Amazon Echo upgrade: the best Alexa Skills

Answering your general knowledge questions, placing orders on Amazon, playing music, managing appointments or even paying a compliment – these are basic Skills for the smart Echo loudspeaker and its speech software Alexa. Whether it’s Amazon Echo Plus, the Dot, or Show versions, these functions are usually preconfigured and can be used in conjunction with other Amazon services.

Amazon has been cooperating with providers of a wide variety of services for some time now. This makes it possible to use an Echo speaker to access third-party provider services and control them using voice commands. The Alexa Skills store is continuously growing, with more and more functions compatible with Amazon Echo. Alexa Skills are comparable to smartphone apps and are just as easy to install. The range available is large: at present there are approximately 10,000 functions. These include popular providers like the music-, audiobook-, and video-streaming platform Spotify, as well as services from lesser-known providers that provide an appropriate program for every situation and purpose.

The thousands and thousands of Amazon Alexa Skills are available from third-party providers and can be roughly divided into three areas:

  • Multimedia platforms: Amazon Echo lets you listen to Deezer and Spotify, as well as their own Amazon Prime Music. TuneIn lets you tune into your favorite radio station, and Audible lets you listen to audio books. These streaming services are some of Alexa’s most popular Skills. There is currently no official YouTube Skill due to a dispute with their competitor Google, which has launched Home, a comparable loudspeaker. However, external programmers have developed (unofficial) Skills for Alexa that at least allow the sound of video clips to be reproduced. These are available at GitHub, for example.
  • Services: Ordering tickets, obtaining information and organising the workday: service tools make everyday life easier. Alexa uses the Google calendar to create a to-do list for the coming week, reminding you of birthdays and business appointments. Also, some urban transport companies and cinema chains offer services through Alexa Skills.
  • Smart home: More and more people appreciate the benefits of a networked home. Many manufacturers of smart devices like Samsung, Philips and Ecobee offer an interface for the intelligent voice assistance system. In this way, Alexa uses voice commands to control the products of individual brands. In addition, there are applications that allow Alexa to become a central control system independent of the manufacturer.

Are Alexa Skills free?

Alexa Skills can be used free of charge. All you need is the Alexa app, which can also be downloaded free of charge, or set up on your PC through your Amazon account. Additional costs are incurred if a tool requires additional services. Making a purchase with the voice command, for example, is only possible with Amazon Prime membership, for which you pay a monthly or annual fee. To listen to Spotify over the loudspeaker without adverts, you will also need to purchase an appropriate subscription. Activating Amazon Alexa Skills is free of charge – for the time being, anyway. There are several specific Skills available in the UK that require payment. It is also potentially conceivable that Amazon will make Prime membership a prerequisite in the future, or offer a paid and unpaid version that has a reduced range of functions.

Where can I find Amazon Alexa Skills to install?

All available Skills can be found in the Alexa Skills store. If you want to install or set them up on a smartphone, you need to download the Alexa app first from the app store – just make sure you download the correct one for your operating system. On your PC, the easiest way to access Skills is to go to the Alexa Skills section of the Amazon website on your desktop browser. A category tree in the left half of the menu makes your search easier. You can make the search more specific by using categories like “Music & Audio” or “Travel & Transport.”

It is also possible to add Alexa Skills directly over the speaker by voice command and without prior registration. However, this does not work for features that require additional personal information or installations, or that require linking your Amazon account to a third-party account. For example, if you want to buy cinema tickets, it may be necessary to create a user account with the cinema company and provide them with your bank details.

The best Alexa Skills: recommendations for the digital language assistant

The Alexa Skills store contains a plethora of additional features. An application that tells you whether it’s currently a leap year? An app to help you make a decision when buying a pet? These Skills are pretty much superfluous and will only be used once. On the other hand, there are plenty of Alexa Skills that are used much more frequently. It can be hard to find the best Alexa Skills among the near-infinite Skills available.

We have separated the wheat from the chaff with our top Alexa Skills. These are functions that actually make life easier and help you get more out of the personal assistant.

