For the past few years, Amazon has had two of the most popular living room products: the Echo smart speaker and the Fire TV media streamer. It’s been an open secret that eventually the company would combine them, and now it has, in the form of the new Fire TV Cube. It blends Amazon’s Echo smart speaker expertise and Alexa voice assistant with a media streaming box capable of controlling your living room’s entire entertainment stack.

The $119.99 Fire TV Cube is best thought of as the offspring of an Echo and a Fire TV 4K. It has all of the same content options as a Fire TV 4K — Netflix, Hulu, PS Vue, Amazon Prime Video, and so on — but it brings the Echo’s extensive far-field voice control capabilities to your TV. The Fire TV Cube lets you bark commands from across the room to search for movies or TV shows, launch video streaming apps, and play, pause, and control volume with your voice.

But you can already do most of that with a Fire TV 4K and a paired Amazon Echo. What the Fire TV cube adds to the mix is its ability to control other devices you have plugged into your TV, such as a soundbar, cable box, or Blu-ray player with your voice. If it all works, the Fire TV cube should let you control your entire entertainment stack without ever having to pick up a remote.

At least, that’s how it’s advertised on the box. And in my experience of testing the Fire TV Cube over the past few days, its Alexa-based voice control system works more often than it doesn’t. But I’m not throwing my remotes in the garbage just yet.

8

Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • Adds Alexa to your living room entertainment system
  • Controls more than just your TV
  • Supports 4K HDR content
  • Picks up voice commands even while video or music is playing

Bad Stuff

  • Stumbles when controlling certain devices and set-top boxes
  • Included remote is too simple
  • Doesn’t come with necessary HDMI cable
  • Still doesn’t offer any Dolby Atmos content or a YouTube app

Looking at the Fire TV Cube, it’s clear Amazon didn’t have to reach for the name: it’s a roughly 3.5-inch black plastic cube with an LED light on the front and ports for an HDMI cable (not included, shame on you Amazon), power, IR extender, and wired networking (via an included Ethernet adapter), on the back. On top is an array of eight far-field microphones and at the bottom of the device is a downward-firing speaker for hearing Alexa speak.

The speaker is not as powerful as a standard Echo, but it’s not designed for playing music — the Cube will route any music requests to your TV’s speakers or your soundbar. Most of the time, Alexa’s responses will also route through the TV’s speakers, but it will use the Cube’s speaker if the TV is off or set to another input. For these purposes, the Cube speaker is perfectly adequate and easy to hear even across the room. Alexa is clever enough to mute audio on other devices when it hears the wake word, so you can still hear responses even when watching a Blu-ray movie.

Similarly, the eight far-field microphones are adept at picking up voice commands even from 15 or 20 feet away, and while music or video is playing on the TV. There were a handful of instances where I had to repeat a command (as anyone that owns an Echo is intimately familiar with), but for the most part, I could casually ask Alexa to do things and the Cube would comply.

Those things include many of the actions Alexa can perform on other devices. You can ask Alexa for a weather report, places nearby, or calendar information, or use it to control smart home gadgets like lightbulbs or thermostats. The Cube treats your TV like the built-in display on Echo Show or Echo Spot devices, so you can pull up a video feed from supported home security cameras, and certain responses, like weather or local searches, are accompanied by visual displays on the TV with more information. Music played from Amazon’s Prime Music service will be accompanied by lyrics displayed on your TV screen, turning the whole thing into an impromptu karaoke party. Alexa’s familiar news summary function even integrates video content from providers such as CNN, Reuters, and others, just like it does on the Echo Show and Echo Spot. When you’re done watching Alexa’s responses, the Cube brings you back to the Fire TV’s familiar home screen. Surprisingly, this all works rather seamlessly — it doesn’t feel like two different interface ideas were just mashed together, even though that’s basically what it is.



The Fire TV Cube adds to Alexa’s repertoire by enabling specific content searches, such as “comedies” or “action movies”. Ask Alexa to “show action movies starring Tom Cruise” and you’ll get a grid of options that can be selected with your voice to watch, rent, or purchase, depending on which service the selected movie is available. (Amazon tells me that the system will always default to the “free” option, so if a movie is available on Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, Alexa will play that version, which was borne out in my tests.) You can even scroll through the search results with your voice by asking Alexa to “show more.”

Amazon has worked with various over-the-top services to integrate voice commands into the apps themselves. If you’re watching something on Hulu, PS Vue, Netflix, and others, you can use Alexa to pause, fast-forward, play a specific show, and so on. You can tune to specific channels within services that have live TV content using Alexa, too.

In terms of content options, the Fire TV Cube is exactly the same as the Fire TV 4K, which means it has access to most OTT services, but still lacks a YouTube app. (You can access YouTube through the Firefox or Silk browser on the Cube, but there isn’t a native app or way to watch YouTube TV.) The Cube also doesn’t have any content that supports Dolby Atmos audio available, despite the fact that Amazon advertises its Atmos capabilities.


