Whoa, you got an Amazon Echo. Or maybe you got an Alexa-compatible speaker like the excellent Sonos One. Sweet! This slick little gadget is your first step toward creating a smarter home. The Alexa voice assistant that lives inside will help you do all kinds of things like play games, take you through a 20-minute workout, tell you how to mix a perfect Manhattan, and of course, control any internet-connected appliances, speakers, or lighting fixtures you have around the house.
One thing Alexa can’t do is set up your Echo for you. Don’t worry, setup is dead simple. First, make sure you have the Alexa app installed on your phone (You'll need an Amazon account). Then turn on the speaker, and the app should be able to pair with it and tell the speaker how to get onto your Wi-Fi network. After that, the app will walk you through the remaining configuration steps for your Echo.
Alexa learns from you, so all you really have to do is start talking to it. If you want to teach it to control the other connected devices in your home—a smart heater or air conditioner, smart TV, or smart door locks—you add each of those individually as “skills.” Amazon makes adding skills easy; you can add them through the Alexa app, or on the Amazon website's app store-like interface. Once installed, you can manage and delete skills in the Alexa app.
If you rely on ride-sharing services try the Lyft skill. It makes getting a car as easy as saying, “Alexa, get a Lyft.” Try adding the Headspace skill to launch a meditation session. The Bartender is another useful one if you want to be able to ask Alexa how to make fancy mixed drinks.
One more tip: If you subscribe to Spotify, you can set up the streaming service to be your default for music requests, so when you say, “Alexa, play Black Sabbath,” the speaker will start playing from Spotify without you having to specify “… from Spotify.”
Alexa can do a great many things. Just be aware that it's always listening. The microphone on the Echo speaker stays on constantly, just waiting to hear the magic wake word, “Alexa.” It doesn't spring to action or record anything you say until it hears that wake word, but if the thought of an always-on microphone creeps you out anyway, look for the microphone's mute switch. Almost every modern Alexa-powered speaker has one. You should also brush up on the ways to keep Alexa data private as well.
This setup guide was updated in December 2020.