Tag Archives: Alexa

Informational Websites for Busy Parents

By Tracey Dowdy

Keeping up with what’s happening in the world around you should be easy. Information has never been more accessible, yet somehow, we’re often ill-informed. Our 24-hour news cycle makes it a challenge to sift through the onslaught of information constantly coming at us, and with so much “fake news” out there, how do we know who to trust?

These sites are great resources to help you stay in the know with what you need to know when you need to know it.

Both Amazon Alexa and Google Nest offer streamlined, customizable skills for news and weather information. Google Nest allows you to choose your news sources and customize the order in which they play. Just say, “Ok, Google, listen to news.” Alexa’s Flash Briefing delivers news and content from popular broadcasters, local weather information, even comedy, interviews and more. Just say “Hey Alexa, what’s the news?”

Flipboard consolidates the information you’re interested in down to one easily scrollable page. Choose the topics that interest you from categories such as Technology, Parenting, Entertainment, Design, and Health, and Flipboard will curate relevant news and information. Simply ‘flip’ through each page and topic to see a headline or brief, then tap to go directly to the article.

Because Twitter is comprised of millions of users around the world, it’s a great resource for breaking news, often posting before broadcast networks or other major news sources. Check trending topics or search for specific sources like the Washington Post, NPR, or NBC.

Pocket allows users to save stories, articles, and videos from virtually any publication, page or app. Not only can you curate and customize the content you want to see, but you can also save the story in in your “pocket” to review at a more convenient time, even offline. When you’re ready, click on the content and ready or listen without distraction, on any Android or iOS device.

The Skimm presents world events with an informative and witty style. Users get a daily email recapping the latest news, breaking down the daily avalanche of news into bite-size pieces.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Tips for Shopping on Amazon

Once upon a time, big-box and department stores ruled the earth like gentle retail behemoths, and the thought of purchasing an item online, sight unseen, was madness. Who in their right mind would share their credit card information, home address, or shipping details like “leave package under the mat on the porch?” Then along came Amazon, and everything changed. Through my Amazon Prime membership, I’ve purchased everything from patio furniture to my Mother of the bride dress, and the possibility of never having to walk inside a mall again fills my heart with such happiness it brings a tear to my eye.

And before you condemn me for the collapse of the American small business economy, I buy local when I can. But, there are times when the convenience of Amazon collides with the time constraints of my life making it my go-to option in those moments. There’s a lot more to a Prime Membership than just free two-day shipping on many items, including Amazon Prime Music, Pantry, and Video. Make the most of your membership by taking advantage of these lesser-known features.

When you shop through Amazon Smile, The AmazonSmile Foundation will donate 0.5% of the purchase price from your eligible AmazonSmile purchases to the charity of your choice. There are over one million charities to choose from, so no matter the cause near and dear to your heart, there’s certain to be a charity that resonates with you.

Pay attention to your stage of life. Are you a student? If so, through Prime Student you’re eligible for six months of Prime for free, and a half-price discount going forward (only $59 per year). If you’re a parent, sign up for Amazon Family to get a 20% discount on items like diapers and baby food, a free Baby Registry Welcome Box, an emailed newsletter with parenting tips, product reviews, and exclusive deals. Plus, you get a 15% Baby Registry completion discount.

If you’re in the market for furniture, Amazon’s Ar View lets you view products in your home before you buy them. To use it, open the Amazon app on your smartphone, tap the camera icon in the search bar, and then scroll “view in your room” and select a product.

Make sure you’re getting the best price by paying attention to three things:

  • If you don’t need the item right away, check to see if a third party seller is offering it at a lower price. Many offer free shipping, and if you’re willing to wait a day or two longer, you may get a better deal. Just make sure you review their return policy as their terms may differ from Amazon’s.   
  • Check out Amazon Warehouse deals. These are products that have been returned by customers like you and me, so many are open-box but still quality products, often deeply discounted. For example, currently, there are Sony WH-CH500 Wireless On-Ear Headphones for just $14.12.  
  • Amazon’s Outlet offers closeouts, markdowns, and overstock deals for Prime members. Items are discounted anywhere from 10-70% off list prices.

