Update: We expect the Fire TV Cube to be on sale during Amazon Prime Day. It dropped to $69.99 on Black Friday, so expect similar pricing on Prime Day 2019.
We all lose the remote from time to time, but the Amazon Fire TV Cube ($120) is here to tell us this is OK. Heck, it's practically encouraged. This set-top box allows you to control your TV, cable box and other audio equipment, just by talking to Alexa. And it does this so well that I'm ready to say the Fire TV Cube is one of the best streaming devices.
The Fire TV Cube also packs a ton of Alexa skills and tricks you may have seen in Amazon's other devices, and improves on them for the biggest screen in your home.
All the Cube is missing is the ability to edit your home-screen layout, as you YouTube's finally landing on the Fire TV platform soon (details below). Still, this tiny box is one pretty package, and it offers a compelling view of the future of TV.
Design: Simple and cute
The Amazon Fire TV Cube is a cute little box with a light-up bar on its top that glows blue when Alexa's activated (or orange if there's a technical difficulty). Amazon's signature Alexa buttons for volume, muting and triggering sit on its matte top half, which contrasts nicely with its glossy front.
And yes: your eyes are not deceiving you — the Fire TV Cube measures 3.4 x 3.4 x 3.0 inches — meaning it's height is shorter than its width and depth. So it's not a cube, but I guess Fire TV Box didn't sound as nice. The Apple TV 4K (3.9 x 3.9 x 1.4 inches) and Roku Ultra (4.9 x 4.9 x 0.9 inches) are shorter but wider.
On the back, you'll find ports for power, HDMI, micro USB and IR blaster. The included micro-USB-to-Ethernet adapter is crucial for those with 4K TVs, as some need a wired connection for the speeds required for UHD/4K content.
Amazon has included an IR blaster, though, so the Fire TV Cube can connect with a cable box, enabling Alexa to control that device.
Amazon also includes a physical remote, for those times when talking to Alexa isn't ideal. The remote feels solid, and I admit that I prefer its click-based navigation over using the touchpad-like surface in the Siri remote Apple bundles with the Apple TV.
Interface: Content and live TV up front
Amazon designed the Fire TV Cube to be a content-first system, with the intention being that consumers think about the shows and movies they want, and not the services that provide them. Browsing its home screen, which presents big tiles that represent select programming, apps and other content, I tend to agree with this strategy. It educes the number of clicks it takes to get to the latest episode of Westworld.
Below a carousel of content that takes up more than a third of the screen, you'll find the Recent section, so you can get back to what you were just watching. As you scroll down, the top of the screen continues to preview what you're looking at, in case you're unaware of what exactly Billy Bob Thornton's up to in Amazon's new Goliath series.
Curious about what's happening on live TV at the moment? The On Now row of the home screen shows you live previews of programming you subscribe to via Amazon Channels.
During my testing this worked like a charm, giving me live footage from the HBO channels, so I could choose to watch a snippet of the Dreamworks feature Megamind (so I could tell it wasn't for me) before I settled on the movie Atomic Blonde. Hopefully, in the future, the On Now row will contain content from other providers, because not everyone owns an OTA antenna or subscribes to Amazon Channels.
Saying "Alexa, show more" changes the home screen to an interface made for voice navigation. That means each row is now numbered, so you can say, "Alexa, select 18," instead of, "Alexa, select Prime Recommended Movies," which is a mouthful. Asking Alexa to scroll up or down will navigate the list of rows. It's all quite clever, and uses a system that Amazon first tested with the Echo Show.
The one missing aspect of the Fire TV Cube's interface is a lack of home-screen organization tools. I want this option, personally, to remove or replace the Prime Baby & Kids row on the home screen, which is wasted on me. Apple TV and Roku both let you edit your home screen to your heart's content. The Fire TV Cube is supposed to learn your preferences over time, so this will probably go away as I use the device more.
A whole row of the home screen is taken up by Sponsored content, an ad for Sesame Street. When a streaming box is $120, the user experience should be devoid of advertisements. The Apple TV 4K has no such ads, whereas Roku places them on the right side of the home screen.
Alexa is my new favorite remote
When you know what you want to watch, you just want to be watching it already. So, when I said, "Alexa, play Luke Cage," and the Fire TV Cube responded by opening Netflix and starting the show at its first episode, I felt a sense of satisfaction.
