At the beginning of the month, Amazon announced the new $119 Fire TV Cube, a hybrid Echo device and streaming media player that promises a glimpse into the future of content consumption. As set-top boxes from Apple, Roku and now Amazon have grown in popularity over the last few years, two key issues have repeatedly popped up for viewers. How to best manage an overflowing chest of content and the headache that comes with multiple remotes.
Fire TV Cube looks to cure that with an all-in-one solution centered around its Alexa voice platform. In our hands-on testing, it delivered as a means for sorting through content but fell short as an intuitive hub for home theaters. The potential is there, but don’t count on it changing the game just yet.
I’m not sure what I was necessarily expecting, but Fire TV Cube is smaller than I imagined. It’s also glossy black and really doesn’t standout in any way when paired with a traditional home theater setup. In typical Echo fashion, a blue light communicates when Alexa is active on top along with a selection of action buttons that you’d find on the smaller Dot speaker.
Instead of focusing on setting up the product itself, I was immediately distracted by Amazon’s curious selection of accessories. The inclusion of a Fire TV remote, batteries (win!) and a power supply are welcome.
After digging to the bottom of the box, I realized that Amazon had made a bizarre decision. Fire TV Cube ships with an ethernet adapter and not a HDMI cable. In our increasingly wireless world, I can guarantee you that most folks would prefer that Jeff Bezos include the basics, like said HDMI cable, rather than an adapter that few are likely to use.
The unit itself features a full microphone array that we’ve seen on previous Echo releases. One HDMI output, microUSB port and an IR extender can be found on the backside. Inside is a 1.5GHZ quad-core processor that can handle HDR, 4K and Dolby Atmos content. In that regard, the Fire TV Cube checks all the boxes.
While Amazon positions Fire TV Cube as a voice-focused device, set up leans heavily on the bundled remote. Amazon pairs your new set-top box with your account automatically, asking questions along the way like would you prefer to store your Wi-Fi password in the cloud. While the former is helpful, the latter cannot be recommended.
From there, Amazon offers up a smorgasbord of streaming services to install on your home screen. I can’t say that I loved what recommendations popped up, as The CW, UFC and Starz channels aren’t of particular interest to me.
After going through the usual song and dance of signing into all of my services, something that I now appreciate more with Apple TV single sign-on, it was time to set up my hardware. Given that Fire TV Cube is positioned as a universal remote of sorts, I was surprised to see that the home theater manager is buried in the settings. One would think that adding my Xbox or DirecTV box would be a logical piece to the initial set up puzzle.
It was at this particular moment that I first realized Amazon still had work to do if it wants to be the hub of my entertainment center. Entering the universal remote control game means you’ll naturally be stacked up against the best, which in this instance in Logitech. The Harmony lineup of remotes has long carried the crown of as the best way to simplify any setup.
When compared to Fire TV Cube strictly in this regard, Logitech dominates in every aspect. This is particularly true when setting up equipment, with my Nintendo Switch left to “game console” status instead of being called by name (frustrating for a voice-focused device). After my Xbox One, the software had to generically name the rest of my devices. Meanwhile, Logitech supports over 250,000 devices. To its credit, Fire TV Cube did automatically detect my VIZIO display and was able to control it without any additional work on my part.
In theory, having complete voice control over your home theater feels like the way of the future. Siri and Apple TV have dabbled lightly in this area when it comes to surfacing content, and eliminating the need to dig through various services to find that episode of Seinfeld. But while voice control sounds like a fun venture, it is decidedly not after evenings of calling out to Alexa.
After a while, I found that I was more comfortable using the included remote than my voice. It was both faster and more accurate in my experience. And just like that, Fire TV Cube’s #1 feature was nullified.
To be clear, it’s not that Alexa wasn’t useful for basic functions. If I asked for a certain show or movie, it did a fine job of finding that requested content. But trying to go to the next level with true home theater control left me frustrated and confused.
When calling up my Xbox (don’t say Xbox One X, it doesn’t work), my console input would often switch but the console would stay powered off. Now, I have to turn on my gaming controller anyways, so that’s largely a moot point, but I couldn’t help feeling like it was 2008 rather than 2028. The voice features in this regard largely felt like a throwaway feature than the center-piece that Amazon promised.
There’s two things to be clear about with this review. First, Amazon is taking an aggressive initial step towards a voice-controlled home theater. Something that even the biggest industry giants haven’t solved. So Amazon deserves kudos in that regard.
Secondly, I’m admittedly a huge Apple TV fan. I’m engrained in Apple’s ecosystem across nearly every device in my home. I prefer the tvOS interface and how my digital library is organized. Using Fire TV Cube felt like an unintuitive experience at times, even for someone who works in technology journalism. In that regard, it’s difficult to give the green light on this type of product. I can just imagine the calls from family members as Alexa set their input to the wrong device, causing a whole different set of problems.
Amazon is worthy of praise for undertaking this type of project with the ambition of replacing your basket of remotes. But it’s just not ready for prime time yet in that regard. Fire TV Cube is a worthy set-top box with a myriad of streaming services available and if you’re heavy into the Amazon ecosystem, it may be worth your $119. Let’s hope it continues to evolve and show more polish as Alexa grows in the coming years.