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11 ways to make Alexa smarter

Alexa has only gotten better with each update, but there are some things you can do to make it even smarter.

Taylor Martin CNET Contributor
Taylor Martin has covered technology online for over six years. He has reviewed smartphones for Pocketnow and Android Authority and loves building stuff on his YouTube channel, MOD. He has a dangerous obsession with coffee and is afraid of free time.
Taylor Martin
6 min read

Thanks to Amazon 's dedication to its assistant platform, Alexa , its line of smart speakers has gotten much smarter over the last three years. You can now buy just about anything from Amazon, call or message your family and change the color of your lights, all without reaching for your phone or lifting a finger.

Even with major updates and new hardware, however, Alexa still has trouble with many things. Fortunately, there are some things you can do right now to make Alexa smarter.

Set up voice profiles

If you have trouble with Alexa understanding you or not waking when you say the wake word, you may need to do some voice training. This setting helps Alexa learn your voice.

Not only will Alexa know who is asking it questions or giving commands, with voice profiles set up, it will give personal responses with information from that user's accounts, such as from their personal calendar or music tailored to their preferences. This means, if more than one person will be using an Alexa speaker, you will also need to create a "Household", which not only lets users share content libraries but also lets you create multiple voice profiles to get personalized results from Alexa.

To create a voice profile, open the Alexa app on Android or iOS and go to Settings. Near the bottom, you will see a setting called Your Voice. Follow the on-screen prompts and read all the phrases to the Alexa speaker, then tap Complete. Give Alexa a few minutes to finish learning your voice.

Set your location

It may seem obvious, but giving Alexa your correct address (and making sure to update it if you move) is vital for getting accurate information, such as morning commute traffic and weather forecasts or updates.

To set your location for each speaker, open the Alexa app and go to Settings. Select one of the speakers under Devices and enter your address beside Device location.

Watch this: 4 common Amazon Alexa problems and how to fix them

Set a default music service

For music and radio, Alexa speakers are compatible with several music streaming services: Amazon Music Unlimited, Amazon Prime Music, Spotify, Pandora , iHeartRadio , TuneIn and SiriusXM. Best of all, you don't have to pick and choose which service to use with your speakers. You can connect all your accounts and pick which one you want to use on the fly by specifying the service. Say something like, "Alexa, play Shaky Graves on Pandora."

Even better, you can set your favorite service as the default, so you don't have to specify each time you listen to music. To do this, open the Alexa app on Android or iOS or go to alexa.amazon.com. Go to Settings > Music & Media. Click Choose default music services and click the radio button beside your preferred services to set them as default. Click Save when you're finished to save your changes.

Stream music around the whole house

If you have more than one Alexa speaker in your home, you can play music around the house Sonos-style. This works through a feature called Multi-Room Music.

To set it up, go to Settings > Multi-Room Music in the Alexa app on Android or iOS or go to alexa.amazon.com in your browser. Click Create Group and select Multi-Room Music. Choose a group name, check all the speakers you want to include and click Create Group. Then, to stream your tunes to more than one speaker at once, just say, "Alexa, play Listener on [group name]."

Alternatively, if you have a Sonos system, you can connect it with Alexa to stream your tunes around the entire house.

Turn on notifications

Alexa can now deliver notifications. For now, the feature is limited to package tracking notifications for items you purchase from Amazon. In the future, these notifications abilities will be available to third-party skills, as well.

When enabled, your Alexa speakers will play a notification sound and glow yellow when your packages are out for delivery and again when they're delivered.

To make sure your shipping notifications are turned on, go to alexa.amazon.com, then Settings > Notifications > Shopping Notifications and check that the toggle next to Delivery Notifications is on.

Create a routine

Tired of speaking a handful of one-off commands to your Alexa speakers just to accomplish something simple? That's where routines come into play. By going to Routines in the side menu in the Alexa app, you can create a single command that executes several things at once.

For example, you can create a command where you say, "Alexa, start my day." That one command can play your entire Flash Briefing (or the individual parts of it separately -- weather, traffic or news) and turn on the lights around the house. Normally, this would take three, four or maybe more commands to accomplish.

Additionally, you can create routines that happen at a specific time every day or only on certain days. 

Wake up to music

Using a routine, you can wake up to your Flash Briefing, meaning you'll get the forecast for the day, traffic for your commute to work and the most pressing news. If you'd rather wake up to music, you can do that too -- just not with a routine. Instead, you'll have to create an alarm and tell Alexa what you want to wake up to. You can say things like:

  • "Alexa, wake me up to Fleet Foxes tomorrow at 8:00 a.m."
  • "Alexa, set an alarm to relaxing music."
  • "Alexa, wake me up to '90s music."

Enable Follow-Up Mode

While routines can let you condense multiple commands into one, it's not perfect. There are limitations. You can't start streaming music or an audiobook with a routine, and you can't interact with skills. That said, if you've got several commands you want to fire off but are tired of saying your wake word over and over, there's a way you can have a more natural interaction with Alexa. It's called Follow-Up Mode.

With Follow-Up Mode, after you finish a command, Alexa will continue to listen for another command for a few seconds. During this time, you can deliver another command without having to say your wake word. And you can continue to do this with as many commands as you need. When you're finished speaking commands, you can let Alexa time out or say, "Stop" or "Thank you."

To enable it, just open the Alexa app and go to Settings. Select one of your Alexa speakers from the list, scroll down and toggle Follow-Up Mode on.

Connect your to-do account

Alexa is now compatible with several list and task manager services, such as Any.do, AnyList, Cozi Lists, Picniic and Todoist. When you connect one of your accounts with Alexa, your lists or to-dos will be two-way synced. For instance, tasks you create in Any.do will appear in your to-dos on Alexa, and to-dos created with Alexa will appear in your Any.do account.

To add a list or to-do account, in the Alexa app, go to Settings > Lists. Click Get Skill next to the account you want to add, click Enable, log in to your account and authorize the connection.

Seek out new skills

One of Alexa's biggest advantages over other assistants is its vast (and quickly growing) skill library. Skills are essentially third-party apps for Alexa speakers that can do anything from ordering Dominos pizza to getting airport security wait times.

Here are 40 of the most useful skills available today.

Some of our favorite skills are better replacements for things Alexa can already do. For instance, Big Sky is a much more in-depth weather service (that uses the Dark Sky API) than the native weather capacities of Alexa. AnyPod makes podcast listening a little better, since it lets you play specific episodes (not just the latest episode). And the Night Light skill turns your Echo speaker's light ring into a night light.

When all else fails, use IFTTT

IFTTT, or If This Then That, has become a sort of saving grace for smart speaker owners, especially those trying to stitch together a smart home with devices that aren't all compatible.

IFTTT helps break the language barrier between tons of online services and smart home devices, allowing them to play well together. Alexa, in particular, has quite a few triggers it can perform with IFTTT, and what you can do with it is virtually endless. Here are just a few examples:

Editors' note: Originally published Oct. 30, 2017, this article is regularly updated to include new features that help you maximize the utility of Alexa speakers.