While we’re talking savings, take advantage of Subscribe & Save to save up to 15% on items you frequently purchase like paper towels, pet food, baby wipes, and pretty much anything else you use regularly. There’s no long-term commitment, and you can cancel any time. You can also take advantage of ordering through Alexa Prime-eligible physical products. On supported devices, you can also ask Alexa to place orders for music.

Finally, take heart if you’re one of the 26 million Americans who’ve lost packages to porch pirates, Amazon may replace that package for you at no additional cost. To make your case to Customer Service, you’ll need to have purchased directly from Amazon, not a third-party seller, and include your tracking numbers. Don’t expect to be compensated if this is a recurring issue – Amazon tracks who reports stolen items – and in future, consider using an Amazon locker or Amazon Hub to protect your purchases.

Use Alexa in the Garden

By Tracey Dowdy

 Based on the amount of rain beating down outside my window, I think it’s safe to say Spring is on its way. And, thoughts of Spring mean gardening is on my mind, and I’m planning out what will go in my little backyard plot.

Along with the usual gardening spades, shovels, and other supplies, I’ve added Alexa to my toolbox. You may be surprised at how useful it can be.

As the song says, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.” Alexa’s “Beginners Gardening” skill is free and takes you step by step through planting your own garden. Even if you have never grown anything before, Alexa can walk you through everything from preparing the soil to what plants will thrive in your geographic area. In the words of one reviewer, “For those of us who are totally clueless about gardening this is a great skill to start with. It gives basics and walks you through step by step. Lots of information here.”

It may be obvious, but Alexa’s weather skill will come in very handy once your seeds or plants are in the ground. Living in Northern Virginia, it’s not unusual to experience all four seasons in a week, especially throughout the Spring. I use Big Sky to keep track of unexpected frost or a particularly hot day, outside normal weather patterns. Premium users can schedule weather alerts, and Alexa will notify you of events like temperatures above 90F, below freezing, heavy winds.

Speaking of alerts, as someone whose system of benign neglect works wonders with my succulents, having Alexa remind me to water my plants is quite useful, particularly throughout the hot and dry summer months. You can be as specific as you like. Just say something like, “Alexa, set a reminder to water the lettuce at 6 a.m.” At 6 a.m. the next day, Alexa will light up with a notification, and you’ll receive a push notification on your phone reminding you to water your lettuce.  If you’ve planted a variety of flowers, fruits, and vegetables, you can create a calendar to monitor each plant and then link it to Alexa. That way, when you ask for a Flash Briefing or say, “Alexa, my schedule,” Alexa let you know if it’s time to water any of your plants.

Or, you could skip the reminder and connect Alexa to a smart home sprinkler system like the Rachio 3 WiFi Smart Lawn Sprinkler Controller,  or RainMachine Touch. Both integrate seamlessly with Alexa and allow you to control the sprinklers with a voice command. You can be as specific as you like – “Alexa, turn on all the sprinklers,” or, “Alexa, turn on the sprinklers in Zone 1 for six minutes.”

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

 

Tips for Voice Shopping with Alexa

 By Tracey Dowdy

I’m not that old, but when I think of grocery shopping back when my children were little, it’s a blur of car seats, dropped toys, cereal negotiations, and the occasional tantrum – not always by my children. But the gods have smiled upon moms and dads everywhere and given us the power of voice shopping with very own personal assistant – Alexa.

If you’re new to using Alexa for more than checking the forecast or settling an argument about trivia, you’ll be glad to know that with a few simple steps you can use Alexa to add items to your Amazon shopping cart, complete the purchase, and even track your order.

The first step is, of course, to become an Amazon Prime member at the cost of $119 per year. Once that’s complete, go to your Alexa app and choose Menu > Settings > Alexa Account > Voice Purchasing. Click on Purchase by Voice. Then go to 1-Click Preferences on the Amazon website and set up a payment method. To purchase an item, simply say, “Alexa, add (product or item) to my shopping cart.” Alexa will add the item to your cart. Repeat until your shopping list is complete, then say, “Alexa, order items in my shopping cart.” Alexa will ask you to confirm your order, allowing you to review the items and make changes before the order is sent. You can specify Prime Now for faster delivery, but you’ll have to specify by saying “Alexa, order (item) from Prime Now.” If the item is available for two-hour delivery, it will be added to your cart and be to your door in two hours.

