The Amazon Fire TV Cube is designed to be the ultimate low-cost linguistic streamer. This type of living room synergy has been on the wishlists of many converts who yearn for their Amazon Echo and Fire TV combined in a neat little box, with an interface conveniently handled by Alexa.
But after using the Cube for a week, it’s clear that something feels lost in translation when commanding everything by voice alone. It’s a lofty promise from Amazon that tries to go beyond the universal remote, except that I ended up arguing with it and nothing to show afterwards.
If you’re familiar with the previous Fire TVs then you be happy to know that the initial set up is incredibly simple and easy. Running through the gauntlet involves the Cube attempting to do most of the hard work with the device integrating itself with the basic functions. The process is mostly seamless but you’ll have to ‘teach’ it the essential functions such as on/off, volume, etc. and doesn’t take more than a couple minutes to complete with a TV and soundbar — home theater projectors and traditional AV receivers during our testing required a bit of work and headaches to assimilate with the Cube.
The styling straight-up is square and black, so there’s not much to look at but a slight departure from the existing Alexa home lineup. The hard edges are in juxtaposition to the rounded nature of Echo variants with a strong emphasis on the LED light strip, running across the top lip along with some basic function buttons. The light itself activates when talking to Alexa or acts as a status icon when something else needs attention, which is a mildly clever aesthetic and breaks up the matte face against glossy sides.
Around back are ports for HDMI, microUSB, and an IR extender. You’ll have to bring an HDMI cable of your own, although it does come with an IR blaster and Ethernet dongle that oddly occupies the microUSB port when plugged in. In convoluted fashion, the dongle has an extra mircoUSB port for that one lost.
The internals of the Cube run on an ARM Cortex-A53 quad-core 1.5GHz processor, 2GB memory, and a Mali-450 MP3 GPU with Fire OS 6 like the current Fire TV (3rd Gen) and other Android TV devices, the biggest difference with be the additional storage of 16GB. All the other technical features are accounted for with 4K/UHD 60Hz, HDR10, HDMI-CEC, 802.11ac/Bluetooth, and Dolby Atmos (7.1.x-ch) dimensional audio. Even the included voice remote is the same.
So is it an Amazon Echo with TV thrown in, or vice-versa? Well, the end result of the Cube is definitely mixed. Barking commands or asking Alexa how the weather is or to find a film is not a relative problem, but the overall performance leaves much to be desired where home entertainment is concerned — Alexa will oblige but will briefly interrupt whatever is on TV to do it.
Want to set a reminder for yourself or rewind 10 seconds? The execution feels unnaturally delayed with Alexa needing a moment to think it over. Just like dating in my teenage years there’s an awkward pause and after a couple seconds does Alexa finally responds, which wouldn’t be so irritating if everything didn’t stop with it. This also affects TV functionality with the same elongated voids to the point that even changing the volume felt like a chore, because this happens every time: “Alexa” (long pause) “volume up” which has to be said repeatedly if you desire moderate changes in sound levels. This method is “clearly superior” to just using a normal remote.
That’s just one of many examples of the Cube being too tedious for its own good and doesn’t inspire confidence in ditching the remote. And god help you if happen to lose the clicker because you’re going end to up talking with the Cube, similar to a drunk fraternity pledge who lost his phone in the amidst of arguing with bouncer on Saturday night — it won’t help you find it and tells you to “retrace your steps”. Fortunately, Amazon did just enough with shortcut methods that encourage you to learn the UI arrangement, and say something like “Alexa, select option two” or “Alexa, skip to…” will produce similar results. Of course, it still makes mistakes on occasion so it’s definitely not the most intuitive approach.
Third-party apps and voice integration is okay for Netflix and Hulu, offering basic access when searching for specific shows and active playback options. For the most part, everything I harped on in the previous paragraphs will be the same, with rollout eventually happening for ESPN, HBO, Starz, Showtime, and CNN Go all of which aren’t ready yet. One glaring compromise is YouTube and the absence of a standalone app due to the no-so-secret conflict between Google and Amazon. It sucks but you still have access to the website version via Firefox or Silk browser. It’s a band-aid for a problem that shouldn’t exist, but a asinine solution is better than nothing at all in this case until one tech giant starts kissing ass in forgiveness.
Amazon has made it known that they want to take voice assistance to the next milestone, and the Fire TV Cube is probably their most bullish effort yet. But, they’ve also built themselves up in low-cost hardware, and this is where the Fire TV Cube fumbles the most. They want you to toss aside the remote and fall back on Alexa, but the execution is half-baked in current form — or merely tolerable if you already have an Echo and comfortable in this voice-driven ecosystem. For a 4K streamer that works without yelling at a glossy block, the regular Fire TV of Fire TV Stick are more practical choices below $100.