13 Amazon Echo Hacks to Get the Most Out of Alexa

Whether you just set up your Amazon Echo ($214) or you’ve had one for years, you’re probably not using the smart speaker to its full potential. Sure, you can ask Alexa for weather updates, set a timer while cooking, and use it to play music, but that’s just scratching the surface of what the AI assistant can do. Here are 13 things you might not know your Amazon Echo is capable of, from personalized traffic updates to tuning an instrument.

1. TRAIN ALEXA TO RECOGNIZE YOUR VOICE.

The Amazon Echo is already pretty good at voice recognition, thanks to its seven built-in microphones. But if the speaker is still having trouble understanding what you’re saying there’s an easy fix: Just open the Alexa app on your phone and head to Menu > Settings > Your Voice > Begin to start the process, which includes 25 different phrases you’ll need to say.

2. RENAME ALEXA.

There are plenty of reasons why you might want to call your Echo something other than “Alexa.” Maybe it sounds too similar to your own name so you keep triggering the speaker by mistake, or maybe you just don’t like the way it sounds.

Either way, you’ve got options. You can rename Alexa to Amazon, Echo, or Computer by opening the Alexa app and heading to Menu > Settings. Then tap on the Echo device you want to change and click on Wake Word. You should see a drop-down menu with all the other names you can choose from. Pick the one you want and hit Save to confirm.

3. FORCE AN UPDATE.

Amazon updates the Echo’s software on a regular basis automatically, but if you’re missing out on some important new software there’s a way to force an update right now. All you have to do is press the physical button on your speaker to mute the microphone. Then leave it like that for 30 minutes, and that's it—your Echo should be updated when you switch the microphone back on.

4. MAKE YOUR ECHO REPEAT THE LAST THING IT SAID.

If you ask Alexa a question but you don’t catch the answer there’s an easy way to replay the last thing Amazon’s AI said. Just say “Alexa, can you repeat that?” to hear that last response again.

5. ASK ALEXA HOW TO SPELL A WORD.

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If you can’t remember how to spell a word you don’t need to look it up online or bother someone else in your home. Instead, just ask your Echo. All you need to do is say, “Alexa, how do you spell [BLANK]?” and Amazon’s AI will spit out a response.

6. FLIP A VIRTUAL COIN.

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Flipping a coin is a great way to settle simple disputes (like who should do the dishes or which show to watch), but what if you don’t have a coin to flip? Your Amazon Echo can help you settle the score with a simple virtual coin flip. Just say “Alexa, heads or tails” and you’ll get an impartial judge.

7. TUNE YOUR GUITAR (OR ANY OTHER INSTRUMENT).

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If you play the guitar, you’re probably used to tuning it on a regular basis, but you still might need some help every once in a while. All you have to do is say “Alexa, tune my guitar” and the smart speaker will cycle through the six notes used for regular tuning. You can also customize this skill based on your instrument and the key you’re playing in by saying something like “Alexa, ask the Violinist for a C.”

8. CUSTOMIZE YOUR NEWS BRIEFING.

You can ask your Echo for a news briefing by saying "Alexa, what's new?" or "Alexa, read me the news," but before you do you might want to pick and choose the sources it plays. Otherwise, your news briefing could last for a while, and you might end up hearing about a topic you don’t care about.

To customize this feature, open the Alexa app and go to Menu > Settings > Flash Briefing. You should see a list of media companies covering various topics, and opening "Get More Flash Briefing content" will open up another menu with more options. Select the ones you want so the next time you ask Alexa you’ll get the exact news you’re looking for.

9. GET PERSONALIZED TRAFFIC UPDATES.

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If you drive to work every day you might want to ask your Amazon Echo for a traffic update before leaving the house each morning. Thankfully, Alexa is more than up for the task, but you’ll have to share some personal information with the AI assistant first.

Just go to Menu > Settings >Traffic and then type in your home and work addresses. Now you can just say “Alexa, how is traffic?” or “Alexa, what’s my commute?” and Amazon will tell you what to expect from your drive.

