How I learned to love the Amazon Echo

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How I learned to love the Amazon Echo

Can a sleek black canister become your best friend?

Your partner in crime?

Your lover?

Of course it can't, what's wrong with you. But it can play music, check the weather, and refuse to do your bidding when you least expect it.

It can also wake you up at a set time, tell you when 15 minutes have elapsed, give you sports scores, report traffic conditions, and give you a daily news briefing.

It can also let you manage a to-do list, re-order past purchases from Amazon, read your shopping list back to you, and play audiobooks and podcasts.

It can also let you trigger recipes on IFTTT and turn appliances and lights on and off. I think this was the point--when this capability was added--where I fully bought into the Cult of the Echo. That's not a real thing but it might soon be, especially if Amazon can add new features fast enough to distract everyone from the fact that it's always listening and that every command you give it is collected into the Great Amazon Cloud Brain that will surely become self-aware by September or October.

One thing we do on this blog is find ways to reduce your risks in life. When it comes to hyped technology like the Echo, the risk is wasting real money on something that will end up in a closet or sold on Craigslist in a year. As you'll see below, I don't think that's a risk with the Amazon Echo.

When Amazon announced the device late last year, a lot of tech obsessives questioned its appeal, or just openly mocked Amazon for trying to introduce yet another consumer electronic. Then some early reviews came out from tech journalists and columnists who were given access to an Echo, and those were mixed at best. By the end of 2014 it still wasn't clear whether this was going to be anything more than an online shopping novelty.

That didn't matter to me, because I'll early adopt pretty much anything except a human child. And the potential here--that I would have a house-bound Siri that would always respond to me and play every questionable music choice without judgment--was enough to convince me to give it a shot.

My Echo arrived in early February, well after the initial flurry of quick-takes and first impressions were published. I ignored the naysayers and cautious optimists. It was time to build my own relationship with the device and see wht it was really like on a day-to-day basis.

Here's how it played out.

Day 1:

I have it shipped to my office, and as I unpack it I try to explain to my late-adopting coworkers how it works. They remain unimpressed until I plug it in, connect it to our wireless network, and say, "Alexa, play Fleetwood Mac." About 3 seconds later, Rhiannon fills the office as everyone around me gasps and faints.

Week 1:

I leave it at work for the week so everyone can kick the tires. Fights break out over whether to tell it to play Beyoncé or Hall & Oates, and our designer makes matters worse by issuing commands at the same time that others are speaking. There’s a general sense of suspicion about whether it’s a good idea to let a retailer, and specifically Amazon, place a round-the-clock microphone array in your home. I finally bring it home after I realize that since the Echo is designed to learn your voice over time for greater accuracy, it's probably a bad idea to let six different people talk to it at once.

Week 2:

Unlike my coworkers, I have zero suspicion about having a microphone-to-the-cloud in my bedroom. Between my laptop and various mobile devices I've already created a virtual Panopticon on Apple's behalf, so I may as well level the field for a competitor.

I listen to some podcasts on it, which is cool except that I don't listen to podcasts in real life so it's a moot feature for me. I test out the "Flash Briefing," a daily news report. I pay for Amazon's music storage service and upload my library.

At this point I hit my first roadblock, which is that the Echo is not a great tool for accessing your own library. It seems weird that this is the one area where the system would fall apart, but I repeatedly run into error messages when asking it to play a certain artist or album. I can manually select Arcade Fire's album Reflektor through the companion app on my phone, and if I ask the Echo what it's playing, it will tell me "Reflektor by Arcade Fire"--but if I then say "Alexa, play the album Reflektor by Arcade Fire," it will tell me it can't find it. Maybe it's the 'k' in the name, I think, so I try artists and albums with standard spellings, but the same thing happens with albums by Madonna and Janelle Monae.

I have an album titled Clark by the artist Clark, and that seems to blow the Echo's mind; I eventually learn to mispronounce "Clark" in a way that triggers a match for the Echo, but that makes me sound ridiculous.

It's frustrating.

Weeks 3 & 4:

The honeymoon is over and now we're getting to know each other, and it's not always pretty. I am by most reasonable measurements a volatile man, specifically with inanimate objects; I once tried to kill a water hose for not rolling up the way I wanted. I therefore do not handle the Echo's stubborn refusal to play songs from my library well.

Our relationship bottoms out when I ask it to play an album by a band called "F*** Buttons" and it says it can't, and I end up having a series of back-and-forths with Amazon's customer service reps about whether or not my Echo is censoring me. (At one point I find myself reading a long, thoughtful response from an Amazon CSR where he uses the word 'f***' repeatedly as he tries to help me with this particular band, which is pretty impressive.) Amazon assures me that the Echo is not my own personal Chastity Pariah and that it's just another example of how it can't recognize my library, which gives me mixed feelings.

