Smart TV set-top boxes seem like a market that’s getting increasingly difficult to get into since almost every modern TV manufacturer builds some level of intelligent functionality into its products.
That said, if you want to integrate your TV into your digital assistant-enabled smart home, you’ve got to make sure you’re using the right TV operating system. For example, if you’re an Alexa household, you’re likely going to want to get a Fire TV, not a Chromecast or Roku.
That’s where the new Fire TV Cube comes in. It looks to centre itself as the smart hub for your TV by making Alexa work seamlessly with your television and controls the rest of your smart home in the process.
While you can control a regular Fire TV stick, Roku and Xbox One with Alexa voice commands, the integration is tighter with the Fire TV Cube, and the fact that it works immediately out of the box is worth the device’s relatively cheap $149.99 CAD price tag.
If you’re looking to add your TV to an Alexa-based smart home, this is one of the best ways to do it.
Voice controls are almost perfect
Resolution-wise, the Cube can stream 4K content in HDR, HDR10+, Dolby Vision, and it supports Dolby Atmos for virtual surround sound. All-in-all it’s a top of the line streaming box.
While this is exciting, these features are also the accepted standard for high-end set-top boxes and isn’t the real draw of the Cube. What makes it worthwhile are its voice controls and the ability to manage the rest of your home theatre setup via a built-in IR blaster.
For instance, while I don’t happen to have any IR controlled tech beyond my TV, I’m able to switch inputs and control my Sonos soundbar with the Fire TV’s voice controls.
While it isn’t a lot, it’s everything I need from the device. Being able to walk into my living room and say, “Alexa, TV on, and watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” and it just picks up where I left off last time I stopped watching, is a super futuristic feature. It’s worth noting that you can also do this with content from Netflix, or start videos on YouTube.
Even when I’m watching TV and I say, “Alexa, turn up the volume,” it feels natural and kind of amazing.
That said, voice controls aren’t always perfect and they take some getting used to. Specifically, you need to learn the right phrases and keywords to change inputs, find shows or play/pause content. It’s not hyper-intelligent, but it’s a step in the right direction.
If you do have a receiver or other home theatre hardware, the IR blasters built into the Cube or the included IR extender can be positioned to control them as well.
The Fire TV also hosts several Canadian apps. Notably, you’ll find CBC Gem, Crave, DAZN, Sportsnet, CTV and Global.
Speaking of the apps, the Fire TV operating system looks similar to a typical grid of apps, but you can scroll through each row to the right to reveal more tiles.
Amazon tosses in a lot of content from Prime Video on the home screen. The third row down on the grid is called ‘Prime Top TV.’ The section below this one shows content from other apps, but for me, it consisted of just Tubi, Sportsnet and Gem content. Clicking on items in this row only took me to the corresponding app, not the show itself.
Below that, it shows you live content if an app supports it. All I was able to see here were episodes of CBC’s The National.
Overall, the Fire TV Cube’s operating system is solid. It works well, but I do wish Amazon pushed its content less on the main page, especially since it has a few sections called ‘Your Videos,’ ‘TV Shows’ and ‘Movies’ that are also full of Prime Video content.
Still, if Amazon just showed recently watched content from more shows besides Prime Video content, and only the apps I’ve downloaded on the home screen, the experience would have been way better. It’s also worth mentioning that the glossy Fire Cube is a grease, dust and fingerprint magnet.
Voice control enthusiasts need apply
If you want a Fire TV or even a smart TV, it’s hard to look past the Fire TV Cube. The simple addition of voice controls built into the box is enough to make any tech enthusiast go wild.
Being able to control your TV’s volume and inputs also helped make the device an all-in-one smart TV operating system. For instance, since I got the Fire TV Cube and set it up, I haven’t even picked up my default remote, instead opting to use the Cube’s remote and voice controls.
Overall, I really like Fire TV Cube. It’s fast, it works well, and I don’t mind when voice controls don't work every time. I’ve been using Google Assistant and Alexa steadily for over a year. I understand that it’s not perfect, but when it works, I feel like I’m two steps away from never touching a remote again.
"Being able to control your TV’s volume and inputs also helped make the device an all-in-one smart TV operating system."