You see, my old Amazon Echo has been a part of my household for years now. A very vocal part of my house as well, sometimes helpfully chipping in with weather updates, or reminding me not to burn my dinner, and sometimes less helpfully when it gets randomly triggered and starts waffling on about goodness knows what.
Over the years it’s followed me and my family through two house moves. I got it to control all my smart home devices so successfully that it led to me actually forgetting how to turn on a light normally.
It’s been a familiar presence during this time, and as my family grew, its role changed. Thanks to ‘skills’ like Spotify and BBC Kids, it now reads stories to my 18-month-old daughter, and plays her absolute favorite band in the world, The Wiggles, almost constantly. She’s even started trying to trigger it – directing hopeful cries of ‘Etta, Etta’ towards the dusty old cylinder in the corner of the room.
But, it’s also a bit crap. Over the years, Alexa has become worse at picking up our instructions. Maybe it’s the ever-bloated software, or maybe it’s a hardware fault, but often the old Echo just doesn’t understand what we’re asking of it. Sometimes it does the wrong thing, sometimes it apologizes and asks us to repeat ourselves, and sometimes it simply thinks for a while, then plays a short sound like an audible shrug and turns itself off. All of this causes us to shout at it in ever-more-exasperated tones until it figures out what we want, or until we just go and turn the bloody light on ourselves.
It also sounds pretty awful. The first-generation Echo’s speakers were never that good, and there are now plenty of home speakers that far surpass it for audio quality.
It's also seen better days. Having sat in a window sill for the past three years, the once-white body has turned an odd color, and there are marks where it’s been knocked over (a common occurrence in a house with both a toddler and a cat). It’s dusty, and something weird has leaked all over it too. I dread to think what that was.
Goodbye old friend
So, when I got the opportunity to replace it with the brand-new Echo, I leapt at the chance. But, after unpacking the new model, which is all clean, immaculate and with a futuristic spherical design, I felt a pang of guilt.
Turning on the new Echo didn’t help. Thanks to improvements with its new ‘AZ1 neural edge processor’ the new Alexa is faster to respond, and more accurate. ‘Oh good!’, you’d think I’d think. But I didn’t think that think. I thinked another think. The new Alexa was fast, sure. But a bit too fast. Too eager to answer my questions to prove how smart it is. It almost sounded smug.
I immediately began missing my old Echo, and how dumb it was. Seeing that old blue light whirl around its top while it tried to figure out what I’d asked was frustrating, but also endearing.
After I unplugged my old Echo (almost expecting to hear a heart-breaking scream from Alexa), I placed it next to the new one. It made me feel worse. Seeing the old, battered, Echo next to the smart new one made me feel rotten. It didn’t help that the old one was now lifeless, while the new one glowed with electrical life. What had I done?
Seeing this old battered Echo being replaced by a shiny new version made me realize something. I’m a villain in a third-rate Pixar film. This is exactly the kind of crap Woody had to put up with when Andy got Buzz Lightyear. And now I was in a crappy Pixar film that wouldn’t even be worth streaming on Disney Plus. Yes, it was that bad.
So what am I going to do? I can’t chuck the old Echo away – not only is it wasteful, but it’d be weirdly upsetting. Instead, I’m going to have to stick it somewhere else in the house, and every now and again go visit it. Ask it a question it will have trouble answering, maybe. Get it to sing a Wiggles song for old time’s sake. As for the new one? Hopefully I’ll warm to it in time, but I feel a kinship with the old, battered, stupid Echo. This new one feels too much like it’s smarter than me.
- Matt Hanson is trying to make his home smarter, and his life easier. But that doesn't always happen. Follow his trials and tribulations in his iDIY column.