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What is Alexa? Amazon’s virtual assistant explained

Alexa can do an awful lot with voice control - meaning you have to do a lot less.

Amazon Echo What is Alexa

Smart tech is all the rage these days, with internet-connected, voice-controlled devices controlling all aspects of people’s homes and lives.

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But between Alexa, Google Assistant, Google Nest Mini, the Amazon Echo Dot, and more, it’s easy to get confused over which device does what and so forth.

For devices designed to make our lives easier, it shouldn’t be so complicated – so see below for a nice, clear explanation of what exactly this new smart tech is.

For more smart home guides, try our explainer on Google Nest Mini vs Amazon Echo Dot or find out the best Alexa-compatible devices to try with your Amazon Echo.

What is Alexa?

Alexa Echo smart speakers

Alexa is a virtual assistant AI – essentially a digital voice that can recognise spoken commands and then talk back, meaning it can answer questions and perform certain tasks such as playing music.

Alexa is most commonly found in the Amazon Echo, a series of speakers that use the Alexa software. As we explained in our article on the difference between Alexa and Echo, people have a tendency to just call their Echo speakers Alexa – when in reality Alexa is just the name of the virtual assistant housed within the Echo, and not a physical product.

However, the success of Alexa means it is now found in several third-party speakers, TVs and even cars. For more information see our list of Amazon Echo accessories.

What does Alexa do?

Much like Apple’s virtual assistant Siri, Alexa can answer questions, set alarms, make to-do lists, and read out the news, all by the command of your voice alone.

As Alexa is often found inside a speaker it can also play music, audiobooks, and podcasts – either through BlueTooth or directly streaming from the internet – and also has access to the Amazon store, meaning you can order items from the retail giant just by talking.

A growing use of Alexa is linking it with other available smart home tech, such as lightbulbs, thermostats, blinds and security systems. This means you can ask Alexa to turn off the lights, change the temperature or close the blinds, and the task will be performed without you having to lift a finger.

Alexa also has a few neat tricks that its competitors lack – it has a Guard Mode to listen out for intruders, can plug into your car via USB and can even tell when you’re annoyed and apologise.

Is there a monthly cost to use Alexa?

In short: no! No matter what Alexa-powered device you are using there’s no monthly subscription in order just to use Alexa. So once you’ve bought your Amazon Echo or other compatible tech, you’re free to use it as much as you like without yet another monthly outgoing.

However, if you wish to use a music streaming service on your Alexa device – such as Spotify,  Amazon Music or Apple Music – that will likely require a monthly subscription to use. However, you can BlueTooth songs to your Alexa for free.

How do you set up Alexa?

How to set up an Echo

Setting up Alexa is nice and simple – you simply plug in your Alexa device, download the Alexa app, and then follow the on-screen instructions. For more information see our Alexa setup guide.

Is Alexa compatible with Google Home?

No – while Alexa can communicate with other Alexa-powered speakers, it is not compatible with rival Google Home. There are all sorts of other devices it can connect to, however, however, including smart doorbells and even smart plugs.

Is Alexa compatible with Fire Stick or Google Chromecast?

Unfortunately, you can’t connect your Alexa to Google Chromecast – the streaming stick is only compatible with other devices from the internet giant such as Google Nest Mini.

Most Fire TV Sticks come with Alexa built into the remote these days, but you can connect your Alexa speakers to your Fire Stick. You simply have to link the two in the Alexa app (Settings > TV & Video > Fire TV), you can launch Prime Video shows and pause, rewind, and fast-forward your TV with your voice.

To find out more about what Fire TV devices can do, read our Amazon Fire TV Stick review and Fire TV Cube review. If you already have the Fire TV Stick, read our guide to the Amazon Fire TV Stick channels to make sure you’re getting the most from the device.

How much is Alexa?

The cost of having your very own virtual assistant in your home depends on which Alexa-powered device you’d like – we’ll break down the main choices:

Amazon Echo

Amazon Echo smart speaker

Amazon’s flagship Alexa device has the best speakers of the bunch, with 360 degree Dolby audio and improved dynamic bass. It can also learn skills essentially audio apps – meaning you can customise your Echo to track your fitness, play games, and more.

Already have an Echo? Read our Amazon Echo (3rd Gen) review to help decide whether it’s time to upgrade.

Buy now for £69.99

Amazon Echo Dot

Amazon Echo Dot

Smaller, sleeker, but just as powerful, the Echo Dot packs all of Alexa’s smarts into a more compact, and importantly cheaper, model. Amazon’s most popular Alexa device, it has a new fabric design and can even come with a digital clock interface.

To find out how it fared when we put it to the test, read our Amazon Echo Dot (4th Gen) review.

Buy now for £49.99

Amazon Echo Show 8

Echo Show 8

Yes, Alexa isn’t just confined to speakers – the Amazon Echo Show 8 brings all the Alexa voice capabilities to a screen, meaning you can order the virtual assistant to make video calls, stream films and TV shows, display photos and edit your visual calendar. It can also do more with smart devices around the home, allowing you to view security cameras and control lights and thermostats with the screen. Read the full Amazon Echo Show 8 review.

Buy now for £79.99

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