Reader Question: Things To Do with an Alexa

Today we have this from Phancymama:

We got an Alexa and a dot for Christmas, and I would love a post on this where I could read lots of comments from other people! I also find myself wishing for Alexa in the car. And I feel like my feelings run from “incredibly useful” to “I forget it’s there” and I have the feeling I’m missing some of the tricks and tips. (For instance I ask about the weather but not the news!)


I have a first-generation Echo, but it looks like those are only being sold refurbished and the second-generation Echo is the current thing. I also have a second-generation Dot. Here is what I use my Alexa Echo/Dot for:

1. Every single morning, I ask it for the news (“Alexa, what’s the news?”). I had to set up what news source I wanted (I do set-up stuff on (I just type in and it adds the other stuff automatically), but there is an Alexa app that lets you do it too and makes more sense if you use the Alexa for lists; I started to install the app long ago, but I seem to remember feeling uncomfortable at the time with the permissions/access it wanted), and I chose NPR. You can also set up more than one source, so that it will go through them one after another, but NPR is about exactly the amount of news I want in the morning, delivered in exactly the right tone of voice.

2. Songs! So many songs! “Alexa, play On Melancholy Hill,” “Alexa, play Magic by The Cars,” “Alexa, play Dancer in a Daydream,” “Alexa, play Fever by Peggy Lee.” Sometimes she needs title and artist, sometimes just title: there’s more than one song called Magic; there’s more than one artist who sings Fever. There is a rotating list of songs she’ll say she can only play a sample of, and that’s annoying, so for Christmas I asked for and received a subscription to Amazon Music Unlimited, the $3.99/month version that gives access on just one device. Paul thought this was silly and wanted to get the $7.99/month plan that would cover both devices, but even the $3.99/month adds up, and I wanted to try it out for awhile in a way that would let me compare and see if it gave me enough more songs to be worth it. So far I really like it: when I came home from The Greatest Showman and wanted the soundtrack, the Echo played it for me right away; when I was folding laundry later and asked the Dot for the same thing, it said I would need Amazon Music Unlimited for that.

2a. Asking what song is playing. I LOVE this. I say, “Alexa, what is this?” and she says “This is Let the Games Begin, by AJR,” or whatever.

2b. Asking for a radio station. I have a radio in the kitchen, but it only gets two stations I like. So I’ll ask Alexa to play a different station. I’ve asked her to play Rob’s college radio station, which was fun. It can be a little tricky to get the one I want, because she can play practically anything, so it’s best if you know the call letters.

2c. Asking her to play songs by a certain artist. I’ll say, “Alexa, play songs by AJR,” and she’ll shuffle songs by AJR.

2d. Asking her to make an assorted playlist based on a certain artist. I’ll say, “Alexa, play Peter Cetera radio,” and she’ll play an assortment of songs: some Peter Cetera, some of a similar style, some from that time period, and some weird choices that don’t make any sense. If she plays a song I don’t like, I say “Alexa, thumbs down” and she puts it on a don’t-play list. If she’s playing a song I don’t want to forbid but neither do I want to hear it right now, I say, “Alexa, skip this one” or “Alexa, next.”

2e. Asking for a song I don’t know the title/artist of. “Alexa, play the song that goes ‘Every time I see you falling’.”

2f. Asking for a type of music. “Alexa, play ’80s hits,” “Alexa, play ’90s alternative rock,” “Alexa, play classical music,” “Alexa, play Christmas music.” I’ve had mixed success with this: sometimes I get exactly what I want, but sometimes she’ll play, like, a bunch of music that may be from the ’80s but nothing I recognize, or she’ll get weirdly overly-specific and say “Playing Christmas Country Down Home Favorites” or “Playing music by Bach.” No, no: I wanted an ASSORTMENT of Christmas/classical.