10. MAKE SPOTIFY YOUR DEFAULT MUSIC SERVICE.

The Echo automatically defaults to playing music through Amazon’s streaming service, but if you’d rather listen on Spotify, that’s an option too. Just go to Menu > Settings > Music & Media > Customize My Music Preferences > Choose Default Music Services > Spotify.

Unfortunately, this trick doesn’t work for Apple Music or other streaming services, but there’s still an easy way to listen to Apple’s streaming service on your Echo. All you have to do is connect your phone to the smart speaker over Bluetooth and then stream the music directly from your phone instead.

11. ORDER A PIZZA.

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Craving a pizza, but don’t feel like lifting a finger? You can do it with a voice command. All you have to do is download the Domino’s Alexa Skill and link your account using the pizza-maker’s app. Then, when you’re hungry, just say “Alexa, open Domino’s” to launch the skill. From there, you can re-order your last pizza or opt for a pre-selected Easy Order.

12. CONTROL THE TEMPERATURE IN YOUR HOME WITH NEST.

If you have a Nest thermostat ($214) installed in your home, you can control the temperature with nothing but your voice. All you need to do is download this applet for If This Then That. After setting it up, you’ll be able to crank up the heat by simply saying, “Alexa, turn the temperature up.”

13. CLEAR YOUR VOICE RECORDINGS HISTORY.

Once you’re using your Amazon Echo like a pro, you may occasionally want to clear all the personal information it records. Thankfully, Amazon makes it easy to delete those voice command recordings. Just open the Alexa app and head to Menu > Settings > History. From there you can delete any individual recordings that might be a little too personal by tapping on the quote and selecting More > Delete Card.

If you’d rather clear your entire history at once, you can do that too. Just open this Amazon link in your browser. Then, select Your Devices, pick the Echo speaker in question, and select "Device Actions" and then “Manage voice recordings.” Finally, click on Delete to clear them all at once.

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11 Lively Gifts for Plant Parents

Blue Q/Amazon/Picnic Time/World Market
Blue Q/Amazon/Picnic Time/World Market

Many folks have been showing off their green thumbs this year thanks to the pandemic, so why not encourage their hobbies? There's a special gift for every kind of plant parent out there—think starter grow kits to gardening tools to cute cartoon socks. If the Christmas tree in the living room isn't enough greenery for your gift recipient's taste this festive season, we have some great gift options below.

1. Back To The Roots Garden In A Can Herb Growing Kit; $25

Back to the Roots/World Market

Herb gardens are compact, useful, and easy to maintain. If your giftee lives in an apartment and doesn't have outdoor space for a large garden, Back To The Roots's Garden In A Can Herb Growing Kit—a three-pack of basil, cilantro, and mint—is a great place for them to start their indoor horticultural journey.

Buy it: World Market

2. Plants Rock Cactus Growing Kit; $13

Plants Rock/World Market

Another option for small spaces is cacti, which do not require much water or attention. This kit makes it easy to start growing cacti in your gift recient's home. The tools are all included, so all your giftee has to do is plant the seeds and set the ceramic pot in a sunny spot.

Buy it: World Market

3. Picnic Time Folding Garden Stool With Tools; $69

Picnic Time/World Market

For more experienced gardeners, tools are essential for helping plants thrive. This stool with tools might solve the problem of sore knees and backs from kneeling in dirt. Not only is the seat portable and lightweight, but it also includes a storage tote and five pockets for tools like the included trowels and garden forks.

Buy it: World Market

4. Green and Pink Ribbed-Glass Plant Misters; $26

World Market

Indoor plants need as much care and attention as their outdoor cousins, but lugging around a watering can may cause a mess in your giftee's home. Using this set of two plant misters is an easy way to keep moisture-loving plants like orchids and Boston ferns nice and dewy.

Buy it: World Market

5. Cotton Macramé Plant Hanger; $18

World Market

Macramé plant hangers were all the rage back in the '70s. They've made a comeback this year as people have become craftier at home. This plant hanger is great for showing off plants that grow long, curtain-like tendrils and helpful when your giftee lives in a small space. With the roof as the limit, they can pack in as many plants as they want.

