Amazon Glow Review: A Better Way for Kids to Video Chat with Family

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Amazon Glow Review: A Better Way for Kids to Video Chat with Family

The Amazon Glow is a bulky Frankenstein monster of a gadget with one important, heartwarming job. It lets my 5-year-old daughter play games and see her grandparents like they’re in the room together, even though they live more than 1,000 miles away. After weeks of testing a unit from Amazon, my family loved this mashup of a projector, video chat and gaming system — we even ended up buying our own. 

Amazon found a way to connect us like no other technology has before in the Zoom era. And now, after months of it being sold only by invitation, the company has made several software updates and is opening sales to the general public
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Tangram puzzles were my daughter’s favorite game. The plastic pieces to play are sold separately. 


Bridget Carey/CNET

The Amazon Glow (not to be confused with the similarly named Echo Glow, a kid’s lamp) is refreshing to use in the era of endless Zooms and FaceTimes. Connecting on the Glow feels genuine and wholesome for young families to read stories with kids and play games from afar, as you can see each other’s faces the whole time. Amazon has invented something special to bring us together virtually — no silly headsets or metaverses required.

That said, the sheer size and price of this thing may make parents skeptical of giving it to a preschooler (it’s for ages 3 to 9). The Amazon Glow is a $300, 4-pound, towering 14-inch combination tablet, camera and projector. Amazon is also charging $30 extra for the plastic pieces to its best app, Tangram Bits. (Seriously, if you’re getting the Glow, you need to get the package with Tangram Bits. It was everyone’s favorite puzzle game.) And Amazon says it is planning to release other types of “Bits” games in the future.  

Kids can use the Glow on a table to video chat with a preapproved relative or friend while doing an activity together — like playing a card game, solving a puzzle, reading a book or doodling — all of which is displayed on a projected image on the table. The relative’s face is the only thing showing on the Glow’s 8-inch screen, making it feel like they’re playing the game or reading a book right in front of the child. 

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The Amazon Glow isn’t something kids will be carrying around.


Bridget Carey/CNET

For anyone buying one, keep in mind the Glow is really meant for the elementary age crowd. It’s not like a tablet with an app store, there are a limited number of activities — although Amazon does say it will keep adding content, and it has added several games since my original review last year. Children may age out of it when they get bored with the concept. Like everything with kids, things change fast.

I look forward to trying out some of the newly added games with my kids, like Whac-A-Mole, and I’ll update my review when we do.

Getting started: Patience is a virtue

Only a kid needs the actual Glow, so this isn’t going in everyone’s home. Other family members (via a parent’s invite) connect through the Glow’s app, where they can simultaneously see the chosen activity and video feed of the kid. The bummer is that it doesn’t have a great experience on a phone. There’s just too much going on. When family tried to connect on an iPhone, they had to switch between camera view to see the child, and game view to play. That means your family members will need to have a compatible tablet to avoid frustrations and see both kids’ faces and the game at the same time.

For our test, my daughter spent time with her grandpa (my dad) and her abuela (my mother-in-law). Neither grandparent had tablets, so Amazon also sent a loaner Samsung tablet to each of their homes in South Florida. The system also works with iPads. Amazon also just added compatibility for the 2021 Amazon Fire HD 10 tablet.

As you may imagine, I needed to play tech support to get everyone set up with the tablets, signed relatives up with Amazon accounts and taught everyone (including myself) how to interact with the Glow app. But both grandparents and my daughter picked up on it quickly, and I soon found that I could walk away from their playtime together without worry. That’s something I can’t really do if I hand her my $1,000 iPhone during a FaceTime call. There’s no Grandma getting dizzy with kids spinning the camera around or Grandpa being abandoned on the floor facing the ceiling. 

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This setup had my daughter and dad engaged for 30 minutes or more at a time.


Bridget Carey/CNET

Different from a typical video chat

In fact, the size and weight of the Amazon Glow were an advantage when video chatting with little kids. Having this clunker parked on the table, my daughter held longer conversations and was engaged with games and read-along books for 30- to 40-minute stretches. 

I also have a 2-year-old son, and although the Glow is not designed for kids that young, he had fun making doodles and following along to short books he knew like Goodnight Moon. Even when little brother tried to mess with his sister to touch it during her games, the battle was always for control of the cheap, white rubber touch mat and the projected interactive area — they didn’t mess with the actual tower.

What exactly can you play on the Glow?

