Data Doctors: How to make the most of your Amazon Echo

FILE – In this May 9, 2018, file photo a second generation Echo that controls the blinds as well as televisions and lighting at an Amazon Experience Centers model home in Dallas, Texas. (Nathan Hunsinger/The Dallas Morning News via AP, File)

Q: I just got the Amazon Echo and want to learn what it can do. Any tips?

Smart speakers from Amazon, Google and Apple have been hugely popular over the past couple of years, with estimates that over 87 million adults are using them.

Amazon created the category with the Echo and they continue to be the most popular by far. For clarity, “Echo” is the name of the device and “Alexa” is the voice-controlled assistant technology integrated into the device.

Through Alexa, you can use voice commands to do web searches, get a weather report, listen to news and control your smart devices, which is just the beginning of what smart speakers can do.

Getting started

In order to get the device connected to your wireless network, you need to download the Amazon Alexa app to your smartphone or tablet. The app is where you can really extend the capabilities and functionality of the device, and manage who can do what with it.

If you have multiple users or Amazon accounts in your home, here’s a guide to setting things up.

Privacy settings

As you can imagine, this device is capable of gathering lots of information about you and your household, so it’s important to review and configure the privacy settings.

Everything from managing your voice command and smart home device history, to how your Alexa data is used and retained, can be done with this guide.

Alexa skills

Think of “skills” as apps for your smart speaker that allow you to customize what it can do, much like apps determine what our smartphones can do.

There are over 100,000 skills you can add to your device that includes controlling your lights and thermostat, playing music from a specific streaming service, news from your favorite sources and even control your robot vacuum cleaner.

If you have a newer car with Connected Car Alexa integration, you can lock and unlock the doors, start or stop the engine, and ask how much fuel you have left.

You can learn about some of the more popular skills at sites such as Tom’s Guide and The Ambient.

Helpful integrations

A couple of the integrations I use the most include connecting it to my calendar, which is done through the Settings menu in the Alexa app, and adding grocery items to my AnyList app. This allows me to start my morning with “Alexa, what’s my calendar today,” or “Alexa, add eggs to the shared grocery list.”

Voice purchasing controls

Voice purchasing can be easily controlled through the app by going to Settings/Account Settings/Voice Purchasing. You can turn it off completely, require a four-digit voice code, and use the Parental Control to determine what your kids can do.

Voice commands

The real power of a smart speaker is in voice commands — learning what’s possible is the key to really leveraging the device. The folks at Cnet have been compiling a list of every Alexa command you can use, which they update as new commands are added.

Ken Colburn is founder and CEO of Data Doctors Computer Services. Ask any tech question on Facebook or Twitter.

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