Smart Home

Amazon Astro Review: It's Cute, But Not Yet Worth It

Amazon's ambitious robot assistant is equal parts fascinating and frustrating.

Home robots are finally here, for better or worse.
Chris Monroe/CNET

Amazon's new robot helper Astro is available to buy by invite only for $1,000. I got my hands on one to test for over two weeks -- and I needed every minute of that time. Astro works as a smart display, a roving security guard, a toy for the kids and an errand-bot. And all of those features are built on an innovative piece of hardware.

But is Astro worth the $1,000 early-access price -- let alone the $1,450 price tag Amazon plans to give it once it becomes generally available? Not yet. For now, this robot remains a luxury item, for people with a lot of money to try out a cutting-edge technology that still lacks a compelling use case. And that's not necessarily a bad thing! Amazon's Day 1 Editions are, after all, experimental projects, and the development team is still working out Astro's flaws and honing its features.

"Day 1 Edition products are all about bringing big-picture ideas to life and Astro is just that," said an Amazon representative. "It's Amazon's first step into consumer robotics, but it won't be the last. It is real technology in the hands of customers and we're already getting valuable customer feedback, while at the same time, optimizing core functions and adding new features."

In its capacity as an investment by Amazon in the consumer robotics space, Astro is a fascinating device with a whole lot of personality and promise. But as a product you can buy and use in your house right now, it simply lacks the utility or clear identity to make it worth the price.

Who is Amazon Astro?

Amazon Astro looks a lot like an Echo Show 10 smart display on wheels. It has the same 10.1-inch screen with a 5-megapixel camera on the bezel -- which lets you video chat, albeit from a bit of an awkward angle -- and two front-facing 55mm speakers with a passive bass radiator.

Like Echo Shows, Astro also has Alexa on board, which can play music, stream TV shows, answer questions about the weather and tell bad jokes, among many other things.

Because Astro is so low to the ground, it also has a way to change its perspective. A periscope, which emerges from the swiveling head of the device near the mute and volume buttons, adds a 12-megapixel camera and an additional 5-megapixel camera. You can use these to take selfies and, more practically, to roam the house remotely while you're away.

Amazon Astro robot

Astro has its own distinct personality, expressed charmingly with its animated eyes and assorted robotic sounds.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Of course, what sets Astro apart are the wheels. The development team at Amazon adapted navigation technology long used for robot vacuums to help Astro efficiently map your house, then navigate smoothly and efficiently when given simple voice commands, like "go to the bedroom" or "take this drink to Andrew in the living room."

Another distinction, though it feels slightly less formed so early in Astro's life, is its personality. Unlike Echo devices, Astro plays host to both the Amazon voice assistant Alexa and its own quirky, nonverbal personality, expressed using two animated eyes and a wide variety of playful beeps, boops and purrs. This personality is still nascent, but it definitely lends the little robot a different flavor from Amazon's smart display counterparts.

How well does Astro work?

Astro accomplishes an incredible number of tasks, with widely varying performance. Here's a breakdown of each of the basic categories of use, and how Amazon's little robot actually performed them.

Setup

Like many of Amazon's smart home devices, Astro has a super streamlined setup process, which prompts you through the steps with on-screen directions. The whole process could have gone fairly quickly, but I ran into some issues right away.

Astro took much longer to map the CNET Smart Home, where I spent the bulk of my time testing the device, than the 30 minutes touted by the app. You can hear more about the process in our first impressions video, but essentially Astro failed to map the house because floors were too shiny, the windows near the charging station were too bright, or the exposed staircase descending from the entryway and surrounded by a railing might be throwing off the mapping process (the Amazon representative couldn't be certain while troubleshooting by phone). So we covered the windows and railing with cardboard to dim the light and create a more clear, wall-like boundary for Astro, set it to mapping the floor, and achieved success.

astro-pics-3

Astro struggled to map the CNET Smart Home's first floor, thanks in part to the windows near its charging dock. Covering them in cardboard during setup solved the problem.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Relieved, I walked Astro from room to room, naming each one and making small tweaks to the map in the app, so Astro would know which areas were out of bounds and which areas were free game.

