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 â and still is here â 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 Amazonâs assistant to boot up your favourite show, open a certain app or even skip ahead five minutes â while also performing all the tasks you'd expect an Echo to.
Amazon Fire TV Cube: Design and setup
Yup, itâs a cube alright. A black, shiny cube so geometrically perfect at first glance itâs 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 â 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, Alexaâs voice will obviously be as loud as the volume is at any time).
Thereâs a remote bundled in the box; the same remote any Fire TV user will be familiar with. On it, youâve got playback control buttons as well as a directional pad, some UI buttons, and the mic button on the top. Hold that down and youâll be able to speak to Alexa, if you don't call over to the Cube.
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 â wait, whereâs the HDMI? No, the famed HDMI bandit didn't intercept your package on its way from the warehouse, Amazon just isnât bundling one in here. So itâs either time to go digging through those cable boxes youâve been promising youâll sort for years, or youâll need to go buy one. Itâs a bit annoying.
On the subject of HDMI, letâs talk ports. On the back of the Cube youâve 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 Cubeâs IR blaster might not be able to reach. Devices living inside your TV cabinet, for example.
Once youâve 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 youâll 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 isnât that itâs 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 canât tell you how much I love it.
But while the Cube is a good living room hub, itâs far from perfect.
Amazon says the Cube TV works with over 90% of US home satellite and cable boxes, but that's not 100%. Itâs also not a sure bet that one bit of your living room kit will work with the Cube as well as another.
My TV has HDMI CEC, which means Iâve been able to do some input switching that way, but the Fire TVâs IR emitter gives it another way of controlling your living room devices. Still, it's a bit uneven. For example, Alexa wonât recognise my TV tuner by name, meaning I have to say, âAlexa, switch to HDMI 2â, but it recognises âSwitch to Fire TVâ.
If your cable box plays nicely, youâll be able to say, âAlexa, play CNN on cableâ 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, youâll still need a trusty remote at hand. Alexa wonât be able to control your DVR recordings, nor adjust settings on your TV, but for the basic things voice often works pretty well.
This goes for streaming services too. Alexa can be used to change apps â âAlexa, open Netflixâ â or to even start up your favourite shows â âAlexa, play Dirty Moneyâ. In that second example, it knows that this is only streaming on Netflix, so it will respond, âGetting Dirty Money from Netflixâ and proceed to start it up from wherever you left off. If it comes up against multiple choices â say more than one service is offering the same show â it will give you that choice. I asked it to play Parks and Recreation, so it asked me, âI can play that on Netflix or Prime Video, which would you like?â waiting for me to give the signal.
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 weâll 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 hasnât changed here, with various apps like Netflix, HBO GO and Hulu mashed in with Amazonâs recommendations and even a few ads (ugh). Itâs not my favourite streaming UI, but Fire TV is a well-fed platform, so thereâs little here I canât access. Quantity over quality, in this case.
One of my biggest gripes is actually with the remote. It doesnât 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 whatâs playing to hear you, or mute the volume if youâre on a different input, which means youâre 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 Iâve 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 itâll be at hearing you over the noise.
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 Iâm searching for shows â or, more annoyingly, when it thinks Iâm asking it to turn off the TV when Iâm not. Thereâs also a bit too much of a delay when Alexa processes your request. Sometimes itâs 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 isnât 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; youâre not going to want to play music out of this thing, and itâs 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 thatâs adjusting your lights or the smart blinds. Iâve 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 assistantâs 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.
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 Iâm 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.
- 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