How to get the best use out of your Alexa

This article is republished with permission from Wonder Tools, a newsletter that helps you discover the most useful sites and apps. Subscribe here.

Last year Amazon and Google sold 73 million smart speakers. Since Amazon introduced Alexa in 2014, competitors have emerged, including Apple and Google. Even as big models with glossy screens have emerged, I still prefer the smallest, screenless models. The minis take up less space, look better, offer the same features, and cost less. Alexa’s Echo Dot sells for $30 or less when on sale, with no subscription cost. Google’s Nest Mini costs the same on sale. A Google device sits in my kitchen and an Amazon Echo Dot in my office. Read on for how I use them.


Set a timer for pasta, for your morning routine on busy weekdays, or for anything else. I like keeping my phone in another room, to avoid distraction, so it’s nice being able to just say “Hey Google, set a timer for 5 minutes.” You can also use your voice to control smart home devices like lights or a TV.


When I get home late and haven’t seen the news, I sometimes ask for a quick news summary to catch up. It’s easy to customize for the outlets and topics you prefer. You can get world headlines from the BBC, domestic news from NPR, sports from ESPN — or whatever others suit you.  


When I’m washing dishes, I’ll sometimes say “Hey Google, play the Planet Money podcast” or whatever else I feel like listening to, like one of these superb shows. It’s nice to just start listening and not to have to fiddle with a podcast app or put on headphones. 


When we’re having weekday family breakfasts, we like listening to our local classical music station, New York City’s WQXR and its terrific morning DJ, Jeff Spurgeon. (Yes, classical DJs have fans, too). We used to have a radio in the kitchen, but a smart speaker can serve up any radio station you want. We no longer have to fiddle with a radio antenna for good reception. 


When you’re deciding on umbrellas and jackets, ask for a local weather forecast. Or if you’re traveling somewhere, ask for the weather or traffic at your destination.


When we’re stumped about what a sparklemuffin is during a dinner discussion or wonder when Isaac Asimov published Foundation (1951) we can get a quick answer without having to pull out screens.

Poetry and jokes

When you want to take a break with a quick riddle, joke or poem, a smart speaker can immediately oblige. The jokes tend toward the juvenile, but sometimes the badness of the jokes is funny. And listening to a random poem can provide a welcome pause on a busy day. 


I was surprised to discover how many games smart speakers can play. During the pandemic my daughters, wife and I tried trivia and sound-guessing games. There are even choose-your-own adventure-style games, where you have to pick where to go or what action to take.

A few Alexa games to try: Twenty Questions, Song Quiz, Common Knowledge. Or try Comfort My Dog or Calm My Cat. “Listening to this music will help your dog (or cat) feel more relaxed and calm,” the app makers say. Thousands of strong reviews concur. I don’t have a pet, so I haven’t tried either.

Echo Buttons let you buzz in to play game-show style, though they’re apparently now unavailable. I’ve used them to play trivia games with students.

Google’s Nest Mini vs Amazon’s Echo Dot

Google Advantages:

  • Smarter, more reliable answers to questions, from trivia queries to how-tos.
  • Better range of music. Google’s smart speaker allows me to listen to the full YouTube Music library, which Alexa doesn’t allow. You can customize either smart speaker to play music from Spotify or Pandora.
  • Has a clear switch to turn off the microphone.

Amazon Advantages:

  • Simple, amusing games are part of an extensive collection of Alexa “Skills.”
  • You can create custom apps easily with templates called Alexa Skill Blueprints. These are for you or your family only, not for public use. When my daughters were little, we had fun customizing a fairy tale with their names, and making up questions for our own quiz game.

Drawbacks and concerns

Privacy is a significant consideration when you have a device listening for your voice and storing recordings. Read tech publication MakeUseOf’s analysis of privacy questions about Alexa for more on this, and the Ambient’s piece on what smart speaker makers do with your data. Unplug a smart speaker to disable it. Or if the idea of your voice being recorded troubles you, just avoid smart speakers entirely.

If you already have an Alexa and want to delete past recordings of your voice commands you can open the Alexa app on your phone and choose Settings > Alexa Privacy > Review Voice History. Then navigate to All History and select > Delete All My Recordings.

If you have people in your house who find it fun to order things online, you can disable purchasing so that kids or pranksters can’t shop through your Alexa device.

This article is republished with permission from Wonder Tools, a newsletter that helps you discover the most useful sites and apps. Subscribe here.

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