Alexa, Amazon’s voice-controlled smart assistant, can be found in many devices. You’ll find Alexa in Amazon’s range of Echo smart speakers, as well as many other smart speakers, phones, fitness trackers and even some cars.
But how do we make the most out of the fact Alexa can be everywhere all at once? In order to turn Alexa from sci-fi nice-to-have to an all-important assistant that makes your life genuinely easier, you'll want to make sure you check out the wide range of skills on offer – there were more than 100,000 last time we checked.
These 'skills' are like special tricks that your smart speaker is able to perform for you – from turning on all of the lights in your home through to ordering you a pizza and keeping you updated about when it’s expected to arrive.
That means if you're looking to make Alexa even smarter and convenient to have in your home – or you're a newbie and need to know where to begin – you've come to the right place. Especially because the number of Alexa skills keep growing each and every day.
For example, thanks to a recent addition to the skills library, you can now start a guided meditation when you're feeling stressed, get ultra-specific about what music you want to hear with the Sonos skill or play a surprise short story with Audible Stories.
- Not sure which smart speaker to buy? Check out our guide to the Amazon Echo or Google Home.
One of the benefits of getting an Amazon Echo (or a similar Alexa-enabled device) is that it's always getting better, and we've seen more and more Alexa skills added over the past few years. More choice can mean some of the gems get lost in the pile – but we're here to stop that from happening.
We've been keeping an eye on the best skills you need to know about. We've collected them together here for easy reference. To make your life easier, we've put the Alexa skills in handy categories: Amazon Echo Alexa skills for smart homes, Alexa skills for travel, Alexa skills for food and drink, and the best games to play on your Amazon Echo.
What are Amazon Alexa Skills?
Skills are the word for the things that Alexa can do for you. Most Skills need to be downloaded, just like apps. But once your Echo device has them, you can perform tasks, tricks or commands by asking Alexa to carry them out. For example, to get Alexa to turn on your Philips Hue lights, you'll need the Philips Hue Skill.
How do I add Skills to Alexa?
To add new Skills to Alexa you'll need to open up the Alexa app and select Skills & Games from the menu. Find a Skill you'd like to add and open the Skill detail page. There you should find an option to Enable Skill. That's it, all done.
Are Alexa Skills free?
Skills are free, but there's extra content or options within them that you sometimes have to pay for. For example, some Skills require a one-time purchase to unlock features, such as bonus levels or game packs.
Can I change Alexa's voice?
Yes, to a certain extent – but you can see our full guide for how to change Alexa's voice here.
The best Alexa skills: music and radio
When we're testing speakers in the Amazon Echo range, we usually focus on its function as a music and radio playback device – it's a speaker after all – and the number of Alexa skills focusing on those features will leave you spoilt for choice.
Here's a neat trick to try, as long as you're signed up to Amazon Music in some form: "Alexa, follow Ed Sheeran on Amazon Music" or "Alexa, let me know when Mark Ronson has new music". In both cases, you get alerts about new music from your specified artists on your Echo (and in the Amazon Music app).
If you're listening to a radio station and you don't know the name of the artist, you can just say "Alexa, follow this artist on Amazon Music".
If you want to get something playing quickly, it's much easier to ask Alexa for a specific song or radio station rather than having to open an app, find the search bar, type in your choice, find you've not typed it in correctly, type it again... and so on.
Getting set up with audio services is very simple thanks to the fact that they're built in, rather than requiring you to seek out any third-party skills. With Alexa's new Song ID feature, too, you'll now be able to hear what track is coming up, instead of blindly being led through tracks you don't recognize – while you can ask Alexa to alter the level of bass, mid-range or treble on its audio output without any additional skills.
If you want to use a music playing service other than Amazon Music you'll need to sign into it using your login details, and then set it as your default. To do this from the Alexa app on your phone, head to Settings, scroll down to Music and Media and then select your chosen music service.
It's possible to leave Amazon Music as your default and still play music through Spotify, but if you want to use Spotify first and foremost you can change defaults inside the Alexa app on your phone (so any music you ask to be played will stream from Spotify automatically).
Radio playback is even simpler, thanks to Alexa's integration with TuneIn and the supplied skill. Simply ask for any radio station that's available on the service and it automatically starts playing.
Podcasts are also technically supported, but we found that Alexa isn't very good at recognizing episode names and numbers, and we wouldn't recommend the experience for the time being. It might get better over time.
If you prefer TED Talks to podcasts, then you could try the Alexa skill specially designed to make listening to TED's brand of life-enriching lectures easier than ever before. You might learn something, or at least come away with that smug satisfaction that they always seem to deliver.
If listening to the radio, podcasts or music isn't what makes you feel calm or productive, then grab yourself some skills that'll give you the sounds that will switch you on (or off). There are plenty with nature sounds, rain sounds and white noise, so pick the ones which suit you and your mood best.
The best Alexa skills: television streaming
Google Assistant may have the Chromecast to assist with video-streaming tasks, but Amazon has been making big strides forward here too, allowing users to control their Fire TV devices with Echo devices. This lets you open a specific streaming app, or play specific content by searching by titles, actors or genres.
The functionality also works with TVs that have Amazon's Fire TV software built in.
Recently, Sony's TVs also gained Alexa integration: using an Amazon Echo you're able to turn your TV on and off, change its channel, and even control the volume as well.
This functionality is enabled by Alexa's Smart Home Skill API, which means that hopefully more television manufacturers will work to enable the functionality (and add more Alexa skills) in the future.
The best Alexa skills: general playback
There are a number of ways to get the most out of playing music on your Amazon Echo. For example, you can connect your Echo to an external Bluetooth speaker, through the Alexa mobile app, to improve its audio quality.
You can also use your smart speaker to control your Sonos devices. You'll need to install the Sonos skill via the Alexa app, at which point Alexa will recognize any Sonos speakers that are connected to your home network.
Alternatively, you can use a cable to attach an external speaker if your Echo has a 3.5mm audio port (like the Echo Dot and 2017 Amazon Echo do).
Once you've got your music playing, you can use your voice to control the volume, as well as relying on the physical controls on the device. While it makes sense to ask Alexa to "turn the volume up" or "turn the volume down", we prefer the accuracy of asking for specific volumes.
To do this, ask Alexa to turn the volume to a number between 1 and 10 and no, you can't ask it to turn the music up to 11…
- Echo Dot review: testing out Amazon's most compact speaker
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Jon Porter is the ex-Home Technology Writer for TechRadar. He has also previously written for Practical Photoshop, Trusted Reviews, Inside Higher Ed, Al Bawaba, Gizmodo UK, Genetic Literacy Project, Via Satellite, Real Homes and Plant Services Magazine, and you can now find him writing for The Verge.