What Is Alexa?

How the brains behind the smart speaker work

Alexa is the Amazon digital voice assistant. It can be used on smartphones and Amazon Echo products.

Alexa was inspired by the interactive computer voice used in the original Star Trek TV series. The word "Alexa" was chosen because the "X" is easily recognizable for voice recognition. The word is also a homage to the famed ancient Library at Alexandria.

How Alexa Works

Once Alexa is enabled (see below on how to set it up), say Alexa to trigger the start of the service. It then begins (or attempts) to interpret what you said. At the end of your question or command, Alexa sends that recording over the internet to the Amazon Alexa cloud-based servers, where the AVS (Alexa Voice Service) resides.

The Alexa Voice Service converts your voice signals into computer language commands that can execute a task (such as searching for a requested song). It then converts the computer language into sound signals so that the Alexa voice assistant can provide you with information verbally (such as time, traffic, and weather).

If your internet connection is working properly, and Amazon's back-end service is operating properly, the answers can come as fast as you finish speaking. This isn't a rare occurrence. Alexa works remarkably well.

Amazon Echo Dot

On products like the Amazon Echo or Echo Dot, information responses are in audio form only. On the Echo Show and, to a limited extent, on a smartphone, information is provided by audio and an on-screen display. Using an Alexa-enabled Amazon device, Alexa can also pass commands to other compatible third-party devices.

Since the cloud-based Alexa Voice Service is needed to answer questions and perform tasks, a connection to the internet is required. Without an internet connection, there's no Alexa interaction. This is where the Alexa app comes in.

Set up Alexa on an iOS or Android Phone

Alexa can be used in conjunction with your smartphone or tablet. To do this, download and install the Alexa app.

In addition, download and install a companion app that the Alexa app can see as a device. Two apps to try out are the Amazon Mobile Shopping app and the Alexa Reverb app for Android and iOS.

Set up Alexa voice profiles using the Alexa app.

Once either app is installed on your smartphone, they are identified by the Alexa app as devices that it can communicate through. You can use Alexa on either or both these apps wherever you go with your smartphone.

As of January 2018, you can talk directly to Alexa using the Amazon Alexa Android app (an update for iOS devices is coming soon). This means you can ask Alexa questions and perform tasks without going through the Amazon shopping app, Alexa Reverb app, or an additional Alexa-enabled device. However, you can use the updated app to control any Alexa-enabled device.

Set up Alexa on an Echo Device

Before you can use an Amazon Echo device, you need to download and install the Alexa app on a compatible smartphone or tablet, as discussed above. Instead of (or in addition to) pairing it with the Amazon Mobile Shopping and Alexa Reverb apps, go into the device menu settings of the Alexa app and identify your Amazon Echo device. The app will then configure itself with the Echo device.

You need your smartphone to initially configure Alexa with your Echo device. When that's done, you don't have to keep your smartphone on. You can communicate with the Echo device using Alexa.

You might need to use your smartphone to activate or change some advanced settings or enable new Alexa skills. On the other hand, you typically only need to use your smartphone for Alexa functions if you are away from home or out of the vocal range of your home-based Alexa-enabled device, provided you have set the Alexa app with the Amazon Mobile Shopping or Alexa Reverb app.

The Wake Word

Once Alexa is configured on either your smartphone or Echo device, it can respond to verbal commands or questions using that device.

Before asking questions or ordering tasks, you need to use Alexa as the wake word.

Alexa isn't the only wake word option. If you have family members with that name or if you prefer to use another wake word, the Alexa App provides other options, such as Ziggy, Computer, Echo, and Amazon. There's also a masculine voice option you can choose when you first set up Alexa.

On the other hand, when using the Amazon Mobile Shopping app for smartphones or the Alexa Remote for Fire TV devices, you don't have to say Alexa before asking your question or ordering a task. Instead, tap the microphone icon on a smartphone touchscreen or press the microphone button on an Alexa Voice Remote and start speaking.

You can also adjust voice response speed. Say Alexa, speak slower (or faster). To get a normal speech rate back, say Alexa, speak at normal speed.

Alexa allows you to activate a Whisper Mode.

How You Can Use Alexa

Amazon Alexa functions as your personal voice assistant for accessing information and controlling compatible devices. Alexa can answer questions, tell you traffic or weather information, play news reports, initiate phone calls, play music, manage your grocery list, purchase items from Amazon, and, on the Echo Show, display images and play video. You can extend the reach of Alexa further by taking advantage of Alexa Skills.

Alexa Skills provide interaction with third-party content and services. It also enhances your lifestyle by turning your Alexa-enabled device into a smart home hub.

Examples of interaction with third-party content and services include ordering takeout food from a local restaurant, requesting an Uber ride, and playing a song from a specific streaming service, provided you enabled the designated skill for each of those options.

Amazon Echo Show 2nd Generation — Weather Display

In its role as a smart home hub, instead of accessing a control pad or using a handheld or app-based remote to control the functions of a specific device, you can tell Alexa, through a compatible Echo product, in plain English, to perform the task. For example, you can tell Alexa to turn something on or off, adjust a thermostat, start a washing machine, raise or lower a video projection screen, turn a TV on or off, view security camera feeds, and more. This can only be done if control for those devices is added to the Alexa Skills database, and you enabled those skills.

You can control Alexa with your smartphone when you're not home.

In addition to Alexa Skills, Amazon is in the process of providing the ability for several tasks to be grouped together using Alexa Routines. With Alexa Routines, instead of telling Alexa to perform a specific task using a single skill, you can customize Alexa to perform a series of related tasks with one voice command.

In other words, instead of telling Alexa to turn off the lights, the TV, and lock your door with separate commands, you can say something like Alexa, good night. Alexa takes that phrase as a cue to perform all three tasks as a routine.

By the same token, when you wake up in the morning, say Alexa, good morning. If you set up the routine beforehand, Alexa turns on the lights, starts the coffee maker, provides you with the weather, and activates your daily briefing as one continuous routine.

Compatible Alexa Devices

In addition to smartphones (both Android and iOS), Alexa can be configured with and accessed on the following devices:

  • How do I change Alexa's voice?

    In the Alexa app, go to Devices > Echo & Alexa, and tap one of your Alexa devices. Next, select the Settings gear icon, scroll down to General, and select Alexa's Voice > New. Alternatively, you can use a skill to change Alexa's voice to a celebrity's voice, such as Samuel L. Jackson's.

  • Who is the voice of Alexa?

    According to journalist and author Brad Stone who wrote the book "Amazon Unbound," a voice actor from Colorado named Nina Rolle provides the voice of Alexa. Amazon has neither confirmed nor denied this.

  • How do you train Alexa to learn your voice?

    When you use Alexa Voice Recognition, Alexa can tailor responses to different users. In the Alexa app, select More > Settings > your profile > Voice > Create > Continue. Follow the prompts for Alexa to learn your device.

  • How do you link Alexa with a Fire Stick?

    To link Alexa with a Fire Stick, open the Alexa app and go to More > Settings > TV & Video > select the Plus (+) > Link Device. Follow the prompts to complete the setup.

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