Amazon’s Fire TV has a lot going for it: it has a library that’s 4,000 channels, apps, and games strong and growing; it supports 4K Ultra HD playback on compatible models; and it’s got speedy hardware that responds like a dream. But if there’s one area where the Fire TV is relatively weak compared to the set-top competition, it’s in voice search. Alexa, Amazon’s digital assistant, which the retailer brought to Fire TV in February, can serve up the weather report, give sports score digests, and control your smart home appliances, but it can’t launch apps or play videos. Soon, though, that’s changing.
Over the “coming weeks,” Amazon is beaming an over-the-air update to all Fire TV models that will see Alexa learn a few new tricks. You’ll be able to launch apps with your voice, for one — saying “Open Showtime” or “Launch FX Now” will summon those respective apps to the fore — and content within apps themselves will become a lot easier to manipulate. Instead of having to dictate the name of a TV show or movie, wait for a search to complete, and then select the appropriate title from a long list of results, for example, you’ll be able to verbalize commands — “Play Game of Thrones,” or “Watch The Americans,” for example — and configure the Fire TV to respond appropriately.
A few useful features from Amazon’s Echo devices are making the jump to Fire TV, too. Need to know which flicks are showing and where for date night? You’ll be able to ask Alexa questions like “What movies are playing nearby?” or “Where is Angry Birds playing?” to get a list of nearby theaters and showtimes. And if you need a romantic dining suggestion, Fire TV will have that covered, too: you’ll be able to ask “What Japanese restaurants are near me?” to view top-rated places within driving distance. Alternatively, if you’d rather spend the night in, you’ll be able to prompt Alexa to read aloud any Kindle e-book in your digital collection with a simple command like “Read To Kill a Mockingbird.”
A more capable Alexa isn’t all that Fire TV devices are getting. Amazon is updating the YouTube app on select Fire TV models to support the service’s 4K Ultra HD content. (You’ll need a UHD-compatible TV to take advantage, of course.)
The update will start hitting Fire TV devices in the U.S. today, Amazon said in a press release, and finish rolling out by the end of summer.
The update, in many ways, is less about Amazon’s streaming set-top ambitions than the company’s ambitious effort to commoditize Alexa. The retailer has worked quickly to recruit developers large and small in beefing up its assistant’s capabilities — Alexa recently gained support for Domino’s Pizza orders and Kayak flight price tracking, and earlier this month made its way, with Amazon’s blessing, into third-party voice assistant apps for iOS and Android devices. The impetus for Amazon’s haste? Imminent competition: rumblings suggest Google is working on a voice-activated, Echo-like device of its own that could be released in the next few months.
But that’s not to marginalize Amazon’s Fire TV business. It remains, after all, the “No. 1 streaming media player in the U.S. across all retailers” as of March, Amazon said, and that’s not surprising — we came away from the latest model with quite favorable impressions.