BILL PYSZCZYMUKA was installing an air-conditioner in an upstairs window last spring when it occurred to him that there was a way to control the machine without getting up from the couch downstairs: his AmazonEcho.
Mr. Pyszczymuka, who lives in Schenectady, N.Y., figured the Echo — Amazon’s $180 internet-connected speaker — could be connected to an app that controls a Wi-Fi-connected power plug. By plugging the air-conditioner into the smart power outlet, he could turn the air-conditioner on or off just by speaking a command to the Echo.
“The moment of truth came when I asked, ‘Alexa, turn on the air-conditioner,’” he said. “The unit beeped upstairs, with Alexa telling me, ‘O.K.’ I thought it was more than O.K. It was cool.”
Mr. Pyszczymuka is part of a prolific community of Echo tinkerers who are using the smart speaker for much more than playing music. Since Amazon released the Echo last year, it has quickly become the top-selling home audio speaker on Amazon.com and one of the company’s most successful hardware products. While Amazon, which reports quarterly earnings on Thursday, has not revealed how many Echos it has sold, people have put the speaker to work as a shopping assistant, kitchen companion and home automation tool.
Yet making the Echo a smarter speaker is not intuitive. And, if consumers do not do any research or tinkering, Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa, can appear lacking in capabilities compared with Apple’s Siri and Google’s voice assistant. That’s because Alexa’s database isn’t as mature or thorough as others that have been on the market longer.
So I recently revisited the Echo to unearth some of the best tips to getting the most from Alexa. Here’s a rundown.
A Smarter Audio Speaker
Let’s start with the basics: Consumers can make their Echo a hipper audio player by tweaking just a few settings. By default, the Echo will play music from Amazon’s streaming music library. But Amazon recently let people change the default music player to more popular streaming services, like Spotify and Pandora.
To change the default music player, open the Alexa smartphone app. Then tap Settings, tap Music and Media, and tap Choose Default Music Services and select Spotify for your default music library or Pandora for your default station service. That way, you no longer have to say “Play Radiohead on Spotify” or “Play Radiohead on station Pandora” — you can just say “Play Radiohead” or “Play Radiohead station” and the Echo will play music from your service of choice. (Apple Music and Google Play are not supported by the Echo.)
Other audio tricks include the ability to ask Alexa to play specific podcasts — try speaking a command like “Alexa, Play ‘Fresh Air’” (the NPR show) or “Alexa, Play ‘This American Life’” (also from NPR). An often-forgotten feature of the Echo is its ability to play live radio stations from all over the world. Just ask Alexa to play the call letters of your favorite radio station like KQED, and the Echo will stream it.
Your Virtual Sous-Chef
Echo tinkerers have been putting the speaker to work in their kitchens. One reason: you can summon Alexa without touching the device, which makes it extremely helpful while preparing food or putting dishes away.
Try these basics to get acquainted with Alexa in the kitchen: After you stick a pie or roast in the oven, ask Alexa to set a timer. Need help tripling a recipe? Ask Alexa to do the math (“Alexa, what is three times 127?”). Need to know how many tablespoons are in a cup? Ask Alexa to make the conversion for you.
Alexa can also help restock your kitchen. If you are an Amazon Prime subscriber and are running out of something like Ziploc bags, just say “Alexa, order Ziploc bags” to place an Amazon order right away. If you prefer to pick up the item at a store, say, “Alexa, add Ziploc bags to my shopping list” to affix items to a shopping list in the Alexa smartphone app. The best part about using Alexa to compile a shopping list is that multiple family members can add to it, even after you have left the house.
Exploring the Smart Home
Now that you’re well acclimated to Alexa, consider some advanced hacks, such as configuring the Echo to control different parts of your home, including the thermostat and the light bulbs. This will require buying more gear.
One useful product to buy to expand Echo’s utility is TP-Link’s $25 Smart Plug, a Wi-Fi-connected electrical outlet. It can be used to toggle on and off an appliance that you plug into it, like a lamp or portable fan — or, if you’re creative like Mr. Pyszczymuka, an air-conditioner unit.
Setting up the Smart Plug takes a few minutes. I plugged a bedroom lamp into the Smart Plug, then downloaded the free smartphone app Kasa, which detected the Smart Plug and connected it to my Wi-Fi network.
Then I opened the Alexa smartphone app, added the Kasa “skill” (third-party apps for Alexa are called skills) and connected Alexa with my Smart Plug. I subsequently gave the lamp a friendly name: bedroom lamp. Now at night, I can say “Alexa, turn on the bedroom lamp” to light up the bedroom before I walk down the hall.