Already, about one in four U.S. consumers has a home personal assistant at their beck and call, thanks to the success of smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Nest.
But many users are just scratching the surface of what these gadgets can do.
If you aren’t familiar with the speakers (both starting at $35), you wake up your artificial intelligence-driven helper with a keyword – “Alexa” for Amazon devices and “OK, Google” for a Google Nest or Google Home speaker – followed by a question or command.
A human-like voice will give you a response, whether you want to hear the weather, a specific song, set a timer for the oven, or control your smart devices in your home, such as adjusting lighting or a thermostat.
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One-fourth of U.S. consumers (25%) will use a smart speaker in 2020, up from 17% in 2018, according to research firm eMarketer.
If you have a smart speaker already, don’t you want to get more out of it? Here are 10 helpful – and lesser-known – functions to take your digital assistant to the next level.
Make free phone calls
Both Alexa and Google devices let you make free phone calls – even if you don’t own a landline. It uses the internet to place the outgoing call, using Voice over Internet Protocol or “VoIP” technology.
Just say “Alexa” or “OK, Google,” followed by a phone number (“dial 212-555-1212”), a name in your smartphone’s Contacts (e.g. “Call Mary Smith at work”) or a business name (“call the Home Depot at the corner of 1st and 3rd street.”)
It works for any 10-digit American or Canadian number!
‘OK, Google, remind me’
No pen or paper needed if you have an Amazon or Google speaker. Say something like “Alexa, remind me to pick up Maya from the mall at 4 p.m.” or “OK, Google, remind me to take my pills every day at 9:30 a.m.” When the time comes, you’ll be reminded by your speaker.
Your smart speaker can also be an alarm clock. Just say something like “Alexa, wake me up to (specific song or radio station) at (time).” You can even specify the wake-up time to be for weekdays only.
‘Alexa, find my phone’
Smart speakers can also help you remember things. For example, say something like “OK, Google,” or “Alexa,” and then “Remember my passport is in the small drawer in the kitchen.”
When you need it in the future, ask “Where’s my passport?” and she’ll tell you where it is, and what date you asked her to remind you.
On a related note, if you can’t find your smartphone, perhaps because it’s buried between sofa cushions, ask your smart speaker to find your phone and it will ring.
Use Bluetooth to pair a better speaker
Since both Google and Amazon smart speakers have integrated Bluetooth, you can wirelessly connect it to a better Bluetooth speaker or soundbar for louder and clearer sound.
Therefore, you can get away with buying an inexpensive and teeny Google Nest Mini or Amazon Echo Dot, yet still have room-filling sound for music playback.
You can tell it to pair to another device with your voice or by going into the app on a smartphone.
AI assistants can learn your routine
Another useful, and relatively new feature – for both Amazon and Google gear – is to set up Routines.
Instead of manually activating tasks, you can create automatic routines at a certain time, when you get to a specific place (as identified by your phone’s location info), or when you say a specific phrase.
For example, set a routine to start at, say, 7 a.m., and have your smart speaker wake you up with your favorite song, turn the smart lights on in your bathroom, brew a cup of coffee (with the help of a smart plug) and read your calendar appointments.
To enable a Routine on an Amazon speaker, go into the Alexa app on your phone, tap Settings > Routines.
For Google, open the app, and go to Settings > More settings > Assistant > Routines.
Buy something with your speaker
Use your voice to easily buy things on an Amazon Echo or Google Nest speaker, saying the wake word, following by something like “Order a Fitbit Versa 2 Smartwatch” and the product will ship to your door from Amazon.
Your speaker will tell you the item name and price. You’ll be prompted if Alexa or Google Assistant needs more info before ordering (and you can see the item on the app, too).
On Amazon devices, you can also track your package. Say “Alexa, where’s my stuff?” You’ll hear the day your delivery is expected to arrive on your doorstep.
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Use it as a night light
Alexa users know the neon blue ring on top of the smart speaker means Alexa is listening or processing your request. But you can go into the app and choose different colors and patterns to visually tell you things, such as if you missed a message or if someone is calling, what volume the speaker is at, and if the mic is turned off, to name a few options.
There’s also a third-party “skill” (optional add-on) called Night Light that lets you use the ring as a night light in a dark room. First enable the skill by saying “Alexa, enable the Night Light skill.” Then, going forward, tell your speaker something like “Alexa, open Night Light for two hours.”
Personalize voice recognition
If you share a home with family members or a housemate, it’s a good idea to train your Amazon or Google device to recognize your voice.
When you do, you can ask for calendar appointments, favorite music, or how long it will take to get to work (taking real-time traffic information into account) – and it will be only tied to you.
Say “Alexa, train my voice” to get started. When you tell Google to “train your voice,” it will prompt you to open the smartphone app to begin.
Smoothen the conversation
It can be a pain to keep saying the wake word every time you need information from your smart speaker. But you can set up “Follow-up” mode (Amazon) or “Continued Conversation” (Google) to reduce how many times you have to say “Alexa” or “OK Google,” respectively.
Now, when you ask a question, like “Alexa, what’s the weather like today?,” you can follow up with something like “And how long will it take for me to get to work?” – without having to say the wake word again.
Another example is “OK, Google, turn the lights off,” after she says OK, say “Lock the doors” or “Set the thermostat to away mode.”
After enabling this in the app for Alexa or Google, this will work so long as you follow up within a few seconds of the original request.
Change the voice
For both devices, you can change the wake word, accent, and even the language of your smart speaker. Check the Settings of your smart speaker’s app to make those changes.
You can also change the voice altogether. With Google, open the app, tap your profile picture in the top right of the screen, followed by Assistant settings > Assistant > Assistant voice. Choose which voice you like, and you can select celebrity voices, too, like John Legend.
The process is similar with Alexa devices. On the app, choose, Settings > (Device name) > Language.
As of last month, you can also embody your Echo with the voice of Samuel L. Jackson. Say “Alexa, introduce me to Samuel L. Jackson.” Agree to pay 99 cents. And now you’ll hear weather, a joke, music and more, in Sam’s voice, but you’ll have to first say “Alexa, ask Sam for __.” You can choose a clean or explicit version of banter from the actor.
There’s also a “Whisper mode” on Alexa devices. When you enabled this in the app’s Settings (under Voice Responses), whenever you whisper to your speaker – perhaps if a child is sleeping nearby – your speaker will whisper back to you!
Follow Marc on Twitter: @marc_saltzman. Email him or subscribe to his Tech It Out podcast at www.marcsaltzman.com.
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