Here we are in early April, and we already have our first Alexa Newsletter, distributed on April 3rd. Given that most of the world is in some form of lockdown due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, now is a great time to to learn more about what she can do to help you.
If you’re unaware, Amazon sends out a regular newsletter called “Keep up with Alexa.” In this post, we’ll review the April 3rd newsletter, which contains: the standard four highlighted commands and a list of 20 other commands that might be new or updated commands, or simply something Amazon wants to highlight. In our first newsletter review, Amazon’s focus was on COVID-19 and Secure Video. Let’s see what this newsletter brings.
Let’s see what Amazon deemed Spotlight worthy this newsletter.
* means the command is highlighted in the Weekly Spotlight section. Amazon feels these commands deserve even more special attention than the rest. So I’ll give these commands more attention.
“Alexa, open Akinator” *
This command opens the Alexa Skill Akinator. This skill starts a game where you pick a character, like Joe Exoctic seen above, and Alexa tries to guess which character you picked. She will ask you a series of questions to narrow down who you might have selected, and then she’ll make a guess who you are. It also has premium features in the skill.
“Alexa, open Rain Sounds”
Ambient sounds are one of the most popular Alexa Skill categories. With all of these skills, Sleep Sounds: Rain Sounds is one of the most popular with over 2,000 reviews. This command turns your Echo into a White Noise Machine where it plays a soundtrack of rain noise until you ask it to stop.
“Alexa, open Luminary”
This command opens the Alexa Skill Luminary. Luminary is a Podcast Subscription Service. If you’ve ever listened to a Podcast, you’ve experienced the ads that are in almost all of them. The idea with Luminary is users pay a monthly fee to avoid ads in the Podcasts themselves.
“Alexa, add an Audible Membership to my Wish List”
We saw a very similar command last newsletter that added an “idea” to an Amazon Wish List. This new command now adds the Audible Membership to your idea. But my problem with this command is the same, as the command result is still confusing. As a user, my intent is to add the Audible Membership to the WishList, not as an “idea”.
“Alexa, make a donation to Save the Children” *
By using this command, you’re sending money to the Save the Children charity. Currently, the charity is using donations to provide food and books to kids affected by the Coronavirus. After telling her to make a donation, you’ll be asked how much you want to give.
Besides this one, Amazon supports many other charities. You can find their full list here.
“Alexa, cancel my 10 minute timer”
Timer commands seem to be frequent additions to the newsletters. In this case, you can now cancel a timer by using the timer’s starting duration as a name. If you have multiple 10 minute timers going, she will ask you which one you want to cancel.
You can also find active timers in the App. To find timers:
- Open options
- Tap Reminders & Alarms
- Tap Timers
“Alexa, what can I make with carrots?”
This command is my favorite for this newsletter. Your Echo suggests recipes that mention carrots in the recipe’s title from Food Network. She then gives you a few good options. You can ask for another recipe, send this recipe link to your phone (which opens the Food Network), or ask her to tell you the instructions directly. If you have a specific ingredient on hand and aren’t sure what to do with it, use this command for inspiration in the future.
I tried this command with Google Assistant and Siri, as well. Neither Voice Assistant provides an experience that is even in the same ballpark.
“Alexa, turn up the bass”
Here, Amazon highlights the ability to change audio settings with your voice. You can also do this with the App, but it’s much easier to tell your Echo to do it. This command highlights how much easier it is to adjust settings by Voice. Also note, this command only updates one Echo device at a time. It doesn’t increase the base on all of your devices.
Here’s how you find the Audio Settings in the App:
- Go to the Devices tab
- Tap on Echo
- Tap on the Echo you want to update
- Tap on Audio Settings
“Alexa, play smooth jazz”
These sort of music commands are tough to get right. This command will pick a playlist from your music provider for the genre of jazz. The catch is this will play something the music provider deems is “smooth jazz”, and may not be exactly what you’re looking for.
Although Amazon defaults to Amazon Music, the app allows you to change the music provider it connects to for music. This Feature is pretty nice if you use something else. Personally, I use Spotify.
To find the music provider settings:
- Tap on options
- Tap on Settings
- Tap on Music & Podcasts
“Alexa, how’s the weather this evening?”
Using this command causes Alexa to give you a forecast for the afternoon, including temperature and rain information. If you use this command at night, you’ll get the forecast for the following day instead. Amazon uses Accuweather for Weather information.
When I used this command, I was also asked if I wanted Alexa to let me know when a severe weather alert is available for my area. This is a great example of when notifications can be really useful. Although this feature isn’t available in the App,you can enable this using the command: “Alexa, let me know when severe weather is coming.”
“Alexa, wake me up to happy music”
Here is an alternative way to set up an Alarm with Alexa. Amazon shows us that we can set alarms with playlists. With this command, you will be prompted for a time that it should start playing music instead of a default alarm sound.
