The great thing about Alexa, and the other personal assistants to a lesser degree, is the ability to add additional features.
These are managed by the respective developers, be that Apple, Google or Amazon.
With Apple, so far at least, the additional features come from Apple.
Amazon, on the other hand, allows virtually anyone to create what it calls Skills’, so there are far more of them.
While the vast majority are junk (or at best geeky experiments), it has made the platform home to some innovative ideas from media creators among others.
And Google does now allow developers to create their own ‘Actions’.
WHAT SIRI CAN DO
Apple maintains a graphical page at www.apple.com/siri/, which makes it easy to see and be inspired by some of the very practical features of its digital assistant.
A simple scroll down will introduce you to something you might not have known, helping you make more use of your iPhone, iPad, HomePod, Mac or even Watch.
Something like an App Store for features, assistant.google.com/explore presents the included features, catalogued into categories.
This is a rapidly growing list since Google opened up its platform to developers and – at the moment – everything listed is immediately available on the platform (unlike many Amazon third-party features which need to be activated).
That means if you see a suggested function you can just try it out on your device.
You can get an idea whether you’re interacting with Google’s own systems or a third-party developer’s by the nature of the command:
- Talk to … Best Dad Jokes – This invokes ‘Best Dad Jokes’ which will then tell you a joke. The ‘Talk To’ connects to the external feature.
- What’s on my agenda today? This command checks your Google Calendar and reads out any engagements to you.
- Turn off the lights – This uses the compatibility between your smart lighting system and Google Assistant, so the same phrase might be used by more than one lighting platform, but so long as your lights are set up with different names and connected to your network there should be no problems.
Google Assistant music services
You can switch your music services in the Google Assistant settings.
By default the system will use Google’s own services (including YouTube music), but Deezer, Spotify and Apple Music can all be selected as alternatives.
Commands like ‘Play Waterfall by the Stone Roses’ then depend on whether the service you have chosen has that piece in its catalogue.
Any developer can create an Alexa Skill – Amazon has made the development tools very easy to get hold of and even runs training events.
As a result, there are many Skills that aren’t, well, entirely useful, but some that definitely are.
Here are the best Skills that don’t require any extra hardware, but that will help you.
You can find all the Skills using the Alexa app, or via the web if you’re signed into the same Amazon account.
Spotify, with 50 million tracks, has an ad-supported free tier and is compatible with a wide variety of devices, including the Amazon Echo series.
Create a Spotify account at Spotify.com, then launch your Alexa app.
Select ‘Music, Video & Books’ from the main menu and you’ll find Spotify among a list of services that you can set up.
Once connected, your ‘play song’ commands will use your Spotify account rather than the Amazon Music one, which the system defaults to.
- Play [song] OR [album] OR [artist]
- Play [mood] music
- Add [song] to
(Parents might also find ‘Block explicit songs’ useful)
If you have some favourite shows on BBC radio – perhaps a comedy panel show – then there’s no need to worry about tuning in at the exact moment it goes out.
One slight irritation – you can’t ask the app to play ‘The News Quiz’ because the beeb call it ‘Friday Night Comedy’ in podcast form.
- Alexa open BBC
- Alex, ask the BCC to play Radio 1
- Alexa, ask the BBC to play Friday Night Comedy
If you’d prefer a slightly more gentle start to the day than beeping, you can also use any of Alexa’s built-in streaming services.
That’s great, as you’ve got the choice between your music (perhaps on Spotify) or almost any radio channel using a service like TuneIn.
- Alexa, wake me up at 7am every day to music.
- Alexa, set an alarm at 6.30am using BBC Radio 1 on TuneIn.
This novel Skill lets you create the illusion of presence to deter unwanted intruders when you’re out by giving you an arsenal of soundtracks you can turn on.
It’s not a perfect solution – Alexa Skills can’t be activated remotely or scheduled – so you need to turn it on before leaving.
You should also remember to be considerate of neighbours by setting a time limit.
Flaws aside, the choice of kitchen sounds, crying baby, games room, garage/DIY and more is considerably more convincing – and uses less energy – than just leaving the lights or the TV on.
- Alexa, ask Burglar Deterrent to protect the bathroom.
- Alexa, tell Burglar Deterrent to simulate the home office.
- (After starting the sound) Alexa, stop playing in [two hours].
Digital calendars are really handy, instantly copying your plans to your phone, computer and any other device.
If you make regular use of a calendar using Microsoft (Outlook), Google or Apple’s iCloud, you can connect the service to your Alexa account from the Settings menu, then find out your calendar events, and interact with them.
- What’s on my calendar today?
Want to get the latest headlines from a source that you trust?
You can ask for the current key stories from a number of major newspapers.
Alexa will read you three headlines from the newspaper you identify, and you can then choose to have one of the stories read to you, or the next three headlines.
- Alexa, ask The Washington Post to give me the headlines.
- Alexa, ask The New York Times to give me the headlines.
Fans of the Domino’s brand can really take advantage of the investment the company has put into technology.
Not only can you order online, but you can set up and ‘Easy Order’ (your favourite pizza and side) and order that with a simple voice command.
One of the problems with takeaway is not knowing quite how long you’ve got to wait, but Domino’s Alexa Skill will also let you track your order so you know when it goes in the oven, when it’s out, and when it’s on the way.
- Alexa, ask Domino’s to place my easy order.
- Alexa, ask Domino’s to track my order.
Uber, the online taxi service, has revolutionized personal travel, making it possible to hail an accessibly priced car from anywhere.
It’s a service that seems set to stay, and one you can integrate a little further into your life (after a set-up procedure adding your home address to the Skill’s settings).
It’s a handy time saver if you’ve got both hands full getting ready to leave the house.
- Alexa, ask Uber for a ride.
The Magic Door (Interactive Game)
Perhaps slightly more child-friendly than a murder, The Magic Door is an online adventure game that relies upon Alexa describing the environment and asking what move you would like to make next.
There are eleven sub-stories, from helping the princess to find her crown to searching the witch’s mansion.
Alexa’s descriptions of the scenes are accompanied by sound effects and voice acting, but the concept owes a lot to Infocom text adventure games on eighties computers.
- Alexa, open The Magic Door.
Find your phone
It happens to the best of us from time-to-time – we misplace our phones somewhere. Having left it set to silent so you can’t just call it to find it.
Find My Phone by TrackR, however, has a solution.
By installing an app onto your phone (Apple or Android) and following the built-in instructions you can create a secure connection.
Then, if you misplace your phone, you can call it using Alexa and it’ll ring, even when set on silent.
- Alexa, ask TrackR to find my phone.
- Alexa, ask TrackR to ring my phone.
These days we could all use a moment of calm reflection.
Work pressure, social media alerts and a hectic family life all-add to the stress and it’s essential to keep this under control.
As well as having a Skill for the popular subscription service Headspace, Alexa also hosts the free-to-enable Guided Meditation skill.
This includes over 60 different guided meditations to help you practise meditation and mindfulness, with the goal of deepening your awareness of your thoughts and feelings and help to approach situations in a settled and compassionate way.
- Alexa, open Guide Meditation.
If you’ve ever needed help translating a short sentence into another language, you’re not alone.
The best thing about the Translated Skill is that it will also speak the words, so you can pick up the pronunciation immediately – great for learning a quick welcome greeting for a foreign visitor to get things off on the right foot, especially for languages like Chinese and Japanese (which are among the 37 you can translate to).
The only real downside is that it’s a one-way tool.
- Alexa, open Translated
- Alexa, ask Translated how you say ‘what is the weather doing’ in Greek.
Check out Amazon for more Alexa Skills.