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David Katzmaier

Amazon augments Alexa voice commands on Fire TV devices

New voice capabilities available in the coming weeks on Amazon's Fire TV streaming gadgets include the ability to launch apps directly, watch TV shows and movies by speaking their name, and more.

No longer content to trail Siri on Apple TV, Amazon's Alexa is speaking up for herself on TVs, and listening to more of your commands.

Today Amazon unveiled a few new capabilities for its Fire TV devices, namely the $99 Fire TV box and the $50 Fire TV Stick with voice remote. They expand the devices' voice recognition features, and allow its built-in Alexa voice assistant to respond with certain information. Here's a rundown.

  • Launch apps by speaking phrases such as "open HBO Now" and "launch Hulu."
  • Start playing TV shows and movies by speaking the titles, like "play 'Interstellar'" and "watch 'Veep.'" This ability works with Amazon Video and add-on subscription content (Starz, Showtime and others), but not other apps.
  • Ask for information on local movie showtimes, businesses and restaurants, and Alexa will speak it back to you.
  • Command Alexa to "read 'A Dance with Dragons'" -- or any other speech-to-text-enabled book in your Kindle library.
  • Not voice-related, but the Fire TV box will (finally) get access to YouTube's 4K library, a feature competitors like Nvidia Shield and Roku 4 have had since launch.

Amazon says a software update with the new features will roll out in the coming weeks.

Fire TV boxes have always had the ability to find TV shows and movies, as well as apps, when you speak the titles and other keywords into the mic on the remote. The Fire TV stick also offers voice if you buy the $50 version with the voice remote; the standard Stick is $40 and doesn't support voice.

Many of the new features are similar to what's offered by Siri on the new Apple TV , but with some important differences. Alexa actually talks back to you (via your TV's speakers) while Siri on Apple TV does not. But Siri can do a lot more via voice, for example skip ahead a specific amount of time during playback, show actor and other information, or even respond to the command "what did he say?" by skipping back 10 seconds and showing subtitles.

The biggest difference between Alexa on Fire TV and on devices such as the Echo and Dot is the fact that on Fire TV, Alexa isn't always listening. You have to have your TV on, pick up the remote and press the button to get a response, much like the Amazon Tap.

I actually tried a few of the features detailed above on the Fire TV box and some capabilities, for example local business information and books playback, are actually available already.

Updated with conformation from Amazon that the new voice features would also come to voice-enabled Fire TV stick devices.