The Glow comes with a one-year subscription to content on Amazon Kids Plus, which unlocks thousands of books and now as of this update, there are about 30 kids games for the Glow. But some of these games aren’t so simple that it will be a bore for the adults playing. 

The star of the show is a puzzle called Tangrams: The object is to figure out how a square, rhombus and an assortment of triangles can be arranged to make different silhouetted shapes. For $30 more, Amazon sells actual plastic shape pieces for kids to play with, which are recognized by the projector and software, so the game knows where the kid is placing the shapes. Everyone else playing remotely gets virtual shapes to either compete alongside or cooperate with a kid to solve and watch the picture come to life. 

Card games include Go Fish, Crazy Eights and Gin Rummy. There’s checkers and chess done in a cartoony way to make it engaging for kids (like a pirate-themed chessboard). There are also some generic challenges, like a labyrinth maze, finding a ball in a cup shuffle or wannabe Pong (called Paddle Battle). Classic games get their own generic twist, like Detective Duo (Guess Who), Four in a Row (Connect Four) and Chip Drop (Plinko).

Some activities include characters from Sesame Street, Mattel, Nickelodeon and Disney. A Memory Match card game features Elmo and friends. Barbie lets you doodle her some outfits. It’s a bit like a coloring activity book with different drawing challenges.

My daughter hadn’t played any of these games before but picked up on everything pretty quickly — and having grandparents talk her through a game was a main reason why it worked so well.

As for the books themselves, kids can search for a specific topic or title, or scroll through a sea of cover art to pick out what they want to read. The selection is solid and includes many new and classic bestsellers. You’ll find books for various topics and skill levels, but during my test I saw no chapter books on the Glow. I liked the variety of history and science books, comic books. There are even a good number of books available in Spanish. 

Only a few books are currently programmed specifically for the Glow with on-page animations — and sometimes surprises animate on top of the grandparent’s faces during a call. We were playing around with Frozen and Toy Story books that had this interaction, which encouraged the kids to touch the pages as the grandparents read.

Grandparents and kids can both control which page is turned. That can lead to some touch-control chaos, but it’s not much different from when a kid wants to take control of a real book in person.

Can kids play alone on the Glow?

For a few activities, yes. You don’t always need a video connection with someone else to use the Glow. All books can be opened and read at home. Checkers, chess, jigsaws and Tangram puzzles have solo play options. Several games do stop you from playing unless there’s a video connection, like Go Fish, Marbles, Charades and other two-player competitive challenges.

Art doodling activities can also be done alone: My daughter found it peaceful to make art without being on a call. It reminded me of days when I messed around with pixels on Microsoft Paint as a kid, but she used her fingers instead of a mouse. Kids save their art on the device and don’t have a way to send it anywhere, but I suppose a relative could take a screenshot from their tablet during a call to save a digital keepsake.

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The Glow requires a subscription to Amazon Kids Plus, which is free the first year with purchase. After that, it’s $3 a month — and if you don’t pay, the content goes away.


Bridget Carey/CNET

There are costs beyond the sticker price

The Amazon Kids Plus subscription is what gives you access to all these books and games, and the Glow does with a one-year trial. But after that, it’ll start charging $3 a month unless you cancel. And if you cancel… well, poof goes the content, making the Glow pretty pointless compared to a free video chat app on a phone.

But paying $3 a month does extend some perks beyond the Glow machine. By subscribing to Amazon Kids Plus, a different variety of books, apps and games can be accessed on other mobile devices. 

It’s worth stressing that when you buy a Glow, you may need to also buy your family members compatible tablets so they can connect smoothly with the kiddos. It’s why Amazon now even sells a Glow bundled with a Fire HD 10 tablet for $380. 

Camera shutters and privacy protections

If you’re keeping the Glow plugged in, there is a shutter switch to cover the camera when it’s not in use. Amazon says it does not collect voice or video recordings. Parents can log into Amazon’s parent dashboard to see a history of which people have called their Glow device, but I was not able to see call duration or a history of activities or books accessed during those sessions. 

The Glow main menu does suggest activities and books based on my daughter’s past activity history and the age I put in her profile.

What are the requirements to use the Glow? 

The Glow is a stand-alone device, and it’s designed to be used by one kid at a time. You don’t need Amazon speakers or Alexa devices in the house for it to work. (In fact, we don’t have any Alexa devices in my home. The Glow also doesn’t use Alexa’s smarts or voice controls, as it’s all operated by touch.) 

