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What is Amazon’s Alexa, and what can it do?

Alexa is Amazon’s all-knowing, interactive voice assistant. Available on Amazon’s lineup of Echo speakers, smart thermostats, soundbars, lamps and lights, and right on your phone through the Alexa app, Alexa can do quick math for you, launch your favorite playlists, check news and weather, and control many of your home’s smart products.

In this guide, we explain where Alexa comes from, exactly how Alexa works, where Alexa gets her name, and more.

Who/what is Alexa?

Alexa listening indicator

For most people, all you really have to know about Alexa is that it’s the name of the voice that comes out of Alexa-enabled speakers. Basically, Alexa is to Amazon what Siri is to Apple. Alexa is a voice that you can ask questions to and get answers, such as “What is the weather today in Chicago?” Alexa has been integrated into many of Amazon’s services and can be used with products such as the original Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, Echo Spot, Echo Show, or Amazon Fire TV.

But really, what exactly is Alexa? When you ask Alexa a question, what you’re doing is communicating with a cloud-based service. Amazon has designed the Alexa Voice Service (AVS) to mimic real conversations, but you’re actually using intuitive voice commands to get this service to perform specific tasks. “Alexa” is simply the “wake word” that alerts the service to start listening to your voice. For most devices, you just have to say the wake word to get a response.

According to Amazon’s Developer site, the Alexa Voice Service (AVS) lives in the cloud. Amazon’s AVS is an intelligent voice recognition and natural language understanding service. The service can be used to voice-enable any connected device that has a microphone and speaker. That’s why you’re starting to see Alexa in headphones and other devices. “Alexa is always getting smarter with new capabilities through machine learning,” Amazon’s Developer site reads.

While Alexa is the official name for Amazon’s voice assistant, you can change this wake word to “Amazon,” “Computer,” or “Echo.” That’s a useful feature, especially if your name or your partner’s or roommate’s name happens to be Alexa or something that sounds similar.

Why Alexa?

Echo Show 5

Apple has Siri. Google Home has the Google Assistant, which comes alive when you say “OK, Google.” Amazon has Alexa. But why? According to David Limp, the Amazon executive who oversaw the development of the service, the name “Alexa” was chosen for a few reasons. First, the name “Alexa” harks back to the Library of Alexandria, which attempted to collect all of the world’s knowledge. Amazon is attempting to do the same thing. Alexa is always learning but, in theory, it should be a seamless source of information.

More practically, the service was named Alexa because it contains the uncommon “X” sound. Since this service is voice-activated, Amazon wanted to choose a name that wouldn’t get confused with other words that could accidentally awaken the device:

“We did go through a number of names and the name is important as much for the personality that it creates around the persona than is this computer-based voice computer in the cloud. But there’s computer science behind it, too,” Limp said. “If any of you have Echoes, you know that it only wakes up when it hears the word “Alexa,” and the phonics of that word and how that word is parsed and the fact that it has a hard consonant with the ‘X’ in it, is important in making sure that it wakes up only when it’s asked for. And so, a combination of those two things allowed us to kind of narrow in on Alexa.”

Further reading

Where can I use Alexa?

Amazon Echo 4th Gen

In order to use Alexa, you’ll need a device that integrates the voice technology. This typically means an Amazon device, such as an Echo, Echo Dot, or Echo Show, but this cloud-based personal voice assistant has also been integrated into the Echo Auto, and with some third-party systems. Devices like the Fire TV are also compatible with Alexa, as are some third-party devices: the Ecobee Switch+ light switch, the LG InstaView refrigerator, headphones (like Echo Buds and some Plantronics models), and the aforementioned Sonos One speaker. Someone even programmed Alexa to work with a Big Mouth Billy Bass.

Alexa has also become the center of many smart-home systems, including Wink, SmartThings, and the Logitech Harmony. You can also use the voice-assistant to build your smart home piecemeal, as Alexa can pair with hub-less devices such as WeMo switches and Nest thermostats.

Here is a list of some of the best smart-home devices that are compatible with Alexa.

What can Alexa do?

Echo Studio

The list of commands Alexa can understand seems to grow on a daily basis. Amazon calls these “skills,” and you can even create your own skills through Amazon Blueprints. Upon review from Amazon, you can even publish your own skills in the Amazon Skills Store for other people to use on their Alexa devices. The number of tasks that Alexa can accomplish is clearly more than we can list in this article, but here are some of our favorites:

Alexa also has the ability to set up “routines,” where a single command that you set — say, “Alexa, goodnight” — shuts off the lights, locks your front door, sets an alarm for a time you set, and sets your coffee pot to turn on at a certain time. Routines continue to improve too, and you can now have Alexa turn on the lights, wait 10 minutes, and then turn on the coffee pot. If you don’t want to wake your partner, Alexa has a whisper mode, where she’ll whisper to you and understand your whispers. You can learn how to set up routines in our how-to post.

With features like Alexa Guard, Alexa can help keep tabs on your home while you’re away. If your Echo speaker hears the sound of breaking glass or other mysterious noises, Alexa will send you a notification to let you know something’s amiss at home. With Alexa Guard Plus (a paid version of the same feature), you’ll also have access to Amazon’s emergency hotline and a host of other home security functions.

Amazon is adding new capabilities to Alexa just about every day, with more skills and device compatibility. Amazon is rolling out frustration-detection features, so Alexa will be able to understand and acknowledge when you’re getting frustrated with her. If you want to learn more about Alexa, all you have to do is ask: “Alexa, what’s new with you?” and she’s happy to share.

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