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I love coffee…and not just like the guy who gets up in the morning and can’t function without it, depends on it, focuses on brewing coffee as his first activity before anything else. Yes, all those things are true about me—but my love for coffee goes much, much deeper than that.
A couple of years ago I reviewed a rather expensive coffee brewer from Breville, and posited through that review that $300 for a brewer was a price worth paying, provided you were using the right coffee (locally roasted and not stale) and grinding it yourself (a luxury that also has a price tag that some people will scoff at). Since then, I can add to the list the importance of good, clean water as well as control over temperature and proportion of coffee to water. Nonetheless, the analysis done in that review was that, generally speaking, a $300 brewer, $100 grinder, and coffee that costs more than the horrible stuff that comes pre-ground in a can from your local supermarket was actually cheaper and better than buying a cup daily from your local coffeehouse chain. Sadly, the same claims cannot be made for paying for a very expensive smart coffee mug (that it is cheaper and better) over a standard coffee mug. Logic dictates, though, that it could at least be better.
So to start, this coffee mug is $100…at least the retail price. As luck would have it, I happened upon a two-for-$100 sale, which was compelling because I could split the cost of the mug with a friend, and we could both be happy with our new toy…so that’s exactly what I did. I opted for the black one because all my other coffee mugs are black, and because I thoroughly despise lightly colored coffee mugs.
The unboxing experience is a nice one, providing a simple to open and clean white box, inside which lies a product that is front and center (and not hidden underneath styrofoam, plastic or paperwork). Also included in the box are some nice Ember stickers that I’ll never use, along with a charging plate / coaster and a power brick.
Also, the warnings…so many warnings. The bottom of the mug indicated the requirement to charge before powering on; when I removed that sticker I found another warning about keeping the mug out of the microwave and out of the dishwasher. The charging plate had a sticker indicating moisture among the primary evils of its existence, and the inserts reiterated this all…it was like that annoying computer pop up that just won’t go away.
The mug and the plate are designed in an expectedly minimal way, with barely visible branding and a finish that is homogenous throughout both pieces. The mug itself is heavy, misleadingly so although not surprising because it contains both a heating element and a battery. Both the mug and the coaster have anti-slip textures on the bottom; the mug itself is stainless steel, not ceramic, although it does have a ceramic coating. Everything about its design mimics the ridiculous $100 price tag.
Two of my first significant observations about the ergonomics of the mug concerned its capacity and its handle. This is advertised as a 10 ounce mug, and while I recognize that 10 ounces already sounds like not that much, seeing it really drives the point home. The mug itself is about 4.25” tall, and slightly more than 1” of that height does NOT contribute to its capacity; given the need for Bluetooth, battery and heating elements I understand it, but it is nonetheless worth mentioning.
Oh, and the handle is less than good. I really think a handle makes or breaks a coffee mug in terms of its ergonomics, and while I don’t exactly have small hands, there is a way to make coffee handles intentionally useful—and I don’t think that was the goal here; I believe that Ember was striving for making something that primarily fit into its design language, ergonomics notwithstanding. I’d rather have no handle at all than the handle here, which has unpleasant sharp edges and is neither round nor square, but some weird hybrid of the two which make it uncomfortable to hold.
Similar to the design language of the slim (sharp) handle, the rim of the mug is also small; this is rather enjoyable when compared to a stereotypical coffee mug that has the sort of ‘swollen lip’ feeling to it when you drink. I imagine that this thinness is achievable because heat retention is less important in a product that has a built-in heating element, although it is worth mentioning that perhaps the disappointing one-hour battery life could be extended if the mug itself were a little better insulated.
The Ember Mug’s ability to hold liquid is not under scrutiny here, aside from the aforementioned comments about volume. However, much of what the Ember mug offers is done so through the Ember App, so my next criticisms will be aimed thusly.
Once I heeded the warning of charging up my coffee mug before use, I had to get some coffee in it—but as it was already evening, I brewed some tea instead and got to work configuring the app. The pairing process was fast…or at least, the first pairing process was. I got stuck on a couple of screens in the app, first on creating an account, then on re-pairing, then on re-re-pairing, then again on the account creation. It very well could have been user error, however, with enough fussing I could finally get my phone to recognize my coffee mug…what a time to be alive.
Flashbacks of firmware updates to headphones came rushing back, but I was pleasantly surprised that the whole process took less than 5 minutes. Once done, I was ready to get to drinking. With the mug now full of steeping, hot tea, I was greeted with the temperature of my beverage (obviously too hot to drink at that point) and encouraged to pick an ideal drinking temperature. This led to manifest concerns and confusion about what that temperature is because, well, I’ve never really thought about it—I tend to drink coffee, or tea, at the highest palatable temperature, whatever that is, during the cool down process. What better time to conduct a little experiment!?
As a quick aside to the reader, I feel compelled to mention, at this point, that I will be using metric measurements both in volume and in temperature because, well, it’s just better. And easier. I tend contrary to many of my American brethren, but I encourage you to take some time to investigate this yourself, if ONLY for your consumption of coffee, because it is game-changing.
