Moments after plugging in Amazon’s new Alexa-connected microwave I was about to review, the first thing I noticed was the word that popped up on its screen: FAIL. It hadn’t—it had just jumped the gun a bit in the connection process, but that word hung over the testing process in surprising ways.
The AmazonBasics Microwave is a 700-watt, 0.7-cubic foot appliance that costs a mere 60 dollars and connects with Amazon devices like the Echo, allowing you to control many of the microwave’s functions with your voice. Say “Alexa, microwave 30 seconds” and the appliance starts whirring away on high. Trying “Alexa defrost ten ounces of fish” will result in more-regulated microwave blasts. For many functions, it’s very similar to GE’s new Smart Countertop Microwave with Scan-to-Cook Technology, though that oven has the additional ability to scan the bar codes of thousands of microwaveable products and deliver cooking instructions to the oven.
Clever as it sounds, I never quite saw the value add of the Scan-to-Cook, but was curious and excited about Amazon’s first foray into kitchen hardware. The AmazonBasics model is also a splashy public introduction to the Alexa Connect Kit, which provides both the hardware and cloud services to help a third-party manufacturer turn a device into a smart device.
Normally, when I receive something to review, I’m eager to get cooking. But I had both physical and connectivity issues with this microwave that slowed things down right off the blocks.
First, a physical problem: like many microwaves, this one has a glass tray with three bumps on the bottom that interlock with a “turntable shaft” that spins the tray, making your frozen peas go around and around while they defrost. Peculiarly, the Amazon turntable shaft barely came up high enough to spin the tray, and occasionally during testing it derailed, something that never happens with the microwave I own. In fact, I used the slightly taller turntable shaft from my microwave (a 700-watt non-connected GE microwave) in the Amazon, a move their engineers approved, and it felt much better. After learning of my problem, Amazon sent me a second microwave, but that one’s turntable had the same short shaft.
I also had significant connectivity issues, which was particularly worrisome, considering that I received my review model just two days before Amazon started shipping the microwave to customers. One bug I encountered meant the Echo and microwave had difficulty communicating with each other, and another kept the “Ask Alexa” button on the front of the microwave from functioning. That button saves you a few words when you’re talking to your microwave, so instead of needing to say, “Alexa, reheat six ounces of frozen vegetables,” you press the button and say, “Six ounces of frozen vegetables.”
At this point, you, like me, may be wondering about the utility of such a button, but perhaps Amazon envisions a day where your kitchen is stuffed with their devices and this would let your Echo know which one was doing the cooking. You may also wonder about the overall utility of voice control on a microwave considering that you have to go to the microwave to put your food in it. At that point, just hitting the “Popcorn” button is faster than saying, “Alexa, make popcorn!”
Earlier that day, I went to the grocery store in search of some exciting food to cook, befriending the clerk in the frozen food aisle along the way. I was planning on feeding my wife Elisabeth, but the connection dropped between the Echo and the microwave just before lunch and she was getting hungry.
“That thing already reminds me of a janky Bluetooth speaker,” she muttered.
I really wanted to voice-command the controls to cook her frozen ravioli, but I also wanted to live to see dinner. So I used the buttons and nuked it like normal.
Later, I was able to resolve the issue with an Amazon engineer. The Amazon Alexa app is a central point to wrangle all of your Echos and Dots and Shows and the devices they connect to, and apparently, having been previously connected to the Scan-to-Cook created what was referred to as a “zombie microwave” in the app, skunking up the works.
Connected, I sped through a battery of tests, which tended to either get the job done or leave me wondering if anyone at Amazon who actually cooks gave this thing a whirl before it was released to the public.
In the morning, I followed the suggestion in Amazon’s preset guide to cook oatmeal. I had the option to make anywhere between three and twelve ounces of it, using the same amount of water that the oat manufacturer recommended. I had one hope and one realization here. The hope was that Amazon meant for me to use old-fashioned/regular oats, because that was all I had in the house and they didn’t specify. The realization was that three ounces of oats (the minimum to use Alexa for oatmeal) are almost a cup—a hefty portion. By comparison, Quaker Oats packets of instant oats are about 1.5 ounces.
So I measured out three ounces (hope you’ve got a scale!), told Alexa to do its thing, and the microwave turned on for an optimistic-sounding minute and 50 seconds. When it was finished, my oatmeal was warm, wet, and al dente, with a layer of water still over the top, a texture chewier than most aficionados prefer for their morning oats, and the whole thing not yet piping hot. I wished for one of those “a little longer” buttons found on toasters to bring it across the finish line.
