What is Alexa? The full lowdown on Amazon's virtual assistant

Amazon clearly has big plans for its digital assistant

Amazon Alexa is  available on the Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, the new Fire TV Stick and Amazon's latest Fire tablets

However, Amazon clearly has big plans for its digital assistant.. Alexa can't dive into your emails or travel plans like Google Assistant, Siri or Cortana can - Amazon just doesn't have access to that information - but it can run web searches, read out audiobooks, check up on the weather and of course order stuff from Amazon. 

Alexa is able to handle all the basics without any issues, but where it really comes into its own is with its third-party integrations - it can order pizzas, taxi rides, and items from Amazon, play your music on Spotify, or read out audiobooks. 

Developers have been quick to develop Alexa skills and in terms of the breadth of what it can do it's way ahead of the other assistants here.

It has no visible interface, as everything works via voice control, but Alexa is actually very good at recognising natural language and converting it into actions. It does work with calendars, via the accompanying app, and we expect plenty more features (and devices) to be added to the Alexa ecosystem in the near future.

Alexa and Amazon Music Unlimited

If you own an Echo or Echo Dot, Amazon Music Unlimited really comes into its own.

To receive Amazon Prime through one such device costs just £3.99 per month. If that doesn't further drive sales of both Echos and Music Unlimited, we don't know what will.

Admittedly, the deal is limited literally to that one device – there's no mobile access for you, here – but then Music Unlimited has been built primarily to turn Echo's personal assistant Alexa into a better DJ than ever.

As well as asking for tracks and albums by artists, you can also ask her to play music by date of recording, genre and mood – "Happy 80s music" or, if that's not your bag, "sad indie music from the 90s", for instance. Even something like "Alexa: play David Bowie music from the 70s, before he went a bit crap." She won't understand the last bit, but what the hell. 

This data is taken from Amazon's huge online repository, which has been updated to include data on mood, and the year of recording. 

That's as opposed to the year of release, so the Beatles are nestled in the 60s rather than the 80, 90s, 00s and 10s, when their back catalogue was re-released and re-re-released.

But perhaps most impressive of all, Alexa can take the role formerly filled by disinterested record shop employees: you can ask her to play half-remembered tunes, by quoting snatches of their lyrics. Amazon claims that "70 something per cent" of the tunes available have searchable lyrics. 

Although sadly, you can't yet hum a tune you heard last Thursday and get playback that way.

Liked this? Then read Siri vs Google Assistant vs Cortana vs Alexa: battle of the AI assistants

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Dan Grabham

Dan is a previous Editor for T3.com and covered the latest in computing, home entertainment and mobile tech. He's also the former Deputy Editor of TechRadar and former Editor of Lifehacker UK. Dan has written for numerous computing and lifestyle magazines and has also written a book, too. You'll see him pop up in numerous places, having been quoted in or on The Sun, BBC World Service, BBC News Online, ITN News, BBC Radio 5Live, BBC Radio 4 and Sky News Radio.