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Amazon Fire TV Cube review: Alexa turns on your TV, and it feels like magic

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The Cube also can't control other source devices beyond Fire TV itself, including a game console, Roku or Apple TV streamer, or the Smart TV functions on your television. If you really like using voice commands, you can ditch those other streamers and stick with Fire TV, or you can keep their remotes around and simply have the Cube switch to them when you want. But if you really want to take advantage of the Cube's voice functions, you'll use it for streaming too.

Netflix, Hulu, PlayStation Vue and of course Amazon itself support deeper voice commands such as search and playback control ("Alexa, pause" for example), but many do not. You can launch most apps with a voice command, but actually using them requires picking up the Fire TV remote. In practice I kept that remote close at hand whenever I was streaming anyway, because it made even voice supported apps like Netflix much easier to browse and use. But having the option to use hands-free voice was still great. Amazon says it's working with developers to add more voice support to Fire TV apps all the time.

Setup made easy with voice

I performed the Cube's device setup routine at least 20 times during the course of my testing, and as a decade-plus Harmony veteran, I can say with authority: Alexa makes it a hell of a lot easier.

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The Alexa speaker aids setup greatly.

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My first setup, with just a TV and a sound bar, was a revelation. Alexa's voice guided me through the process, accompanied by on-screen prompts. My Samsung TV was automatically detected in a few seconds, and then the system asked whether I wanted to connect a receiver or sound bar. I chose the latter, specified its brand (Yamaha) and bit of music began playing through the sound bar. I confirmed I could hear it on the Cube's on-screen menu, then confirmed that the Cube could control turning power on and off. Finally a screen appeared that said "Now we'll learn how Fire TV Cube is connected to your sound bar," which included an option that read "Press >> if you don't change inputs on your sound bar." Since I don't, this command applied to me and I pressed >>. Finally I saw "All done! Now you can control your TV and sound bar with Alexa."

With an AV receiver, the process had more steps was but was still dead-simple. Again, Alexa detected my TV automatically, then asked for my receiver brand. It then walked through power on/off and mute, then set up input switching for Fire TV (happily, I could specify inputs on either the receiver or the TV). That was it for the initial setup.

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On-screen prompts guide you through everything.

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To add my cable box, the process was once again aided by voice. I specified my zip code and provider (Verizon Fios), then was told to use my original remotes to switch to your cable box. I did so and a cable show appeared on-screen, accompanied by audio from the receiver's speakers. At the same time Alexa's voice piped through the Cube's built-in speaker and asked me to confirm as much, by pressing fast-forward on the Fire TV remote. At first the cable show's audio prevented me from hearing Alex'a instruction, but I fixed that issue by turning down the receiver's volume and cranking the Cube's, using the top volume controls.

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There's a separate IR emitter included, but I didn't really need it for open-shelf setups.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Finally, I set up input switching for my Xbox and Apple TV. Although the Cube can't control such devices directly, you can switch to them using voice commands -- for example, "Alexa, switch to Xbox" and "Alexa, switch to Apple TV."

The built-in IR emitters on the Cube were powerful enough that I never needed to use the included separate IR emitter in any setup. I assume it would be necessary only for stuff hidden behind a cabinet door.

Ice cool Cube tidbits

Amazon Fire TV Cube
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Numbers are designed to ease navigation via voice; just say "Alexa, play number 1."

