Amazon Fire TV Cube review

4K streaming meets Echo brains – but do they form a perfect whole?

Amazon Fire TV Cube

The smart speaker war isn't the only one being waged inside our homes right now. Amazon's long been fighting for our eyeballs with its Fire TV boxes and dongles, and now its latest streaming box, the Fire TV Cube, brings two worlds colliding together underneath (or beside) your television.

Until now, Alexa on Fire TV has only been accessible via the voice remote or with a paired Echo speaker – and still is here – but the black box itself is, for the first time, a fully-fledged Echo itself.

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This of course means that Alexa can play a bigger role in the viewing experience, letting you ask Amazon’s assistant to boot up your favourite show, open a certain app or even skip ahead five minutes – while also performing all the tasks you'd expect an Echo to.

But how well does that work in practice? Is this really the best of both Echo and Fire TV in one perfect whole? Read on for our full review.

Amazon Fire TV Cube: Design and setup

Yup, it’s a cube alright. A black, shiny cube so geometrically perfect at first glance it’s almost unremarkable. If this were a Denis Villeneuve movie, aliens would currently be inside it, plotting our demise.

That said, measuring 3.4 x 3.4 x 3 inches, it's not actually a perfect cube – but it is really small, so it should easily find a spot amidst your collection of living room boxes. I should also point out that this thing is the biggest dust magnet I've ever laid my hands on, which might sound like a strange criticism for a box that you're rarely going to look at. I'd barely had it out of the box for ten seconds and it was filthy. Irregular dusters, you've been warned.

On the top of the box are four buttons: a wake button, a mute button and two buttons for adjusting the volume on the Cube speaker itself (on the TV, Alexa’s voice will obviously be as loud as the volume is at any time).

There’s a remote bundled in the box; the same remote any Fire TV user will be familiar with. On it, you’ve got playback control buttons as well as a directional pad, some UI buttons, and the mic button on the top. Hold that down and you’ll be able to speak to Alexa, if you don't call over to the Cube.

Amazon Fire TV Cube review

Setting up the Cube is a breeze. After peeling off enough plastic wrapping to fashion a new raincoat, you just need to plug in the adapter and – wait, where’s the HDMI? No, the famed HDMI bandit didn't intercept your package on its way from the warehouse, Amazon just isn’t bundling one in here. So it’s either time to go digging through those cable boxes you’ve been promising you’ll sort for years, or you’ll need to go buy one. It’s a bit annoying.

On the subject of HDMI, let’s talk ports. On the back of the Cube you’ve got one HDMI, a power port, an infrared port, and a micro USB port. The micro USB port is so you can attach an ethernet cable via an adapter (there are also ways to connect other devices, like a keyboard or even a USB drive). The infrared port is for the IR extender which does come in the box, and which can be used for controlling devices that the Cube’s IR blaster might not be able to reach. Devices living inside your TV cabinet, for example.

Once you’ve located a HDMI cable and found a spot for the Cube to live, the on-screen walkthrough will present a short video on what the Cube can do, after which you’ll be asked to select your favourite apps. You'll then be thrown into the familiar Fire TV homescreen.

Fire TV Cube: Controlling the TV

The coolest thing about the Cube isn’t that it’s simply putting Alexa under your TV, but in how it tries to pull your menagerie of living room appliances a little tighter together. I have a Samsung smart TV, and you know what my favourite Cube feature is? Simply turning the TV on and off with Alexa. It just works, every time. I can’t tell you how much I love it.

But while the Cube is a good living room hub, it’s far from perfect.

Amazon says the Cube TV works with over 90% of US home satellite and cable boxes, but that's not 100%. It’s also not a sure bet that one bit of your living room kit will work with the Cube as well as another.

Amazon Fire TV Cube review

My TV has HDMI CEC, which means I’ve been able to do some input switching that way, but the Fire TV’s IR emitter gives it another way of controlling your living room devices. Still, it's a bit uneven. For example, Alexa won’t recognise my TV tuner by name, meaning I have to say, “Alexa, switch to HDMI 2”, but it recognises “Switch to Fire TV”.

If your cable box plays nicely, you’ll be able to say, “Alexa, play CNN on cable” and it will change inputs as well as switch to your desired channel. If you're watching over the air via antenna, sadly it probably won't talk to that box.

For more complex living room controls, you’ll still need a trusty remote at hand. Alexa won’t be able to control your DVR recordings, nor adjust settings on your TV, but for the basic things voice often works pretty well.

