AMAZON ASTRO REVIEW

AMAZON ASTRO REVIEW

AMAZON ASTRO

TOO MUCH ALEXA, NOT ENOUGH ARMS
PROS
Smart security / pet camera that works well
Impressive navigation and motion capabilities
Self-charging and useful as a portable Echo Show
Routines that work with Alexa

CONS
Too much Alexa, not enough Astro Some functions require a subscription.
Only one floor can be mapped.
There are no arms.
$1,000 (or $1,450 once it’s made public)

Amazon’s home robot is exactly what I expected, but it’s not what I wanted, and it’s certainly not what anyone requested. Amazon’s initial attempt at a home bot is basically a beefed-up Echo Show on wheels, rather than a multitasking replica of myself that can empty the dishwasher, pick up my kids’ shoes, feed the dog, and clean the house.

Granted, the $1,449.99 Astro (or $999.99 for early adopters who receive invites to buy it) has some remarkable wheels that let the 17-inch tall robot to nimbly follow you around the house while playing music or streaming your favorite show. It also includes two cameras, which it utilizes to locate individuals and locations in your house in order to send things, reminders, or timers. When combined with a Ring membership, it may operate as a security guard and patrol your home, as well as fart and burp. In a nutshell, the Astro is a wheeled version of Amazon’s smart home products and services.

The Astro, on the other hand, is a robot. And that’s a really nice portion. This is a true home robot, as opposed to the only other equivalent robot I’ve encountered: robot vacuums. Those bumbling bots aren’t particularly self-aware, and they mostly get in the way while attempting to clean your floors.

The Astro, on the other hand, understands the concept of personal space, always keeping a respectful distance from people, pets, bags, and any other large items that may be laying on the floor in its path. Instead of crashing into things, it will reroute or simply wait to be rescued if there isn’t another way out, like it did when my daughter dropped her double bass in front of the bot’s charging station.

The Astro never backed into a table, tripped over a rug, or mowed down a chair during the four weeks I tried it in my home. It never threw itself down the steps, contrary to popular belief. It did roll right over fake pet excrement, but because the bot doesn’t touch the floor for the most part, it wasn’t the same problem as with a robot vacuum. Basically, its array of navigation and obstacle sensors seem to dismiss anything under a few of inches high. The Astro is also incredibly fast, able to zip around the house at a top pace of just over 2mph (1 meter per second), which is significantly faster than any robot vacuum.

The Astro uses navigation and mapping technologies similar to its vacuum-enabled brethren, but it isn’t designed to clean. Instead, its primary function is to simply be present when you need it. When it has nothing to do, it seeks for a location where it believes it will be most useful. It goes to its charger when its battery runs out. One of my favorite aspects of the Astro is that it is a battery-powered device that I never have to remember to charge, and it never ran out of power throughout the month I used it.

ASTRO, ARE YOU ABLE TO BURP?” ONLY HOLDS YOUR ATTENTION FOR A SHORT PERIOD OF TIME

While useful, Amazon’s robot’s autonomous movement was the creepiest aspect of having it in the house. Its massive glowing “eyes” (two circles on a black screen) would appear out of nowhere, peering over my (lower-than-normal) couch. Or I’d be in my home office, listening to the rumbling as it rolled across the living room rug and onto the wooden floor. It takes some getting used to having a free-range robot in your house.

Apart from the mobility tricks, the Astro is just an Echo smart display on wheels with a few new faces and some funny robot noises. And this is the most depressing aspect of it all.

The general design of the robot appeals to me. Its gray accents and white plastic body blend in nicely in my decor, and its shape is useful without being overly futuristic. It resembles a large white Echo Show 10 in appearance. The Astro has a similar footprint to a robot vacuum at just under a foot and a half tall and wide, but with more personality.

Astro’s “face” is a 10-inch touchscreen in the style of the Echo Show put atop a 12-inch set of wheels. A small cargo space at the back houses a 15W USB-C plug, which may be used to charge a phone or tablet or power some Astro accessories (such as Furbo Dog Camera). A 5-megapixel camera is embedded in the screen, and a 12-megapixel camera emerges from the bot’s top, extending on a perilous-looking periscope so the Astro can have a better look at things.

