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What is Alexa and what can Amazon Echo do?

, Deputy editor · ·
Explainer Provides context or background, definition and detail on a specific topic.

(Pocket-lint) - The Amazon Echo is one of a range of hands-free speakers and devices from Amazon that can be controlled with your voice. The voice-controlled "personal assistant" on these devices is called Alexa, which will perform various tasks for you and control various systems.

In this feature, we'll explain what Echo is and what Alexa can do.

As well as being available on Echo devices from Amazon directly, Alexa is available on a lot of third-party devices like speakers or TVs as well as through the Alexa app on phones. Alexa is also available in some cars and in some wearables.

There are two sides to this question - devices that work with Alexa (such as Philips Hue) - and devices that offer Amazon Voice Services, which is the platform that runs Alexa. 

First and foremost, Alexa is designed around Amazon's own Echo devices. The Amazon Echo range includes the Echo and Echo Dot, which are all speakers, and then the Echo Show models which also feature a display, so can give you visual feedback, like weather widgets, videos or song lyrics. There are several Amazon Alexa gadgets too, like the Echo Wall Clock and Echo Flex plug for example. 

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The cheapest Echo device is the Echo Dot, which is a good starting point for building an Echo system and getting started. You can see all the Echo devices compared right here

There are plenty of other devices that offer Alexa voice control, such as the Sonos One, Sonos Move, Sonos Roam, Bose Home Speaker 500 or Polk Command Bar. You can see a range of Echo alternatives here that offer Alexa too.

All these devices feature far-field microphones that can pick out your voice through background noise and are waiting to take your command when they hear the Alexa wake word. Once you say this, Alexa will swing into action and respond to your commands. But what can Alexa actually do?

Alexa is able to play music, provide information, deliver news and sports scores, tell you the weather, control your smart home and even allow Prime members to order products from Amazon. Alexa sits in the cloud, expanding the information offered all the time and refining the responses to give you more accurate information. No matter what Alexa device you ask, all can return these sorts of answers, be that on your soundbar or in your car.

One of the core functions is playing music and Alexa can draw many sources. Amazon Music is supported, of course, but beyond that, there's support for many more services like Spotify, Deezer, Apple Music, TuneIn as well as apps from individual providers, like the BBC.

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The Echo devices with a display can also return visual information, extending beyond widgets to news videos, recipes or games. On the display-equipped devices - Echo Show - you can also use touch controls to respond, for example, or to control smart home devices.

Alexa can also tap into information from other devices and services by using Skills (which are like apps), so will be able to give you specific information about your car, your latest weigh-in with Fitbit or to find your Tile.

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Smart home control has emerged into one of the most significant areas of Alexa's influence. It's no longer just about asking for the weather and playing music with fancy voice control - it's also about connecting to and controlling other devices in your home.

You can view your Ring Video Doorbell on your Echo Show, for example, as you can with Arlo cameras. You can connect Alexa to your Philips Hue or other lightbulbs, like Ikea, to turn them on or off with voice, or link to your heating controls so you can check and change the temperature in your house. 

In this sense, Alexa is a great smart home controller - and once linked to Alexa, can be accessed through anything that supports Alexa voice commands. 

Some Echo devices take this a step further offering Zigbee support, which will allow you to directly connect and setup smart home devices without needing a separate app or hub for that device. For example, you can buy a single Philips Hue bulb and set it up with some of the latest Echo devices, without needing a Hue Hub.

There are plenty of things you can ask Alexa to do. Skills in the Alexa app enable you to customise your Echo device with capabilities to suit your preferences.

There are several skill categories within the Skills section of the app, including Connected Car, Food & Drink, Travel & Transportation, Music & Audio, Smart Home, and plenty more. To get started, you just have to tap Enable Skill when you've found one that is suited to you - or you can ask Alexa to enable Skills via voice.

Some will require you to link to an existing account or separate subscription to use. For example, to use Uber with Alexa, you'll need to have signed into your Uber account within the Skills section of the Alexa app.