Astro's setup, if you don't run into these problems, is simple and easy -- and it gives you some fun ideas for how to use the robot. But as a product, it's still working out the kinks. Staircases with railings around them aren't particularly unusual architectural features, but Astro is still learning how to map them. For what it's worth, though, once it had mapped the floor, I removed the cardboard and Astro navigated for the rest of its time in the house without a serious problem.

Security

Perhaps the most obvious use case for Astro is as a home security bot, a camera on wheels that you can manually drive around your house while you're gone, or that you can set to patrol, in conjunction with your Ring and Alexa Guard home security apparatus.

As a remote-controlled camera, Astro won me over. When you pull up the live feed on the app, Astro chimes to let people in the house know they're about to be on camera. Then the periscope cam peeks out of its housing and gives you a live view of the house.

From the app, you can navigate the space in a variety of ways, either pressing the forward or back buttons, tapping spots on the feed for Astro to move or selecting rooms for Astro to zoom toward. You can also swipe left or right to make Astro swivel, and slide the periscope up or down to gain a different perspective.

In short, I'm a fan of the easy access to monitoring your house -- though it occurred to me as I was driving Astro around for the first time how uncomfortable I would be to find out anyone besides me had such thorough access to my home. But we'll talk about privacy concerns with Astro a little bit later.

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The other way to use Astro as a security device is by pairing it with your Ring Protect Pro subscription to patrol your house and send you notifications when it sees someone entering while you're away.

The security setup ended up being at least as complicated as the initial mapping setup. I was simply unable to get my Ring app to discover and pair with Astro. After fiddling around for an hour, and unpairing and re-pairing my Ring account with my Alexa account, which reset all of my Echo smart speakers and smart displays (at least six of them), I reached out once more to my Amazon contact to troubleshoot. Long story short, I was asked to delete all of our Ring cameras from the app and unpair our Blink camera account from our Alexa account.

After I did so, Astro successfully paired with Ring.

Amazon said it has fixed this problem with Astro's pairing since I tested the device.

To put Astro's security chops to the test, we set the robot to "Away" and staged a break-in. My video producer, Chris (whose face Astro didn't recognize), entered a back door about 25 feet from Astro's dock, moved to the master bedroom, stole a large rock that definitely, probably had a geode inside, and exited the way he came.

The door Chris entered wasn't directly in front of Astro, but if the robot swiveled right, it would have a clear view of the break-in. In our first attempt, Astro didn't respond at all to the sound of Chris entering (extremely loudly, by the way).

Before our second attempt, I made sure that Alexa Guard was activated for a nearby Echo Dot -- so the smart speaker would hear Chris, then presumably let Astro know what was going on. Again, Astro stayed put during the entire test.

Amazon Astro robot

Astro's security chops show real promise, but the development team is clearly still working out a lot of kinks.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Before our third attempt, I reached out once more to Amazon to be sure I had everything set up correctly (I did), then decided to set Astro actively patrolling when Chris entered. This time, the test was more successful. Astro seemed to respond to the sound of Chris entering and intercepted him before he made it to the master bedroom.

Finally, we set Astro on its dock once again, and this time installed a Ring door/window sensor on the entry point for the break-in. Chris entered, tripping my Ring Alarm Pro's loud siren, which sent me a notification of the break-in. Astro zoomed off the dock and turned the opposite direction to go investigate the dinette and kitchen areas.

I searched through the apps to find if there was a way to align my Ring door/window sensor placement (in the exercise room) with Astro's layout of the house, but couldn't figure out a way to make it work -- a result of the byzantine interface shared between the Alexa, Astro and Ring apps.

Astro isn't a great security device at present -- but it does show promise. I know that it can navigate well through the house, and if the various platforms it uses can coordinate more effectively, it will be a great way to get eyes on an intruder without stationing cameras throughout your whole home.

Once more, for the moment, Astro's reach exceeds its grasp.