THE ASTRO IS ESSENTIALLY AN ECHO SMART DISPLAY ON WHEELS WITH A FEW CUTE ROBOT NOISES AND NEW EXPRESSIONS.

The usual Echo speaker control buttons for volume, muting the microphones, and turning off the camera(s) are all present. However, on the Astro, these can also disable the robot’s navigation sensors, rendering it utterly useless. This is part of Amazon’s sincere, if ultimately failed, effort to make a rolling camera with always-listening (for the wake-word) microphones in your home look less disturbing. (For further information, see the Smart Home Data Privacy sidebar.) Finally, two two-inch speakers and a passive resonator complete the hardware, resulting in a sound system that is quite good… for a robot, at least.

You may ask Astro to play music, set timers, stream an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Hulu, lock the front door, or contact mom for a video chat (Amazon’s own Alexa calling only; Zoom support isn’t available). What makes it unique is that it can perform all of these functions while on the move. The Astro can accompany me around the house while I’m picking up shoes, cooking dinner, and feeding the dog, keeping me entertained or chatting with my mother on a video call. It was also unexpectedly convenient to have it roll up beside me on the couch, allowing me to listen to music or watch movies on a hands-free, fairly personal gadget.

However, if you already have a few Echo speakers and screens, having one follow you about is more of a novelty than a requirement. The Astro, like the original Echo speaker, is a technology that has yet to find its place. And, although the Echo found its purpose fast, I believe the Astro will take a little longer.

The Astro now serves three purposes: as a robotic family pet and friend, as a mobile Alexa, and as a home security robot. Astro is a flop as a family pet. It’s more practical than entertaining, and most of its games rely on Alexa and can be played on any Echo device. Hide and seek, for example, should have been amazing given Astro’s ability to distinguish family members by adding their Visual ID, but it simply repurposed an existing Hide & Seek skill. In practice, this means the mobile robot sits unmoving in the living room, attempting to estimate whether you’re “hiding in the cabinet.”

I THINK THE ASTRO WILL TAKE A LITTLE LONGER TO FIND ITS RAISON D’ETRE THAN THE ECHO DID.

The Astro has a divided personality as well. There’s Astro’s face, but it’s largely Alexa’s brain and voice. When you ask Astro to do something other than move to a new area, Alexa usually responds. Even if you try some of the suggested commands, like “Astro, bark like a dog,” an Alexa skill takes control and kicks the lovely robot out. It would be marginally better if Alexa had a different voice, but unlike other Echo devices, you can’t alter the default. If you want to give in to the complete Alexa experience, you can alter Astro’s wake word to Alexa.

The Astro’s best party tricks are undoubtedly “doing the robot dance” and “beatboxing.” However, the most of the items on the “Things to Try” list are a bit sad. You can only pay attention to “Astro, can you burp?” for so long. For the first few days, my 14-year-old and 11-year-old children had a lot of fun with it. The wow factor of an actual robot lasted a solid 30 minutes when friends came over, along with a robot conga line. The Astro, on the other hand, was simply another piece of furniture the next time they came by.

This, I believe, is due to Astro’s personality being too restricted. There’s hardly much to interact with other from a few facial expressions utilizing its two round “eyes,” a few beeps and boops, and some disarming, astonishingly lifelike “head” tilts. And when Alexa joins in on the chat, as she almost always does, the novelty is quickly lost, owing to the fact that Astro’s “eyes” vanish and you’re left with a standard Echo screen.

The Astro, on the other hand, is handy as a mobile Alexa and adds a new dimension to the voice assistant. Its mobility allows it to be wherever you need it to be, in addition to the regular Alexa features. If I set a reminder in the kitchen and then leave the room, Astro will come looking for me when the timer goes off. It is, assuming I am on the same floor. It can’t do stairs, and it can only hold one map, so you won’t be able to take it with you. (At just over 20 pounds, it’s surprisingly light and simple to move around.)

