SO YOU GOT yourself a brand new Amazon Echo Dot. Congratulations! You’ll get along great with it. But before you start yelling at your shiny new toy, take a quick look at the full range of what it can do for you. It’s more than you might have imagined.
The tips and tricks below also mostly work for, well, any Alexa-powered device. There are a ton of them out there, and while they may not be as puckish (both in the hockey and Shakespearean sense), they could all benefit from a quick primer.
First, make sure you’ve established a nurturing environment in which your Echo Dot can thrive. Kidding! Just plug that sucker into a wall outlet and let it fly.
Next, your Dot will sit there, patiently glowing orange, while you download the Alexa app for iOS, Android, Kindle Fire tablets, or whatever combination of those suits your personal set-up.
If the Echo Dot light isn’t orange any more, press and hold the Action button (that’s the one with a white dot in the middle) for five seconds to get it back into set-up mode. Then, from within the app, sign into your Amazon account and set up Wi-Fi by going to Settings > Set Up New Deviceand entering your local network’s password.
The Alexa app will show you a video that handholds you through your Echo Dot introductions. But why watch when you can explore? Just remember, start every question or command with “Alexa,” or change the prompt under Settings > Wake Word if you’d prefer “Echo,” “Amazon,” or “Computer.”
None of Amazon’s Echo lineup has a speaker that you could reasonably describe as “banging.” The Dot, thanks to its diminutive size, has the weakest of the bunch.
If you want Alexa to sound like she’s calling you from inside a tin can, fine. If, however, you want the full Alexa experience, you’re in luck: The Echo Dot features audio out, meaning you’re just a 3.5mm audio cable away from making your home’s very best speaker a smart one. If you hate cables more than you do latency, it also supports Bluetooth.
What speaker you hook the Dot up to depends on personal preference, but we can recommend a few for you here. And if you want to color-coordinate—or just add a little flair to your Dot—Amazon offers six colorful protective cases to choose from as well.
Power? Check. Wi-Fi? Check. Killer speaker to piggyback off of like an oxpecker on a hippo? Hopefully check. OK. Let’s boogie.
Where you put your Echo Dot depends on personal preference, of course, and we would never dissuade you from following your heart. But if this is your first Alexa device, you need to put it in the kitchen.
Why? Because that’s the room in your home where Alexa’s native abilities shine brightest. Out of the box, your Echo Dot can set timers, convert measurements, blast music (or NPR, or podcasts, or whatever you’re into), and more. You’re going to want to do some quick customization before you get going, though.
Change your default music service: Echo devices default to Amazon Music, which is a perfectly fine option and has a pretty robust offering of free tunes if you’re a Prime member. If you’ve committed to Spotify, Pandora, or iHeartRadio, though, you can make one of those your default music player instead by going to Settings > Music & Media > Link account to Alexa in the app.
Flash briefing: Alexa does not have the most dulcet-toned speaking voice, but in short bursts—as in the flash briefing, which ticks off curated news stories at your command—it’ll do. You have literally thousands of options to choose from, which you can find in Settings > Flash Briefing > Get More Flash Briefing Content. Don’t go overboard unless you’ve got an hour to kill, and try to mix up coverage types to avoid redundancy. If you’re not sure where to start, here’s a humble suggestion.
Integrate your calendar: Amazon doesn’t offer its own calendar service, but allows for BYO from iCloud, Gmail, Office 365, or Outlook. Do this! Life gets just that much easier when you can ask Alexa what appointments you have that day. Go to Settings > Calendar > Link and follow the instructions from there.
Make a phone call: With a recent update, Alexa can make phone calls—sort of. Specifically, you can place calls to people in your phone’s contacts who also have Alexa devices, meaning your conversations will be Alexa-to-Alexa, which feels like it should be a palindrome but isn’t.