Even though I've never been a fan of voice-based assistants, I found that Alexa is an exceptional TV navigator. Everything from finding and downloading apps (just say "Alexa, open Netflix," followed by "Alexa, download this app") to controlling them ("Alexa, pause"), feels natural, and most important, replicable.
Not only can it turn on your TV ("Alexa, turn on the TV") but it can also switch between the inputs on the TV. Also, Alexa's TV controls include volume adjustment, so you can just ask it to lower or raise the sound level, or to mute or unmute the TV.
The setup process for matching your TV set and hardware is exceptionally easy, and the assistant can control select TVs, soundbars, A/V receivers and (for those like me, who haven't cut the cord) cable and satellite boxes. It can even switch to my PS4.
When you're navigating the menus, looking for things to watch, Alexa will also take commands for showing a movie's trailer, add and remove it from your Watchlist and show you more ways to watch something. Or, if you're ready to hit play, "Alexa, watch now" does the trick.
Looking to switch back to the Fire TV Cube from one of your other devices? Just say, "Alexa, show me the home screen," and you'll get switched back.
What else can Alexa do?
And since the Fire TV Cube's as much of an Alexa device as it is a streaming box, you can do most of the stuff you'd do on an Echo speaker, such as controlling the lights by your TV. So, when I said, "Alexa, play Beyoncé," the assistant shuffled songs by the impresario, playing them on the TV, presented with lyrics, the same way the Echo Show and Echo Spot work. Alexa sounds OK when it talks from the speaker, but since its sound quality isn't as good as a modern TV's, it's not surprising that music playback from the Fire TV Cube isn't an option.
Flash Briefings also work fantastically, presenting audio and video-news clips. My test unit defaulted to the audio-only NPR briefing, but the Alexa app allowed me to add the Flash Briefing from The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon to my selections, to show the comedian's latest monologue.
You can also learn about your neighborhood with the assistant. Saying "Alexa, show me nearby breakfast restaurants" presented Yelp results with beautiful crisp photos, that had me desperate for a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich. Saying "Alexa, show me the weather" opened an elegantly designed forecast. There's even Kayak integration, so Alexa can show you how much it will cost me to fly to Seattle to visit friends I've been meaning to see.
On May 30, 2019, Amazon added new Alexa interactions to the Fire TV Cube. Now, you can call, send voice messages and perform a Drop-in call through the Cube. Other recent feature additions include multi-room music sync and Follow-Up Mode.
Content and Apps
Practically everything (with two glaring exceptions) is on the Amazon Fire TV Cube, which runs a fork of Android, similar to Amazon's other Fire devices. For streaming services, you've got DirecTV Now, Hulu with Live TV, PlayStation Vue and Sling TV. Select apps, including PS Vue and Netflix, will surface personalized recommendations to your home screen, once you're signed in.
On top of that, you've got apps from all the major players, including Netflix, HBO, Showtime, CBS All Access, NBC, ESPN and Starz. And if you're looking to buy a la carte channels, Amazon's Channels service allows you to subscribe to individual channels.
I used to be frustrated by the lack of a YouTube app, but Amazon and Google announced that YouTube support would be coming to Fire TV in "the coming months." This truce ends a small war that lasted more than a year and forced folks to use Amazon's Silk browser to access YouTube, which was a terrible solution.
Also, this might be expected for those already in the Amazon ecosystem, but the interface pushes Amazon's own content, and pushes it hard. As someone who tries to be platform- agnostic, this felt like I was being pressured into joining a cult.
Of course, you'll also get the same content you'd find on any Fire TV device, including "tens of thousands of channels, apps, and Alexa skills," and more than 500,000 movies and TV episodes.
Search: Good, but could be better
The Fire TV Cube makes it easy to find something to watch. Not only can you ask Alexa to search for a specific movie "Alexa, show me Baby Driver," but it will also present you with every option available, starting with the services you already subscribe to, where your content is free.
The search results menus present you with the number-based selection system, so you don't need to speak a title's whole name to activate it. And if a title isn't in your first six results, "Alexa, show me more" scrolls down to the next results.
Search quality has also improved over previous generations, but it's not entirely there yet. When I asked, "Alexa, show me '90s action movies starring Keanu Reeves," it presented me with action movies featuring the star of the Matrix, but didn't filter out the 2014 shoot-em-up classic John Wick. Apple TV, on the other hand, can handle these complex search phrases. Also, while Amazon indexes some of the top services (Netflix, Hulu, HBO and Showtime), Roku looks through hundreds.
