Amazon makes its own TVs now, and one is always listening for ‘Alexa’

Amazon has long worked with other brands like Toshiba and Insignia to produce Fire TV Edition sets equipped with its own smart TV system. Now the giant online retailer is getting into the TV hardware game itself. The Amazon Fire TV Omni and Fire TV 4-Series are the first Amazon-built TVs, according to the company. Preorders start today; they’re slated to arrive in October.

The Fire TV Omni’s claim to fame is a built-in far-field mic array that’s always listening for the “Alexa” wake word, much like an Echo speaker. That feature allows you to talk to the TV hands-free — no remote required — to search for TV shows and movies, navigate menus and have a conversation with Alexa to help you figure out what to watch.

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If you don’t want the TV to always be listening, a physical switch on the front lets you turn the mic off. You can also use the included voice remote’s mic button to activate and issue commands to Alexa.

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Fire TVs have long worked with Echo speakers for hands-free control.

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The ability to speak directly into thin air to control a TV isn’t new. Alexa always-listening voice functionality is available in myriad devices such as Echo speakers and the Fire TV Cube, many of which can control TVs. Alexa hands-free is already built into a handful of other TVs, including models from Samsung and LG, while the competing Google Assistant is available hands-free on TVs like the Sony X90J, Hisense H9G and TCL 6-Series. The idea in every case is to make voice commands for TV, in particular smart TV functions like streaming, easier to use than a traditional remote control.

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To that end Amazon touts a few new Alexa features. Asking, “Alexa, what should I watch?” launches a voice-powered recommendation engine where Alexa tailors suggestions across apps, asks questions and helps you narrow down choices by actor, genre and more (the feature arrives in beta this year). Exclusive to Fire TV, saying “Alexa, play something from Netflix” will work the same as hitting the Play Something button on the Netflix app, essentially picking a show for you. Fire TV will also play TikTok videos if you say — wait for it — “Alexa, play TikTok.”

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In a nod toward the ubiquity of video chat, the Fire TV Omni will be the first smart TV with built-in Zoom (the second-generation Fire TV Cube also supports Zoom). To use it you’ll need to connect an optional USB webcam to the TV. Zoom launches on the Omni TV “later this year,” according to Amazon.

Amazon is also integrating other hardware with the Fire TV. You can wirelessly connect Echo speakers to improve the TV’s sound quality, and later this year a new smart home dashboard will be available, showing status of connected devices like smart plugs, lights and cameras.

It’s worth noting that most of the software features above will be available on other Fire TVs, not just those made by Amazon.

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You can pair speakers like an Echo Studio with the TV to improve its sound.

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Amazon-branded Fire TV features, sizes and pricing
Beyond its fancy voice and smarts, the Omni’s TV specs are relatively basic. It has 4K resolution and supports HDR video in HDR10 and HLG formats, and the 65- and 75-inch models have slimmer bezels and support Dolby Vision too.

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Unlike the TCL 5-Series Roku TV or the Vizio M7Q series, which have similar initial pricing, the Fire TV Omni lacks full-array local dimming, quantum dot color and the latest gaming features, so I don’t expect its image quality to be in the same league as those models.

Amazon will also put its name on a less-expensive TV, called the 4-Series. The main difference between it and the Omni is that the 4-Series lacks a far-field mic — to use Alexa, you’ll have to talk into the remote.

Here’s how the new TVs stack up.

AMAZON-BRANDED FIRE TVS
Series Size (inches) Far-field mic Price
Fire TV 4-Series 43 No $370
Fire TV 4-Series 50 No $470
Fire TV 4-Series 55 No $520
Fire TV Omni 43 Yes $410
Fire TV Omni 50 Yes $510
Fire TV Omni 55 Yes $560
Fire TV Omni 65 Yes $830
Fire TV Omni 75 Yes $1,100
The Fire TV Omni and Fire TV 4-Series will be sold exclusively at Amazon and Best Buy. For a limited time, people who order a 50-inch version of either series can save $110.

In an interview with CNET, Amazon’s representatives did not specify which TV manufacturer makes its TVs. “They’re fully Amazon-built TVs, period,” said Daniel Rausch, vice president of Amazon entertainment devices and services. “Just like any consumer electronics company we have a global supply chain that includes many partners.”

A report from Business Insider says that one of the OEMs is TCL, a China-based TV maker that also sells a TV called the 4-Series.

Meanwhile, new Fire TVs will also be available from other brands. Today Amazon announced that Pioneer-branded Fire TVs will be available in 43- and 50-inch sizes for “ultra-affordable” prices. Once known for expensive, high-performance models like the Elite Kuro plasma, Pioneer’s name hasn’t appeared on a TV in the US since 2010.

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Amazon also says that a new series of Fire TVs from Toshiba will also offer Alexa-powered far-field mics, similar to the Omni.
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Amazon has also announced a new stand-alone streamer, the Fire TV Stick 4K Max, for $55.

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