Astro was also used to locate family members and deliver drinks, food, and the occasional tablet or smartphone in the robot’s cargo section, which has a retractable cupholder. It did it with surprising precision, but it took its time; while the Astro can move swiftly, finding a single individual necessitates several stops to survey the area. In the end, because I live in a three-story house, this capability was useless because it could only navigate my downstairs living area. You might get more out of this if you lived in a 3,500-square-foot single-story home (the maximum space the Astro can handle).

The Astro uses onboard visual identification to distinguish people. You teach it faces with its touchscreen, and the device stores and processes all of the information. Visual ID allows you to set up Routines that are triggered when Astro sees a face, in addition to boosting Astro’s capacity to be a butler. (Alexa Routines can be triggered by a variety of events, such as having the Astro meet visitors at the front door when the doorbell rings.)

I set the robot to fart whenever it saw my 14-year-old son, but it also has the option of roaring, dancing, expressing affection, or saying “Welcome Home” (on its screen). However, this only functioned on an irregular basis. It’s hit or miss whether it recognizes you accurately, as it is with the other Echo Shows with Visual ID. (It frequently mistook my daughter for me.) If you want to utilize Astro as a security robot, you’ll want to enable Visual IDs so it can alert you when it encounters someone it doesn’t recognize.

That takes me to Astro’s most beneficial feature: a security camera for your home. It’s a single camera that can cover every angle of your home (assuming it’s one level) and can take the place of several inside cameras in practically any situation. When you use the Astro companion app to set it to Home or Away mode, it will send an alarm if it encounters someone it doesn’t recognize. (And, in my testing, it did so frequently when it encountered someone it was meant to recognize but didn’t.)

You can also use the Astro app to set up viewpoints around your property so it can keep an eye on things while you’re away. To get the best perspective, you can manually manipulate both the camera above the screen (tilt it up and down) and the periscope camera. The video quality is good, and while zooming is limited, you can usually just order the robot to move closer to see something better. It also integrates with Alexa’s Guard and Guard Plus services to monitor your home for signs of trouble. Astro can “patrol” autonomously with a Ring Protect Pro subscription plan ($20 per month with a six-month free trial included). It can also investigate any event generated by the alarm system when used in conjunction with a Ring Alarm.

These features, however, are identical to those of Ring’s upcoming Always Home Cam. In comparison to Astro’s minimum price of $1,000, the flying camera costs only $250. If security is your primary concern, you might want to reconsider. (It’s also a limited-edition product that won’t be available until later this year.)

AMAZON ASTRO SMART HOME DATA PRIVACY

Bringing connected gadgets into your house raises concerns about the security of the data they collect. The Verge inquires about the safeguards in place for your data from each firm whose smart home products we analyze.
Astro uses two cameras, various sensors, facial recognition technologies, and inbuilt microphones to collect data. Navigation maps, facial recognition data, and audio and video from your house are among the data acquired.
The device stores and processes raw data from navigation maps and Visual ID data locally. You can view and edit a basic map on your phone and ask Alexa to send Astro to a specific location by storing it in the cloud. This is encrypted in transit to the cloud, where it is stored using 256-bit keys, which is the industry standard for security. The map is required for navigation by Astro, however you can remove the app version of the map at any moment.
You can erase the recorded photos and accompanying vectors at any time because the Visual ID is opt-in. If Astro doesn't recognize a person's face for 18 months, their Visual ID is immediately destroyed.
When you utilize features like Live View in the Astro app or video calling with Alexa, Astro only sends video or photos to the cloud. If you subscribe to Ring Protect, Ring will record and store videos. Any data submitted to Amazon's servers is encrypted in transit and securely stored. When Astro detects the wake word, the voice request is routed to Amazon’s cloud to process and react to your request. You have complete control over your voice recordings and can examine and delete them at any time.
There are clear clues whenever Astro streams audio or video to the cloud. After syncing your phone with the device with a QR code, you can only control the robot and its cameras remotely. The robot shows which device is viewing it from afar. The robot's remote watching can be turned off by anyone in the house. Multiple phones can be associated to Astro, and you can unpair them to disable live view access through Astro's on-device settings.