Not sure what you want to watch? Alexa also lets you browse by genre, so you can say, "Alexa, show me comedies," if you need a laugh. Its results, though, are kind of odd, as The Best Of Friends and Friends sit side by side, as do the English and Spanish language versions of the ABC sitcom The Goldbergs.
Performance: Pristine video, very responsive
The Fire TV Cube streams video in picture-perfect 4K resolution with gorgeous HDR color. Testing it out on a variety of programming, I repeatedly found myself with a grin on my face, especially while watching the Grand Prix racing show, an Amazon Prime program.
Not only did the orange of a speeding racer pop as it sped around a track but the detail allowed me to see minute ripples in the pool of water surrounding the McClaren motor vehicles, as well as the small specks of texture on the tires of their cars.
The PlayStation Vue app also streamed high-quality video. I watched a live broadcast of WWE SmackDown, and noticed brilliant blues and inky blacks, as well as an incredibly clear checkerboard pattern in the enigmatic Jeff Hardy's contact lenses.
The Apple TV 4K and Roku Ultra also offer 4K HDR video outfit at similar quality. Episodes of Jessica Jones and the The Man In The High Castle showed up just as vividly and crisply on those devices.
Eight microphones in the Fire TV Cube give it strong listening capabilities, which allow you to command Alexa in a variety of tricky situations. Most important, Alexa can hear you while the TV is playing content, without you needing to shout. This worked well throughout my testing, even as I had the volume raised while watching Portugal play Morocco in a World Cup game, as the commentators screamed at a missed goal.
The system speedily moved as I navigated with Alexa and the remote, and menu responsiveness was especially quick. I'd say the Roku Ultra and Apple TV 4K are just as fast, though the responsive clickiness in the Fire TV Cube's remote provides a better sense of action than Apple's touchpad-swipe-based Siri remote.
Amazon Fire TV Cube vs Fire Stick, Fire TV
Why would a Fire Stick ($40) or Fire TV ($70) owner spend $120 on the Fire TV Cube? The major difference here is that the Alexa in the Cube controls other hardware, while the Alexa in those other devices is capable only of navigating Amazon's own interface. That means your volume can be controlled with your voice, and you can forget about hitting the input button on your remote to switch devices.
Also, the Fire TV Cube gives you far-field voice controls, so you can talk to Alexa even if you're farther away, in a larger living room.
If your audio setup supports Dolby Atmos, and you've only had the Dolby Audio-capable Fire Stick, the Fire TV Cube will provide the upgrade you want to the higher Atmos quality.
And if you're buying the Fire TV Cube for its 4K streaming, you can save $70 with the new Fire TV Stick 4K (currently $49). We love its speedy navigation and excellent 4K picture quality, though its power adapter is a bit annoying, especially when the Roku Streaming Stick+ doesn't need one.
Amazon Fire TV Cube vs the Competition
The Fire TV Cube and the Roku Ultra ($100) and Apple TV 4K ($180) handle voice control in different ways. While Amazon's device lets you always activate Alexa by speaking commands, you always need a remote to activate the voice commands for the Roku and Apple TV.
Also, Alexa can navigate through menus and switch between devices, while Siri and Roku Voice Search cannot. Roku Voice Search is mainly used when you want to search for content by performer, title or one of many other means.
One trick that Alexa could learn from Siri, though, is the option to enter passwords by saying them out loud. Oh, and remember how I said the Fire TV Cube is missing a YouTube app and makes you use a browser to access the service? YouTube is on Roku and Apple TV.
On price, though, the $120 TV Cube is almost a steal when compared to the Apple TV 4K price, which costs 50 percent more, at $180. And compared with the Roku, that extra $20 isn't bad when you consider how much more voice-command tools you're getting.
Amazon's previous streaming devices have scratched at greatness, but the Fire TV Cube's union of Alexa and Fire TV makes for a harmonious marriage. Not only is it excellent at pumping out brilliant picture quality, but its ability to switch between inputs, control TV volume and change cable channels makes it worth considering, even for those who don't yet live in Amazon's ecosystem.
The lack of complete control over your home screen and the missing YouTube app (browser view is not enough) are frustrating, especially at this premium price. Still, the Fire TV Cube provides an impressive view of the future of watching TV, where all you need to do is ask for what you want.
Credit: Tom's Guide