The Fire TV Cube has an Amazon Echo built right in
The Fire TV Cube has been available in the US for a while now, so it’s good news it can now be bought in the UK.
What is it? It’s an Amazon Fire TV - a media streamer - with a built-in Amazon Echo, a smart speaker. The easiest way to describe it is as my seven-year-old daughter did: “Oh wow, you’ve put Alexa on the TV”.
The Fire TV Cube is much like the Fire TV 4K, but with a lot of hands-free control and a built-in speaker so you can use all of Alexa’s usual capabilities that are available on an Echo even if your TV is switched off.
That means you can check weather forecasts, get news updates, set timers, reminders, control smart home kit and much, much more.
It’s not all hands-free voice control, though. Amazon doesn’t claim that and freely acknowledges that some aspects of the Fire TV interface are best navigated using the bundled Alexa Voice Remote instead of using clunky voice commands.
Note: Consider this an initial review. I've had access to the UK Fire TV Cube for only 24 hours, and will add more to the review once I've had more time with it.
Fire TV Cube price & availability
You can buy a Fire TV Cube for £109.99 / $119.99 from Amazon. That makes it £10 / $20 more expensive than buying a Fire TV Stick 4K and an Echo Dot, and if you already have an Echo near your TV or just a Fire TV Stick, there’s not a whole lot of compelling reasons to buy the Cube.
That’s because you can link an Echo with a Fire TV Stick and do much of what the Fire TV Cube can do, but you won’t be able to some things such as turning your TV on or off and controlling the volume or a connected sound bar.
For those that don’t have either an Echo or Fire TV, the Cube is a much more tempting prospect, especially if you want the media streaming aspects.
For alternatives, see our roundup of the best media streaming boxes.
Fire TV Cube Features & Design
Even though it’s the first time the Cube has been available in the UK, this is a second-generation device. It’s faster than the original (which was sold in the US) and is able to process a limited set of commands on board without contacting Amazon’s servers. That means it’s nice and responsive when you’re asking Alexa to do basic things such as playing, pausing, scrolling, muting and changing volume.
Design-wise the clue is in the name. It’s a tiny thing which should be able to nestle unobtrusively beneath your TV along with your other equipment.
One of the reasons it has glossy sides is for better IR performance: the Cube can control TVs, soundbars, A/V receivers and other gear which uses infrared. Amazon bundles a secondary IR blaster on a long, thin wire in case you need to control kit that’s in a closed cabinet, but if it’s all sitting on open shelves, you shouldn’t need it.
The Cube connects to your TV via HDMI, though a cable isn’t included, and to the internet via Wi-Fi (built in) or Ethernet (using the supplied microUSB dongle).
One new feature compared to the first-gen Cube is support for Dolby Vision. Previously it was just 4K HDR10, but now, along with Dolby Atmos passthrough, you’ll see and hear the best possible quality so long as you have a compatible TV and sound system.
On top are the usual Echo controls: two volume buttons, a select button and a microphone mute button. Underneath is a speaker, but this is so Alexa can respond when your TV or sound bar is off: it’s not for music.
Eight tiny holes are for the far-field microphones which do some clever processing and noise cancellation so Alexa can still hear you even if you’re watching a TV show or listening to music. So long as you place it as instructed – 30cm from any speaker – it should work well, and certainly did in my tests.
Bluetooth is built in, and this can be used to pair a compatible game controller, but you can also pair your phone and stream music to the Fire TV Cube. If you have a sound bar connected, it means music will play through it, thus turning any sound bar into a Bluetooth speaker.
Setup is relatively straightforward: just follow the on-screen instructions to connect to Wi-Fi, install some popular apps and sign into your Amazon account.
You can also let the Fire TV Cube attempt to learn your TV and sound bar’s IR codes. There’s a long list of sound bars, and I was impressed not just to see Orbitsound in there, but also when Alexa was quickly able to turn it on, off and adjust the volume.
The same couldn’t be said when it came to my ageing Panasonic TV. It turned off fine, but as it requires a long press on the original remote to turn it on, the Fire TV Cube simply could not do it.
