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This Echo and Fire TV mash-up is an Alexa-powered universal remote, too

The newest Alexa gadget can turn on and control your TV, cable box, sound bar and more using just your voice.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Editors' Note: Read CNET's full review of the Amazon Fire TV Cube, which updates our hands-on first impressions here. The below article has not ben updated.

Lots of Alexa owners park their little voice assistants in the kitchen, but Amazon's latest version aims to dominate another room entirely: the living room.

The Amazon Fire TV Cube infuses your TV and other entertainment gear with the ability to be controlled with just your voice. Designed to sit happily in your AV system, this diminutive little box aims to replace a coffee-table full of remotes with "Alexa" voice commands. Or at least keep you from reaching for the clicker quite so much.

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The Cube, first rumored in September 2017 and teased by Amazon last month, is finally official Thursday. It ships June 21 for $120, but Prime members can order one starting now for $90. (It's US-only for now, but that pricing converts to about £90 or AU$157 and £67 or AU$118, respectively.)

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

If you're familiar with Amazon's products already, consider it a mash-up of the $70 Fire TV, a 4K HDR media streamer with Prime video and oodles of other apps and games, and the $40 Echo Dot, a little speaker with built-in microphones -- with some special sauce thrown in. The Cube has all the 4K HDR video and Dolby Atmos audio capabilities of the Fire TV, hands-free Alexa built-in, an HDMI output to feed your TV and an included Ethernet adapter in case you don't want to use Wi-Fi. Its infrared blasters send control signals to other gear, like the TV, cable box, even an AV receiver or sound bar.

'Alexa, turn on the TV'

That infrared control of other devices is what separates the Cube from the standard Fire TV and Echo combination, which Amazon enabled in full last year to impressive effect.

The blasters are built into the Cube itself as well as a separate, included module that can hit gear you've tucked into a cabinet. Sandeep Gupta, Amazon's vice president of Product Development for Amazon Fire TV, walked CNET's Ben Rubin and me through a demo.

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The tiny Cube (left) in command of a Samsung TV and a Sony sound bar.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The words "Alexa, I'm home" from Gupta turned on the TV, fired up the sound bar and made the Fire TV home page appear onscreen. He moved through other commands, like "Alexa, show me dramas," "Alexa, mute" and even "Alexa, show me cat videos on YouTube." Each worked just as expected, with YouTube launching the Silk browser and navigating right to those cuddly kitties, Google vs. Amazon feud be damned. 

Since the Cube "knows" some details about the state of your devices, saying "Alexa, watch Red Oaks" while your system is off would cause it to turn on the TV and other associated gear. In addition to infrared commands, the system can work with CEC, a protocol that sends commands via HDMI cables, and Gupta said the Cube can automatically recognize and set up your connected TV.

How cable boxes and sound gear fit in

While the cube can control some aspects of a cable box, subscribers will need to hang onto their old remotes awhile longer.

Say "Alexa, watch cable TV" to switch the TV input to the cable box, and "Alexa, Watch TNT" or "Alexa, tune to channel 65" to change the live channel on the box channel. The Cube is compatible with boxes from Comcast, DirecTV, Dish and others, covering what Amazon claims is more than 90 percent of households with a cable or satellite subscription.

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An included IR blaster allows control of devices inside cabinet doors, like this cable box.

Sarah Tew/CNET

More advanced commands, for example, browsing the guide, scheduling recordings or playing stuff from a DVR, can't be done with voice. If you don't have a cable box, saying "Watch CNN" or another channel can tune to the live channel inside the PlayStation Vue app.

In Gupta's demo setup, sound was routed through the Sony sound bar, not the TV's speakers, so the Cube was actually controlling the bar's volume when he said stuff like "Alexa, volume up" or "Alexa, mute." He said the system is also compatible with AV receivers, although I'll wait till the full review to see how well it handles input switching. 

