Amazon Echo: 18 Best New Features
The Newest Features of Amazon Echo (aka Alexa)
What can the Amazon Echo do for you?
The Echo is getting smarter and more powerful every week, with incredible features that you won't believe. Amazon has put everything into this surprise hit and have recently expanded its ecosystem with the Echo Dot , Amazon Tap, Echo Spot, and Echo Show. However it's Alexa, the brains behind the machine, that powers your music, smart home, alarms/timers, and so much more.
So strap in and discover its 18 best new features.
18. Kid Friendly FreeTime for Alexa
Alexa is about to become a lot more kid friendly with FreeTime integration.
FreeTime is another name for Amazon's parental controls, and it's about to make Alexa a lot safer for children. With FreeTime, parents can set time limits on Alexa use, disable the ability to voice shop and listen to news, and completely change the voice assistant's personality.
Once enabled in your app's settings, your kids can safely interact with Alexa while she gives child friendly responses to their questions. In fact she'll be so friendly that she may even give your kids a lesson in politeness and manners.
FreeTime promises not to collect personal data from their users or share audio recordings with developers.
How to set up?
You can set up FreeTime in the Alexa app on specific Echo devices. Once you set it up, Alexa will assume anyone speaking to her is a child (age 5-12). From there all responses will be handled in a clean, child appropriate format where she'll be able to maneuver even the trickiest of questions like "where babies come from?".
What parental controls will be available?
FreeTime won't allow the use of third-party skills, smart home control (for now), asking for news updates, and voice shopping. Explicit music lyrics will also be censored.
For $3 a month you can get FreeTime Unlimited, which curates Alexa skills, songs, playlists, games, and gives children access to 300 audio books designed for them. You'll even have the option to enable kid friendly custom alarms from characters like SpongeBob.
Currently FreeTime will only be available for the Echo, Echo Plus, and Echo Dot but expect other devices to get it soon.
Echo Dot Kids Edition
On May 9, parents can order the Echo Dot kids edition for $79.99 that includes one of three different colored cases, a two-year return guarantee, and a year's worth of FreeTime Unlimited.
It's the perfect bundle for your increasingly tech literate children.
17. Voice Calling & Messaging
One of the biggest features recently introduced is handsfree calling and texting on most Amazon Echo products or in the Alexa app. You can place free calls to any landline or mobile number in the US, Mexico, and Canada.
If you have the touchscreen Echo Show, then you can even place video calls similar to Skype or Facetime with the ability to block numbers whom you don't want to talk to.
There's even a drop-in feature that allows you to access an Echo device either within your home or outside the house using the Alexa app. The Echo Show can pair with your security cameras to view a live feed inside your home/room.
Another cool add-on is the one-way intercom feature where you can tell Alexa to broadcast a personal message to all Echo devices in your home. For example if you say "Alexa, tell everyone dinner is ready", she'll send that voice memo to all connected Echos inside the house. Use the words tell or broadcast for the message to get across.
When placing or receiving calls the light ring around the Echo will turn green, and it'll turn yellow when you have a voice or text message waiting to be answered. These new colors will also work for shopping and skills notifications once enabled.
Setup for voice calling & messaging is easy; all you need is to grant Alexa access to your contact list via the app.
Expect to see even more with this revolutionary new feature in the coming months.
Update: The new Echo Connect uses your landline phone to be able to make and take calls from any number including 911 and international calls (charges may apply) using your home phone number.
You can sync all contacts through the Alexa app, plug the Connect into your home phone jack, and use all compatible Echo devices to make/place calls.
You can now send text messages (SMS) to any mobile phone with your Echo device even if the recipient doesn't own one.
However you can't send group messages of any messages containing images/emojis (MMS). You also won't be notified via Alexa if you get a reply back.
You must enable this feature in your Alexa app in your contact/drop-in settings and give your phone permission to allow this feature. Every text message you send with Alexa will include a link to the voice message version of the SMS.
16. Multi-Room Audio
One of the most requested Echo features has arrived in the form of multi-room support where you can group several Echo speakers to play music in your home.
You can even tell Alexa which device you want to use to play a song whether it be your living room's Echo Dot or your bedroom's Amazon Echo.
To group speakers together you must go to the settings in your Alexa app, select Multi-Room Music, and choose which speakers you'd like to group together.
When activating your group, any streaming audio or active Bluetooth connections will cease (shown in settings).
The grouping feature can also make commands a lot more simpler. For example, you can add an Echo product into a light group (designated by room) and say, "Alexa, turn on/off the lights", without having to say which Echo you're referring to.