Running errands

What really differentiates Astro from any other smart display is its mobility. That means you aren't limited to asking for information: you can also ask for a hand with various tasks around the house -- from delivering snacks to your kids to delivering reminders to your spouse to take out the garbage.

Alas, Astro itself can't take out the garbage, or do many other tasks that aren't accomplished by driving from A to B. You have to load the drinks or snacks to be delivered, and despite Astro using much of the navigation tech recent robot vacuums have used, you'll still have to vacuum your own floors.

But as a factotum, even in its limited capacity, Astro is pretty reliable. I tested Astro's ability to find one of my video producers in the CNET Smart Home (which is pretty large), and it took the little robot a few minutes -- but it did find him. When we tested the robot's ability to make deliveries in a messy house, Astro also succeeded in most of its tests.

Loading a drink into Astro for delivery

Astro can deliver drinks to family members or guests, and it' navigation, even in a messy house, is seriously impressive.

Chris Monroe/CNET

This speaks to how impressive Astro's navigation really is. It moves around the house quickly and efficiently, adjusting to changes in the environment, like shoes left by the front door or doors along one route left closed. And the longer it stays in your house, the better it becomes at navigating.

Over the time I spent with Astro, I saw it consistently improve at rerouting and at confidently navigating the space. At first, it struggled to avoid getting stuck on C-stands -- the stands that hold lights used during filming -- but by the second week, it didn't have any issues with them anymore.

This is perhaps Astro's most resounding success. And it's not just because robot vacuums have done it before. Amazon's developers had to adapt the existing navigation technology for robot vacuums to a very different purpose. Astro isn't covering every inch of your floor; it's moving much more quickly in a changing environment.

The one minor issue -- aside from the rocky setup -- was that Astro largely ignores obstacles that are less than an inch in height. That meant that it got stuck once or twice on my kids' blocks, trying to simply drive over them. And it also ran over (fake) dog poop without hesitation.

Most of the time, though, this strategy works: Astro can take on changing surfaces, laundry and more without much trouble.

Playing with kids

When my kids heard that a real, live (sort of) robot was coming to our house, they were ecstatic. You could almost see visions of R2-D2 and Wall-E passing before their eyes. And when they first met Astro, they were amped.

They loved asking the little robot to dance, sing, beatbox, do the robot, act like a bumblebee and burp -- and my two boys, who already interact with Alexa pretty often to play music or watch YouTube videos, were almost immediately comfortable with it.

But Astro's novelty, like that of smart speakers in the early days, didn't last as long as I expected. Within a few days, my kids were less interested in seeing Astro. If I prompted them to play with it, they would either dutifully tell it to do the robot or use it as another Echo Show device to play music or stream a video.

I happened to buy my kids a pet snail and pet betta fish at the same time that I began testing Astro, and the boys were actually about as interested in the new pets as they were in the robot -- and maybe even more so -- after a week and a half.

That isn't to say Amazon's developers, who aimed intentionally to create a pet-like product with Astro, were unsuccessful. Astro's "personality" is adorable, complete with winks, beeps and boops. I wouldn't be surprised at all if Amazon hired character designers from animation studios to consult on Astro's design.

But Astro posed three problems for my kids. First of all, it doesn't listen as well as other smart speakers and displays, which Amazon attributes to the changing acoustics around it as it zooms through the house. The result for my kids was mild frustration, as they repeated "Astro" over and over, sometimes without any response.

Amazon Echo Show on a kitchen counter

Astro struggles to listen to wake words in part because the acoustics of its surroundings are constantly changing. Echo devices, by contrast, can optimize their listening to their environment -- and achieve noticeably better results.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Secondly, and related to its difficulty hearing wake words, Astro often feels a little like it has multiple personalities. You can ask a question hoping for Astro's quirky, nonverbal answer, only to receive Alexa's disembodied voice reading a random snippet from Wikipedia or adding something to your shopping list. Or you can ask Alexa a question, only to get Astro cocking an inquisitive eyebrow at you. And while my kids are probably far more comfortable with the idiosyncrasies of voice assistants than most 4- and 6-year-olds, they quickly lose interest when they feel like they're not being heard correctly.

