Voice assistants are powerful hands-free computing tools that gain new abilities almost every week. So why don’t we use them more? The problem may be that we don’t know what to do with them. They’re new tech we haven’t really begun to stitch into our lives.
One in three U.S. homes now has a smart speaker and 81% of us have helpers like the Google voice assistant in our smartphones [1,2]. Yet less than half of us actually use them .
Are you one of the millions with a smart speaker sitting idle in a kitchen, living room, or bedroom? Or maybe you have an unused assistant on your phone? Take heart. This list of uses for the best voice assistants will make you a power user in the next few minutes. But first let’s take a minute to talk about what, exactly, a voice assistant is.
What is a voice assistant?
Voice assistants are AI-based digital assistants; think Amazon Alexa
, Apple Siri, Google voice assistant
, or Microsoft Cortana
. They’re web-connected software tools that listen for commands, interpret them, and take action. They can answer questions, interact with apps, turn on lights, order food, and even find lost phones.
Voice-activated assistants come pre-installed on smartphones, but speakers like Amazon Echo
and the Google Home
voice-activated speaker are increasingly common platforms. The Amazon Alexa voice assistant works on Echo, while the Google voice assistant lives on Google Home and Google phones.
Depending on your device, you probably have access to one or more of the four best voice assistants right now.
Not sure how to use your voice assistant or voice-activated home assistant - or even why you have one? Below, we share the top ten ways to use these powerful tools to make life a little easier (and a bit more fun).
1. Play music
Voice-activated assistants can be personal DJs that give instant access to nearly every piece of music you would want to hear. The Google Home voice-activated speaker, the Amazon voice assistant Alexa, and Apple’s Siri all play music natively. Just say the wake word, “play,” and the song title you want, as in, “Alexa, play ‘Barbara Ann.’” Pair them with high-end Bluetooth speakers like the HP Speaker System 400
and they can fill the house with sound.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know that one.” Have you heard this from Alexa or Google Voice Assistant? Then you may need to link your voice-activated home assistant to a music service like Pandora, Spotify, or Tidal . Still can’t grab the track you want? Pair your phone to your smart speaker via Bluetooth and play all your favorite hits via YouTube.
With an Echo, you can say, “Alexa, play more like that” to tap into a steady stream of related music. You can also say “Repeat” to hear a song again. One of the best voice assistant tricks is using voice commands for adding songs you like to playlists. Try, “Alexa, add that to my workout playlist.” 
Tune in to radio
If you prefer the breezy chatter of a human DJ, voice-activated assistants can help by tuning in to nearly any call sign on the planet. For instance, with a Google voice assistant device, say the wake word, “OK Google” (or “Hey Google”) followed by “play iHeartRadio” or “Maine Public Radio.”
Did you miss last night’s episode of Marketplace? Have Siri or Alexa start it whenever you’ve got time. Or if you’re feeling bookish, link your smart speaker to your Audible or Google Audiobooks account and listen to your favorite story or nonfiction book.
2. Keep a shopping list
Who knew shopping lists were such a pain? Once you start using voice-activated home assistants, you’ll wonder how you ever muddled through with pen and paper. Running low on milk? Say, “Alexa, put milk on shopping list.”
When you’re in the store, open the Alexa app on your phone to view the list. Swipe right to cross off products as you put them into your cart. Plus, anyone at home can add last-minute items without the need to call or text.
Another one of the best voice assistant tricks can lighten your load on grocery days. A linked Amazon account lets you buy directly from the speaker. Just say, “Alexa, reorder paper towels.” If you’re afraid the kids will summon pallets of candy bars, set up a voice code. The same voice shopping trick works with the Google voice assistant and Cortana.
3. Create a smart home or office
For most of us, a smart home
sounds like something for rich people in science fiction stories. The reality, however, is much more exciting. Anyone with a voice assistant on a phone or smart speaker can get into the smart home game for as little as the cost of a $10 smart plug. Connect it with any lamp or window-unit air conditioner and voila - instant voice control.
With a bigger investment in smart bulbs or appliances, voice-activated assistants can dim lights, change their colors, or control the thermostat, blinds, and oven. Did you forget to close the garage door? Find out (and fix it) without leaving the living room. Worried about cost? Smart garage door openers don’t cost much more than ordinary “dumb” ones.
You can set up special routines like, “I’m going to bed” and your smart home will turn off all the lights, turn on your nightstand light, make sure the garage door’s closed, and start playing gentle rain sounds in the bedroom . Ray Bradbury, here we come.
To set up an Alexa routine, open the Alexa app and select “Routines” from the menu. The app will guide you through the steps to trigger different actions with preselected voice commands.
You can even set up your voice-activated home assistant to work from sensors so it flips on the lights when you walk through the door or turns on your old-style A/C unit when the temperature passes 78 degrees. The steps are slightly different for the Google voice assistant or Siri [7,8].
Run a TV or home office
Some smart speaker owners use them to run TVs, Chromecast, Hulu, or YouTube accounts. With multiple units in different parts of the house, you can also use them as an intercom system.
Got a home office? Use Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, or Microsoft Cortana to make printing as easy as talking. Instead of sitting down, waking the screen, and hunting through your files, try saying, “Hey Cortana, ask HP Tango smart printer to print my calendar for the month.”