Buy it: World Market

6. Can't Kill Me 2021 Calendar; $8

TF Publishing/World Market

If your gift recipient loves plants but can't keep real ones alive, give them this mini wall calendar. It features, well, plant arrangements they can't kill, like succulents, bonsai trees, and snake plants. This calendar will surely add a dose of green to their home office.

Buy it: World Market

7. The New Plant Parent: Develop Your Green Thumb and Care for Your House-Plant Family; $17

Harry N. Abrams/Amazon

All gardeners want one simple thing: to know more about keeping their plants alive and thriving. This book has all the essentials for cultivating houseplants. It's full of tips and tricks for repotting a plant, taking care of certain types of plants, and adjusting light for your plant baby's survival.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Homenote Bamboo Plant Labels; $14

HOMENOTE/Amazon

Plant labels are a great way for your giftee to remember where they planted their rosemary versus their parsley before they sprout. This 60 label set comes with a pen, so the labeling process is a breeze.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Blue Q Proud Plant Mom Socks; $13

Blue Q/Amazon

Proud plant moms want to show off their love for their greenery any way they can. That's why these crew socks will be a hit with any of your green-thumbed friends. Blue Q also donates 1 percent of its sales revenue to Doctors Without Borders.

Buy it: Amazon

10. EuroGraphics 1000-Piece Jigsaw Puzzle; $20

EuroGraphics Toys/Amazon

This 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle will occupy your gift recipients from the fall harvest to the spring planting season. The challenging design of multiple succulents features each plant's common and scientific name.

Buy it: Amazon

11. AeroGarden Indoor Hydroponic Garden; $124

AeroGarden/Amazon

If seasons don't matter to your giftee and they want to start their herb garden right now, then the AeroGarden is going to be their best friend. They'll be able to grow herbs like dill, thyme, and mint indoors in the middle of winter. Thanks to the LED grow lights, there is no need to worry about plants getting enough sunlight. They can grow up to six plants at a time, all year round.

Buy it: Amazon

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Late MythBusters Star Grant Imahara Honored With New STEAM Foundation

Grant Imahara attends San Diego Comic-Con
Grant Imahara attends San Diego Comic-Con
Genevieve via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Fans of MythBusters and White Rabbit Project host Grant Imahara were saddened to hear of his passing due to a brain aneurysm in July 2020 at the age of 49. Imahara, a graduate of the University of Southern California, used the television medium to share his love of science and engineering. Now, his passion for education will continue via an educational foundation developed in his name.

The Grant Imahara STEAM Foundation was announced Thursday, October 23, 2020 by family and friends on what would have been Imahara’s 50th birthday. The Foundation will provide mentorships, grants, and scholarships that will allow students from diverse backgrounds access to STEAM education, which places an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. (Formerly referred to as STEM, the “A” for art was added more recently.)

Imahara had a history of aiding students. While working at Industrial Light and Magic in the early 2000s, he mentored the robotics team at Richmond High School to prepare for the international FIRST Robotics Competition. Whether he was working on television or behind-the-scenes on movies like the Star Wars prequels and The Matrix sequels, Imahara always found time to promote and encourage young engineering talent.

The Grant Imahara STEAM Foundation’s founding board members include Imahara’s mother, Carolyn Imahara, and close friends Don Bies, Anna Bies, Edward Chin, Fon H. Davis, Coya Elliott, and Ioanna Stergiades.

“There are many students, like my son Grant, who need the balance of the technical and the creative, and this is what STEAM is all about,” Carolyn Imahara said in a statement. “I’m so proud of my son’s career, but I’m equally proud of the work he did mentoring students. He would be thrilled that we plan to continue this, plus much more, through The Grant Imahara STEAM Foundation.”

Imahara friend Wade Bick is also launching an effort in concert with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering to name a study lounge after Imahara. Donations can be made here.

You can find out more about the foundation, and make a donation, on its website.