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September 20, 2018 — The Lenovo Smart Tab blends the best of Alexa and Android in one device

Per a press release that was shared on its website, Lenovo announced that it's working on a new device called the Lenovo Smart Tab. We don't have any specs on the Smart Tab or even know what it looks like, but Lenovo says it features Amazon Alexa and has a "Show Mode" that "will offer more visual Alexa experiences to enhance the way users interact with their music, control smart home devices, and more."

We also know that the Smart Tab will feature Lenovo's "versatile and beautifully designed Android tablet technology", but aside from that, this gadget is still mostly a mystery.

Lenovo will be sharing more details on the Smart Tab later this year, so stay tuned!

September 20, 2018 — Amazon announces whisper mode, offline smart home control, and more at fall event

Amazon just wrapped up its big fall event at its HQ in Seattle, and as expected, a lot of new Alexa goodies were announced.

The first thing Amazon unveiled is a new whisper mode for Alexa. Alexa can now detect when you're whispering to it and then whisper a response back in return. According to Amazon, the functionality will be "rolling out soon."

Also new is offline support for controlling smart home devices. For example, if you say "Alexa, turn off the lights", your command will still go through even if there's no active internet connection.

If home security is important to you, Alexa Guard will probably become one of your new favorite features. Alexa Guard connects to any home security systems you've got set up, so if you say something such as "Alexa, I'm leaving", Alexa Guard will trigger all of your devices to lock down your home even if you're using stuff from other brands. To get things started, Amazon's partnering with Ring and ADT to kickstart the platform.

On a similar note, the newly announced Alexa Doorbell API will allow you to have two-way interaction on an Echo Show and Echo Spot when someone rings a connected doorbell. Anyone can tap into this, meaning it won't be tied to just specific partners Amazon okays.

Lastly, in an attempt to make everything a smart gadget, Amazon's launching the Alexa Connect Kit.

Alexa Connect Kit is a new developer kit that features various radios and a real-time OS that devs can integrate into appliances and make them "smart." Brands like Hamilton Beach, P&G, and others are already using it.

July 26, 2018 — Alexa Cast launches as a way to cast Amazon Music from your phone to Alexa speakers

If you own an Alexa-powered speaker, there's a good chance you subscribe to Amazon Music. Amazon Music is a great service for using your voice to listen to tunes on your Alexa device, and today with a new update that's rolling out to the app, you can finally use Amazon Music on your phone to cast music to your Alexa speakers.

Aptly called "Alexa Cast", this works just like we've seen from Google with Chromecast for years. When listening to a song in Amazon Music on your phone, tap the Alexa Cast button, choose the speaker you want to send your tunes to, and it'll automatically switch to it from your phone.

You can start using Alexa Cast after updating the Amazon Music app on your Android or iOS device.

April 18, 2018 — A new Call of Duty skill delivers personalized coaching, tips on objectives to complete, and more

We don't blame you if you never thought of pairing Alexa with Activision's Call of Duty: WWII, but someone apparently did and made a skill just for that.

The new Call of Duty Alexa Skill can connect to your Call of Duty account, and after doing so, you can ask your Echo about how to improve your game based on the last match you just played, get updates on new Contracts you should complete, see which friends are playing, and more. Activision says the skill allows for personalized responses to over 2,500 questions and can dish out 250,000 responses using a custom "solider" voice.

Although it's still in beta, you can start using the skill right now by enabling it and then saying "Alexa, Ask Call of Duty ___"

April 4, 2018 – Hands-free Alexa comes to more Fire tablets, music now available with Routines, and Canadian users can use Alexa in the Amazon Music mobile app

Whew, what a day! Amazon announced a heap of Alexa goodies on April 4, and without further ado, let's run through what's new.

First off, the online shopping giant has now allowed you to turn the Fire 7 and Fire HD 8 tablets into hands-free Alexa speakers. This is a feature that was previously reserved for just the Fire HD 10, and it allows you to say "Alexa" and have the tablets respond just like an Echo. The tablets will need to have their screens on or be plugged into a power source in order for this to work, but even so, it's a nice way to get Alexa listening to you no matter where you go.

Moving over to Alexa Routines, you can now add music to these. Alexa Routines enable you to perform a variety of actions with one single command, and up until now, playing music wasn't an option when creating a new Routine. With this update, however, you can play your favorite album, artist, podcast, etc. from Amazon Music, Spotify, Deezer, Pandora, and TuneIn.

Last but not least, users in Canada can now talk to Alexa inside the Amazon Music app for Android and iOS.

What is Alexa?

Amazon Echo. Or Alexa. They're one and the same, really. That is, an Amazon Echo without Alexa really isn't any more than just a speaker. And Alexa without a speaker is just ... Well, nothing.

