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Alexa 101: What you should know about Amazon's AI assistant

Curious about Amazon's virtual voice assistant, Alexa? Here's a quick rundown.

Ry Crist
1 of 28 Ian Knighton/CNET

Amazon's virtual assistant Alexa is everywhere these days, having delivered in-home voice control to the masses. She can do all sorts of things if you ask nicely, she's popping up in more and more devices, and her capabilities are evolving quickly.

It's a lot to keep up with, but we're here to help. Click through for a quick crash course on how Alexa works and what all she has to offer.

2 of 28 Ian Knighton/CNET

All about Alexa

Alexa is a virtual voice assistant -- like Siri, but separate from your phone. You'll find her in Amazon's Echo lineup of smart speakers. Each one includes a Wi-Fi connection and an omnidirectional array of microphones that can hear you from anywhere in the room. You'll say "Alexa" to get her attention, then give her your question or command.

As you speak, the ring on the top of the speaker will light up blue to indicate that Alexa is listening and sending your audio to Amazon's servers. Those servers translate the audio into text and then figure out how Alexa should respond -- all of which happens in about a second.

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Amazon's Echo speakers are always listening for the wake word "Alexa" (you can also use "Amazon," "Echo," or "Computer"). They only start recording and transmitting your audio once they hear that wake word, or whenever you push the activation button on top to get Alexa's attention without saying anything. And again, your speaker will light up blue whenever this is happening.

If you want, you can press the mute button to turn off Alexa's microphone. The speaker will glow red, and it won't respond to the wake word.

Amazon keeps a history of your Alexa commands -- including the audio -- in the Alexa app for Android and iOS devices. You can delete specific recordings, or log on to Amazon's website to delete everything.

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The most common Alexa use is listening to music. You can choose between Amazon Music and Spotify as your default streaming service, and you can play stations and podcasts from iHeartRadio or Pandora, too. Want her to play some jazz music, or hit you with a little Bohemian Rhapsody while you cook dinner? Just ask. 

You can also listen to internet radio through TuneIn, including a new TuneIn Live premium subscription service that brings live sports broadcasts and network news into play.

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Flash Briefings

Speaking of news, you can also ask Alexa to read you the day's headlines by requesting your "flash briefing." You can customize the topics and sources she'll draw from in the Alexa app (including, ahem, CNET).

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Use your own speakers

If you like the speakers you already have, you can connect them with an Alexa device using an aux-out cable or a Bluetooth connection. That'll let you use the Echo speaker as your smart audio setup's microphone while the audio itself pipes through your existing sound system.

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Smart home controls

Alexa has also proven to be a powerful platform for smart home gadgets. Pair her up with things like compatible smart lights and smart plugs and you'll then be able to control them using voice commands.

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Create a group

The Alexa app lets you control and manage all of your Alexa-compatible smart home gadgets, or put them into groups to let Alexa control multiple gadgets with a single command (e.g., "turn off the living room lights.")

You can also create a group of lights and then add your Echo to it to make those the default lights it'll turn on when you say, "Alexa, turn on the lights."

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The Alexa app's other key smart home tool is called "Routines." With Routines, you can create your own custom Alexa commands that trigger multiple actions all at once. For instance, saying "Alexa, goodnight," could turn off your lights and lock your smart lock.

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Alexa calling

Another key Alexa feature worth knowing about is her ability to make calls and send messages. You can link up with other Alexa-enabled contacts in the Alexa app, then ask Alexa to make an Echo-to-Echo call, or send them a quick voice message. When you have an incoming call or message, your Echo will glow green.

Amazon also uses this feature to let users with multiple Echo devices make intercom-style calls from one device to another. You can even use your Echo to call mobile numbers and landlines for free.

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Easter eggs, too

Along with music, news, smart home control and calling and messaging features, Alexa can look up facts, tell you the weather, tell you a joke, make conversions, set timers and much, much more. She also comes packed with plenty of Easter egg responses -- for example, try saying, "Alexa, initiate self-destruct sequence."

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Alexa skills

On top of all that, you can enable any of the tens of thousands of free Alexa skills -- essentially the Alexa version of apps. Each skill teaches Alexa a new trick. This one, from Capital One, will let you pay off your credit card bill with a voice command. Like all skills, you can enable it in the Alexa app, or just by asking Alexa to enable it herself.

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Pizza, anyone?

And yes, there are even skills from brands like Domino's that will let you order a pizza with a single voice command.

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Alexa has ESP

If you plan on putting more than one Echo device into your home, you'll be happy to know that they include a feature called "Echo Spatial Perception," or ESP for short. ESP makes it so that only the Echo device closest to you will answer your command if more than one hears it.

