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Ember Travel Mug review: This exorbitant smart mug is catnip for coffee geeks

The Ember mug regulates its own temperature, but for a price only coffee addicts can swallow.

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Brian Bennett
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Brian Bennett

Senior writer

Brian Bennett is a senior writer for the home and outdoor section at CNET. He reviews a wide range of household and smart-home products. These include everything from cordless and robot vacuum cleaners to fire pits, grills and coffee makers. An NYC native, Brian now resides in bucolic Louisville, Kentucky where he rides longboards downhill in his free time.

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There's a Goldilocks zone for drinking hot beverages. Coffee or tea that's just out of the brewer will scald your tongue. Lukewarm drinks meant to be piping hot are never satisfying. When they're at their ideal heat level though something magical happens. Given quality coffee grounds and a competent coffee maker, you can taste a pleasing depth of flavors. That's just what the $150 Ember Travel Mug is designed to maintain by way of sophisticated electronics and clever engineering that actively regulate the temperature of the mug's contents to a precise degree. 

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6.6

Ember Travel Mug

The Good

The Ember Travel Mug precisely controls its beverage temperature. It has an alluring, distinctive design. Coffee it held at optimal temperatures had plenty of flavor.

The Bad

It's outrageously expensive and doesn't hold much liquid. Away from its charger it retains heat for two hours or less. It uses a proprietary charging system.

The Bottom Line

Only ultra-rich coffee geeks should risk getting burned by the Ember mug's flashy temperature tech and insanely high price.

The good news is that the Ember actually works. Coffee from the Ember was particularly delicious, so much so that it was hard for me to stop using it. The bad news, besides its outrageously steep price, is that it doesn't work for long. Away from its powered cradle, the Ember quickly runs out of power and heat. The 12-ounce container doesn't hold much coffee, either. Both are serious flaws in any travel mug no matter how fancy it is. So unless you're a hopeless coffee fanatic or you like pouring money down the drain, you're better off sticking with an ordinary $20 thermal mug.

The Ember Travel Mug smartly heats your hot drinks

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A 21st century cup?

At first glance the Ember Travel Mug may look like an ordinary single-serve thermos. Tall and slender, the mug has an exterior that's all black. About a third of the way down its length, the Ember tapers to an even thinner width. This change in diameter is subtle but important. The mug narrows slightly above where your fingers naturally fall on it, which helps to stabilize your grip.

The Ember's matte surface also works to reduce slippage. It's entirely devoid of gloss, reflections or fingerprints. The surface feels comfortable, too, and it also wicks away moisture. I also like the cap that has a slick, spring-loaded lid you push to open and close. You can drink it from any direction.

This is one dense cup, though. The Ember weighs a hefty 1 pound when empty. Filled to its full 12-ounce (0.35-liter) capacity that figure rises to 1.75 pounds. It's a handful for sure.

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The Ember sits on a "coaster" cradle that charges its battery.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The second piece of the Ember beverage system is its charging coaster. Flat and rectangular, the pad is black with a matte skin that matches the cup. A receptacle on the coaster accepts the Travel Mug and charges its battery. Be advised that the coaster's mug interface (tiny metal contacts) and its power cord are proprietary.

That's a shame. It would be extremely useful if you could charge the Ember wirelessly like you would a phone. You might own one of these universal charging pads already. The technology is also working its way into cars, furniture and even home countertops. As it stands, your only options for charging the mug in multiple locations (say, at home and again at the office) is to carry the coaster with you or buy an extra one for another $40.

Life with the Ember

You start to use the Ember Travel Mug as you would any cup. Unscrew the top and pour your drink inside. At this point things get interesting. The "Ember" logo on the face of the mug is really a touch-sensitive button. Touching it for five seconds powers the device on and off. A quick logo tap activates a small screen of white LEDs. The display is near the bottom of the mug and recessed beneath its surface.

Each logo tap cycles through various readouts. These include current drink temperature, target temperature and whether the Ember is actively heating or passively cooling. You'll also see the current battery level plus the mug's name (personalized or default).

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Tap the Ember logo to activate the mug's screen. 

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

To select your target temperature, you swivel the mug's bottom left or right. It has a range between 120 to 145 degrees Fahrenheit. The time it takes to cool your drink depends on factors like its initial temperature, volume and ambient conditions outside.

In my experience, 12 ounces of hot coffee (166 F) needed 42 minutes to hit the Ember's default coffee temp (130 F). That's way too long to wait around. I usually finish my morning cup in half the time. Also consider that coffee from the same pot in a glass mug cooled to 107 degrees F in 30 minutes.

Ember Travel Mug app

Use the Ember app to control the mug's temperature and get alerts.

Screenshot by Brian Bennett/CNET

An app for your mug, really

As you might have guessed, the Ember has a companion mobile app (iOS and Android). Through the software you can see the mug's status (it links to your phone via Bluetooth). The app also lets you save personal temp presets or control its heat level. The software also pushes alerts to notify you when the Ember has hit its target temperature.

As apps go, Ember's is cleanly laid out and intuitive. It did encounter the usual problems with flaky Bluetooth connections. For example, many times the app refused to connect to the Ember Travel Mug even though I'd done so before. Still, this is likely due to my Google Pixel XL handset. I've experienced the same issue with this phone and numerous other products, from dryers to Bluetooth headphones. Cycling the Pixel's Bluetooth off and on again usually solved the hiccup.

Avoid this budget buster

Should you buy the $150 Ember Travel Mug? For most people the answer is absolutely not. While the gadget definitely packs some slick technology, unless you're a supreme coffee nerd its benefits are marginal. Even if you're like me and absolutely adore coffee's intense and complex flavor, the Ember's sky-high price is impossible to swallow. Yes, coffee from the Ember held at optimal temperatures was always excellent.

Still, it's an obscenely expensive luxury. I can enjoy the same richness of flavor drinking from an ordinary coffee mug. It just takes patience and a little vigilance. For the same amount of money you could buy both a quality coffee maker and a premium travel mug. Case in point, the $100 Bonavita Metropolitan and the $55 Zojirushi Travel Mug ($26 through Amazon). That's why the Ember only makes sense if you happen to be a true coffee devotee, or you're looking for a gift for someone who is. 

Editors' note, June 6, 2018: We have spent more time evaluating the Ember Travel Mug's performance since this review first published on Jan. 25, 2018. This review has been updated to reflect these experiences.  

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6.6

Ember Travel Mug

Score Breakdown

Performance 6.2Usability 6.5Design 7Features 7