Keeping Up With Alexa Commands

Keeping Up with Alexa Commands: May 4th

Want to know the latest commands you can do with Amazon’s Voice Assistant, but don’t have time to try out each Alexa tip and trick yourself? You’ve come to the right place. 

Welcome to the first Keeping Up with Alexa roundup for May, 2020! Coincidentally, it’s Star Wars day, and with the below Alexa commands, you’ll surely feel at one with the Force. So go ahead, read on for learning how to get more out of your Amazon Echo, Echo Show, Fire TV, and other Alexa-enabled devices.

Keeping Up with Alexa

Each week, I test out and review all the new–or newly promoted–Alexa commands that Amazon releases in its weekly newsletter, as well as from other feeds throughout the week. My goal is to weed out the duds from those commands actually worth using, so you don’t have to.

In case you missed it, April’s monthly roundup featured useful Alexa commands ranging from Covid-19 to Whisper Mode settings.  Want a deeper look of all 83 commands I covered? Click through to read each week’s roundup: April 3rd Review, April 10th Review, April 17th Review, April 24th Review

Now with introductions out of the way, grab a seat and let’s get started.

What Can Alexa Do

Note that not all of these commands listed below are “new-new.” While they may certainly be new to you, Amazon typically promotes each week a mix of new, updated, and older commands that likely aren’t well known. I’ll do my best below to highlight if a command is in fact new to the platform or site when it was first released. 

Alexa Skills

“Alexa, how can I create my own skill?”

If you only have time for one command this week, check this one out. This command causes Alexa to tell you about Skill Blueprints. That’s not super helpful, but the site it points you to is.

Blueprints is a service that lets you quickly and easily create your own experiences in Alexa. No programming required. You pick a template, fill in a few text boxes, and BAM, you’ve created your own Alexa Skill.

There’s a pretty big list of different Blueprints you can choose from. One of the blueprints that caught my eye was the Whose Turn Blueprint. My wife and I alternate completing household chores, like doing the dishes, and sometimes we “debate” (edit: argue) who has to do it next. But now remembering who did the dishes last is no longer a problem, thanks to Blueprints.

After selecting the Blueprint, I’m given a few steps to complete. The first step to customize is adding in my wife and my name to a list. Next, I’m asked to name the skill:

Picking a name for your Blueprint
Picking a name for your Blueprint

Then I click “Create Skill’ and I see this:

Alexa Blueprint Skill Info
Alexa Blueprint Skill Info

That’s all it takes! It does take a few minutes to create and teach Alexa the skill, but once it’s done, I’m able to ask Alexa:

“Alexa, pick someone to do the dishes”

“Alexa, whose turn is it to do the dishes”

Hands down, Alexa Skill Blueprints is an easy and painless way to add custom functionality to Alexa. It earns my vote on actually being useful, as it enables you to add specific behavior to Alexa that’s tailored to your daily life. 

As for my wife and I, there’s a good chance we’ll use this skill for more than just the dishes. Stay tuned for a future post on our other favorite use cases. 

“Alexa, ask NASA Mars for a Curiosity Rover update”

In the wake of Space Day on May 1st, Amazon opted to re-promote this command. As a refresher, Curiosity Rover is a drone that landed on Mars back in 2012. It’s been buzzing around Mars for the last eight years or so conducting experiments for NASA.

The first time you ask this command, Alexa gives you a quick description of the NASA Mars Skill. You can then follow up to ask for a Curiosity Rover update. And the current update Alexa reads aloud is called: Sols 2751-2753: ‘Glas-going’ to Drill!

While the idea is neat (hey, who doesn’t like learning about space updates on Space Day?),  listening to Alexa read the update is pretty painful. Hearing long form content from Alexa is still tough on the ears. The pacing is a bit off, and I find myself tuning out after a sentence or two.

And as earlier mentioned, the skill isn’t new. The earliest reviews are dated from late 2016. That said, the 400+ reviews are mostly great, and the skill has a 4 out of 5 star rating. 

My take? I recommend skipping this command and going directly to NASA’s site instead for updates on Curiosity. You’ll be able to get content much faster that way.

“Alexa, ask Headspace for today’s meditation”

This command will trigger the Alexa Skill Headspace to give you their daily meditation. Headspace is a subscription service that provides a large backlog of meditation content, like meditation courses, rotating meditations, and sleep sounds.

