Technology

Amazon Finally Made Its First TV With Alexa Built in — Here's What It's Like

Amazon

Amazon Fire TV Omni Series

  • Amazon's first TV sets, including the 4-Series and the higher-end Omni Series, which you can talk to and control without a remote, go on sale this week.
  • I've been testing the Amazon Fire TV Omni Series for a few days so I'll tell you what it's like.

Amazon's first TV sets, which you can talk to and control without a remote, go on sale this week. I've been testing the $830 Amazon Fire TV Omni Series for a few days. It's a good TV for the money, and Alexa can be useful, but the software interface doesn't look as sharp as it should on a 4K TV.  

Amazon has traditionally sold Fire TV Sticks and Fire TV Cubes that plug into existing sets, or partnered with other device makers who integrate its Fire TV software. Usually, there are buttons on the remotes that let you use Alexa to control the TV. With the Omni Series, however, Amazon brings its Alexa assistant right into the TV.

Amazon's Jason Parrish, who led the product management of the Omni series TVs, told me the goal of the TV is to make living rooms smarter through what he calls ambient computing, with Alexa at the center of how we watch TV, listen to music and interact with our smart homes. The higher-end Omni Series has generated about two-thirds of all of Amazon's pre-orders for TVs, Parrish said, showing it's more popular than the more affordable 4-Series so far and that, seemingly, Amazon fans like the idea of talking to their televisions.

Amazon makes most of its money from its AWS cloud business and is better known as an online retailer. But its hardware, which ranges from tablets to e-readers and smart speakers, helps bring people right to its storefront and its ecosystem of ads and services.

I tested the 65-inch Amazon Fire TV Omni Series television, but there's also a lower-end cheaper TV known as the 4 Series, which starts at $370.

What's good

Amazon
Amazon Fire TV Omni Series

The Omni Series has a high-end physical design with an edge-to-edge 4K screen that's sharp and, with the right adjustments, colorful. I like the slim metal bezel on the bottom, and the fact that I can just ask it to do what I want.

A remote is included, but even without touching it I could ask Alexa to play TV shows or movies, to tell me the weather (which pops up in a small bar at the bottom of the screen) or to tune to a specific channel on YouTube TV. It works even if I'm standing across the room. 

Todd Haselton | CNBC
Amazon Fire TV Omni Series

This is different from Amazon's Fire TV Cube, which also had Alexa but required the TV screen to be switched on before it could respond.

Parrish said Amazon found when customers walk into the room and say "'turn on the lights,' they don't want their TV to turn on and just stay on."

"Or if you say 'what time is it?' you don't need a 65-inch screen to tell you that. So that was the type of thing that we wanted to rethink," he added. Parrish explained customers interact and engage with content more when they use voice instead of a remote.

Todd Haselton | CNBC
Amazon Fire TV Omni Series

There are four microphones along the top of the TV that are always listening for "Hey Alexa." Parrish said the microphones are as far away from the speakers as possible so that they can still hear you if you're playing music or watching TV.

"The goal there is to be able to make a request while you're watching TV and not just kind of halt everything that you're doing. You should be able to do it while you have that show going on and we also want to make sure that we're not impacting your TV watching when it comes to responses," Parrish said.

I liked that I could say "Alexa, pause" instead of trying to find the remote when I wanted to get up off the couch. It's also useful to give commands like "Alexa, mute" or "Alexa, turn up the volume," and I started to get used to not using the remote as often.

As with Amazon's Echos, there's an easy toggle to switch off the microphones. It's right under the TV screen.

Todd Haselton | CNBC
The microphone switch on the bottom.

Alexa can do all sorts of other things, too, like switch inputs to your Xbox or cable box (which it can also control with an included cable), help you shop for things ("Alexa, shop for soap,") or show you the current stock price of a company even while a show is playing. It's useful. There's a smart home dashboard, too, so you can see all of your cameras and lights.

Todd Haselton | CNBC
Alexa will pop up some responses at the bottom of the screen, which is useful.

The Omni TV, unlike the 4-Series, supports webcams through a USB port in case you want to video chat with other folks who own the same TV or who have other products with Alexa installed, like phones, Amazon tablets or Amazon's Echo Show smart screens. It worked with a Logitech webcam Amazon sent me to test. Likewise, you can check in on cameras around your home by giving commands like "show the nursery camera," for example. And a small video feed will pop up over the show you're watching if someone rings the doorbell.

