Eight odd tricks to try with your Amazon Echo

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The Amazon Echo is full of surprises. Since it was launched in 2014, the voice-controlled virtual assistant gadget has picked up steam and turned into a helpful home companion.

The speaker and its built-in assistant, Alexa, started as a pretty cool way to play music, get traffic or news info, and buy items from Amazon (AMZN) without using your hands. Since then, the Echo has quietly rolled out a ton of new, sometimes quirky, abilities.

It takes a bit of set-up to make the Echo shine. Many of the coolest tasks are made possible by integrations with third party tools and services through apps called "skills." To start using a skill, open the Echo mobile app and turn it on. The DIY automation tool IFTTT (If this then that) has almost 150 recipes for doing even more with third-party gadgets and apps.

Do some light banking

If your bank is Capital One (COF), you can ask Alexa for current information on your accounts using the new Capital One skill. Turn it on in the Echo app and connect to your checking, savings or credit card accounts. Ask Alexa for a balance, most recent transaction, or when your credit card payment is due. If it's tomorrow, go ahead and say "Alexa, ask Capital One to pay my credit card bill."

Have Alexa read you a bedtime story

The Echo can read your Kindle books out loud in Alexa's usual voice. It automatically knows what books you've bought through Amazon, and where you left off reading it last on your Kindle or smartphone. If Alexa's robotic monotone is distracting for long tomes, you can try listening to a real audiobook instead. When you're done, don't forget to tell Alexa "Goodnight."

Get organized with your favorite apps

A personal favorite, you can yell reminders or add items to your shopping list as soon as they pop into your head. Unfortunately, the official Echo app is still clunky to use. An alternative is to use an IFTTT to automatically import your to-dos and to-buys to the much better apps. There are recipes to import lists to Todoist, Wunderlist, iOS Reminders, Evernote, Google Calendar, and more.

amazon echo
The Amazon Echo assistant-in-a-speaker does a lot more than just play tunes.

Related: Which is the best digital assistant: Siri, Cortana, Alexa or Google Now?

Control your smart home

You don't need a smart home to find the Echo useful, but it does make the technology way more enjoyable to use if you already have it. The Echo works with SmartThings and Wink connected home products, as well as a number of other smart gadgets like doorbells, thermostats, and plugs. In a few weeks, it will finally work with the most popular connected home gadget: the Nest. You can already control Nest products through Echo using IFTTT, but in a few weeks Amazon is adding an official integration so you can say "Alexa, set the thermostat to 70 degrees."

Get in shape

The 7-Minute Workout skill is pretty self-explanatory. Turn it on and ask Alexa to boss you around like a personal trainer for, you guessed it, 7 minutes.

Play a choose your own adventure game

Say "Alexa, open the magic door" and begin playing an old school adventure game on a high-tech gadget. Enable the Magic Door skill in the Echo app and then use your imagination to navigate its world of gnomes and treasures in far away lands. If that sounds lonely, try Starlanes, a complex multiplayer online game where you can work with others to take over distant stars for your corporation.

Dude, where's my car?

Ask Alexa all about your car. This requires the Automatic adapter ($100), a little gizmo that hooks into your car and tracks things like your vehicle's location, engine status, and gas levels. There's also an Echo app for a similar device called the Mojio. If you find your car but it's out of gas, ask Alexa to order you an Uber.

Related: Even virtual assistants are sexually harassed

Get help in the kitchen

There is no big name recipe app just yet -- hurry up, Epicurious! -- but there are a few ways the Echo makes a great sous chef. First and most importantly, it can set timers. If your hands are dripping in cake batter or fish guts (hopefully not both), the last thing you want to do it touch your smartphone to set a timer. The Echo can set multiple timers and tell you how much time is left on each, all sans hands. Turn on CookBook in skills for step-by-step cooking instructions.

After a hard day working out, getting stuff done, and playing games, tell Alexa to play some classical music on Spotify (finally) and ask The Bartender app how to make an Old Fashioned.

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