Between the recent sales and the upcoming holiday there are a lot of people who either just got an Echo, plan on buying one, or will get one as a gift. Let’s take a look at how to set it up and some useful things you can task your Echo with.
What Is The Amazon Echo?
The Echo is a wireless speaker/voice command tool that is Amazon’s first forray into the wild west of home automation and smart home technology. The device is a cylinder a little over three inches wide, a little over nine inches tall, and features a powerful speaker coupled with a circular array of seven microphones designed to listen for the Echo’s “wake word” and respond to your commands.
You can use the speaker for the most obvious purpose to play music (and for a compact cylinder it has some pretty great room-filling sound) but you can also use commands to set alarms, initiate media playback, create to-do lists, check the weather, and ask for real-time information like cooking conversions. The Echo also features support for control of smarthome items (like the Philips Hue light system). The driving force behind the Echo is the Alexa Voice Service, Amazon’s answer to Apple’s popular voice-assistant Siri.
The Echo retails for $ 179.99 but has gone on sale several times since its release (if you’re willing to wait for a holiday promotion or sale date you can typically snag it for $ 149.99)
Before we set the Echo up and play around with it, however, let’s take a quick tour of the physical device and useful buttons, features, and so on.
As far as physical manipulation goes, there are three things on the Echo you can mess with, the microphone button (which toggles off the listening feature), the action button (which when tapped summons Alexa without the watch-word and when held initiates a manual setup), and the volume ring.
We want to super emphasize that volume ring bit, because it’s not immediately apparent that you can turn the top of the speaker to adjust the volume. The minute you plug your Echo in you’ll want to grab the top of the speaker and adjust the volume. Trust us. The thing ships with the volume at 100 percent and it’s skull-rattlingly-loud. Turn it counter-clockwise to lower the volume.
With the brief overview of the physical side of things out of the way let’s take a look at how to set up your Echo, basic Echo and companion app configuration, and fun things you can do with your Echo.
Unpacking and Setting Up Your Echo
To help minimize Alexa belting out instructions at you, the first step (before you even unpack and plug the Echo in) is to grab the Amazon Alexa app from the App Store (iOS/Android). Once you have the app downloaded, hold off on launching it just yet.
Now, app-at-the-ready, plug in your Amazon Echo. The indicator ring around the top will flash blue then switch to a rotating orange color. This indicates it is ready to be configured with your Wi-Fi information. If you miss this window and it starts complaining (and the ring turns purple) hold down the action button (the button opposite the mute button) for five seconds until it turns orange again. You may have glossed over the bit in the last section of the article regarding the volume ring on the top of the speaker, but we bet you remember now: if Alexa is way too loud for your comfort turn the top of the speaker to lower the volume.
Once the Echo is fully powered up and in the orange-configuration-mode, pull out your smarpthone again and open up the Wi-Fi settings. Like many smarthome products the Echo required you to ad-hoc connect directly to it during the configuration process in order to input configuration info.
Select the Echo’s Wi-Fi connection, which will be something like “Amazon-53N” as seen above, and connect to it. Then, and only then, should you launch the Amazon Alexa app to begin the configuration. The app should jump right into the configuration process but if it doesn’t just tap on the menu icon (the three bars in the upper left corner of the app) and select Settings.
In the Settings menu you can select one of two things: if you personally purchased the Echo on your Amazon account then it should say “[Your Name]’s Echo” and you can select that. If you got the Echo as a gift, won it, or otherwise didn’t personally purchase it, you can select “Set up new device”.
Once you’re at this point, connected to the Echo’s ad-hoc network and with the app up and running, the rest is easy. Simply input your Amazon account login credentials, agree to the Alexa user conditions (e.g. that you’re OK with your voice being sent to Amazon to be analyzed for commands and service improvements), and then select your Wi-Fi network from the list of networks the Echo can detect.
Once you’ve inputted your credentials you’re ready to start using your Echo. Let’s take a look at how to talk to Alexa and then how to customize your Echo experience.
The Echo is programmed to response to a “watch word” which, by default, is the name “Alexa”. (You can, if you or someone in your household is named Alexa, change the watch word to “Amazon” in the settings menu). Anytime you say the word “Alexa” you’ll see the light ring atop the Echo spin blue and then orient itself with the brightest point toward the source of the sound. You can then follow that up with a command or inquiry.
For example the very first thing we did after setting the Echo up was ask “Alexa, how fast is an African Swallow?” to which Alexa cheerfully told us “The average top speed of a swallow is 24 miles per hour.” Obviously we’re interested in using advanced technology for the important things in life.
Before we proceed there is one command we want you to know and have down pat: “Alexa, stop.” At some point you’re going to ask Alexa to do something that leads to a lot of chatter, music, or noise and you’ll definitely want a way to quiet things down. Now that you know how to put the brakes on whatever racket you might unleash, let’s take a look at all the fun things you can do with Alexa right out of the box. For ease of reading we’ve grouped the relevant commands into a block quote in each section followed by example usage.