So with multi-room support, the Echo has finally captured a key feature that the Google Home controlled for months and it's sure to bring customers back to try it out for themselves.
15. Spotify Premium
If you're a Spotify premium member, then you can finally play your favorite songs and playlists on the Echo.
The device's integration with Spotify is a major plus for this global music streaming platform. It also bodes well for Amazon's expansion of Alexa beyond the United States, and it could help broaden the language capabilities of the Echo beyond English because Spotify has gone international.
Paying for premium may seem steep for some but now there's one more reason to make that investment. New Spotify premium users get a free 30 day trial, and if you already have your Amazon Echo, then why not give it a whirl?
Update: There are other premium options available if you have an account or a paid subscription for SiriusXM and Deezer. Just enable each skill and link up your account to it.
14. Echo Skills in Alexa App
Although there are 30,000+ skills in the Amazon Alexa app (see 20 Best Amazon Echo Skills in the Alexa App), many aren't particularly jaw-dropping or worthwhile. But there are new additions that really stand out, including Domino's Pizza, Fitbit, and Uber.
They even have a skill called AnyPod that can play your favorite podcasts.
But don't fret if those skills don't apply because there are plenty of other great apps, like word games, trivia, math puzzles, noise apps (including fart sounds), and many more with dozens of new additions every week, so be on the lookout for new favorites.
Enable Skills via Voice
Any Alexa skill, including smart home, can be enabled via voice command: "Alexa, enable Uber."
This makes adding new skills much easier than having to access the Amazon Alexa app and manually search and add. For best results, try asking Alexa for the newest and most popular skills available, and then enable the ones that appeal to you.
Also be on the lookout for deeper skill integration as more and more skills will be automatically recommended to help answer your queries.
Echo users now have the ability to easily customize and create their own skills with Alexa Blueprints.
To get started, you'll need to go to the blueprints website (highlighted above), pick a template you'd like to use (custom Q&A, quiz, fairy tale, etc.), and then fill in the blanks. You can add unique sound effects, invocation phrases, and other perks to spruce up your skill/s.
Any skill you create will only be tied to your amazon account and can't be publicly seen, so feel free to create your own set of in-jokes and personal reminders. If you'd like you can share your new creations with friends and family by sending them a link to your skill. All they have to do then is enable it, and the skill will work on their devices.
With Blueprints, you don't have to be a coder or developer to create new skills. All you need to do is follow a simple guide and everything else will be done for you.
13. Pandora and Prime Music
The Echo was built as a Bluetooth speaker first, so it's not surprising that's where it really shines. Luckily there are numerous options, both premium and free, for every song lover.
If you don't want to opt into paying for Spotify premium each month, then there are free music stations available. Pandora, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn radio all provide free music.
Amazon Prime members get a massive musical collection included with their account (annual $99 fee) along with free two-day shipping, photo storage, and Prime video.
You also have the option to subscribe to Amazon Music to access millions of new songs and playlists for only $3.99 a month on a single Dot, Echo, or Tap device. To enable this subscription, you have to ask Alexa to try Amazon Music Unlimited.
New users will get a free 30-day trial to try the platform.
12. Audio Books from Audible
Audible is excellent when you want to lie down, relax, and fall asleep listening to your favorite audio book. The Echo allows you to do just that with additional options including volume (playback) control and chapter selection.
But that's not all... Kindle books were recently integrated into its system, so now you can have Alexa read aloud your favorite Kindle books. It's not quite as smooth/expressive as an Audible narrator, but it gets the job done. Perhaps it'll gain more personality over time.
11. Multiple Timers and Alarms
Alexa is the perfect digital assistant for the kitchen, bedroom, or both. Indeed people have purchased multiple Echos for this functionality.
One of the first features this device was enabled with were timers and alarms, which have expanded with multiple alarms/timers, customized alarm sets (including celebrity voices), and repeating alarms. Now you can set alarms that repeat either daily, on certain weekdays, or even one for weekends and another for weekdays.
You can also assign names to your timers ("Alexa, set chicken timer for 10 minutes"), which comes in handy when preparing meals.
Finally you can personalize alarms with music from Spotify, Amazon Music, and more. You can even stream radio channels from iHeartRadio and TuneIn. The options can range from a specific song to a relaxing theme; the choice is yours.
Isn't it great how a few simple features can replace other gadgets that only do one thing? Simplicity is beautiful that way.
10. Control Your Smart Home
The Amazon Echo was created to unite all smart home devices! Integrated into Echo are smart home products including:
- Nest, Ecobee, and Sensi (thermostats)
- Lutron (Caséta wireless lights)
- Philips Hue and Wemo
- SmartThings and Insteon
- TP-LINK Kasa
- Haiku Home (fans and lights)
- Fire TV
All these smart home products are now labeled under the skill tab as "smart home skills," allowing for easier management, ability to see user reviews, and more.