But the most impressive part of the Cube is its ability to control other devices with Alexa, such as your cable box or Blu-ray player. It does this in a similar way to Logitech’s Harmony universal remote system, through infrared blasters on all four sides of the Cube that shoot out invisible commands to mimic the behavior of a handheld remote. (Ironically, Amazon says that Harmony remotes are not compatible with the Cube.) So when you say “Alexa, turn on ESPN”, the Cube runs through a sequence of actions: it turns on the TV, changes to the input for to your cable box, and then blasts the IR codes for ESPN’s channel number — it’s basically punching in the number and hitting enter. After a few seconds, the TV is playing ESPN from your cable service, and you didn’t have to touch a remote.

Alexa can then be used to change channels, by either asking it to tune to a specific number or channel name, mute the audio, or adjust the volume. But Alexa’s capabilities are limited here: I was unable to pause or fast-forward a movie on my Sony Blu-ray player or a show on my cable box, for example.

When everything works as it should, it feels like a sci-fi movie, asking a computer to perform actions directly without having to use a remote, keyboard, mouse, or even a touchscreen. I can walk into my living room and ask Alexa to turn on whatever it is I specifically want to watch or listen to, then ask Alexa to turn it all off when I’m done. It’s the same kind of experience that people have been getting with voice-controlled smart gadgets since Alexa debuted a few years ago, but now extended to your TV and entertainment stack.



But because of the inherent limitations of the technologies Amazon is forced to use (HDMI CEC on your TV, IR blasters for everything else) to make all of these disparate devices and services play nice with each other, there are stumbles now and then that tarnish the experience. For example, my Verizon FiOS cable box will go into a low-power mode if it’s not being used for a certain amount of time, and it won’t tune to a specific channel until I pick up its remote and press the menu button to wake it up. This causes Alexa’s “watch a channel” command to fail unless I intervene and wake the FiOS box up from the remote first. In addition, while Amazon says the Cube can control “more than 90 percent” of the cable and satellite set-top boxes in use, it cannot control the built-in tuners on TVs. That means if you’re a cord-cutter with an antenna, Alexa can’t tune your TV to a specific channel.

IR blasters are a legendarily dumb technology with a host of issues — commands can get interrupted by sunlight shining in from a window, commands often misfire, and the IR blasters on the Cube need to have some kind of line of sight to the devices you want to control. If your cable box and Blu-ray player are in a closed cabinet, you’ll have to use the included IR extender for the Cube’s commands to be seen. The Cube itself needs to be placed on an open shelf so it can hear voice commands and control the TV and soundbar.

All of those limitations mean you have to still use remotes, and use them often. Volume controls through Alexa aren’t particularly granular and can be tedious to use, so I often picked up my soundbar’s remote to fine tune. To actually play a movie on my Blu-ray player, I had to use its remote to navigate through the menus and start the movie.

Amazon does include a remote with the Cube. Unfortunately, it’s the exact same remote you get with a Fire TV 4K or Fire TV Stick: a simple eight-button and directional pad affair that lets you move around the Fire TV interface and select things, or speak commands directly into the remote instead of relying on the Cube’s far-field mics. But the remote does not have buttons to control volume, mute, or power on the TV, which seems like a gross oversight by Amazon and forces you to keep various other remotes accessible to perform those actions without using your voice.


The inclusion of a remote is also an admission by Amazon that voice commands aren’t always the most convenient or intuitive way to control something. Many times it’s just faster to grab the remote and skip a track, select an item, or pause a video than wait for an Alexa voice command to be heard and processed. It’s also much easier for visitors or those not well-versed in Alexa’s voice command library to just pick up a remote and select what they want — remotes have been around for decades and are a familiar thing, after all.

That said, it’s impressive what Amazon has been able to accomplish here, even with the limitations I outlined above. My TV, soundbar, cable box, and Blu-ray player are all made by different companies and have their own ideas and interfaces for how to use them. But the Fire TV Cube can act as a go-between to add voice control to everything, and it manages the various input switching hops and interface disparities surprisingly well. It’s not too different from what the startup Caavo attempts to do, but for a much lower cost.

Combining the smart speaker with a set-top box is a logical evolution of the two products for living room entertainment, and it’s not too far off from what Apple and Google already do with their voice-controlled assistants on the Apple TV and Android TV. Amazon takes it a bit further by adding hands-free voice controls and extending Alexa outside of the box it’s contained in, which is both clever and helpful, since cable boxes and Blu-ray players aren’t going to disappear anytime soon. The Fire TV Cube can do more with hands-free voice commands than either of Google or Apple’s offerings.

If you have a Fire TV and an Echo in your living room already, the cost of the Fire TV Cube isn’t so high that swapping them out for a combined unit that works better for entertainment needs is prohibitive. And if you still haven’t bought into any media box (and you don’t have specific, high-end video and audio needs or rely heavily on YouTube’s services), the Fire TV Cube is an easy-to-use device that provides most all of the content you could want, while giving you access to Alexa and all of its useful capabilities.

But while I’m a fan of Alexa and the Fire TV, and the Cube combines both of those things well, the pile of my remotes in my living room isn’t going anywhere.

Correction, 3:10PM ET, June 21st, 2018: An earlier version of this review stated that it was not possible to search for YouTube content with voice commands, but that is incorrect. It can be done if you install the YouTube.com shortcut and either the Firefox or Silk browser, all of which are available through Amazon’s app store.

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