected to the internet, it’s understandable that many people are concerned for their privacy.
However, Alexa is only designed to listen to what you’re saying after you’ve said the word ‘Alexa’ and you can delete your voice commands history at any time in the Alexa app. For more on this, see the bottom section of our Alexa commands guide.
Find out more about how smart technology can help in later life with our guide to smart home devices and security systems.