It used to be that you bought a cheap TV from budget brands and got pure garbage for what you paid for, but that’s not so anymore.
Case in point: Westinghouse and Element’s new 4K Amazon Fire Edition TVs, the first smart TVs to include Alexa voice control. They start at $449 for a 43-inch and climb up to $889 for a 65-inch 4K set, but man are they anything but junk.
I was extremely reluctant to take a look at Westinghouse and Element’s Amazon Fire Edition 4K TVs primarily because I didn’t even know these two budget tech brands still existed.
Still, I gave them the benefit of the doubt. If they were able to tap Amazon to essentially integrate the excellent Fire TV set-top box into their 4K TVs, there must be more than meets the eye. And there is. I own an original Amazon Fire TV (not the 4K version) and I’ve often booted it up and wondered why nobody has turned it into a TV interface.
With the most recent Fire TV update, Amazon gave the UI a reboot to put content front and center. Westinghouse and Element’s Fire TV Editions take the new UI and build on top of it, creating a smart TV interface that just makes sense.
Features like the ability to rename inputs to “PlayStation,” or “Xbox,” or “Blu-ray” instead of trying to remember what HDMI 1, or HDMI 2, or HDMI 3 are will leave you in awe. Sure, most smart TVs let you rename the inputs, but I’ve never seen anyone do it. The only reason mine have names is only because I accidentally stumbled upon the setting, which was buried within layers of menu systems. Moreover, inputs aren’t displayed as elegantly as on the Fire TV interface.
Alexa, the commander
I can’t say much for the picture quality of the 4K TVs themselves (they look fine), but I can tell you having Alexa voice controls with the ability to play and discover live over-the-air (OTA) TV channels in addition to the content available on Fire TV feels like a game-changer, and could be the first real step toward an “Amazon TV.”
Sandeep Gupta, Amazon’s vice president of smart TV and Fire TV, told me during a demo that Amazon and Westinghouse/Element set about reinventing how TV is watched.
Instead of focusing on channel numbers or programming guides, the TVs let the content shine.
When you plug in an antenna into the TVs to suck down all the free OTA channels — it’s crazy how most people forget there’s still lots of free broadcast TV including the major channels like CBS, NBC, ABC, CW, and more — they smartly reorganize the content alphabetically into the “On Now” row. The channels you watch most frequently appear at the front of the row so you don’t need to keep clicking through to find them.
It’s simple, organized, and intelligent. The de-emphasis on channel numbers is not too dissimilar to what YouTube’s doing with YouTube TV.
Alexa works as you’d expect her to with the included Voice Remote, which resembles a longer Fire TV Voice Remote, but with volume buttons and three buttons for Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, and Amazon Music.
Say “Alexa, go to CBS” and she’ll pull up the channel. Say “Alexa, switch to PlayStation” and she’ll switch you from whatever input you’re watching to the game console.
Alexa’s not limited to basic channel switching. It actually looks at the meta information from the OTA channels, so you can find live OTA content with voice commands. For example, if you want to see “Rachael Ray” just say “Alexa, play Rachael Ray.”
As on Fire TV, you also get all of the Alexa features including smart home control and access to its knowledge database. If for whatever reason mid-way through a Modern Family you want to check the weather, order pizza, or look up a fact, you need only ask Alexa.
Glimpse of the future
While I didn’t get to try the TVs day in and out at home, I noticed no lag while zipping through the interface or using Alexa. Sung Choi, vice president of marketing at Element Electronics, says the company didn’t skimp on the hardware to power the software.
You’re not getting wimpy just-good-enough Fire TV Stick hardware; the TVs come with a quad-core processor, 3GB of RAM, 16GB of internal storage (expandable via USB port and SD card), and Wi-Fi antennas that are strategically placed in the bezel for the best signal.
This is baby steps towards a real Amazon-branded 4K TV powered by Alexa.
Words don’t really do the TVs’ Fire TV and Alexa integration justice. After looking at the TVs, I’m reminded of how skeptical people were of the Fire TV and the Echo. People didn’t understand why they’d ever want those devices until they realized it made things more convenient, and now they can’t ever go back.
Make no mistake; while Amazon’s logo isn’t on these TVs, it’s not hard to imagine one day when it will be. There might not even be a need for a Voice Remote if Amazon can build the Echo’s far-field technology that activates Alexa directly into the TV set.
Better yet, if Amazon can figure how to get an Alexa-controlled TV to work with cable content, then it’d be the holy TV grail we’ve all been waiting for.