Confused yet. I don't blame you. Let's explain the difference this way:

Echo is hardware, Alexa is software

Amazon Echo — and all of its permutations — is hardware. Alexa is software. She (and I have zero problem if you refer to Alexa as a she) is the brains behind the Echo, and all the things you can do with it. And because she's software, she's available on more than just Amazon's own devices.

Anyone can put Alexa on anything. You can make your own Alexa speaker for just a few bucks and a little bit of nerdy know-how. There are third-party Alexa speakers that look like Amazon's own Echo Dot. There are third-party Alexa speakers that look like speakers. You can get Alexa baked into a smart thermostat. She's built into the HTC U11 smartphone.

The point is, Alexa can be built into pretty much anything these days.

But that's just half of the story.

It's all about the Alexa Skills, baby ...

Alexa starts out by knowing what Amazon tells it. She already knows how to tell the time, and set alarms and timers, or answer general questions and read headlines. But Alexa also has the ability to learn more. A lot more.

Or, more precisely, you have the ability to teach Alexa new things.

See all of Amazon's Skills here

Amazon calls these things "Skills," and there are hundreds of them.

Want to teach Alexa to turn on your smart lights, or open your garage door, or do anything she doesn't already know how to do? You need a Skill. That's where developers come in. Amazon has made it so that anyone can write an Alexa Skill, and companies and their developers have been doing so for years now.

Think about the things you do every day. Listen to satellite radio? There's a Skill for that. Lock your house after you're already at work? It's a little daunting, actually. There are hundreds and hundreds of Skills, of varying degrees of usefulness. (Dog facts, uh, OK.)

How to enable and disable Alexa Skills

Support for Sonos speakers

Amazon Echo speakers are pretty decent, but Sonos speakers are better! The latest version of the Sonos One speaker has Alexa built right in, making it arguably the best sounding Alexa speaker you can buy.

If you've already got a bunch of Sonos speakers set up around your home, don't fear — simply use the Sonos Skill and you'll be able to control all the different speakers around your home. It's not the greatest experience with some very mixed reviews from users, but it's still the best way to connect your high-end smart speakers with Alexa.

Alexa Routines makes life easier — now with music!

One of the coolest parts of smart speakers is the ability to get the latest news, play music, and control your connected smart home devices all with your voice. With Alexa and your Amazon Echo products, you have the option to do so on an individual basis or group actions together using Routines.

Routines are built right into the Alexa app and are entirely customizable. You can create your own Alexa Routines right in the app which can be triggered by a phrase you say (ex: "Alexa, good morning") or at a scheduled time.

Each Routine can trigger a combination of up to seven different action types, which are each customizable to some extent depending on what you need Alexa to do:

  • Alexa Says: Mostly silly stuff. You can set Alexa to say a specific greeting, wish you a happy birthday, sing a song, or tell a story or joke.
  • Music: The latest feature to be added to Routines, you can use an Alexa Routine to trigger music. For example, saying "Alexa, it's party time" could automatically play your favorite party playlist on Spotify.
  • News: Adding this to a routine will trigger Alexa to read out the latest Flash Briefing news reports.
  • Smart Home: Get Alexa to toggle or control your connected smart home products. For example, I have a routine set up for when I say "Alexa, I'm leaving" that turns off all the smart lights in my house.
  • Traffic: To add traffic updates to an Alexa routine, you'll first need to dive into the Alexa settings and enter location information for your daily commute.
  • Volume: You can set a routine to automatically adjust Alexa's volume. For example, if you're a really heavy sleeper you can have Alexa crank the volume when you say "good night".
  • Weather: Adds a weather update to your custom routine.

How to set up Routines on your Amazon Echo

Alexa calling and messaging

All of that connected home stuff is great, and it's important. But one of the more exciting avenues of potential lies in Alexa Calling and Messaging. As the name implies, it's the ability to make calls and leave messages through Alexa. From the outset, it works with Echo devices and the Alexa app on phones and tablets. If you have an original Echo or Echo Dot, you can make voice calls. If you have an Echo Show, you can make video calls, or even "drop in" on a close acquaintance (they have to approve you first) without them having to hit a single button.

That's where these $50 Echo Dots really make a lot of sense. Now Amazon has a means for you to communicate not just on that little Dot, but also on your phone. It's two birds with one stone, and it's really just the start of things. And it makes up for where Amazon failed in trying to make its own phone. Folks didn't want a Fire Phone, but they do want an Echo — especially an inexpensive on — and in buying one they have to put the Alexa app on their phone.

It's not quite a benevolent Trojan Horse, but it's close.

Read: Amazon is getting close to being the king of all messaging

Update May 2018: Added sections on Sonos speaker support and Routines.

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