Everyone who participates in a Glow call needs an Amazon account — and a parent needs one to set up the Glow for their kids. There can be multiple kid profiles on one Glow. If a family member wants to connect, they need to set it up with an invitation from a parent or guardian using the Amazon Glow app.

The Glow only works on a flat, even hard surface — like a kitchen table, countertop or hardwood floor. It comes with a white rubber mat to project the image on, so kids can see the touch area even if the table is dark. Make sure you have a table that’s big enough for the mat, which is about 22 inches in diameter. 

None of our kid tables were good enough for the Glow: One was too small, and the other was plastic, had dents and wasn’t perfectly even and flat. The Glow will ping an annoying error sound unless the surface is perfectly even. Amazon has videos showing kids playing on a hardwood floor, but I have a carpeted apartment, so the kitchen table was the only place for us to play. (And that meant Mom had to stow it away when not in use.)

Who can make a call?

Either side can start a video call. The kids see circles on the Glow screen with their family member’s names, and they press who they want to talk to. And then the Glow app will ring on that person’s device. 

When the Glow is plugged in, a preapproved contact can ring up the Glow. The kid sees their name and photo and can choose to pick up the call. 

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Kids will need a large table to play. Grandparents use an app to connect — and right now it works best on a tablet.


Bridget Carey/CNET

The good and the glitchy 

Doing a video chat on the Glow is different from what you may be used to on a phone. With Apple’s FaceTime, I can see a small preview image of myself and the person I’m talking to. That’s not the case here. People on the other side can’t see themselves when they’re playing a game or reading a book.

That means your family may not know when they’re off-center on camera. It’s a classic case of, “Mom, I can only see your forehead,” when they get into a game or book. (This happened almost every time for each of the grandparents during calls.) Holding a tablet horizontally makes that extra tricky. I’d like Amazon to add a way to fix that in a future update.

On the Glow device side, however, the video camera works great for kids. It’s only 720p resolution, but kids are always front and center during play. Kids also never see their own video feed to know what they look like, and that’s a good thing. It makes it more real when they can just focus on the person they’re talking to, instead of being distracted by their own image.

The software wasn’t always intuitive for grandparents and kids to control. For example, at one time during an interactive Toy Story book, some background music was blaring and we couldn’t hear my dad talk. I had to find a way to lower it on the kid end through menus, which wasn’t easy for my daughter to do by herself. My dad couldn’t see a menu control to fix the blaring music on his end without also muting his granddaughter. 

Touching the projected image isn’t a flawless experience, because it’s using infrared sensors to register a touch on the mat. Every so often it won’t register a touch on the first try, or it will sense a touch you never intended. It’s something that can create miniature frustrations, especially for a kid used to a smoother experience on an iPad, but it never lasted long.

There have been just a few moments in gameplay in my early tests when both sides felt like a game glitched and I had to step in to end the call and restart it. The quirks were overall few and didn’t feel like deal-breakers. And since those early days, Amazon has pushed out several software updates to improve performance. Since my review I’ve purchased a unit for my family and I’ll update this review over time as we continue to play with it.

There’s a bright future for the Glow

With the state of everything now, long-distance flights to visit family aren’t in the cards for us at the moment. We’ve done the Zoom birthdays, and sometimes family will join us for meals through FaceTime, their faces propped up on phone stands in front of the kids. But the Glow brings something new, because reading along to a book with Grandma wasn’t this easy before, and playing a card game with Grandpa remotely wasn’t even possible. 

After weeks of using a sample from Amazon to test, I ended up buying our own Glow, and it was quite the investment since I also needed to gift the grandparents with their own tablets, too. It feels like buying a game console, but one designed for only the littlest players among us. That cost doesn’t seem so bad when you think of what we miss out on with distance to family. My dad and mother-in-law said playing games and reading bedtime stories was a great experience — that it was as if we lived nearby.

Is the Glow the start of a new product category? Perhaps. Remote gaming exists right now in products like the Infinity Game table and Square Off’s smart chessboards. But to look a remote player in the eye without being in the same room? That’s special. Amazon is experimenting with something that could make virtual connections more meaningful. I’d like to see where else this concept can go. For now, it’s perfect for relatives missing bonding time with the kids. Bravo, Amazon, for making a kids gadget that doesn’t have me worrying about too much screen time.

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