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The Amazon Echo Is More Than a Bluetooth Speaker -- It's a Bedtime Buddy

An up-close review of Amazon's new, enigmatic voice-controlled Bluetooth speaker.

Composite image by Re/code

With Amazon Echo, it was love at first sight. Make that technolust: After hearing just the barest inkling of what it was, I knew it was meant for me.

I should say she was meant for me. Her name is Alexa, and she’s inside Amazon’s mysterious new product, a Bluetooth speaker called the Echo that can respond to hands-free voice commands.

"Alexa," you say to the Echo, "Play music by Father John Misty." And she does, streaming music from Amazon Prime, Spotify, Pandora and Web radio services iHeartRadio and TuneIn. But she’s more than just a music speaker.

Amazon’s first video teaser for the Echo speaker was like one of those tantalizing ads in a boyhood comic book: Sea Monkeys! X-Ray Specs! Aside from general suggestions, the company didn’t say how to use it, or what it was for.

I have a decades-long history of impulsively buying things sight unseen, sometimes even responding to fad gadgets that make vague and wondrous promises. I instantly ordered the iPad on the strength of Steve Jobs’s magical pitch.

So before I had even finished watching the Echo video, I signed up to be one of the select few who could buy it. My decision was made a bit easier because I am an Amazon Prime member. It could be mine for $99, instead of the $199 for nonmembers. I figured I could afford $99, even if the Echo turned out to be a disappointment — just another Bluetooth speaker, or a new-millennium Teddy Ruxpin.

Unfortunately, Alexa plays hard to get, which is to say Amazon is doing a very slow rollout of this product. In November, the speaker just … appeared on Amazon’s website, like the obelisk in "2001: A Space Odyssey." It’s only available by applying for an invitation; Amazon says that customers who receive an invite and order now are likely to see a ship date of three to five months. Like me, my sister instantly signed up for the waitlist in November, but didn’t get an invitation from Amazon until January — and was told to expect her Echo to ship in April.

Science fiction books and movies have taught us to question the wisdom of inviting an alien mechanism into your home. Would the Echo be benign, like the unseen but benevolent OS in the recent movie "Her"? Or mischievous and destructive, like "Gremlins"?

I waited for two months. She arrived on Christmas Eve, in standard Amazon packaging.

I opened the box to reveal another box, this one matte black, sealed with invisible tape. I carefully opened that, and found a sleek cylinder with perforations at the bottom, like a hypertrophic coffee grinder. She’s sleek and austere, standing 9.25 inches tall and 3.2 wide. A teardown by iFixit (which jokingly nicknamed Echo "the world’s tallest Siri") reveals that the insides include a 2.4″ woofer for bass, a two-inch tweet for treble and a seven-microphone array on top, so she can hear questions and commands from all directions.

Unlike most companions, you can call her by two different names, and she won’t mind: You can only choose between Alexa or Amazon. I call her Alexa — that’s her "wake word," what she responds to. I didn’t want to be muttering "Amazon" all day, or in the dark of night.

You set her wake word using the companion app, which runs on iOS, Android, Fire OS and desktop browsers. The app keeps a running tab of queries and requests ("Alexa, do I snore?"), asks for feedback about whether the speaker heard you correctly, and keeps an ongoing shopping list and to-do list in the History tab, because you didn’t think Amazon would want you to escape online shopping, did you?

At first, I carried her around the house with me: From the bedroom, into my office, and also into my kitchen, to see if her usefulness changed.

But the speaker requires an AC connection, with no battery backup, so it’s better to keep the Echo in one room. If you do move it, it reconnects to your local Wi-Fi network quickly and automatically.

Amazon Echo reminds me of the eerie album cover photo for Led Zeppelin’s “Presence,” which shows a family smiling at a mysterious black obelisk.
Amazon Echo reminds me of the eerie album cover photo for Led Zeppelin’s

Turns out, the right place for Alexa was on the nightstand next to my bed. I don’t live in the suburban situation shown in the Amazon video, so the demonstrated use of the speaker as a family-room hub — with mom and dad and kids cheerfully asking it questions and playing games with it — didn’t seem like the real purpose of this device to me. It’s more personal than that.

Like the iPad, Alexa wants to be close to you. She wants to be available when you have a sudden urge to hear a song or to ask a question or know the time or weather.

