Amazon first started shipping video streaming devices four years ago. Since then, the company has updated its Fire TV products to match the larger trends of consumer gadgetry. The flat Fire TV boxes were shrunk down to HDMI sticks and dongles that weren’t much larger than a thumb drive; to this day, the cheap streaming sticks from Amazon and Roku are best-sellers for both companies. Then Amazon’s TV devices started working with voice control, a trend that Amazon itself is largely responsible for, considering the popularity of Alexa.
Whereas earlier Fire TV devices required you to summon Alexa through the remote, the Fire TV Cube has Alexa built in.
Now Amazon is launching what it thinks is the next obvious thing in home entertainment. The just-announced 4K Fire TV Cube is part Fire TV, part Amazon Echo, and part TV control center for the other boxes and gadgets you have crowded around your TV. Whereas earlier Fire TV devices required you to summon Alexa through the remote, the Fire TV Cube has Alexa built in. In fact, Amazon says the whole user experience of the Cube was designed with a “voice first” philosophy.
“The goal for the Fire TV Cube is to really enable voice experience in a way that makes sense and actually highlights the use of voice,” says Sandeep Gupta, vice president of product development for Amazon Fire TV. “It’s not about just making some stuff that’s voice enabled.” What Gupta didn’t say, because he didn’t need to, is that putting Alexa in every possible space in your home is part of Amazon’s larger strategy of getting you to use Amazon’s services, and getting you to buy even more stuff from Amazon.
At $119, the new 4K Fire TV Cube is the most expensive Fire TV device to date. It’s also easily one of the nicest-looking TV products Amazon has ever made, compared with the flat-sandwich design of its Fire TV boxes and the uninspiring Fire TV Stick. This is for good reason—since it has Alexa built in, it’s meant to live out in the open, and not hide inside a home theater console. But even with the Fire TV Cube being sold at a reduced price ($90) for the first couple of days, it veers away from Amazon’s strictly utilitarian approach to making and selling inexpensive hardware.
The Amazon Fire TV Cube has eight far-field microphones built in, an array that was designed to accommodate the shape of the cube. It has the same beam-forming, noise-reducing, and echo-cancelling tech found in other Echo products. In his initial demo of the Cube at Amazon’s Silicon Valley labs last week, Gupta staged a scenario where he had just gotten home from work: “Alexa, I’m home,” he said to the Cube, and the Samsung TV, Sony soundbar, and Philips Hue smart lights in the room all turned on.
The Alexa features work pretty much as you’d expect; you can ask the Cube for the weather, or for jokes, or access any number of skills, Amazon’s term for voice-powered apps. It’s that connection to the TV or soundbar that’s new. The Cube connects to the TV via HDMI and supports both multi-directional IR and CEC, a feature that allows users to control multiple HDMI-connected devices with just one remote. (Sonos supports CEC in just-announced, Alexa-equipped Beam soundbar as well.) This all means that you can use Alexa to control a whole host of TV interactions, from toggling the power to searching for shows to controlling the volume. You can even use it to switch inputs between TV boxes and consoles, arguably one of the most useful parts of the setup.
Cube owners with set-top boxes for cable TV or over-the-air TV can connect Amazon’s box to those devices and access them using Alexa. These commands have to be super specific—”Alexa, switch to channel 31,” for example. You can’t just search for a program or movie by name and expect Amazon to surface the cable TV option for you. (Roku, one of Amazon’s biggest competitors in this space, now shows over-the-air TV search results in its “smart guide.”)
Still, voice commands provide a new way to switch between internet streaming video and old-school cable. And, like Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV products support single sign-on via certain apps, which means you can sign in to your cable TV provider’s app and be automatically signed in to any other supporting apps.
The most interesting part about the new Fire TV Cube is almost certainly its interface. While the Cube runs on FireOS, Amazon’s Android-based operating system for tablets and TV streaming devices, it has the UX of the Echo Show. Gupta says Amazon used the Echo Show, its odd display-centric gadget, as drafting practice for the Fire TV Cube. “The reason why we’ve tried to leverage Echo Show is because voice interaction is different from TV remote interaction,” he says. “So, the results and the catalog are the same as any Fire TV, but it’s presented in a way that can be navigated through voice.”
This includes a grid-like format, with clearly numbered content options presented. It prompts you to say things like, “Alexa, show more,” or “Alexa, select option four”—much cleaner than trying to burrow through thousands of video options with your voice. Once you pick up the Fire TV Cube remote and press a button, the interface immediately switches back to the “old” Fire TV format. The Fire TV Cube remote, by the way, also has Alexa built in, in case you’d like to turn the Cube’s microphones off but still want to use Alexa from time to time.
Amazon, not surprisingly, is pitching the Fire TV Cube as the perfect Frankengadget for your TV, something that not only gives you full Echo features but is supposed to drastically simplify your TV experience. But as with any hardware product from a company that has some services skin in the game, the Fire TV Cube is not a perfectly agnostic streaming platform.
Like every other FireOS device, the Fire TV Cube doesn’t play content purchased through iTunes. Apple TV, on the other hand, now streams Amazon Prime Video, so Apple has the distinct advantage there. More important is FireOS’s lack of a native YouTube app. Thanks to a spat that Google and Amazon can’t seem to resolve, your only option for watching YouTube videos on an Amazon device right now is to use a browser.
Also, don’t expect the Fire TV Cube to replace your soundbar. According to Amazon executives, the Cube’s audio output is comparable to what you get with an Echo Dot—so, not great. There’s also the question of whether the Cube will coexist nicely with other Echos in a small household; like if you have another Amazon product in your kitchen and that happens to be within spitting distance of your TV. Amazon says its Alexa devices are smart enough to discern which one you’re speaking to when two are nearby, but that isn’t always the case in the real world. For now, your best solution is probably to use different wake words.
First world problems aside (too many voice-controlled speakers!), Amazon’s new Fire TV Cube shows the company is serious about taking over your living room–or at the very least, becoming a very important part of it.