More important is it starts cutting out when streaming songs from my library. I don't have great Wifi connectivity in my bedroom, but when I test the same stream on my other devices and laptop, it plays fine. I reset the Echo, wipe it and set it up fresh, unplug it and reset the router, and so on, but it keeps happening. Oddly, it plays free Prime albums from Amazon just fine.

Clearly the Echo hates my taste in music, which is something I wish I'd known before getting attached to it.

March:

Eventually I resign myself to listening to stations on iHeartRadio or songs from Amazon's Prime library. Sometimes I optimistically try another album from my own library and the stuttering starts again. You can review your voice commands in the companion app so that you know what it's recording (and so you can delete anything you don't want saved). My commands from this period are distorted by layers of barely-contained resentment and impatience, the way one might talk to an unwanted pet that your ex left behind for you to take care of.

But I also learn to use the Echo in other ways that make it hard to give up entirely. It becomes my morning alarm clock, because I can change the alarm from my bed at 3 am, without ever opening my eyes, if I feel like it. (I can do this with Siri on my phone too, but when Siri is activated the screen comes on and fills the room with so much light that I feel like I've been caught trying to escape a prison.) I set timers for pretty much every activity, simply because I can. And I really get into the morning news report, because I can just tell it to stop if the news gets too depressing. I learn to fine tune my iHeartRadio stations by telling the Echo to give songs a thumbs up or down. We settle in to a pattern that isn't terrible.

April:

Or so I think! Then early on a Saturday in April I feel an overwhelming desire to listen to a very specific song by The National, and I can't get the Echo to play it. It's too much and I snap, and within a couple of hours I've already got a return label and Amazon has already refunded my money in advance.

Then I forget to bring the box with me to work over the next week, and a few days later Amazon changes the rules of the game by announcing a new feature I never knew I needed so badly: now it will connect to WeMo and Philips Hue switches, which means you can say things like "Alexa, turn off the lamp," and it will turn off your freakin' lamp.

I cancel my refund and hook up the Echo again, and for the next couple of weeks I pretend I'm a Star Trek character.

May:

Amazon starts releasing new feature updates with increasing frequency. I'm still infatuated with the voice-controlled lighting concept when suddenly the Echo can now connect to If This Then That, which means now I can tell it, "Alexa, remind me to buy a book on anger management," and a few minutes later that task will show up on my Wunderlist app. I'm still playing with recipes on IFTTT when Amazon announces you can now re-order items from past purchases (meh), and right after that it adds additional news sources like NPR and The Economist to its Flash Briefing.

June:

By the time it announces integration with Google Calendar in late May, I'm too overwhelmed to even bother hooking up the feature. I breathe a sigh of relief when Amazon rolls out the Audible feature the first week of June, because I don't listen to audiobooks and can skip this one. But a week after that--right before Amazon puts the Echo on sale for the general public--it adds more triggers to IFTTT. This week it opened up the API for third-party developers.

Some people might find the above recap exhausting or even bewildering, but to me it's exhilarating. When was the last time you had a device that actually got more and more useful with each passing month, instead of feeling a sense of creeping obsolescence as soon as it boots up the first time? When was the last time every update actually made the device work better? Exactly.

Today:

I tell it to snooze three times in a row because I am not great with mornings. Without opening my eyes, I ask about today's weather, then I listen to the news while I struggle to get out of bed. I tell it to turn on my lamp, because honestly it takes too much effort to reach over and do it myself, and this is 2015! I tell it to set a 15-minute timer (it helps me stay on schedule in the morning) and to play Beethoven, because I feel fancy listening to classical music and I know from experience that it's a safe bet for trouble-free playback. While I'm getting dressed I keep asking what time it is, and I tell it to remind me to respond to an email when I get to the office. Right before I leave, I tell it to turn off the lamp.

I do all of this in a normal voice, without shouting or pausing between words; the only weird thing is that if you don't know about the Echo you might think I'm really obsessed with a ghost named "Alexa."

Tonight when I get home I will go through a lot of these commands again, and before I go to sleep tonight I will tell it to set an alarm for tomorrow morning.

It really is the second most useful electronic device I've ever owned after the iPhone, which I don't consider an insult.

So is it worth the money if you're a normal person? Yes. It's an entertainment device that's also a useful household tool.

This week I've seen several other "should you buy an Echo?" articles and reviews online. Unlike the ones last year, these have been largely positive, and I think that's because like me, these reviewers have actually lived with the device for long enough to get a sense of how it fits into your daily routines so easily. It's part radio, part kitchen timer, part productivity tool. It's better if you're an Amazon Prime member, sure, but it's useful even if you're not--there's always iHeartRadio (oh, and Pandora was added a few months ago).

I'm still not happy with the stuttering playback issue, and I've read online that it may be caused by Bluetooth interference, which makes me worry that it's not something that can be fixed over the air. So now I tell the Echo, "Connect to my iPhone," and then I stream music that way. It's not a perfect solution, but considering everything else I get out of the relationship, it's a compromise I'm willing to make.