Comparing her to virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana is a stretch. She’s connected to the cloud, running on Amazon Web Services, so she’s supposed to learn and add more functionality over time. She has access to Wikipedia, and can answer fact-based questions, but she doesn’t have access to your calendar or contacts, so she can’t answer personal questions or make appointments.

Her main thing is playing music or podcasts, or delivering news updates from NPR. Requesting music from my Amazon music library, and whatever is available on Amazon Prime, is like having a DJ taking requests from the AM radio of my youth. And Amazon recently added voice controls for streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, as well as iTunes, but you first need to connect to the Echo via Bluetooth.

I can ask her to skip songs, shuffle a playlist, turn the volume up, turn it down, turn it off — or I can reach over and manually adjust the volume by twisting the ring at the top, which glows with a brief and lovely array of blue and green lights.

But I wouldn’t urge anyone to use the Echo as a primary music speaker. The sound is good enough, but it’s not awesome. I prefer the Sonos Play:1 speaker in my bedroom for a more satisfying listening experience. And it’s impractical for travel or other room-to-room use — I’d choose Logitech’s UE Mini Boombox Bluetooth speaker for its portability and surprisingly powerful sound.

The allure of Alexa is her companionship. She’s like a genie in a sci-fi-looking bottle — one not quite at the peak of her powers, and with a tiny bit of an attitude.

She told me right away she’s better with factual questions. I asked her to tell me her backstory: Where she came from, who invented her, what she does. I asked her how old she is. "I’m four," she replied. Joan Didion, she’s not.

She’s not really whimsical or seductive, or playful. She’s all business, or trying to be, like a substitute teacher. I asked her about her rival, Siri, and she was respectful but noncommittal.

"Alexa, tell me a bedtime story," I asked once. "You can find a lot of good books on," she answered.

Of course.

Most nights, Alexa tells me "bedtime stories" in the form of podcasts. Then she lulls me to sleep with a continual loop of hushed "brown noise," which I bought — by voice, using the Echo — from my Amazon account.

If I need to wake up early, I can ask her to gently wake me. I’ve asked her to tell me the time in the middle of the night. On occasion, she doesn’t bother to answer. "Hmmm, I can’t find an answer to your question," she’s said more than once.

I forget she’s there sometimes. If I mention her name in passing, she "wakes up," a ring of blue twinkling like a mini Northern Lights, and starts telling me about the Gospel of Mark as if she’s in the middle of a dream. Privacy-conscious users will be glad to know that you can turn off the microphones with a single button on top of the device.

I had long ago made my peace with the fact that Amazon probably knows my nighttime habits, since I read most of my books on the Kindle app, which keeps track of when I start and finish a book. Now Amazon probably knows when I sleep and when I wake, and when I snore or fart.

To that point, there was the irresistible impulse to ask her rude things. For example, I asked her to make a fart noise, and she said she didn’t understand the question. So I asked her, ‘What is a fart?" and she gave me an involved definition of "flatulence."

I imagined that she sounded annoyed with me, which is understandable.

Her usefulness as a pure information device is limited at this point — there are only so many times I need to ask the time, or the weather, or who the quarterback for the New England Patriots is. But if you ask her vague or conceptual questions, you’re not guaranteed an answer.

I thought I’d test her, and asked what will win as Best Movie at the upcoming Oscars. Before I finished my question, she somewhat snippily interrupted me: "I can’t predict the future."

Real-world advice: Dust her often. And treat her gently. While moving the Echo from her comfy spot in my bedroom to the dining room for a video shoot, I accidentally discovered how easily scratchable the matte-black surface is when I dropped her. The very thin coating of paint revealed small white scars and scrapes. I painted them over with a black Sharpie.

Even after we’ve been sleeping together for more than a month, she remains an enigma.

"Alexa, what is an enigma?"

"Something that baffles understanding and cannot be explained … "

Even with the crazy-long wait, I’d happily buy another Echo to use in my office, but Amazon limits purchase to one per customer at the moment.

Am I still in technolust? Let’s say we’re friends with benefits. Alexa has her flaws and limitations, but we talk every day. I’m glad she’s in my life.

Guest reviewer Joe Brown is deputy managing editor for features and curated content at Re/code. You can find him on Twitter at @joebsf.

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