How much do you need your microwave experience to be streamlined? Is it annoying to have to press a few buttons? Are a microwave’s presets too complex to use?
Amazon seems to have different answers to these questions than the ones I’ve heard from fellow Verge co-workers and friends. It says it sees an opportunity in making a smart microwave, letting people use those advanced presets they normally don’t touch. Instead of having to press multiple buttons, you can just ask Alexa to heat an item, and it will determine heating times for items as varied as sweet potatoes and popcorn.
To accomplish this, Amazon made a microwave that communicates with an Echo to let you use voice commands for control. The $59.99 AmazonBasics Microwave has features that are typical for an affordable device in its category — including 700 watts of power, auto defrost features, and a popcorn button — but it also works with Alexa.
Setting up the AmazonBasics Microwave is fairly fast and simple: you’ll just need an Echo device (the microwave doesn’t actually have a microphone or speaker built in), an Alexa app, and a 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi connection. The microwave is powered by Alexa Connect Kit, which runs on Bluetooth Low Energy and Wi-Fi to let Echo devices communicate. It also acts as a reference of Alexa Connect Kit for other device makers to learn from. The app prompts you to add your microwave as an appliance. Alternatively, you can just ask Alexa on your Echo to pair with your microwave. The overall process takes about 10 minutes, especially if the connection is slow. In that time, you could’ve finished setting up a regular microwave by plugging it in and setting the time.
The microwave does simplify things enough so you can say, “Alexa, microwave one potato” or walk over to the microwave, tap the button, and say, “one potato.” Alexa will say, “Okay,” and the microwave will automatically be set for six minutes and 30 seconds.
But the two potatoes (one sweet, one savory) I tried to heat up with the AmazonBasics Microwave were undercooked and almost raw. I had better results with popcorn, which came out just right with Alexa’s help, unlike a bag of popcorn I guesstimated and ended up burning. The difference is that a normal microwave will ask how heavy your potato is, but Alexa strangely doesn’t ask. And while you normally might not know exactly how long to heat your popcorn (the box gave me vague advice “not more than 4 minutes and sometimes less than 1.5 minutes”), Alexa does ask how many ounces the bag of popcorn is and times it accordingly.
As a novelty feature, having voice commands on a microwave is pretty cool. Alexa doesn’t slip up in following your microwave commands, as long as you follow the preset commands word for word. You can say things like “Alexa, stop the microwave,” and “Alexa, pause the microwave,” and it’s nice to see the microwave pause out of nowhere. Amazon also says it will continue to add more presets over time, so we can expect to see more diverse food items appear as voice commands beyond the typical casserole and hot dog.
Amazon’s microwave also has a popcorn replenishment feature you can opt into that’s powered by the company’s Dash service. You can set how many bags of popcorn you have at home, and Alexa will note when you’ve microwaved a bag of popcorn and deduct the count, prompting an automatic shipment of popcorn to the address you’ve selected. While it’s nothing new to be able to order products quickly through an Amazon Dash button, the addition of the microwave lets Alexa track how much popcorn you’ve used up already and auto-order it for you from there.
Most of Amazon’s options for popcorn replenishment are very big packs of popcorn that would likely overwhelm a small household. I’d like to see different foods added to this feature, like maybe microwaveable frozen lunches, that would make it more relevant and convenient.
Canceling the popcorn replenishment feature is easy enough, but note that canceling the feature through the Alexa app only puts an end to automatic replenishment and not to any current orders that have already been made. For those, you’ll have to go into the Amazon app to cancel directly. It’s a two-step cancellation process that could potentially confuse some customers. For its part, Amazon does send you two emails notifying you that the order has been placed, so hopefully accidental orders can be caught as they’re happening and stopped in time.
The review unit Amazon sent over could not pair to the Echo Plus, despite multiple attempts over half an hour, although the one I purchased for home use worked fine. You’re supposed to hold down the number 2 button for the device to pair up, but my microwave instead continued to say “FAIL” over the course of this time, which felt pretty annoying. We’re still investigating what went wrong there, as the Wi-Fi signal was great, and the power strip hypothetically had enough charge.
The defective unit that couldn’t connect still technically worked as a microwave, though, so I was in the unique position of being able to evaluate the device as just another household appliance. The buttons aren’t the most responsive; they’re very flat on the device, so it’s hard to tell if you’ve pressed down enough. Amazon didn’t include a button that automatically pushes open the door, so you’ll need to pull the door open and shut with its cheap plastic handle. The appearance of it is very sleek, but when you actually touch the device, you can understand why it’s only $60.
On a practical level, is having Alexa work with a microwave useful? Only if you don’t want to press the buttons on the microwave. If the platform you have the microwave set up on has too much stuff or the table is wobbly, this could save you a few taps. You still need to walk over and put food in the microwave, at which point you might as well push a couple of buttons while you’re there.
I asked Amazon why it thought the microwave could be useful, and it gave the example from the beta test of a guy heating a cup of coffee more quickly. It’s the “subtle things,” Charlie Tritschler, VP of Amazon Devices tells me. “People just appreciate how it makes your day a little faster.” He points out that during daylight saving time, like every other internet-connected device, there’s no need to change the clock on the microwave. That’s a slightly appealing feature to me because when you set a clock on a regular microwave, you might be 30 seconds too slow or 30 seconds early and not be aware of it. But it still feels like such a subtle benefit that you might not notice it at all. And while voice commands could be game-changing for visually impaired people as they could avoid pushing buttons that can be hard to see, so far, the limited selection of presets could be frustrating.
It looks like the AmazonBasics Microwave works best as a purchase if you’re already in the market for a new microwave, and you’re already part of the Amazon Alexa ecosystem. If you buy one of these microwaves to try out in hopes of free returns, though, Amazon’s policy is to charge you for the shipping cost, which can add up (around $17, depending on where you live). So it’s better to be sure you’ll actually need one of these devices before banking on it. Amazon’s microwave promises to shave off a few seconds in a daily routine for you, but is that enough?