I hope everyone had a great Easter yesterday. Here in the U.S., most of the country is still in social distancing lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so Easter was certainly different this year. The good news though is the lockdown seems to be working with new reported cases slowly declining, so we might be past the worst of it.
Now that we’re almost in mid April, Amazon has released another newsletter, dated from the 10th and exactly one week after the last one was released.. Let’s spend more of that quarantine time learning the new ways you can interact with your Alexa in our 3rd newsletter review.
If you’re unaware, Amazon releases a regular newsletter called “Keep up with Alexa.” In this post, we’ll review the April 10th newsletter. In case you missed it, last week Amazon’s focus was on COVID-19 and user discoverability.
Before we dive into the commands, let’s first cover some ground rules.
Commands are sorted into Feature Areas. You can jump to Feature Areas that are especially interesting to you, or you can see overall what sort of categories Amazon is highlighting this week.
Commands may have requirements, including but not limited to: subscriptions, Smart Devices, or a specific Echo device. Those are called out below.
Some commands have stars(*). The more stars you see, the more emphasis Amazon put on the command in the newsletter.
* The command is highlighted in the Weekly Spotlight section. Amazon feels these commands deserve special attention over the rest. Typically, we see four of these commands in each newsletter.
** The command was listed at the top of the newsletter and given the most emphasis. Expect to see at least one of these in each newsletter.
Now with that out of the way, let’s get started.
What Can Alexa Do
“Alexa, start Common Knowledge” *
Common Knowledge is an Alexa Skill that mimics game shows, with you being the contestant and Alexa as the host. Alexa will ask you questions and see if you know the answer. The app also contains premium features to buy in-game hints and question skips.
After using the skill, I was asked if I wanted to rate the skill, as well. The skill has over 1,500 reviews and a four out of five star rating, which is pretty solid. If you’re bored, this skill is definitely worth a shot.
“Alexa, open Sleep Sounds”
“Alexa, play ocean sounds”
Here we have two commands for Ambient Sound Skills, and both are from the same company. Last week we also heard another ambient sound from the same company as well. The first command will start the Alexa Skill and give you a list of different sleep sounds available. The second command is an example of one of the possible sleep sounds.
Ambient Sounds are really popular in the skill store. Just know that most of the Ambient Sound Skills will attempt to upsell you on a higher-quality sound loop. Instead, look into creating your own ambient sound playlist using Spotify or Amazon Music and save yourself some cash.
“Alexa, ask Translated to say ‘hello’ in Japanese”
Translated is a skill that converts short phrases from English into a handful of other languages. Given it’s 3.5 out of 5 star rating with 5,000 reviews, watch out for some of the translations that might be a bit off.
One thing that is pretty nice about this skill is how it does the translation. When speaking the translated word or phrase, the skill doesn’t use Alexa’s voice, but instead the voice of an authentic speaker of that language. This change is something both Apple and Google could learn from for their Voice Assistants.
“Alexa, give me an update on COVID-19” *
This command was spotlighted this week, and I find it pretty handy. Using this command causes Alexa to give you a fast and very recent update on the pandemic from a news source. You’ll receive the timestamp when the news was published, as well.
The benefit of this over a Flash News Briefing is the time and the focus. You get a small update on the pandemic and nothing else. When using this command, I don’t get pulled into reading about doom and gloom for hours, but I still feel I get an update on what’s currently happening. Win, Win.
“Alexa, what is Brief Mode?”
If you find Alexa is too talkative for your taste, then Brief Mode is for you. Brief Mode makes Alexa give shorter responses–sometimes just a ping. I find this mode to be really great for Smart Home control, too. For example, after I turn off the lights, Alexa gives me a quick success tone instead of saying, “OK, your lights are off.”
“Alexa, what is Brief Mode?” gives you a quick description of what Brief Mode is, however you can’t actually enable Brief Mode via voice. To enable Brief Mode, you need to use the Alexa App.
- Tap on Settings
- Tap on Voice Responses
“Alexa, tell me a pet joke”
“Alexa, E.T. phone home”
“Alexa, sing a song” **
Here are some new jokes for the week, including the top command for the week: “sing a song.” No worries, I won’t spoil the punchline for you, so give them a shot and let me know what you think.
“Alexa, cancel my alarm on my Bedroom Echo”
You can now cancel alarms by using the name of the Echo that has the alarm. Amazon had a similar command in our first newsletter review, but instead it applied to timers. With this new command, it’s likely timers and alarms can use the same terminology.
“Alexa, set a 30 minute Sleep Timer with bedroom light”
I didn’t know Sleep Timers existed on Alexa, did you? Sleep Timers is an Alexa Feature that allows you to set up a delayed action with audio and lights. Audio can mean anything from music, ambient noise, or even an Audiobook. In this example, after 30 minutes from giving Alexa this command, any audio that is playing will stop. And the Smart Light called Bedroom Light will be turned off.
Additionally, if the light you mention to Alexa is dimmable and not just an on/off light, Alexa will slowly dim the light over the duration, as well. Pretty nice.
It would be even nicer if you could configure this to happen on a schedule, though. Having to specify this command each time I use it is a bit tedious.
“Alexa, what’s free from Audible?” *
For this command, I expected Alexa to read a list of Audible Audiobooks that don’t require a subscription. Instead what I got was an upsell to start a subscription, followed by Alexa immediately reading a random audiobook.
