Amazon on Thursday announced the Fire TV Cube, the latest device in the tech giant’s family of Fire TV media streamers and the latest to employ its Alexa digital assistant.
The new media streamer first leaked after a report from AFTVNews last September. Amazon later confirmed that it was working on a device called the Fire TV Cube, but didn’t reveal any details aside from that.
It turns out the original leak was spot on. The Fire TV Cube is best described as a shiny, cube-shaped version of the 4K- and HDR-compatible Fire TV box Amazon launched last year with an Echo Dot smart speaker built into it and IR blasters tacked on.
The device will be available for preorder on Thursday and formally go on sale on June 21. It’ll cost $120, though Amazon is running a promotion in which users of its Prime service can buy the box for $90 this Thursday and Friday. The existing 4K Fire TV box costs $70.
It does Echo things
The Fire TV Cube is a small box that bears the usual markings of an Echo device. There’s a light strip that runs around its top and glows blue when you call for Alexa. It will chime to acknowledge when the assistant is listening. There are four buttons on the top of the device for adjusting volume and muting the built-in microphones.
There are eight of those far-field microphones in total. Amazon says they’re laid out in a flat, front-facing pattern here instead of a circular pattern found on standard Echo speakers. The company says that placement, plus some “extra tuning” around echo cancellation and microphone bias, should help the device pick out voice commands even in louder settings.
Alexa on the Fire TV Cube can’t do it can on a normal Echo speaker: in a briefing in New York City this week, Sandeep Gupta, Amazon’s vice president of smart TV and home products, specifically mentioned that it doesn’t have any functionality in the way of communications. That means no texting, messaging, or video calling from your TV, through Gupta said the company is working on the last of those.
Besides that, most of Alexa’s many other “skills” still work. If you leave the “TV” portion of the Fire TV Cube off, it’ll work like an Echo Dot. Gupta said its speaker quality is very similar to that of the Dot, so it should be poor for music but fine for basic requests.
With the TV on, the Cube is akin to a giant Echo Show, the touchscreen-equipped smart speaker Amazon launched last year. You can ask it for the weather and it’ll show a visual graphic of the forecast. You can have it show nearby restaurants or movie theaters. You can ask for a flash news briefing, and with some outlets you’ll see a video rundown of the day’s headlines. You can stream music and, at least with Amazon Music, see lyrics as a song plays. You can play a handful of games (think Alexa’s “Jeopardy” skill), view the live feed of a compatible security camera, and so on.
Pushing a hands-free remote
Amazon’s main goal, though, is to have Alexa sub in for your remotes. Like the last few Fire TV models, the Fire TV Cube supports HDMI-CEC (“Consumer Electronics Control”). Broadly speaking, that allows devices connected to a TV’s HDMI ports to communicate back and forth with the TV through one remote. Here, it mostly means Alexa can turn a compatible TV off and on with voice commands.
HDMI-CEC has been a bit of mess, though: some TVs don’t support it altogether, others do but don’t work to the spec’s fullest extent. To help cover for that, the Fire TV Cube also works like an IR emitter. There are IR blasters built into the box, and it comes with a little IR extender that connects to the back of the device. This gives Alexa a level of control over various TVs, cable boxes, soundbars, receivers, and the like.
Amazon says the Cube will cover “more than 90 percent” of homes with cable or satellite, including boxes from Comcast, Dish, DirecTV, Spectrum (Charter), and Verizon. It won’t work with AV equipment—the company mentions universal remotes, projectors and soundbars paired over Bluetooth as not being controllable, for instance—but IR generally casts a wide net.
With a cable box, for instance, you could tell Alexa to “play CBS on cable” and it will jump from the Fire TV interface to the appropriate channel through your cable input. If you then tell it to “switch to channel 11,” it’ll automatically enter “0-1-1” and change channels like a ghost that got hold of your remote. Gupta said Amazon will ask for your zip code and what cable box you’re using during setup to read your local listings. Alexa still won’t be able to handle some trickier commands—scheduling DVR recordings, for example—so the Cube won’t totally replace your existing remotes. But for essential stuff like changing inputs, channels, and volume, it gives another option.
