Amazon Astro review in progress: Fun… after a rocky start

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

Chris Monroe/CNET

How to evaluate a robot? This question has literally kept me awake for the past week since I discovered the AmazonAstrothe first consumer domestic robot, was delivered to me for a few weeks of testing.

But by examining the $1,000 Amazon Astro is what i plan to do in the next two weeks, testing if it’s up to snuff Amazon’s own marketing promises – and find out what else he can do. What exactly does this include? Everything from delivering drinks from room to room (yes, even the bathroom, I’ve discovered), entertaining the kids (my favorite discovery so far is getting Astro to act Like a bird), answer questions with Alexa, patrolling your home while you’re away and more. Plus, it works with other devices and services, like the Ring Alarm Pro and Alexa Guard. In short, I have a lot to test.

Astro landed on Friday, an unusually cold and drizzly day in my home state of Kentucky, and I brought it to the CNET smart home to set it up and start playing with it.

The future is here, and we are part of it.

Go off the beaten track

I’ve reviewed a dozen Amazon devices over the past few years, and my first impression when I took Astro out of its box was that it looked a lot like a Echo Show 10, Amazon’s pivoting smart display, mounted on casters. The reason: The screen is almost identical, with a size of 10.1 inches and a resolution of 1280 x 800 pixels.

But that impression is shattered as soon as Astro wakes up and starts rolling around mapping your home for navigation, tilting its screen and giving an animated wink like real life. Wall-E. Unlike the Echo devices, Astro’s primary form of communication is non-verbal, and after a short time with the bot, that decision seems to be the right one for Amazon. Even after years of development, Alexa’s voice sounds cooler and more artificial than Astro’s beeps and purrs – something George Lucas anticipated decades ago with R2-D2.

If I had to guess, I think this approach will make the robot the subject of far more affection in households across the country than Alexa. Why? Well, Astro is stepping back from the strange valley where Alexa and other voice assistants have settled, opting instead for a less human and hairier vibe. It makes it less threatening and much more fun.

Alexa always features in Astro’s design, especially if you ask it questions that require verbal answers. In this case, Alexa, more disembodied than ever, from the much more playful bot that zooms into your kitchen, will offer you her usual responses.

But then again, after just a few hours of asking Astro to sing, beatbox, and act like a bird, it’s clear it’s so much more than a Echo on wheels. He really has a personality of his own.

Astro who?

If Astro isn’t a mobile Alexa, what is?

It can recognize, find and track people; it can pair with Ring Alarm Pro home security to patrol your home for intruders; it can work with a smart pet camera to shoot treats at your dog; it can play music and shows on its screen; it can carry various beverages around the house in the built-in cup holders on its back; and it can charge your phone in the station under these holders. In short, Astro is meant to be a little factotum, zooming around your house and helping with various odds and ends.

But despite all these features, I still wonder if Astro is a bit of a solution looking for a problem. None of these features, cool as they are, strike me as particularly vital. In fact, the absence of an integrated system empty feels like a bit of a missed opportunity here, as it’s a practical way Astro could really help around the house.

Instead, as all cute animals instinctively do, Astro seems to rely on his magnetism to distract from his impracticality. I’ve described it as playful before, and this weekend when my kids get their hands on it, I’d bet a month’s salary that my 4-year-old will find it cute within the first 10 minutes.

How helpful Astro’s winks and nods are remains to be seen, but I can say that my kids (and probably my parents too) would much rather chat with this cute little oddity than repeating the same phrase to Alexa over and over again to get steadily worse. results.

But the cuteness belies something more serious: plenty of material to watch and listen to inside your home. This includes an in-screen 5-megapixel bezel camera, a dual-camera periscope with 12 and 5-megapixel cameras, and an array of microphones that anyone with an Echo device will recognize. You can turn all of that off with the push of a button, but to use the device you really need to be sure that all of its footage and processing stays local, which Amazon says it does.

Astro hits a speed bump

Amazon’s little robot has wheels, so it definitely can’t go up or down stairs (well, I guess it could go down, but I doubt it’ll survive the trip). But I’m still surprised by the bot’s mobility, driving over thick pile carpets and small floor transitions without too much trouble.

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

astro-photos-3

Astro had trouble mapping the floor of the CNET smart home, in part because of the bright window near where I placed the docking station.

Chris Monroe/CNET

As a workaround, we blocked off the windows and covered the exposed staircase with cardboard – and Astro managed to map the floor.

This whole process is accomplished through its range of cameras, but also by Astro using deep learning to quickly map and memorize the layout of your home. I’ll have to test this more thoroughly in the coming weeks, but my first impressions here are mixed. Once Astro was able to map the house, it worked great. But the mapping process was painful, because Astro just isn’t designed to handle a wide range of architectural features.

Once Astro has successfully mapped your home, you can take the little robot for a spin, stopping in each room and telling it the names. I had to move a few boundaries in the app, but for the most part Astro had indeed mapped the home – and it continues to navigate smoothly.

I haven’t tested the privacy features here yet. Once Astro has mapped your home, you can block certain rooms in the app, so it won’t follow you there (think bathrooms). Again, I’m looking forward to testing the reliability of these features – but I think in theory it’s a good security measure to have.

Many unanswered questions

I’ve got the Amazon Astro for two more weeks, and you can be sure I’ll be putting it through its paces during that time. And I should also note that while some of those early experiences had some hiccups, I’m willing to give Amazon some grace, because it’s such an innovative device – and since I still have a lot of tests to do.

Here are some of my biggest questions to explore:

  • How reliable is navigation in a changing environment over time?
  • How does Astro contribute to Amazon’s Ring Alarm security system?
  • What other integrations are there?
  • How does Astro play with children and pets – and can he stand up to their abuse?
  • What are the privacy implications of having so many mobile cameras circulating around your home?
  • Will Astro change the modern home as much as Alexa?
  • Is Astro really useful — or just fancy?

I have plenty of other questions to ask and features to test. But I will also check the comments here. So if there’s anything in particular you want me to look at — or just want to share your thoughts on Astro so far — drop a comment below.

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