The beauty of ordering through Alexa is that you can be as vague or specific as you like. If you’re ordering a Lightening to USB cable, you can say, “Alexa, order one SEGMOI Apple certified USB Lightning cable” and it will be added to your cart. Or, say, “Alexa, add a Lightning to USB cable to my cart,” and Alexa will choose an Amazon Prime product for you unless you’ve ordered the item before. In this case, Alexa will default to your previous specifications. If you’re not looking for a specific brand or style, you can say, “Alexa, find me deals on (item),” and Alexa will find options, list the sale price and ask if you want to purchase it. Simply say “yes” to add it to your cart or “no” to move to the next deal. This is particularly useful if you’re shopping for gifts and need suggestions. CNET has excellent guides for using Alexa to buy gifts or gift cards.

By now you’ve likely heard examples of kids – or parrotswho have ordered hundreds of dollars of items through Alexa so learn from them and add a four-digit code to authorize purchases. Go to the app, tap Menu > Settings > Alexa Account > Voice Purchasing. Then tap Voice Code, type in the four-digit code you’d like to use, and select Go.

Once you’ve placed your order, you can track it by saying, “Alexa, track my order,” and Alexa will tell you the date of purchase and when they are scheduled for delivery. You can have Alexa provide automatic shipping updates through the app. Go to Settings > Notifications > Shipping notifications. Choose the notifications you want to receive. When new information is available, Alexa will notify you.

 Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

 

Alexa’s Most Useful Skills

By Tracey Dowdy

Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa streams your music, controls your smart gadgets, and can order items from Amazon. It will even integrate with IFTTT (a website that allows devices that don’t automatically communicate to connect with one another) so you can ask Alexa to start your Roomba, brew a cup of coffee with your WeMo coffee maker, or lock your doors at night, and she’ll turn off your Hue lights, make sure your Garageio closes your garage door, and mute your Android phone.

These are some of Alexa’s handiest, but sometimes overlooked skills.

  • Alexa’s most convenient skill is that she can find the skills for you. Simply say, “Alexa, open Skill Finder,” or “Alexa, tell Skill Finder to give me the skill of the day.” She can also tell you about the newest skills and the top skills in Alexa’s catalog.
  • You can place an order at one of the last ten Starbucks locations you’ve visited in person through the Starbucks Reorder  Once enabled, you’ll need to link your account and have previously placed a mobile order with the Starbucks app on your Android or iOS device. The skill allows you to check your account balance and switch between your last five mobile orders.
  • If the “feels like” temperature is more important to you than the actual temperature, try Feels Like to hear the wind chill any time the temperature is less than 50 degrees Fahrenheit and heat index whenever it’s over 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Did you know you can order pizza through Alexa? You can place your Domino’s Easy Order by enabling the skill and saying, “Alexa, open Domino’s and place my Easy Order.” Or, if Pizza Hut is more up your alley, enable the skill and say “Alexa, tell Pizza Hut to place an order.” You can browse and order from a select menu, saved favorite or repeat a past order.
  • Automatica connected car adapter that plugs into your vehicle’s on-board diagnostic port and pairs with your phone over Bluetooth – will sync your vehicle with your Amazon Echo to monitor gas mileage, maintenance issues, and access the vehicle’s GPS location. For instance, say, “Alexa — ask Automatic what’s my fuel level?” to check your gas gauge.
  • Connect your Logitech Harmony hub-based remote to start and stop Harmony, change the channel, control volume, or start/pause/stop streaming content. For example, say “Alexa, turn on the TV” to power on your TV, AV receiver and cable box and set them all to the correct input.
  • One of my personal favorites is the Uber Say, “Alexa, ask Uberto get me a car” or “Alexa, ask Uber for a ride” and an UberX will be there in minutes. If you need a different car type, say things like “Alexa, ask Uber to order an Uber Black.”
  • The Lyft skill goes one step further by allowing you to ask for pricing. Say, “Alexa, ask Lyft how much a Lyft Plus from home to work costs.”
  • If you’ve managed to stick to your New Year’s resolutions and you’re watching your food intake, use the Track by Nutritionix skill, to record your meals, snacks, or drinks, or ask for your food’s calorie count. Say, “Alexa, tell Food Tracker to log four ounces of peanuts” or “Alexa, ask Food Tracker how many calories are in a half cup of tuna salad.”

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.