Siri and the Google App demonstrate that using your voice can be the fastest way to get an answer to something, from driving directions to the middle name of the 21st President of the United States ("Alan"). Amazon's popular Echo devices can work this magic as well, with a built-in AI the company calls Alexa. In May 2017, Amazon added free messaging and voice calling to the Alexa app and all Echos. The people on both ends of the conversation need to have set up either an Echo or the free Alexa app on their phone (Android, iOS). Here's how it works.
How to set up Amazon Alexa calls and messages
When you open the Alexa app on your phone, it will ask you to sign in. You'll use the same email address and password that you use to log in to your Amazon account. (And like the Amazon website, this log-in is protected by two-factor authentication, if you've set that up.)
Once you've logged in, the app will show you a short intro video and then ask you what name you want to use to identify yourself to other Alexa app users. By default, it uses the one associated with your Amazon account, but you can change it to anything you want. Then it asks for permission to access the contacts on your phone. If anyone in this list has an Echo or has set up the Alexa app on their phone, they will show up within the app as someone you can call or message.
The app then asks for your phone number, to which it will send a short code to verify that this is your number.
At this point, you can make calls to anyone in the app's contact list, and send text messages or audio clips (using the app itself to perform these functions, rather than your default apps).
How to use Amazon Alexa calls and messages
You have two ways to communicate: either through the app, or by using voice commands with an Echo device. Let's talk about how the app works first.
There are three buttons at the bottom of the app's home screen. The conversation bubble in the middle opens up your communication options. You'll see a list of your most recent conversations. In the upper-right corner, tapping on the silhouette of the person opens the app's contact list. Tapping on a contact opens up their details and buttons to either send a message or make a call.
Next to the silhouette is the button that opens your list of conversations, sorted by contact. Tapping on a contact opens up the messaging function. Hold the microphone button to record something, or tap on the keyboard icon in the lower right to start a text message. Or you can tap the phone icon in the upper right to start a call.
But as we mentioned, you don't actually need the app, if you're near your Echo and have gone through the app setup process already. You just say, "Alexa, make a call," and it asks you who you want to talk to. You tell it the contact's name, it asks you to confirm that it got the name correct, and it connects your call.
Or you can say "Alexa, send a message" to dictate a text instead, or "Alexa, play my messages," for it to play back audio clips that your contacts have sent to you through the Alexa app. (The app also lets you change the "Alexa" wake word to "Amazon," "Echo," or even "Computer" for you Star Trek fans.)
What happens when you use Alexa to call someone?
The person you're calling will get a notification message on their phone, assuming they don't already have the app open. If they have their Echo nearby, it will tell them that you're calling, and they can answer on the Echo using a voice command. If no one answers, it will just keep on ringing until the call attempt is canceled. Unfortunately, neither the app nor the Echo will create a notification if a call was missed, nor is there a messaging fallback.
There also isn't a way to block specific callers yet. Until call blocking is available, you may want to consider signing up with an alternate phone number, from a service like Google Voice (Android, iOS).
So it won't completely replace your phone's standard phone call system -- but it's fair to say that Amazon will probably continue perfecting its service.
Tips and tricks for Alexa voice calling
- When using the Echo to make a call, you don't actually need to be close to its microphone to be heard clearly. It's designed to be able pick up your voice from the other side of the room. We set the Echo on a stand, sat down on a couch eight feet away, and we could have a phone conversation without raising our voices.
- If you have an Echo Dot, which has an AUX jack, you can connect a standard stereo cable to your home theater receiver, which will redirect all of the Echo's sound from its speaker to your home theater audio setup. The Dot can also send audio to your receiver via Bluetooth, but not all receivers support this function. The regular Amazon Echo can also handle Bluetooth, but it does not have an AUX jack. However, its built-in speaker is much better than the one in the Dot.
- For an additional $30, you can purchase the Alexa Voice Remote for Amazon Echo and Echo Dot separately. It has a microphone button that you hold down to talk to Alexa and basic controls for playing music and controlling speaker volume. This can be handy in noisy environments, and you can use the remote in the next room, when you're not in the Echo's hearing range. This remote is not to be confused with the very similar-looking one designed for the Amazon Fire TV devices, which is bundled with those devices but incompatible with Echo devices.