Amazon’s new Fire TV Cube comes with a pretty radical premise: By integrating Alexa and far-field microphones directly into the streaming device, Amazon promises that you’ll be able to interact with your TV with simple voice commands. However, a brief test showed that you shouldn’t throw out your remote control just yet.
First, the basics: Amazon officially announced the Fire TV Cube earlier this month, and began selling it Thursday for $119.99. For that price, consumers get a full-fledged Fire TV streaming device capable of playing 4K HDR content with 16 GB of on-board storage for apps. Also included in the box are a Fire TV remote control, an IR extender and an Ethernet adapter.
Speaking of IR: The Fire TV Cube also doubles as a kind of universal remote control, thanks to an integrated IR blaster capable of controlling TVs, soundbars and other home entertainment equipment. Amazon ships the device with an IR extender to help with more complicated setups, and the device also makes use of HDMI CEC to control compatible TVs.
Alexa, go home: The home screen of the Fire TV Cube.
Finally, the Fire TV Cube packs 8 far-field microphones capable of picking up voice commands from across the room. Just like the company’s Echo speakers, it has a colorful LED ring to indicate when it is listening, and it uses Amazon’s Alexa smart assistant to understand and answer your voice commands.
The combination of IR / CEC and voice commands makes it possible to control devices without ever picking up a remote — at least that’s the theory. In our test, using an older Philips TV set, the device had no troubles turning the TV on and off. However, despite doing it once during the setup process, the Cube was never again able to change the inputs of the TV, which meant that you may still have to keep your TV’s remote around to switch from the Fire TV to a game console or similar devices.
Alexa was also a bit of a mixed bag as a TV companion. The smart assistant works best when you exactly know what you want, and is capable of effortlessly launch playback of movies and TV shows on Amazon Prime Video, Netflix or other supported apps when asked to do so. Basic playback controls – pause – play, mute etc. — also worked like a charm, with the sole exception that Netflix’s app doesn’t offer fast forwarding functionality via voice commands yet.
Alexa, show dramas: Navigating TV shows with voice commands with the Fie TV Cube.
Much of this has also been available for some time for anyone who pairs their existing Echo with a Fire TV stick, or one of Amazon’s other Fire TV devices. What sets the Echo Cube apart from those homegrown solutions is its ability to pair voice commands with on-screen feedback. A query like “Alexa, show dramas” does just that, displaying six choices at a time. Users can then either pick one by number, or ask Alexa to show more, after which it scrolls to reveal another 6.
This type of discovery looks good the first time you use it, but quickly grows old. Picking up the remote to scroll through search results is just so much faster. What’s more, diving deep into the results often leads to frustrating shouting matches. Not only did the Fire TV Cube once display a show called “Episodes” when asked to list the episodes of a previously selected show, it was also virtually impossible to tell Alexa to switch to a different seasons of a show.
However, the single most frustrating aspect of using voice control with the Fire TV Cube is that Alexa simply doesn’t seem to know what’s happening on the screen at any given time. It seems very natural to just read the label of an on-screen button, like “more ways to watch,” and expect Alexa to select that very menu item. But that’s not how the smart assistant works. Instead, it expects you to use a subset of voice commands that often don’t match what’s happening on screen — leading to a kind of cognitive disconnect that get tired quickly.
Alexa, what’s the weather like: Weather reports look great on the Fire TV Cube.
A lot of the classic Alexa functionality on the other hand works very well with the Cube, including reminders, alarms, translation, flash briefings, podcasts, weather and more. Some of them have some basic on-screen displays, which can include cover art and titles for podcasts. Others, including the weather, actually deliver more useful information. Video flash briefings, which some publishers began to produce after Amazon released the Echo Show last year, also obviously work well to the TV screen.
The Cube does have an integrated speaker, and it’s pretty smart about making use of it: You can interact with the device, and for instance ask it to set reminders or answer basic knowledge questions, without ever turning on the TV. Alexa also switches back and forth between talking to you via this internal speaker and the TV speaker whenever it assumes that the TV could be on mute, or otherwise not work — for instance when it is switching inputs.
But more often than not, the fact shines through that you are speaking to an assistant that was originally developed for an audio-only device. “Alexa, play the Daily Show” doesn’t jump to the latest episode of the show in Comedy Central’s app, or even a basic show page within Fire TV’s universal search, but instead opens an Alexa skill that plays an audio news briefing produced by the staff of the Daily Show.
Recipe requests, which the Echo Show displays visually, were only answered with audio feedback. Frequently, Alexa also misinterpreted show requests or other voice commands as band names, and started to play random music from the Amazon Music catalog.
Some of the Cube’s shortcomings are out of Amazon’s immediate control. For instance, some publishers haven’t optimized the apps for voice control yet. And then there is YouTube, a sore spot for Amazon: The company has been in a protracted fight with Google over the use of its video service, which has resulted in Google blocking Amazon’s access to YouTube
Amazon has been able to reinstate YouTube on the device with the help of its Silk browser as well as Mozilla’s Firefox, but there is no way to control YouTube on either browser with voice commands, safe for some very basic playback controls.
The good news for Amazon is that much of the Cube’s shortfalls can be corrected with software updates. The Cube will get progressively more useful as more apps add voice control, and as more skills with video feedback find their way onto the TV. However, it’s unlikely that voice commands will ever replace the effectiveness of a simple remote with a D-Pad when it comes to navigating through lists of search results.
In other words: Hold on to your remotes. You may use them less if you get a Fire TV Cube, but you’ll still need them.