If you’ve been to Amazon.com recently, you already know about the Amazon Fire TV – Amazon’s answer to the set-to streaming media box market. The entire front page of the online store was essentially a big ad for the Fire TV for the last few weeks.
At first glance, you might feel it is just a big Kindle you attach to your television, and that is not far off from what it actually is. The Amazon Fire TV is a great streaming box for Kindle users with no other option, but everyone else might what to check out other streaming boxes first. This does not mean the Amazon Fire TV is a bad investment. It does what it does, and it does it well.
What is the Amazon Fire TV?
Amazon calls the Fire TV a streaming media device akin to Apple TV and Roku, but the new $100 HDMI lightning-fast media box offers more than that. Amazon has created a brand new video game console featuring over 100 launch titles from EA, Disney, GameLoft, and others.
Fire TV comes with apps for (of course) Amazon Prime Instant Video, Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and Crackle preinstalled. It lets you play games with either its remote, a dedicated Amazon controller (sold separately), or the Bluetooth controller of your choice. You can even access the entire Kindle and Prime library with this small, flat, matte black box that works and feels like an X-box One. Other streaming media players will use the same apps to give you great video content, but only the Amazon Fire TV will play games as well.
Design and Specifications
Larger than both the Roku 3 and Apple TV, Amazon’s slimmer, stylish Fire TV fits well in any living room though it lacks the subtleness of Roku. It’s simple to setup, and relatively pain free. It does not come with an HDMI cable, which is annoying but not surprising.
The black remote fits in your hands like a credit card as thick as a pack of gum. Just don’t be surprised if you lose it between your couch cushions. As a remote, it is nice and simple with only six control buttons, a navigation click wheel, and a special button for voice search. If you don’t like the remote, you can also replace it with your Kindle Fire HDX.
On the gaming side, you can’t go wrong with the Bluetooth controller. It feels like a bulkier Xbox One controller with shallow triggers and video playback controls. The best feature is that there are no setup codes needed to pair the remote to your TV. You just have to hold down the “Home” button to match the remote with the TV box.
The Amazon Fire TV in Use
Because Amazon placed everything in the cloud, the Fire TV is a breeze to setup. In fact, all you need to do is enter your Amazon account credentials when prompted. Everything else is done for you. If you need to make any changes, you just need to make the changes through your Amazon account to have them immediately take effect on your Fire TV. This means you have to remain connected to the Internet for the Fire TV to function, but that’s standard on most set-top boxes. It goes without saying that you do have to setup up each app such as Netflix or Hulu individually through the sleek, clean, and flat app interface. The interface looks and feels like any video game console user interface. If you already own a PS4, Xbox 360 or Xbox One, you already know how to navigate a Fire TV. They designed it to be intuitive, and definitely succeeded.
Voice search works so well, you’ll want to use it for everything.
Unfortunately, it also has a drawback in the initial release. It only brings up results from Amazon and Amazon’s music service Vevo. It will show you where things are available on Amazon’s services, but it will never show you that you can get the same stuff for free on Netflix or any other service. While there is some evidence that voice search was meant to be more universal like Roku’s, this unfortunate restriction may be the deal breaker for many people.
Besides the search restrictions, voice search is a pretty decent service. Unlike the Microsoft Kinect, you speak your command directly into the Fire TV’s remote. This means you can use it from anywhere in the room. To start a command you just need to press the microphone button, which is a feature I love. The remote won’t passively listen for commands unlike, say the Moto X. You do have to remember to hold down the button while speaking though.
As a streaming box, Amazon’s Fire TV loads ridiculously fast. It’s the fastest streaming box on the market. You can say it loads up like it is on fire! Movies and apps load almost immediately, and you can return to the home screen from anywhere by just pressing the home button. No other streaming box loads this fast. Apps download quickly as well taking less than 30 seconds each. Plus, Pandora will continue in the background even after you exit the app. You can listen to music to play games, search for movies, or chat with your friends on Facebook. You can even share content between your Fire TV and your Kindle Fire HDX for now. Amazon says they will support Android and iOS devices in the near future.
The Fire TV supports a few other features as well. Amazon’s Kindle Fire HDX XRay app offers a second screen and extra movie content. There is a great feature that will list related movies or TV shows based on what you’re currently watching as well as on your previous viewing history. The Fire TV will even let you view your entire photo stored on your Amazon Cloud Drive account. There are a few glitches, but nothing too annoying to make you not want to use the box. Just like the launch of the Google Chromecast, the current app selection is somewhat limited, for the most part serving up only Amazon products and services.
Video gaming is where Fire TV really shines. It certainly won’t compete against the Xbox One, PS4 or Wii U, but Amazon has lots of potential if they move their product in that direction. Functionally, the Fire TV works like a lite version of Steam with a similar game selection and interface. Some of the launch titles include such hits as Despicable Me, a jet ski racing game called Riptide GP 2, the arcade racing game Asphalt 8, Amazon’s own Sev Zero first-person shooter, Portal, FarCry 2, and Minecraft. These games range from 14MB all the way up to 200MB that you must fit into Fire TV’s 8GB hard drive. This should be enough space for everything unless you host your movies locally. Just play the games with the dedicated controller. Technically, you can use the remote as a controller as well, but no gamer will want to use it as such.
Overall, the Fire TV is not bad for an entry-level media streaming and gaming deice. If you already use Amazon’s Prime and Kindle content ecosystems, you will love Fire TV. The box works flawlessly – like a Kindle for your TV. It is also a fantastic video gaming system that will sit beautifully next to your other gaming machines. However, its media streaming system needs some refinement. It’s not as polished yet as Netflix. Its restricted search engine needs an upgrade to be more inclusive. There are certainly better options out there, but I see the potential in Amazon’s little box. The fact that they’ve already started improving it is encouraging. You can look at this in two ways:
- Amazon is a too late to the party. With Roku, Google, Apple TV, G-Box and MINIX, (to name a few) the field of streaming media players is pretty crowded. There’s not enough room for a company whose main job is to sell books.
- Amazon learned its lessons from Kindle and took the time to build a quality product. Sure, they weren’t first to market. Who cares? Amazon is a massive company who could, if they wanted to, buy Roku and all of the Android mini PC manufacturers out there and still have plenty of cash left over.
Amazon is used to taking big risks. It was a big risk to try to sell books online. It was a big risk to try to take on Microsoft, Google and Citrix with cloud services. It was a gamble promoting Kindle when it could take away business from print book sales.
All these risks paid off for Amazon. I’m betting the Fire TV will too.