I am honestly amazed at how much my toddler has learned to use gadgets. She knows which buttons to push on the Portal Go to call a specific grandparent. She has no problem taking her designated smartphone off the charger and firing up an episode of Pokémon or something else on Disney+. I am even more impressed that she picked up on the Amazon Glow, an interactive projector and video calling device designed for kids to communicate remotely with family and friends. She’s even able to navigate the device’s brain farts.
I’ve had the Amazon Glow for about four months. When I called it in last December, just before her second birthday, I was worried my daughter wasn’t old enough to use the enormous device, which projects a 19.2-inch touch area onto any flat surface. The Glow is geared for kids ages 3 to 9 and includes UI elements that are still a bit advanced for my kid. It even comes with pieces for a Tangram game included in the package, but I still haven’t set them out because my kid would bury them with the rest of her toys.
I have had to put the Amazon Glow away when it’s not in use. It takes up too much space to keep it permanently set up, and it’s in the way when my kid is playing with something else. I’m constantly worried she’s going to knock it over. Since Amazon’s released some new content for the Glow, it’s been useful as a living room device that I can plug in to provide a bit of entertainment. But it’s hard to recommend at $300 with all of the kinks it needs to work out.
The Amazon Glow was a Day 1 Edition device, which means it was part of an invite-only pilot program of sorts. Now you can buy it outright through select retailers and Amazon.com for $300. Amazon includes a two-year “worry-free” guarantee. If it breaks, you can exchange it for a new one—a policy that was clearly designed to help you swallow that steep price point.
The price includes a year’s subscription to Amazon Kids+, after which it’s $3/month. Amazon’s subscription plan for children provides access to kid-friendly books and games on the Glow and it extends to other Amazon devices as well, including the Fire TV stick and devices like the Echo smart display.
The Amazon Glow is a beast. It has no battery, so you’ll have to place it somewhere it can stay plugged in. It’s a little over 14-inches tall, which was about half the height of my toddler before she had her growth spurt. There’s an 8-inch touchscreen embedded into the center, and the base is a boomy 10-watt speaker. Above the screen is a 720p camera that broadcasts your kid’s face to whoever is on the other line. You can flip a physical privacy switch when the device is dormant to block out the camera.
On top of the Amazon Glow is its marquee feature: the projector. When it’s turned on, the fans start to hum sort of loudly before they taper off, and then what’s projected is a 19.2-inch touch-sensitive screen with a 1280-by-800px resolution. Additional IR sensors and a second camera help the device see your hands. The Glow can handle two touch points at a time.
The best part of Amazon Glow is that it doesn’t have Alexa, unlike the Echo Glow smart lamp it’s named after. The only microphones it harbors are the four that are built-in to help mitigate issues with two-way audio. And when you flip the shield to shutter the camera, it also shutters the microphones.
Setting up the Amazon Glow is easy, but you’ll have to download the Glow app on your smartphone to get started. Once you plug in the device, you scan a QR code, and then it syncs up with your Amazon account. I already had an Amazon profile made for my kiddo, and it was instantly available once I logged in. The Glow app then connects over Bluetooth to the device, and that’s how it gets the projector onto your home network.
To use the Glow, you can project it on a blank table, or the included projection mat. It doesn’t work well on perforated or uneven surfaces. The Amazon Glow’s interface essentially functions like the Fire tablet, with shelves for each section of content. The first shelf includes Recent, Featured, and New content, followed by Games, Art, and Books. There are no apps, so there’s little fear your kid will get into some deranged, low-budget content. And there is no browser, so unlike the Portal Go, your child can’t stray away from the Amazon-approved content for kids.
An active Amazon Kids+ subscription is necessary if you want to unlock all the content from big brands like Disney, Mattel, Nickelodeon, and Sesame Street. Annoyingly, there is no way to personally curate the content if there’s something you don’t like, and if there’s a specific franchise you’re trying to keep away from your kid, it’s not happening here.