Although playing music through a speaker is the least futuristic use of the Echo unit, it is one of the most fun and you’ll likely find yourself using it fairly frequently. By default your Amazon Echo is tapped into your Amazon Prime account and gives you access to both the music you’ve purchased through Amazon as well as the vast library of free Prime music.
Alexa, play [music genre]
Alexa, play [your playlist name]
Alexa, play [band]
Alexa, play [song] by [band]
Alexa, play [station] on [streaming service]
Alexa, what’s playing?
You can issue commands like “Alexa, play Christmas music” and Alexa will spin up the Prime Christmas music playlist. If you’ve created personal playlists through the Prime music system you can also call up those playlists by name like “Alexa, play Rainy Day playlist”. You can also play music via band and song name like “Alexa, play Rush” or “Alexa, play Spirit of the Radio by Rush” and if the band/song is anywhere in the Prime library then, boom, you’re listening to it.
Inquiries, Conversions, and Trivia
Just behind music playback the most popular thing around the office is asking Alexa questions. You can query Alexa on a broad range of topics and she’ll either give you a direct response or, if the inquiry is not part of her database, she’ll (just like Siri) give you the search results for what you asked about. Here are a few of the useful things you can ask Alexa:
Alexa, what’s the weather like [add “in [cityname]”, if you want weather outside your current zipcode]
Alexa, what’s the news today?
Alexa, what is [math problem, (e.g. 290 * 5, the square root of 144, and so on)]
Alexa, what time is it [add “in [city/state/country]” for the time somewhere else in the world]
Alexa, Wikipedia [topic] (you’ll get a brief summary and then a link to the full Wikipedia entry in then Alexa app)
Alexa, how do you spell [word]
Alexa, how many cups are in a gallon? (this, and other straight forward conversion questions, are easy for Alexa)
Alexa, who won the 1979 Superbowl? (this, and other trivia questions with a clear answer, usually work quiet well)
Alexa can answer a wide range of inquiries. You can ask about the weather in your city, have her solve math problems, query Wikipedia, and do common kitchen conversions, which is quiet handy for those moments when you’re doubling a recipe and need to know how many tablespoons are in a cup.
One of the really fun things you can do with Alexa, though, is to ask trivia questions. While she doesn’t answer every question you ask perfectly (she could tell us who won the 1979 Super Bowl, for example, but not what the score was) the trivia questions work more often than not. We’ve asked Alexa about the top speed of various animals, how big different planets are, how far the Moon is from Earth, famous people who have won the Nobel Peace Prize, who won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1999, and a whole host of other random and specific questions.
Shopping and To-Do Lists
Music playback is great (and as we noted the audio quality is very high), asking Alexa trivia questions is fun, but if you’re productivity minded the shopping list and to-do list functionality is downright handy. How many times, after all, do we notice that we’re out of something when we’re standing in the kitchen? You can use the following simple commands to add things to your shopping list and set reminders.
Alexa, add [item] to my shopping list.
Alexa, read my shopping list.
Alexa, add [task/note] to my to-do list.
Alexa, read my to-do list.
While it’s very convenient to have Alexa read the lists to you, don’t worry the lists are also transcribed for you.
On the Alexa app every item you add to the respective lists is stored in the app, as seen above, so you can reference it while you’re running errands. The process is instantaneous, in our tests by the time Alexa finished repeating back to you whatever she had added to the list, the entry was already on the list in the app.
Customizing Your Echo Experience
Once you’ve got chatting with Alexa down pat, you may find you wish to customize your Echo experience by adjusting settings like, say, what news source summoned when you say “Alexa, what’s the news today?”
You can customize your Echo by opening the Alexa app and navigating to the main menu, selecting Settings, and then scrolling down to the “Account” section. There you’ll find options for a variety of things like Music (where you can, for example, link your Echo to your Pandora account), “Flash Briefing” (where you can change the source for your daily news briefings), “Sports Update” (where you can change which team you follow in the MLB, NBA, and NFL), and other settings like the route for your traffic updates, your calendar, and where you can link connected home products.
If, for example, you wished to get your daily news briefings from the BBC instead of NPR News (the default station) you would navigate to Settings -> Account -> Flash Briefing and, as seen in the screenshot above, switch NPR off and the BBC News on. You could also, if you desired, leave both on and get back to back news briefs when you asked Alexa to update you on the news.
At this point your Echo is all set up, customized, and ready for you to play around with it. Once you think you’ve thought of every possible command and trick to try out with Alexa, we suggest inviting a friend over to play around with it: you’ll be surprised at how quickly they’ll find something to new to ask her.