Amazon Alexa: Device compatibility, how-tos and much more

The online mega-retailer's voice-powered virtual assistant keeps on getting smarter and more capable. Here's how you can put her to work.

Chris Monroe/CNET

If you're a regular here on CNET, you might have noticed something:

We spend an awful lot of time talking about Alexa.

It's not without good reason. In the less than two years since she debuted as the artificial intelligence housed within the Amazon Echo smart speaker, Amazon's voice-activated virtual assistant has seen her popularity -- and her prominence -- skyrocket. The Echo is one of Amazon's top-selling gadgets, a frequent sellout, and 2015's most impressive piece of technology, per CNET's own Dan Ackerman. Alexa doesn't show any signs of slowing down in 2016, either. Demand for the upcoming Amazon Echo Dot is so high that deliveries are already backed up several months.

The list of everything that Alexa can do is growing rapidly, too, thanks in part to Amazon's open approach to the software that powers her. She's become such a capable in-home assistant that we've made the Echo a centerpiece (if not the centerpiece) of the CNET Smart Home, the living lab where we test out the modern connected living space.

In short, we think Alexa is a pretty big deal. If you want to know more about her, you've come to the right place.

What is Alexa, and how does she work?

Alexa is a "virtual assistant," which isn't a new concept in tech. Chances are you're already familiar with Siri, Cortana, Google Now or Watson -- or with any of the countless fictional virtual assistants we've seen portrayed in the last half century or so's worth of sci-fi flicks.

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There's an array of microphones around the top of the Amazon Echo that can hear you even if you're across the room.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Alexa and other real-life virtual assistants aren't as smart as Ironman's Jarvis (or as frightening as HAL 9000 in "2001: A Space Odyssey"), but their intended function is largely the same -- voice-activated computing powered by artificial intelligence. Ask a question, get an answer. Give a command, get results.

Still, Alexa manages to set herself apart. Unlike mobile-based virtual assistants like Siri, Alexa is centralized within dedicated, in-home Amazon devices -- most notably the Amazon Echo, an always-on, always-listening Internet-connected speaker. To use Alexa, you just say her name (or "Amazon" or "Echo," your other two "wake word" options) then ask a question or give a command.

The Echo's far-field microphones can hear you even if you're across the room, and once they hear you say the wake word, Echo will send the audio of your question or command up to the cloud. From there, Amazon's servers will figure out what you want and how Alexa should respond.

Other Amazon devices -- namely the Amazon Tap and Amazon Fire TV voice remote -- require you to press a button in order to wake Alexa up. This is because those devices aren't hardwired like the Echo. Listening for a wake word 24/7 is a major battery drain.

What can Alexa do?

While she can't do everything, Alexa still has an awful lot of tricks up her sleeve. Here's the basic rundown.

  • Stream music: Ask Alexa to play a song, artist, album, playlist or genre, and she'll stream it from the Amazon Prime Music Library. She'll also work with services such as Pandora and Spotify, as well as Internet radio services such as iHeartRadio and TuneIn.
  • Read the headlines: Aside from streaming your local NPR or ESPN affiliate over the Internet, Alexa can curate a "flash briefing" of headlines and audio clips from the news outlets of your choice on the topics you care about. Just ask her for the news.
  • Keep tabs on traffic and the weather: Alexa will happily read off the forecast, or let you know if there's an accident jamming up your morning commute.
  • Set timers and alarms: You can tell Alexa to wake you up every weekday morning at 7 a.m. or tell her to set a kitchen timer.
  • Control your smart home: Alexa features native compatibility for Philips Hue and Lifx smart bulbs, Belkin WeMo smart switches, connected thermostats such as the Ecobee3 and the Emerson Sensi, and the Wink, Insteon and SmartThings connected home platforms. Pair her up with your devices, and you'll be able to ask her to turn things on and off.
  • Answer your questions: Alexa can look up basic facts, solve math problems, make conversions, or even tell you a joke. She's also well-versed in movie references and loaded with Easter eggs.