3. Timer/alarm. Mostly I’d rather just set a regular old timer. But it’s handy to have the Alexa when I’m out of timers (the kids walk off with them, or all the timers are in use) or if I’m doing something that makes it inconvenient, like washing dishes. She can do a timer (“Alexa, set a timer for eight minutes”) or an alarm (“Alexa, set an alarm for 1:30”).

4. General information. Sometimes I hear a news story that I don’t quite understand because I didn’t pay attention in American Government class or whatever, or sometimes a kid will ask me a question I don’t know the answer to, or Paul needs to know YET AGAIN how many tablespoons are in a quarter-cup (IT’S FOUR, PAUL. It’s ALWAYS FOUR), so we ask Alexa. Sometimes she doesn’t know, or doesn’t understand the question.

5. Weather: “Alexa, what’s the weather?,” “Alexa, will it snow tomorrow?,” “Alexa, what’s the temperature outside?,” “Alexa, what will the weather be like on Saturday?”

6. “Alexa, teach me something new.” She’ll tell you something neat about dogs! or stars! or the crippling effects of a break-up!

7. “Alexa, tell me a joke.” (Mostly the kids do this one.)

8. Random number generator. If you tell her to roll a die, she’ll give you a number between one and six. Or you can ask her to roll a hundred dice. Or flip a coin. Or give you a random number between one and a hundred.


Phancymama and I would like to hear how you use your Alexa.

35 thoughts on “Reader Question: Things To Do with an Alexa

  1. Alice

    YESS I super duper love the timer function! I never use kitchen timers anymore – I love that with my hands dirty, full, still covered in raw meat, whatever, I can just say “Alexa, set a timer for 10 minutes” and BAM. You can do multiple timers at the same time, too, and name them – like, “Alexa, set a steak timer for 10 minutes” and then 5 minutes later, say “Alexa, set a squash timer for 25 minutes.” Then you can always also ask how much time is left on those timers (“Alexa, how much time is left on my timer / on my steak timer?”) to get an update, which I also use frequently to “check in” since there’s not a visual to glance at anymore.

    If you have a pandora account, DEFINITELY hook that up to alexa too, and you can do all the same super-fab music options Swistle already suggested, plus tap into any pandora stations you already have (especially if you’re already paying there!)

    Also you can play jeopardy with Alexa :) You have to enable that “skill” in the app, but once you do, then just ask her to play jeopardy. You still have to answer in the form of a question ;-)

  2. el-e-e

    Didn’t know that about multiple timers! How cool!

    My husband recently discovered this and likes to tease our cats: “Alexa, open up a box of cats.” or, “Alexa, what does a dog sound like?” Yes, he is a twelve-year-old at heart.

  3. Jesabes

    My kids love to play interactive games with Alexa – like The Wayne Investigation. You investigate the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents and try to solve the case. By now, they of course know exactly the right steps to take and yet they STILL like playing it. Both for the sound design/atmosphere and for the enjoyment of being right.

    1. Jesabes

      P.S. The Wayne Investigation is a skill you have to enable on the app/website before you can ask Alexa to play it.

      Also, my husband enabled our satellite radio (from the car) on Alexa, so we can listen to those stations in the house, too.

  4. Rachel

    Welp, this is embarrasing because it’s three of us in a 1200 square foot house, but we own….three. One Alexa and two dots.

    Dot One – lives in the child’s bedroom. He uses it to play music, set timers, and check the weather to know how to dress in the morning. It also functions as his alarm clock.

    Dot two – lives in the office (shared by child and father). I’m never in there so I’m not sure of its functionality, but I use it as an intercom to call him when he’s upstairs playing and I”m in the bedroom.

    Alexa – lives in our master bath, off our bedroom. Plays Pandora while I take a shower, plays me the news every morning, tells me the weather. I’m also mostly blind, so when I wake up in the morning, I say, ALEXA, what time is it. Functions as an intercom between kids room upstairs and office upstairs. He’ll call down in the morning, “MOM, where’s my shirt”

    A couple general notes.

    I don’t think Alexa is as good as Siri or Google for looking up internet facts. She says “I don’t know” a lot.

