(Pocket-lint) - The second-generation of the Fire TV Cube is here. The original came out in the US, but this new version casts the net wider and is now available in the UK, too. Essentially, it's a Fire TV device that gives you access to Amazon content, plus lots of other streaming services such as Netflix, BBC iPlayer and (finally) YouTube. But it also has a trick up its sleeve – Alexa voice control for your TV and associated devices, such as a soundbar and Sky box in the UK or cable box in the US.
Indeed, Fire TV Cube brings total hands-free control to your TV – you can use Alexa to perform basic functions with your TV and soundbar for which you would otherwise have to use the remote. It works to control these devices using the HDMI-CEC standard.
While there's wide support for all types of Sky box, there isn't support for other UK set-top boxes, such as a Virgin or BT TV box, which will no doubt confuse some purchasers. It also isn't officially compatible with HDMI switches or hubs, but we found it actually played fine with ours (though we weren't using it when we had a setup problem, see below).
Features and specs
- 6-core processor, ARM Mali graphics, 2GB RAM, 16GB storage, 802.11ac Wi-Fi
- 4K Ultra HD with HDR, HDR10, HDR10+, HLG and Dolby Vision
- Dolby Atmos support
The Fire TV Cube is billed as the "most powerful Fire TV ever" and has been upgraded from the older US-only version, now featuring a six-core processor on board, which helps it zip along, in addition to 16GB of storage. There's no lag with menu options or any other delays. There's full support for Dolby Vision as well as HDR and HDR10+ for all the high dynamic range goodness. It'll also work with Dolby Atmos and we'll be pairing Fire TV with the new Atmos-touting Echo Studio speaker over the coming weeks.
The Cube is a very plain device in design terms. It's a cube, obviously, with glossy sides and an understated Amazon logo on the front. Those glossy sides mean it attracts dust constantly as well as fingerprints if you touch it.
On top are the standard four Echo buttons: volume up/down, mic mute and an action button. On the rear there's a Micro-USB port, HDMI, infrared blaster, and power.
The main benefit of this box over other Amazon streaming devices is that it enables you to ask Alexa to change the volume of your TV, change channel or switch your TV off. You can also start from cold so, for example, saying "Play The Crown on Netflix" will switch on your TV and start the show. That's pretty cool.
You can also switch inputs using voice (you can set up custom names if you wish) as well as change the volume, pause, skip a set amount of time, go to the next episode, search for something on YouTube, find movies by a certain director or other searches. It's basically all the stuff you could do with Fire TV anyway, plus a load of commands to replace your TV and Sky remotes.
Naturally, you can also get to all the standard Alexa stuff – so you can see your calendar, play music from Spotify, check the weather or view your Ring doorbell. And, of course, you can also integrate with other Alexa stuff you've already got set up – so you can command routines, such as dimming your lights when you're ready to watch TV.
Some common commands are also processed locally (rather than having to flip everything to Alexa in the cloud), again adding to the speed of response. And you can also issue follow-up commands, such as responding to searches with "select/play number three", for example.
Once set up, we had no problems with voice control – save for Alexa not being able to hear us on occasion. This is a continued problem with voice-controlled devices in noisy environments, even when there are far-field mics as there are here. In fact, there are eight far-field mics.
However, Amazon has a contingency for when Alexa can't hear you via the far-field mics – it supplies the Alexa voice remote, as provided with the Fire TV Sticks, so you are able to hold down the button to speak to Alexa.
We know that Amazon is encouraging TV manufacturers to make TVs with far-field Alexa mics built-in (known as Alexa hands-free), and it has already launched a set with Grundig in Germany.
Philips told us at IFA 2019 that it believes the potential for erroneous commands is still too high with these devices. Indeed, Philips has introduced the 754 OLED TV with Alexa in the remote instead. However, if Amazon does succeed in its aim to have more TVs with Alexa and Fire TV built-in, then it will render separate Fire TV devices redundant for some.
- Has profiles onboard for thousands of TVs, soundbars and receivers, Sky boxes in UK, cable boxes in US
- IR blaster and Ethernet leads in the box
- No HDMI lead included
Because of the potential for Alexa to not be able to hear you when loud sound is emitting from your TV or soundbar, Amazon suggests having your Fire TV Cube at least 30cm from your speakers. For many people this will be easier said than done – although the actual product is stickered to say this is a necessity.
Because the Fire TV Cube is essentially a full Amazon Echo device, Amazon also recommends you move any other Echo device away if situated nearby. Our second device was at the other end of the room, so it wasn't a problem, but saying Alexa loudly will still invoke more than one device.
Note that the Fire TV Cube isn't capable of some aspects of the Echo speaker experience – Bluetooth connections to phones and Spotify support for multi-room are not currently supported.
You also need to have your Fire TV Cube outside of a closed cabinet. If some of your devices are inside a closed cabinet or you have problems, you can use the included IR blaster to extend the range of its infrared inside a cabinet, but we found that this was unnecessary unless you genuinely do close the door on some of your gear. The Fire TV doesn't even need to be on the same shelf as your other gear, it will still be able to control the devices.
