In a market inundated with accomplished streaming video players from the likes of Roku and Google, Amazon has found a way to stand out by integrating its ever-improving voice assistant, Alexa, with its Fire TV platform.
The result is an intrepid experiment in the future of home entertainment, one in which voice can – and rightly should – replace the remote.
The Amazon Fire TV Cube is best described as a blueprint for the future, one that can look fully realized – or half-built – depending on what services and features you use on a daily basis. If your video streaming needs begin and end with Amazon’s video service, there is likely no better device on the planet right now ... however, if you’re planning to watch videos on services like YouTube, YouTube TV and iTunes – or, if you want a streaming player with all of the most cutting-edge AV technologies – you’ll have to look somewhere else.
None of that on its own is a damning criticism against the Fire TV Cube. As a streaming video player, it offers a fairly robust set of features and its brawny hardware allows for 4K HDR streaming, even if it lacks the support for high-end video formats like Dolby Vision.
In the end, it’s not the hardware or the feature set that limits the Amazon Fire TV Cube – it’s Alexa that time-and-time again proved to be the biggest help, and the biggest fault, of Amazon’s big venture into voice-controlled video territory.
Release date and price
The Amazon Fire TV Cube is available in the US starting on June 21 2018 for a price of $119.99 (around £90, AU$160). Amazon hasn't said when – or even if – it will bring the Fire TV Cube to another territory outside of North America, but we'll certainly revisit this section when Amazon makes that announcement.
Before we push on, we should state two clear caveats to this review.
The first is that, while much of this review will focus on the usage of Alexa and how it compares to the traditional experience of using a remote control, it’s worth noting right up at the top that the Fire TV Cube does, in fact, come with a remote.
That means no matter how frustrated you are with Alexa and its ability to help you navigate the confines of the Fire TV OS, at any time you can simply pick up the remote and use the navigation buttons to get you where you want to go.
The second is that Alexa, while being the marquee feature of the Fire TV Cube is available on almost every current model of the Fire TV and Fire TV Stick via the voice remote – both of which are available for less than the slightly expensive Fire TV Cube.
Those two key points are easy to brush over in the race to evaluate Amazon’s voice-first technology. Reviewers are keen to berate, praise and critique the Fire TV Cube, but realizing that its marquee feature is found elsewhere for less and that a remote can – and will – often be a more pragmatic option over using voice commands help put the player in perspective.
Of course, that said, simply having the option to shout voice commands at a small, box-shaped player without a remote in hand is the unique selling point of the Amazon Fire TV Cube, and with its eight far-field microphones, the Fire TV Cube is incredibly good at picking up what you’re putting down – as good or perhaps even better than the Amazon Echo Show or Amazon Echo are at the task.
To indicate that Alexa is listening, the Fire TV Cube has a glowing blue LED that sits along the top edge of the device, above which you’ll find four control buttons for muting, raising and lowering the volume and paging Alexa. The sides are covered with a reflective, black plastic that can smudge easily if you’re too handsy while placing the system near your TV.
Speaking of placement, you’ll need to be rather judicious when integrating the Fire TV Cube into your home theater setup – it can’t be too close to your speakers lest they overwhelm the built-in microphones, but still needs to be within line of sight for your soundbar, AVR and TV, as it will need to control those via a multi-directional infrared blaster and HDMI CEC.
While that may sound like a trying process, it can be done relatively quickly and once you’re through it, you’ll have a competent control center for your home entertainment setup. Alexa, through its technological wizardry, can change the input of your TV, raise or lower the volume of your soundbar and change the channel on your set-top box using only voice commands, and while the result isn’t revolutionary, it helps make the Fire TV Cube a comprehensive package and one we found ourselves enjoying – even when Alexa, inevitably, let us down.