    I kinda want another one in our open kitchen/living room area for music. Don’t tell my husband.

    1. Phancymama

      My kids are begging for a dot of their own! How do you use it as an intercom? I’d love to do that but don’t know how.

      1. Rachel

        I just say, “call Ledgers room” which I assume isn’t helpful as your child is probably not named Ledger. I assume my husband connected them in the app?

  5. Natalie

    We just got a Google Mini and are still figuring it out. my husband linked it to his Pandora though, and my 4yo has figured out how to say “hey google play Moana radio”. One day I was scooping the kitty litter and I jokingly asked google why our cats pee so much and she started telling about feline kidney disease. Rude.

  6. Claire

    I’ve set my Alexa up as a phone. But we just discovered it actually worked. So for instance, this Christmas, I was out running errands and my son was home with my sister, and he was able to call me on the Alexa. Now he likes to call me on the Alexa anytime he’s home and I’m not.

    I love it for the timers. I also have it linked to my spotify account and play spotify through it. I also listen to podcasts on Overdrive through it.

    If you have an audible account or audible books or a prime account that gets you prime channels on audible, you can listen to them on Alexa.

    I think the best though is asking Alexa for the time. I wish Alexa could tell me the time everywhere.

  7. Ernie

    I feel like a old woman. I don’t have an Alexa. If I did, I would be so clueless about how to use it, I would feel really old. As far as music goes, I JUST within the last few months had my teenagers set up pandora on my phone, so I can listen to music when I run. I am really bad about knowing what music I like/who sings what/the name of songs I love, so I don’t know if Alexa could help me there. Oh, the kitchen timers sound great. My hands are always full or messy. Multiple kitchen timers? Stop it! Too much. Maybe next Christmas. Baby steps for out of touch me.

    1. Slim

      If it helps, the “other person who sings ‘Fever;” is Little Willie John.

      Actually, some other people sang it too, but he was first and Wikipedia discusses all of them at length, but not the guy who sang it first, and I am so IRRITATED by this.

          1. Swistle Post author

            If so, I have not yet found it. I really wanted that option at Christmastime, when I wanted to listen to Christmas music and she was playing about 75% Pentatonix. I like a little Pentatonix here and there, but not SO VERY MUCH PENTATONIX. I tried saying, “Alexa, play Christmas music but no Pentatonix” and she said, “Playing Christmas music by Pentatonix.”

    2. Swistle Post author

      We got the Alexa because Rob won it in a contest; I hadn’t wanted one, and I was very reluctant to use it. But I’d heard that it had been deliberately designed to be intuitive to use: that is, people were supposed to be able to use it right out of the box, without any training and without a list of options/codewords. So each time I wondered if it could do something, I tried asking intuitively: I just asked the way I might ask a personal assistant. “Alexa…[very tentative voice, really wondering:]…can you play Buzz 98.1 FM?” And then if she was playing the radio and I heard a song and wondered what it was, I’d ask, “Alexa….[really not knowing if she could do this or not]…can you tell me what song this is?” Same with, “Alexa, can you set an alarm for 1:30?”—I didn’t know if she could or not. People who are different temperament types than I am can bark “Alexa weather!” and she’ll answer them just the same as when I say “Alexa, can you tell me what the weather will be like tomorrow?”

      One thing I like about the Alexa is that it DOESN’T make me feel old: it’s designed for people who don’t know how to use it and aren’t particularly up-to-date with whatever technology it is the young people are using these days.

  8. MomQueenBee

    My cool techie son gave me three Google Minis for Christmas (kitchen, bedroom, tv room) and I love them although I only use them for NPR, weather, timers, and shopping list. Shopping lists are the best–when I use the last teaspoon of cumin I just hey-Google it onto my list and don’t have to find a pencil. Plus the list is with me the next time I’m in the store instead of being home on the refrigerator.

  9. Jen E

    I have a 1st generation Echo, the newest Echo Plus, and TWO of the Echo Spots. It’s almost shameful, but I love them.

