Wednesday, 20 June 2018
News Tech

Amazon’s Fire TV Cube is an Echo, streaming box, and universal remote in one


Combining an Echo speaker and the Fire TV into a single gadget seems like a very obvious, inevitable move for Amazon to make. Today, that unification is happening, and the end result is the $120 Fire TV Cube. Preorders begin now and Prime members can buy it for only $89.99 if they order on either June 7th or 8th. For now, the Cube is only available to US customers.

It pairs Alexa’s assistant smarts and hands-free voice commands together with Amazon’s popular 4K streaming device. But the Fire TV Cube is designed to be much more than a set-top box that can also tell you the weather or control your smart home accessories. The third key aspect of this product — and the most surprising one — is that it’s also a universal remote.


From the top, it looks more like an Echo than a Fire TV.

All four sides of the “cube” house IR blasters that allow the device to communicate with and control everything in the average person’s TV setup, from cable boxes to soundbars to A/V receivers. The Fire TV Cube also controls the television itself over HDMI-CEC, so it can automatically power on the screen whenever one of your Alexa voice requests warrants it. If you ask for the weather, the Cube will answer using its own built-in speaker. But if you say “Alexa, play Wild Wild Country,” and the TV will turn on and Netflix will pull up the show.


Amazon

A few companies like Dish and Tivo already support Alexa to some extent, but integrating IR and making it such a central piece of the Fire TV Cube is an admission that adoption isn’t happening fast enough for this device to meet its potential for convenience and wide home theater compatibility. Alexa alone isn’t enough. So, IR blasters it is. In the box, you even get a separate IR extender, which you can run down into a cabinet if there are components that the Cube’s own multi-directional signal can’t quite reach.


The Fire TV Cube ships with an IR extender that allows it to control devices in a cabinet.

But don’t expect home theater bliss on day one. Amazon is starting out with what I’d consider a realistic level of ambition, and the Cube isn’t ready to replace a Logitech Harmony remote yet. Nor is it as sophisticated and forward-looking as something like the Caavo. IR blasters have limitations and can sometimes get tripped up, but they allow the Cube to do some genuinely useful things already; Alexa can control the volume for your TV or soundbar even when you’re viewing content on a completely different HDMI input. It can change between those inputs on command.

And it seems to work surprisingly well with (some) cable boxes. Amazon showed me the Cube changing to a particular channel on a Spectrum box with a simple, natural “Alexa, tune to ESPN” command. It can similarly control set-top boxes for Comcast, DirecTV, and Dish. Saying “Alexa, go home” will always switch you back to the Fire TV Cube’s own HDMI input and home screen. Amazon isn’t yet letting the Cube control things like game consoles or Blu-ray players, but says that it will get more powerful with time and software updates. There’s a quick setup process for components you’ll be controlling over IR, which is how the Fire TV Cube learns which cable channels are which, etc. Amazon has more details on what’s compatible and what’s not on this site.

Unfortunately, you have to use voice for things like volume control since the bundled Fire TV remote remains unchanged and doesn’t have volume buttons. They really would’ve come in handy this time. There’s still a voice button and integrated mic for situations where you need to speak to Alexa quietly.


There’s no ethernet jack, but Amazon includes an ethernet adapter in the box if your Wi-Fi isn’t the best.

Aside from its IR tricks, the Fire TV Cube is basically a hybrid Echo Dot and Fire TV. It has the easy-to-use interface shared by Amazon’s other streaming devices, but refined in certain places for voice control. The far-field mic array is also different than on a regular Echo. Instead of being oriented in a 360-degree pattern, all eight of the Cube’s mics are linear and meant to pick up people in front of the device. Sandeep Gupta, Amazon’s VP of smart TV and home products, told me that the mic array was designed to recognize the “Alexa” hot word even over audio coming from a TV or soundbar beside it.

The Fire TV Cube supports HDR10 and Dolby Atmos sound, but lacks Dolby Vision playback. The Apple TV 4K is the only set-top box that will do all of the above once the next version of tvOS ships. And unfortunately, Amazon and Google still haven’t worked out their issues, so a native YouTube app remains MIA. You can still load it in a browser like Firefox, and that workaround does the job.


I’m not a fan of the glossy exterior, but Amazon says it helps with IR performance.

On the Echo side, you can run through the usual gamut of Alexa commands and it works just as you’d expect. You can also integrate the Cube into routines, so something like “Alexa, goodnight” can power off your entire TV rig along with your lights and other Alexa-compatible devices. Gupta explained to me that the Fire TV Cube has a “TV bias,” so it won’t hesitate to turn on your display whenever it thinks you’ll get the best answer from Alexa there. If you ask for music, the Cube will know enough to play it out of your soundbar instead of its own dinky speaker.

The Fire TV Cube sounds very promising, but everything hinges on how it performs outside the Amazon demos I saw — and those weren’t without hiccups. I think it’ll do fine at controlling your TV and streaming content or answering Alexa queries. And the $120 price is rather aggressive. But it’s got the right hardware inside to do and become much more.



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