4. Manage timers and productivity
Want to save time in the home and kitchen? One of the best voice assistant uses is setting multiple timers. During meal prep, it’s handy to set a pizza timer and a broccoli timer. Then, you can do other tasks and the assistant will tell you by name when time’s up for each. Timers also come in handy for preventing sibling rivalry over favorite toys. Say, “Alexa, set a Mr. Potato Head timer for Ben for five minutes.”
You can also set alarms for naps or waking up each morning. Tired of the klaxon-blare of standard alarm sounds? Ask your voice-activated home assistant to wake you with your favorite song, movie quote, or the haunting wail of loons. If you have trouble sleeping to begin with, ask your Home Pod or Echo to play a loop of distant thunder or a rushing waterfall.
Voice-activated assistants make great secretaries too. Instead of making calendar reminders with your thumbs, try saying, “Hey Siri, schedule a doctor’s appointment.” Siri will ask for a date and time, then plunk it in your calendar. Of course, the same trick works with the Google voice assistant and Amazon Alexa. You may need to link your calendar in the Amazon or Google assistant voice settings first. You can even use assistants to take notes and add to-do list items with any app you use.
5. Entertain the kids
Children can entertain themselves in dozens of ways with voice assistants. Some even help them learn. Even 2-year-olds can learn to say, “Hey, Google” or “Alexa” and ask for their favorite songs. (“Baby Shark” 50 times in a row, anyone?) Got a curious kid? Assistants never tire of answering, “How fast is a cheetah?” or “Why did the dinosaurs die out?”
Voice-activated assistants can play games as well, including 20 Questions, Rock-Paper-Scissors, or choose-your-own-adventure stories. The Google voice assistant, Amazon voice assistant, and Apple Siri can tell stories, even customizing them with children’s names. And if the kids can’t agree on what to watch on Netflix, your voice-activated home assistant can flip a coin.
Is your child into foreign languages? All the best home voice assistants come pre-programmed with multiple languages. Kids can ask, “Alexa, how do you say, “please” in Spanish?” or they can say, “Translate ‘What time is it’ to Russian.”
6. Make life easier with “skills”
Just like smartphones have apps, the Cortana, Amazon, and Google voice assistants have “skills.” Knowing how to find, install, and use them is key to making the best use of these assistants.
Here’s a shortlist of popular voice assistant skills:
- Earplay, Akinator. Play dozens of choose-your-own-adventure-style games [10,11]
- Dominos, Pizza Hut, and other restaurants. Order food without fishing for a credit card or picking up the phone [12,13]
- Jeopardy. Have fun while you build knowledge 
- Lyft, Uber. Call for a ride 
- Movie finder. Figure out what to watch 
- Kayak. Get fare estimates for travel plans 
Not sure how to find skills you’ll actually use? Just ask any of the best voice assistants, “Can you play Jeopardy?” or “Can you order pizza?” Your voice-activated home assistant will tell you if it’s got a skill for that. You can also say, “Do you have a skill for [blank]” and the task you’re trying to accomplish.
7. Drive hands-free
One in every four car crashes in the U.S. is caused by a smartphone . Make your world a safer place with hands-free voice assistant functions in your phone. Siri, the Google voice assistant, and Cortana can give you directions and send calls and messages without you ever touching a handset.
With your phone sitting on the seat or center console, say, “Hey Siri, where’s the nearest gas station?” or, “Hey Google, give me directions to Antigua.” Or try, “Cortana, send a text message to Kathy.”
The voice-activated assistant will ask what you want the message to say. After you dictate, it’ll read it back and ask if you’re ready to send. The same trick works with making calls and sending emails. Bye-bye forever, dial-and-drive anxiety!
8. Find lost phones
Another of the best voice assistant uses can keep you from being late to work or dinners out. Can’t find your phone? Alexa, Cortana, Siri, and the Google voice assistant can find it for you. The trick works with tablets and computers too, though there’s some setup involved in certain cases.
Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa can make your phone ring if the ringer’s on. Siri, Cortana, and the Google Home assistant can all make it play a sound even in silent mode.
1. First, turn on location services in your phone’s setting app.
2. Then say your voice-activated home assistant’s wake word plus, “where’s my phone?”
3. Find your phone!
9. Get news, weather, and traffic
Why turn on the TV or peck around on the web for top-line news and weather info when your voice assistant has your back? The Google voice assistant and its brethren come pre-programmed to deliver key points about your world and town.
Say, “What’s the news?” or “Give me a news brief,” for a quick, up-to-the-minute briefing of top stories. Ask for the weather in your town (or any other) to see if you should pack sunblock, an umbrella, or a pair of mukluks.
Try asking human questions too, like, “Do I need an umbrella today?” or “If I drive to Beckley should I take sunblock?” Your voice-activated assistant can even share the lowdown on traffic after you inform it of your daily route once.
10. Have random fun
The makers of all four of the best voice assistants have teams of people working in the background, tirelessly hiding voice-based “Easter eggs” to make you laugh. Ask any assistant, “What does the fox say?” and get some variation of, “Fra-ca ca-ca ca-ca ca-ca cow.” On the Google voice assistant, try “OK Google, boo!”
Here’s a list of other things to ask or say:
- Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?
- What’s the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?
- Who’ll win the Super Bowl this year?
- Is it Christmas yet?
- Make me a sandwich.
- Why did the chicken cross the road?
- Knock, knock.
The best voice assistants are already in our phones and homes, but most of us don’t yet take advantage of them. Once we know their ins-and-outs, we can use voice-activated assistants as personal DJs, secretaries, smart home controllers, powerful productivity tools, and so much more.