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Smart Home

Fire TV Cube: Amazon's new bid at smart-home simplicity

If you have more remote controls than you can count, this may help.

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Amazon's latest Alexa-powered device hits the market on June 21.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Amazon on Thursday unveiled the Fire TV Cube, essentially the love child of a Fire TV streamer and Echo speaker rolled into one boxy design.

The device becomes Amazon's 11th Alexa-powered gadget, which may seem overwhelming for someone just learning about the company's smart speaker lineup. Yet the purpose of this particular device appears to go further than being just another Alexa product, pointing to Amazon's vision of making our connected homes simpler and more refined, not just jammed with more electronics.

At a briefing earlier this week in a Manhattan hotel, Sandeep Gupta, a Fire TV vice president, gestured toward three separate remotes that operated a nearby TV: there was the cable box remote, the TV remote and the sound bar remote. Using the Cube sitting by the television, he bypassed the familiar juggle of remotes with the help of voice commands and the Cube's slim remote.

"The goal here is to declutter people's lives, declutter the complexity of controlling your home entertainment system and make it easier to use," he said.


Hands-on: Amazon Fire TV Cube is Alexa voice control for your entire AV system


The Cube, which the secretive company uncharacteristically teased out earlier this year, serves as one more element in Amazon's bid to dominate the smart home. That work includes the company's portfolio of Echo smart speakers, Ring and Blink security cameras and video doorbells, and its Amazon Key in-home delivery service. But as the company has raced to come up with more and more new gadgets for the home -- reportedly even cooking up a home robot -- it will likely need to combine more of these devices' functions and simplify things for us, lest we get confused by all these options or get crushed under a mountain of Amazon doodads.

The Cube may help with that, allowing folks to cut down on all those remotes, and remove the need for separate Fire TV and Echo devices. Those may be small steps, but could eventually add up to a more seamless smart home of the future. That's the hope, anyways.

The new gadget also highlights Amazon's work to specialize its Echo devices for every room and scenario in your home, starting with the generalist Echo speaker, then building up to the Echo Look for you closet, Echo Spot for the nightstand and now Fire TV Cube for the entertainment center. The Cube is also part of Amazon's continued work to add Alexa controls into nearly all its consumer devices, including its Fire tablets and previous Fire TV devices.

'Voice is the future'

Walking through a demo of the new Cube, Gupta said Amazon sought to create a device that was more than just a Fire TV streamer with Alexa crammed inside. To that end, the Cube is compatible with nearly all US cable and satellite set-top boxes, as well as streaming apps like Hulu and PlayStation Vue, to allow users to tune to live TV channels via voice. You will still need your cable remote to access your DVR and channel guide, so don't throw it out just yet.

Also, the Cube is able to control TVs, sound bars and A/V receivers with the help of several forms of connectivity, including infrared, Wi-Fi and HDMI CEC. Using these connections, you could set up your devices so the Cube can turn on the TV, connected lights and sound bar by simply saying, "Alexa, I'm home."

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The device also takes advantage of being connected to the TV by showing scrolling lyrics when music is playing and showing visuals for certain Alexa skills, such as the clues in the Jeopardy skill. (Similar capabilities are available on the smaller Echo Show and Echo Spot.)

Because the Cube also works as a standalone Alexa speaker, it will play music, operate connected gadgets and tell you the weather when the TV is off.

Amazon said it gave the Cube its shape for a variety of reasons. Because it's meant to be kept by the TV, its mic arrays are all upfront, unlike all around a cylinder-shaped Echo speaker. Plus, an Echo's circular light ring would've reflected on the TV, so the Cube's indicator light is only upfront, too. The Cube isn't a pure cube, though, to prevent the device from blocking the bottom of your TV.

Amazon priced the Cube at $120 and it will become available on June 21 in the US only. Prime members can preorder the device for $90 today and tomorrow.

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Playing the Jeopardy Alexa skill on TV via the Fire TV Cube nearby.

Sarah Tew/CNET

While Amazon has found success in smart home tech, the market is still new and is bringing in a lot of competition from Google, Apple, Samsung and a variety of startups. Logitech's universal Harmony remote and even Amazon's own prior Echo and Fire TV products -- which offer many similar features -- may stand in the way of the Cube catching on. Additionally, set up of smart-home devices still requires a lot of steps, so that may be a hurdle for customers to adopt the Cube and its various connections to other entertainment devices.

Despite those challenges, Gupta said he sees the Cube as another step in bringing more voice controls -- and simplicity -- to the smart home.

"We want to use your voice to get quickly to what you want to do," he said. "And with Alexa, we've continued to make that better … We really believe that voice is the future."

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