Amazon Fire TV Cube
Amazon Fire TV Cube

This goes for streaming services too. Alexa can be used to change apps – “Alexa, open Netflix” – or to even start up your favourite shows – “Alexa, play Dirty Money”. In that second example, it knows that this is only streaming on Netflix, so it will respond, “Getting Dirty Money from Netflix” and proceed to start it up from wherever you left off. If it comes up against multiple choices – say more than one service is offering the same show – it will give you that choice. I asked it to play Parks and Recreation, so it asked me, “I can play that on Netflix or Prime Video, which would you like?” waiting for me to give the signal.

Amazon Fire TV Cube review

The level to which voice control works with different services does vary. Some, such as Netflix, will let you rewind, fast forward and even skip ahead by a specified time using voice; but others currently lack this feature. When I spoke to Amazon about this, it told me that it had recently made a VSK available for developers to integrate Alexa into their apps, so hopefully we’ll see broader coverage before long. But the line from Amazon is that this is now in the hands of the platforms.

The Cube functions much like the latest Fire TV dongle, which means 4K streaming at 60Hz, HDR, HDR10 and Dolby Atmos. As for the Fire TV experience, the interface hasn’t changed here, with various apps like Netflix, HBO GO and Hulu mashed in with Amazon’s recommendations and even a few ads (ugh). It’s not my favourite streaming UI, but Fire TV is a well-fed platform, so there’s little here I can’t access. Quantity over quality, in this case.

Amazon Fire TV Cube review

One of my biggest gripes is actually with the remote. It doesn’t have any volume buttons, so I either have to use the TV remote or ask Alexa to turn the volume up or down. Asking Alexa to do so will turn it up or down by five notches, depending on which way I ask to go.

When you call its name, Alexa will always pause what’s playing to hear you, or mute the volume if you’re on a different input, which means you’re not fighting with the sound from the TV. However, as the volume gets louder, it gets harder for Alexa to hear you say its name, and sat approximately three metres away, there have been several occasions I’ve had to repeat the magic wake word to get its attention. Pro tip: the further you can put the Cube from the TV speakers, the better it’ll be at hearing you over the noise.

Amazon Fire TV Cube review

And Alexa gets it wrong a lot of the time too. The eight far-field mics on the top of the Cube are good at picking up my voice across the living room, but Alexa's hit rate isn't spectacular. It often buckles when I’m searching for shows – or, more annoyingly, when it thinks I’m asking it to turn off the TV when I’m not. There’s also a bit too much of a delay when Alexa processes your request. Sometimes it’s just easier to reach out, grab the remote, and hit the volume button from there. Its very inclusion in the box is tacit admission that Alexa isn’t ready for total living room entertainment domination just yet. Give it time.

Amazon Fire TV Cube: Using it as an Echo

Remember, the Cube is an Echo speaker too. The speaker quality is adequate for Alexa's responses but nothing more; you’re not going to want to play music out of this thing, and it’s certainly not made for use as a TV speaker.

Alexa can be used to control all of your other smart home devices, just like any other Echo speaker, whether that’s adjusting your lights or the smart blinds. I’ve had no problem getting Alexa to perform as it does from my other Echo speakers, but having it more closely integrated with the TV means new ways to leverage the smart assistant’s abilities.

For example, you could set up a routine that also switches on the TV, your soundbar and, if you can work it with your devices, have it turn to your go-to post-work channel.

Amazon Fire TV Cube review

It also means you get get the visual component like you do on the Echo Show, another feature that sets the Cube apart from Amazon's screen-less speakers. So when you ask for the weather, Alexa will display a colourful graph. Ask it for nearby movie showtimes and it will give you a readable list of options.

But due to the nature of where the Cube sits, I've not found myself using it in the same way I use my other Alexa speakers. My Cube is tucked away on a shelf on the TV stand, angled so that my voice has an unobstructed path to travel when I’m plonked down in front of the TV, but is otherwise out of view. When the TV is off, Alexa on the Fire TV Cube is largely ignored.

Amazon Fire TV Cube
The Fire TV Cube brings Alexa to the living room in a way we've not seen before. And when the voice controls work it feels like magic, whether it's controlling playback and or switching the channel on your cable box. But these controls are uneven across devices and apps, meaning Alexa hasn't dethroned the remote just yet. Hopefully, in time, that will change. For now, it's a nice taste of what's still to come.
  • Alexa integration with the TV
  • Some voice controls work a dream
  • 4K and a well-fed streaming platform
  • Uneven voice control support for TVs
  • Alexa's responsiveness is uneven
  • More apps need Alexa support

TAGGED   amazon   televisions

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