Amazon added Alexa to its popular TV-connected streaming devices, theand , way back in 2015, but it wasn't the Alexa most people know and love.
Instead of being able to say, "Alexa, what's the weather?" into thin air, you had to speak into the remote while holding a button, walkie-talkie style. It worked, but felt far less futuristic than "real" Alexa on an Echo speaker.
Now, nearly two years later, Fire TV owners can, without having to use any remote. To do so, you have to own an Echo, Echo Dot or Echo Show speaker. So how does it work?
In short: very well.
I commanded the various currently compatible Fire TV devices -- a $40 Fire TV stick, a $90 Fire TV box and an(starting at $450) -- with just my voice, hands-free, and came away impressed. I found that like many Alexa skills I had to get the commands right (namely, remember to say "Alexa" a lot and "Fire TV" occasionally) but once I got the hang of that, it worked great. Just don't throw away the remote just yet.
Setup was a cinch, mostly
As detailed on Amazon's Use your Alexa device to control your Fire TV support page, my first step was to link my test Alexa device, an in this case, to my Fire TV device. If you only have one Fire TV device, Amazon says Alexa can link them automatically using a voice command, but since I wanted to test multiple Fire TV devices, I had to link them using the Alexa app.
Linked devices have to be registered to the same Amazon account, and each Alexa device can only control a single Fire TV on the same Wi-Fi network. The reasoning, I'm guessing, is so you can just say, "Fire TV," instead of a unique name such as "living room Fire TV" or whatever.
The Fire TV box and television I tested linked fine, but I did encounter one issue with both of the Fire TV Sticks. Despite appearing to be linked, and having the latest software according to the menus, both failed to work with Alexa. Instead my Dot issued responses such as, "I had trouble communicating with your device. Check its network connection and power supply," or, "Sorry, I couldn't launch Home."
I asked Amazon's rep for help and they were able to fix the problem. Their explanation: "Occasionally, it takes devices that aren't used on a regular basis a day or two to receive new software updates. That seems to have been the case with your Fire TV sticks. Customers who are running into this problem, can either contact Amazon customer support or check for updates from Settings and then leave the device idle for a few hours to allow the update to be installed."
Here's what I asked Alexa and how the Fire TV responded. In most cases, happily, I just had to say "Alexa, ___" not "Alexa, ___ on Fire TV."
- "Home" or "Go home" returned to Fire TV home page.
- "Launch Netflix" and "Launch Hulu" launched those apps.
- "Play 'Transparent'" and "Play 'Manchester by the Sea'" immediately started playing the most recent episode of the Amazon original show and the movie.
- "Find Tom Hanks" and "Find Maggie Gyllenhaal" pulled up search results lists of the actors' names.
- "Movies about dogs" and "Shows about hackers" led to relevant search results appearing.
- "Hackers" -- the movie from 1995 appeared.
- "Pause," "Stop," "Play," "Rewind" and "Fast-forward" all worked fine.
- "Skip forward/back X seconds/minutes," where X is a number, but it worked best on Amazon's videos. In Netflix, it wouldn't skip minutes, only seconds.
- "Next episode" skipped to the next episode on "Transparent."
What kinda worked
- "Watch 'Stranger Things'" launched a show page reading "Watch on Netflix." To start it watching I had to say, "Alexa, play."
- "Watch 'Handmaid's Tale'" showed search results with the Hulu show and the movie, and I had to use the remote to select one.
- "Watch season 1, episode 1 of 'Transparent'" played the Amazon original, but not the episode I asked for.
- "Launch Plex" -- instead of launching the app on Fire TV, she guided me to the Plex Alexa skill. To launch the app itself I had to say "Launch Plex on Fire TV," which worked fine.
What didn't work
- "Watch Fire TV" is supposed to turn on the TV and switch to the right input using HDMI CEC, a command protocol, but it didn't work on the CEC-enabled TVs I tried.
- "Next episode" when watching "Handmaid's Tale" on Hulu or "Stranger Things" on Netflix, nothing happened.
I also tried a bunch of stuff that's not officially supported, like navigations command such as "Right," "Left," "Back," "Select" "Menu," and so on, but they didn't work. I had to resort to the remote. I also wasn't surprised when stuff like "Turn off Fire TV," "Volume Up," and "Mute," didn't work. Until I tried them on an actual Fire TV, that is.
What worked on an Element Fire TV Edition television
All of the commands above were tested with a Fire TV Stick and Fire TV box, but Amazon's new Fire TV Edition televisions allow even more Alexa voice control. Here's what worked on the one I tested:
- "Turn on Fire TV" and "Turn off Fire TV."
- "Volume up on Fire TV" and "Volume down on Fire TV" which increased and decreased in increments of 5 percent.
- "Mute Fire TV."
- "Switch to PlayStation" and "Switch to HDMI 1."
- "Watch NBC on Fire TV" tuned to the antenna channel.
- "Open TV Guide" called up the program guide for antenna channels.
- "Pause," "Stop," "Play," "Rewind" and "Fast-forward" worked on the antenna input to control live TV.
It might have been too long in coming, but now that it's here, voice control of Fire TV without having to use the remote is pretty great. You'll probably still need to keep the clicker around for some tasks, but for many others the system finally fulfills the promise of TV control via voice in a satisfying way: getting what you want by speaking into thin air.