MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — Amazon’s Fire TV Edition, a $299 smart TV made by Toshiba, sounds like a cord-cutter’s dream. Which it is. If you have an antenna. Cable and satellite subscribers will have to endure some hurdles.
The 43-inch console, which went on sale earlier this summer, is unlike any TV I’ve never seen. Want to choose a channel? It offers live video visuals instead of text, intermingles TV apps and shows with what’s on now, and can be operated via voice through Alexa, Amazon’s personal assistant. Sold exclusively online and at Best Buy, it has 4K resolution, and costs about $100 less than comparable sets from rivals.
But there are many growing pains to get it to what Amazon promises, and you may end up shelling out more.
The pitch is that instead of attaching a streaming player, like Roku or Amazon’s Fire TV, to a set, you get an all-in-one TV, coupled with Alexa voice control. (Of course, beyond TV, you can ask Alexa all the usual things like the time, weather and to play a Willie Nelson playlist on Amazon Music.)
The wording on the box is that the TV plays “live over-the-air TV and your favorite streaming content,” via voice command. There is no follow-up sentence that says, “If you have cable or satellite, Alexa won’t initially be able to access or change channels.”
How it works
The TV works best if you’ve cut the cord — cancelled cable, dropped satellite TV, and mostly live off Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, and/or watch the local stations via an antenna.
To connect to the antenna, you go to the settings, and ask the set to find the local channels. This could take 10 to 15 minutes. With my setup, using a $90 Mohu antenna, I found 60 local channels, a mix of broadcast affiliates, PBS, Spanish language and networks devoted to old TV shows, like Buzzr and Cozi TV.
Once the stations are set, you can use your voice to open the channels, or ask Alexa to turn to the Channel Guide, which lets you see what’s currently on.
However, iif you’re one of the 63% of Americans still connected to pay TV, and want to have Alexa turn to channel 400, open up MSNBC’s “Hardball” or an old movie on TCM. you’ve got your work cut out for you. You also don’t see the cable shows in your TV interface mix of live TV and apps, because the cable box is on another input.
You can see the shows in the interface, and access them, via the cable alternatives like SlingTV, Hulu Live TV and PlayStation VUE. YouTube TV isn’t available on the Fire TV, due to a corporate spat between Amazon and YouTube owner Google.
On the antenna, voice control didn’t always work for me. Yes, I could ask Alexa to turn to NBC or CBS and it did so. But requesting PBS was an issue. There are multiple PBS stations via the antenna, and Alexa wasn’t sure how to respond when I asked for the specific one, KOCE (in Los Angeles.) When I asked it to play the independent TV station KCET, it was also clueless. (I went into the channel guide and clicked it on with the remote.)
You could skip the antenna by choosing to watch a network show like NBC’s “The Good Place” with ads from within the NBC app. If a show wasn’t available in an app, like CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory,” and it wasn’t live when you made the request, Amazon will take you to Prime Video, and encourage you watch it for a fee, by purchasing older episodes to rent. (Many shows are available without paying extra, like Frasier and Endeavor, as part of the $119 yearly Prime membership.)
Cable works effortlessly on the set, just like on other TVs, and one nice touch is that you can ask Alexa to switch the inputs to cable. (“Alexa, switch to HDMI 1.”) To get Alexa to open cable channels with your voice, Amazon touts a “skill” that can be added to the Amazon Echo speaker to bring voice control, but it could cost you. My cable provider, Frontier Communications, told me my current box was out of date, and I would need a new one for Alexa, at a cost of $72 yearly. (I declined.) Amazon says Dish, DirecTV, Verizon and OpticHub have similar cable box/skill workarounds. The nation’s largest cable operator, Comcast, does not offer the workaround.
(Amazon’s recent new Fire TV Cube speaker sells for $119 and promises Alexa voice functionality for the TV. But the Cube cannot have Alexa change channels via voice with the TV antenna. It can via cable, if you have a supported cable box.)
Another workaround: ads for the set show consumers using the remote control to talk to Alexa. That’s not how we do it with the Echo speaker–we talk directly to Alexa without a device in our hands. Amazon directed me to the Alexa smartphone app to enable a skill to send voice commands to the Echo speaker to control the TV. This worked great.)
Let’s face it, there’s a reason why this Amazon set is so cheap. It gives the world’s largest e-tailer another vehicle in the home to sell you stuff, where you can do it from the confines of your couch, with fewer clicks than ever. This is a different user experience than rival smart TVs from LG, Samsung and Sony.
Amazon has your shopping history baked into the TV interface, so a quick re-order on coffee filters or razor blades is one-click simple. (And parents note that you’ll need to enable the parental controls in the settings section to put in safeguards against the kids going on a spending spree. Make that one of your first tasks.)
All that said, watching the Fire TV Edition is a fun, novel experience that with the visual mix of apps and live shows, brings you into the modern age of viewing. With all the TV apps available, you might not even want to plug in the antenna and watch live TV. (Many of the cable channel apps available require a cable subscription for viewing.)
The picture quality on the set isn’t what you’d get with a $1,000 TV model, but then, I never expected it would be. It was an improvement over my older 43-inch LG set, which wasn’t 4K.
Kudos to Amazon for re-imagining the TV experience. Now if the e-tailer would just do a better job on informing the public about what they’re really getting on the box, with clear messaging about why their cable lineup isn’t voice enabled, and how to talk to the TV like we do now to the Echo speaker, the company might be onto something big.
Amazon also sells a larger, 50 inch model of the Fire TV Edition for $349.
Follow USA TODAY’s Jefferson Graham (@jeffersongraham) on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.