Once you’re setup it’s time to browse the streaming player’s pool of content – which, thankfully, is a fairly deep aquifer: You’ll find Netflix, HBO, Starz, Hulu, PlayStation Vue and Crackle, alongside smaller services like The CW, NFL Network, AMC and more, with new services added regularly.
The notable exception here, and the one that feels the most egregious omission, is YouTube – a mainstay on nearly every other streaming device.
If you’ve been following the tech news cycle, you’ll know it’s because Amazon and Google had a brief falling out recently with one of the consequences being Google pulling YouTube from all Amazon devices. There are, of course third-party ways to get on YouTube, but without native support you’ll be hard-pressed to find an app that supports the service in 4K.
YouTube’s absence is felt – as is iTunes’ – but they aren’t absolutely essential to the Fire TV Cube’s functionality ... that spot is reserved for Amazon’s own platform Amazon Prime Video. It’s something you’ll run into time and time again, and while Amazon has taken serious steps to highlight content from its other partners, you can’t escape the cloying feeling that Amazon Fire TV Cube is just another way to sell Prime subscriptions.
If you’re a Prime subscriber already, that won’t particularly bother you. You’ll find few areas that you can’t access and few shows and movies on the various home screens that you can’t watch. If you aren’t, however, the Amazon Fire TV Cube might not be the best fit and you should instead turn to Roku for a more service-agnostic streaming box.
Lastly, it’s worth noting that Amazon Fire TV Cube has the ability to play some light games as well. The games are usually akin to what you’d find on the App Store or Google Play Store (which makes sense as Fire TV OS is a variation of Android), but Amazon’s offerings are smaller in number and lesser in quality to what you’d find on, say, the Apple TV 4K or Nvidia Shield, both of which offer high-quality (but still ephemeral) games.
As far as performance goes, the Fire TV Cube is a pretty tough competitor, capable of playing back 4K Ultra HD content at 60 fps with HDR10 support and Dolby Atmos for audiophiles looking to immerse themselves in a movie or TV show’s soundtrack.
All these technologies work in tandem with the Fire TV Cube’s Quad core ARM Cortex-A53 1.5GHz CPU, Mali-450 MP3 GPU and Amlogic S905Z SoC to produce stunning visuals and fast load times throughout the OS. Going from a show on Netflix, back to the home screen and into a movie on Amazon takes a matter of seconds on a 15Mbps or higher Wi-Fi connection, with basically zero pop-in issues along the way.
Pop on a 4K HDR show like All or Nothing: Manchester City or The Grand Tour, and you’ll be treated to a visual showcase of what the Fire TV Cube can do: The opening trailer for The Grand Tour shimmers as scenic vistas and million-dollar cars race past the screen, while the cerulean blue of Manchester City’s jerseys radiate ravishing color tones.
Editor’s note: Soon, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan will offer another 4K HDR option with Dolby Atmos – a first for Amazon Prime Video. When it arrives, Amazon will have finally caught up to Netflix with the Fire TV Cube as the flagship device to watch Prime Video content.
Of course, finding 4K HDR content isn’t always easy. So, should you find yourself watching HD/SDR videos, the Fire TV Cube does a good job working with your 4K TV to upscale them for the higher resolution, often causing them to look just as good as if they were in native 4K.
On several occasions we were convinced what we were watching was actually 4K HDR when in fact it was just regular upscaled HD. This happened while watching a All or Nothing: All Blacks, which stunned us with its highly accurate colors and expanded contrast.
Of course, all of this praise comes with two huge caveats. The first is that, because the Ultra is a 4K HDR streaming device, you actually need to own and use a 4K HDR TV. This sounds silly and yet there will be a number of people who buy an Ultra expecting 4K HDR performance on a 1080p TV. Trust us, it happens.
The second is that you’re going to need that 15Mbps or higher connection to watch videos in 4K HDR. You might be able to scrape by with a little less than that, but if the Fire TV Cube detects a much slower connection speed, it won’t feed you 4K content.
No matter what setup you have, you won’t be able to get Dolby Vision from the Amazon Fire TV Cube – a huge disadvantage compared to the Apple TV 4K which offers both Atmos and Vision in one package. Vision, remember, offers a slightly better version of High Dynamic Range that supports brighter TVs and masters content on a scene-by-scene basis rather than using a set range for the entire film or show.
Let it be said that no one needs Dolby Vision and content here will look nearly as good without it but, would it have helped? Certainly. On a system that does so much else right, however, it’s hard to hold one minor omission against it.
Alexa as a smart assistant
Just as important as solid video reproduction skills is the Amazon Fire TV Cube’s ability to host Alexa – Amazon’s smart assistant. We’ve seen Alexa on a half-dozen platforms in the past (often only in audio form) but none of its prior iterations have shined as brightly as the Fire TV Cube, which offers the perfect homestead for the smart assistant.
We call it “perfect” because a big-screen TV gives visual cues in addition to the audio you’ll hear on other platforms – a crucial component once you’ve experienced it.
Having a screen means you’ll be able to see products before you buy them if you use your Amazon devices for shopping; seeing the lyrics for any song you play on Prime Music and showing you all of your options when you search for shows and movies on Prime Video.
More than simple convenience, having a video component opens a plethora of new skills. If you have a compatible smart camera, you can use the Amazon Fire TV Cube to show you a live video stream of what your camera is seeing. If you want restaurant recommendations or movie times, those too will pop up on the screen, alongside their ratings and distance from your home. Alexa could certainly do all of this via voice, but having a screen to display visual information radically improves the usability of the system.
Unfortunately, however, Alexa is still in development and its interpretation and navigational skills are sometimes … well, lacking.
One example of that happens when you go to watch Netflix. You can absolutely ask Alexa to open the Netflix app but, if you have multiple accounts setup, you won’t be able to use your voice to select your particular account and will need to locate your remote.
Something similarly irksome happens when the Fire TV Cube goes into sleep mode: If you pause video for a few minutes, the Fire TV Cube will stop all video that’s on-screen and turn on a screensaver. When you return, you can’t ask Alexa to “resume” or “resume what I was playing” and must go back and locate that content. That’s easier said than done for shows like, say, Stranger Things, but far more difficult if you’re watching a show with a long title.
Making matters worse, Alexa, for all its advancements in the last few years, still requires precise language to operate. To start an episode from the beginning, you can’t “Alexa, start this episode over” and must always say “Alexa, start over” to get the result you want. It’s that way for fast-forwarding or rewinding or playback controls of any sort – you either need to say it in Alexa-speak or pick up your remote and do it yourself.
All of this happens on top of Alexa’s usual misinterpretations and foibles. Asking questions outside of basic trivia can still often lead to the feared response of “I don’t know how to help with that yet” and sometimes even total non-responses to inquiries.
It’s not that Amazon’s competitors – Google Assistant and Siri – don’t have these problems, they do, but they feel more pronounced here than on any other platform.
The Fire TV Cube is, by far, our favorite Amazon streaming device – better in so many ways than the Amazon Fire TV dongle that was released in 2017. That is largely due to the fact that the Fire TV Cube not only offers hands-free controls for video playback, but can also do all the heavy lifting of controlling your home entertainment setup. Add to that the simple-but-brilliant visual cues Amazon has added for Alexa’s basic skill set and you have a very strong contender for the best streaming video player.
Where the Amazon Fire TV Cube goes awry is with its lack of the latest streaming technologies – yes it has Dolby Atmos, but you won’t find Dolby Vision as part of the package. Alexa, for all of its strengths still fails at the most crucial of moments, requiring you to revert back to the remote the minute you feel comfortable with an all-voice controlled future.
If you can look past the minor foibles, the Amazon Fire TV Cube is a smart, visually adept streaming video player, one that could one day replace the remote … and the Roku, too. Until that day comes, however, you might just want to keep both.
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