OurGroceries shopping list

Notepads are easy to lose, after crossing items out and adding new ones it becomes confusing to read and it always leaves you wondering if you’ve remembered everything. With OurGroceries, you always have your shopping list at hand, create multiple lists, and add items to your lists with the voice command. You can sync the app with any Android or iPhone devices so that other members of your household can add things to the list, making collaboration easy. When a change is made, all shopping lists will be synced in real time, regardless of whether the item was added via a mobile device or the Amazon Echo. In addition, OurGroceries has other practical functions like a camera, barcode scanner, and a section to save recipes. Although OurGroceries is designed to be used as a grocery shopping assistant, you can also use it to create other checklists and memos for yourself.

This Alexa Skill is extremely useful for people in a large family, people who live in a shared house, or friends trying to organise a party. Everyone can input or remove what they do or don’t want, nothing is purchased twice or forgotten. Instead of using a pen or keyboard to input items on the list, you can use the voice command with the Amazon Echo. This is particularly useful when looking in the fridge or while cooking and you notice an ingredient is missing or is in short supply. This Alexa Skill saves time, stress, and can even help you save money.

Stay constantly informed: Flash Briefing

If you want to keep up to date with world politics, local affairs, the economy, or culture, the Alexa Skills store has a wide variety of news Skills to fit your needs. Numerous popular publications and TV stations provide their own Alexa Skills, providing inquisitive users with the latest headlines and daily summaries. These include The Guardian, The Telegraph, and the Times Sport, amongst a whole host of others.

For people who just want a quick roundup of headlines from a wide range of sources, without having to access multiple applications, an easy solution is to enable the “Flash Briefing” function with Alexa. Use the voice command “Alexa, what’s my Flash Briefing?” and wait for her to provide you with your own personalized news report, drawing from a selection of sources you can choose yourself, including the big-name publications already mentioned.

Discover new music with Radioplayer

For radio fans, look no further than Radioplayer. This Alexa skill, which is free to enable, allows you to stream high quality audio from almost 500 UK radio channels, ranging from the BBC, commercial channels to local and community broadcasters. If you already have a favourite channel, you can request that Radioplayer stream that one immediately. If you’re in the mood to discover new music, you can request Radioplayer to recommend a station, or play at random. You can even listen to podcasts and catchup programs using this Alexa skill too! The perfect companion for music, news or current events fans around the UK.

Build up your vocabulary with Word of the Day

If you’ve always liked the idea of learning one new word per day, Word of the Day will be perfect for you. This fun Alexa Skill is free to enable, and upon instruction will read out the “buzzword” of the day. To help you commit the word to memory and provide context, Word of the Day will also read out an example of the word used in a sentence, and provides you with a definition and the etymology of the word. If something is unclear, users can ask the Skill to “repeat” the word as many times as necessary.

The Word of the Day Alexa Skill will help expand your vocabulary and knowledge, providing you with the tools you need to learn – much more helpful than just reading a word-a-day calendar or the like! The Skill is also particularly suitable for children or secondary school students trying to brush up on the English skills.

Learn a new language, one word per day with Translated

Are you going on holiday and want to brush up on a few local phrases? Do you feel guilty about letting your secondary school French slip away and want to pick up your practice? Maybe your New Year’s resolution was to learn a new language and you feel like throwing yourself into Japanese? If so, then Translated is the Alexa Skill for you.

This handy Skill is free to enable and allows you to translate words and brief sentences from English into your target language (the app currently offers translation services from English to Arabic, Basque, Portuguese, Catalan, Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Flemish, French, Galician, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Spanish, Swedish, Thai, Turkish, and Welsh). What makes this Skill stand out in particular is that your chosen words and phrases are not read out in the false, robotic Alexa voice, instead they are spoken by a native speaker, allowing you to hear and copy the correct pronunciation every time. Whilst the app is no substitution for language lessons or immersion, it can be a helpful way to take those first steps towards learning a new language, and can also be a useful Skill if you need a quick word or phrase translated on the go. Perfect for traveling!

