The new third-generation Fire TV Cube is Amazon’s fastest, most capable streaming player yet. Like its predecessors, the Cube is a hybrid Echo speaker and Fire TV that aims to provide the best of both worlds. Hands-free Alexa voice commands are always at your disposal, and it supports 4K streaming in all the popular HDR formats, including Dolby Vision. That dual functionality comes at a price of $139.99, significantly more expensive than Amazon’s streaming sticks like the Fire TV Stick 4K Max.
With the latest model, Amazon has tossed in a more powerful processor, speedier connectivity with Wi-Fi 6E, and there’s a new HDMI input that lets you run cable boxes or gaming consoles through the Fire TV Cube. This makes it possible to see overlays on-screen when you do things like ask Alexa for the weather or want to see a camera feed around your home. Those things appear right over top of whatever video is coming in through the HDMI input.
The Fire TV Cube hardware has gotten the same mesh fabric makeover around three sides as Amazon’s Echo speakers, and while this can pose some cleaning challenges, I think it looks much better than the previous glossy design. There are still physical buttons on top, with an Alexa LED strip running around the upper perimeter. I/O around the back includes HDMI in and HDMI out plus new ethernet and USB-A ports. The latter is definitely better than the Micro USB port on the previous model, and it’s nice no longer needing any adapters for ethernet — even if it’s only a 10/100 port. That seems like a strange mismatch when the Fire TV Cube offers Wi-Fi 6E for the first time, something most people won’t be using until their next router upgrade. The USB port could prove handy for external media storage or hooking up a webcam for video calls.
Getting up and running doesn’t take long at all, and after setting it up, you’ll quickly notice just how snappy the Fire TV Cube is. Amazon says it’s powered by a hexacore chip that’s up to twice as fast as the Fire TV Stick 4K Max. Over at AFTVnews, Elias Saba’s tests show that the CPU benchmarks higher than Nvidia’s Shield TV devices and any other Android-based streamer. (Amazon still trails the Shield in GPU performance, which is to be expected due to its gaming focus.) This is definitely the most performant Fire TV product yet, and I never encountered any hitches or signs of slowdown when navigating around, opening apps, or using voice commands.
I don’t have any major qualms with Amazon’s Fire TV software interface these days — except for the ads, which I’ll cover shortly. But Fire TV OS is easy enough to understand and explore. Like Google TV, Amazon bases everything on content recommendations instead of just presenting you with a grid of apps. You’ll still want to pin your favorite streaming apps to the shortcuts bar for fast access. It’s a busy homescreen, but the different hubs (home, live TV, search, your stuff) all make sense. I wish it were more customizable and you could hide recs from services you’re not interested in, but that’s not an option.
Having hands-free voice controls available at all times is a great perk and something that you won’t get from any other streaming box. Amazon’s voice commands on the Fire TV have grown pretty advanced. There are the basics like controlling your smart home or using voice for simple playback controls or to launch apps, but you can also effectively navigate the entire interface by telling Alexa where to scroll and choosing selections by name or on-screen numbers that accompany search results.
The included remote gives you channel and volume controls, a dedicated recents button for pulling up your last-used apps, and the usual branded buttons — in this case, for Prime Video, Netflix, Disney Plus, and Hulu. Unfortunately, there aren’t any programmable shortcut buttons, and the remote isn’t backlit. Amazon reserves those luxuries for its $34.99 Alexa Voice Remote Pro, which doesn’t (yet) come bundled with any of the company’s streamers.
I prefer the remote in most cases, but there’s something to be said for the convenience of asking the Fire TV Cube to turn on my TV and jump right into Sling TV if that remote is across the room. Some voice requests will work regardless of whether the TV screen is powered on, but music playback will always use your TV speakers or home theater sound system instead of the internal speaker. What’s less convenient is the Fire TV Cube’s lack of support for Apple AirPlay. It’s only growing more strange that Fire TV televisions include this mirroring capability, but the standalone streaming devices continue to ignore it completely. Support for Google Cast is also absent, so unless you’re an Amazon Photos user, you’re left without any easy method of sharing photos and videos from your phone to the TV screen.
I’m pleasantly surprised by how well Amazon is executing the live TV component of its Fire TV software. After I signed in to Sling TV, all of that programming was shown on the live guide screen, and I could click into anything to hop to that channel. Alexa voice commands are also more effective in this department than assistants on platforms. I could walk into the room and say “tune to CNN” or “tune to ESPN on Sling TV” and the Fire TV Cube would power on the TV and follow through on those requests without missing a beat.