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  • Pretty much every command works whether your system is on or off. If it's off, issuing a command like "Alexa, play Ozark on Netflix" will turn on the TV and sound bar/receiver and switch inputs, as necessary, before starting to stream the show.
  • Sometimes Alexa seemed to be responding, but I couldn't hear anything because the audio system (sound bar or receiver) was turned off or otherwise disabled. I said "Alexa, I can't hear you" and she replied "OK, I'll talk to you here now" using the built-in speaker.
  • At any point I could turn on the TV, sound bar or receiver via voice, and saying "Alexa, go home" took me to the Fire TV home page.
  • The blue light bar on the Cube perfectly matches the blue light bar that appears on the TV, to denote that Alexa is listening
  • Speaking of streaming apps, if you're a subscriber to PlayStation Vue or Hulu with Live TV, the "Tune to [channel name]" command works with those services just like on a cable box. When I said "Alexa, tune to TNT" she asked which of the two I wanted to use. I said "PlayStation Vue" and the app launched on Cube and started playing the channel.
  • The Fire TV interface has been tweaked to add numbers to a list of selections, for example search results, with the aim of making voice commands easier. I could just say "Alexa, play number 3" instead of the show name.
  • YouTube works, Google-vs.-Amazon feud be damned. I could say "Alexa, show me CNET videos on YouTube and I'd see a list of relevant results, courtesy of the Silk browser. Its interface looks exactly like an actual YouTube app (and nothing like a browser), to the extent that I didn't miss having an official app.
  • An option in the setup menu for your audio device lets you change the increments of increase or decrease, to make the system get louder (or quieter) more quickly, with fewer "Volume up" or "Volume down" voice commands.
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There are scads of device settings. One of my favorite is volume increment control.

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Smooth but not flawless

There's a lot going on with the Cube, and in my brief three-day test period I uncovered some issues. Here's a quick list.

  • As usual with Alexa I had to speak clearly and be sure to parse commands in a way she understood, or risk being misheard. Still, I had to repeat myself to correct misinterpretations fairly frequently.
  • As with any universal remote, firing everything up, switching inputs and having something actually appear on-screen can take awhile; twenty seconds or more in some cases. I found it varies greatly according to what gear you have. You can shave it by playing with the delay controls in settings, but that's the nature of IR-based device control.
  • Channel commands were often misheard. For example "Tune to CBS" was heard occasionally as "Tune to V" and Alexa would say no such channel existed.
  • "Play CNN" or "Watch CNN" (or another channel) didn't work to change channels on the cable box; I had to use the "Tune to..." command.
  • During setup, some of Alexa's voice responses were truncated or cut off, making them difficult to understand.
  • I mistakenly listed the wrong input for my TV during AV receiver setup at one point, but there was no way to go back and fix it. So I just powered through manually, and fixed it later using the "Manage Equipment" screen.
  • On two separate receivers, the Sony and Denon, the input names weren't listed as an option, so I had to experiment to get Cube to switch to the right one. In the case of the Denon, I never found it so ended up connecting the device to the TV instead.
  • During setup with the Denon, the Cube failed to properly turn it off at one point, instead sending a command to change the zone. I had to recognize and fix the issue manually before setup could continue, but the Cube did end up controlling the receiver properly.
  • Occasionally in some setups, the TV, sound bar or AV receiver wouldn't turn on automatically when the entire system was off and I issued a command like "Watch Netflix." I had to follow with "Turn on the TV."
  • Having to say "Alexa" all the time can really become tiring, and a lot of stuff is easier to accomplish by pressing a button on a remote rather than using voice commands.

Should you Cube?

Despite the issues listed above, using the Cube was mostly a smooth experience. The main question is whether it's right for your particular system.

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A Harmony remote can replace your device remotes. With a Cube you'll have to keep many of them around. 

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If you have a lot of gear, in particular a cable DVR, a Roku or Apple TV you prefer to use instead of Fire TV, or a Blu-ray player you use a lot, the Cube is less useful. You'll need to keep that device's remote around to handle most functions.

Likewise if you already use a Harmony or other universal remote. To use the Cube and one of those clickers together in the same system is confusing. If you use the Cube to initiate an activity, for example watching cable, you have to remember to set your universal remote to the matching setting manually. A much simpler solution, if you want to use voice control with Harmony, is the Harmony Alexa skill.

But if you want to rely primarily on Fire TV for streaming, especially if you're a PlayStation Vue or Hulu subscriber, the Cube is great. It's also superb if you want an easy way to use your full-fledged audio system to enjoy music with Alexa voice control. And as Amazon adds more device control and more apps step up with deeper voice support, it's only going to get better.

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