Amazon Fire TV Cube review: Alexa hasn’t killed remotes just yet

0

The Fire TV Cube is what happens when an Echo and a Fire TV mate.
Image: raymond wong/mashable
Amazon Fire TV Cube
$119.99
The Good

Sleek and compact design • Alexa works even when soundbar is playing loudly right next to it • Super easy setup process • Comes with Ethernet adapter and IR extender cable

The Bad

Not all apps support full Alexa voice controls • Not compatible with projectors • Can’t control channels picked up OTA via TV antenna • No option for ‘Nintendo’ for switching inputs • Doesn’t work with universal remotes like Harmony Hub

The Bottom Line

Amazon’s Fire TV Cube is a good glimpse at how Alexa can be used to control your home entertainment system, but it’s in need of a lot of polish.

Mashable Score3.25
Cool Factor4.0
Learning Curve3.0
Performance3.0
Bang for the Buck3.0

Amazon’s Fire TV Cube, a mashup between an Echo speaker with hands-free Alexa voice commands and a Fire TV 4K (2017), is not a product that should surprise anyone.

Considering how great the Echo and the Fire TV 4K are, it’s more shocking that it took the company this long to combine the two. I mean, it was inevitable that we’d all want to control our TV and entertainment systems with voice after we let Alexa come into our homes.

With the $120 Fire TV Cube, Amazon sorta delivers on the futuristic dream of using voice commands to control your TV content instead of having to fiddle with remote controls. 

Much like the original Echo, the Fire TV Cube is a glimpse of the future. The groundwork for a remote control-less home entertainment system future is all there on this product, but there’s still some work to do before that future truly takes shape.

Fire TV Cube basics

Typical Amazon packaging.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Like all of Amazon’s hardware, the Fire TV Cube is as basic as it gets. The no-frills 3.4 x 3.4 x 3.0-inch black cube is intended to blend effortlessly with your TV, soundbar, A/V receiver, cable box, game console, or whatever else you may have in your media center.

Its glossy plastic sides, however, do mean you’ll never see it clean again once you peel away the plastic wrap. The Fire TV Cube picks up fingerprints and dust like there’s no tomorrow. 

My original Fire TV (left) vs. Fire TV Cube (right).

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Along with the Fire TV Cube and power adapter, you also get a 2-in-1 Ethernet/microUSB adapter, a 7.5-foot long infrared (IR) extender cable, and an Alexa Remote with two pack-in AA batteries.

Missing in the box is an HDMI cable, which you’ll need to connect the Fire TV Cube to your TV. But chances are you already have a spare or can reuse one if you’re just replacing another set-top box with the Fire TV Cube.

The top of the Fire TV Cube has your usual Echo buttons.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

As for buttons, the Fire TV Cube’s top has the same four from the Echo smart speakers: volume up and down, mute, and push-to-activate Alexa). It’s all pretty self-explanatory.

The Fire TV Cube is powered by a 1.5GHz quad-core processor and comes with 16GB of internal storage and 2GB of RAM. It supports 4K video playback at up to 60 fps, HDR 10, and Dolby Atmos. Of course, you will need a TV and speakers that support these features if you want the highest audio and video fidelity.

If you prefer a wired connection, you can use this included Ethernet dongle.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

The IR extender cable’s about 7.5 feet long.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

And that’s really the full tour of the Fire TV Cube. There’s an LED strip on the front that lights up when Alexa is activated and the four sides of the Fire TV Cube are “IR transparent” so you can still use your existing IR-based remote controls to control the devices that are connected to the cube.

Overall, I like the Fire TV Cube’s looks. It’s small and compact and doesn’t hog up much space near my TV. 

Simple set up

Setting up the Fire TV is a breeze.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

As much as I love new gadgets, I absolutely, absolutely, hate futzing around with my entertainment system.

My setup isn’t grand by any means, but it is a monstrosity that’s the result of years of adding and removing new devices and tweaking TV settings every now and then to get them all talking to each other just right. Oftentimes, if you mess with one thing, something else breaks so I try not to “improve” on it too frequently. If it works, it’s good, right?

Fortunately, hooking up the Fire TV Cube to my existing setup was a simple process and didn’t break anything.

You plug the power adapter in, connect the Fire TV Cube to your TV via HDMI and then follow the on-screen instructions to setup WiFi and sign into your Amazon account.

The back of the Fire TV Cube has just the necessary ports.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

After that, the Fire TV Cube walks you through selecting your streaming services, enabling Alexa, adding your soundbar or receiver, and then runs through some shorts tests to make sure everything’s working properly.

A few minutes later and you’ll be staring at a slightly tweaked, but still familiar Fire TV home screen laid out with your usual movie and TV content and apps.

If you’ve downloaded apps on a previous Fire TV, you’ll need to re-download them. Similarly, you’ll also need to sign into any third-party apps like Netflix, Hulu, PlayStation Vue, etc. again. Using the Alexa Remote to peck at an on-screen keyboard, especially for complicated passwords, is still a pain in the ass, though. It would be amazing if Amazon could come up with a universal single sign-on for all your media apps and services.

