In a market flooded with performed streaming video players from similar to Roku and Google, Amazon has found a way to stand out by integrating its ever-better audio assistant, Alexa, with its Four TV platform.
The result is an intrepid experiment in the future of home entertainment, one in which voice can and rightly – replace the remote control.
The Amazon Fire TV Cube is best described as a blueprint for the future, one that can be fully realized – or semi-built – depending on what services and features you use on a daily basis. If video streaming needs and ends with Amazon video service, there's probably no better device on the planet right now … but if you're planning to watch videos on services like YouTube, YouTube TV and iTunes ̵
None of it is in itself a criminal criticism of the Fire TV Cube. As a streaming video player, it offers a quite robust set of features, and it's brawnhardware that enables 4K HDR streaming, even though it lacks support for high-end video formats like Dolby Vision.
Finally, it's not the hardware or feature set that limits the Amazon Fire TV Cube – it's Alexa that at that time turned out to be the biggest help, and the biggest mistake to Amazon's big venture in voice-tuned video area.
Release date and price
Amazon Fire TV Cube is available in the US from June 21, 2018 for a price of $ 119.99 (around £ 90, AU $ 160). Amazon has not said when – or albeit – it will bring the Fire TV cube to another territory outside North America, but we will certainly return to this section when Amazon makes that announcement.
Before we press, we should provide two clear reservations for this review.
The first is that while much of this review will focus on the use of Alexa and how it compares to the traditional experience of using a remote control, it's worth noticing right on top as the Four TV Cube actually comes with a remote.
That means no matter how frustrated you are with Alexa and its ability to help you navigate the Fire TV OS, and at any time you can just pick up the remote control and use the navigation buttons to get you where you want to go.
The other is that Alexa, while it's the tent feature of the Fire TV Cube, is available on almost every current model of Fire TV and Fire TV Stick via voice distances – both available for less than a little expensive Fire TV Cube.
These two main points are easy to puzzle over to evaluate Amazon's voice-first technology. Reviewers are keen to estimate, praise and criticize the Four TV Cube, but realize that its selection function is found elsewhere for less, and that a remote control – and will – is often a more pragmatic alternative than using voice commands, makes the player perspective .
Of course, being said to have simply the ability to shout voice commands on a small box-shaped player without remote control in hand, it's the unique selling point of the Amazon Fire TV Cube, and with its eight long-range microphones, the Four TV Cube incredibly good to pick up what you lay down – as well or perhaps even better than the Amazon Echo Show or Amazon Echo is on the task.
To indicate that Alexa is listening, the Fire TV Cube has a shining blue LED that sits along the top of the device over which you will find four control buttons to dampen, raise and lower the volume and paging Alexa. The sides are covered with a reflective black plastic that can light easily if you are too handsy while placing the system near the TV.
When talking about placement, you must be quite judgmental when you integrate the Fire TV Cube into your home theater setup – it can not be too close to your speakers so they do not overwhelm the built-in microphones , but still must be within the audio beam, AVR and TV viewing, as it will need to control them via a multi-directional infrared blaster and HDMI CEC.
Although it sounds like a trial process, it can be done relatively quickly and once you're through it, you have a competent home entertainment setup control center. Through its technological wizard, Alexa can change the recording on your TV, raise or lower the volume of the audio bar and change the channel on the set-top box using voice commands, and while the result is not revolutionary, it helps to make the Four TV Cube an extensive package and one we found ourselves enjoying – although Alexa, inevitably, let us down.
Once installed, it's time to browse the streaming player's content pool – which, luckily, is a pretty deep aquifer: You'll find Netflix, HBO, Starz, Hulu, PlayStation Vue and Crackle, along with Less services like The CW, NFL Network, AMC and more, with new services added regularly.
The remarkable exception here and the one who feels the most incredible omission is YouTube – a support player on almost all other streaming devices.
If you've followed the technical news cycle, you know it's because Amazon and Google had a short while to fall out, with one of the consequences that Google is pulling YouTube from all Amazon devices. There are obviously third party ways to come on YouTube, but without initial support you will be pressed hard to find an app that supports the service in 4K.
YouTube's absence is felt – as it is iTunes – but they are not absolutely essential to the Fire TV Cube's functionality … it's reserved for Amazon's own Amazon Prime Video platform. It's something you're driving over and over and while Amazon has taken serious steps to highlight content from its other partners, you can not escape the cloying feeling that the Amazon Fire TV Cube is just another way to sell Prime Subscription.  If you are already a Prime subscriber, it will not bother you. You can find some areas that you can not access and get series and movies on the different home screens you can not see. If you are not, Amazon Fire TV Cube may not be the best fit and instead you should turn to Roku for a more service-agnostic streaming box.
Finally, it is worth noting that the Amazon Fire TV Cube has the ability to play some easy games as well. The games are usually similar to what you will find on the App Store or the Google Play Store (which makes sense as the Fire TV OS is a variant of Android), but Amazon's offerings are smaller in number and less in quality to what you've found, say , Apple TV 4K or Nvidia Shield, both of which offer high quality (but still ephemeral) games.
In terms of performance, the Fire TV Cube is a rather tough competitor capable of playing 4K Ultra HD content at 60fps with HDR10 support and Dolby Atmos for audio files that want to dive in a movie or television show's soundtrack.
