The Amazon Echo needs no introduction, that gateway to a world of connected fun. Posing as a cylindrical speaker, the Amazon Echo is was one of the hottest gadgets of 2016, and with a continuously expanding set of Alexa skills, it's a hot product for 2017 too, with the range expanding rapidly.

The Amazon Echo can make to-do lists, set alarms, stream podcasts, play audiobooks, read PDFs, provide weather forecasts, warn you of traffic, answer trivia, control your smart home and serve up other information in real-time. 

We've been living with the Echo, Echo 2DotEcho PlusEcho Show and Alexa for some time and here's how to get the most out of this cool smart home accessory.

The magic of the Amazon Echo comes from its connection. After a quick set-up process, which involves plugging it in, taking control of it via the Alexa app (Android, iPhone, Desktop) and connecting it to your home Wi-Fi network, Alexa will listen to your voice and respond accordingly, either returning information found online, or through a number of partners that work with the Amazon Echo.

You need to be online to use the Amazon Echo, but it's simply a case of asking questions and issuing commands.

Amazon has expanded the number of Echo models recently. It's now not just the one smart speaker, there's effectively the choice of three speakers (as well as the original model) and then a number of video devices.

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Our general recommendation is that the Echo Plus is the best performer from a sound point of view, so if you have no other Echo devices, then this is a great starting point - especially if listening to music is going to be a major activity. Read why in our review.

The Echo Dot is so cheap that you can add Alexa to any room with it, but it needs to either be for voice only, or connected to an existing sound system. Using the 3.5mm connection into another system is better than Bluetooth.

However there's also the Echo Show (in the US the Echo Spot and Echo Tap too) as well as a range of other devices. Echo Show brings another dynamic to Alexa, giving a visual display as well as great sound, but it's more expensive. Video calling is a bonus, however, so Echo Show offers a lot.

Rather than explain it all here, check out our comprehensive guide to all the Echo models instead.

Amazon Echo is always listening for the word "Alexa". Whenever you say it, the Echo will listen, consider what you're saying and respond. But if you don't want the Echo to wake and respond, there's a mute button on the top of the speaker that you can press to mute Alexa.

Press it again to unmute her. Simples.

If you happen to have someone in your house called "Alex" or similar, then you'll find the Echo responds when you say that name too. You can choose another word too; Computer, Amazon and Echo are all available. 

Head into the Alexa app > settings > select your Echo > Wake Word and pick a new word from the list.

There are a couple ways you can control your Echo, as well as your to-do and shopping lists. The first, as we mentioned, is through the Alexa app. The second way is through the web. Just visit this site in your browser: http://echo.amazon.com and you'll be able to log-in and control your device without needing a phone.

When you say "Alexa, what's new?" or "Alexa, flash briefing", you'll be given a catch-up of information based on news and weather. You can change the services in the Alexa app. Head into Settings ? Flash Briefing and you'll see where your news is coming from and the ability to turn the weather off. You can also add more content to Flash Briefing and change the order in which it is delivered.

If you say "Alexa sports update" you'll get a run down of news for teams you have chosen. Head into the Alexa app > Settings > Sports update and you'll find the option to search for teams. You can add important teams, like West Ham or Seattle Seahawks, or find national teams. Not all sports are covered, however.

Head into the Alexa app, Settings > Traffic and you can put in your work address, as well as any stops on your route - like school drop-off. Then you can ask Alexa for the traffic details in the morning, or add traffic to a routine.

If you want Alexa to serve up your calendar details, then head into the Alexa app, Settings > Calendars. There's the option to add Google, Microsoft and Apple. Once you're linked up, you can ask Alexa what's in the calendar, what appointments you have, or what's happening on a specific date. On the Echo Show, you're also shown these events on the screen.

Alexa allows you to buy things from Amazon using your account and default payment method. This can all be done with voice, so you can search for something and then buy it and it will appear on your doorstep. Anyone talking to your Echo can do this, so if you've got kids or have visitors, it's worth turning off. Head into the Alexa app, Settings > Voice Purchasing and you can toggle the feature off. Even with it off, you can still add things to your basket.