The first time you use this skill, you’ll get a description of what Headspace is instead of a meditation. On the second attempt, this command works as expected. The skill page does mention “account linking is required”, but that isn’t true for this particular command. I’m able to get daily meditation without linking to a Headspace account or even one created, which is nice.

The Alexa Skill is a few years old, with reviews dating back to early 2018. It has just under 400 reviews and a 4 out of 5 star rating. If you’re interested in mediation or looking for a quick way to start a guided session, this is a good starting point to get your feet wet. 

“Alexa, open Meditation Timer”

Meditation Timer is an Alexa Skill that’s very similar to the many ambient sound skills, but what sets it apart is its focus on meditation. After using this command, Alexa asks you for a time duration. Then Alexa starts playing some ambient noise. In my case, the skill played surf sounds. Pretty nice, especially since Covid-19 has kept me away from local beaches. 

The skill has been around for a while. Most of the reviews date back to mid 2017. The ratings look good with a 4 out of 5 star rating, but there are only 120 reviews.

Has anything changed since its release? The description does mention the skill has been updated to add a visual experience for devices like the Echo Show. 

Overall, this skill works as advertised and could be used for simple ambient noise, not just for meditations. 

“Alexa, play Some Good News”

This command uses a new Alexa Skill that links Alexa to John Krasinski’s new Youtube channel, Some Good News. The show was created at the end of March 2020, amid the global Coronavirus lockdown . The premise of the show is to bring optimistic news to the world, avoiding the typical news cycle of the pandemic as it’s often negative.  

Now, with this new command, you can listen to recent episodes via this Alexa Skill. When I used this command on my Echo, audio from the most recent video started playing.

The skill is brand new with only two reviews from the last week. Since the Youtube channel is wildly popular, with some videos totalling millions of views already, you can expect this skill to get some serious usage. And from my test, it’s definitely worth checking out. So if you’re looking for some light-hearted news for you and your family during these difficult times, give this command a try.

“Alexa, play King of the Hill on Hulu”

By using this command, you can control the Hulu App on your Fire TV. Hulu is a U.S. streaming service similar to Netflix. This week Amazon is promoting King of the Hill, an animated comedy series from the 90s that ran until 2010.

This skill and Hulu have some extra requirements. To use this skill, you’ll need a video device, typically a Fire TV or a Fire Tablet. You also need a subscription to Hulu. 

A word of caution. The skill has been around for some time, and the reviews aren’t great. It currently has 500 reviews with only a 2.5 out of 5 star rating. According to recent reviews, this skill doesn’t work with Echo Show. Additionally, it looks like many people are having problems getting this working correctly, although it’s hard to parcel out complaints about the the skill versus Hulu in general. 

My advice? Skip this command, as it sounds like more trouble than it’s worth. 

Audible

“Alexa, start my free Audible trial”

It wouldn’t be a weekly roundup without an Audible highlight. As I find each week, Amazon adds or newly-promotes something related to its subscription service Audible. This week is no different as we’re given a command that gives you a description of what Audible is and how much it costs per month. At the end, Alexa asks you if you’d like to start a subscription.

Communication

“Alexa, join my meeting”

By adding this command, Amazon is saying, “Look! Use Alexa for your business!” In essence, you can hook Alexa to some of the popular conference call platforms to save yourself from calling meeting numbers and passwords.

Not too useful for everyday consumers, unless you set up meetings with family members on Zoom. Because of that, I’m inclined to skip this command.

“Alexa, Drop In on Echo Dot”

When you use this command, the Echo you’re calling will play a tone indicating a Drop In has occurred, and then both Echo devices will connect where you can talk through it (much like a walkie talkie).

Drop In allows you to start talking to another echo device in your account. For example, if you’re in the bedroom, and you want to talk to someone in the kitchen, you can use this command to bug them.

This feature works pretty well if you have a large house and multiple Echo devices setup throughout. But I wouldn’t bother with this command if you live in anything less than 3 rooms, as the idea is to save you from shouting. 

“Alexa, what are Alexa Announcements?”

Word of caution. This command might be broken. 

I expected this command to describe Alexa Announcements. Instead, Alexa just tells me there are no current announcements available. Shouldn’t it describe what Announcements are? Or, conversely, if Amazon is promoting it this week, shouldn’t there be a new announcement available?

