Amazon Fire TV Cube review: great smart TV box, irritating smart speaker | Technology – Blog – 10 minute

The Fire TV Cube is Amazon’s attempt to combine a smart TV streaming box with an Alexa-powered smart speaker, producing a small black box that doubles as an Echo device.
The Cube doesn’t look like anything else. The combination of shiny and matt black plastic makes it stand out at first, but the 86mm-wide and 77mm-tall cube is small enough not to be distracting sitting next to your TV.
It’s essentially a voice-controlled Echo Dot mated with a Fire TV smart television box. The top resembles an Echo Dot with the same four-way configuration of buttons for volume, muting the microphones and an action button, plus a series of holes for the eight beam-forming mics.
A light strip at the top front edge shows what Alexa is doing, lighting up blue when listening, or orange with alerts. Ports are in the back for power, HDMI for your TV (cable sold separately), an optional infrared blaster and a microUSB socket, into which you can plug the included ethernet adapter if you don’t want to use wifi to connect to the internet.
While the Cube looks neat, the tangle of cables coming out the back doesn’t, which is a shame as it has to sit out in the open to work properly as a smart speaker and to control your other devices.
Also included in the box is Amazon’s latest Alexa voice remote that ships with most Fire TV products, including the £50 Fire TV Stick 4K. It’s a simple, easy to use remote, which includes a much-welcome dedicated power button, a microphone button for talking straight into it for Alexa, plus dedicated play and volume buttons.
Very smart TV

The Fire TV interface is fairly straightforward with most options up front and voice-search across multiple services with Alexa making it easy to find what you want. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
The Cube excels as a smart TV box. The interface is fast and responsive. The home screen is fairly simple, with much of the recommended content from the likes of Prime Video, Netflix and others accessible straight from carousels in the main interface.
Dedicated media apps take care of the rest with most mainstream services in the UK supported, including All4, Apple TV (iTunes etc), BBC iPlayer, BBC Sport, ITV Hub, My5, Netflix and YouTube, through which you can also access Google Play Movies. The only notable exception is BT Sport, which may be a deal-breaker for some.
The Cube supports high-end video and audio formats that are becoming increasingly popular as part of streaming services too. On the video front you have up to 4K at 60Hz, HDR10 and HDR10+, HLG and Dolby Vision, meaning that essentially every mainstream HDR format is covered. On the audio side you have your standard stereo, 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound, but you also have Dolby’s Atmos format, again covering practically every base. Both Dolby Vision and Atmos are supported by Apple TV, Netflix and Prime Video.
Of course your equipment also has to support these standards to use them, but attached to an LG OLED and Denon receiver, Jack Ryan in Dolby Vision and Atmos on Prime Video looked and sounded fantastic.
What was that, Alexa?

Mute the mics and the Cube can be used just like any other Fire TV, with the button lit red to show you Alexa isn’t listening – unless you speak to it through the remote. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
As a smart speaker the Cube can’t quite match up to Amazon’s cheapest Echo devices. While it can hear you just fine, Alexa’s speech is output from the box with annoying variations in volume. It starts very quiet before returning to normal volume each time Alexa starts to speak, so you often miss what is being said. It is seriously irritating.
You can control basic things such as playback, volume and navigation in most apps. But Netflix, Prime Video and YouTube support deeper voice control, including the ability to simply request a show or movie.
Alexa can also turn things on and off, such as your TV. The Cube uses both the HDMI control and IR blasters to remote control your various entertainment devices, alongside Alexa’s smart home integration for lights and other bits.
Setting it all up was a little long-winded but fairly straightforward. Getting the TV and a Denon receiver to switch on for the Cube was easy. Adding the Sky Q and Virgin V6 boxes was a bit more laborious, requiring the additional IR blaster and pressing buttons when Alexa says so.
Once working you can changing the channel up and down, control the volume and even “tune to BBC One”. Beyond that things get a bit hit and miss. Ask it to pause or play and Alexa says “your provider couldn’t do that”, but it can fast forward and rewind. It also failed to turn off the satellite box when turning everything else off, and routinely failed to turn on the TV or the Sky Q box when commanded.
The novelty of voice control quickly turned to annoyance. I switched back to reaching for the remote for reliable control. In its current state I don’t think it’s worth persevering with.
Some of these issues will be due to the manufacturer of the box you’re trying to control, but given Logitech’s long-standing Harmony smart remote can reliably replicate practically every function of common devices, Amazon should be able to do better.
All of these playback controls and Alexa functions can be done through the voice remote too. Hold the button, talk to Alexa and it will either answer through the Cube’s speakers or your TV if on – no Alexa wake word required.

