The first Fire TV Cube from Amazon was really three products in one: a Fire TV streaming device, an Alexa smart speaker and a universal remote control for other devices connected to your TV. It offered the same streaming experience as Amazon's other Fire TV & # 39; s, but the built-in microphones allowed the Cube to be used completely hands-free via voice commands. It can also control cable boxes, sound bars and A / V receivers using built-in IR blasters. But the original Cube missed Dolby Vision HDR and eventually Amazon released a cheaper Fire TV Stick 4K did have Dolby Vision for less money and leave the all-cube in an uncomfortable place.
So for 2019, Amazon has renewed the Fire TV Cube to make it the flagship of the line-up. It has the same exact design as before, but now has Dolby Vision, a more powerful processor and faster response times. Amazon is trying to reduce cube dependence on the cloud, with a new feature & # 39; local voice control & # 39; which processes basic commands on the device itself. And the new Fire TV Cube can still control your home cinema components and dim the smart lights when you sit down for a movie night – all with just your voice.
The Fire TV Cube looks completely unchanged from the outside. It has the same controls as an Echo speaker on top (with a matte texture) with eight small microphone holes, and it is shiny everywhere. I understand that Amazon has chosen this design for maximum IR signal throughput, but the thing remains a huge dust magnet.
All around is an HDMI output, power, an input for the included IR extender and a Micro USB port for the Ethernet adapter (also in the box) if you need it. You want to use the thin IR extension cable if some of your home theater components are out of sight or are stored in a cupboard. Unfortunately, Amazon still does not include an HDMI cable with the Fire TV Cube for $ 120.
Amazon recommends that you place the cube at least one foot away from a speaker. Even with the sound of a Sonos Beam, I found the microphones pretty good at picking up my voice and the "Alexa" word at a normal volume.
Dolby Vision and HDR10 + are new in the second generation Fire TV Cube; the first model only had standard HDR10 support. HDR transmission worked great on my TCL TV, with the display automatically recognizing when Dolby Vision or HDR10 content was being played and applying the correct extended color and brightness settings. Now that all major formats are supported, you have many choices for streaming 4K between Netflix, Prime Video, Vudu and other apps. As Fire TV, this year's Cube is objectively superior to the original.
But it's still just like a universal remote control. The Fire TV Cube can control most TVs, receivers and soundbars – plus a few cable boxes. You will be asked to choose your devices during installation, after which Alexa will know the ins and outs of your equipment. In general, the IR transmitter works well to transmit commands to your home cinema components and enable everything synchronously. But for other hardware such as game consoles or Blu-ray players, Alexa cannot do much at all. The Cube switches to the correct HDMI input, but you are alone. That's all you can expect from IR blasters, but companies like Caavo are trying to do more with on-screen machine learning.
Yet Alexa feels faster this time. Local voice control causes certain standard voice commands to be executed up to four times faster than before, because the Cube processes them directly and does not need help from Amazon's servers. The awkward pause after a voice command has disappeared – but only sometimes.
Local management works for your usual functions such as navigating in the UX. You literally tell Alexa how to scroll or choose a number to open the app or content you want to view (& # 39; Alexa, play number 5 & # 39;). Apps such as Netflix and Hulu are optimized for hands-free voice control with these numbers on the screen in addition to selections, but that does not apply to many other streaming apps. In those cases you are even better off if you only use the physical Alexa remote control. And the Cube still needs to contact the cloud before a lot of of assignments, even if the basis is now considerably faster.
Regarding its secondary function as a smart speaker, the Fire TV Cube has become a better Alexa speaker thanks to continuous software updates. It now supports calls, voice messages and the Drop In function, so it is basically on an equal footing with an Echo. You can also add the Cube to a multi-room music system with other Alexa devices. Remember that the Cube always plays music requests through your soundbar or TV speakers; the built-in speaker is great for Alexa voice responses, but is not suitable for much else.
Amazon says that the Cube now has a hexa-core processor and that the Fire TV interface in my time so far felt spicy. But some owners of the original device noticed that it got stuck over time and showed an annoying amount of delay, and I didn't have enough time to exclude that possibility. However, Amazon is convinced that the Fire TV Cube is now the fastest Fire TV, while the Fire TV Stick 4K set the bar earlier. So it should be more consistent and can run Kodi, Plex and other apps without problems.
The software experience largely corresponds to that of other Fire TV devices. All the apps you could want are there and Amazon has finally restored the YouTube gap that existed last year. YouTube TV is now also available, although from Sony PlayStation Vue receives the preferential treatment streaming TV services and is directly integrated into the Amazon live guide.
My usual nitpicks with the Fire TV home screen remain: Amazon can push its originals a little too aggressively, and it also sends customers to Prime Channel subscriptions for HBO, Starz, Epix and other networks. But when you are looking for a genre or specific film or show, the platform shows you where it can be streamed. And seeing visual answers for Alexa questions (such as questions about the weather or searching for nearby restaurants) is a nice touch. But these functions are not unique to the Cube; they are now part of Fire TV OS as a whole.
I think the Fire TV Cube makes the most sense for people who are just starting out with the Amazon ecosystem. If you already have an Echo Dot in your living room, the Fire TV Stick 4K makes more sense. It all offers the same Dolby and HDR support and costs just $ 50. In addition, the Alexa Voice Remote that comes with that device can also control your TV and soundbar. you have really had to want the hands-free powers of the Cube – and his ability to do double duty as an Alexa speaker when the TV screen is off – for the $ 120 to be worth it.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge
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