Amazon’s Echo speaker and Fire TV streaming player have both been hits, so now the company’s mashing them together with the Fire TV Cube.
The new $120 streaming box, which launches on June 21, is similar to the “Pendant Design” Fire TV that Amazon released last year, with the same processing power and 4K HDR video support. But instead of tucking away behind the TV, the Fire TV Cube—which is, indeed a cube—is designed to sit out in the open, and has a far-field microphone array and speaker for hands-free Alexa voice commands. It also includes an infrared emitter that can control TV volume and switch to live channels on cable and satellite boxes. The idea is that you can ask Alexa to start watching a program or channel, and the Fire TV Cube will turn on the TV, switch to the correct input, and begin playback on your behalf.
“It’s a new paradigm for how you control your TV,” says Jen Prenner, Amazon’s global head of marketing for Fire TV.
Amazon isn’t the only company looking to replace the remote control with hands-free voice commands. Google already allows users to control Chromecast devices from its Google Home speakers, and has announced a soundbar from JBL with Google Assistant and Android TV software built in. Roku, meanwhile, is building its own smart speaker platform with partners like TCL, and Apple’s HomePod speaker can pair with an Apple TV for basic playback controls. TiVo not only lets you use Alexa to control its DVR, but was recently giving away a free Echo with the purchase of a TiVo box.
Still, Amazon will be the first to combine a smart speaker and streaming player into one box, and is already a leader in both of those categories individually. (The Fire TV outsold other streaming players last year according to IDC, and Echo devices are beating other smart speakers in market share, though Google Home has recently gained some ground.) The Fire TV Cube could help Amazon extend its lead in two important markets at the same time.
Replacing the remote
Amazon’s existing Echo and Fire TV devices can already work together to some extent. By pairing the two devices, you can ask Alexa to control video playback, search for content, and launch videos in supported apps such as Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and ESPN.
Prenner says combining the two devices allowed Amazon to optimize the Fire TV Cube for voice. On the TV, users will see contextual “hints” on how to navigate with Alexa commands, and the Cube will recognize when the TV is off so it can quickly answer queries through its built-in speakers. When the TV is on, the Fire TV Cube will essentially serve as a giant Echo Show, displaying answers to questions on the big screen. Users can then ask Alexa to show feeds from supported webcams, play trivia games, or listen to music with album art on the TV.
With its infrared emitters, the Cube is also the only Fire TV device that can control a TV’s volume and switch channels on a cable or satellite box. Amazon’s other Fire TV devices require you to keep a separate remote handy.
The Fire TV Cube could even push more streaming video providers to add Alexa controls to their apps. Currently, Alexa can launch videos directly in 13 apps, but Amazon says Netflix and Fox Now will add support in time for the Fire TV Cube’s launch on June 21. The company also says “dozens” more apps will add Alexa support throughout the year.
“We think it’s really going to change the way customers utilize Fire TV, because it’s so much more functional,” Prenner says.
Still, the Fire TV Cube’s remote-killing capabilities will have some limitations, at least for now. Like Amazon’s other Fire TV devices, the Cube’s actual remote control still lacks volume buttons and the ability to talk to other devices via infrared, so if you don’t feel like talking to the TV, you’ll need a second remote to turn up the volume. The Cube’s cable box controls are also limited to live TV–it can’t yet load on-demand video or shows stored on a DVR–and the box doesn’t support tuning to live channels from an over-the-air antenna.
Prenner says to stay tuned on those fronts. She says Amazon has an “interesting roadmap” ahead with regards to antenna support, and the company is “looking at improving our products down the line” in the remote area. The team has also been looking at adding more cable box controls through Alexa.
“We genuinely feel . . . that what we’re delivering to customers today–which we think is fantastic–in 30 days, or 60 days, or a year, is going to be even smarter than it is today,” she adds.
Back to the box
The Fire TV Cube will be an interesting test for full-blown streaming boxes, which have fallen out of favor as most consumers opt for cheaper streaming dongles that can fit behind a television. Last year, Parks Associates found that Amazon’s $40 Fire TV Stick made up 81% of all Fire TV devices owned in U.S. broadband homes. The NPD Group found that Roku’s average selling price was less than $50, suggesting that most customers also opt for the company’s cheaper streaming sticks. Even if you need 4K HDR video support, you only have to pay $70 for Amazon’s Fire TV Pendant, Roku’s Streaming Stick+, or Google’s Chromecast Ultra.
That’s made life difficult for premium streaming boxes like the Apple TV, which sells for $150 and up. While Apple’s market share is holding steady at 15% according to Parks Associates, cheaper products from Roku and Amazon respectively make up 37% and 28% of streaming player usage among U.S. broadband homes.
If the Fire TV Cube succeeds, then, it’ll be entirely because consumers see the value in having hands-free voice controls built in. (The actual price is $120, but Amazon is offering it to Prime subscribers for $90 through Friday.) “We really believe we’ve priced it at a price that customers not only think is valuable, but is super reasonable when you think about Echo, Fire TV, far-field control, and device control,” says Prenner. “We think this is enough of a game-changer that customers are really going to like it.”