The Alexa Remote is the same one included with other Fire TVs.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

I also later had to go into the settings tab to adjust a few more things like assigning my game consoles a preset HDMI input name in order to use Alexa to switch between them, but that’s really it. (Hey Amazon, it’s nice to see Xbox and PlayStation and Apple TV as HDMI options, but where’s Nintendo? I had to assign my Switch the generic “Game Console” for the input name.)

If you’ve got a cable or satellite box or any other device that’s controlled with IR and you have it hidden away inside of cabinet, you can use the included IR extender cable. Additionally, if you’d rather connect your Fire TV Cube to the internet through Ethernet instead of WiFi, make sure to use the included adapter.

The amount of time it takes to fully set up your Fire TV Cube will depend on how many devices you need to connect and how many logins and passwords you’ll need to enter. But once I finished and cracked open a nice cold beverage, the hard work was mostly worth it, even though I encountered a few bugs and glitches, and ran into some limitations for what I could and couldn’t do with Alexa.

Alexa replaces your remote control?

Call on Alexa and the Fire TV Cube’s thin LED strip will light up.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

The whole point of the Fire TV Cube is to use Alexa voice commands to do everything you’d normally do with a remote control.

Now, you can already use Alexa to control your Fire TV if you own an Echo — it’s just a matter of pairing them together. However, this combo doesn’t let you control your soundbar or A/V receiver, which the Fire TV Cube does.

I own both an old Fire TV and an Echo, but like I already told you, I’m really lazy when it comes to messing with my existing entertainment setup. I tried to get my Echo to control my TV setup with the Logitech Harmony Hub and after too many hours of cursing out my tech, I gave up. (On a related Logitech note: The Fire TV Cube isn’t compatible with universal remotes like the Logitech Harmony.)

That’s why I like the Fire TV Cube. It was easy to setup with my ancient Sony Bravia HDTV I bought almost a decade ago and a Sonos Playbar.

Using voice controls instead of a remote worked just as easily, but it wasn’t perfect.

Using voice controls instead of a remote worked just as easily, but it wasn’t perfect.

With eight far-field microphones listening through the top of the Fire TV Cube, I was happy to find Alexa just as responsive on my OG Echo.

Amazon recommends placing the Fire TV Cube 1-2 feet away from any speakers, including the soundbar that might be sitting in front of or below your TV. 

Since my poor man’s “media center” is just two IKEA Lack tables smushed together, that didn’t give me much room. Still, I placed the Fire TV Cube inches to the left side of my soundbar and Alexa had no problems hearing from my sofa 12 feet away.

I’ve got an IKEA Expedit bookshelf next to my TV and could have placed the Fire TV Cube there to meet Amazon’s recommended placement distance, but that wouldn’t have given the cube’s IR blaster a direct line of sight for my remotes (which, TBH, I didn’t use much after).

The Fire TV Cube’s home screen is optimized for voice controls, but still similar enough to the regular Fire TV OS.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Alexa on the Fire TV Cube does everything an Echo does. You can do all the basics like ask it for the weather, play music, check your calendar, tell jokes, control your smart home devices, etc. If you’ve got a smart camera, like Amazon’s own Cloud Cam or a Nest Cam, you can also tell Alexa to show you what it’s seeing with an “Alexa, show [camera name],” command. It’s the same as on the Echo Show.

Ask for the weather and your TV will show you the forecast.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

If an Alexa skill comes with a visual it’ll display it on your TV. For the weather, you’ll get a weekly forecast or for music in Amazon Music or Spotify, you’ll see album art and lyrics (if they’re available) — you get the idea. It’s a very similar experience to the Echo Show, which is no surprise since the interface was based off the Show’s.

These are all things I expected the Fire TV Cube to nail and it did it with aplomb. Controlling your TV, soundbar, and content is a bit more of a hit or miss.

Simple commands like asking Alexa to turn my TV and soundbar on and off worked fine. But I noticed some irregularities when I attempted to use Alexa voice controls as my only method of control.

For example, I set up an Alexa Routine for when I returned home. With an “Alexa, I’m home” routine, the voice assistant should turn my Philips Hue smart lights on in my living room and bathroom, turn on the TV, turn on the soundbar, and then report the weather. 

Because I had a soundbar connected, the weather report should have come through it with the forecast shown on the TV screen. But for whatever reason, the weather report always came through the Fire TV Cube’s tinny speaker instead. At first I thought it might have been the order in which the soundbar turned on — if it’s the last action in the routine, it might not be able to catch up to Alexa — so I swapped the commands so that the soundbar and TV would switch on first, but that didn’t fix it. 

At other times, the weather report would come out of the soundbar, but cut off the beginning because it must have been in the middle of switching between the Fire TV Cube’s speaker to the soundbar.

Once you’ve logged into your streaming services, it’ll get its own publisher row showing more content.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Using Alexa to launch apps, find content, and navigate around the Fire TV interface is straightforward. I could say “Alexa, show more” to scroll up and down and left and right to see more content. To select content, an “Alexa, select [name of content or the number listed next to the title]” did the job.