I also discovered it couldn’t switch HDMI inputs, but if you own a compatible TV, you should be able to do all those things with ease.
Note that in the UK, the only supported set-top boxes are Sky’s, so you won’t be able to ask Alexa to tune into Dave or Quest on your Freeview box. However, if you have a Humax YouView box (not a BT or TalkTalk one) you can enable the YouView skill in the Alexa app which will enable you to do voice searches using the Fire TV Cube.
Once setup is finished you might want to install some other apps and games, specifically streaming video and catch-up TV apps. The My5 app is the only UK TV app which is optimised for hands-free control – Amazon says ITV Hub, All4 and Hayu will get enhanced voice control later in 2019. Oddly, there’s no mention of iPlayer. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and YouTube are also optimised, and it’s great to see the latter there after being absent from all Fire TVs for a long while.
You can install a host of other video apps including Disney Life, tvplayer and Plex.
Interface & voice control
The first thing my daughter wanted to try was to see if Alexa could play Hey Duggee, which she usually watches on BBC iPlayer. Even after signing in with my BBC account, Alexa would only show results from Amazon, and since this kids’ show isn’t part of the Prime service, we were faced with paying to watch the episodes.
Although Alexa will show matches from Netflix and YouTube, the fact it isn’t a truly universal search can be quite frustrating. I even tried “Alexa, play Hey Duggee on BBC iPlayer” but the results were the same. (Ignore the strange colours: my camera was having a hard time taking photos of the plasma TV.)
Going back to the deeper Alexa integration with YouTube, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, it’s possible to search for specific shows, channels or films on those services. And since the Fire TV Cube works just like an Echo, you can say “Alexa, find Wengie on YouTube” which will turn on your TV, set it to the right HDMI input and display Wengie’s YouTube channel. And that is far quicker and easier than using multiple remote controls, especially if you’re seven years old.
Conversely, it’s sometimes quicker and easier to use the remote control: the Fire TV Cube isn’t meant to be exclusively controlled by voice.
When you do use Alexa, you have to say the right commands. For example, she doesn’t understand if you say “Play episode 12” or “Continue the Grand Tour where I left off” or even “play the latest episode”. You have to say “Select number 12” or “Play number 12”
Hopefully Amazon will improve voice control so you can more easily continue watching episodes, including when you have multiple series on the go.
Ultimately, voice search works best if you know exactly what you want already, and Alexa can start a specific video playing on YouTube purely with voice control. Surprisingly, she can also show your list of channel subscriptions on YouTube, which I wasn’t expecting.
However, you’ll discover that, even in Amazon Prime Video, Alexa integration isn’t all encompassing. She can’t turn on subtitles or show X-Ray information. She just says “I can’t do that on Fire TV”.
Of course Alexa can also open apps and launch games such as Crossy Road and Deal or No Deal. If they’re not installed she can’t download them so, again, you’ll have to reach for the remote control.
As with existing Fire TV devices with the Alexa Voice Remote, you’ll see visuals when you ask for a weather forecast, sports scores and also lyrics for certain songs played from Amazon Music.
However, some skills which have interfaces on the Echo Show lack them on the Fire TV Cube. Tenable, for example, has graphics on an Echo Show but works in audio mode only on the Fire TV Cube, so it’s clear that some developers need to optimise their skills for the Fire TV.
The Fire TV Cube is a fairly complicated device to understand. It is a competent media streamer and now supports all three HDR standards and can output 4K at up to 60fps. It offers access to lots of UK-specific catch-up TV content, plus all the main video streaming services apart from NowTV.
Integrating an Echo means you have proper hands-free control, unlike using the Alexa Voice Remote on a regular Fire TV. But that voice control varies depending on the app you’re using and only a few have been optimised.
It’s handy to be able to use Alexa to control your TV and sound bar or A/V receiver, but unless you have a Sky box, you can’t control any of your other set-top boxes or games consoles so the Cube isn’t really a replacement for a universal remote control.