    I use the Shopping List function all of the time. Just tell her to add an item to your shopping list and you’ve got a portable list ready to go within the Alexa app. No buying through Amazon required; it’s just a shopping list you can use in the store.

    I set reminders (slightly different from a timer or alarm insomuch as that you can name them) a lot.

    I use the Spot to video-call my nieces via their Spot.

    I ask Alexa to play podcasts for me.

    BUT the biggest and best thing for me is the home automation that is a side-effect of having the Echo Plus which has a built-in home hub. I bought a few wifi-enabled light bulbs and now I can tell Alexa to turn on/off lights in my house. You can name each light and then put them in groups. Example – I put the four lights in my living room in a group named ‘Living Room’. Either with my voice or within the app, I can turn on and off all four lights at once or one at a time by using each light’s name. it’s AWESOME.

    1. Jill

      You can also buy smart outlets for this same purpose and control them via Alexa or the app on your phone. I enjoy being upstairs and messing with my kids downstairs by turning the lights on/off more than I should.

  10. Maria

    I don’t have an Alexa or a dot. Are they funny, like Siri? I ask my iPhone things like “how much wood would a woodchuck chuck” and get answers like “don’t you have anything better to do?” Or the classic question of asking Siri what zero divided by zero is. If you haven’t, ask your phone!

    Does the Alexa understand very well? I think I speak clearly, but when I ask my phone to “call Sean” I sometimes get the answer that “Tall John” is not in my contacts…

    And last, can you program an Alexa like Siri? My iPhone is set to a British male voice and refers to me as Milady… which makes me smile and makes my husband think I watched too much Downton Abbey! Thanks for any and all answers. I’m interested in maybe getting a device, but then I feel mildly creeped out at all the information that the device will collect.

    1. Swistle Post author

      Yes, the Alexa has some funny answers. She understands fairly well, but it’s fairly common to get a misunderstanding/mis-answer. Sometimes it helps to change the emphasis: a friend told me to say “in EX-cess” instead of “in-ex-SESS” to get Alexa to hear “INXS,” and I found Alexa didn’t understand me asking for the song “Tightrope” until I said it like it was the two words “tight rope” (instead of TIGHT-rope). I don’t know if the Alexa can be programmed; as far as I know, she only has one voice option.

  11. SüßwasserLeah

    We have 3 Echo Dots. Kitchen, younger 2 kids’ room, and master bedroom. It’s a speaker for your phone or computer, so if you have music or podcasts going on your phone, you can throw it to the echo and have the phone plugged in in another room. The kids use theirs the most because they have to listen to an audiobook while going to sleep every night and they also start it up again when they wake up in the middle of the night to help them go back to sleep. They ask it for specific music and have dance parties. I use the kitchen one the most for timers and for my grocery list. It helps so much to just say “alexa add cheese to the shopping list” instead of trying to find paper, a pen, my purse, and not lose any of that after I’ve written it down. I love the phone idea – i’m going to use that so when I leave my kids home for a bit while I run an errand they can get ahold of me. My kitchen one’s speaker is messed up because SOMEONE spilled water on the one in the kids’ room and so it can reply it just sounds really tinny and isn’t good as a speaker – but since I use it mostly for timers and lists it’s no biggie.

  12. SIL Anna

    -Open The Magic Door If you ask Alexa to “open the magic door” she will play a long choose-your-own adventure type story. My kids really like it.

    -Play Jeopardy My husband and I like this one. It’s fun.

    -Alexa, I Want To Learn Something If you say that, she’ll just tell you cool facts about stuff.

    -Alexa, What a Substitute For ____ At least, I’m pretty sure that’s how I phrased it! Once I was making a recipe that required lemon juice, and I realized we were out of lemons. I asked her what a substitute was, and she told me vinegar. It was great.

    I also love the hands-free timers and the news.