Much of the content that’s available for the Amazon Glow—it’s currently hovering around 100 games and activities—is still too complex for my kid. But there are interactive books that she can click through to learn words and hear sounds associated with the real world. One of her favorite books is about different types of vehicles, and she loves to tap and listen to the sounds they make. It’s the same way she uses an app on the tablet.
Getting started on a book frustrates her sometimes—and me. The Glow’s projected touch interface works fine if there are no errant variables—no sleeve touching the table, a corner of a toy peering in from the left, or a kid’s elbow laying on a corner. It doesn’t like you to lean over it, which is why it’s not fit for a toddler and is recommended instead for an older child with a bit more chill. My kid often has meltdowns over her inability to interact with the virtual books on screen. I have almost had a few myself over how difficult it is to type a query into the search bar. I end up screening content on the Amazon Glow app on my smartphone before searching for it on the Glow to save some headaches.
There are two main reading modes available on the Glow. The first is called Bubble Mode, and that will sprout up “bubbles” around each paragraph for the parent or child to read aloud. Then there’s a regular flip-through reading mode, which is how we prefer to interact with the Glow. In some instances, like in the First 100 Words series of books, you can tap on featured photos to enlarge and have them take up the whole page. My kid prefers that particular mechanism, and she got through an entire book on her own that way.
My kid prefers the art-centric content the most, where she can draw, paint, and place stickers on a canvas. The upside to the 19-inch Glow over a 10-inch tablet is more digital room to spread her concoction. However, the painting content is a bit repetitive. You can choose different backgrounds and themes for inspiration, but the toolset remains the same.
As my kid learns more each day, I see her able to unlock more play modes, particularly the shape and color matching games. Games like Chess and Jigsaw puzzles are also readily available to play on the Glow, but they’re still a little too advanced for her. I ended up playing some of those myself to pass the time. I was bummed there wasn’t more interactive content for me to explore.
The Portal Go is a core device in our household because my daughter can cart it anywhere to hang out with her grandparents over WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. She has the freedom to take them into her different play areas, and even if she’s not interacting with them directly, her grandparents are getting time with her they wouldn’t have otherwise.
I was hoping for a similar experience with the Amazon Glow, as that’s one of the other reasons you’d spend this much to bring one home. The Glow smartphone app lets you dial in remotely to interact within the projected area. Amazon suggests that the friend or family member on the other end uses the Glow app on an Apple iPad, FireOS tablet, or Android device. We tested it with an iPhone 8 on iOS 14, and it worked fine with the phone in landscape mode.
My kid and her grandpa tried drawing together, but she didn’t quite grasp the concept that he was drawing on his end. She saw Grandpa appear on screen as he does on the Portal Go, and her face lit up. But as the paintbrush started moving on its own on the projection area, she seemed annoyed something was interfering with her masterpiece. Then, she got bored, and Grandpa ended up conferencing with us instead.
This part of the Amazon Glow is dependent on your kid’s cognitive age. My kid understands video chat, though it’s a concept evidenced within her life because she’s seen those people in person. This kind of two-way interaction is still a bit too sophisticated for her.
My child is not the intended demographic for the Amazon Glow, but I can see the potential here for older kids. The Glow is quite the concept for Amazon to sell to willing parents. I’m impressed with its execution, even if its performance feels like it needs refinement before it’ll be a seamless experience.
I also appreciate that Glow cuts out most of the scariest parts of being an Amazon user as it gears it towards kids. There’s no Alexa and no dubiously-developed apps to monitor beforehand. (Since it requires an Amazon account, you will have to adhere to the company’s conditions of use.) However, it needs way more interactive apps and books (and fewer frustrating bugs) if it’s going to justify its whopping $300 price point.
We have stuck to the Portal Go for video hangouts with the grandparents. It has a panning camera that follows my kid in the room, and it’s better suited to her wiggly tendencies than the stationary Amazon Glow. For now, I’m using the Glow as a reading companion to get my daughter to swipe through books instead of an endless corral of apps.