Big Sky

Whether you’re planning a weekend outing or just trying to pick out clothes for work, having a handle on the weather forecast is an important aspect of daily life. Whilst Alexa has a perfectly adequate weather forecast function built in, it cannot compare to the detail and accuracy of Big Sky. Big Sky is free to enable and uses the Dark Sky API (a weather all for Android and iOS) to give you tailored weather forecasts for a specific address. This hyper-localized service can give you to the minute forecasts, including precipitation, humidity, dew point, windspeed (in four different measurements), UV index information, and barometric pressure. Big Sky also has a built-in weather almanac so that you can compare weather information from any day in the past. You can choose between Celsius and Fahrenheit for your temperature measurements, as well as other imperial or metric system measurements. These settings, as well as your saved location, can be changed at any time.

Big Sky also has a paid premium version, which has even more features like saving numerous addresses and being able to access real time, hyper-accurate forecasts for locations around the world at a moment’s notice. Although this level of specification might suit a meteorology fan, there is plenty to gain for any person wanting an accurate weather report.

Alexa as a kitchen assistant

Your Echo speaker can help you with baking, cooking, and preparing food. Do you ever find yourself mid-way through preparing a meal only to realise that you don’t have one of the key ingredients? Maybe you or a family member have dietary restrictions and your recipe calls for something unsuitable? Ingredient Sub can help. This Alexa Skill is free to enable and is a simple tool which provides you with a list of suitable ingredient substitutes, including specific quantities. Never find yourself giving up half way, or quickly running back out to the supermarket again!

Another way that your Echo can help you when it comes to cooking is providing you with recipe ideas. The Alexa Skills store has a wide range of recipe apps, but Love and Lemons really stands out. Providing you with recipes from the popular online blog, Love and Lemons is a healthy, seasonal, whole-food based recipe portal and can help you pick out a meal that is seasonal (good for the environment and your budget) and wholesome, so you know that you’re providing only the best for you and your family. The Alexa Skill provides step-by-step recipes, and you can pause and resume whenever necessary, as well as make use of a timer function to help you cook to the best of your ability.

Getting around the city on public transportation

Whether you are planning a weekend vacation, a business trip, or are simply trying to go around your daily life, a helping hand when it comes to getting around London is important to anyone. Alexa Skills like London Travel provides you with status updates for different lines on the London Underground, London Overground, Docklands Light Railway (DLR) and TfL rail.  You can request line specific information, or an overview of the system as a whole. This Alexa skill is free to enable and can help users avoid delays and mishaps when planning their day in London. Whilst London Travel is location-specific, there is no doubt that countless other Alexa Skills provide this real-time information for other metropolitan hubs in the UK.

Help transform your house into a smart home

With the advent of the Internet of Things, more and more people are kitting their homes out with smart devices to make them more ergonomic. There are countless appliances that can be connected to Alexa so that a simple voice command can get your household up and running before you’ve even gotten out of bed. We’ve all already heard of TVs and light fixtures that can be voice controlled but, there are some other noteworthy Alexa Skills that might not jump to the forefront of a budding home-modifiers mind.

SmartThings is an Alexa skill available free to enable which allows you to control and monitor not just your lights, but also switches, dimmers, outlets, thermostats and door locks with a voice command. SmartThings is comptatible with lighting products from Philips, Due, LIFX and OSRAM Lightify, whilst their options for connected outlets include fans and coffee machines. The unusual door lock control works in conjunction with Yale, and can allow you to lock or unlock doors, as well as check their status. You can ask the app to activate individual items in your home, or you can create a “routine” where, for example, you might set the lights to go on at 50% and the coffee machine to start when your speaker hears “Alexa, turn on Good Morning”. Using SmartThings removes the necessity for downloading multiple Alexa skills, instead creating a helpful interface for your Smart Home.

Tip

Maybe you didn’t find exactly what you were looking for in the Alexa Skills store? If you’ve got a basic knowledge of programming, you can develop your own Alexa Skill! The easiest way to do this is using the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK).