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Amazon Fire TV Cube (2019) review: Alexa from the block

The new Cube is zippier and makes the assistant more useful

Amazon Fire TV Cube (2019)
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One of the newer members of the Amazon family, the Fire TV Cube marked a convergence of Amazon’s smart speaker and TV ambitions: a streaming box with a built-in microphone.

For the second-gen model, launching this month, Amazon’s tweaked performance and added a couple of new tricks, but largely kept things the same – including the $120 price tag. After all, if it ain't broke...

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It can play Netflix. It can control your smart lights. And it now has HDR10+! If that last one is important to you, it may be worth the upgrade, but owners of the existing Cube have less reason to update.

Let's get into it.

Amazon Fire TV Cube (2019) review: Alexa from the block


Amazon Fire TV Cube: Design, setup and remote

The Cube is a cube, if not a perfect one: it measures 3 inches tall, 3.4 inches wide and 3.4 inches deep. The dimensions are precisely the same as the first model, as is the layout of eight microphones and buttons on top – which also mimics Amazon's Echo speakers – giving you quick access to volume, Alexa and the mute function.

The sides and front are covered in a glossy black plastic are are incredibly fond of dust and scratches. Only a couple of minutes after peeling off the Cube's protective plastic wrap we noticed some small scratches had already appeared on the surface.

The Cube connects to the TV via HDMI (be warned, there's no cable in the box) and to your Wi-Fi, and the entire setup process taking place on the TV; there’s no going into the Alexa app, although once connected to your Amazon account (and if you have the Alexa smartphone app) you'll get a notification from Alexa telling you that it's detected a new device on the network.

Amazon Fire TV Cube (2019) review: Alexa from the block

If you’d prefer a wired connection, there’s an Ethernet adapter included in the box. We’re still not sure why Amazon hasn’t built this port directly into the Cube, but at least the option is there.

Also in the box is the IR extender. The Cube has an IR blaster on it, which means you can use it to control other TV-connected devices, but some of those devices may be out of range – tucked into the TV cabinet, perhaps.

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The extender can be plugged into the back of the Cube and placed inside the cabinet to project its line of fire.

Again, this is all familiar stuff if you bought the OG Cube. The only major design change is in the remote, which now has a volume rocker and mute button. Their absence from the original Cube’s remote was a real miss, as it meant you had to reach for a second remote or ask Alexa to adjust the volume.

Alexa may be great for some TV tasks, but hitting a mute button is always going to be faster when the remote is within arm's reach.

Amazon Fire TV Cube (2019) review: Alexa from the block

Amazon Fire TV Cube: TV controls and Alexa

All that said, Alexa is, actually, much more responsive on the 2019 Cube. Amazon has put in a new six-core processor that's far nippier than the first, something you'll notice from the moment you plug it in.

You're going to appreciate this most when switching between apps, searching for movies, or just generally cruising around the UI. It's speedy, noticeably more so coming from our Apple TV 4K which is starting to show some slow-down.

The updated silicon also gives Alexa a speed bump. Unlike Amazon's other Fire TV devices, the Cube has microphones and a speaker so you can use it like an Echo device. You can also use the microphone button on the remote, which circumvents the need to say "Hey Alexa" to gets its attention.

But the improved response time is also thanks to the fact Amazon has offloaded some Alexa tasks to the box itself, avoiding communication with the cloud entirely. It makes perfect sense to do this – after all, why should Alexa need to talk to the cloud just to just to scroll down the page?

The on-device commands are limited to basics like "Alexa, go home", "Alexa, select" or "Alexa, scroll right". It appears to be the case for volume too in our testing, and Amazon says it will expand the range of offline abilities as time goes on.

Amazon Fire TV Cube (2019) review: Alexa from the block

Amazon has been clear that it sees the Fire TV Cube as primarily a hands-free device, and by speeding up Alexa’s responses it's certainly given us fewer reasons to reach for the remote.

Asking Alexa to pause and play is almost instant, faster than it was on the original Cube, although this is most likely still done via the cloud as Alexa must communicate with the app you're watching.

The final benefit of that new processor is that it allows the new Fire TV Cube to support Dolby Vision and HDR10+ alongside all the standards the first box had: 4K, Dolby Atmos and HDR10. This also solves the conundrum of why you’d buy the Cube over Amazon’s Fire TV 4K Stick, which arrived later, costs half the price, and offered all of the above. Now the standards are more evenly matched.

A lot of TV and movie apps now have Alexa controls integrated too, meaning you can ask the assistant to skip backwards ten seconds or pull up a certain movie or show from that service. That now includes Netflix, Hulu, ABC, HBO apps and others.

Plus, having Alexa on the TV 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 colorful graph. Ask it for nearby movie showtimes and it will give you a readable list of options.

Alexa can be used to control all of your other smart home devices too, just like any other Echo speaker, whether that’s adjusting your lights or the smart blinds. We've had no problem getting Alexa on Fire TV to perform these duties, but having it more closely integrated with the TV means new ways to leverage the smart assistant’s abilities.

Amazon Fire TV Cube
Amazon Fire TV Cube

But while Alexa is more responsive when it hears you, it has to actually hear you. That's something to think about when placing your Fire TV Cube and when using it with the TV. As you can see in the picture below, we first put it under the TV and by the soundbar, but the microphones do struggle when competing with the speaker, which resulted in a lot of repeating "Hey Alexa" at increasingly higher volumes until the blue light met us in response.

To be fair, Amazon says you should place the Cube "at least 1 to 2 feet away" from any speakers, and by shifting it further from the soundbar we had much better accuracy.

As for IR controls with the Cube, its usefulness really depends on your setup. You'll be asked to configure the Cube with your other TV devices – think A/V receivers, soundbars etc – during setup, but for anything without IR control, you're kinda stuck. You can ask Alexa to switch HDMI ports, but, for example, we can't get it to do much with our PS4.

Amazon Fire TV Cube (2019) review: Alexa from the block

Amazon Fire TV Cube: Fire TV UI

We're not going to do a full review of Amazon's Fire TV interface here, and if you’ve used fire TV before you’ll know what you’re getting. From a UI perspective, Fire TV has improved in some ways and become more frustrating in others.

Case in point: as I write this, there's a huge sponsored banner for the HTC Vive Cosmos across the screen, dividing two streams of shows and movies. Click on said advert and we can buy a Cosmos from Amazon right from the Fire TV in just a couple of clicks.

I don’t know who’s making $700 impulse purchases, but it certainly clutters up the UI, not to mention it's quite dangerous if you have kids around the house – another reason you may want to consider Amazon’s Freetime service, which just rolled out on Fire TV devices.

Another bugbear is in how Amazon pushes its own content above others, though that criticism can't be leveraged at Amazon alone. Beyond your list of most-used apps listed at the top, Prime content is promoted heavily, to the point it sometimes makes everything feel too much of a jumble.

I use Apple TV a lot and these days the Apple TV app front and center, as Apple pushes it as a means to subscribe to third-party services. But Apple's interface on the whole is much cleaner and makes navigating between apps less daunting. Fire TV needs work.


Amazon Fire TV Cube
The new Fire TV Cube is ultra-fast, supports a huge range of standards and is well-fed with apps. Alexa is more useful, thanks to some of cognitive functions now happening offline, and adding the volume buttons to the remote was a smart move. We just wish the Fire TV UI was more enjoyable to use.
PROS
  • Ultra-fast UI
  • Alexa quicker at select tasks
  • Works as an Echo
CONS
  • On-board speaker is poor
  • Fire TV UI is messy
  • 4K market has tough competition

TAGGED    amazon

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