Did you just unwrap a shiny, new Amazon Echo device? Or maybe you already have one and you’re getting a little tired just streaming endless hours of holiday music.
You might already know that Alexa can convert teaspoons to tablespoons, time the food you put in the oven and tell jokes you can repeat at work. But the digital assistant in Amazon's Echo speakers is capable of so much more. It now has more than 25,000 skills at the ready — everything from ordering a pizza to booking a vacation.
Feed the dog
Okay, Alexa can’t actually feed Fido for you. But Alexa does connect to smart dog feeders like Furbo or Petnet, so you can tell it to dish out the treats while you’re stuck in traffic or running the kids around to school stuff. If you happen to have a Link AKC smart collar, Alexa can even tell you how much exercise your precious pooch has gotten today.
Just with Alexa alone, though, you can enable The Dog Feeder skill and say, “Alexa, ask the dog if we fed her.” Alexa will tell you when she last ate and ask if you plan to feed her. Say, “Yes.” Or “No.” That’s how the app knows when the dog was last fed, so you have to set it up like this from the start. It's a little awkward, but this is a great skill if your dog is a mastermind at making everyone believe she hasn’t been fed yet.
Order dinner and pair a great wine
Alexa also orders dinner for your human family from skills like GrubHub, Amazon Restaurants, Domino’s, and Pizza Hut. Add in the MySomm skill and it turns Alexa into Wine Gal, your personal wine sommelier that can give you wine recommendations for your meals. Enable the skill through the app or online and then say, "Alexa, ask Wine Gal to recommend a wine for pumpkin pie.” (It’s the holidays — don’t judge.)
Help you stay on a diet
As soon as the holidays are over though, this skill might be your new BFF. More pie? Pasta? Beer? Wine? Whatever you’re craving, this is the moment when a few words of support can make the difference. Enable the Talk Me Down skill and say, “Alexa, talk me down.” She’ll then say one of 31 canned phrases like, “Don’t give in to weakness,” “Fight for yourself. Defend your future.” Or, later when those cookie cravings come calling again, “You’re stronger than this. You’re smarter than this. You’re better than this.” Genius.
Whip you into shape
Alexa can command you to exercise, too, with one of more than 30 fitness-related skills. My favorites are the 5-Minute Plank Workout, which gives you six sets of core various plank exercises with short rests in between. After you enable the skill, just say “Alexa, start five-minute plank,” and you’re off. I also really like the Five Minute Workout: Core and Cardio, for short blasts of exercise throughout the day, and the 7-minute-workout skill. If you say, "Alexa, start 7-minute workout," Alexa suggests top rated exercises based on various muscle groups. She also helps with yoga, guided meditation, and can now integrate with Fitbit too.
Tell a personalized bedtime story
If you keep falling asleep reading "Goodnight Moon" long before your child even lets out his first yawn, let Alexa take over with a bedtime story. To really get this one going, you’ll have to register with the BedtimeWeb site, choose the stories you want Alexa to read (or write your own!) and set up the name. After that, enable the skill, and say, "Alexa, tell a bedtime story to Anthony.” Then you can keep sawing logs and soon he will be, too.
Wake you up to your favorite tunes
Stop waking up to the same old blaring-alarm nightmare noise. Just ask Alexa to pick some music from your favorite band and play that as your alarm. This is super easy. Just say, “Alexa set an alarm to "Humble” by Kendrick Lamar at 6am.
Less obvious ways to use this? Practical jokes! Tell Alexa, in advance, to play music to mark the start of homework hour, dinner time, or just to randomly start playing music when you know someone will be there to wonder, “What the ….”
Check in on mom
If your mom has an Echo device too, this one is awesome. Just say, “Drop in on Mom,” and Alexa will open a conversation channel, so you can chat with each other as if she were in the room with you. Or at least chat like she had a speaker phone/walkie talkie in her room and you had the same thing in yours. Thankfully, you have to do a little set up first for this to work. Because imagine if anyone could drop in on your living room whenever they wanted.
In the Alexa app on your phone, tap the talk bubble icon and tap the person icon at the top of the screen that brings you to your own profile. Tap on “My Profile.” Under Drop In, you can see if this feature is enabled. If it’s not (it isn’t by default) tap the slider bar to the right so that it turns blue. (Get Mom to do this, too.) The go to your list of contacts and find Mom’s listing. Tap on that. There is another slider bar that says if this contact can drop in on you. Tap it so it turns blue. You can choose which of your Amazon Echo devices can do this so if you have one in the bathroom that you want to keep private, be sure and check that now.
Get flights. Fast.
Enable the Kayak skill and say, “Alexa, ask Kayak to book a flight to Acapulco.” Or, if you have to stick to a budget, “Alexa, ask Kayak where I can go for $600.” It’s fast and easy and will get you out the door and on a vacation before you know it. The skill is great and works with some travel agents and cruise lines, too.
Call for a car
Once you have your bags packed, you’ll need a ride to the airport, right? If you enabled the Lyft skill on Alexa, and connected your Lyft account, it can do this for you. Just say, “Alexa, call me a Lyft.” The Lyft driver will know where you are, have your payment already, and come get you. This is also a great way to offer an elderly parent or a teenager who is often home alone, a way to get out on your dime.
Say, "Alexa, open Heads Up" and start playing the popular guessing game right with Alexa. Try to guess the word on Alexa's "card" based on clues, just like you do IRL. This can get a little slow if you’re playing with a group of people, especially if one happens to yell a lot louder than others. You can also play a bunch of other games — like Jeopardy, Teen Jeopardy - all kinds of fun stuff.
Okay, for the other 24,990 Alexa skills, go to Amazon Alexa Skills, or just ask, “Alexa, what are your top skills?” Integrating calendars, ordering groceries and using Alexa to control your entire smart home are pretty great, too.
Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech contributor and host of USA TODAY's digital video show TECH NOW. E-mail her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JenniferJolly.
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