Amazon Glow does what Zoom and FaceTime can’t, and it’s wonderful

By | December 13, 2021

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 are in the room together, even though they live more than 1,000 miles away. After testing it for several weeks, everyone involved loved this mashup of a projector, video chat and gaming system. 

Amazon found a way to connect us like no other technology has before in the Zoom era.

Tangram puzzles were my daughter’s favorite game. The Glow comes with plastic game pieces to interact with the projection.


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.

There were a few software snags that need ironing out, as this is still a new product in limited release, but no hiccup was so glaring that it took away from the enjoyment. 

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 and up). Amazon Glow is a $300, 4-pound, towering 14-inch combination tablet, camera and projector. Kids can use it 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 are 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 children may age out of it when they get bored with the concept. Like everything with kids, things change fast.

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 (preapproved 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 work well on a phone: Other family members will need a tablet for the best experience because it just involves too much for a small screen — on the iPhone, you have to choose which you want to see. (During my time using the Glow, it didn’t support Android phones.)

For this 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. (Amazon Kindle Fire tablets are said to be compatible in the future.) 

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 with making art 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.

How to get a Glow this Christmas: Uh, good luck?

Before I get too into how this is a great gift for long-distance families, I should warn you that Amazon has made it hard to buy one for the holidays. The Amazon Glow is for sale by invitation only, and units are currently being released in limited quantities. Amazon customers can request to buy one for the introductory price of $250. I joined the waiting list myself, since I have to return my review unit. I’ve been waiting for over a month just for access to buy one. Amazon says the price will go up to $300 when it becomes more broadly available, although it’s not clear when that will happen. 

To decide if it’s right for your family, let’s get deeper into the little details — like device requirements and quirks I came across. And because you don’t have enough subscriptions in your life, we also have to talk about the $3 monthly fee to access the Glow’s library of books and games (the first year is included). 

This may not be something you can count on getting by Christmas, but it could be a nice surprise for connecting with family in the coming year. 

What exactly can you play on the Glow?

The Glow comes with a one-year subscription to content on Amazon Kids Plus., which unlocks more than 3,000 books and about 12 basic games for the Glow. But some of these puzzle 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. The Glow comes with actual plastic shape pieces to play with, which are read by the projector and software, so the game knows where the kid is placing the shapes. Everyone 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 and Crazy Eights. 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).

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 there are no chapter books on Glow. (Remember, it’s for little kids.) I liked the variety of history and science books, comic books. There are even a good number of books available in Spanish. 

But only a handful of 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, Paddle Battle, 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 the content you pay for isn’t only locked to the Glow: Amazon Kids Plus can be accessed on other devices. So if you have a tablet, kids can use the subscription elsewhere to access more books, apps, games and videos.

Buying a Glow is only good if you have family members with compatible tablets to connect with the kiddos. iPhones and Android phones are said to be able to work in the future (Android phone compatibility was not available at the time of this review), but the smaller screen size is not recommended by Amazon. That’s because it is harder to operate some features on a phone, and you can’t always see the kids at the same time. So if you don’t have a tablet, get ready to buy some for your family members — who may also need a protective case and a nice stand to prop it up. After all, holding up a tablet for long periods of time for a video chat, game, or read-along can be tiresome. (Funny how that seems to work out for Amazon, which also sells all of these peripheral products.)

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 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. Family on the other side can’t see themselves when they are playing a game or reading a book.

That means family may not know when they are 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 a 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 are 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 a handful of moments in gameplay when both sides felt like the game glitched and I had to step in to end the call and restart it. When I informed Amazon of this, they sent another Glow device said to have the latest updates. My second test unit wasn’t flawless, as I did notice the system got stuck once in a loading wheel, but it was easily fixed. The quirks were overall few and didn’t feel like deal-breakers. I imagine everything I experienced could be smoothed out by future software updates. 

There’s a bright future for 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 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. 

As I did sign up to buy a Glow when it becomes available, that means I’ll need to gift my relatives tablets and stands to make it comfortable for everyone to connect. And then I’ll have to add the monthly Kids Plus subscription after the first year. It’s a lot to invest in. 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. My dad and mother-in-law said it 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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