Amazon says all of this can be used for multistep commands. Gupta gave the example of using a phrase like “I’m home” to activate a TV through CEC, start up and adjust the volume of a soundbar through IR, and turn on Philips Hue lights through their Alexa skill. You enter what kind of TV you have and how you’re outputting audio during setup, and Gupta says the company uses “cloud-based protocols” to recognize the right way to execute certain commands, be it through CEC, IR, or an Alexa skill.
If you don’t bother with the CEC and IR tricks, the Fire TV Cube is similar to the Fire TV dongle Amazon released last year. The device still runs in 60Hz 4K and supports HDR10 and Dolby Atmos with compatible content. It still does not support Dolby Vision HDR. The back of the box has ports for HDMI, the IR dongle, microUSB, and power; there’s still no Ethernet jack, but there is an Ethernet adapter in the box this time around. There’s no microSD slot. The included remote hasn’t changed, which means it still lacks dedicated volume buttons. Alexa can make up for that to an extent here, but if you don’t want to use voice commands, you’ll still need to keep a second remote handy.
Gupta said the Cube has similar internal specs to last year’s Fire TV, with the same 1.5GHz ARM processor, 2GB of RAM, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and so on. There’s now 16GB of storage instead of 8GB, though. Gupta said the company has done more “optimizations and tuning” ensure the added speaker functionality doesn’t get in the way of standard streamer performance, but on a base level this is still a less powerful streamer than some older-generation Fire TVs. We’ll have to test the device before making any final judgments, though.
The Cube runs on Amazon’s usual Fire TV interface, so however you’ve felt about that before is likely how you’ll feel about it here. Personally, I’ve always found it a bit messy: it still shows ads, it still presents duplicate app shortcuts at times, it can still involve a good amount of scrolling, and it still tends to prioritize Amazon’s own content across the UI. I’ve seen it fumble non-simplistic searches, and it traditionally hasn’t had the amount of HDR- and/or Atmos-compatible content as other streaming hardware, though that is slowly but surely improving in apps like Netflix and Prime Video.
That said, Amazon does include results from third-party services like Hulu, Netflix, and HBO in search now, and Gupta said those services and others like PlayStation Vue now have dedicated rows of content recommendations on the home screen. If you use a live TV streaming service like Vue or Hulu, you can use Alexa to jump to specific channels within those apps, much like how it can work with a cable over IR. Gupta said Sling TV and DirecTV Now will support these kind of voice commands as well.
One service that won’t, though, is YouTube TV. Google and Amazon don’t seem any closer to a truce in their feud, so there will still be no official Google apps on the Fire TV Cube. Nevertheless, you can use Alexa to pull up videos from the service—it’ll just open YouTube’s Web player in the Firefox browser. It’s a workaround, to be sure, but asking the device to “find cat videos on YouTube” did just that in my demo.
Beyond that, you can still use Alexa to open apps, pause and control playback, search for specific shows, and do all the other video-centric tasks it has done in the past. Because Amazon wants to push Alexa as a remote control here, it gives each row of the UI a number. So if you want Alexa to open a row Netflix-recommended shows, and that row is listed as number six, you’d say “Alexa, select six.” It’d then expand that into a full-screen view, from where you can start watching a show from the list in front of you.
Here’s where I make the requisite note about Alexa and user privacy. In short, there’s nothing here that seems likely to change anyone’s current feelings. If you weren’t comfortable with an always-listening speaker in your home before, having one that also knows what cable TV you like won’t change that. For what it’s worth, you’re still able to mute the Cube’s mics and delete past recordings, and Gupta gave Amazon’s usual stance on the matter, saying that the company collects data to improve how well Alexa works.
Much of what Amazon is advertising here is an amalgamation of things it has quietly built into Alexa over the past several months. My first impression is that the Cube will appeal more to people who have never owned an Echo or Fire TV but want a place to jump in. The living room is a relatively natural place for voice assistant, and if you have the right AV gear, being able to control a soundbar, a cable box, and smart TV apps through one device sounds handy.
Still, Amazon is trying to juggle multiple types of tech through one assistant, so it’s hard to say how smoothly everything will work until we sit down with the device further. And if you already have a Fire TV and Echo speaker, there isn’t much incentive to upgrade here when those two devices can replicate many of these tricks already. Nevertheless, we’ll test the Fire TV Cube and try to figure out its place in the coming weeks.