FOX11, Los Angeles - It’s been known for some time now that Amazon would eventually combine the hardware and smarts of its Echo and Alexa voice assistant with the media functionality of the Fire TV, so it came as little surprise when Amazon announced the Fire TV Cube. Does it deliver on the best of both worlds, and is it a worthwhile addition to your living room? Depends on what you already have in your home, but for most people I think the answer is an easy “yes.”
What you get with Amazon’s Echo is a speaker with decent audio reproduction, sleek hardware and great ease of use. It quickly became a hot ticket item because of that, but it was much more. Alexa connected with the world of answers and information on the interwebz, and allowed you to control your lights, thermostats and other home automation products with your voice. Then came Fire TV, which brought Amazon Prime video, Hulu, Netflix and more into your living room - or wherever you view “tv.” You could already pair both devices and get much of the functionality the Fire TV Cube gives you, so why buy?
Fire TV Cube is unique from the Echo and Fire TV 4K in that, much like the Echo brought along with it the possibility of controlling more than just your music, with the Cube you’ll also be in voice control of your cable box, soundbar, blu-ray player and some other equipment options. So, what do you get with the hardware side of the Fire TV Cube? The top of the Cube is adorned with an array of far-field microphones; eight to be exact. Also along the top of the device, you’ll find volume up/down buttons, as well as a microphone mute and power button. The bottom of the device is outfitted with a down-firing speaker, while the rear is where you’ll find the ports for power, IR extender, ethernet, and HDMI. The front face of the Cube, along the top, you’ll find an LED light which gives off that familiar Night Rider light sweep when Alexa is “thinking” or otherwise responding to your commands.
Unlike the Echo, the Cube is not meant to play music, so the speaker doesn’t get quite as loud or full but is more comparable to the the Echo Dot. That’s quite alright, because the whole point is to play sound through your TV, stereo, or soundbar connected to your TV.
The experience using the Cube is what us Star Trek fans have been waiting for since the first time we saw a ship’s captain interface with the ship’s computer via voice. With the Fire TV Cube, the simple stuff is covered. You can power your TV - and other devices - on and off, as well as control the volume. Getting us nearer to the Trek, you can query Fire TV Cube, telling it “Alexa, watch 13th.” If you don’t know which documentary you want to watch, it can show you what’s on tap by asking, “Alexa, show me documentaries.”
And, I have to say that when it comes to dealing with commands while there are other sounds which may hinder your exchange with Alexa, this device has the others beat. When you query Alexa, while the TV is playing, it automatically mutes your TV so that it can hear you. Those 8 microphones work so well, Alexa hears your initial wake command but to be sure she gets it right, that wake command is followed by the mute action. I found this to work consistently during daily use.
If you aren’t all about that streaming life and still rely on a cable or satellite box, I had no problem - well, almost no problem - connecting the Cube to my Spectrum cable box. The only problem I did encounter was the programming guide. Currently, Amazon only recognizes the Spectrum lineup from two providers in my region and not the one I subscribe to, so the channel listing is not complete. In order to tune to the channels, I have to know the exact channels number because asking Alexa to turn to HBO, takes me elsewhere. Network channels are fine. To make it easy to connect to the broadest set of equipment possible, Amazon also includes an IR blaster in the package. When you’re finished watching cable and want to hop over to season two of Luke Cage, you can just say, “Alexa, watch Luke Cage on Netflix.” Or, you can say, “Alexa, switch to Xbox” if it’s gaming you’re hankering for. Or, you can simply say, “Alexa, switch to HDMI 4.” Yes, you can now control your TV's inputs via voice.
If Luke Cage isn’t your show, but Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is, the Fire TV Cube is your friend. Being a Prime member you’ll be happy to know that the Cube has a dedicated row of 4K HDR content on Prime but will also give you a display of the latest originals. That’ll make it easier to find and watch Jack Ryan.
The only downside to the streaming experience on the Fire TV Cube is that if you’re a YouTube fan, you’re out of luck. Well, out of luck for a high quality experience, anyway. An ongoing feud between tech giants Amazon and Google is keeping an official YouTube app from being available to Fire TV Cube users, leaving access through the browser as your only option.
So, should you buy the Fire TV Cube? Yes, maybe. If you’re looking to add another Dot or Echo somewhere in your home and you already have one in the living room, I’d move the one in the living room elsewhere and purchase the Cube to replace it. Maybe you were just looking to expand the reach of Alexa around your home? Get this. I’m a fan of having a box that is seperate from the TV because if any of those “smart tv” internals quit on you, you now have a “dumb tv” or an expensive repair, unless you purchased that extended warranty. On the other hand, it’s a lot easier to replace a faulty stand-alone streaming box, both from a financial and warranty perspective.
Disclosure: Amazon provided me with a demo unit for the purpose of this review.