If you’ve been waiting for a TV powered by Alexa, the wait is over. Thanks to, um, Element?
That budget TV brand, best known for Black Friday specials at Target and Wal-Mart, is now selling the first 4K smart TVs to feature Amazon’s Fire TV system built-in. Element’s so-called Amazon Fire TV Edition sets include that system’s thousands of TV apps and games, without the need to attach an external box or stick. And Alexa, Amazon’s ubiquitous voice assistant, is on-board too.
We got the chance to check out the new Amazon-powered TVs, first introduced in January, at a hands-on event in New York in May. At first blush they seem like worthy competitors to budget Roku TVs by brands like TCL, especially for Alexa fans who watch TV via an antenna. Here’s what we know so far.
Push to talk, not always listening
Before you get too worked up, there’s one crucial difference between these televisions and more well-known Alexa-powered gadgets like the Amazon Echo. Instead of speaking your commands into thin air prefaced by “Alexa…,” you’ll have to talk into the TV’s remote while you hold down the mic button, and there’s no need to invoke her by name. The TV isn’t always on and always listening. Alexa’s voice still talks back through the TV’s speakers, however, and can augment her responses with onscreen displays, to show a weather report, for example.
If this kind of functionality seems familiar, that’s because it has existed for the last couple of years in Amazon’s Fire TV devices, for example the $40 Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote. And for almost as long we’ve been complaining about the lack of integration between Alexa and entertainment devices (Harmony notwithstanding).
The Fire TV Edition sets do little to assuage those complaints — there’s no way for an Echo to control anything on the TV directly, for example, like Google Home can with Chromecast and some TVs. Amazon reps said they might add that kind of functionality in the future, but didn’t have anything to announce yet.
In the meantime, here’s how the Element TVs stack up.
Amazon Fire TV Edition TVs
A Roku by any other name
And if building a streaming stick or box into a TV seems familiar, that’s because Roku has been doing it since 2014 with TVs built by TCL, Hisense, Hitachi, Sharp and others. Roku TVs have been among CNET’s favorite budget models for years thanks to their ease of use and inexpensive prices, and they routinely top Amazon’s own best-seller lists.
Amazon is mostly following Roku’s playbook with its Fire TV Edition models, down to the budget pricing. TVs powered by Roku offer more options in terms of sizes and features, however; TCL alone will sell more than 25 different models of Roku TV in 2017, and many of them offer high-end features like Dolby Vision, local dimming and enhanced styling.
The Element TVs have 4K resolution but lack extras like local dimming and high dynamic range, as well as neat features like Roku’s signature headphone jack-equipped remote. They rely on Alexa to compete.
Alexa, meet the TV antenna
Just other Fire TV gear, Alexa on the Element TVs will respond to voice commands via her own voice and on-screen displays, and works with thousands of Alexa skills. She can control lights, thermostats and other smart home gadgets, answer questions about the weather and local restaurants, call an Uber or play music. You can also use voice to search for TV shows and movies, launch apps, fast-forward and pause in compatible apps and even switch inputs.
The voice stuff worked well during Amazon’s hands-on demo, but the other differentiator that struck me, compared to Roku, was Amazon’s superior handling of TV received via an over-the-air antenna — a staple for some users who cut the cable TV cord.
Unlike Roku there’s an actual grid-style program guide and it’s superb, with 14 days of info, network names, show information and thumbnail images. You can use commands like “Alexa, go to PBS,” antenna shows are also integrated into the main menu system and included in search, and just like with Roku you can pause live TV.
I still like Roku’s menus better because they’re fully customizable and don’t push one content provider (like, well, Amazon) more than others. The Fire TV Edition sets have Amazon’s latest menu design, which does a better job than before of surfacing TV shows and movies from third-party providers like Netflix and HBO Now, but it’s still relatively Amazon-heavy. And like Roku the app selection is vastly superior to home-brew Smart TV systems like Samsung’s and LG’s, with thousands of apps and games. You can even connect a Bluetooth game controller.
Element’s Amazon Fire TV Edition TVs are available for preorder today at Amazon, and early birds can get a $15 antenna for free while supplies last. Other retailers, namely Target and Meijer, will follow in June.
June is also when Westinghouse-branded Amazon Fire TV edition sets will appear at other retailers. They’re identical in every way, save for branding and model names, to these Element models, but they won’t be sold at the same stores. The Westinghouse and Element TV brands are manufactured by TongFang, a Chinese TV maker that also sells products under the Seiki brand. (Disclosure: The Westinghouse brand as it appears on consumer electronics is licensed by CBS, the parent company of CNET.) Seiki-branded Amazon Fire TVs were originally announced at CES, but for now TongFang is only making them under the other two brands.
We’re looking forward to reviewing the Amazon Fire TV Edition sets soon.