If those aren't enough, then there are other smart home products connected via third party skills within the Alexa app. Echo could turn on/off your lights (or dim them), control switches for things like personal heaters, fans, coffee makers, smart thermostat's settings/temperature or even your Amazon Fire TV.
You can now create daily routines via the app where saying a command like, "Alexa, good morning", will trigger your smart home gadgets and have things like the news, weather & traffic be given to you. You can also touch and drag commands to place them in whichever order you want.
You'll be able to create more routines in the coming weeks as well as have more Alexa integration into other platforms including your car.
Update: New routines have been added. You can finally add a music track or podcast from a premium source like Spotify as well as set the volume level for your audio pick. Additionally you can have Alexa say a personal phrase like "good night" or "good morning" when the routine is initiated.
Control Your TV Entertainment System
TV voice control is becoming more and more accessible with platforms that now include Fire TV, Fios, Optic, and Dish.
Start by enabling the desired skill and pair your account/s to each. For Fios, you can actually control your set-top boxes when you pair it with an Alexa device.
For more detailed information on how to set-up and enable each skill, please go to the Alexa app, pull up the main menu, and tap the "Music, Video, & Books" option.
You can manage all of your TV/Video, Music, and Book listings as well as additional speaker add-ins like Sonos from there. Be aware that you'll need compatible devices and may need to update your platforms software before linking with Alexa.
Once your platform is connected, you can change channels/volume, rewind & fast-forward, pause, choose which show you'd like to watch, and ask for general movies or TV shows based on actors or actresses involved.
If you're new to this, I'd recommend purchasing a Amazon Fire Stick because it's the easiest and most affordable option (under $50). With a Fire Stick you'll have access to numerous apps and simple video playback controls.
To start just ask Alexa to find your device or link it up manually to start watching your favorites today.
Amazon Fire TV Cube
This brand new Alexa device is a mix between an Echo Dot, a universal remote, and Amazon's 4K Fire TV.
It'll control AV devices like your soundbar and cable box as well as your regular TV. This cube shaped device has 8 front facing speakers with IR blasting capabilities.
It's an excellent substitute for a Fire TV/stick and an Echo Dot, and since Alexa is built into the device, it can do almost anything your regular Echo can except calling, texting, multi-room audio, and Bluetooth syncing.
With the Fire TV Cube you now have a voice powered remote for almost everything including your internet based platforms (Netflix, Amazon Video). However keep in mind that it won't work with every device (DVR, other universal remotes), so don't throw away your remotes just yet.
Amazon's Fire TV Cube is a great device for those who have never owned an Echo or Fire TV, and you can order one now for $119.99.
9. Local News/Traffic Updates
Alexa delivers important daily news updates everyday, which is excellent when you need your morning info fix without extra hassle.
You can voice enable a variety of news outlets, including NPR, BBC, Discovery, The Washington Post, and CNN. If that's not enough, then there are several news skills you can access, including NBC and AOL. There are even sports news from ESPN Radio and Fox Sports who missed out on their favorite games and headlines sports stories.
If you're interested in local news, then there are over a dozen metropolitan stations you can enable in your flash briefing settings such as NBC 4 New York, NBC4 Southern California, NBC 5 Chicago, and more.
Unfortunately traffic information is limited to a set destination with the options to include stops in between, but I don't recommend using it outside your daily work route.
There are a few traffic skills available, but they're either region specific or don't provide enough detail for your route/s.
8. Sports Updates
If you don't want to wait for a news update about your favorite team, then you have the option to aggregate your favorite teams in a customized sports update.
This is great if you want to know quick win/lose outcomes as well as who they played against, when they'll play next, who there next opponent will be, and what time the game will begin. Sports information is second nature to the Echo, and it'll always have the most up-to-the-minute knowledge.
You could even get live scores if you're unable to watch as well as personal stats on any player, so there's never anything to miss.
7. Weather Forecast
I bet this was one of the first features produced for Echo after music, and it's easy to see why. The weather is often the first thing we want to know when waking up in the morning, and this feature provides the current weather and a 7-day forecast.
All it takes is setting up your location through the Alexa app and you're good to go. It's a handy little tool that doesn't require a phone, a tablet, or TV. I mean sure if you want to know every detail then maybe a cellphone will help, but most people only care about the basics and Alexa is here to help.
Additionally if you have an Echo Show or Echo Spot you can view the weather report right on the screen.