Here are just a few examples of what you can ask Alexa to do, but we have a whole separate feature you can read on it too:

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Numerous companies offer partnerships with Amazon Echo devices, as you will have seen from some of the questions above. There are thousands and thousands of skills available but here are some of the services that work with Alexa and what they mean you can do.

The Just Eat partnership means you can get Alexa to order you a take away from one of the thousands of restaurants it has available.

The Met Office skill is available for various locations around the United Kingdom so make sure you download the one specific for you. You can then ask Alexa for detailed weather forecasts.

Need an Uber from home? No problem. Just ask Alexa to request you one and you'll have a driver on its way to you.

Want to know what your commute has in store for you before you leave the house? Ask Alexa to check and she will pull in the information from National Rail regarding train times and schedules.

For those who read The Guardian, Alexa will give you a rundown of the paper's top stories so you can find out which ones you'll want to read before your commute.

Like The Guardian, the partnership with The Telegraph means users can ask Alexa for this paper's top stories too.

A great one for those that live in or around London, Alexa will give you a daily briefing delivering a round up of the most exciting news, reviews, openings, events and things that shouldn't be missed taking place near you.

Want to know how your favourite football team is doing? Or how your rival team is doing? Just ask Alexa and she'll deliver the bad news in her lovely accent.

Need a recipe from the Jamie Oliver app but have your hands full? Just ask Alexa and she'll find it for you so you can carry on with whatever you're doing.

Want to know how you slept or how many steps you've done? Fitbit's partnership with Echo means you can just ask Alexa and she'll let you know. No need to open the Fitbit app. Alexa is also built into the Versa 2 smartwatch.

Take me to New York. The partnership with Skyscanner allows users to ask Alexa for flight dates and prices using a natural conversation search method.

Check the latest arrival and departure information for EasyJet flights quickly by asking Alexa, or ask for the status of a flight your travelling on.

For those that love a random radio station, the TuneIn partnership with Echo allows you to ask Alexa to find your favourite station and listen to it all day.

Like TuneIn, RadioPlayer offers numerous radio stations meaning you can ask Alexa to recommend you one or just play one you know you like.

The Spotify partnership allows users to request songs, artists or playlists through Alexa, which she will then play through Echo's 360-degree omni-directional audio.

Have a suit or dress that have needed dry cleaning for months? Ask Alexa to take care of it and the partnership with Laundrapp means they will be collected, cleaned and redelivered.

BMW Connected is available as a Skill, allowing users to ask Alexa for an update on their fuel and battery levels, as well as ask her to lock their car remotely.

The partnership with smart heating system Tado means users of the system can ask Alexa to set, increase or decrease their home temperature without moving a muscle.

Like Tado, the collaboration with Netatmo means users with this heating system can also ask Alexa to turn the temperature of their house up or down.

Hive is another smarthome partner of Echo, allowing users to ask Alexa to turn the heating up or down, turn lights on or off, as well as turn anything with a Hive Active plug on or off.

Neato's collaboration with Echo means you can ask Alexa to tell your Botvac Connected robot vacuum cleaner to start, stop, pause or resume cleaning. More commands will also be coming in the future, such as scheduling.

Need to turn off the bedroom light, or all the lights? The Philips Hue partnership allows you to control your Hue lights by asking Alexa rather than having to go into the app.

For those that have the Logi Circle cameras, you can ask Alexa to start a start a recording, disable Privacy Mode or turn your camera on.

The EDF Energy partnership allows users to ask Alexa to access their energy account, check their next payment data give a meter reading, without lifting a finger.

The partnership with TP-Link means users with any of the company's smart plugs or bulbs can ask Alexa to control them with their voice.

Like TP-Link, the WeMo collaboration means users can ask Alexa to turn their WeMo connected devices off or on without needing to open the app.

Have a Honeywell connected system? Just ask Alexa to turn your heating up or down in and she'll make sure it gets done.

SmartThings is also a partner of Echo, offering users the ability to command their smart home through Alexa, whether it's turning the lights off or the temperature up.

The Nest compatibility with Echo means users can control their thermostat through Alexa, like other smart heating systems on this list. You can set a specific target temperature, lower the target temperature, as well as say things like "I'm too hot".

Writing by Britta O'Boyle.