Sometimes it’s so quick at hopping into a channel that there’s no Sling TV splash screen shown beforehand, making the whole experience feel more cohesive. The Apple TV can do this with certain apps, but popular services like YouTube TV, Hulu with Live TV, and Sling TV aren’t supported. And tvOS lacks any kind of TV guide that integrates with these entertainment options. Amazon easily wins this category.
I’ve only lightly experimented with the Fire TV Cube’s new HDMI input functionality. I don’t have cable anymore, but other reviews say Alexa does a sufficient job of channel surfing when you’ve got a cable box running through the port. I’d advise against plugging a game console into the HDMI in, however. Not only is passthrough video output limited to 60Hz — a deal-breaker for Xbox Series X and PS5 owners — but also there was perceptible input lag when I spent around an hour playing my Switch through the Fire TV Cube. I see the appeal of getting Alexa’s visual answers when using external devices, but this feature is only practical for the cable box scenario. You don’t have to run your cable box through the HDMI port for Alexa to control it; this can also be achieved with the integrated IR blaster. But taking advantage of the new passthrough support means you won’t be hopping between HDMI sources.
Advertising across Fire TV OS remains way more in your face than I’d like. When the Cube is left idle and goes into screensaver mode, you’ll see promoted movies and TV shows, sure, but there are also ads for Lexus cars. At the top of the homescreen over the last few days, there’s been a banner ad for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, which doesn’t even seem relevant to the platform outside of Twitch streams. And ads are now taking up room in the live channel guide, which is frustrating some Fire TV owners. When you’re perusing through the carousels of content on the homescreen, Amazon’s own selections still get the lion’s share of promotion. The latter shouldn’t come as a surprise on the company’s own hardware, but the dial really needs to be turned down on the rest. It cheapens the whole user experience and feels unwarranted on a $140 product. Ads are inevitable on $40 streaming sticks; that’s how they’re so affordable in the first place. But Amazon should be able to detect when customers have paid a premium for the Fire TV Cube and pull it back.
Aside from its improved performance and better port selection, the latest Fire TV Cube also includes a new upscaling feature that Amazon calls “Super Resolution Upscaling.” This is meant to make lower-resolution 1080p and 720p content look closer to true 4K. But unlike Nvidia, Amazon isn’t using any AI tricks for its upscaling feature. Here are the techy details on how it works, per Amazon spokesperson Sasha Litvakov:
Super Resolution Upscaling on the new Fire TV Cube is not powered by AI/ML. Instead, Super Resolution Upscaling uses a Poly Phase Scalar (PPS) and non-linear filtering techniques to preserve details and remove artifacts like jagged edges and blurriness. So, if you have 4K TV and you’re watching content that is less than 4K — whether it’s content on apps within the Fire TV experience, live TV on your connected cable set-top box, or personal photos — Fire TV Cube will automatically upscale to 4K and make the images look sharper.
The thing is, Super Resolution Upscaling isn’t very noticeable in practice. There’s no way to easily compare it on and off when watching content; I wish Amazon had implemented something like the slider on the Shield TV as a clear side-by-side demonstration of what this new feature is actually doing. Right now, it’s good for some extra clarity and sharpness, but it’s not enough to wow you. For actual 4K content, the Fire TV Cube supports Dolby Vision, HDR10 Plus, HDR10, and HLG for video formats and is also capable of Dolby Atmos audio.
The 2022 Fire TV Cube is a powerhouse of a streaming device, and its hands-free voice controls are unmatched by any competitors. With faster Wi-Fi and more useful port selection, there’s a lot to like about this little entertainment cube. But some ideas like HDMI input clearly have some growing pains to overcome; input lag and a 60Hz ceiling render the passthrough feature impractical for anything but cable boxes and Blu-ray players. The new upscaling capabilities aren’t strong enough to stand out. And for what feels like the hundredth time, Amazon really needs to start showing some restraint with the number of ads on this $140 device.
It’s really the hands-free convenience of the Fire TV Cube that makes it unique from other flagship players. If you can’t see yourself regularly using those voice controls, just stick with a Fire TV… stick, and use the remote for voice commands. The new Apple TV 4K is very much worth considering if you want to escape Amazon’s ad-heavy software. And Nvidia’s Shield remains a strong performer, delivers better upscaling, and comes with a phenomenal backlit remote.
But if you’ve got an old, slowing Fire TV in need of replacing, the Fire TV Cube does manage to wear two hats — smart speaker and streaming gadget — quite well. And its performance should hold up for a long time to come. There are still holes to fill like AirPlay and / or Google Cast support, but thanks to its many features and sheer speed, the Cube is Amazon’s most impressive streaming player yet. Many people can easily get by with one of the company’s cheaper options, but this one provides the best overall experience.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge