Three years after it was first available south of the border, the Amazon Echo and its Alexa voice assistant service are now launched in Canada.
If you just received your Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, or Echo Plus, you’ve come to the right place to get completely set up to maximize its capabilities. If you’re a Canadian that smuggled an Echo unit into the country before official support came here, we’ll cover how to fully patriate your device.
Much like our guide to setting up the Google Home, we’ll point out to the uninitiated that using an Echo device is mostly a voice user interface experience. The companion mobile app is a big piece of the puzzle in both setting up and customizing your Alexa experience. So make sure you have that installed from Google Play or the App Store before we go any further. Also, since there’s some different hardware options to buy into the Alexa eco-system, it’s worth touching on the differences.
- The Echo (second generation) is the core Alexa device that offers a very decent-sounding speaker and will fit perfectly on your kitchen counter or on top of a bookshelf somewhere. Amazon had a “special introductory price” of $99 for this unit. A great starter device to begin your Alexa experience.
- The Echo Dot is the smaller, cheaper entry into the Alexa experience. At $49.99, this is a good device to pick up as an add-on to extend your Alexa experience across multiple rooms. Since it’s easy to plug into a better speaker with an aux output or Bluetooth pairing, this might be all you need for a great voice-activated setup.
- The Echo Plus is a $169.99 and identical in design to the first generation Echo speaker. Here, you have a speaker that’s equal in quality and volume to the Echo, with an added Zigbee Wireless radio. This may be a good option if you’re planning on buying other smart home equipment that would otherwise require an independent hub, such as the Philips Hue lights. But you can also find lots of good smart home products that can do without a hub.
Localize your Echo
The first thing you’ll want to do upon plugging in your new Echo is connecting to it with the Amazon Alexa app. Download it from Google Play or the App Store and press the context menu in the upper left corner. Press “Set up a new device” and follow the steps to connect your device to your Wi-Fi network.
During this setup you’ll also be able to configure your device’s location. If you’ve previously bought an Echo from the U.S. and set it up with a random U.S. street address, you’ll now be able to change this to your real Canadian address. This means you no longer have to say “Alexa, what is the weather in Toronto” but instead can just ask “Alexa, what’s the weather.” It’s the little things.
That’s all you really need to do in the Settings menu, but you can take note of the options to choose the wake word (aside from the default, you can say “Computer,” “Echo,” or “Amazon.”) You can also make sure your temperature units and distance units are set to metric measurements.
In the Sounds menu, you’ll find a default volume setting for your alarm and notification settings and the option to change what your alarm sounds like.
Pairing Bluetooth devices
If you want to connect your smartphone to your Echo, navigate to Settings -> Bluetooth in your Alexa app and select “Pair a New Device.” Now on your smartphone, go into the Bluetooth settings menu and search for a new device. You should see a device named “Echo-##” with a headphone icon show up. If you don’t see it, try refreshing. Select it to pair the devices. Alexa should announce that from now on you can say “Alexa, connect to my phone,” to initiate the connection. Pairing your phone allows you to use Alexa like a Bluetooth speaker or a speakerphone.
If you want to connect a Bluetooth speaker to Alexa, then you’ll do so in the Alexa App. Make sure your device is in pairing mode and then select “Pair a New Device” in the app. This allows you to play the audio that would normally emanate from your Echo on the Bluetooth speaker instead. Especially handy if you have an Echo Dot but want to use a superior speaker system or sound bar to listen to your music.
Configuring your Accounts
The next thing you’ll want to do with your new Echo after you’ve got it connected to your Wi-Fi network and Bluetooth devices is set up all your accounts. This will really enhance your experience with Alexa and make it like a true personal assistant. You’ll find all of these under the “Settings” menu in your Alexa app.
- Notifications: Right now you can choose to receive Shopping notifications about when items you order from Amazon are shipped.
- Music Services: Amazon Prime members should see Amazon Music turned on here by default. You can also add your Spotify Premium account. Other options for music include Pandora, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn. You can also choose your default music services, so if you have specific playlists set up in Spotify, you’ll be able to get to them more easily.
- Flash Briefing: Here you will be able to explore Alexa’s Flash Briefing skills to tailor a lineup for your preferences. Canadians will find several local content options including CBC, Global News, and of course IT World Canada’s own Hashtag Trending and Tech in Sports.
- Sports Update: Nothing complicated here. Add your favourite major league teams to hear score and schedule updates by asking Alexa for your “sports update.” We notice the CFL isn’t included.
- Traffic Update: Just add your office address and any stops you have to make along the way here. Alexa will provide a realtime update on the fastest route and how long it will take.
- Calendar: Add your Google, Microsoft, Apple, or Exchange calendars here. Alexa can even handle multiple calendars. You can add events to your calendars, delete them, or just have Alexa read them to you.
- Lists: Keeping a groceries list is one of the most useful features of Alexa. You can view items you ask Alexa to add to your Shopping list in the native app, or you can pair it with another third-party list management service here.
- Your Voice: Train Alexa to recognize your voice. This is particularly important if you’re using your Echo device in a house or office with other users. Training Alexa to respond to you based on your voice will allow you to reach your contacts with Alexa devices, play preferred music, keep your personal lists, and buy things from Amazon with your account.
- Household Profile: Invite your family members that you want to share your Amazon content with, collaborate on calendars and shopping lists, and more shared features.
Integrate your Smart Home equipment with Alexa
Amazon makes it very easy to add your smart home gear to Alexa’s voice control reach. Just go into the “Smart Home” menu on the app and hit the Discover button to pick up all your connected devices.
Before you do that, make sure that you have your connected device’s apps installed and signed in to your accounts. You may also need to enable a Skill for your devices. For example, I enable the TP-Link Kasa Skill for my lights, and Ecobee for my thermostat. This is what will ensure that the Alexa app is able to pick up all of your devices.
(Pro Tip – you can just say “Alexa, enable Ecobee skill.” Instead of searching for the Skill with the Alexa app.)
Likewise, you’ll want to make sure any smart hub that you use (Philips Hue, for example, or Samsung SmartThings) is turned on and discoverable. If you have the Echo Plus, that’s taken care of for you.
The “Scenes” option in the Alexa app is also informed by the third party apps you keep on your smartphone. For example, I manage a few different scenes for my TP-Link account. A wakeup scene turns on all the lights in my bedroom and kitchen. A TV Time scene dims the lights in the living room. If you want to tweak scenes to your liking involving multiple devices, the place to do that is in the third-party app outside of Alexa.
The “Groups” option in the Alexa app, however, is totally set up natively. So if you want to group all your lights together into a group called “kitchen” or “bottom floor” this is the place to configure it. Another tip here – create a group called “All” for all of your lights. Alexa won’t intuitively understand this request otherwise.
Having Conversations using Alexa
Different from having conversations with Alexa (“Alexa, what’s the weather?”) here we’re talking about using Alexa to have conversations with people. To access these features, open your Alexa app and tap on the dialogue word bubble icon in the middle along the bottom.
- Talk to your friends: Alexa will be fairly pushy about asking for access to your contacts on your smartphone. If you grant it, it will search for contacts that also own Echo devices and connect you with them. Now you’ll be able to send them voice or text messages by talking to your Alexa.
- Drop-in on your own devices: The blue “drop-in” bar long the top of the Conversations window allows you to connect with your own Echo devices from your smartphone. Use it like an intercom system when you’re at home, or even out at the store. “Hey I’m at the store, do we need more milk?”
The Skills catalog
The “Skills” section of your app is where you’ll find the myriad third-party Skills added by developers. This is where your Alexa game can really be taken to the next level by allowing you to connect with your smart home devices, customizing your Flash Briefing content, and interacting with some major service providers using just your voice.
You’ll need to enable skills before you can use them. You can enable skills by asking Alexa to do so, through the mobile app, or in your web browser when you’re signed in to your Amazon account. After that, you have to ask Alexa to “talk to” the name of the Skill, or have ask it something directly. “Eg. Alexa, ask Air Canada to check flight status of AC870.”
Here’s some Canadian skills to try:
- Air Canada’s Skill is available now. Ask for a fare quote, check your flight status, asd even get baggage carousel information related to your flight.
- TD Bank is coming soon. Expect to be able to find branch locations, learn about new products, and get foreign currency exchange rates to start.
- BMO is also planning an Alexa Skill with similar functionality.
- Telus says its customers will be able to place phone calls (by using the Alexa as a Bluetooth-connected speaker phone to their mobile device), check billing information and data usage, and to add expanded service to data plans.
- Manulife plans to launch a Manulife Benefits Skill for Alexa that will help account holders track their benefits balances.
Let us know other Skills you discover in the catalog.
If you’ve done everything that we’ve covered in this guide, you’re in a good spot to unlock the best features of what Alexa can provide. The most interesting thing about this service is that the growing Skills catalog and connected devices will continue to add new functionality. The average user scenario will see Alexa used to check the weather, manage a shopping list, set timers for cooking, and playback music and podcast content. The smart home features are bound to become more popular as well.
On a final note, don’t neglect the “Home” section of the Alexa app. It will show you helpful cards related to your most recent voice searches on your Echo device. So if you’re away from the Echo and need to check that response again, you’ll find it here.