Welcome back to another newsletter review. This past week has been quiet, with the exception of Amazon releasing new software that should make Alexa better at talking to you for more than a few sentences. This is great news, as listening to Alexa or any Voice Assistant talk for more than a sentence or two is pretty rough on my ears. Hopefully we’ll have new Alexa Skills to take advantage of the API in the coming months.
Now onto the newsletter. In case you missed it, last week Amazon’s focus revolved around Alexa Skills, as well as cooking and information related commands. I also reached out to Amazon for a comment related to the shady command “Find my Phone” uncovered in the Alexa Skills section last week. No updates here yet. In the meantime, Amazon released its last newsletter for April, dated from the 24th. Let’s spend more of that quarantine time together learning the new ways you can interact with Alexa in this fifth newsletter review.
In case you didn’t know, Amazon releases a weekly newsletter called “Keep up with Alexa.” In this post, I’ll breakdown the newest April 24th newsletter and provide commentary on the good, bad, and rarely ugly updates Amazon has to offer.
Before we dive into the commands, let’s first cover the 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 your Echo and let’s get started.
What Can Alexa Do
“Alexa, play Today Show Radio on SiriusXM” *
Just a reminder: SirusXM isn’t free. It requires a subscription in order to listen. The good news in case you’re wanting to try this out is there is a promotion going on that allows you to listen for free on Alexa until the end of May.
“Alexa, play Stuff You Missed in History Class on iHeartRadio” *
This command uses an Alexa Skill to access the radio service iHeartRadio via Alexa. And Stuff You Missed in History Class is a free podcast available on basically every podcast service imaginable: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and many more.
At a first glance, this command did confuse me. Initially, I thought this command referred to the Ask iHeart Alexa Skill to connect you to this specific popular podcast. The tricky bit being iHeartRadio can also be set in the Music & Podcasts settings as a default provider:
That led me to ask: what’s the point of the Alexa Skill? Why does it exist? And it appears I’m not alone. The Alexa Skill doesn’t have a great rating, sitting at just three out of five stars with 190 total reviews.
Fortunately, the Alexa Skill doesn’t matter much. When you use this command, you use the Music Service instead of the Alexa Skill. The Alexa Skill may just be a relic of the past before iHeartRadio was a Music service.
“Alexa, open Big Sky”
Big Sky (not to be confused with Dark Sky) is an Alexa Skill that provides you really accurate weather forecasts. But don’t get too attached to this skill, as there’s some severe weather coming. Big Sky will change drastically or stop working entirely in 2021. And I wouldn’t be surprised if we see changes even earlier than this as Apple moves Dark Sky internally.
But wait a minute, you might be thinking, didn’t I just say Big Sky is different from Dark Sky? Yes and no. Right in the description of this Alexa Skill you’ll see Big Sky uses Dark Sky for pulling weather info. With the recent news of Apple buying Dark Sky, the purchase is having ripple effects across the Smart Home and Weather industries as Apple intends to shut down Dark Sky’s API access that many companies like Big Sky use. The resulting fallout is Big Sky will need to find a new reliable way to pull weather data, and pickings are slim.
“Alexa, show me featured shows on Red Bull TV”
The best part? The featured shows appear to be free. You can also access most of the Red Bull content from their site without logging in. So if you’re a sports fanatic, this is a good place to spend a few minutes, especially since most traditional sports aren’t playing right now.
“Alexa, play nature sounds”
Alas, here’s the ambient sound for the week. It seems we get at least one of these Alexa Skills each newsletter, and it does make sense, as ambient noise makes up a huge chunk of the skills in the Alexa Skills Store. And like most white noise sounds that Amazon highlights, this one is also from Invoked Apps.
In regards to Nature Sounds specifically, it’s well liked with a 5 out of 5 star rating and with 438 mostly positive reviews. Given its popularity, I might need to swap it out for what I’ve been typically using at night, Rain Sounds.
“Alexa, what are the most popular books this week?”
What’s the most popular fiction book? Harry Potter. Are you surprised? I’m not! This command reads the top three books from the fiction list on Amazon Charts, with 2 out of the 3 being from the Harry Potter canon.
Amazon Charts has a list for both fiction and nonfiction with the lists being generated from Kindle, Audible, and other data sources that Amazon has.
This week, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is top, most likely because it’s free to read until the end of April. For more information, check out last week’s Audible section to find out how to get Book One for free.
“Alexa, make a donation to the United Nations Foundation”
Surprisingly, I’m unable to find “United Nations Foundation” on the list of Alexa charities. But by typing in “United Nations” what you’ll see instead is the command: “Alexa, make a donation to the World Health Organization, powered by the U. N. Foundation.” Since it’s unclear if these two commands are one in the same, let’s focus on the original one Amazon featured.