All these technologies work together with the Four TV Cube's Quad-core ARM Cortex-A53 1.5GHz CPU, Mali-450 MP3 GPU and Amlogic S905Z SoC to produce impressive visualization and fast loading times throughout the operating system. Coming from a Netflix show, back to the home screen and into a movie on Amazon takes a couple of seconds on a 15 Mbps or higher Wi-Fi connection, with basically zero pop-in issues along the way.
Pop on a 4K HDR show like All or Nothing: Manchester City or The Grand Tour and you will be treated to a visual showcase of what Fire TV Cube can do: Opening trailer for The Grand Tour shimmers as scenic vistas and million dollar cars race past the screen while the cerulean blue of Manchester City jerseys radiate incredible hues.
Editor's Note: Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan will soon offer another 4K HDR option with Dolby Atmos – a first for Amazon Prime Video. When it comes, Amazon will finally get up to Netflix with the Fire TV Cube as the flagship device to see Prime Video content.
Of course, it's not always easy to find 4K HDR content. So, should you find yourself watching HD / SDR videos, the Four TV Cube does a great job of working with 4K TV to scale them up for higher resolution, which often makes them look as good as if they were in native 4K.
On several occasions, we were convinced what we were looking at was actually 4K HDR since it was actually just normal upscaled HD. This happened while watching an All or Nothing: All Blacks, which surprised us with their very accurate colors and expanded contrast.
Of course, all these roses come with two big reservations. The first is that because Ultra is a 4K HDR streaming device, you actually need to own and use a 4K HDR TV. This sounds stupid and yet there will be a lot of people who buy an Ultra-Expect 4K HDR performance on a 1080p TV. Trust us, it happens.
The other is that you need the 15Mbps or higher connection to watch videos in 4K HDR. You may want to scratch a bit less than that, but if the Fire TV Cube detects a much slower connection speed, it will not give you 4K content.
Whichever configuration you have, you will not be able to get Dolby Vision from Amazon Fire TV Cube – a major disadvantage compared to Apple TV 4K that offers both Atmos and Vision in a package. Vision, remember, offers a slightly better version of the High Dynamic Range that supports brighter TVs and master content on stage after scene than using a seating area for the entire movie or show.
Let it be said that no one needs Dolby Vision and content here will look almost as good without it, but would it have helped? Certainly. However, on a system that does so much more properly, it is difficult to keep a minor omission to it.
Alexa as a smart assistant
As important as solid video reproduction skills, the Amazon Fire TV Cube is able to host Alexa – Amazon's smart assistant. We have seen Alexa on half past ten platforms earlier (often only in audio form), but none of its previous iterations have shined as strong as the Four TV Cube, which offers the perfect homestead for the smart assistant.
We call it "perfect" because a big screen TV provides visual signals in addition to the sound you hear on other platforms – a crucial component once you've experienced it.
Having a display means you can see products before purchasing them if you use Amazon shopping devices; see the lyrics of a song you play at Prime Music and show you all your choices when searching for shows and movies on Prime Video.
More than easy convenience, having a video component opens a lot of new skills. If you have a compatible smart camera, you can use the Amazon Fire TV Cube to show you a live video stream of what your camera looks like. If you want restaurant recommendations or movie times, they will also come up on screen, along with their ratings and distance from your home. Alexa can certainly do all of this by voice, but having a display to display visual information enhances the system's usability.
Unfortunately Alexa is still in development, and its interpretation and navigation skills are sometimes … well, missing.
An example of this happens when you go to see Netflix. You can definitely ask Alexa to open the Netflix app, but if you have more accounts, you can not use your voice to select your special account and you need to find your remote.
Something annoying happens when the Fire TV Cube goes into hibernation: If you pause the video for a few minutes, the Fire TV Cube will stop all video on the screen and turn on a screen saver. When you return, you can not ask Alexa to "resume" or "resume what I played" and have to go back and find that content. It's easier said than done for shows like, for example, Stranger Things, but far more difficult if you are watching a long title show.
Makes matters worse, Alexa, for all the advances in recent years, still requires precise language for operation. To start an episode from the beginning, you can not "Alexa, start this episode over" and always say "Alexa, start over" to get the result you want. It allows you to quickly forward or return or play controls – you must either say it in Alexa speech or pick up the remote control and do it yourself.
All this happens on top of Alexa's common mistakes and weaknesses. Asking questions beyond basic trivia can often lead to the dreaded response to "I do not know how to help with it yet" and sometimes even total non-response to inquiries.
It is not that Amazon's competitors – Google Assistant and Siri – do not have these issues they do, but they feel more pronounced here than on any other platform.
Four TV Cube is, by far, our favorite Amazon streaming device – better in so many ways than the Amazon Four TV dongle released in 2017. It is largely due to the fact that the Four TV Cube is not Only offers hands-free controls for video playback, but can also make every effort to control your home entertainment setup. Add the simple yet brilliant visual signal Amazon has added Alexa's basic skills set and you have a very strong competitor for the best streaming video player.
Where the Amazon Fire TV Cube goes wrong, its lack of the latest streaming technologies – yes, it has Dolby Atmos, but you will not find Dolby Vision as part of the package. Alexa, for all its strengths, still fails in the most crucial moment, and requires you to return to the remote control the moment you feel comfortable with a completely ruled future.
If you can see past the little sounds, the Amazon Fire TV Cube is a smart, visually-sized streaming video player, one that could replace the remote control one day and Roku. Until that day comes, you may want to keep both.