I went ahead and researched what Alexa Announcements are to get a better sense. Apparently it’s a way to have Alexa read a statement to all of your Echo devices. How it works is you provide a statement, and Alexa broadcasts that same statement to all of your Alexa-enabled devices. You can find out more info about announcements here.

Like Drop In, Alexa Announcements are a way to communicate between Echo devices. For the command itself, I recommend skipping it. For trying out announcements, I think it’s generally worth a shot, but just keep in mind it might not be useful for those of you with smaller homes (after all, you could just use the good ol’ fashion yell). 

Cooking

“Alexa, show me dinner recipes from Tasty”

This command really shines when you have an Echo Show, which is screen enabled. With using this command on an Echo Show, Alexa will actually “show” you recipes in addition to telling you.

Instead, if you use this command via an Echo device without a screen, Alexa reads a recipe title and asks if I want more info or another recipe from the cooking site Tasty. I get the same experience with using the Alexa App.

Overall, if you have an Echo Show–and you keep it in your Kitchen–this command is worth a shot.

Games

“Alexa, test how smart I am”

Amazon is a bit sly with this command. Rather than testing your IQ itself, Alexa will suggest brain puzzle games to you instead, like Jeopardy! or Word of the Day. So what we really have is a User Discoverability command here that is trying to show you Alexa Games.

Unless you’re looking to get game recommendations, don’t bother with this one.

“Alexa, what am I holding?”

In last week’s shopping section, we saw a similar command for the Echo Show. Instead of identifying an object and adding it to your shopping card, Alexa will attempt to identify it.

Amazon wrote about this command last September, saying the goal is to help blind or low-vision customers identify grocery items.

Let me know what you think. Have you found a use for it?

Jokes

“Alexa, May the Fourth be with you”

Happy Star Wars Day! Want to be a Jedi? Alexa helps train you in nine lessons. Go ahead, use this command–it’s worth the laugh. 

You can also give this command to run through each consecutively: “Alexa, begin lesson 1-9.”

Good luck! I got to lesson four before skipping to the end to see what lesson 9 has to offer. Let me know if you make it through.

Information

“Alexa, how far is London from Paris?

Here’s our info command for the week. This time we’re talking about distance. The answer? 285.5 miles by car.

My Echo uses miles as the unit, although I think it’s a bit odd to answer this question in miles. If we were really in Europe, we’d be talking about 459 km instead!

Additionally, if you’re like me and like to focus on time vs distance for traveling by car, then you might want to check out a Maps App instead. 

“Alexa, when’s my water bill due?”

While this command wasn’t part of Amazon’s weekly newsletter, I did get a seperate promotional email about it.

Did you know Alexa can help you with utility bills? I didn’t. And to be honest, I’m not really sure yet if I like the idea or not. In order for this command to work, you need to link Alexa to your utility account. After you link the account, Alexa enables commands like:

“Alexa, is my water bill higher than last month?”

Turns out there is an Alexa Skill for this feature, as well. The feature itself has 6 reviews in total with the earliest dating back to November 2019.

The main benefit of linking your utilities to Alexa is setting up reminders to pay bills and using Alexa to compare bills for you. If you’ve forgotten to pay a bill before, this feature might actually save you some cash.

Sadly, the list of supported utility companies is pretty limited, and it doesn’t support everywhere in the U.S.. I’m an example user that’s not supported based on my location, so I unfortunately can’t test this out for you. 

If you do end up giving this a try, I’d love to know what you think. Be sure to drop me a comment below.  

Music

“Alexa, play the ‘Cooking with the Kids’ playlist on Amazon Music”

When you say this command, Alexa starts playing music from a specific playlist built by Amazon for cooking at home with your kids around. And judging by the songs, you’ll focus on the cooking, they’ll focus on the dancing. 

The playlist page also mentions Amazon Music Unlimited, which is Amazon’s music subscription service. It’s also separate from the version that comes with an Amazon Prime membership. With Prime, you’re given access to “Amazon Music” only.

Some good news, though. This playlist doesn’t seem to require an Amazon Music Unlimited account. So go ahead, give this command a try with your kids! 

“Alexa, play the ‘Cooking with R&B’ playlist on Amazon Music”

Yet another playlist built by Amazon. And unlike the command above, you probably don’t want your kids around for this playlist. Some of the songs are marked as explicit. But why is this playlist specific for cooking, you ask? No idea.