Of course, using a sound bar or AV receiver provides a big boost in sound quality over a Dot or Echo speaker, making the Cube a compelling music player too. Since it can fire up your system at a word, it's potentially just as easy to use as a standalone speaker. Gupta demonstrated music by saying "Alexa, let's party," which caused music to start playing over the sound bar, courtesy of Amazon Music, and lyrics to appear onscreen.

The Cube has its own built-in speaker too, so Alexa can respond (or even play music) without having to turn on your entire system.

I asked how many total devices the Cube can control and while Gupta said support would be extensive at launch and more would be added afterward, he didn't cite a number. I asked specifically whether competing streaming devices, like Roku or Apple TV, would be supported -- for example, if you wanted to watch in Dolby Vision HDR, which only the Apple TV supports. He said they wouldn't be at launch, but could be added in the future.

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A new microphone array helps the Cube "hear" over the music. Or you can talk into the remote.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Hearing 'Alexa' over the blare

One potential issue with placing the Cube near your AV system is interference from your speakers -- when a movie is blasting it might be tough for it to "hear" the Alexa keyword, turn down the volume and listen for your next command. The Cube has a redesigned array of eight microphones that work from across the room, and Amazon claims that "Advanced beamforming technology combines the signals from the individual microphones to suppress noise, reverberation, content currently playing, and even competing speech."

Like Fire TV, the Cube comes with a regular voice remote too, so if your commands can't be heard, you can always talk into the clicker.

Focused on voice

As usual, each command has to be prefaced with the "Alexa" wake word, but Gupta said there was no need to specify the device -- you can just say "Alexa, watch CNN" instead of "Alexa, watch CNN on the cable box." Grouped commands, aka Alexa routines like Gupta's "Alexa, I'm home," can have any name you want.

Other commands that work, after you say the "Alexa" keyword:

  • "Turn on/off the TV"
  • "Turn up/down the volume" or "Mute"
  • "Home" or "Go home" returns to Fire TV home page
  • "Launch Netflix" or "Launch Hulu" to launch apps
  • "Play 'Transparent'" or "Play 'Sneaky Pete'"
  • "Show dramas" or "Show recent movies"
  • "Pause," "Stop," "Play," "Rewind" and "Fast-forward"
  • "Go down" or "Scroll down" navigates through the page
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Numbers on thumbnails help ease voice navigation.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Beyond Amazon Prime video itself, and Amazon Channels like HBO, Starz and Showtime, other apps that allow direct voice commands include Hulu and PlayStation Vue. Amazon says it's working to add more app support soon.

An updated version of the Fire TV interface includes numbers next to selections to ease voice commands. For example, faced with a screen full of choices you can say "Play number 2" instead of "Play Transparent."

Should Harmony (and Caavo) worry?

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Logitech's Harmony remotes work with Alexa and commands your gear too.

Sarah Tew

Currently I use a Logitech Harmony remote along with a my Alexa at home, and it does a lot of the same things. I can say "Alexa, watch Netflix" and my TV and AV receiver will turn on and switch inputs, and my Roku will fire up the Netflix app. After that, however, I have to pick up the Harmony remote to do anything worthwhile.

With its ability to stream shows from Fire TV at your command, the Cube goes one step further than Harmony in terms of voice control. But the Cube's included remote lacks the ability to control any of your gear -- it doesn't even have volume or mute keys -- so I don't see it actually replacing a Harmony system anytime soon. 

It's also worth mentioning Caavo, a ambitious universal remote and AV switch that also works with Alexa. It's flawed by lack of HDR and a high price, but it competes in the same space as Harmony and Cube.

The two different takes on entertainment control, voice vs. remote, remind me once again that voice doesn't necessarily make things easier. I'd rather browse stuff onscreen using a remote than commands like "Alexa, scroll down," or pause by clicking the pause button rather than saying "Alexa, pause." But having the option to do both, especially when the remote goes missing, is pretty cool. 

After Amazon's demo I'm excited to play with the Cube myself and see how it works, in particular how easy it is to program everything. But with the company's excellent track record making Alexa devices play well with others, the Cube looks pretty slick so far.

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