Welcome back to another newsletter review. Here in the U.S., lockdown continues due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But there’s hope of a lessening in cases, and with it, some restrictions could be lifted by the end of the month. Let’s hope so.
In other news, Amazon has released another newsletter, dated from the 17th. Let’s spend more of that quarantine time together learning the new ways you can interact with your Alexa in this fourth newsletter review.
If you’re unaware, Amazon releases a regular newsletter called “Keep up with Alexa.” In this post, I’ll review the April 17th newsletter. In case you missed it, last week Amazon’s focus was on music, Audible, and ambient sounds.
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. Applicable requirements are called out below.
Some commands have stars(*). The more stars you see, the more emphasis Amazon gave 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 is 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, grab a seat and let’s get started.
What Can Alexa Do
“Alexa, open Fan Sounds”
The company Invoked Apps has cornered the market on ambient sounds for Alexa. They regularly appear in the newsletter for various ambient sound skills. It does make sense that we see ambient noise here often, as White Noise skills are a huge chunk of the Alexa Skills Marketplace. This week, Amazon is directing us to Invoked Apps’ skill for fan sounds. This skill has just over 1,000 reviews and a 4.5 out of 5 star rating. Personally, I’ll be sticking with rain sounds as my white noise of choice.
“Alexa, show me featured movies on Tubi”
Searching for Tubi on Amazon brings up a few confusing items that correspond to different Amazon platforms.
The Tubi Alexa Skill seems to be pretty new. It doesn’t have many reviews yet, just 40, and a 4.4 out of 5 star rating.
However, the Fire TV App is a different story. It has almost 50,000 reviews and a 4 out of 5 star rating. There’s also a newer version of the app that has 2,500 reviews and a 4.5 out of 5 star rating.
What’s the difference between the Fire TV App and the Alexa Skill? They both provide access to the same content, but depending on what Amazon device you’re using, you’ll use just one or the other. The Alexa Skill is what’s called a Video Skill. Video Skills only work with Alexa devices that have a screen and can support video, like an Echo Show. On the other hand, if you have a Fire TV, you’ll use the Fire TV App instead.
Also, the description for the Fire TV App feels a bit shady to me. The description mentioned that it is “100% legal” right at the starting. Any description that mentions it’s “100% legal” makes me think the opposite. Is this really legal?
That said, the reviews have won me over. The reviews reference a fairly large content library that you can check out. They also mention Tubi uses ads to pay for content in the app, so you don’t need to pay for usage, like with Netflix.
“Alexa, find skills to try”
As we mentioned in the last review, user discoverability is a challenge for Voice Assistants. With this command, Amazon is exploring another way to recommend Alexa Skills that might be useful.
When I tried this command, Alexa suggested an ambient noise skill for piano music. No surprise given my research into all of the ambient sound skills recently. Alexa then prompted me that I can respond with “More Options.”
When I do, Alexa reads a list of skill categories that I can choose from:
- Sleep skills
- Relaxation skills
- Education skills
From here, I can dive in deeper and have Alexa recommend more skills. At this point, I’m already growing tired of going through the loops just to get recommendations.
Give this command a shot if you want to get an idea of what Alexa Skills exist out there. Maybe you have more patience for it than I do. But overall, I think you’re better off going to the skills store and exploring from there.
“Alexa, play the latest Sway In The Morning show on SiriusXM”
This command invokes the SiriusXM Alexa Skill. SiriusXM is a radio network that’s similar to AM or FM that most cars can connect to. This skill enables Alexa to play radio stations only on SiriusXM. The specific command above plays a show called Sway In The Morning, a popular hip hop show based in New York City that’s exclusive to SiriusXM.
This skill has over 5,500 reviews, but the rating isn’t great–coming in at only 2.5 stars out of 5. According to a few reviews, users are surprised a subscription is required. There also seems to be account linking problems that many users have.
SirusXM isn’t free. It requires a subscription to listen. There is a promotion going on that allows you to listen for free on Alexa until the end of May, though. So feel free to try it out.
“Alexa, find my phone”
Warning! Don’t use this command.
I uncovered a bunch of red flags when trying this out. This command invokes the Find My Phone Alexa Skill. By setting up this skill, you can use Alexa to call your phone, hopefully resulting in you finding it. The idea here is if you lose your phone somewhere, like in your couch cushions, you can use this command to quickly locate it, sparing you from searching all over the house.
The Alexa Skill has over 40,000 reviews and a 4.5 out of 5 star rating. Pretty solid at first glance. But when I actually tried the skill, I found some shady practices right off the bat.
First, the skill asked me immediately for my phone number to set it up. I declined, wanting to research a bit further before giving up any personal information. The app then responded with, “OK, see ya”. That’s my first clue that this skill is a bit strange. Alexa’s guidelines definitely don’t have Alexa signing off with the phrase, “see ya.”
Next, I immediately got an email from the company, matchbox.io, telling me how to set up the Alexa Skill. They also used this opportunity to advertise more of their Alexa Skills. But what’s strange is I didn’t give this company my email. I simply used the phrase Amazon promoted, “Alexa, find my phone.” Even more, this company then automatically signed me up for their newsletter. And yes, there are a few hoops to jump through in order to unsubscribe, as well.
