“Alexa, what can you do for me for free?”
Well, it turns out, quite a lot!
From controlling your smart home devices to playing music and setting alarms, there are plenty of features included with the Amazon Alexa app that won’t cost you a dime. But if you want access to all the bells and whistles, including ad-free music streaming and the full suite of Alexa Guard home security features, you’ll have to upgrade to premium subscriptions.
Keep reading to learn more about what’s included with the free version of Alexa, and what premium features are available for a price.
How much is Alexa?
Currently, there is no fee for using Amazon’s Alexa service. However, some features such as premium music streaming or the Alexa Guard service, do require a subscription which comes with an associated fee.
Alexa works best when used in tandem with Amazon Echo devices which range in price from $25-$250. However, you don’t necessarily need to purchase an Amazon Echo smart speaker either. You can simply download the Alexa app to your smartphone (for free) and take advantage of all the Alexa features using your smartphone.
What can the Alexa app do (for free)?
The Amazon Alexa app has a huge amount of free features. You can take advantage of these features without ever paying a cent for the Alexa app or purchasing an Amazon Echo device. However, you will get the most use out of Alexa if you have Alexa enabled speakers sprinkled throughout your home.
Here is a list of what I consider to be some of the most useful features:
- Control smart home devices, such as lights and thermostats – You can create schedules, routines, and scenes to effectively manage all your smart home devices.
- Play music – Amazon Music Free lets you listen to curated playlists and stations. However, you can’t request specific songs and you will have to listen to ads. If you want to play specific songs on demand you have to have a subscription plan (see next section for plan options).
- Set alarms and timers
- Get news and weather updates
- Create to-do lists and shopping lists
- Make and receive hands-free calls or setup drop-in calls
- Alexa Guard – is a feature that you can use with compatible Alexa-enabled devices to help keep your home safe and secure. When you enable Alexa Guard, your device will listen for certain sounds, such as the sound of smoke alarms or breaking glass, and send you a notification if it detects one of these sounds. Additional features are available with a Guard Plus subscription (see below)
- Access a variety of third-party skills and services, such as ordering a pizza or hailing a ride – There are thousands of third-party Alexa skills.
What does cost money with Alexa?
The Alexa app is what I would consider a freemium service. That is, there are a number of basic features that are free to use (see above), and in addition, they offer optional “premium” features which you have to pay for.
Here is a list of the current premium subscription features:
- Amazon Prime – New members get a 30-day free trial, after that pay $14.99/month or $139/year, students pay $7.49/month*
My wife and I are serial Amazon shoppers. For us, the Amazon Prime subscription is a no-brainer. Even if we didn’t have any Alexa devices, the Prime subscription easily pays for itself in money saved on shipping costs. Since we do have a house full of Alexa devices, we also get the added benefit of an occasional binge-worthy series on Prime Video, and the Amazon Music Prime plan.
The Amazon Music Prime plan gives you ad-free access to 100 million songs and tons of podcasts. You can specifically request many of the 100 million (but not all) songs to play on demand. If you request a song that is not part of the Prime plan, it will instead queue up a playlist of similar songs which may or may not include the song you requested. For those songs you would need to upgrade to a Amazon Music Unlimited subscription (see below) in order to play them on demand.
Start your Amazon Prime 30-day free trial
- Amazon Music Unlimited – The Amazon Music Unlimited subscription lets you play all of the 100 million songs and top podcasts on demand. There are three different levels of Amazon Music Unlimited. The level you choose determines how many devices you can simultaneously stream from.
- Single Device plan – $4.99/month*
With the Single Device plan, you can play Amazon Music Unlimited on one (and only one) Echo or Fire TV device. That means if you have a house full of Echo devices (like me), you’ll have to choose only one that can play music.
- Individual plan – for Prime members: $8.99/month or $89/year, for non-Prime customers: $9.99/month*
The Individual plan let’s you listen to one stream on any of your Echo or Fire TV devices. With this plan, if you have a house full of Echo devices, you can still only play one stream at a time, but you’re not locked in to one device. If the stream is already playing on one device and you try to play music on another device, it will let you know that music is already streaming on another device. Alexa will then give you the option to stop streaming from the original device and begin playing from the one you just spoke to.
- Family plan – $15.99/month or $159/year*
The Family plan is only available to Amazon Prime subscribers. Up to 6 family members (6 separate streams) can listen all at the same time.
- Student plan – $4.99/month*
The Student plan is available to college students and offers all the features of the Individual plan for $4.99/month.
- Single Device plan – $4.99/month*
Subscribe to Amazon Music Unlimited
- Alexa Guard Plus – $4.99/month or $49.99/year*
The Alexa Guard Plus service expands the sound detection abilities available with the basic Alexa Guard. It also has enhanced intruder deterrence capabilities, and gives you access to a 24/7 Emergency Helpline you can call with just your voice.
Subscribe to Alexa Guard Plus
*Prices listed are as of 12/21/2022 and are subject to change.
How much do Alexa devices cost?
Amazon Echo devices
Echo devices typically range in price from $25-$250. Sometimes you may find older versions for even less.
In my opinion, the Echo Dot is perfectly fine for most rooms. Unless you’re throwing a party and really need to jam out, the Dot provides plenty of volume with decent sound quality. A brand new Echo Dot from the latest generation ranges in price from about $25-$50.
If you’re looking to buy a bunch of these devices, I highly recommend waiting until a major sale (e.g. Prime Day or Black Friday). During those sales, you can usually find massive discounts (sometimes as much as 50% off) on Amazon Echo devices.
3rd Party Alexa devices
There are also a number of 3rd party (non-Amazon) devices that have Alexa built in. These devices have their own purpose, but also double as an Alexa speaker. Here are a few of the more popular devices with Alexa built in:
One of my personal favorite 3rd party Alexa devices is a smart bathroom fan and speaker made by Homewerks (see my review). Install this above your shower and you can upgrade your shower experience with adjustable lighting and immediate access to audio.
For a much more complete list of “Alexa Built-in devices”, you can visit this page on Amazon.
If Alexa is basically free, how does Amazon make money?
It’s been reported that Amazon sells their Echo devices at cost. That is, they charge us roughly what it costs them to produce the product. So, if they aren’t making money on the hardware (Amazon Echo products), and they aren’t charging for the Alexa service, where are they making their money?
The simple answer is that they aren’t making money (yet).
According to a Wall Street Journal report, the division in control of Alexa has something like 10,000 people working on the project and has shown operating losses of $5 billion per year in recent years. This year is shaping up to be even worse. A Business Insider article reports that Amazon’s Alexa division is on pace to lose $10 billion in 2022.
What does that mean for the future of Alexa? Well, as the old saying goes, if the product is free, then YOU are the product. I expect Amazon to find clever ways to use the Echo devices to advertise products, and to continue to add premium subscription services to supplement the free Alexa service.
Several years ago, Alexa’s smart home features were weak, and mostly limited to using your voice to issue commands. However, they have constantly been adding user-friendly features, and have turned the Alexa app into a respectable app for managing your smart home devices.
Considering that the Alexa app and service is free, and the Echo devices are quite cheap, it actually makes a great option for all but the most hardcore home automation geeks.