So, You Got an Amazon Echo for Christmas… Now What?

One of the hottest Christmas gifts this holiday season was the Amazon Echo. Thousands of people tore the wrapping paper off gifts from loved ones — and Santa — this morning to reveal either the less expensive but just as powerful talking hockey puck that is the Echo Dot or the full-fledged, much louder original Amazon Echo. A good portion of these people have probably already run through the very basic set-up and are now wondering “what the hell can this thing do?” There’s a good chance this question has brought you to this very article, and if that’s the case I’m here to say you’ve come to the right place. Don’t worry, Nerd Much has you covered; I’m going to run through some of the must-have skills you should enable on your Amazon Echo before sitting down to stuff your face and argue politics with that lovable family of yours.amazon-skills

The first thing you should know is that “skills” are like voice-controlled apps for the Echo, and they are very easy to add. In fact, you don’t even need to use the app; you can if you like, or you can just say “Alexa, enable [skill name].” You don’t even need to add any skills if you don’t want to — the Echo is pretty powerful right out of the box — but each one you enable makes your new virtual assistant, Alexa, way smarter and more capable. There are skills for organizing your schedule, learning new things, playing audio games, operating smart home products, listening to the news, and even ordering a pizza from Domino’s. But where do you start?

Well, that’s up to you. There’s a “featured skills” list in the Alexa app that serves as a nice introduction, but if you’re using your Echo for the first time then I would visit the “things to try” portion of the app. After that, you should know the skill portion of the Alexa app is kind of a mess right now and it’s not easy to find skills unless they’re featured. This is where Nerd Much comes in. I’m going to break down, category by category, some of the best skills to get you started with your brand new Amazon Echo.

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Note about Skill Choices: I tried to mostly shy away from the biggest, most popular skills and ones from large companies. Those are all easy to find — I want to introduce you to some you might otherwise never find and enable on your shiny new Echo. So without further adieu, let’s jump right into one of Alexa’s best features.

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Flash Briefing

The “flash briefing” isn’t as much of a skill as it is a main feature of the Amazon Echo. It consists of daily, bite-sized news from whichever publications you choose. Some organizations simply provide a headline and some text that Alexa reads in her robotic voice, but the best briefings are either made specifically for the Echo or are snippets from podcasts. I love being able to wake up, walk into the kitchen, ask Alexa “what’s new,” and listened to a customized briefing while I drink my morning coffee. It doesn’t take long for this to become second nature. In my opinion, the following news outlets offer must-have flash briefings: 90 Seconds With Slate (made specifically for the Echo; imho, the absolute best briefing), NPR Hourly News , BBC World Service (usually has the same news as NPR, but still worth enabling), CNET News (great for tech news), Weather Report, BuzzFeed: Quickly Catch Up (decent for pop culture, but they did an awful job porting their content to the Echo), Recode (more tech news), and Alexa: Things to Try (worth enabling during your first week of Echo ownership). Discovery DNews, .Mic, Refinery29: 8 Things You Need to Know This AM, and The Daily Skimm are all decent as well, but they don’t have the same production value as the rest. Also, this feature is called “flash briefing” for a reason; you’re not going to want to enable too many or else you’ll be sitting near your Echo for thirty minutes waiting for all your news.

Entertainment Based

Being the pop culture obsessed writer I am, I love all aspects of entertainment. Alexa is great within this realm. First, my absolute favorite in this category is actually two “brother” skills called Milo and Titus. One “brother,” Milo, tells you where (if any place) you can stream a movie and Titus tells you about TV shows. The simplest way to use this skill is to say “Alexa, ask Milo/Titus where to find [movie/show].” This is really great because it is way faster than googling and digging through results.  I also really like the Valossa Movie Finder (you only need to say the “movie finder” part) for finding out information about the actual movie, such as cast, genre, runtime, etc. Similarly, Nocturnal Ninja is a skill for finding out what celebrities are going to be on the various late night talk shows. On the music side of things, we have Song Genius which can look up lyrics to (nearly) any song you ask for. Both of these are activated with voice commands like Milo/Titus, and all of these can also be “opened” first by saying “Alexa, open [skill].” I said I wanted to stay away from “large companies” but there are two official TV show companion skills I went to mention: The Voice and The Daily Show. The Voice just ended, but it was pretty handy to check on the status of your favorite contest just by asking Alexa. And The Daily Show is a sort of flash briefing, but functions as a separate skill. It’s News + Satire + Trevor Noah’s quick wit, so you know, everything that is good about The Daily Show in bite-sized audio form. What’s not to love about that? Lastly, even podcasts like Hardcore History have their own Alexa skills. If you like the podcast, the skill is basically the same thing just a more streamlined version that you don’t need a phone for. I think we are going to see a lot more of these official TV show and podcast companion skills.