That led me to check out the reviews in more detail, where I found some interesting info. Turns out, the skill starts charging you after 5 uses. Ironically, this is the top review that Amazon provides. The skill charges 25 cents per usage! That’s absolutely insane. And in reviewing their skill page, there’s no mention of getting charged.
What’s even more strange is why Amazon is actively promoting this skill. I reached out to Amazon for more info. Once I get word back, I’ll let you know.
“Alexa, recommend me a book”
“Alexa, what should I read next?”
At first, I thought these two commands were linked to Audible. My guess was Audible would recommend a book and ask if I wanted to buy it. Not so.
Instead, Alexa asked if I wanted to enable the “What should I read next” Alexa Skill, which could help me find a new book to read.
In looking at the skill store, I see two skills with that name–one is by Amazon, and the other is by The Hawaii Project. The only way to test which one Amazon is referring to is to actually enable the skill.
After enabling, I discovered the Amazon-built skill is enabled (not really surprising here). Alexa then proceeds to suggest a book based on my Kindle library, and proceeds to read a recommended book’s description. From there, you can ask Alexa to buy it.
Looks like the skill is pretty new as it has no reviews yet. I think it’s worth trying out to see if you get a good recommendation.
“Alexa, let’s get moving” *
At first glance, I thought this command triggered some sort of workout built into Alexa. Instead, it gives me a list of Alexa Skills that are related to exercising, like Daybreak Yoga and 7-Minute Workout,neither of which I’ve tried yet. 7-Minute Workout does have a solid rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars and 4,300 reviews. So if you’re looking for workouts with Alexa, I suggest starting there.
“Alexa, give me tips for cleaning” *
This command gives you information regarding how to clean your home properly. When I asked this question, Alexa gave me a tutorial about how to use gloves, when to use them, and a reminder to wash my hands after use.
This command is likely added due to the current pandemic, as the tutorial has good steps to follow to make sure your house doesn’t have a buildup of lingering germs.
“Alexa, tell me a quote by Fred Rogers”
This command will tell you some of his famous quotes, read to you by Alexa. Here are a few example quotes from Fred Rogers:
- “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
- “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”
- “I think of discipline as the continual everyday process of helping a child learn self-discipline.
- How sad it is that we give up on people who are just like us.”
- “Parents are like shuttles on a loom. They join the threads of the past with threads of the future and leave their own bright patterns as they go.”
Note that you can also ask Alexa to “tell me a quote.” With this command, you’ll get a random quote that Alexa knows.
“Alexa, make me laugh” **
This is how I prefer to ask Alexa for a joke. By using this command, you’ll get a random joke from Alexa. Alexa knows a ton of jokes, so it’s unlikely you’ll hear the same one twice. Go ahead and let your kids know about this one. At least you’ll get different jokes instead of the same one over and over!
“Alexa, set a Sleep Timer for 30 mintues”
This new command marks two back-to-back newsletter mentions of Sleep Timer. Last week, we saw the command: “Alexa, set a 30 minute Sleep Timer with bedroom light.” This week, we see a simplified version of it without lights. Check out the timer section from last week’s review for more info.
“Alexa, read my Kindle book” *
This command requires you to use Amazon’s Kindle and also Audible. It didn’t work as I would expect, but I might be an unusual case.
My wife has her Kindle library shared with me. When I gave this command, Alexa began playing the audiobook version of the book she is currently reading, instead of from a book of my own. On the upside, Alexa did start reading the audiobook without question, and she also picked up where my wife left off on the book. So the integration there is solid.
“Alexa, read Harry Potter book one” *
I chuckled when I saw this command on the newsletter this week. Earlier, I had read a post on reddit where someone was having trouble with this exact phrase when using it to open subsequent Harry Potter books (like book two, book three, etc). So I was excited to try this command out and see for myself.
If you’re unaware, the Harry Potter franchise spans seven books in total. So if the phrase above works for book one, you’d think it should work for all of the other books as well, right? Not so fast! The phrase above works just for book one. But the good news is Alexa told me the book is free from Audible until the end of April, and it immediately started playing for me.
But sadly, you can’t use this command for other Harry Potter books. For example, “Alexa, read Harry Potter book two” doesn’t work.
However, try this one instead to get the second book (after checking it out from Prime Reading): “Alexa, read Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets.”
While this is a nice workaround, there are some drawbacks. You don’t get the audiobook version of book two with this method. Instead, Alexa reads the book to you in her voice. Still, that’s better than nothing.
“Alexa, set my background to my photos”
This command is a follow up from last week. If you have a device with a screen, like a Fire TV or an Alexa Show, you can use this command to change the background and screensaver to photos in your Amazon account or whatever photo account you linked to Alexa. More info can be found from last week’s Smart Home Section.
“Alexa, make a note… My driver’s license expired on December 3rd, 2020”
This is my favorite command for this review! What’s really interesting about this command is the follow ups you can do after adding a note.
