Amazon Fire TV Cube Review: Don’t Trade the Remote for Alexa Just Yet
If you’re thinking of buying the Amazon Fire TV Cube because you’re delighted by the idea of having an Amazon Echo and a Fire TV device mashed into one device, let me stop you right there. Alexa on a TV interface demands a level of conversation like no other streaming TV product I’ve used before.
“Alexa, show more.”
“Alexa, show more.”
“Alexa, select option one.”
“Alexa, go back.”
“Alexa, scroll right.”
“Alexa, go home.”
After a few nights of using the Cube, I began to hate the sound of my own voice. Maybe you’ll still be delighted by the Cube at first if you buy one. Maybe if you have kids, they’ll love shouting at the TV to get their cartoon fix. But there’s a good chance you’ll end up doing what I did: going back to the fuddy-duddy Fire TV remote, because that’s the easiest way to scroll through multiple media options. Even if you really enjoy chatting with your TV, your significant other or roommate may very well move out within a week.
It turns out Amazon’s promise for the future of TV doesn’t quite come through in its earliest form. And while the company deserves a lot of credit for democratizing a pleasant-sounding virtual assistant in our homes, this next push in voice feels like a strange combination of features, none of which stand out as exceptional.
The promise of the new Amazon Fire TV Cube is a voice-first TV experience. You can bark commands at your Cube and tell it what streaming video you want to watch, or what games you want to play. You can also tell Alexa to turn your TV on and off, and ask it to switch inputs. (Amen to that.)
The Fire TV Cube has the full microphone array of an Echo, with a new design—most Echos are round, the Cube is square. It’s shiny, with sharp edges and four physical buttons on its matte-black top. There’s an LED strip that runs across the top of the cube’s face, which lights up blue when you’re talking to Alexa. On the back of the box there are ports for HDMI, microUSB, and an IR extender. It doesn’t ship with an HDMI cable, though it does come with an Ethernet adapter.
The Cube runs on an Amlogic quad-core 1.5GHz processor and a Mali-450 MP3 GPU, the same family of chipsets that powers some Android TV boxes. It supports 60Hz 4K, HDR10, and Dolby Atmos. In many ways the Fire TV Cube is similar to last year’s $70 Fire TV Stick. But the Cube has the Echo functionality, as well as HDMI-CEC support and IR emitters.
Amazon also borrowed features from the Echo Show, its voice-controlled gadget with a screen, to create the Cube’s UI. You don’t need a remote to control the Echo Show, goes the thinking, so why not apply some of the interactions to a voice-first TV device?
The results of this feature combo are mixed. The Fire TV Cube is indeed an Echo, but not a good Echo. The speaker quality is on par with the Echo Dot puck. You can ask Alexa on the Fire TV Cube to tell you a joke or set a timer, and Alexa will oblige—but it also interrupts whatever you were just watching on TV. Somehow I didn’t mind this, but maybe that’s because that was the least irritating thing about it.
I found Alexa on the Fire TV Cube to be just slow enough to interrupt the flow of what I was trying to do. Normally, when I’m using Alexa on other Echo devices, this cadence feels natural: “Alexa.” (Short pause.) “Set a timer.” On the Fire TV Cube, Alexa comes across as mildly hungover, with an elongated pause between “Alexa, search for Atlanta” and the results appearing on screen, accompanied by Alexa’s response.
From there you’re supposed to say, repeatedly, “Show more” or “Scroll to the right,” to see more options, which is around the time I started to question voice control for a TV interface. Amazon has also come up with a method of numbering the programs that appear on the screen, which appear in a grid-like format. So you can say something like, “Alexa, select option four,” rather than saying, “Alexa, select Black Panther” or “Alexa, play The Shape of Water.” This part was useful. It was getting to the thing I wanted to watch that wasn’t as intuitive as promised. There were also comical mishaps. At one point, when I tried to use voice to select Atlanta, the Audible app launched and a voice began to read aloud from the book Atlanta Noir.
Amazon says that it anticipates this product getting better over time, like the original Echo. And the company says, in terms of latency, it’s working on an update that will go out as early as next week to help improve Alexa’s wake word responsiveness, and bring it on par with other Echo devices.
Some third-party apps are also expected to roll out deeper voice integration so they’ll work well on the Cube—including Netflix, ESPN, Showtime, Starz, CBS All Access, and Hulu. Amazon says Netflix should be launching these voice controls right around the time the Fire TV Cube launches. Right now, if you ask Alexa to search for Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet, it will show you the result for the show, but you’ll have to pick up the remote from there. With regards to Hulu, an update to the app was rolled out the day before I filed this review, and I wasn’t able to test how well it works yet.
In terms of content, the Cube offers all the same stuff that other Fire TV devices do. You can count on a healthy promotion of Amazon-produced series, some of which are really good. There’s also a taxonomy that shows options for watching videos on services you already subscribe to, before it pushes Amazon’s own services. Fire TV has literally thousands of video and game options, as well as music apps like Spotify, so you’d be hard-pressed to find something missing. But there are some holes. You can’t watch your iTunes-purchased movies and shows on the Fire TV, and YouTube still isn’t natively supported.
The Cube does have its upsides. The first is IR. While IR may seem like the oldest TV trick in the book, it means the Cube can control and communicate with most other gadgets crowded around your TV, from other streaming media boxes to a soundbar. And not all TV sets support HDMI-CEC, so IR is a nice option. I know some people get riled up about IR blasters, but I am not one of those people.
Also, despite the fact that I had two Amazon speaker devices in close proximity, the Fire TV Cube never responded to a command I meant for the other speaker, and vice versa. Amazon has said before that it uses echo spatial detection technology to make sure that the Echo closest to you is the one that responds. In my experience, this has improved a lot from a year ago, when I last had two Echos at home.
By far my favorite feature of the Fire TV Cube was using voice control to turn the TV on and off, and to switch inputs. It underscores what Amazon does best: simplicity. When you arrive home, exhausted after a long day, being able to say, “Alexa, turn on the TV” feels like a sweet reprieve. Having to go back and forth with Alexa 16 times after that to find something to watch is extra.
There is, of course, the remote that comes in the box. You can always go back to using that when you don’t feel like using voice, which is what I did. But if you’re going to do that, and you’re not drawn in by the Echo features, then there’s probably no need to spend $119 on a Cube. Just get a less expensive Fire TV Stick, which also supports 4K and comes with an Alexa remote for when you really want voice.
Amazon, over the past decade, has established itself in hardware by making low-cost, simple, and incredibly useful products, whether that’s been e-readers, TV sticks, or Echo speakers. The Fire TV Cube is an oddball in the mix. It’s a bet on our voice-filled future, but in its initial form, the stuff beyond basic commands gets lost in translation.
Update, Thursday June 21, 7 am PDT: Due to a publishing error, this review of the Fire TV Cube went live with the wrong rating. It’s been corrected to show the proper rating, which is 6 out of 10.