“Alexa, make a call” *
This command is one of the new features Amazon is very proud of. You can now allow Amazon to connect with your Smartphone to call people. The benefit here being you don’t need to use your phone directly to make any calls. Just ask Alexa to start a call instead.
However, using this command without setting anything up leads to a poor experience. Alexa will ask you to provide a phone number to call. I recommend setting up a few favorite contacts to make the process more streamlined. Check out the community tab in the Alexa App to start.
“Alexa, send a message”
Like with calling above, Alexa can also send messages to contacts from your smartphone. The flow is very similar to calling, but watch out for Alexa misunderstanding your message and translating it incorrectly. I’d suggest trying out this feature a few times before trusting it to get your words right.
“Alexa, what can you do?”
Alexa is more than happy to give you example commands to try. With this command, Alexa will tell you random commands that are possible. Generally, Alexa will tell you three commands at a time and ask if you want to hear more. The commands seem to be linked to the newsletter in some cases, but not always.
“Alexa, surprise me” *
We arrive at Amazon’s top command for this newsletter. This command is another take on the previous informational one, where Amazon’s primary goal is to give users a way to discover new content from Alexa directly.
When I tried this command, I was given a list of categories of things Alex can do, from skills to jokes. After asking for more, though, Alexa ended the conversation. I asked again and selected skills. This caused Alexa to start recommending Alexa Skills with some rating information. After four different skills, I had Alexa stop. I found this command pretty lackluster. Discovery via voice feels incredibly tedious to me.
“Alexa, what’s up?”
This command is an alternative way to start Flash Briefing. Flash Briefings allow you to get quick news prompts from any news source you’d like. The key here being you need to first set up what news sources you’d like to listen to in the Alexa App.
“Alexa, what do I do if I think I have COVID-19?” *
By using this command, Alexa starts a dialog with you regarding the Coronavirus. Alexa goes through the list of symptoms provided by the CDC to help you determine if you have the virus or not.
“Alexa, tell me a joke about jazz”
“Alexa, drop some props”
Here we have two new jokes in this newsletter. That’s also two references to jazz this week by Amazon, so if you’re a jazz lover, this newsletter is especially for you.
“Alexa, set Echo Glow to Campfire mode”
Echo Glow is a Smart Lamp with Alexa built in, targeted to kids. This command changes the pattern on the lamp to look like a campfire. Like most Smart Lights, you can control the lamps, color, and brightness.
“Alexa, read Have a Nice Day by Billy Crystal”
Initially this command stumped me. By just looking at the command, I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to do. Turns out, this command actually reads a book and is linked to both Audiobooks and Audible. If you don’t have Audible, Alexa will prompt you to set up a subscription for it to get this book.
Here’s how the commands break down for this newsletter:
- Donations: 1
- Timers: 1
- Information: 4
- Shopping: 1
- Alexa Skills: 3
- Smart Home: 1
- Jokes: 2
- Cooking: 1
- Music: 2
- Weather: 1
- Alarms: 1
- Communication: 2
User discoverability is the main theme for this newsletter, while the Pandemic, Cooking and Weather all have notable appearances. Compared to the last newsletter, we see a drop in Alexa Skills and more Information commands. Once we have a few more newsletters reviewed, we’ll start to see some patterns with how Amazon puts these together.
What can Alexa do?
Amazon has several information commands this week that relate to user discoverability. This is no surprise as it’s really hard for users to figure out what you can currently do with Alexa. After awhile, most users just use Voice Assistants for a small number of tasks, like with Smart Home control, music, and timers.
Even further, it’s hard for a Voice Assistant to even tell you without being annoying! This is a big problem for Voice Assistants, as you can see in the above commands where Alexa lists commands to you. No one really wants Alexa to talk at them for hours about different Skills. It’s just too tedious.
So how do you figure out what Alexa can do in a reasonable way? And more importantly, how do you find uses for Alexa that are practical and actually useful? That’s where we come in! In this series, we take a look at what Amazon recently adds to their Voice Assistant.
The Coronavirus is still a Global issue going on, and it doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon. As a result, Amazon has piggybacked off of Siri this week by adding new functionality where you can now review COVID-19 symptoms. This addition also appears to be the only change for Voice Assistants this week.
Alexa’s cooking experience advantage
Amazon has done some serious work to add Cooking commands to Alexa that are far above that of the competition. I personally hope to see more of these commands in the future to help bring more spice to my kitchen.
Hidden feature: severe weather notifications
As mentioned above, this feature isn’t available in the App, but you can enable it by using the command: “Alexa, let me know when severe weather is coming.” This command will enable notifications for weather alerts in your area.
Stay tuned for the next review! I suspect there will be at least one more newsletter in April.