Family profiles: Maybe you live in a household (or dorm room) where everyone has their own Amazon account. Don’t worry! Switching profiles should help avoid Alexa-based confusion. By adding accounts to your household, everyone can access their personal calendar, content library, flash briefing, and more. Go to Settings > Household Profile and sign in. Then tap Continue, and let the next person do the same. Presto! One big happy Echo family.
To switch accounts—and this should not come as much surprise—say “Alexa, switch accounts.” And to prevent accidental (or intentional, if you live with a scallywag) purchases on the wrong account, go to Settings > Voice Purchasing > Require confirmation code to establish a four-digit PIN for any acts of consumerism.
Cover Your Tracks: As soon as you say “Alexa,” your Echo Dot starts listening–and recording. In practice, that’s not so different from Google tracking what you type into Chrome, but it does feel a small dose creepier when it’s your voice on file. If you go to Settings > History you can see what Alexa has clocked you saying, and delete them from your device one by one. For a bulk cleansing, head here and go to Your Devices > Echo Dot > Manage voice recordings. A pop-up should give you an option to clean-slate your search history with one tap.
An important note here: Just because it’s gone from your device, it’s unclear whether Amazon also removes it from its servers. So, you know, mind what you say either way.
In addition to its native abilities, Alexa by now has well over 10,000 “skills,” which is just a fancy way to say “voice-activated apps.” Adding them is easy; just say “Alexa, enable Domino’s Pizza,” and your Echo Dot can help you summon up a piping hot side of spicy jalapeño-pineapple chicken chunks. If that’s your thing.
Finding skills, though, presents challenges. You can search for them on the web here, but Amazon’s skills store interface manages somehow to both over and underwhelm. Rather than loading up on forgettable skills, take a little time to see how you use your Echo Dot, and pick up skills along the way that target any gaps. if you find yourself thinking that you wish it did X, chances are there’s a skill for it.
In the meantime, though, here’s something of a sampler to help you get started.
Smart Home of Choice: Got a smart home? Hope that’s working out for you! One way to make it work a little better is to connect it to Alexa, which supports Nest, Control4, SmartThings, Philips Hue lights, Lutron, Insteon, and pretty much any other hub or platform you can think of.
If you’re a smart home newbie, maybe start with a smart plug from Wemo or TP-Link, low-cost, low-stakes entry points that let you turn whatever’s plugged into them on and off with a yelp.
Big Sky: One of our favorite weather apps is Dark Sky, a hyperlocal service that lets you know what it’s like outside not just in your city, but on your block. Think of Big Sky as Dark Sky, just without all the pretty maps. In fact, it uses the Dark Sky API, so the reports are just as accurate and informative; you just need to ask for them.
Call a Car: Uber and Lyft both offer Alexa skills, letting you request a ride without pulling out your phone. Lyft comes with the added benefit of telling you how much a given ride’ll cost.
Kayak: If you want to go even further, try Kayak. It requires that you have a Kayak account, but if or once you’ve got one of those handy, you can book hotels, check on flight prices, and even get recommended trips based on your home airport and your budget.
7-Minute Workout: If you have trouble motivating to work out, it’s worth giving this exercise app a shot. It does what it says, guiding you through a short workout, letting you take breaks as needed. It’s just one routine, which can get monotonous. But hey, no pain no gain.
The Magic Door: At this stage in Alexa’s evolution, its available skills mostly comprise either slick marketing grabs or hobbyist efforts. The Magic Door, though, shows the platform’s potential for real depth. Saying too much might give away some of the fun, but suffice to say that it’s an interactive game that leads you on a magical adventure stuffed with riddles, gnomes, and a tropical monkey island.
Jeopardy: This … is … Jeopardy! Sort of! Updated every weekday, the official Jeopardy app tests you with the “sixth” clue in every category from that day’s show. You already shout the answers at the TV when you watch; now you can do it with the validation you crave.
And that should do it! For a start, anyway. Amazon adds new Alexa skills by the week, so keep an eye on their regular update emails in case something catches your eye. Otherwise, enjoy yelling at your new gadget, and having it actually talk back for a change.