Amazon Astro Review: Expensive Toy or Alexa on Wheels?

Astro artfully set in front of a kitchen island

Astro is about to take over your house — unless your windows are too bright or you have an exposed stairwell.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Amazon has a shiny new home robot named Astro, and it’s selling for $1,000 by invite only. For that price, you may be curious: What does Astro even do? Well, I got my hands on one for a couple weeks of testing, and can say it’s part home security devicepart errand-bot, part super-expensive toy and part Amazon Echo, complete with onboard Alexa.

Does that come together as a cohesive whole? I’m still unsure.

Before I make my final assessment of Astro, I’m interviewing some of the developers behind this technological curio, to find out more about its navigation, security and personality. I just wrote another piece diving deeper into how Astro’s movement works — and why it’s genuinely innovative.

I still have plenty more questions to answer before I give Astro a formal score, but here are my thoughts so far.

Amazon astro review: expensive toy or alexa on wheels?


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Robotic guard dog?

Astro has plenty of interesting features, but the one that most closely resembles a clear use case to me is its Ring security system integration and remote control streaming. In short, if you use Ring Protect Pro professional monitoring, Astro can provide another set of eyes and ears, looking for intruders and listening for breaking glass or alarms. Then it can send you a notification if anything is awry.

Astro has some serious hardware to back up this use case, including a 5-megapixel bezel camera and a periscope that rises above countertop level, along with two more 5- and 12-megapixel cameras built in.

On the one hand, Astro seems like a good alternative to several permanently stationed indoor security cameras. On the other, it seems to me that most people are adding more cameras to their homes when they buy Astro — not replacing a bunch they already have installed. From that perspective, Astro seems to be yet another bid to get people comfortable with the idea of roving cameras inside their homes — and I don’t think that’s a good change.

That said, Astro is easily the best indoor security camera I’ve used (and I’ve tested my fair share). I love the feeling of remotely controlling Astro to move around the house, raise the periscope camera, and check on countertops for forgotten keys or deadbolts to make sure I remembered to lock up after work. I’m less enthused about that level of control, though, when I imagine a hacker gaining that same level of access to my home.

Astro hasn’t seen any publicized security breaches yet, but the fact remains that anyone buying this thing is putting a serious amount of trust in Amazon’s device security.

Errand-bot?

As an errand-bot, Astro is pretty solid. It can deliver drinks and snacks to people around the house — though it can’t load those goodies itself, which means it’s not particularly autonomous. And Astro’s navigation system is another impressive (if a little unpolished) feature. The little robot moves around using technology similar to the newest robot vacuums, including an array of sensors and lenses powering a visual simultaneous location and mapping┬ásystem.

“We wanted Astro to move around your home gracefully at a comfortable walking speed,” Anthony Robson, Astro’s principal product manager, told me, “so the typical SLAM systems and obstacle avoidance systems for robotic vacuum cleaners weren’t going to be sufficient. They move… quite slow [and] they’re trying to bump into things.”

In short, said Robson, the team had to “go back to the drawing board” and rethink this system of navigation with a new set of needs in mind.

The work Amazon put into Astro’s navigation is clear: When everything is working, the bot zooms confidently around your house, covering ground efficiently and even bumping over the edges of thick-pile rugs without issue.

But Astro isn’t perfect. It struggled to map the first floor of the CNET Smart Home twice. After jumping on a series of phone calls with an Amazon rep, it seemed a number of issues were contributing to the problems. Either the wood floors were too shiny, or the windows near the docking station were interfering with Astro’s ability to locate itself, or the exposed stairway in the living room was confusing the robot.

To get past the hiccup, we blocked windows and covered the exposed staircase with cardboard — and Astro successfully mapped the floor.

Once Astro has mapped your house, you can take a tour with it, stopping in each room and telling it the name of the room. I had to shift a couple of boundaries in the app, but for the most part, Astro had effectively mapped the house. Since doing so, it’s been fairly reliable in room-to-room navigation. I’ve tested closing some doors to open new routes to rooms, and Astro consistently finds a new way to get where it’s going.

But Astro still gets lost at times. More frustratingly, it has trouble in tight corridors, as it prefers to have five feet of clearance in front and behind it at all times. That makes navigating the CNET Smart Home kitchen with its large island in the middle of a U-shaped layout a constant challenge for Astro. Telling it to back up or move to the side when I need to access the fridge or a cabinet behind it rarely helps.

