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6 Alexa skills on my Amazon Echo that I actually use regularly

Forget the gimmicks and find the real Alexa skills for day-to-day life.

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

When Alexa first launched in 2014, skills were a way for third-party developers to make mostly free, voice-driven programs for average people to activate and try out. Thanks to creative third-party developers, average users quickly caught a vision for the possibility of voice assistance to add incredible convenience to daily life. But these days, Alexa does what most of those early skills did without the awkward game of telephone that skills require. No more "Alexa, ask Meat Thermometer how to cook salmon." That's right, Alexa can tell you precisely what internal temperature you need to reach to cook salmon and for that matter, which wine to pair with it.

But skills created by third-party developers and activated on the Alexa app can still bring real smarts you won't get from the basic voice assistant. While many skills don't offer much beyond novelty -- even for my 4-year-old, farts and animal noises lost their shine after a few short minutes -- a few skills are fun and useful on a longer-term basis. 

Here are six Alexa skills I've actually used more than once -- and ones any Alexa fan should try out:

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Audible

Audible

Amazon bought Audible over 10 years ago now, and the audiobook company remains one of its best acquisitions. If you love audiobooks, Audible is a fantastic resource. Especially during lockdowns, when public libraries are closed or limiting access to their catalogs, Audible lets you listen to new, high-quality recordings of the books you wish you could be reading. Two of my recent favorites? N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth Trilogy and Zadie Smith's Intimations.

7-minute workout

Working from home comes with all kinds of challenges, but short, midday workouts have become a mainstay for my wife and me. It helps break up the day and keep us from being too sedentary (or driven crazy by our two kiddos). I like the 7-minute workout because it's so compact, it doesn't require any planning and you can even personalize it if you're in better or worse shape.

Pizza delivery

What better way to fuel up after a workout than with pizza? If you live near a Domino's or Pizza Hut, their respective Alexa skills will let you order your favorite pizza with a single command. As we eat more takeout and need more effortless meals during lockdown, these Alexa skills have proved simple but useful. Maybe too useful, since we're trying to also stay healthy.

Yes Sire

This recommendation comes from another Alexa expert at CNET: Ry Crist. A fun, simple game, Yes Sire asks you a series of yes-or-no questions as you attempt to manage a medieval fiefdom. If your wealth or influence rise above 100, the king will feel threatened and behead you. If they drop to zero, the king will banish you. I was skeptical of the structure, but the simple setup belies a surprisingly fun and engaging strategy game, challenging you to survive as long as possible. I've played at least a half dozen times since having it recommended to me, and I plan to play much more.

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Amazon

Starfinder

A more complex game than Yes Sire, Starfinder offers 13 hours of roleplaying gameplay. Its 30-minute pilot episode is free, and each 90-minute episode is $2 after that -- but the price actually feels like it makes sense. The story is well written and features well-known voice actors such as Laura Bailey (The Last of Us, Part II) and Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Castle). More than a simple linear narrative, Starfinder includes skill checks and dice-driven combat you'll find familiar if you've played D&D or any other tabletop roleplaying game. Since my biweekly board game nights with friends have been put on pandemic hiatus, Starfinder has provided a nice preoccupation in their place.

Smart home skills

OK, this isn't exactly a specific skill, but among my colleagues and friends, smart home skills in general repeatedly surfaced as among the most popular. Get some Philips Hue lights or an Ecobee Smart Thermostat, connect them to Alexa with the brand's skill, and suddenly you can speak your lights and air conditioning on and off. Ditto fans, air purifiers, security cameras and more. One of the quickest ways to feel as though you've upgraded your voice assistant is to give it -- and yourself -- control over your home devices with simple words.

Are there any essential skills I missed? Let me know in the comments.