This command really needs some work. It feels like Amazon is pushing Audible on its Alexa customers with this update. As a result, I don’t recommend attempting this command.
A better experience would be the command actually recommending some free content that I can review, and if I found something I’d like to listen to, I should then be able to follow up to start the audiobook. Upsells shouldn’t happen when I’m specifically asking for free content.
“Alexa, read me a bedtime story from Audible”
This Audible command is much more effective than the previous one, although it’s not highlighted by Amazon. This command works as I expected where it picks a children’s Audiobook and tells me the title and starts reading it.
There are no questions or upselling taking place, hooray! Because of this, I recommend the command, especially if you’re looking for a good bedtime story for your kids.
“Alexa, turn on Xbox”
If you have an Xbox One, you can use the Xbox Alexa Skill to control it via Alexa. The skill has over 20,000 reviews and holds a 4 out of 5 star rating, so is pretty solid. The skill turns the Xbox on and off, launches games by name, changes volume, and more. Check out the skill page for the full list.
“Alexa, show my Facebook photos”
To use this command, you need an Echo device that has a screen, like an Echo Show. Fire TV can also be used. But note that the Alexa App on your phone doesn’t count as a screen.
Also, for this command to work, you need to link Facebook to Alexa in the Alexa App.
- Open Settings
- Scroll all the way down to Photos
- Tap on “Link account” where you see the Facebook icon
“Alexa, reset the equalizer”
Last week Amazon had us try the command: “Alexa, turn up the bass.” This week, Amazon shows us how to reset the equalizer back to normal with this new command.
“Alexa, play the Virtual Hug playlist on Amazon Music” *
Virtual Hug is a playlist developed by Amazon on Amazon Music. To my surprise, it’s not a kid’s playlist. Instead, it’s a collection of upbeat songs to check out.
“Alexa, pair my phone”
To use this command, you need to have your smartphone in hand and open to the Bluetooth settings. This command will walk you through the process of connecting your Echo to your phone via Bluetooth. Once connected, you can use your Echo as a speaker for music from your phone.
“Alexa, what’s on my to-do list?”
“Your to-do list is empty.” That’s the response I got from Alexa when using this command–not very inspiring or helpful! Surprisingly, I don’t get any response that actually tells me how to use the to-do list and make it not empty.
This command does imply that Alexa has the ability to record to-do lists, though. And you can find your existing lists in the Alexa App via the Lists & Notes option.
After using, “Alexa, add to my to-do list,” Alexa prompted me for an item to add.
So far so good! Now when I ask what’s in the list, Alexa correctly reads out my new item.
In taking a step back, there are many different productivity apps that have to-do lists like this one already. I’m not sure how reasonable it is for Alexa to have its own separate system. I’d rather see this command integrated with productivity systems like Evernote or Apple’s Reminders App.
“Alexa, what are my emails?”
Alexa can connect to email accounts, like Gmail, and read information directly. After using this command, Alexa began to read the subject line for the latest email in my inbox. Alexa then asked me if I would like notifications when new email arrives. Depending on how much email you get, this could be helpful or really distracting. I personally chose to keep notifications off for now.
“Alexa, make a donation to Coronavirus Relief”
There’s only one donation command this week, as compared to previous weeks. Oddly, I can’t find the Coronavirus Relief charity in the donation list for this phrase. So at this point, I don’t recommend using this command. It’s not possible to see what your donation is actually going toward.
Here’s how the new commands break down for this week’s newsletter:
- Donations: 1
- Timers: 1
- Information: 2
- Alexa Skills: 4
- Smart Home: 2
- Jokes: 3
- Music: 3
- Alarms: 1
- Audible: 2
- Productivity: 2
Music, Audible and ambient sounds are the main themes this week. We have only one updated command for the pandemic, so we’re now seeing a slowdown in updates there.
Music and Ambient Sounds
Music and ambient sounds had a big showing this week. Amazon really wants users to know about Alexa’s Ambient Sound abilities. And with added commands for changing the equalizer, we’re seeing more emphasis on music quality.
Audible seems to get at least one command each newsletter so far, with this week being no exception. One of the commands is very much a bust, while the other could be useful with your kids at home.
Amazon tends to push Audible too hard on Alexa users. WIth one command, it feels like Amazon is using the notion of “free” as an opportunity to upsell.
Alexa’s Xbox Integration
Alexa has very solid integration with Xbox. This isn’t too surprising these days. Microsoft has stopped using Cortana to compete with Alexa which benefits Alexa users in this case.
Amazon has a built-in to-do list with Alexa that doesn’t seem to integrate with any other known productivity systems out there. Although it does work, I find it pretty lacking. Just having a to-do list in Alexa isn’t compelling enough for the average user to switch from a system they already use, like the iOS Reminders App. Amazon needs to step up their game in this space.
There are many organizations that accept donations that don’t actually use the money for what they say. This week’s donation command is a solid example. Although it says Coronavirus Relief, we don’t actually know where that money is going, or what it’s doing. Amazon doesn’t provide that information. Your dollars may not go to the right people to make an impact.
That’s all for this week! Let’s see if we get another newsletter before the end of April. I’m thinking a monthly roundup of all the newsletters for the month might be useful, especially if we continue to get a weekly update from Amazon. Let me know if that’s something you would be interested in reading in the comments below.