Astro is winning me over, but is it really practical? I’m still not sure.
David Priest is an award-winning writer and editor who covers home security for CNET. When he isn’t waving his hands wildly in front of motion sensors or making faces at video doorbells, he spends his time playing board games and video games with his wife and family.
Astro is about to take over your house — unless your windows are too bright or you have an exposed stairwell.
Amazon’s , Astro, is in early access, and I got my hands on one for two weeks of testing. And this thing has a lot of features to test, from reinforcing your setup and to playing music and TV shows and beatboxing — and plenty more besides.
During this two-week period, I’m going to be conducting interviews with some of the engineers behind Astro’s design, and I’m going to be keeping this review-in-progress updated with my latest impressions.
So far, I’ve set up the Astro and just begun playing with it. Overall, despite some privacy concerns I’ll address after more research and testing, this little robot is winning me over — at least more than Alexa ever did.
The two elements of Astro that have really landed with me so far are its playful, nonverbal “personality,” and its navigation. I’ll dive into these more over the coming days, but for now, I just 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. 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.
On a more technical level, Astro’s navigation also impresses. I ran into some trouble getting it to map the CNET Smart Home for a few reasons I’ll describe more below, but once acclimated to the new environment, this thing zooms around with more confidence than the best robot vacuum (even if the hum it makes while it does so is vaguely unsettling, like a flying saucer quietly buzzing around your home).
Astro makes a good impression, but I’m still concerned about a number of aspects of the device. Practically, I wonder how much it can actually help around the house. My family uses Alexa almost exclusively for — and occasionally asking about the time or weather. To get a mobile version of that for $1,000 (or $1,500, once the robot leaves early access) feels like a questionable value proposition. In short, I’m still wondering if Astro really fulfills a useful function in the home.
More seriously, I’m also keeping an eye on the privacy question. In recent weeks, yet another camera-maker with regard to its indoor cameras’ video security, and 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, Astro does seem, on first blush, to have many more intentional privacy measures in place than the countless unsecured internet-connected cameras already in people’s homes.
I’ve reviewed a dozen or so Amazon devices in recent years, and my first impression when I pulled Astro out of its box was that it looks a lot like an , Amazon’s swiveling smart display, set on wheels. The reason: The screen is nearly identical, at 10.1 inches in size with 1,280×800-pixel resolution.
But that impression is shattered as soon as Astro wakes up and begins rolling around to map your house for navigation, angling its screen and winking its animated eyes like a real-life Wall-E. Unlike Echo devices, Astro’s main form of communication is nonverbal, and after just a short time with the bot, that decision feels like the right one for Amazon to make. 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.
Alexa still features in Astro’s design, especially if you ask it questions that necessitate verbal answers. In that case Alexa, more disembodied than ever, issuing from the much more playful bot zooming around your kitchen, will offer its usual answers.
But again, after just a few hours of asking Astro to sing, beatbox and act like a bird, it’s clear that this is much more than an on wheels. It very much has a personality of its own — and it feels like the start of a better vision for the future than voice assistants inspire.
If Astro isn’t a mobile Alexa, what is it?
It can recognize, find and follow people; it can partner with Ring Alarm Pro home security to patrol your house for intruders; it can work with a smart pet cam to fire treats at your dog; it can play music and shows on its display; it can tote various beverages around the house in the built-in cup holders on its back; and it can charge your phone in the station underneath those holders. In short, Astro is meant to be a little factotum, buzzing around your house, and helping accomplish various odds and ends.
But despite all those features, I still wonder if Astro is a bit of a solution in search of a problem. None of these features, cool as they are, feel particularly vital to me. In fact, the lack of a built-in feels like a bit of a missed opportunity here, since that’s a practical way Astro could genuinely help around the house.
Instead, like all cute animals instinctively do, Astro seems to rely on its magnetism to distract from its impracticality. How helpful Astro’s winks and nods actually are remains to be seen, but I can tell my kids (and my parents, too, probably) will much prefer chatting with this cute little curio than repeating the same phrase to Alexa over and over to steadily worsening results.
But the cuteness belies something more serious: a lot of hardware for watching and listening inside your home. That includes a 5-megapixel bezel camera on the screen, 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 switch all of these off with a button press, but to use the device, you really need to trust that all its footage and processing stays local — which Amazon says is the case.
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 would survive the trip). But I’m still surprised by how mobile the bot is, driving onto thick-pile rugs and across small floor transitions without much trouble.
But Astro isn’t perfect: The robot 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 problem, we blocked windows and covered the exposed staircase with cardboard — and Astro successfully mapped the floor.
Astro struggled to map the floor of the CNET Smart Home, in part because of the bright window near where I placed the docking station.
This whole process is accomplished thanks to its array of cameras, but also by Astro using deep learning to quickly map and remember 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 had successfully mapped the house, it worked really well. But the mapping process was a pain, because Astro simply isn’t designed to deal with a wide range of architectural features.
This initial difficulty speaks less to Astro’s general design than it does to how early in development it still is. No, an Amazon rep told me, this product is not in beta. But it is in early-access, and clearly, the little robot is still learning to roll in different settings.
Once Astro has mapped your house successfully, you can take a tour with the little robot, stopping in each room and telling it the names. I had to shift a couple of boundaries in the app, but for the most part, Astro had effectively mapped the house — and it has continued to navigate it without issue since that first setup.
I also have yet to test the privacy features in the navigation settings. After Astro maps your home, you can block off 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 safety measure to have.
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 note, too, that while some of these early experiences have seen hiccups, I’m willing to give Amazon a little grace, since this is such an innovative device — and since I still have plenty of testing ahead.
Here are some of my biggest questions to explore:
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.
Be respectful, keep it civil and stay on topic. We delete comments that violate our policy, which we encourage you to read. Discussion threads can be closed at any time at our discretion.