The Cube’s remote reliably controlled the volume on other devices, but most functions required reaching for the original remote as Alexa struggled. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
Observations

The blue LED strip pulses from side to side when Alexa is turning things on or off

Volume control via Alexa caused wild jumps until I manually adjusted the IR controls through the settings on the Cube

Alexa mutes your TV when it hears its wake word

“Alexa, go home” takes you back to the Fire TV interface even if you were watching Sky or Virgin

You can turn off the mics on the Cube and still use the button on the remote to talk to Alexa

Price
The Amazon Fire TV Cube costs £109.99.
For comparison, the Fire TV stick costs £39.99, the Fire TV stick 4K costs £49.99, the Nvidia Shield costs £149.99 and the Apple TV 4K costs £179.
Verdict
The Amazon Fire TV Cube is an excellent smart TV box, supporting a wide selection of apps and services, video and audio standards and with snappy, lag-free performance. It is arguably one of the best smart TV boxes available.
But it is not a good smart speaker. Irritating volume fluctuations and a decidedly average speaker make it worse than a separate Echo Dot. The home entertainment equipment control is likewise poor. It works fine enough for turning on your TV for the Fire TV interface, but is inconsistent for other devices and can’t replicate enough functionality via voice that you don’t need to routinely reach for the original remote. It’s irritating more than it is useful once the novelty has worn off.
That’s not to say Alexa doesn’t work very well at controlling the Fire TV interface, playback of shows by name and quickly jumping to a particular point in a movie. But you can do that just fine using the mic button on the remote – the same remote and capability you get with the Fire TV Stick 4K which costs less than half the price.
The Fire TV Cube is still significantly cheaper than most of the competition, but if you want the combo of an Amazon smart TV box and an Alexa smart speaker, buy the Fire TV Stick 4K with an Echo Dot and save £10 or more.

Pros: fast, comprehensive audio and video support, most streaming services including YouTube and Apple TV, Alexa remote, voice control of Fire TV interface
Cons: no BT Sport, variable volume output bad as a smart speaker, device control more trouble than it’s worth, more than twice the price of Fire TV Stick 4K

The back of the Cube has a microUSB socket takes the optional, but included in the box, ethernet adapter if your wifi isn’t up to scratch. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
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Amazon unveils a new Fire TV Cube, soundbar, and over a dozen Fire TV Edition products – gpgmail


At the big European tech trade show, IFA 2019, Amazon today announced over 20 new Fire TV-branded devices, including a next-generation Fire TV Cube, Fire TV Edition soundbar from Anker — its first foray into Fire TV Edition audio products — and 15 new Fire TV Edition products, including the first OLED Fire TV Edition smart TVs.

The announcement represents a significant expansion of Amazon’s Fire TV hardware line and integrations at a time when Roku has gained a lead over Amazon in the U.S., in terms of connected-TV market share, while Fire TV has been claiming the top spot in some European markets and an international lead over Roku.

The company today said its Fire TV devices now have over 37 million monthly active users globally, which is ahead of the 30.5 million Roku reported in Q2. Both companies offer products that may be used by more than one person in a household, of course, but each household only gets counted as one user (or account) as long as they’ve streamed through the platform in the past month. It’s a relatively fair comparison, in other words.

Of the new devices, the new Fire TV Cube is one of the more interesting additions to the lineup as it represents the second generation, and a big upgrade, over the existing product. The device offers a hands-free Fire TV experience, and has become the testing ground for many Fire TV software enhancements before they roll out to the wider product lineup.

The updated Fire TV Cube now includes a faster, “hexa-core” processor that’s twice as powerful as the one that shipped in the first generation device. It provides “instant access” to Dolby Vision and 4K Ultra HD content, Amazon claims, at up to 60 frames per second. The new Cube also includes on-device processing with Local Voice Control, which lets you more quickly execute some of your common voice commands like “Alexa, go home,” or “Alexa, scroll right,” for example. These commands will now execute up to 4 times faster, says Amazon.

The Fire TV Cube will also ship with far-field voice recognition capabilities with 8 microphones and technology that helps to suppress noise, reverberation, content currently playing, and even competing speech so Alexa better hears your voice commands even when the TV is on in a room full of people.

Customers will be able to control their compatible TV, soundbar, A/V receiver, cable or satellite box, as well as other smart home devices by way of the device’s support of multi-directional infrared technology, cloud-based protocols, and HDMI CEC, combined with Alexa. 

“Fire TV Cube was the first hands-free streaming media player powered by Alexa, and since launching last year we have gathered a wealth of feedback from customers about how they use voice in the living room,” said Marc Whitten, Vice President of Amazon Fire TV, in a statement. “Over the past year, we have continued to expand and advance the Fire TV Cube experience based on this feedback with dozens of new features including Multi-Room Music, Follow-Up Mode, and Alexa Communications. These key learnings carried over and guided the development of the second-generation Fire TV Cube, and we are excited to introduce this new-and-improved experience to customers around the world,” he said.

The new Fire TV Cube is available for pre-order in the U.S. for $119.99, in Canada for $149.99, the United Kingdom for £109.99, Germany for €119.99, and Japan for ¥14980.  It ships on Oct. 10 in all markets except Japan, where it ships on Nov. 5, instead. And it will be sold in a package with Ring Video Doorbell 2 for $249.99 (or $69 off).

Fire TV Cube Couch

Amazon’s Fire TV Edition lineup is expanding, too. This is the licensed version of the Fire TV OS available to other manufacturers for use in their own products.

The company announced more than 15 new products from brands including Skyworth, Arcelik, TPV, Compal, and others.

