Amazon released their third generation Fire TV Cube the other day. Whenever Amazon announces a refresh of their high end TV streamer enthusiasts get excited, and every time they’re left disappointed. This time is no exception but it does remain a great choice for general consumers who are invested in the Amazon Alexa eco system.
That’s not to say the new Cube is a bad product. It in fact combines two Amazon products – an Amazon Echo voice assistant and a Fire TV – into a single product. The Cube has a powerful speaker built in that works when the television is off for voice commands. Like other Alexa devices it can control any compatible smart home device.
The Cube can also be instructed to turn on specific devices hooked up to the television and select the proper inputs for those devices. So for example you could ask Alexa for the Xbox and it will properly power everything on and switch the television and/or audio receiver to the right input without picking up a remote control. While some of the Fire TV Sticks can accomplish the same tasks it does require picking up a voice remote to do it.
The Cube does have an HDMI input that’s designed to be used as a cable box passthrough. This is for simplicity for those challenged by having multiple devices connected to their television, allowing for the Cube and the cable box to work through a single input on the television.
It’ll also upconvert other sources plugged into that HDMI port to a 4k output resolution but my preference is to set things at their native resolutions and have my television’s built in scaler handle the job. Note that it’s not ideal for upscaling game consoles as the video processing does introduce some latency.
Amazon added Wifi 6E support to the Cube which performs well but not all that much better than what we experienced recently on the Fire TV Stick 4k Max. You will of course need a WiFi 6E access point or router to take full advantage of the enhanced networking performance. But it is of course backwards compatible with older WiFi standards.
Beyond that the Cube largely does what other TV boxes and sticks do: stream video from streaming services. It supports 4k HDR modes including HDR10, 10+, HLG and Dolby Vision. It also supports Dolby Atmos audio from supported providers. You’ll find most if not all of the popular streaming apps available on the cube. At least for now.
So the bottom line for most consumers is that if you’re heavily invested in the Amazon smarthome ecosystem the Cube will give you both Echo and Fire TV functionality in a single box with app performance that justifies its price point.
But why are enthusiasts disappointed? It’s because it doesn’t have quite enough built in.
The first involves its networking. Enthusiasts like to plug their devices directly into Ethernet for the best performance. The Cube has an ethernet port but it maxes out at 100 megabits per second. Most boxes that are in the Cube’s price range like the Apple TV and Nvidia Shield have gigabit ethernet. While most streaming services max out at around 40 megabits per second even with 4k broadcasts, many enthusiasts stream higher bit rate video with their home servers that require more than 100 megabits per second of bandwidth. Amazon also went with a slow USB 2.0 port that powers itself off when the box is switched off vs. the faster USB 3 ports we see on most boxes.
Audio support is also a bit flaky on this. The box converts most audio to PCM and does not pass it through directly. This means that movies stored on a personal server that play lossless Atmos or DTS audio will likely have the audio quality degraded by the player and not all surround channels will be activated.
Unlike some Android boxes out there the Cube does have an option for “frame rate switching” where it will switch the frame rate of the television to match the content. Most movies and many streaming shows are shot at 24 frames per second and televisions have special modes to play back that content properly. While it’s nice that it has the option most of the apps I ran on the Cube didn’t support the feature and played back 24p content at 60p. The Cube did do proper framerate switching in Plex, however.
The Cube does not support 64 bit applications just 32 bit ones. While this doesn’t matter much for streaming apps it is a bigger deal for gamers looking to emulate game consoles on the box. Some of the more modern emulators are only available as a 64 bit download. And when Android apps are “sideloaded” on to the Cube they often appear with blank icons. There’s a fairly lengthy process involved with getting those icons to appear properly.
So in many areas the Cube falls short of being an ideal experience. Although the same can be said for most competing boxes too. Which is why we all keep multiples attached depending on the task at hand. We all just want the box that does everything.
But for now my top pick for enthusiasts remains the Nvidia Shield. While it has its own shortfalls what’s amazing is how much Nvidia got right with that box seven years ago. To this day it remains the most graphically powerful Android box on the market.