Read Amazon's Astro privacy white paper for more information on Astro's privacy measures.

During my testing, I found the Astro to be most beneficial in my home as a smart home camera — not so much for security, but more as a second set of eyes to keep a watch on my kids, pets, and home. (This is something the Always Home Cam isn’t designed for, as it’s not meant to be utilized when humans are present.)

AMAZON ASTRO REVIEW

I despise smart home cameras in general, but I don’t disagree that they can be beneficial for checking in if there’s an issue. The Astro’s periscope camera is retracted unless you’re viewing it through the Astro app or on an Echo Show device, similar to how you can program indoor cameras to turn off when you’re at home. When you want to check things out, you may send it to a predefined perspective or by touching the spot you want it to go to on the Astro app’s video stream.

It served as a kind of telepresence robot for keeping track of my children, who returned home from school several hours before I finished my work in my home office. While on a Zoom call at my office, I can open the Astro smartphone app and send the robot to the kitchen to remind my daughter to wait for dinner when I hear the snack cabinet open before supper (rather than having to yell from the office).

I could also verify that my daughter is completing her piano practice or have it find my son and make sure he’s started his homework. When we were all gone, I used it to establish that my son’s tennis racket had indeed been left on the dining room table. While these are all slightly contrived examples of why Astro could be useful, none of them persuade me to pay a thousand dollars on it.

While I wasn’t able to test the Astro for this application, Amazon has touted it as a companion to its Alexa Together service, which I evaluated earlier this month. To use the service, which is designed to let a caregiver keep in touch with an aging loved one, an Echo device is required. I see the potential benefits here, particularly the capacity to locate a specific individual. However, it doesn’t accomplish enough in this area that a much less priced Echo Show couldn’t do.

Pet owners who wish to keep Fido or Felix occupied might be interested in the Astro. When we were out, I’d send it to sit beside the dog’s crate and play music, drop in and say “hello,” and even toss a treat or two using a Furbo reward camera hooked into its cargo base.

Apart from this forced encounter, both of my pets were wary of the robot. Gus would do that funny walking thing dogs do when they don’t want to get too close to something but really want to grab the treat when I tested the treat tossing capabilities while at home with my dog. Smokey, the cat, approached Astro as if it were a predator, inspecting it from behind and then sprinting around it as quickly as he could before wheeling back into a protective position.

AMAZON ASTRO REVIEW

Astro is a Day 1 Edition product on Amazon, which means it’s currently in development. At least in the beginning, that effort will have to be done on the software side. Except for a few instances when Astro didn’t hear me very well and several Routines I set up that only occurred intermittently, I didn’t run into many issues or idiosyncrasies. However, I couldn’t find a compelling use for Astro that justified its $1,000+ price tag.

While it’s a terrific smart home camera, you can get a lot of the same functionality with a few less priced devices. It’s also constrained by the fact that it can only be used on one floor. I’m not asking for legs just yet, but the ability to map multiple floors — something even the most basic robot vacuum can achieve — is a welcome addition. Speaking of appendages, extra arms (even just one) would make Astro a lot more useful, bringing us closer to the Rosie the Robot fantasy that Astro obviously gestures at. Appendages, on the other hand, would almost certainly make this robot more expensive than it already is.

I have to give Amazon credit since this is a real robot that you can have in your home, and despite its limits, it’s a very cool experience. While many of Amazon’s inventions have fallen flat, the Astro does remind me of the first Echo speaker. That technology wasn’t particularly capable when it first came out, and most people didn’t understand why they would want or need one. However, Amazon took the notion and enhanced it, turning it into something that millions of people use today.

For home robots, the Astro is in the same location. Now it’s up to Amazon to keep experimenting until it has something we can truly recommend — not just a novelty item for folks with $1,000 to burn.


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