Watching the thermometer on my phone, I sampled the beverage starting at 75 degrees Celsius, then at 70, 67, 64.5 and resting finally around 60 for my ideal tea temperature. The Ember Mug’s range is between 50 and 62.5 degrees, which I’m sure is intentional and limited by its design in some way, but it feels a bit narrow for my liking. But, 60 degrees is where it stayed until my tea was gone and I shut it off.
Oh, did I mention the mug has an off button? That’s also a first.
My coffee experience the next morning was similar, although I find that I prefer coffee at a slightly lower temperature than my tea, which is fascinating but ultimately useless knowledge.
A couple of days later, I used the mug for a small cup of pour-over brewed with a V60 brewer, and was pleased with the results…typically, my V60 brews are larger single-servings, and therefore cool down too much during drinking such that the final sips are not as enjoyable; with the Ember Mug, that isn’t the case. It is also worth noting that, while the mug does recognize when it is empty and automatically shuts off the heating element, smaller amounts of coffee do have the tendency to burn in the mug if forgotten about, just as they would if sitting on a hot plate.
In any case, back to the app, which also features some customizable presets for both its temperature and timer functions. The timer, by the way, doesn’t do a tremendous job of consistently notifying you when time expires, so unless you’re looking at the app, the timer is not worth much. Also in the app is a recipes section, which honestly seems like a bit of an afterthought as there are only 5 items listed there and no apparent ‘store’ to obtain more.
Given all of this, you may be wondering: is it really worth it?
In short, kind of. Fun life hack if you don’t want to spend $100 on a coffee mug (or two): pour yourself less coffee than you typically do—perhaps a half or even a third of your typical cup—and you’ll find that it cools down more quickly (so you can drink it sooner), and the lower volume of liquid means you don’t have to worry about it getting too cold before you’re done drinking. If that’s not enough to help you battle the very real crisis of lukewarm or room-temperature coffee, then perhaps this is for you. It most certainly could be improved, though.
Fundamentally, advertising it as a 10 ounce mug when no reasonable human being should fill this past 8.5 ounces (especially if you also have a tea ball displacing that 10 ounces of water), is unnecessary. And yes, I realize I didn’t stick with Metric there.
Additionally, the app is a bit sketchy when it comes to notifications; I loved receiving the alert that my beverage was ready to drink, but was displeased that the tea timer didn’t also alert me if my phone screen wasn’t on and the Ember app open. It’s an overall clean app, it was not without its shortcomings; for instance, I found that the battery percentage visible from the settings menu doesn’t live update while you’re looking at it, probably because you’d be appalled at how quickly the battery actually dies and seeing it deplete real time is time you would never get back.
The battery life is suspect at best. There was no point at which I was far from the charging coaster, leaving it there most of the time, however, I very, very frequently was reminded that I needed to charge the mug. It would certainly benefit either from slightly more onboard battery, or a coaster with an onboard battery that allows me to get more than a handful of minutes of constant temperature without being tethered to an outlet. Imagine taking your Ember mug with you to the front porch to sit on the swing and catch up on your social feed—it wouldn’t be the worst way to spend your morning.
Perhaps even more provocative than the missing features of the mug is the potential issue in philosophy that is at the core of the Ember Mug: That “Temperature Matters.”
When you get really into coffee, you learn things. For starters, coffee temperature DOES matter, but maybe not in the way that the folks at Ember think. The flavor of coffee changes as its temperature fluctuates, such that certain flavor notes are more easily detected at cooler temperatures, while others at hotter ones. So, keeping your coffee at one consistent temperature, while very enjoyable, doesn’t necessarily maximize the coffee experience. I don’t know that tea works in the same way, but I imagine there are more similarities than differences there. Maybe having the ability to slowly decrease the temperature of the beverage over a period of time, but not allowing it to go below the least un-palatable temperature, would be a nice addition to the app.
And, considering the size of the mug, even if you don’t drink that that much coffee throughout the day, you likely won’t be getting your normal dosage in a single cup. So, this solution designed to keep your coffee hot necessarily assumes that the ‘source coffee,’ whether it be in a coffee pot, carafe, thermos, etc., is also hot…and presumably, at least as hot (or more so) than your ideal temperature. If not, all the Ember Mug provides you is a very inefficient hot plate that happens to be battery powered.
But, If you can get over its shortcomings, the Ember Mug is an overall good product that, while being expensive, delivers on what it says it will do. And keep in mind, this is the first generation Ember Mug (yes, I’m late to the game here). Currently, the second generation is available and offers increased battery life and a new color (although I’m not sure how likely you are to find a 2-for-1 deal on it any time soon). For me, at $50, I’m happy I have it, and I will use it daily; I can live with a few design and feature flaws in exchange for always having coffee or tea at the temperature I want it, as long as that temperature is between 50 and 62.5 degrees Celsius.