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Going global

Amazon is gradually starting to offer Alexa devices in more and more countries. Along with the US, UK, Australia and Germany, Amazon will soon sell devices in Asia, too.

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Amazon Echo

So what are your options as far as Echo devices go? The first is the speaker that started it all, the Amazon Echo. It can comfortably fill a room with omnidirectional sound, and includes all of Alexa's basic features and skills. Plug it in and sync it up with the Alexa app on your phone, and you'll be all set.

Now in its second gen, the Echo costs $100 in the US, £90 in the UK and AU$119 in Australia. 

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The second-gen Echo also comes in a variety of interchangeable "shells" to help you find a look that'll fit in best with your home's decor.

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Amazon Echo Dot

Alexa's other best-seller is the pint-sized Echo Dot. At just $50 in the US (or £50/AU$80 in the UK and Australia, respectively), it's the most affordable Alexa speaker of all, and also the most popular. It does everything that the full-size Echo does, and while the sound obviously isn't as powerful, you can still connect it with your existing speakers.

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Amazon Echo Show

On the other end of the price spectrum is the Amazon Echo Show, which adds a touchscreen into the equation. This adds a certain level of "glanceability" to the device, though we wish more Alexa features and skills would put the screen to good use. The cost: $230 in the US, or 200 in the UK. It isn't available in Australia just yet.

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Amazon Echo Spot

The Amazon Echo Spot splits the difference between the Dot and the Show, packing a touchscreen into a much smaller Alexa speaker.  Like the Show, we wish that the touchscreen provided more utility than it does, but it's still a pretty likable device (though, given that it's pitched as an alarm clock replacement, where it will stay pointed at you in bed while you sleep, we really wish that the camera had a physical privacy shutter).

The Spot will set you back $130 in the US or £120 in the UK -- and like the Show, it isn't available in Australia yet.

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Video calls

One nice perk about both touchscreen devices -- you can make voice-activated video calls with other Alexa users.

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Security monitoring

The addition of a screen also lets you ask Alexa to show you the feed from compatible smart home cameras like the Nest CamNetgear Arlo, the Ring Video Doorbell, and Amazon's own Cloud Cam.

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Amazon Echo Plus

Another option: the Amazon Echo Plus, which takes the original Echo's form factor and adds in a Zigbee radio. That radio can communicate directly with popular smart bulbs from brands like Philips Hue, which means Plus users don't need an additional hub plugged into their router in order to use them. It costs $150 in the US, £140 in the UK, and AU$230 in Australia.

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Color choices

The Echo Plus doesn't offer interchangeable shells like the basic Echo does, but it does come in your choice of three colors: silver, white or black.

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Amazon Echo Look

Available in the US only, the Amazon Echo Look is a $200 camera that takes Alexa-activated selfies. You can use it to compare different outfits, and even let an algorithm tell you what to wear. It's a bit of an oddball in the Echo lineup, and you have to request an invitation to buy one.

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Amazon Fire TV Stick

You can also bring Alexa into your home by getting an Amazon Fire TV streamer with the Alexa voice remote. It doesn't have all of the Alexa features you'll get with the Echo (you have to push a button instead of saying a wake word, and it can't call or message anybody, for instance), but it can still answer questions and control smart home gadgets -- plus, you can ask Alexa to find you something to watch.

The cost of a current-gen 4K streamer with HDR support and the voice remote included? $50 in the US, or £60 in the UK. The voice remote isn't currently available in Australia.

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Alexa-powered entertainment

One thing to watch for as Alexa continues to mature is how deeply she ultimately integrates with home entertainment. You can already use Alexa to control compatible smart TVs, as well as compatible TV services like Dish and DirecTV. More video and entertainment superpowers are in the works, too.

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Third-party devices

Outside of Amazon's own Alexa devices, we're seeing a major boom in Alexa devices from third-party manufacturers, too. That's because Amazon opened up the software that powers Alexa to outside developers. If you make a gadget that includes a microphone, a speaker, and a Wi-Fi connection, you can add in Alexa with just a few lines of code.

The result: Alexa everywhere. Just to name a few examples, we've seen her in lamps, thermostats, refrigerators, cars, alarm clocks, light switches, TVs, dirt cheap speakers, and even walking, talking robots that teach you yoga (yes, really).

Just keep in mind that a lot of these third-party devices are missing a couple of key Alexa features like ESP and calling/messaging. If you're thinking of buying one, make sure that it can do everything you want it to do, first.

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