The good news again being you can give this a listen without creating an Amazon Music Unlimited account.

Shopping

“Alexa, add popcorn to my shopping list”

We’ve seen a fair share of these sorts of commands over the past few newsletters. And similar to the others, this command doesn’t actually add popcorn to your shopping cart like I expect it to do. Instead, shopping list is referring to the list in the Alexa App called “shopping.” After I use this command, I’m able to find the word “popcorn” in the list in the Alexa App. Not particularly useful in my opinion.

Alexa App Screenshot of the Shopping List
Alexa App Screenshot of the Shopping List

Timers

“Alexa, cancel my Bedroom Echo timer”

This command highlights the ability to cancel timers according to the device that started the timer. This is useful if you have multiple timers going on, as it can get tricky with knowing what timer refers to what. Adding the device name now makes things easier. 

“Alexa, restart my timer”

By using this command, you restart an existing timer back to its starting point. Alexa will also let you know what the timer is being restarted to. If you find yourself reusing the same timer over and over, this is a good way to simplify things for you.

Takeaways

This week, Amazon brings us a total of 22 commands–some new, or newly updated, or just re-promoted because of recent events. Here’s a better look at how they break down.  

Alexa Command Categories, 
May 4th 2020
Alexa Command Categories for this week

By far, the biggest category continues to be Alexa Skills. While some third party functionality turns out to be subpar (I’m looking at you, Hulu), others are definitely worth the try. Some Good News is a solid addition for a dose of optimism in your life. While Amazon Blueprints is my favorite update this week, letting you create custom skills in minutes. Get more info in the Alexa Skills section.

And with memorable days like Space Day and Star Wars Day this week, we also find Amazon providing hat tips to both via Alexa commands. For instance, you can learn how to be a Jedi in just under 10 lessons in Jokes section or hear the latest update on Curiosity Rover in Alexa Skills section.

Finally, Information section has a really interesting and controversial feature this week. You can now link your utility bill to Alexa and find out when it’s due, and more interestingly–if it’s higher than previous months. Maybe in the future, Amazon is looking to enable bill pay through Alexa. In the meantime, while I don’t fully trust hooking my bills up to Alexa, I do think this week’s commands point to Amazon’s growing interest in customizing Alexa to fit your lifestyle.  

That does it for our first newsletter of May! See you next week as I review more Alexa commands you can do with your Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, Echo Show, Fire TV, and other Alexa-enabled devices.

2 thoughts on “Keeping Up with Alexa Commands: May 4th”

  1. “Not particularly useful in my opinion.”
    I think you have completely misunderstood the purpose of the Shopping List command.
    It is NOT for buying things from Amazon. It is for your local grocery store shopping list, and prior to the Covid home confinement, we used it every week and we will go back to using it when we stop getting home delivery through Instacart, which has its own shopping lists.
    When we went shopping at Costco and/or Krogers, we used it all the time because it put all the items on the Alexa app on our cell phone, and it eliminated the need to keep writing the same items down over and over, because it kept the items as a list, and the Alexa app allowed us to keep moving the items between the “Buy” half of the list and the “Already Half” of the list.
    Another advantage of the Alexa Shopping List is that Amazon allows you to sync it with a phone app called AnyList, which goes one step further and automatically shuffles the items into the typical individual departments and aisles of a grocery story, which keeps us from zig-zagging back and forth across the stores to follow our list.

    1. Thanks for sharing how you use lists. I’m with you that using a list system for groceries is a great way to organize the weekly grocery trips. But why use Alexa’s built in-app lists, or any of the other list services Alexa integrates with? With there being a ton of other competition out there (like the one you mention), what really sets Alexa apart?

      To me, it seems the major benefit of the “Shopping List” List is that it’s prebuilt and it shows up all over Amazon. I’m not sure its really useful though. You could use a different/custom list in Alexa to do the same thing–naming it “Grocery List.”

      And thanks for the heads up on AnyList. Haven’t heard of it, is this it? https://www.anylist.com/

      Looks pretty nice! So it sounds like AnyList is built specifically for categorizing Grocery Lists? If that’s the case, it seems it gives the best of both worlds–Alexa integration and smart grocery lists.

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