Bizarrely there's also an Ethernet connector in the box. Given that there's no HDMI cable, we're surprised that Amazon bothered to include this when it doesn't with other devices.
The initial phase of the setup is actually very straightforward after the inevitable updates have downloaded. Putting in account details on Fire TV devices with the remote remains a little tiresome and we're hoping the company finds some way to shortcut this process soon – we guess this would be via the Alexa app.
The device will also ask you what apps you want it to download from a hand-picked list, which is a nice touch. However, not all of the apps are integrated with Alexa, so you can't use your voice for everything.
The next step is the device will setup your TV – just tell it the brand and it'll try switching the TV on and off to ensure that it's able to control the device. So far, so easy. The box switched inputs without an issue, too.
However, we hit a brick wall when setting up our Q Acoustics soundbar – which is a supported brand listed on the interface. In fact, stacks of brands are listed. You can check whether yours is supported on the website, but whatever we tried we couldn't set the Cube up with this soundbar. A Sony soundbar we had worked fine, however.
Because the box sets your soundbar or AV receiver up as part of the initial setup alongside your TV, if you want to set it up again, you need to reset the whole setup process – which we found annoying. If you get a new soundbar, you also need to reset the settings for your TV and Sky box.
Setting up your Sky box in the UK or cable box in the US is something you do retrospectively rather than through the startup process (go to Settings > Equipment Control). That's OK, but there's no help as to how to do this. It does work pretty well, though, and is most useful when you want to leap straight to a particular channel.
Switching Sky channels isn't as quick as if you know the number, but it's a hassle-free way of circumventing Sky's ever more complex guide. Sky's own voice control remains pretty woeful, so it's actually pretty welcome that you're able to use Alexa.
Once your devices are setup – like your TV or Sky box – you'll see that they're added to your ecosystem of Alexa-enabled devices in your Alexa app.
- Fire OS 7 ased on Android 9 Pie
- Supports stacks off apps
- Needs Amazon Prime subscription
Fire OS is a great interface for delivering video. It's slick, it's easy-to-use and it is fast. Ads remain an issue though. Often these are for Amazon Prime Video shows, but even so it all adds to the feeling that Fire TV is incapable of not putting Amazon stuff front and centre.
Mind you, if you don't want Amazon stuff front and centre, forgive us for saying that you shouldn't buy a Fire TV device. Despite the welcome integration of other services like Netflix and YouTube, you need to have an Amazon Prime subscription to make the most of any Fire TV device – because even if you don't have Prime, your screen will be filled with Amazon shows you could potentially watch.
The Fire TV interface prioritises apps and channels you've recently viewed, while the rows are dynamically populated depending on what you've watched, what you're interested in and what apps you're logged into. For example, if the Netflix app is up and running, you'll see Netflix recommended shows.
You can download lots more apps for more content, too, including BBC iPlayer, Facebook, Firefox, CBS, Sky News, Twitch, Red Bull TV, TuneIn, Channel 4, Amazon Music, Spotify, Audible, MSNBC, NHL, even VLC. There's a App section on the interface where you can download additional apps.
If there is a negative of the Alexa integration on Fire TV devices it's in the inconsistent approach of the app library. Netflix, Prime Video (of course) and YouTube have total Alexa integration, but other apps don't – and that's one of our frustrations with Fire TV across the board. That said, there's nobody doing better with integrating so many TV/video apps onto its family of devices.
At its best, Fire TV Cube is a great way to jump directly to content, channels or other information when you know exactly where you want to go. For that, there's nothing else like it out there.
However, the setup has issues. And that's not all Amazon's fault – it's attempting to create a seamless experience by integrating with tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of different devices, without the need for external support. That's a tall order.
The problem is the setup with other devices is unpredictable and some users will have issues with being within line-of-sight of their devices unless they are precise about placement. Although the Cube has been seamless with our TV and pretty good with our Sky box, any setup woes will irk users. Such setup hassle is an unusual mis-step for Amazon, because in the Echo and Alexa world it's getting better and better.
For Alexa and general Fire TV features, the Cube is exceptional. But it's only marginally better than the much-cheaper Fire TV Stick 4K. So unless you really want to be able to voice control your TV and Sky box, we'd, er, stick with the Fire TV Stick 4K.
Mind you, the Cube will inevitably be discounted over the coming months thanks to Amazon's continuous sales, so if it was to receive a serious discount then it makes it all the more worth it. So while it's hard to slate the Cube, it's not possible to recommend it beyond its family of devices either.
This article was originally published on 5 September 2019 and has been updated to reflect its full review status
Fire TV Stick 4K
Compared to devices like the Fire TV Cube or Apple TV 4K, the 4K version of the Fire TV Stick is a steal. It's got full support for HDR/Dolby Vision as well as Dolby Atmos and can do pretty much everything the Fire TV Cube can – save from the HDMI-CEC control of your TV, soundbar and Sky box. You can do all the Alexa stuff, too. Do we need to go on?