After a month of Alexa in every room: The good, the bad, and the creepy

Big Brother may not be watching us, but Alexa is certainly listening in. David Gewirtz reports on the slightly creepy feeling he's been getting, along with the benefits of a ubiquitous voice assistant.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

It's been about a month since we put an Alexa device into just about every room of the house. With the exception of the bathrooms, we can talk to an Alexa everywhere in the house, including the garage.

To be honest, we've had mixed results.

The good

Alexa is our primary method for controlling our lights and thermostat. In our Florida home, we had integrated about 20 or so Hue lights into our house. Once we were able to control them via voice command, we found them to be very practical additions.

The ability to turn on and off lights with hands full, or while doing other activities (like drying a squirming puppy who's just come in from a rainy walk), has been invaluable. It's also been nice to not have to get up from a comfy chair or couch just because a light is accidentally left on.

I integrated Alexa with a $20 smart plug in order to be able to turn on and off my studio lights without having to leave the set. This is very important, because I often wear a lav mic, with a wire connection to a mixer, and there's not enough loose wire to walk all the way around the desk structure without getting tangled up. Now, a simple "Alexa, turn on Chroma Key," turns on the lights for my green screen.

We also continue to use our alert light stack to help inform each other when we're busy working on a client project or on the air. If you don't work from home, you might not understand how important it is to signal to the rest of the family when in "work mode" or in a client meeting. For us, it's proven to be very helpful. Sadly, though, the puppy doesn't respect quiet mode, no matter how many times we explain it.

Unlike our previous home, this house has an HVAC system that's compatible with the Nest thermostat. I installed one and linked it to Alexa. Since we've formed the habit of asking, "Alexa, what's the thermostat set to?" and "Alexa, set thermostat to 68 degrees," I don't think we've touched the physical thermostat dial once.

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So, home control with Alexa rocks. It's nearly ideal.

We also started to use the drop-in feature within the house. That allows us to intercom from one room to another. It works moderately well when we know where each of us is. If I'm in the garage and my wife is in her office, she can say "Alexa, drop in on garage" and be able to talk to me.

Alexa has been very helpful in the garage. Since I work out there a lot, particularly on weeks when I'm preparing videos for ZDNet, I find it nice to have a hands-free system where I can get math answers, set timers and alarms, check the weather, and play tunes.

I thought adding an Echo to the garage would be a bit of a luxury, but I've found it to be as useful a tool as any other device I have out there, and use it almost every time I'm working out there.

The bad

The intercom concept breaks down when we aren't sure what room the other person is in. So far, there doesn't appear to be an Alexa PA function, so my wife can't just ask the entire house, "David, where are you right now?"

Sound quality on the intercom is also not great. While you can talk to an Alexa across the room, if you're doing an intercom session, it becomes far harder to understand a person who's across the room from their Alexa, or doing some kind of work that generates any sort of noise. Dropping in on someone in the kitchen, for example, is nearly useless.

We're still having problems with Alexa's wake word. In rooms well-separated by walls, we're able to use "Alexa" in each room. But there is an area in our house where three rooms are easily within the various devices' earshot. "Alexa" doesn't work. In that case, we have one room with "Alexa," one with "Echo," and one with "Computer" as the wake words.

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We also haven't figured out how to set alarms or cancel alarms from one room or another. For example, we can't be in the living room and say, "Alexa, set alarm for 8am in bedroom" and have it work. I assume that's only a matter of time.

We're also unable to cancel an alarm or timer in another room. If a kitchen timer goes off and we're in an office, we can't just say, "Alexa, cancel timer in kitchen." We have to run to the kitchen and cancel the timer, or grab a phone and use the app.

As with Drop In, we'd like to see a whole-house alarm or timer, or be able to move active alarms or timers to new rooms. For example, if we set a timer in the kitchen and then move to the living room, it'd be nice to say, "Alexa, I'm now in the living room" and have the alarms and timers follow.

The creepy

Alexa has been somewhat daft over the past weeks. Every so often, she starts speaking, even when not woken by a wake word. This was particularly noticeable after Christmas, so my guess is Amazon had some growing pains integrating all those Echo devices into their vast cloud brain.

Even so, it was creepy.

This led to a weird feeling that we've always sort of had: That Alexa is always watching and listening. Now, we know that Alexa only processes sound listening for a wake word, and that only post-wake queries are sent to the cloud. But once we had Alexa in each room and, in particular, after Alexa started randomly responding even when no wake word had been uttered, we started to get a little paranoid.

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This will be an ongoing problem with always-listening assistants. We're a society fully aware of the potential of Big Brother, and the idea that these devices can always listen or record what we're saying will never fully go away, whether that fear is real.

But we're also in a society that actively profits from gathering constant personal information. Google and Facebook, I'm looking at you! If any of the makers of personal assistants ever breaks the trust we're putting in them to protect our privacy, the entire personal voice assistant market may collapse.

For now, we're cautiously optimistic. Here, in our new home, as long as Alexa gets over her case of random gabbiness pretty soon, we'll welcome the Alexa-enabled devices into our lives. But that's provisional. If we ever get too creeped out, there's a chance we'll dump them, and turn our lights on and off by hand, like the cavemen we once were.

"Alexa, order me an Echo Dot for my bathroom." Yeah, I'm thinking about it. I know. But I am.

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