In short, the U.N. Foundation broadly supports the United Nations and everything that it does. And in looking at what’s recently powered by the charity, you’ll find some of the World Health Organization’s work on COVID-19. So while it’s a good chance donations made through this command support the current pandemic, it’s still unclear where your money really goes. My advice is to use the alternative command mentioned above if you’re wanting to ensure your donation goes to the WHO.
“Alexa, send a hug” *
While the idea is cool (after all, who doesn’t want a hug?), actually using this command is a bit painful.
After first giving this command, Alexa asks for a contact, so I said my wife. Next, my Echo starts flashing with a yellow light. From here, my wife used the command: “Tell me my notifications.”
Turns out that’s the wrong command! You have to use “Give me my messages” instead. This variation gives us a good hint as to what we’re really doing. By using this hug command, we’re using Amazon’s Alexa Message System to send messages to contacts. We now know that Alexa, via an Echo device, confusingly uses the same yellow light for messages and other notifications.
Finally, when you ask for messages, and Alexa confirms one more time that you really, really are sure you want to hear them, Alexa then responds: “Sending you a hug. Hugging face. Isaac sent within the last five minutes.”
While the verbal hug on an Echo is fairly clunky, here’s what the hug looks like within the Alexa App under the Communication tab:
“Alexa, announce that dinner is ready”
This command will cause all of the Echo devices in your home to wake up, play a dinner bell, and announce that dinner is ready. This is particularly useful if you have a big house with everyone spread apart. The challenge is everyone needs to be accessible by an Echo though, which might not be feasible unless you bought a pile of Echo Dots.
Instead of saying the command, you can also trigger it from the Alexa App via the Communication tab:
“Alexa, tell me a life hack” **
This command gets the prized top position this week. Does it deserve it?
When you use this command, Alexa gives you a Life Hack. What exactly is a Life Hack, you ask? It’s a simple tip that lets you optimize your time when carrying out activities in your daily life. Personally, I think they’re mostly gimmicks. A quick Google search for “life hack” gives me a bunch of articles like, “20 Awesome Life Hacks That Will Simplify your Life.” Mostly click-bait articles.
That said, I asked Alexa this command a few times to see what sort of time-saving tips she would actually give me. The results:
- “If you work out in the morning, wear your gym clothes to bed to save time.”
- “Clean your sponge by putting it in the dishwasher.”
- “Use glow-in-the-dark tape on cords so they are easier to plug in in the dark.”
Are these valuable? I’ll let you decide. If you’re looking to get some minor inspiration around the house, give this command a shot.
“Alexa, how much caffeine is in coffee?”
This command highlights one of the stronger benefits of Voice Assistants. They are really good at answering these sorts of questions that should have a no nonsense answer.
In this case, Alexa answers the question without any extra frills. You get the info you’re looking for, no questions asked.
One cup of coffee has about 95mg of caffeine, according to Alexa.
“Alexa, give me a quote”
Last week we had a similar command that returned quotes specifically for Fred Rogers. What’s funny is I actually mentioned this command in the Information Section last week.
To reiterate, after using this command, you get a random quote that Alexa knows. When I asked Alexa, I got a quote from Lionel Messi:
“There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing a happy and smiling child. I always help in any way I can, even if it’s just by signing an autograph. A child’s smile is worth more than all the money in the world.”
If you’re unaware (like I was), Lionel Messi is a professional footballer (or soccer player for those in the states) for Barcelona. Sounds like he’s a big fan of kids, too.
“Alexa, fire photon torpedoes”
This picture is what happens when you use this command. Make sure your enemies deserve it.
“Alexa, delete my meeting tomorrow”
For this command, you need to have a meeting scheduled for tomorrow on your calendar. If you have multiple meetings scheduled, the command will ask you what meeting you want to delete on your calendar (if you linked a calendar that is).
To link a calendar and use this feature, go to the Alexa App:
- Tap Settings
- Tap Calendar & Email
- Link your calendar account
“Alexa, turn on whisper mode”
This is my favorite command this week. Whisper mode is really cool and uses impressive technology, as well.
This command turns on Whisper Mode, but really you don’t need the command itself. If you want to see what this command does, just whisper to Alexa! When you do, Alexa lowers the volume and starts whispering back.
Whisper Mode is useful when you need Alexa but don’t want to disturb anyone else in the room with Alexa responses. It’s a great addition for parents that don’t want to wake up their kids, for example.
What’s more impressive, the competition doesn’t have a feature like it. I tested Google Assistant and Siri to see if either has anything quite like Whisper Mode. When I whisper to Siri and Google Assistant, both blare out a response back at full volume. Google Assistant does seem to have something called Night Mode, but it only changes the volume and light output on your Google Home.