Amazon’s own apps like Prime Video and Music are Alexa-optimized for voice controls, but they’re also not perfect, either.

A few times, Alexa on the Fire TV Cube failed to understand “next song” or “skip song” when playing music on Amazon Music. Another time, I asked Alexa to play Lady Gaga and the Echo Dot in my bedroom heard it first and started playing it instead. When I followed up with Alexa on my Fire TV Cube to play Daft Punk, it informed me that it was already playing on another device and if I wanted to play it over my soundbar instead. I said yes and “Poker Face” blared through my soundbar, but it didn’t stop on the Echo Dot. 

What lyrics look like on Amazon Music…

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

… and what they look like on Spotify.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

For videos, it was also very wonky sometimes. I could tell Alexa to play The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and load up the last episode I watched, but it couldn’t understand me when I told it to go to a more specific episode like “Alexa, play The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Episode 6.” 

On too many occasions, voice controls either sorta worked or didn’t work at all.

Other times, I’d tell Alexa to  go to the “next episode” and it’d play a trailer for “The Goliath” leaving me wondering WTF happened. Whenever Alexa failed to understand (not hear) my voice command like this one, I ended up reaching for the Alexa remote to fix the issue, which defeats the whole purpose of having voice controls in the first place.

Even in an app like PlayStation Vue, where you can access live TV channels (“Alexa, tune into CNBC on PlayStation Vue”) and switch between them seamlessly without having to repeat the app’s name with every command (“Alexa, tune to CNN”), I still had to use the remote to access some functions.

Alexa voice controls are magical… when they work. But it’s still very early days for the Fire TV Cube. On too many occasions, voice controls either sorta worked or didn’t work at all.

Take Netflix — Amazon told me Netflix is one of the more notable apps getting the complete voice control treatment. Unfortunately, the feature wasn’t available yet when I tested the Fire TV Cube. But that wasn’t entirely true. I was able to tell the Fire TV Cube to play Mad Men and it’d load the first episode and play/pause voice commands sometimes worked. When I asked Alexa to “skip forward a minute” it’d only skip 10 seconds. 

These are clearly bugs that need to be fixed, but it’s all the more frustrating when they sorta work, but don’t really. 

Amazon says full Netflix voice controls should be rolling out shortly after the Fire TV Cube ships to customers. I’ll have to revisit it and update this review once I’ve tried it.

I think the biggest problem with the Fire TV Cube and Alexa voice controls is that you can now see what Alexa’s failing to understand. On the Echo, if Alexa doesn’t understand a command, you’re more forgiving because you assume it genuinely doesn’t know how to do something you’ve asked it for. But on Fire TV, I found myself more frustrated because I could see buttons for things like like “forward” and “back” in apps like Netflix, but voice controls didn’t do anything. 

This visual frustration is all the more annoying for apps you’d naturally want to use voice for — like the Silk or Firefox browser — but don’t have the support yet.

Voice controls are the future, but it’ll take more time

There’s no native YouTube app. You’ll need to load it via the Silk browser or Firefox.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

When I was first briefed on the Fire TV Cube, I was all ready to declare the death of the remote. Now that I’ve used it myself, I can safely say the venerable remote control need not go coffin shopping just yet.

Even with all the bugs and limitations, the Fire TV Cube’s Alexa voice controls are still impressive to start. But they lack polish, and even Amazon knows this.

Amazon told me it’s really only “day one” for the Fire TV Cube. They’re planning to improve the voice control navigation and content discovery with customer feedback. Not to mention it’ll be on developers to update their apps with Alexa voice controls.

Just as Amazon wasn’t totally sure what kind of useful or weird skills would be created for Alexa, Amazon’s not sure how developers will integrate Alexa voice controls into their own apps. 

My advice: go for broke. I want to see every feature within an app have full-on Alexa voice controls integrated at the deepest level. Because, again, what’s the point of buying a device with hands-free voice controls if you’re still forced to use the remote control sometimes? Yes, I know a remote is convenient if, say, you can’t talk to Alexa because maybe you might disturb someone sleeping or it’s late or something. But, like, still, that doesn’t mean Alexa controls shouldn’t be 100 percent capable of replacing the remote because it should be able to.

As it stands, the Fire TV Cube is a half-baked promise of the future. I have no idea if it’ll get significantly better in six months, a year, or two years from now. But the early adopter in me is hopeful that developers will embrace voice for the Fire TV the same way they did for the Echo. I mean, I think we can all agree that turned out pretty well for what was an equally half-baked product.

If you live life on the edge and aren’t afraid of the growing pains, by all means get a Fire TV Cube. It’s a neat step into the voice-controlled entertainment center of tomorrow. But if you need your living room centerpiece to work perfectly every single time, maybe wait until most of the kinks are ironed out.

Read more: https://mashable.com/2018/06/21/amazon-fire-tv-cube-review/