Amazon’s household robot is exactly what I expected, but it’s not what I wanted and it definitely isn’t what anyone asked for. Instead of a multitasking mimicry of me that can empty the dishwasher, pick up my kids’ shoes, feed the dog, and clean the house, Amazon’s first attempt at a home bot is simply a souped-up Echo Show on wheels.
Granted, the $1,449.99 (or $999.99 for early adopters who get invites for the chance to buy it) Astro has some impressive wheels, which let the 17-inch tall robot nimbly follow you around the house while playing music or streaming your favorite show. It also has two cameras that it uses to find people and places in your home to deliver items, reminders, or timers. It can act as a security guard and patrol your home when paired with a Ring subscription, and it can fart and burp. In short, the Astro does everything Amazon’s smart home products and services already do — only on wheels.
But the Astro is a robot. And that part is really cool. This is a real robot, not a quasi-home robot like the only other comparable robot I’ve lived with: robot vacuums. Those bumbling bots are hardly self-aware, largely getting in the way while attempting to complete their mission to clean your floors.
The Astro, in contrast, knows what personal space is, always maintaining a respectable distance from people, pets, backpacks, and any other sizable stuff that happens to be lying on the floor in its path. Instead of barreling into things, it will reroute or just wait to be rescued if there’s no way out, which is what it wisely did when my daughter left her double bass in front of the bot’s charging station.
In the four weeks I tested the Astro in my home, it never backed into a table, tripped on a rug, or mowed down a chair. Contrary to early reports, it never threw itself down the stairs. It did roll right over pet poop (fake) but as most of the bot doesn’t touch the floor this wasn’t the same issue it is with a robot vacuum. Basically, its array of navigation and obstacle sensors seem to disregard anything under a couple of inches high. The Astro is also really fast, able to zip around the house at a top speed of a little over 2mph (1 meter per second), much faster than any robot vac can manage.
The Astro navigates some common household obstacles in its mission to deliver dog treats from the Furbo treat camera in its cargo hold.
The Astro does use a similar navigation and mapping technology to its vacuum-enabled cousins, but cleaning isn’t its purpose. Instead, its main role is to just be there when you need it. When it’s got nothing to do, it finds a spot to hang out where it thinks it will be most helpful. When its battery gets low, it goes to its charger. This was one of my favorite features of the Astro; it’s a battery-powered device that I never have to remember to charge, and it didn’t run out of juice once in the month I used it.
While useful, all that autonomous movement was probably the creepiest part of having Amazon’s robot in the house. Its big glowing “eyes” (two circles on a black screen) would just suddenly appear peering over my (lower than usual) couch. Or I’d be in my home office and hear the rumble as it rolled over the living room rug onto the hardwood floor. Having a free-ranging robot in your home takes some getting used to.
However, mobility tricks aside, the Astro is essentially an Echo smart display on wheels with some new expressions and a few cute robot noises. And this is the most disappointing thing about it.
I do like the robot’s overall design. Its white plastic body and gray accents fit in well in my home, and its shape is functional without being too futuristic. It actually looks a lot like an oversized white Echo Show 10. At just under a foot and a half tall and wide, the Astro has a similar footprint to a robot vacuum, just with more personality.
Astro’s “face” is a 10-inch Echo Show-style touchscreen mounted onto a 12-inch pair of wheels. A small cargo area brings up the rear, which features a 15W USB-C port, handy for charging a phone or tablet or powering some Astro accessories (such as Furbo Dog Camera). There’s a 5-megapixel camera built into the screen and a 12-megapixel camera that pops out of the top of the bot, extending on a somewhat perilous-looking periscope so the Astro can get a better look at something.
The familiar Echo speaker control buttons for volume and muting the microphones and camera(s) are here. But, on the Astro, these can also shut down the robot’s navigation sensors, completely disabling the bot. This is part of Amazon’s earnest if somewhat futile attempts at making a rolling camera with always-listening (for the wake-word) microphones in your home seem less creepy. (See the Smart Home Data Privacy sidebar for more on this.) Finally, two two-inch speakers and a passive resonator round out the hardware and make a surprisingly decent sound system… for a robot, at least.
Like a regular Echo smart display, you can ask Astro to play music, set timers, stream an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Hulu, lock the front door, or call mom for a video chat (Amazon’s own Alexa calling only — there’s no Zoom support). What’s different is that it can do all of these things on the move. As I’m roaming around the house picking up shoes, making dinner, and feeding the dog, the Astro can come with me, keeping me entertained or chatting to my mom on a video call. It was also surprisingly handy to have it roll up beside me when I was sitting on the couch, giving me easy access to music or movies on a hands-free, somewhat personal device.