“Alexa, where’s my stuff?”
If you make purchases on Amazon.com and regularly check for a delivery status, this command will come in handy. By using this command, Alexa gives you the status of your order with Amazon.
And just like all other package status services out there, this command might give you stale information. For instance, I used this command when I didn’t have an outstanding order, so instead it gave me the status of an order that was delivered a few days ago.
Personally, I find the Alexa Notifications for delivery status to be more helpful. Check out how to turn on notifications for Amazon packages and other things like Smart Home updates.
“Alexa, scan this to my shopping list”
It’s funny how technology gets reused over time. Case in point, this command reminds me of one of the major features of Amazon’s failed phone, Fire Phone, that I worked on years ago. The Fire Phone had an App called Firefly that identified shopping items and did things like add items to your Amazon shopping cart. Now it looks like Echo Show has a piece of Firefly.
By using this command with your Echo Show, Amazon will identify and find the item on Amazon.com and add it to your shopping cart. It’s most likely easier to just type in the name of the item in your browser, but let me know if you find this command especially useful.
If you’re unaware, the Amazon App (not to be confused with the Alexa App) can also do this. And I think it’s much more useful. Sometimes I use it when I’m in a physical store to price check. When you open the Amazon App, click on the camera image in the top right to snap a picture of a barcode.
“Alexa, open Photo Booth”
Here’s another command that is specific to Echo Show. The command requires a device with a screen and a camera. Using this command with an Echo Show will have Alexa taking pictures of you and adding stickers. After snapping photos, Amazon loads them onto your Amazon Photos account.
“Alexa, how do I set up Routines?” *
I had high hopes for this command. I was hoping Alexa would walk me through setting up a Routine. Sadly, that doesn’t happen. Instead, Alexa directs you to the Alexa App to set up Routines. Pretty straightforward.
Routines are one of the most powerful tools Alexa provides. Routines are really similar to groups, but much more powerful. Instead of only collecting smart devices together, you can collect different Alexa commands together. Routines let you create some pretty powerful Home Automation rules, too, with different actions and conditions spanning many different things.
Stay tuned for a post on Routines in the near future with some cool tricks you can try.
“Alexa, pause my timer”
With this command, you can pause a timer that Alexa currently has running.
Beware though, the precision on your actual timer isn’t perfect. Alexa needs a few seconds to process your command and actually pause the timer. If you do use this command, just understand that the timer won’t be actually right. Ideally only use it for timers that are pretty long, like over 10 minutes. That way the loss in precision won’t matter much.
“Alexa, help me get started with timers”
I really like how this command works. By using it, Alexa walks you through a tutorial on how to use timers.
Alexa jumps in pretty deep when starting off, though. For instance, Alexa Initially wants to explain how to use named timers. After explaining what a named timer is, Alexa gives me an example command and asks me to say it. After that, Alexa shows me how to ask for the status of the timer.
Not a bad tutorial! Timers are a really handy feature of Alexa. There are some challenges to using this command, though. How does someone who doesn’t know about timers know that they can ask this command?
Personally, I think it’s more reasonable to look at a few commands related to timers to get an idea of how to use them. For example, if you want to use timers, just remember these commands:
- “Set a timer for 5 minutes” = Makes a timer
- “How much time is left?” = Gives you timer status
- “[Pause/Resume] timer” = Stop/Start an existing timer
- “[Add/Remove] 1 minute to my timer” = Add extra time to a timer
- “Cancel timer” = Remove a timer
Now you’re a pro with timers.
Here’s how the new commands break down for this week’s newsletter.
- Alexa Skills: 5
- Audible: 1
- Communication: 2
- Donations: 1
- Information: 3
- Jokes: 1
- Productivity: 1
- Settings: 1
- Shopping: 2
- Smart Home: 2
- Timers: 2
This week has communication and Echo Show as the major themes, with a few nods toward settings and Smart Home.
If you have an Echo Show, this newsletter is for you. Several Alexa Skills require a video screen and/or camera in order to work properly. We also learned about Photo Booth in the Smart Home section, which is a fun way to take pictures. With these in mind, it’s apparent Amazon is focused on building out new features for its Echo devices that have screens.
Communication had some interesting callouts this week, with commands for sending hugs or notifications to all of your devices at once.
But what catches my attention the most this week is Whisper mode in Settings section, my favorite command of this newsletter. Definitely worth checking out as it’s something only Alexa can do.
Amazon also has a quick tutorial for Routines in the Smart Home section, which I think is one of the most powerful tools Alexa has to offer for Home Automation.
That’s a wrap for April! Stay tuned for a monthly review that summarizes the best of what was in store for you this month.