Todd Haselton | CNBC
Amazon Fire TV Omni Series

Movies and TV shows looked really good on the LED display, considering the TV's sub-$1,000 price. The 65-inch model I tested and the larger 75-inch version support the clearest standards, like Dolby Vision, HDR 10, HLG, and Dolby Digital Plus, for good balance in bright scenes and better color and contrast than cheaper sets. I liked the image best after I turned up the color saturation a little bit from the presets. Also, the blacks aren't as pure black and inky as you might find on much more expensive TVs with nicer miniLED or OLED screens.

Todd Haselton | CNBC
Amazon Fire TV Omni Series

The built-in speakers are better than most TV speakers and get nice and loud, but I still prefer a soundbar for deeper bass and richer sound.

What's bad

Todd Haselton | CNBC
Amazon Fire TV Omni Series

Alexa understood most of my commands just fine, especially general ones that you'd typically give to an Echo.

However, there are some things that it just doesn't support on a TV, and I had to learn those limitations by trial and error. For instance, you can adjust the TV color modes, like presets for movies or sports, but you cannot adjust the brightness with Alexa. 

Likewise, it works well if you say "Alexa, play the movie 'Hackers,'" but didn't correctly understand "Alexa, play the latest episode of 'Succession'" — instead, it began playing the very first episode of the show. Amazon explained those inconsistent results can come down to how some apps -- in this case, HBO Max -- catalog their shows.

Parrish explained how Alexa tries to understand the user's intent when a voice request is made. Amazon optimized the TV to understand that you probably want to view something instead of listening to it.

"'Hamilton' is obviously now on Disney as a movie, but it's a very popular soundtrack as well," Parrish said. "So a Fire TV, when you ask to play 'Hamilton,' it will get you to Disney Plus. It will bias towards video. Whereas on an Echo it will send you to Prime Music or Spotify or whatever your preferred music player is."

Alexa is good, but it's still learning.

Todd Haselton | CNBC
I'm not a fan of the ads, like the "Jet-Puffed" food ad on the main screen, or the 1080p UI.

My biggest gripe with the Omni Series TV is that the home screen and user interface still render in 1080p, a quarter of the 4K resolution. This isn't a big deal if you sit about nine feet away from the TV, but I sit closer. The icons were blurry when I sat about four to five feet from the screen. You may never notice this unless you walk up close, but I look at nice screens for a living and it bothered me.

Amazon said the software is kept at a lower resolution to make sure the user interface is smooth and optimized. In fact, the TV felt sluggish and temporarily froze when I was moving through menus at first. Amazon advised me to do a factory reset and that fixed my problems. Still, it's concerning that the experience wasn't perfect out of the box.

You can avoid the lower resolution user interface by ignoring the Fire TV home screen altogether and using something else, like an Xbox Series X, a PlayStation 5 or an Apple TV through one of the HDMI inputs. An Apple TV 4K user interface looks nice and crisp as expected. But that sort of defeats the main purpose of buying an Amazon TV. 

Then, there were the ads. I don't mind sponsored ads on Fire TVs and other cheap gadgets that plug into TVs, like the Google Chromecast and Roku devices. But I don't like when an $820 TV displays ads for sponsored TV shows and movies, and subscription apps and channels I might want to buy. There was even a big ad on the home screen for an Amazon TV Fire stick — something you wouldn't need if you bought this TV. Most TVs with a smart interface do this, too, and it's how Amazon makes money, but it's not a great experience.

"Having content promoted in our UI is kind of core to our experience," Parrish told me. "We'll probably have a lot of customers that are familiar with Fire TV and we'll probably have some that aren't. We look forward to hearing what they have to say."

Should you buy it?

Amazon
Amazon Fire TV Omni Series

The Amazon Fire TV Omni Series is a nice TV set for $830. TV shows and movies look great once you adjust the picture to your liking. It's easy to do in settings.

Alexa is convenient to have and it grows on you once you get used to doing some things by voice and others with the remote. It's fun to just walk into a room and say "Alexa, tune to CNBC" without knowing where the remote is.

You'll get the most out of Alexa on the Omni Series if you have lots of Amazon Echos and a smart home that's tied in with Amazon's ecosystem. It works well once you get the hang of what it can and can't do.

I'm just bummed about the lower resolution home screen UI, even though movies and TV shows look good in 4K. I understand most folks may still end up watching full HD content anyway, since so much live TV isn't even 4K, but the software should still look sharp even up close.


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