Alexa, do this, Alexa, do that.
With Amazon Echo set to be one of the most popular holiday gifts this year, it's worth knowing what's up with its virtual voice assistant. You have to pay for the hardware, but the service is free, and if you have an Amazon Prime account ($119 yearly), you can log into the Amazon Alexa app and unlock a lot more of Alexa's benefits, including a free music service.
Alexa can do a lot of things: Control your smart home devices to unlock doors, change a thermostat and turn an appliance on or off. You can also make phone calls, send messages, get the news of the day, weather reports and even go shopping.
The choice of devices that are Alexa-compatible keeps growing every day, including Bluetooth speakers and lightbulbs. With a Philips Hue lightbulb screwed into a basic lamp, per the instructions, turn the lamp on and off quickly. This allows it to go in pairing mode and have the Alexa app discover it. From there, just tell Alexa when you want it on or off, or just set a schedule — on at 5 p.m. and off at 7 a.m. daily.
Likewise, if you have a Nest thermostat, just say, "Alexa, raise the temperature by 5 degrees" when it gets too cold.
Most amazing is voice-controlled shopping, which is available only to Amazon Prime members. So if you're out of detergent, coffee or other Prime products, just tell Alexa what you need. Since she is already connected to your account, your credit card will be charged and whatever you asked for is on the way.