Amazon Echo guide: Everything you need to know about Amazon's smart speaker

Make more of your Echo and Echo Dot

The Amazon Echo is one of our favourite gadgets - so much so that it was selected as our Smart Home Platform of the year at the Wareable Awards - and now that you have both the regular Echo and the Echo Dot to choose from, there are more ways to use Alexa than before.

With that in mind, we've put together a guide for using Echo, offering up all you need to know about the smart home device, and a few tips for getting more out of it.

But first…

What is Echo?

If you don't know what Echo is or does, we'll get you up to speed. Echo is Amazon's smart home assistant, which sits in your house and acts like a small cylindrical butler. The Echo is just a vessel for Alexa, which is Amazon's AI that functions in a similar way to Siri and Google Now.

Unlike those two, Alexa is more focused on being useful inside the home, whether it's asking for the latest news headlines, asking her to play music on Spotify, or even getting her to control other smart home devices like Nest and Philips Hue.

Read next: Amazon Echo review

Then read: Amazon Echo Dot review

The Echo comes in two variants, the standard Echo and the cheaper, smaller Echo Dot. Both perform the same functions, but the Dot lacks the more powerful speaker, meaning you're better off hooking it up to something with more wallop if you want to play music. Right now you can buy the Echo for $139.99 and the Echo Dot for $39.99.

What can Alexa do?

Amazon Echo guide: How to get the most out of Alexa

As mentioned, Alexa has a lot of abilities. Many of these abilities are downloadable, and referred to as skills. Think of them like little apps, or new bits of knowledge that can be browsed and then inserted into Alexa's brain.

You can read our roundup of the best Amazon Echo skills for some of our favourites, but there are thousands out there to pick from, although note that some of the skills differ between the US and UK.

The types of skills also vary a lot. The Jamie Oliver skill lets you ask Alexa for recipes, or alternatively you can use the Just Eat skill to order a takeway. Other favourites include the Nest app, letting you adjust the heating with your voice; the Uber skill, which lets you order a cab without lifting a finger; and Fitbit, which updates you on your day's progress.

We also like the news apps, such as The Guardian, which give you a quick rundown of the latest headlines.

Essential reading: Amazon Echo v Google Now

Overall, it's worth spending some time delving into the list of available skills and finding the ones that you think will be most useful for your lifestyle. Over time you'll work out the ones that you're actually using, and the ones you might as well get rid of.

Some of Alexa's abilities are built-in though. If you're asking her to name a country's capital city, or getting her to check the weather outside, she'll do this by simply drawing on the power of the web. The Echo can also order things straight from Amazon.

As we found in our week spent in Amazon's ecosystem, it's probably only going to be useful for you if you know exactly what you're after, but Alexa also delves into your shopping history and suggests repeat buying, which is handy.

Setting up Echo

Setting up the Echo is pretty straightforward, but bear in mind that it needs to connect to your Wi-Fi in order to work. To get it up and running you'll need to download the Alexa app (it's both iOS and Android compatible) and make sure your Echo is plugged in and switched on. You'll know it's alive if the blue ring of light is appearing at the top.

Read next: Amazon Echo tips and tricks

You'll need to use the app in order to connect the Echo to your Wi-Fi, so make sure you have your network password to hand. Oh, and you'll need an Amazon account too.

Once that's done and Alexa is talking to your Wi-Fi, you can use the app to tweak your settings and start searching for skills. It's also worth ensuring you've added as much information as you can to the app, which will help Alexa help you better. For example, if there's a location you frequently travel to (say, for work) then adding it in will mean Alexa will more easily be able to give you a traffic report in the morning.

How does the speech recognition work?

Amazon Echo guide: How to get the most out of Alexa

On the whole we think Alexa's speech recognition is very good, but we're not at the point of chatting to Iron Man's Jarvis just yet. To get Alexa to work you need to use a wake word. The default one is "Alexa", but you can change it to "Echo" or "Amazon" if you'd prefer. This allows Alexa to listen all the time without interrupting unless you actually want to speak to her.

The Echo gives you a list of example questions, but some things you can ask include:

"Alexa, what's the weather?"

"Alexa, set an alarm for 6am"

"Alexa, add toothpaste to my shopping list"

As mentioned above, you'll be able to ask more things the more skills you have, like "Alexa, ask Uber to request a ride."

Over time, Alexa will get better at recognising your voice, but you can also help her along by doing some voice training sessions. You'll find voice training under Settings in the app, and you can use it to help Alexa get a better idea of the way you talk, meaning she'll be better at picking our words and phrases. Remember, when doing voice training, try to recreate as natural a situation as possible, which means keeping the Echo where it would normally be placed, and trying to read out the practice sentences as you would if you weren't reading them off a screen.

Games and easter eggs

The Echo isn't all about making your life easier, there's fun to be had too. Among the downloadable skills are some games including Bingo, Tic Tac Toe and even Blackjack. But our favourite things is the number of easter eggs: there are a bunch of secret commands that will provoke a funny response from Alexa.

For example, you can ask "Alexa, who lives in a pineapple under the sea?" or "Alexa, what is love?" or even say "Alexa, I am your father".

Also, try Asking Alexa who shot first...

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