There’s been a surge in smart kitchen appliances over the last few years. Smart ovens, coffee makers, and refrigerators have flooded the market attempting to make home life easier. But I never thought about what a “smart microwave oven” could offer. These staples of modern kitchens have been void of innovation since their inception in the 70’s. So I was intrigued when Amazon announced they would be taking a crack at their own smart microwave.
The AmazonBasics Microwave with Alexa releases as the first product to utilize the Alexa Connect Kit. This allows 3rd party companies to make products that can be voice-controlled with your Echo devices. Which means that Amazon might not be looking to revolutionize the microwave so much as showcase their fancy new platform to other businesses. And as I used this microwave, that felt more like the case.
Traditional Design and Easy Setup
At its core, the AmazonBasics Microwave with Alexa looks like any other 700-watt microwave oven. A simple black box design with minimal keypad controls doesn’t give a hint at the fancy technology that lies beneath it. You’ll find a standard turntable that fits comfortably inside the 0.7 cubic feet interior. And at $60, it’s priced right alongside it’s “dumb” competitors.
You might have realized that without the word “Echo” in its name, there is no microphone or speaker inside. Instead your microwave works off other Alexa-enabled devices in the home. This means you’ll need an Echo speaker within earshot of your kitchen to use voice-controls. But if you don’t, you can still do it the old-fashioned way by punching in numbers manually.
Setup was surprisingly simple. Upon plugging in the microwave, you open the Alexa app on your phone and it should pop right up as a new device. This is part of Amazon’s “WiFi Simple Setup” initiative which makes connecting new smart home products much simpler. And since this is connected to the internet, you don’t have to worry about resetting the clock twice a year. It will sync to the exact time of day.
Alexa Cooking Commands Hit or Miss
At only 700 watts, the Amazon Basics Microwave doesn’t cook with a lot of power. This will take some adjustment for those coming from a standard 1,200 watt unit. The glass turntable seemed to work well most of the time, although did have trouble staying on it’s track when heavier items were used. This however seems common in other budget microwaves on the market.
Voice commands work great when giving basic instructions. For instance, “Alexa, microwave for 3 minutes” will power your microwave on it’s own and start cooking. You can tell Alexa to “pause” and “resume” cooking as well. They did inexplicably leave out the “Add 30 seconds” voice command option we all wanted. Overall, it comes down to whether this is easier than just hitting a few buttons on your microwave when you put your food in. To me, it wasn’t.
However one area I did enjoy the voice commands was when defrosting or cooking at a lower power level. As a novice cook, I’m never quite sure how to punch in the correct combination to do that properly. So being able to say “Alexa, microwave for 5 minutes at medium power” or “Alexa, defrost for 8 minutes” is much easier. This was perhaps the only time I really felt the benefits of having a “smart microwave”.
The other way to cook is to tell Alexa what you’re cooking and have her do the rest (Amazon has a list of preset commands – PDF File). Using calculations stored in the cloud, Amazon will decide how long and what power is needed to achieve optimal temperature. While this sounds like an idea straight out of the Jetsons, the results were much more hit or miss.
The problem is that food isn’t always standard and neither is the way we cook it. For instance, Amazon determines the time for oatmeal based on you cooking it with a vented cover using the manufacturer’s instructions for milk or water. Now manufacturers differ in how much liquid should be used. Also rolled oats cook at a different rate than steel cut oats. So when using this function for oatmeal, mine were well undercooked and sitting in a pool of milk when completed.
Now this wasn’t the case for all items. Frozen vegetables worked great by giving the proper number of ounces (“Alexa, microwave 5 ounces of frozen vegetables”). Same for many other items like mashed potatoes and my Mom’s famous chicken casserole (yes there is a casserole option). But when it came to items that went by quantity instead of weight (such as potatoes), there was no consistency. Again, this is because potatoes vary greatly in size.
Another much talked about feature is Amazon’s ability to replenish your popcorn supply automatically. The first time you ask Alexa to make popcorn, you’ll be prompted on whether you want to sign up for a subscription. That means that Amazon will keep track of how many times you tell it to pop popcorn and order when it knows you are low. This feels a bit gimmicky but I suppose if you’re someone who finds themselves out of popcorn at the worst times, maybe it’ll help.
More of a Replacement than an Upgrade
Going into this review I didn’t really see a need for an Alexa-enabled microwave in my home. And after the review, I still don’t. But the saving grace here is that it’s only $60. It’s the same price as your average name brand 700-watt microwave. And since it operates the same, my justification is that the smart features comes as a free bonus.
Overall it just didn’t feel like Amazon’s heart was in it. They seem to be dipping their toe in the water here but not committing. That’s fine at $60. Plus Amazon has said that software updates will be coming down the road to hopefully enhance its usefulness. If you’re in the market for a new microwave, this is a great choice. But if you’re looking at this as an upgrade to your existing one, I’d hold off and see if anyone else in the market can offer up more.