By adding the specific note above, Alexa would need to be able to understand what your driver’s license is and what expiration is. If so, that’s really impressive. Let’s see if it really works.
To start off, I said, “Alexa, make a note,” then waited for Alexa to acknowledge the command. Then, I gave Alexa the actual note. This time, I tried a slightly different command to see if Alexa would understand. I used the note, “Jessica’s birthday is January 29th”. Alexa got the note roughly right:
Alexa also asked me if I wanted to be reminded on the day of Jessica’s birthday, which is a nice addition.
Next, I followed up with this command: “Alexa, when is Jessica’s birthday?”
Sadly, I didn’t get a successful response. Alexa gave me the birthday of some singer named Jessica instead. I tried one more variation of the command before moving on: “Alexa, when is Jessica’s birthday in my notes.”
This command gave me the expected result! Alexa responded with: “January 29th.”
Very awesome! This successful return shows that Alexa has some level of understanding of notes in the Alexa App. This feature is easily the highlight of this newsletter and gives users a solid reason to use Alexa Notes. Given that I’m terrible with dates, I may be using this a lot more.
“Alexa, create a list”
With this command, you can create a new list within the Alexa App with a custom name. After creating the list, Alexa asks you what items you want in the list.
I’m not a big fan of Alexa’s lists yet, but it’s good to know you can create a new one with Alexa directly. If Amazon builds in some of the intelligence it has with notes, this feature could become really powerful.
“Alexa, what temperature should chicken be cooked to?”
With using this command, I get a no nonsense answer back from Alexa: 165 degrees. Pretty straightforward.
Both Alexa and Google Assistant are good at answering these kinds of cooking questions. As a rule of thumb, if the answer should be a short fact, either should do a good job of answering it.
General questions and timers are my two biggest uses for Alexa in the kitchen. Another one I regularly ask is, “Can dogs eat X” to save my wife and I from unwanted vet visits.
“Alexa, how do you open a coconut?”
Do you know how to open a coconut? I didn’t. I’m not actually sure if I wanted to, but here we are! I suppose it’s good info to know if you’re like Tom Hanks and trapped on a tropical island. Just make sure you ask Alexa before your next business trip out.
This command is really an Alexa Skill disguised as a cooking comand. After using this command, you’ll hear some steps on how to open a coconut according to WikiHow. The response I got seemed very reasonable to me, given my vast experience in opening coconuts.
The skill only has 70 reviews and a 4 out of 5 star rating. No complaints from me, though. Alexa answered the question as advertised. If you’re curious, here are the steps.
“Alexa, what can I make with chicken and spinach?”
This command is really similar to one we saw a few reviews back for carrots. For that command, we got a recipe from Food Network. This week, it’s a recipe called “Sun-dried Tomato & Spinach Stuffed Chicken” from Buzzfeed’s Tasty:
The main takeaway from this command is Amazon doesn’t use just one provider for recipes. Now we know of at least two providers (and according to my wife, Tasty recipes are fantastic, so give this one a try).
“Alexa, speak faster”
Here’s an interesting setting that I didn’t know Alexa had. With this command, you speed up Alexa’s speech. If you find Alexa talking too slow for you, give it a shot. After trying it, it works as advertised. Alexa seems to be roughly twice as fast for me after. This command could be really useful for when having longer conversations with Alexa, like when you’re looking for new skills to try.
You can reset Alexa’s speaking speed with, “reset the speaking speak” or “speak slower.” commands. Both worked for me.
“Alexa, turn on Follow-Up Mode”
If you get tired of using the word “Alexa”, turn on this feature. Follow-Up Mode allows you to skip the wake word to interact with Alexa on the second command that immediately follows the first.
For example, after you say something like, “Alexa, turn on the lights,” you can then quickly follow up with “make the lights brighter” without using the word “Alexa” a second time.
You can find this setting in the Alexa App, as well. Amazon has a good page on how to turn Follow-Up Mode on.
Here’s how the new commands break down for this week’s newsletter.
- Alarms: 1
- Alexa Skills: 6
- Audible: 2
- Cooking: 3
- Information: 3
- Jokes: 1
- Productivity: 2
- Settings: 2
- Smart Home: 1
Alexa Skills, cooking and information are the main themes from Amazon. Like last week, we only have one command for the pandemic. Even still, it’s only mildly related as it’s household cleaning tips.
One of the promoted skills, Find My Phone, definitely has shady practices going on, like immediately sending newsletters to Alexa users who try the skill, charging users without any upfront warning, and using an unusual signoff of “see ya.” For more info, check out the Alexa Skills section.
On the flip side to this disaster of a command, Amazon shows off some of its intelligence with its note system. My favorite command this week being, “Alexa, make a note.…” For more info as to why, check out the Productivity section.
Another great command from this week promotes free Harry Potter. Until May 1st, you can get Harry Potter book one read to you for free from Audible. For more info, check the Audible section.
That does it for our fourth newsletter. Amazon has been prompt at delivering new newsletters every Friday this month, so I expect at least one more on the 24th. If that happens, expect another review before the end of the month.