But if you already have a few Echo speakers and displays in your home, the utility of one following you around is more novelty than necessity. As with the original Echo speaker, the Astro is a technology still looking for its purpose. And while the Echo quickly found its raison d’etre, I think the Astro will take a bit longer.
The Astro currently has three main functions: a robotic family pet / companion, a mobile Alexa, and a home security robot. As a family pet, Astro is a failure. It’s more useful than fun, and most of its games revert to Alexa and could be done on any Echo device. Hide and seek, for example, which could have been brilliant considering Astro’s ability to recognize family members if you add their Visual ID, just used an existing Hide & Seek skill. In practice, this means the mobile robot stands motionless in the living room and guesses if you’re “hiding in the cupboard.”
The Astro also has a split personality. There’s Astro’s face, but it’s mainly Alexa’s brain and voice. Most of the time, when you ask Astro to do something other than move to a different location, Alexa answers. Even when trying some suggested requests, such as “Astro, bark like a dog,” an Alexa skill takes over, booting the cute robot out. It would be marginally better if Alexa had a different voice, but you can’t change from the default like you can with other Echo devices. You can change Astro’s wake word to Alexa if you want and just give in to the whole Alexa experience.
The Astro can “do the robot dance” and “beatbox,” which are probably its best party tricks. But most of the stuff on the list of “Things to try” are a bit pathetic. “Astro, can you burp?” only holds your attention for so long. My kids, 14 and 11, did have some fun with it for the first few days. When friends came over, the wow factor of an actual robot lasted a good 30 minutes — along with a robot conga line. But the next time they came by, the Astro was just another piece of furniture.
I think this is down to Astro’s personality being too limited. Beyond a handful of facial expressions using its two round “eyes,” a few beeps and boops, and some disarming, eerily lifelike “head” tilts, there’s not much to interact with. And when Alexa barges in on the conversation, as it invariably does, the novelty is instantly disrupted, mainly because Astro’s “eyes” go away, and you’re left with a regular Echo screen.
However, as a mobile Alexa, the Astro is useful and adds some extra dimension to the voice assistant. In addition to the standard Alexa features, its mobility allows it to be where you need it to be. For example, if I set a reminder while in the kitchen and then wander off, Astro will come to find me when the timer goes off. Assuming I’m on the same floor it is. Unfortunately, it can’t do stairs, and it can only hold one map, so you can’t bring it with you. (Even at just over 20 pounds, it’s surprisingly easy to pick up and move around.)
I also used Astro to track down household members and deliver drinks, food, and the occasional tablet or smartphone in the robot’s cargo area, which comes with a removable cupholder. It did this with surprising accuracy but took its time; while the Astro can move quickly, finding a specific person means constantly stopping to scan around. In the end, this feature wasn’t at all useful because I live in a three-story home, and it could only navigate my downstairs living area. But if you lived in a 3,500-square-foot single-story home (the largest space the Astro can manage), you might get more out of this.
The Astro recognizes people using onboard visual identification. You teach it faces using its touchscreen, and all the data is stored and processed on the device. Along with improving Astro’s ability to be a butler, Visual ID lets you set up Routines that trigger when it sees a face. (You can also set up Alexa Routines triggered by different actions, including having the Astro greet visitors at the front door when your doorbell rings.)
I programmed the robot to fart every time it saw my 14-year-old son, but other options include roar, dance, express love, and say “Welcome Home” (on its screen). This only worked sporadically, however. As with the other Echo Shows with Visual ID, it’s hit or miss if it will recognize you correctly. (It often thought my daughter was me.) If you plan to use Astro as a security robot, adding Visual IDs allows it to tell you when it sees someone it doesn’t recognize.
That brings me to Astro’s most useful function: a home security camera. It’s a single camera that can cover every angle of your home (assuming it’s one floor) and replaces almost any need you might have for multiple indoor cameras. When you set it to Home or Away mode using the Astro companion app, it will send an alert when it sees someone it doesn’t know. (And in my testing, often when it saw someone it was supposed to know but didn’t recognize.)
The view from the Astro as it chases a potential intruder around the house. This feature requires a Ring Protect subscription and the video is stored on the Ring app.