Utility & Organization

First, I must mention the skill I use more than any other: Quick Events. This adds a calendar event to your Google account, but in a faster, more convenient way. I’m a very forgetful person, so this has been invaluable. I simply say “Alexa, add [event name] to quick event for [time]” and I will be reminded of exactly what I asked at that time. It’s pretty simple and boring, but I promise you will find this skill comes in handy. Now, this isn’t quite it’s own skill, but I should mention that IFTTT opens up a whole new world of possibilities for your new Amazon Echo. If you are interested in If This Then That and how you can use it with Alexa, then you should see this IFTTT guide I wrote a few days ago. As a writer and English teacher, I really love using Thesaurus Rex to quickly find out synonyms to help improve my writing. In the same vein as Thesaurus Rex, we have Drop Some Knowledge which is basically an audio encyclopedia (I actually haven’t tested this one much, so I can’t speak to its knowledgebase). This next one doesn’t quite help you stay organized, but it adds some much-needed utility to Alexa. The skill I’m talking about is Skill Finder. Without this, the only way to browse skills is on a phone/tablet that has the Alexa device; Skill Finder lets you ask about the “skill of the day” or browse the categories — it is basically an audio version of the app’s skill menu. There’s plenty of other utility/organization skills available, but I only wanted to talk about the skills that I’ve tried firsthand rather than recommend something I have no experience with. Besides, a lot of Alexa’s default features have options that cover this category.

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Smart Home Integration

Obviously, you need to have smart home devices to take advantage of the skills in this section. And, honestly, a lot of them are pretty bare bones from what I’ve seen. I personally own the following smart home products: Phillips Hue Lights, the EcoBee3 Thermostat, and a WeMo Smart Outlet.  So I can only speak to these three. I will, however, note that most smart products have an Alexa skill and they are all pretty self-explanatory — just be sure to look for “works with Alexa” or a similar statement on the packaging. Enabling Phillips Hue integration is a must if you have both products. It’s great to be able to operate all the lights in your house with your voice. I have set up various rooms in my Alexa app and have no problem turning on and off lights as well as adjusting the brightness — “Alexa, turn on living room” and “Alexa, set bedroom brightness to 30%” for example — but I have had some issues with changing light colors. You can use IFTTT to work out the kinks, but for the most part, you can only use the Alexa to change “scenes” in each room, not change to specific colors, and even that gives me some issues sometimes. All in all, the Phillips Hue Alexa integration is pretty decent, especially compared to the EcoBee. I have no problems adjusting the temperature in my house by speaking a simple phrase from the comfort of my couch… but that is all this skill can do. You can say “Alexa, set my house temperature to 72 degrees,” and yes, that’s probably all you really need it for; however, it would be nice to be able to adjust some other settings. Lastly, there’s the WeMo outlet. Like the EcoBee this skill is minimal and simple. The difference is a WeMo outlet is just a Wi-Fi enabled power source that you can toggle on and off; there are no other options or settings to play with, so you wouldn’t really need voice controls to do anything more. You simply enable the skill, scan for new devices, then the outlet (which you would have already named something like “lamp” when setting up the WeMo app) can be controlled by saying “Alexa, turn on lamp.” The last thing I will say in this category is that I highly recommend setting up “groups” so you can easily control multiple devices. Trust me, speaking commands to operate your electronics can get pretty old fast if you are constantly reciting a laundry list of lights to turn off. One thing I did was divide my house into “front” and “back” so I can turn multiple rooms off at once or every smart product I own by saying one phrase — for the record, it feels really cool to get in bed and say “Alexa, turn off house” then watch everything slowly dim. Unlike annoyingly turning off every light one-by-on, this never gets old.

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Games & Other Fun Stuff

Last but not least, the fun stuff. I want to first say that I am really excited by the storytelling possibilities that exist with the Amazon Echo. Other bright individuals have recognized this potential and created some great audio choose-your-own-adventures with really high production values. The three best are the Batman-themed Wayne Investigation, the mysterious Magic Door, and the wonderfully produced interactive radioplays by Earplay. As a storyteller myself, this aspect has me most excited for the future of the Echo. There’s a lot of other fun stuff from asking Alexa to play fart noises with the various farting skills (A1 Farts is my personal fav) to learning more about cats and dogs with Cat/Dog Facts to playing Audio Hangman. I personally find Twenty Questions and Akinator (aka Abra), a version of the classic Twenty Questions game but with real and fictional characters, to be really great uses of the medium. It is quite incredible how smart both of these skills are. Make Me Cry is just too funny, in a really dark kind of way — I’d rather not explain anything and just let you figure it out. There’s also various joke telling and bedtime story reading skills like Short Bedtime Stories, which is a bit of a mix between the two. Last but not least, there is Jeopardy J6, thee best game and one of the coolest all-around uses of the Amazon Echo. It is a really fun game, puts the always connected feature to use, and has impeccable voice recognition. Besides the flash briefing, Jeopardy J6 is the only skill I use every day (well, almost) because the questions are updated every weekday. There’s even a “high score” aspect that tells you how well you did in comparison to everybody else who played around the world! The games, humor, storytelling, and other fun stuff in this category is what, believe it or not, makes me feel I got my money’s worth with the Echo.

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Well, there you have it. I know there’s plenty of lists like this online and this one may look radically different, but that’s because I gave you my personal favorite skills — all of which I’ve tested I might add. I promise you’ll find several skills from the above selection that you will love, and a few that you probably would’ve never heard of. Sure,  the Tide and Uber skills are cool, but those are going to be shoved in your face everywhere. Why not try Akinator or Thesaurus Rex instead?

What do you think of this list? What are your favorite skills so far? How are you liking your new Echo? Let us know all of this and more in the comment section below!

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