6. Order and Track Amazon Purchases
There are many benefits to being an Amazon Prime member but with Echo those perks get even better. As stated, Prime members get a minimum free two-day shipping, free music, cloud storage, and free videos/movies, but with Echo they can also order, re-order, and track Amazon packages.
- Alexa can tell you when an order was placed and when it's expected to arrive.
- It can also order any Prime eligible product.
- Alexa can tell you more about your purchase, send you shopping notifications, and even send a picture of the product to your app for future purchases
For purchases, you even have the ability to add a pin number that Alexa will ask prior to re-ordering, which creates a much-needed layer of security. Add-on items or non-prime items can't be ordered but Alexa can add them and any other item to your Amazon shopping cart or via the app.
If you enable shopping notifications under the settings tab, then you can receive delivery and re-order notifications (for previously purchased items) and even the specific product names that were ordered.
Notifications will be set off by a beep and a yellow ring on your Alexa devices.
5. To-Do and Shopping Lists
It's really nice to be able to add something you need to purchase or do via voice. The Echo can even read your lists if you want to know what was added. You can also use the IFTTT for Amazon app to enable a trigger that'll send/print your shopping list.
There are also various list apps you can connect to including Any.do, AnyList, Cozi Lists, Picniic, and Todoist.
The one issue I have with this is the inability to clear an item or entire list via a voice command.
You have to do that manually by going on the Alexa app, however; you can create multiple, customized lists instead of putting everything into one (food, clothes, to-do, work tasks, etc.)
4. Movie/Movie Theater Info
This nifty feature allows you to plan a Friday night at the movies through a straightforward command. Alexa can tell you what movies are playing nearby, movie information, and times for theaters close to you. As long as your location is set, then the Echo should have no issues giving you accurate movie news.
Once you know which movie you want, feel free to ask Alexa more about it (movie reviews, ratings, actors).
You can even get movie times for an impending date helping you plan ahead. People love going to the movies and now it's even easier.
3. Google Calendar
Once you link your Google calendar, then you'll truly have a welcome apprentice. You can have Alexa add and/or say your events, schedule, forthcoming plans, and more. It's an essential business tool that expands the usefulness of the Echo.
You can even change events around if need be, and Alexa will tell you if two or more events conflict with one another.
If Google isn't your go-to calendar, then you can also link your Microsoft Outlook.com, Office 365 or Apple iCloud calendars.
Your calendars and lists are tied to your specific voice, so if there are multiple profiles, Alexa will only pull up the information connected to you. This also works with things like calling & messaging.
2. 360* Bluetooth Speaker
I'm sorry Siri, Cortana, and Google Now, but Amazon Echo's Alexa completely outshines your voice recognition capabilities.
I've always had problems communicating with the digital assistants above but rarely with Alexa. I give credit to the design of the Echo speaker for its brilliant hardware/software that's able to pick things up from any direction through its "seven internal microphones." In my Amazon Echo review, I describe how powerful the speaker and voice tool is. It's far-field voice range is a solid 10-15 ft and doesn't disappoint.
But if you want a more powerful speaker that doesn't have Bluetooth, then you can connect your existing Echo to them via an aux port (2nd generation Echo products only) for a better audio experience.
Also you can train Alexa to be voice-specific if there are multiple users in your household. That means if you tell her to call someone or order something, she'll recognize the person who made those commands and carry them out accordingly.
However I'm not going to give it 100% because Alexa doesn't always pick up what you say, but considering the market, this technology destroys the competition.
1. Bing Search Engine
In the end, the Amazon Echo has been categorized as a speaker with Siri like capabilities. To me, that's an unfair analysis because there's much more this device can do that Siri cannot.
The Echo provides Wikipedia entries, quick math calculations, conversions, measurements, spelling corrections, and other intelligent answers similar to Apple's assistant, but it's still criticized for not being as brilliant as other voice assistants.
Alexa is not powered by the Google search engine and hasn't been around as long as Siri or Google Now, but I have a feeling it'll catch up quickly. If Amazon continues to up the ante, integrate more skills, continuously provide updates, and go all in, then it'll be the other assistants that'll fall well behind.
Update: Alexa devices now have a Follow-Up Mode that's disabled by default. With this mode, Alexa will be activated for about five seconds after you issue a command. This allows you to place additional requests without having to say the wake word over and over again.
To enable go to your settings tab and click on an Alexa device. Scroll down to see Follow-Up Mode and click to enable it. Currently it's only available for the US and it's device specific. It also won't work if audio is playing, if you're on a call, or if the speech detected was background noise.
This mode should make issuing multiple commands more intuitive especially if it involves smart devices, and it makes Alexa more competitive with the Google Assistant.