- Voice commands go beyond the basics
- Adaptive interface depending on the interaction method
- Voice commands don't always register
- You can't completely ditch your remotes
For the past month, I've talked to and yelled at my TV.
Only, instead of being stunned by the ending of a Game of Thrones episode, or celebrating some sort of sporting event, I've been talking to Alexa.
Alexa, Amazon's personal assistant, is built into the company's latest streaming device, the $119 Fire TV Cube. Sometimes Alexa answers me, other times the information I requested flashes on my TV.
Read also: 4 first impressions of the Fire TV Cube
The marriage of two of Amazon's most popular products isn't perfect, but it's off to a good start.
Not Alexa's first TV rodeo
To be fair, the Fire TV Cube isn't the first Fire TV device to bring Alexa to a TV. Amazon added Alexa capabilities to the Fire TV lineup through a button users have to hold in on the remote. With the voice remote, users can request shows and ask questions.
How the Fire TV Cube does is different is that it acts just like an Echo device, without the need for you to pick up the remote and press a button.
Commands start with the wake word -- "Alexa" -- and can be followed by commands to control smart home devices. You can ask for weather, play trivia games, and control what's being played on your TV.
Here's what's different
There are two main aspects of the Fire TV Cube that set it apart from anything else Amazon has released.
The first is hardware compatibility. Not only does the Fire TV Cube run Amazon's Fire OS for streaming shows and movies from the likes of Sling TV or Netflix (among many more), but it also works with most cable or satellite set top boxes. Furthermore, it also works with sound bars and A/V receivers.
So, instead of having to switch between inputs or use different remotes to watch something on cable and go back to the Fire TV Cube to stream a show on Hulu, this one box controls everything.
Amazon uses a combination of cloud integration, an IR transmitter, and HDMI-CEC to control various devices. For example, if you ask Alexa to turn up the volume, Fire TV Cube will issue the command via IR to your sound bar to increase the volume.
Because the Fire TV Cube is designed to be in close proximity of your TV or sound bar, Amazon suggests placing it at least 12 inches away from the nearest speaker. This helps the microphones discern what's coming from the TV, and any commands coming from someone sitting in the room.
Included in the box is a small IR extender, which is plugged into the back of the Cube and routed to the front of devices that the Cube can interact with, but its IR signal doesn't reach.
According to Amazon, most consumers have a set top box or a sound bar. Unfortunately, I have neither, so all of my testing was done using the Fire TV Cube as a streaming device only.
The second aspect that makes the Fire TV Cube different from previous Amazon products is software.
Beyond the ability to control your cable box, switch between inputs, or adjust your TV's volume, the Fire TV Cube takes advantage of the large display it's attached to: Your TV. For example, asking Alexa on the Fire TV Cube about the weather will display the forecast on the TV screen as Alexa walks you through the highs and lows. Playing the daily Jeopardy challenge puts the giant blue boxes with white text on your TV. And, of course, asking Alexa to show you a video feed from one of its supported cameras works without a hitch.
Furthermore, the interface of the Fire TV Cube shifts and adapts to the current interaction method. If you're using your voice to ask Alexa to search for shows on Netflix, large thumbnails with numbers are shown on the screen. However, if you use the remote to open Netflix and begin searching, smaller thumbnails that lack numbers are used.
The Fire TV team essentially incorporated elements of the interface from the Echo Show, adapting it to a bigger screen, and it works. It's easy to read or navigate, and it doesn't require a huge learning curve.
Alexa listens well (most of the time)
I don't have a lot to complain about when it comes to the Fire TV Cube. Having Alexa built into a set top box, requiring no physical interaction with a remote or another device, is a seamless experience. As I mentioned in my first impressions, the Fire TV Cube's microphone array does an impressive job of hearing commands despite being next to an external speaker.
However, there were moments when the Cube would fail to activate at all. The wake command of Alexa would echo throughout my house, activating an Echo in another room, instead of the Fire TV Cube sitting 10 feet away. Repeated calls would eventually wake up the proper device. By the end of my time testing, however, after one or two failed commands, I would just reach for the remote. Speaking of the remote, why doesn't it have dedicated buttons for volume control?
Asking Alexa to turn the volume up or down works, but it lacks precision and results in repeated requests to get the volume just right.
The streaming box to beat?
It's hard to think of a streaming box that checks all the boxes like the Fire TV Cube does. It's a personal assistant, provides voice control for home automation, controls cable boxes and soundboards, has access to Amazon's Fire TV ecosystem, and it costs just $119. The only negative mark I can give it when it comes to content providers is the lack of a dedicated YouTube app, which is the result of a rather immature spat between Amazon and Google about the former carrying the latter's products.
The voice interaction, while impressive, is not perfect. But I can't think of a single streaming device that relies on voice interaction -- Amazon's Echo line included. Plus, there are just some tasks that are better suited to using a remote.
With the Fire TV Cube, at least, I have a backup plan when I lose the remote.
Previous and related coverage:
Amazon added a screen and a camera to the Echo -- and it's awesome.
The Amazon Cloud Cam isn't just for Amazon's new delivery service, Key. The Cloud Cam is more affordable than most high-end indoor security cameras and gets the job done just as well.
The new Fire TV just shows you don't need to spend a lot on a fully capable and integrated 4K streaming device.
In this 50-year retrospective, we're not just looking at technology year by year, we're looking at technologies that had an impact on us, paved the way for the future, and changed us, in ways good and bad. (Previously: The 2000s)