  13. Eli

    Our Google mini is connected to the thermostat, so I can tell it to raise or lower the temperature in the house. We have some of the lightbulbs, too. And my kids love to call their grandparents through it, which is convenient when I don’t want them touching my phone.

  14. Alexicographer

    I give Alexa a ho-hum rating — she is useful, but not fabulous. Ours is a dot and worth the $30 I paid for it (sale price) but I would say not more. That said, we do now have 2 because the kid wanted one for Christmas and has it in his room. He appreciates the music function a lot more than we do (which is fine — I mean, we like it fine, but he listens to music much more). We do have a ($4/month?) subscription that allows us to play — what? Amazon’s entire collection? I like that I can access obscure folk singers from my parents’ collection that I remember from childhood but no longer have handy, so that’s nice, as was playing Christmas music in season, though I think I had to tell her to play “Christmas hymns” (?) to avoid “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree.” Also, now that we have 2 we can use the one to “call” the other, like an in-house intercom … our house is not big, but when our son has his door closed so he can shoot hoops into the basket hanging on the back of his bedroom door, and has music playing, to get his attention the choices are (a) shriek ineffectively; (b) walk down the hall, knock, and open his door — feasible, but annoying; and (c) summon him via Alexa. C wins.

    How does one use her to play podcasts? I haven’t really joined the podcast world but probably should…

    1. Jill

      I was trying to figure that out and finally just took a chance and said “Alexa play [name of podcast]” and then the latest episode started playing so maybe just try that?

  15. Phancymama

    Yay! I’m so excited so see the responses! I should try the website, for me the app is verrrrrrrry slow. Thanks!

  16. Jill

    We have two (Echo-kitchen and Dot-bedroom). The kitchen Alexa is playing music 90% of the time. We use it for timers, reminders, shopping lists, and to listen to NPR mostly. The Dot plays white noise sounds at night and that’s kind of nice actually. “Alexa, tell sleep sounds to play ocean/rain/thunderstorm etc.” The Dot has a pretty crap speaker so to use it for anything else we hook it to a bluetooth speaker so you can actually enjoy the music or whatever.
    The kids love to ask for jokes or random questions or to make fart noises or whatever. It also notifies us when our Amazon orders are about to be delivered and sometimes we will use it to call family or leave a message for them. Apparently there is a “Drop In” function that lets your family/friends just all of a sudden listen in on your house/speak to you without you answering first. Once my husband figured that out he quickly disabled that ability on ours b/c that’s creepyAF.
    My husband does have it set up to turn on/off lights and change the temperature but I would much rather flip a switch than ask Alexa to do it so that’s a point of contention b/c when I turn the light of and he asks Alexa to turn the light on then it doesn’t work and he gets all huffy. So maybe get on the same page with other family members before investing all the $$ it takes for those smart home features. Heh.

  17. Eli

    Also! Our Google mini is connected to Chromecast, and I can tell it to play things on the TV, without having to try to remember which buttons on the remote control turn on the right combination of things to watch a Netflix movie or a YouTube video. When I want to pause, I tell Google to pause. And when I ready to resume, I say, ok Google, play, and it picks right back up.

  18. Julia

    I’m a total Luddite — I don’t even have a smartphone — but I wonder: has anyone made something that’d satisfy my futuristic wish for the house: a button like on the driver’s-side door of the car that will open or shut ALL of the windows? Of course this couldn’t possibly work in conjunction with the window fans, short of an actual android robot (would it be named Alexis?)…. I’ve seen the wifi and Bluetooth lightbulbs and outlets and whatnot in the home improvement store. Are there any motorized/automated house windows out there yet?

    And specific to the actual topic at hand: does Alexa require ownership and use of a smartphone, or can it do everything through the computer instead? (I failed Phone in general, and I have an irrational hatred of smartphone interfaces: my family has learned not to ask me to do anything with theirs, whether Android or Apple, because I get to the point of “so frustrated I want to destroy the thing” within minutes.)

    Oh, and is Alexa strictly English only? I write my grocery list mostly in Hungarian…


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