Amazon’s digital assistant Alexa boasts more than 50,000 skills, and one of its newest is microwave chef. That’s thanks to the voice-controlled AmazonBasics Microwave, first shown off in September, and now starting to arrive in households nationwide.
The $60 WiFi-enabled microwave marks the latest advancement in Amazon’s ever-growing portfolio of Alexa-powered devices and lays the groundwork for the tech giant to potentially expand further into appliances. It’s no secret that Amazon wants Alexa to be everywhere, and in recent years the digital assistant started showing up in more and more kitchen gadgets and smart home devices, but they were made by other manufacturers.
The microwave started shipping last week, and GeekWire has spent the last few days using one as an alternative to our regular office microwave. Before we jump into our first impressions, it’s important to note that Alexa is not built into the microwave, so to get the full hands-free experience, you’ll need a separate Alexa-powered device, such as an Echo, to act as an intermediary.
The main draw is the ability to use voice commands to cook food, defrost items by weight and take advantage of several presets. Alexa replaces one piece of the microwave action: pushing buttons to set timers and power. But you still have to physically open a door and slide the food in.
Alternatively, you can press the “Ask Alexa” button on the microwave and say a cook time or trigger a preset like “frozen vegetables.” The microwave has the Amazon Dash Replenishment service built in, which can be set up to automatically reorder popcorn by counting the number of bags you’ve popped to know when the supply is running low.
For our in-office test, we asked GeekWire staffers to let Alexa heat up their leftovers this week. On the whole, their opinions of the device were lukewarm at best.
Kurt Schlosser, geek life reporter: Hands-free microwave controlling lands somewhere on my tech wish list far below robots that can clean my gutters and social media without creeps. I just wasn’t sitting around with a bowl of cold food waiting until I could use my voice to activate a heating appliance. I still had to open the microwave door, lift my Thai leftovers, place them inside, and close the door. So I used my voice to set the timer instead of my fingers on a keypad. Wow. I’d thank Amazon and Alexa for this breakthrough, but I was taught not to talk with my mouth full.
Clare McGrane, podcast producer: My overall impression of the Alexa Microwave was: Meh. I had low expectations going in, and I felt they were met. The microwave itself wasn’t very good quality — it felt on the cheap end and wasn’t very large. On top of that, Alexa didn’t add any functionality. If I already have to go over to the microwave, open the door, put my food in it and close the door, I may as well push a few buttons to start the device. It may actually take LESS time than asking Alexa would. I could see a great use case for something a bit more advanced — for example, putting something frozen in the microwave and having Alexa automatically calculate the best way to defrost it. But that seems a far cry from the current version.
Daniel Rossi, chief business officer: I asked Alexa to reheat my oatmeal, twice. She did not comply. Then I plugged her in. Nice trick Nat. Time elapsed, 13 seconds. At this point my learned colleague informed me that I should simply say Alexa’s name then the command “microwave” with a time. I did this and the microwave sprang to life. Time elapsed, 31 seconds. 90 seconds later my oatmeal emerged. It wasn’t quite as warm as the oatmeal made in our regular, and larger, microwave. It needed another 30 seconds. So, to get what I’d usually get in a minute and a half will take at least two minutes in the future. But I can command my robot microwave with my voice and use my digits instead to poke fun at colleagues that don’t plug in Alexa.”
Monica Nickelsburg, civic innovation editor: I’d rather just push a button. Not everything needs to be disrupted.
The AmazonBasics Microwave is just that, a mostly regular microwave. Despite the Alexa controls, all the typical buttons are still there. The addition of voice commands gives it a new dimension, but Amazon hasn’t reinvented the device. That it was able to add Alexa without jacking up the price — $60 is a mid-tier cost for a 0.7 cubic foot, 700 MW microwave — is impressive.
The microwave is set up by first connecting it to the WiFi, holding the “2” button on the device and then hooking it up through the Alexa app. Next, it pairs with an Alexa device, in our case a second generation Echo. It took awhile for me to figure it out, as I originally registered the microwave with my Amazon Alexa app, so it couldn’t hook up with the Echo on GeekWire’s account. Before you start the process, make sure you’re doing everything in the same Amazon account.
The voice commands work well, as long as you know the right verbiage. I watched the microwave sit idle when a co-worker would say “Alexa, cook my lunch.” Saying something like “Alexa, microwave for 30 seconds” activates the microwave.
The microwave comes with a wide variety of commands and presets that can be found in full online, and Amazon plans to add more over time. Users can tell Alexa to microwave for a certain amount of time and stop, pause and add more time.
Alexa can defrost anywhere from three to 70 ounces of a variety of foods — chicken, ground beef, pork, salmon, broccoli, corn, peas and more. The microwave features presets for cooking popcorn, potatoes, oatmeal, corn on the cob and more.
Using voice commands to cook is cool, but only affects one step of a multi-part process. I’d like to see Alexa become a more sophisticated microwave chef over time, for example, automatically detecting the weight of food I put in the microwave and knowing exactly how long to heat it for.
Alexa can be an invaluable kitchen tool — the ability to set timers and answer questions about ingredients is key — and I am curious how Amazon will fit that into appliances. I wouldn’t be surprised if the microwave is just an appetizer for a larger buffet of Amazon-made appliances, from ovens to refrigerators to washing machines.
But those are the questions of tomorrow. The most important question of the day is, will the AmazonBasics Microwave replace the larger, older, glitchier microwave in the GeekWire office? The response from staff was a resounding “nah.”