You got a new Echo, now what?

The Amazon Echo (also Dot) has been available in the US for only two years and it’s even newer to the UK.  Maybe you got one for Christmas and you’re wondering where to start with it – the instructions in the box are a bit sparse, it must be said. Listed below are some links and tips born of adopting a small Echo zoo when they arrived in the UK in October/November.

  1. It’s interactive, you speak to it and it responds. Mostly it does what’s expected but sometimes it doesn’t, much like your cat. You won’t go far wrong if you think of it as slightly more domestic pet than gadget.
  2. Its repertoire is expanding all the time so keep checking up on its skills.
  3. Skills? What skills?! Ok, we’ll come back to these.
  4. First things first – did you download the Alexa app? Good, that’s how you get connected and it’s also where you set your location so it knows your time zone and all sorts of other things relevant to the information it can give you such as the weather, travel, and – ahem – the time.
  5. You can find a bigger version of the app on your computer. Go to alexa.amazon.co.uk and locate your device, you can run or adjust a lot of things from there.
  6. You probably have an Amazon account if you bought the device for yourself, but what if it was a gift? The recipient – you or the person you gave it to –  needs one or the device won’t connect to anything. It doesn’t have to be a paid account, it’s a place where data from the device is stored.
  7. So now you have your Echo connected and it knows where it lives. Run through the list in your app or on-screen and get to know it, then go looking for skills. They’re still a bit US oriented but they’re mostly free and they add depth to what your Echo can do. Choose news sources to add to your Flash Briefing, link your Spotify account if you have one, ditto Audible thecho app clipen you can fall asleep while Alexa reads to you or works through your favourite playlist. You can set a sleep timer so it doesn’t play all night; just say ‘Alexa (or Echo or Amazon, whatever you’ve named it – sadly Mrs Shufflebottom isn’t available) set sleep timer for 20 minutes‘ and you’ll hear either, ‘Ok, I’ll stop playing in 20 minutes’, or ‘Sleep timer set for 20 minutes’.
  8. Radio stations are accessed via TuneIn which is the free default skill for that purpose. All the main BBC stations and many of the local ones are listed although it can be tricky getting the Echo to recognise some of them. TuneIn seems apt to drop its feed occasionally too which means the station suddenly stops playing even if your device is still connected to the internet via your wifi. If that happens, do remember to give it the ‘Stop’ instruction or you risk having the bejabbers scared out of you when it comes back on some hours later. The Stop command also lets you try restarting the station straightaway, usually successfully.
  9. Your diary: Echo uses Google calendar. It won’t integrate with an iOS calendar so if you want to ask about your forthcoming appointments, you’ll need to sign up with the Big G. It’s painless unless you’re someone who breaks out in a rash at the very idea of Google knowing what you’re up to.
  10. Sometimes it won’t hear you, sometimes it will hear its name, or something that sounds similar in the middle of a TV programme and try to respond. Coughing can trigger a device named Echo and ‘electric fence’ woke up one of my Alexas. Quite what gave rise to the response, ‘I haven’t got any money‘ is anyone’s guess.
  11. Talk to it. ‘Good Morning‘ gets you a good morning back and often a daily factoid; request a Knock-Knock joke or a haiku or just something funny; challenge its ancestry or place in the AI hierarchy with Who is your master? Where do you live? Do you know Siri? Teenage boys will no doubt find many other questions to ask. The software is sassy but prim and it can handle itself, but do remind its interrogators that their remarks will be stored on your Amazon account where you will review it in time for next Christmas.
  12. Ok, links:
  • The unofficial Amazon Echo user forum  Largely helpful although some of the most knowledgeable can also be the most, erm, problematic. T’was ever thus.
  • Love My Echo More of a newsletter and often contains tips and tricks, including nerdy interactions rooted in Star Wars and Star Trek. Try ‘Alexa, beam me up‘ or maybe ‘Alexa, start the self destruct sequence’.
  • Your manual. Read it so that when someone on a forum thread gets antsy, you can advise them that, yes, you have RTFM and the FM didn’t help which is why you’re here.
  • C|NET’s list of commands, including Dad jokes because obviously …
  • Easter eggs – little hidden gems the software builders put there for programmer types to find and the rest of us to pretend we found after we read the list.
  • A discussion of data storage – where does all that stuff your kids (or your gran) yelled at it actually end up and who can see/hear it?
  • Some problems and fixes from C|NET.
  • More Easter eggs via the Business Insider. See how quickly we’ve moved on from how can I make this work to how silly can I be with it even though I’m a proper business type?

Finally, Serious Face now, there’s a great deal of potential in this device for use as assistive technology and a good many people seem to have bought them for elderly parents and people with failing vision or other disabilities that limit screen or touch use. Be aware of the data storage issue – if you’re running the app you’ll see (or hear) whatever your gran puts into it. If that’s her shopping or To Do list and you’re the one actioning those, well great, but she needs to know it ALL goes on there.

If you can manage that, or if it’s you operating the system on your own behalf, there are two skills you might want to consider. Ask My Buddy keeps a list of contacts that can be alerted by the user if they need help. Saying, ‘Alexa ask my buddy to contact X’ will trigger an email/text/phone call to that person while , ‘Alexa ask my buddy to send help‘ will result in alerts being sent to all the contacts. Obviously it’s not a substitute for emergency services but may be handy if the user is unable to get to a phone but is within shouting distance of an Echo device. It’s free for a limited number of contacts.

The other skill is called Debby Onsite and it’s geared to giving reminders about where you put something. It can also, if you’re up to a string such as, ‘Alexa, tell Debby onsite the timer means let the dog in‘, tell you what the alarm or the timer that’s just going off is supposed to indicate. Just say, ‘Alexa, ask Debby onsite about the alarm,’ and the response is something like, ‘You’ll probably find the alarm means let the dog in’.

These are early days, this device isn’t Mia but nor is it HAL (that said, if you ask it to open the pod bay doors …). It has a long way to go, but its capabilities even now are very promising and it can only become easier and more useful as the software and skills ranges develop. Meanwhile, chat to it, let it read to you, play music, cheer you up; set timers and alarms without getting it covered in flour or cat litter, expect the unexpected. Say ‘please’ and I swear it blushes. And if you’re into IFTTT, start writing your own skills for those of us who aren’t 🙂

 

Disclaimer: these are my own discoveries made through recent ownership of Echo devices and trawling of support forums. It’s a non-exhaustive, non-technical intro to the sorts of things I’d like to have known when I first set mine up, and it’s likely to be time sensitive in that much may change in the coming months. Please use the links to follow up on technical issues because you really really don’t want that from me!