After Astro maps your home, you can block off certain rooms in the app, so it won’t follow you there (think: bathrooms). These features appear to work so far, though I’m looking forward to testing them more rigorously over the coming days. In addition, Amazon says Astro will get better at navigating your house over time spent there, and with the updates the company is consistently pushing out. In my brief experience, the robot has seemed to improve at navigating our space over just a few days.

Expensive toy or mobile Echo show?

Astro’s security features are interesting, and its navigation makes running errands work pretty well. But its biggest selling point to my kids is its playful, nonverbal “personality.” That pet-like persona is genuinely fun. I want to commend Amazon for backing away from the uncanny valley Alexa and other voice assistants have occupied to embrace a more pet-like product in Astro. The result is a lot more fun, both for kids and adults.

Astro’s expressive eyes and soft beeps, boops and purrs really seal the deal here. I’ve already seen cynical colleagues laugh when it acts like a chicken, beatboxes or sings in a weird, Mogwai-like croon. (Also, I’m 90% sure when Astro raps, it’s a much cleaner version — no words, remember? — of Ludacris’s Get Back.)

Yet Astro’s appeal as a toy is marred by Alexa. The voice assistant is a strange presence here, and feels out of place issuing from the much more playful bot zooming around your kitchen — even if you are asking questions that necessitate verbal answers.

I’ve had two problems with this so far: First, when I use the wake word “Astro,” I’m pretty much always trying to activate the more playful personality. So seeing my kids react to a fun animal noise and movement when I say “Astro, act like a pig” feels great, but their disappointment is palpable when immediately afterward I say, “Astro, act like a cat,” and Alexa announces it’s opening a new skill that can make cat noises.

Even after years of development, Alexa’s voice seems colder and more artificial than Astro’s beeps and purrs — something George Lucas anticipated decades ago with R2-D2. In short, I kind of want Alexa to be less present in Astro.

Second, Astro just doesn’t seem to listen as well as Amazon’s Echo devices. All four or five of us editors and video producers interacting with Astro regularly have been repeating ourselves much more than usual — and that’s been even more true with my kiddos, who can reliably get responses from Alexa, but tend to get answers that are more hit-or-miss out of Astro.

I suspect this is due to the changing acoustics around Astro, since many new smart speakers are designed to “learn” how to listen more effectively in their static environment. But the high standard set by Echo smart speakers doesn’t help Astro at all.

What Astro still needs to win me over

Despite its various selling points, I wonder whether this unique collection of features fits together to make a compelling product. It’s not quite a true factotum, not quite a toy and not quite a voice assistant. Its security features may be the best angle to understand it, but $1,000 (or $1,450, once the robot leaves early access) feels like a questionable value proposition for a mobile security camera.

More seriously, I’m also keeping an eye on the privacy question. In recent weeks, yet another camera-maker suffered a major controversy with regard to its indoor cameras’ video security, and I continue to recommend either not using security cameras indoors or seriously limiting their use.

Amazon’s Astro, meanwhile, boasts three cameras, including two on a periscope that can rise to face-level with my 4- and 6-year-old boys. Those cameras, along with the amount of home-layout data Astro gathers, make me nervous. To get a better idea of Astro’s security and privacy measures, though, I plan to thoroughly read Amazon’s white paper on the topic and interview one of the product leads responsible for these features.

I won’t speculate much about my conclusions there. But I will say, regardless of the outcome, putting more cameras in the home feels like a continuation of a frightening tech trend — and yet on first blush, Astro does seem to have many more intentional privacy measures in place than the countless unsecured internet-connected cameras already in people’s homes.

Echo-show-5-privacy

Unlike current-gen Echo Show smart displays, Astro has no physical camera shutters for people concerned about privacy.

Amazon

All the questions I still have

I’ve got the Amazon Astro for another week, and you can be sure I’ll be putting it through its paces during that time.

Here are some of my biggest questions to explore:

  • How does Astro play with kids and pets — and can it stand up to their abuse?
  • What are the privacy implications of having so many mobile cameras rolling around your home?
  • Is Astro going to change the modern home as much as Alexa has?
  • Is Astro actually useful — or just gimmicky?

I have plenty of other questions to ask and features to test. But I’ll also be checking the comments here. So if you want me to look at something specifically — or you just want to share your thoughts on Astro so far — drop a comment below.

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