Beyond those native capabilities, you can use the Alexa app on your smartphone to download additional "Skills" for the virtual assistant. Skills are like the apps of Alexa, and each one teaches her to do something new. Some come from big brands, including a pizza-ordering Skill from Domino's, a ride-flagging Skill from Uber, and a financial management Skill from Capital One. Most, however, are smaller offerings that provide niche utility, like a guitar-tuning Skill or a Skill that reminds you of crafting recipes in Minecraft (and yes, there's a Skill that'll teach Alexa to make a fart noise upon request).

Many of these third-party Skills pertain to the smart home, and allow Alexa to control even more kinds of connected devices. Unlike her native capabilities, however, the Skills require "invocation words" that tell Alexa what Skill you want her to activate. So, you'll need to say things like "Alexa, ask Scout to arm my security system" or "Alexa, ask Fitbit what my resting heart rate is."

Fortunately, Amazon is working to make it easier for third-parties to create Skills that don't require invocation words at all. For instance, smart home gadgets that create Alexa Skills using Amazon's open application programming interface (API) will get to use existing code and standardized Alexa vocabulary for things like lights, switches, and thermostats.

Moving forward, that means that Alexa will know how to interact with those gadgets without needing invocation words at all -- though, unlike the native integrations, you'll still need to download the Skill for each gadget from your Alexa app.

What all does Alexa work with?

All in all, here's a running list of all of the compatible smart home gadgets Alexa can control:

Native support:

  • Philips Hue LEDs (on, off or dimming -- no color changes)
  • Lifx LEDs (on, off or dimming -- no color changes)
  • Belkin WeMo Switches
  • Belkin WeMo Light Switches
  • Insteon Hub-connected devices (lights and switches)
  • SmartThings Hub-connected devices (lights and switches)
  • Wink Hub-connected devices (lights and switches)
  • If This Then That (IFTTT)
  • Ecobee3 Connected Thermostat
  • Emerson Sensi Wi-Fi Thermostat
  • Nest Learning Thermostat
  • Honeywell Lyric Connected Thermostat (coming soon)

Skill support:

  • Automatic Labs Connected Driving Assistant
  • Lifx LEDs (full color control)
  • Fitbit
  • Scout DIY Security
  • Skybell HD Video Doorbell
  • Garageio
  • Vivint
  • HomeSeer Home Automation
  • Stringify
  • Rachio
  • D-Link Wi-Fi Smart Plugs
  • TP-Link Kasa
  • Ooma Smart Home Phone System
  • Big Ass Fans Haiku Smart Ceiling Fans (coming soon)
  • Lutron Home Lighting Control Devices

The battery-powered Amazon Tap is one of two new Alexa devices.

James Martin/CNET

Where can I learn more about Alexa?

Glad you asked. Our full review of the Amazon Echo would be a good place to start, though you might also be interested in our hands-on with the Amazon Tap or our full review of the Editors' Choice-winning Amazon Echo Dot. We've also got a wealth of handy how-tos that'll help you get more out of Alexa:

Alexa has also played a pivotal role in our CNET Smart Home project -- you can read all about it in the following build-out posts:

How can I get Alexa?

As of now, you'll find Alexa in the Amazon Echo, Tap and Echo Dot smart speakers, which sell on Amazon for $180, $130 and $90, respectively. The one catch here is that -- for now at least -- you'll need to use an Alexa device to order an Echo Dot.

You'll also find Alexa in the voice remote for Amazon Fire TV, which costs $100. Your cheapest Alexa option? Get the $40 Amazon Fire TV Stick and upgrade the standard remote to an Alexa-enabled voice remote for an extra $10.

Third-party manufacturers can also incorporate Alexa into their own products thanks to the fact that Amazon offers Alexa's software to anyone who wants to put it to use. That means that the makers of any device with speakers, microphones and an Internet connection could add Alexa in with just a few lines of code.

We haven't seen any of these third-party Alexa devices roll out -- at least not yet. There's a smart kitchen speaker and family organizer called Triby that stands to be the first when it arrives later this year. We'll keep a close eye on it and any other Alexa devices as they're announced.

Got an Alexa question for us, or a tip you'd like to share? Leave it in the comments below!

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