Finally, while Astro's character is charming, and if it were in a movie, it would be scene-stealing, it doesn't have enough depth to provide more than an hour or two of entertainment for the kids -- which is surprising, considering how much I'd heard about Astro's kid-friendly character. Again, Amazon's robot feels like it's still in the novelty phase of smart speakers, during which people enjoyed hearing groaners or discovering Easter eggs with Alexa. In 2022, though, that feels a little less exciting.

An Echo Show on wheels?

Astro is much more than an Echo Show on wheels -- but it's still got a lot of the same features as an Echo Show. And in this case, they work really well. Astro's dual 55mm speakers and passive bass radiator sound awesome, and having it follow you around playing the best-sounding music to come from a smart speaker or display is pretty cool.

Likewise, you can video chat with Astro, and it will follow you around as you do so. The angle is a little strange, but it works well for kids who have too many wiggles to sit at the counter while they talk with their grandma across the country.

And for anyone who feels the impulse to fill their house with Alexa smart speakers so they never have to shout to get the voice assistant's attention, Astro can really help. You can even use your current smart speakers and displays to call Astro into the room with you.

Amazon Astro robot

Astro is a social robot. It will hang out in rooms where it knows people tend to congregate.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Astro will automatically hang out in rooms where it learns there's lots of activity during the day, though I often found myself sending it back to its dock in these cases, as it had some trouble moving out of the way in our narrow kitchen. You can also activate routines with the little robot, so it comes into your room to play music when you're ready to wake up, or so it patrols your house after you go to sleep.

These are nice features, and I can see them being genuinely helpful over time -- though the benefit doesn't outweigh the inconvenience for me so far.

Respecting your privacy

Amazon has done an impressive amount to protect your privacy with Astro, storing and processing most of its navigation and facial recognition on-device. Like Alexa-driven smart speakers and displays, you can also delete your query history on the Alexa app.

We've dived deeper into Astro's security and privacy implications elsewhere, but my main concern is that Astro, like many other devices on the market, is smuggling even more cameras into homes. And while Amazon's security measures seem impressive, cameras get hacked, and what's presumed to be private very often becomes public when cameras are involved.

Troublingly, video devices inside our homes also normalize leading even the most intimate moments of lives on-camera. While we as adults may decide the convenience outweighs the deterioration of privacy, that's not a status quo I want my children -- whose affection Astro could certainly win over in time -- to grow up with.

The Astro robot "winks" from its display.

Astro's charisma belies a lot of privacy-eroding hardware.

Chris Monroe/CNET

So much more to Astro

This is an unusually long review, and I still feel like I've glossed over so much about Astro -- its navigation technology (which also accounts for visually impaired users), its security measures and local processing, its personality (which sidesteps the uncanny valley so many voice assistants have languished in for years) and everything else it can do.

Amazon Astro is an ambitious device, both fascinating and frustrating. And it's a pretty incredible step forward for smart home technology, if for no other reason than that it's a robot you can actually buy and use in your home. The navigation in particular is impressive, and the security features and personality show true potential -- even if they aren't fully clicking yet. Astro is still in its invite-only early-access phase, after all, and it has plenty of time to grow.

But is it worth $1,000 -- let alone $1,450 if and when it becomes more widely available? Not yet.

From a product standpoint, Astro still lacks a definite identity, a clear utility. Sure, it's somewhat useful in a wide range of situations, but if I kept Astro around for another month or two, I guarantee I would simply be using it as little more than a mobile smart display (with admittedly banging speakers).

And when I consider its broader implications, I realize that the true price for Astro is less the money (although it's a lot of money) than it is the privacy. I'm not ready to give a roving robot with three cameras and an array of microphones 24/7 access to my home and family -- and I don't think I'm in the minority on this point.

Check back in five years, though: Amazon's Astro could prove me wrong.