In partnership with Dixons Carphone, Amazon is teaming up to launch JVC – Fire TV Edition Smart 4K Ultra HD HDR LED TVs, which are the first Fire TV Edition products in the U.K. They’ll be sold by Currys PC World and online at Amazon.co.uk and are priced at £349 and up.

With IMTRON, a company of MediaMarktSaturn Retail Group, Amazon is launching a lineup of Fire TV Edition smart TVs under the private label ok. These will be available in Germany and Austria, as will the 11 Fire TV Edition smart TVs from Grundig including the first OLED Fire TV Edition television ( available in 55” and 65” models, starting at €1,299.99 for hands-free; or starting at €1,199.99 if not; pictured below). 

Grundig OLED Fire TV Edition display

Other more affordable Grundig Fire TV Edition products will be sold on Amazon.de in 32″, 40″, 43″, 49″, 55″, and 65″ variations, starting at €239.99. They’ll also come to retailers including MediaMarkt, Saturn, Euronics, Expert, EP:, Medimax, and others.

In the U.S., Amazon and Best Buy announced the first 65-inch Toshiba – Fire TV Edition smart TV with Dolby Vision, which will be available for customers in the United States next month for $599.

Finally, following Roku’s lead into home audio, Amazon also announced the first expansion of Fire TV Edition beyond the TV itself with the launch of the Nebula Soundbar from Anker. (Roku also today launched its own wireless soundbar).

The new device supports 4K Ultra HD, a unified smart TV user interface, near-field Alexa voice control, Dolby Vision pass-through, and more. It can also be added to a multi-room speaker group through the Alexa app, and comes with a 90-day trial to Amazon Music Unlimited. 

Nebula Soundbar – Fire TV Edition 4

It’s available for pre-order today for $229.99 in the United States, $269.99 in Canada, £179.99 in the United Kingdom, and €209.99 in Germany. It will begin shipping on November 21.

The expansion of Fire TV Edition-branded products is also meant to challenge Roku on the success of its Roku TV-branded television sets, which are similarly manufactured by partners but run the Roku OS.

In the U.S., Roku OS is the No. 1 licensed TV OS in the U.S. and now powers more than 1 in 3 smart TVs. Amazon is today is clearly answering that challenge by focusing on the international markets with a suite of new partners for Fire TV Edition.

 


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Cryptographic ICE Cube tests orbital cybersecurity protocols aboard the ISS – gpgmail


Encryption in space can be tricky. Even if you do everything right, a cosmic ray might come along and flip a bit, sabotaging the whole secure protocol. So if you can’t radiation-harden the computer, what can you do? European Space Agency researchers are testing solutions right now in an experiment running on board the ISS.

Cosmic radiation flipping bits may sound like a rare occurrence, and in a way it is. But satellites and spacecraft are out there for a long time and it only takes one such incident to potentially scuttle a whole mission. What can you do if you’re locked out of your own satellite? At that point it’s pretty much space junk. Just wait for it to burn up.

Larger, more expensive missions like GPS satellites and interplanetary craft use special hardened computers that are carefully proofed against cosmic rays and other things that go bump in the endless night out there. But these bespoke solutions are expensive and often bulky and heavy; if you’re trying to minimize costs and space to launch a constellation or student project, hardening isn’t always an option.

“We’re testing two related approaches to the encryption problem for non rad-hardened systems,” explained ESA’s Lukas Armborst in a news release. To keep costs down and hardware recognizable, the team is using a Raspberry Pi Zero board, one of the simplest and lowest-cost full-fledged computers you can buy these days. It’s mostly unmodified, just coated to meet ISS safety requirements.

It’s the heart of the Cryptography International Commercial Experiments Cube, or Cryptographic ICE Cube, or CryptIC. The first option they’re pursuing is a relatively traditional software one: hard-coded backup keys. If a bit gets flipped and the current encryption key is no longer valid, they can switch to one of those.

“This needs to be done in a secure and reliable way, to restore the secure link very quickly,” said Armborst. It relies on “a secondary fall-back base key, which is wired into the hardware so it cannot be compromised. However, this hardware solution can only be done for a limited number of keys, reducing flexibility.”

If you’re expecting one failure per year and a five-year mission, you could put 20 keys and be done with it. But for longer missions or higher exposures, you might want something more robust. That’s the other option, an “experimental hardware reconfiguration approach.”

“A number of microprocessor cores are inside CryptIC as customizable, field-programmable gate arrays, rather than fixed computer chips,” Armborst explained. “These cores are redundant copies of the same functionality. Accordingly, if one core fails then another can step in, while the faulty core reloads its configuration, thereby repairing itself.”

In other words, the encryption software would be running in parallel with itself and one part would be ready to take over and serve as a template for repairs should another core fail due to radiation interference.

A CERN-developed radiation dosimeter is flying inside the enclosure as well, measuring the exposure the device has over the next year of operation. And a set of flash memory units are sitting inside to see which is the most reliable in orbital conditions. Like many experiments on the ISS, this one has many purposes. The encryption tests are set to begin shortly and we’ll know next summer how the two methods fared.


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