To add protection for those who do want to buy with voice, there's the option to have a voice code - basically a PIN code you'll need to say to make that purchase.

The Echo can be connected to a Bluetooth speaker, so you can, for example, connect a Dot to something with much more gusto, like your soundbar. To do this, head into the Alexa app > Settings and select the Echo you want to pair. Then select Bluetooth and you can see devices that your Echo has paired with before, or you can pair with a new device. You'll have to put that Bluetooth speaker into pairing mode, then you simply follow the instructions in the app.

The Echo Dot, Echo 2 and Echo Plus all have a 3.5mm connection in the base next to the power cable. This can be used to connect those devices to another device via 3.5mm cable. You'll have to supply the cable yourself, but it's simply a case of plugging one device into another. This will let you add Alexa skills to a bigger system - like your AV receiver - so you can use better speakers, but still have the fun of Alexa voice control. Generally, the wired connection is a better option than Bluetooth.

One of the more recent skills that Alexa has adopted is multi-room music. This will let you pair Echo devices and play music across them - great for parties. Head into the Alexa app and head into the "smart home" section. Here you'll see devices, groups and scenes. Tap the groups tab > add group. You'll see the option for "Amazon Multi-Room Music Group". Tap this and give the group a name, then you'll see all the devices you can add to that group. Then just say "play music [group name]" and you have a multi-room experience.

Sadly, you can't use third-party Alexa devices (like the UE Megablast) in a multi-room groups.

The Echo is compatible with a range of music services, not just Amazon's own. If you'd rather use Spotify, head into the Alexa app > Settings > Music & Media.

In this section you can link music accounts and pick the default. Then, when you say "Alexa, play Phil Collins" it will use Spotify rather than Amazon Music, for example.

If you've got a tune in your head and you know some of the words, trying singing them to Alexa. Alexa may well recognise that song and offer to play the version you actually want. "Alexa, Here Comes Santa Clause, Here Comes Santa Clause" will offer the Elvis version of Winter Wonderland, you can then easily ask for the Snoop Dogg version (do it).

Your Echo will probably have a boring name, like "Dan's Echo" or "Dan's Echo Dot". Renaming helps you manage different devices, but also make's it easier to use functions through a specific device, like Alexa calling. Head into the settings and tap on the device you want to rename and you'll find the option. 

If you have more than one Echo device, you can tell one Echo to play music on another Echo - separate from groups. This is where renaming can help, because you can call your Echo "Office" or "Kitchen" and tell any Echo on your system to play music in that room.

A great option if you have an Audible account - or if you just want to listen to the free Audible version of A Christmas Carol - is to get your Echo to do it. Say "Alexa, read me my book" and playback of your current Audible book will resume. You can also ask what Audible books you have and Alexa will list them - on the Echo Show you see the covers too.

If you're a Kindle user, you can listen to some Kindle books too. Just say "Alexa, read my Kindle book" and the Echo will pick-up where you stopped reading. To see the books that Alexa can read, head into the Alexa app, Music, Video & Books and tap on Kindle - a full list will appear. In this case, however, it's Alexa reading the book and the delivery isn't as good as the professionally-read Audible books. (A free trial of Audible is available.)

One of Alexa's greatest skills is working with other systems around your home. In many cases, you'll find them labelled as "Works with Alexa" when you buy them. The first step is to connect and power-up your new smart home devices. Then say "Alexa, discover my devices" and your Echo will scan to see what's available. You can find compatible devices here.

In many cases you'll have to add a skill - which will involve signing into your account for that service - so that Alexa knows who it's talking to. Alexa will then have native controls "Alexa set my heating to 21 degrees" or skill-specific controls "Alexa tell Hive to set my heating to 21 degrees."

If you're using the Echo Plus, Zigbee devices can be used out of the box with no setup. When you discover (as above), Alexa will know what to do with them.

The best smart home experience, however, is always to setup the relevant device first and then introduce it to Alexa.

There are lots of things that the Echo will do by default, but sometimes you'll have to enable a particular feature to get more. These are called skills, and basically give Alexa access to particular information. In the Alexa app head into Skills and you'll find a range of compatible apps and features. It's here you can enable control of your Hive heating or access to your BMW Connected app, for example.

If you don't know what the skill is, trying telling Alexa what you want to do and she might suggest the skill, or ask to enable the skill and Alexa will search and tell you what there is.

Alexa can now run routines, meaning you can have a sequence of actions when you say a particular phrase. The idea is you can say "Alexa, good night" and you'll get a range of actions - turning off the lights, turning on the security cameras and so on. These are customisable (to a certain extent). Head into the Alexa app and select routines. You'll then be walked through the options - although there aren't too many actions at the moment, but we expect it to expand.

From the Amazon website you can link your family Prime accounts. With a feature called Household Profiles, you can add another adult to your Amazon Household to listen to either his or her content (for instance, music and audiobooks) and manage shared features (like lists).

Go to Settings, scroll down the page, and set up your Household. Shared members will have to download the Echo app and agree to join the household. You can also the app to setup your household too. More information about Household Profiles is at this support page.

Thanks to Household Profiles, Amazon Echo can be synced with more than one Amazon account. To find out which profile you're currently using, say "Alexa, which profile am I using?" To switch profiles, say either "Alexa, switch profile" (moves to the next profile) or "Alexa, switch to David's profile" (moves to the profile you named). More information about Household Profiles is at this support page.

Amazon Echo has a CPU and software running it that needs updating. The speaker looks for updates every night, but if you want to force an update, just hit that same mute button we discussed earlier, then let Echo sit for at least 30 minutes, and the speaker will update.

If you have more than one Echo, you you find the controls for each device in the Alexa app. Head into the settings in the app and you'll see a list of all your Alexa devices - this will include all Echo devices, third-party speakers (like the UE Megablast), as well as Fire tablets and Alexa apps on phones.

Here are some examples of things you can do with Echo/Alexa, along with links to their relevant Amazon support pages:

Alexa responds to a wide number of fun Easter eggs. This Reddit thread aggregates several interesting commands you can issue to Alexa. We've picked out a few of the more interesting ones and listed them below, but not all will work in all locations:

  • "Simon says...": You can get Alexa to repeat anything you say if use the command "Alexa, Simon says..."
  • "Alexa, play Bingo": Look up and download some free printable bingo cards, and ask Alexa to start a Bingo game with you.
  • "Alexa, ask Word Master to play a game": This is like Geography. Alexa says a word, then you have to follow with a word that starts with the last letter of the word she said.
  • "Alexa, start Animal Game/Capital Quiz": This lets you play 20 questions about animals or geography.
  • "Alexa, start Star Wars quiz": Self-explanatory.
  • "Alexa, play Jeopardy": Trivia geeks will love these game-show style questions. Don’t forget to answer in the form of a question.
  • "Alexa, roll the dice": Missing the di to your board game? She’ll roll 6-sided, 10-sided, 20-sided, and other dice as well.
  • "Alexa, open the Wayne Investigation": This starts a chose-your-own-adventure game that immerses you into the world of Gotham.
  • "Alexa, sing happy birthday": Does what you expect
  • "Alexa, rap for me": Alexa will spit some lyrics

Ask Alexa these questions and we promise you'll love her responses:

  • "Alexa, what does WTF stand for?"
  • "Alexa, Up Up, Down Down, Left Right, Left Right, B, A, Start"
  • "Alexa, how much is that doggy in the window?"
  • "Alexa, Is Santa real?"
  • "Alexa, do you know Hal?"
  • "Alexa, Who shot first?"
  • "Alexa, which came first: the chicken or the egg?"
  • "Alexa, what is love?"
  • "Alexa, what's the meaning of life?"

This website suggests more hilarious questions you can ask.