For comparison, I made a cup of oatmeal in my own microwave, following Quaker Oats’ directions, which call for 2 1/2 to 3 minutes on high for a half cup of oats—there were no microwave instructions for a full cup. Mine took about 3.5 minutes to cook and it was closer to the oat-y ideal than what Alexa helped me prepare.
Following that, I tried defrosting two sausages I’d picked up from my neighborhood butcher, Bob’s Quality Meats. Alexa gives you the option to thaw one to six sausages, and assumes they weigh two ounces each. One sausage from Bob’s weighed 5 ounces and the other 5 3/4 ounces. I asked Alexa to “defrost five sausages” which would be for about 10 ounces of meat, and give me a little room to not overdo it. The links spun around for more than six minutes and emerged still quite frozen. After a couple more times—I tried four sausages’ worth of defrosting, then three, then possibly some more, they emerged more or less thawed.
Elisabeth reappeared in the test kitchen looking for lunch and we heated up some nice, frozen chicken tamales. Three of them took about six minutes on high.
Later, I defrosted two salmon fillets, then a single fillet when they were done. The two fillets turned out about right, but the solo three-ounce piece wasn’t done, so lacking that “a little longer” option, I put it back in for another round and let it go for a whisker too long.
Faced with the real world, the AmazonBasics Microwave was struggling.
I cooked the thawed salmon fillets sous vide while I chopped up a head of cauliflower and cooked it in the microwave with the broccoli settings since cauliflower wasn’t an Alexa-able option. I also had to guess that they wanted bite-size brassica pieces and needed a scale to tell Alexa how many ounces I was cooking. At some point in the process, the glass tray came derailed from the turntable and I didn’t notice it until after the cooking had finished. No matter, it came out nicely. I quickly seared that salmon, flaked it over the cauliflower, added some olive oil, capers, and lemon juice and called it lunch. Success!
Later that afternoon, Elisabeth came up for a snack, initiating the all-important Popcorn Function Test. We had Costco/Kirkland popcorn, which turned out to be important, because you need to tell Alexa how many ounces of kernels are in your bag. Alexa can deal with one to three ounces and our bag was 3.3 ounces. We went out on a limb hoping three ounces would cut it, Elisabeth did the honors, and Alexa queued up 2 minutes and 31 seconds and set the turntable spinning. We opened the door to popcorn perfection, with only about a tablespoon of un-popped kernels.
So after some intense testing, I realized a few things.
For a product with exciting potential, Amazon seems to have phoned this one in, leaving me wondering why it wasn’t more refined or tested before its release. That said, the non-connected features felt about the same as the 700-watt microwave that I already own. For now, voice control on this microwave often adds a layer of uncertainty.
The good news is that its capacities should improve over time. The bad news is that it ships today and if you’re an early adopter, you’re almost certainly going to be dealing with bugs like I did. At one point while trying to get the “Ask Alexa” button working with an Amazon engineer, they started asking about my modem and Wi-Fi router (a new-ish Netgear combo), who my internet provider is (Comcast/Xfinity), and how many networks I use (a couple). My setup is by no means complicated, but we never figured out how to get that button working, and I couldn’t help but wonder how these kinds of problems were happening on the eve of their ship date. Early adopters will almost certainly feel like beta testers and Amazon’s microwave engineers and programmers likely have some late nights ahead of them.
For as much as the microwave’s release is an event, it’s also a very public debut of the Alexa Connect Kit, and if I was a third-party manufacturer thinking of using it with my new appliance, this early performance would certainly give me pause. If I was a customer and didn’t need a new microwave right away, I might just wait six months and see how the reviews look or check out other options before I hit the “Buy” button.
After my testing was just about complete, I walked downstairs to see Elisabeth and our friend Phoebe and told them about the ups and downs of working with the microwave, comparing it with regular, non-connected models where you just key in what you want. I wanted to like Amazon’s offering, but they had less skin in the game.
“This is waaay more complicated than just pressing the popcorn button,” Elisabeth said.
“Boom!” Phoebe added, agreeing.
Regular microwaves certainly have a lot of unfulfilled potential and if history is a guide, we’ll never invest the time to figure out how to use them to their fullest. This makes voice control more appealing as it could figure out the nuances of how to do something like defrost a turkey leg without forcing we hungry folks to figure out what power level to use. That said, we’re willing to give our older, non-voice controlled microwaves a pass when they struggle, but when we ask Alexa to do its thing and it falters, we’re likely disappointed. I certainly was.
Food writer Joe Ray (@joe_diner) is a Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of The Year, a restaurant critic, and author of “Sea and Smoke” with chef Blaine Wetzel.