In my two previous installments of Cool Stuff, I set the table for a wide open future of Smart Home-ification™. Now that Alexa is helping out with the lights, it’s time to see what other cool stuff she can do without any additional hardware. This leaves us with apps, or “skills” as they’re known in the Alexa app.


Like Apple’s App Store and the Google Play Store, there’s more to choose from than any reasonable person would ever have time for. So I’ve taken the liberty, picking five great skills that require minimal effort to get started with once you have your Echo set up.

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(1) Spotify

(Spotify)

Before I extol the virtues of the skill I use most, it’s worth noting that Alexa can only interface with Spotify premium accounts. Why anyone who uses Spotify even sparsely won’t pony up the $9.99 per month for premium is beyond me (Editor’s Note: Get 3 months of Spotify Premium for $0.99 through the end of the month), but that’s an argument for another article entirely.

Without Spotify, Alexa defaults to a rather paltry selection of tunes via Amazon’s Prime Music library. It has enough of big hits to please your dad, but that “chill electro” station you’ve been grooming for years to serve as sonic wallpaper for your abode is unreachable via Alexa without Spotify. Just tell Alexa to “shuffle songs from ‘chill electro’ playlist on Spotify,” and you’re in business. Piece of cake!

I can’t claim Alexa is perfect with Spotify, but when you have a library filled with bands like !!! and The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, some error is to be expected. Every now and then a simple request like “Alexa, play Poison the Well” gets bungled for no reason, but she hasn’t let me down once when a makeout sesh required Tycho’s Dive for optimal vibes without leaving the couch.

(2) NPR One

With the NPR skill added to Alexa’s repertoire, loading up daily podcasts of NPR content like Planet Money and Marketplace is as easy said as done. Dialing in to OPB’s current feed while you get going in the morning is even easier—just ask Alexa to stream OPB, and you’ll drop right into the locale NPR affiliate’s live broadcast like it was the radio of your Prius.

(3) Todoist

The internet is overrun with productivity cults and the apps their members rally behind, so exercise caution before approaching the rabbit hole of Alexa-enabled “to do” apps. A basic search for a free app that worked with Alexa yielded a handful of results, but Todoist is by far the best of the bunch.

The most useful feature from the get-go is the ability to add items to a shopping list remotely, which is supremely useful when you’re inventorying your kitchen and don’t want to forget grocery list items before you have a chance to write them down. Just ask Alexa to add whatever it is you need to your list and it goes right into an automatic “Alexa Shopping List” entry on your “Projects” list. You’ll never forget to grab avocados and toothpaste ever again!

(4) Big Sky

It’s wintertime, which means you should probably have a raincoat on you at all times. But what about those nights when you’re hoping to travel light and be indoors most of the time? Enter Big Sky, the weather app that gives you incredibly specific weather advice that’s perfect for Portland’s unpredictable drizzles.


Big Sky lets you ask Alexa if it’s supposed to rain in two hours, and alarmingly accurate weather info is dispensed freely. This is huge when you’re packing for a flight in a frenzy and don’t have a free moment to waste on looking up weather forecasts when you could be jamming clothes into your suitcase!

(5) Get a Lyft

Imagine this scenario: you’re pregaming with some friends, and the person tasked with ordering the Lyft keeps forgetting why they opened their phone in the first place. A black hole of memes and Youtube garbage ensues, and now you’re late for whatever event is is you’re pregaming for. Ask Alexa to “call Lyft for a ride,” and you’re good to go.

(Cool Stuff is a new feature at Willamette Week where we feature product reviews, roundups, sales and other commerce and shopping-oriented content. All Cool Stuff reviews are editorially independent, meaning we provide honest reviews and aren’t paid by the brands we write about. If you do choose to purchase something after following one of our links, Willamette Week may receive a commission, which helps fund our journalism.)