You can also set up viewpoints around your house to send it to check on things while you’re away, which you can view through the Astro app. You can manually control both the camera above the screen (tilt it up and down) and the periscope camera to get the best view. The video quality is good, and while there’s limited zoom, most of the time you can just tell the robot to move closer to see something better. It also works with Alexa’s Guard and Guard Plus services to listen out for sounds of trouble in your home. With a Ring Protect Pro subscription plan ($20 a month with a six-month free trial included), Astro can “patrol” autonomously. Paired with a Ring Alarm, it can also investigate any event triggered by the alarm system.
However, these features are similar to Ring’s forthcoming Always Home Cam. That flying camera only costs $250, compared to Astro’s minimum price of $1,000. If security is your main requirement, you may want to consider that instead. (It’s also an invite-only product and won’t ship until later this year.)
In testing, the Astro was most useful in my home as a smart home camera — not so much from a security perspective but really as a second pair of eyes to keep track of my kids, pets, and home. (Something the Always Home Cam wouldn’t be ideal for, as it’s not designed to be used when people are in the house.)
As a general rule, I dislike smart home cameras inside my home, but I don’t deny they’re useful for checking in if there’s a problem. Much like how you can program indoor cameras to turn off when you’re in your home, the Astro’s periscope camera is retracted unless you are viewing it through the Astro app or on an Echo Show device. But when you want to check something out, it’s easy to send it off either to a preset viewpoint or by tapping the location you want it to go to on the video feed in the Astro app.
Astro can learn your family’s faces and track them down.
It was sort of useful as a type of telepresence robot to keep tabs on my kids, who get home from school several hours before I finish work in my home office. When I hear the snack cupboard open before dinner while on a Zoom call in my office, I can open the Astro smartphone app and send the robot to the kitchen to remind my daughter to wait for dinner (rather than having to yell from the office).
I could also check that my daughter is doing her music practice or have it find my son and make sure he’s started his homework. When we were all out, I used it to confirm we had in fact left my son’s tennis racket on the dining room table. While these are all somewhat contrived examples of when Astro was useful, none of them are compelling enough for me to spend a thousand dollars on this device.
While I wasn’t able to test it for this use case, Amazon has promoted the Astro as a companion for its Alexa Together service I reviewed earlier this month. The service, which is designed to help a caregiver stay in touch with an aging loved one, requires an Echo device to work. I can see the potential benefits here, especially the ability to go find a specific person. But it doesn’t do enough in this space yet that couldn’t also be done with a much less expensive Echo Show.
The Astro could be interesting to pet owners who want to keep Fido or Felix entertained. When we were out, I would send it to hang out with the dog by his crate, play music, drop in and say “hi,” and even toss a treat or two using a Furbo treat camera plugged into its cargo base.
But besides this forced interaction, both my pets were deeply suspicious of the robot. When I tested the treat throwing capabilities while I was home with my dog, Gus would do that weird walking thing dogs do when they don’t want to get too close to something but also really want to get the treat. Smokey, the cat, treated Astro as a predator, eyeing it from behind whenever he got near it and then running as fast as he could around it before spinning back in a defensive pose.
Astro is an Amazon Day 1 Edition product, which means it’s still a work in progress. Initially, at least, that work needs to come on the software side. I didn’t run into many bugs or quirks, other than a few times Astro didn’t hear me very well and some Routines I set up that only triggered sporadically. But I also didn’t find a truly compelling use for Astro that was worth its $1,000-plus price tag.
While it’s a great smart home camera, you can achieve much of what it does with a few much less expensive gadgets. It’s also limited by only being usable on one floor. I’m not asking for legs just yet, but the ability to map more than one floor — which even a basic robot vacuum can do — is a needed update. Speaking of appendages, some arms (even just one) would make Astro a lot more helpful, bringing us closer to the Rosie the Robot dream that Astro clearly hints at. But appendages would likely make this robot more expensive than it already is.
I do have to give Amazon props here because this is a real robot that you can really have in your house, and that is a very cool experience, even despite its limitations. While many of Amazon’s innovations have fallen flat, the Astro does remind me of the original Echo speaker. At launch, that device wasn’t very capable, and it wasn’t clear to most people why they would want or need one. But Amazon learned and improved on the concept, turning it into something that millions of people find useful today.
The Astro is in that same place for home robots. The onus is now on Amazon to keep innovating here until it’s got something we can actually recommend — and not just a novelty gadget for people with $1,000 to burn.
Photography by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / The Verge
Credit: Source link