Amazon Fire TV Fails to Rage but Glows Hot
While the Amazon Fire TV is a solid set-top box entry, it won't displace many Apple TV, Roku or Chromecast sticks in the living room. Many of the apps and services are available elsewhere already, and Amazon's take isn't yet appreciably better. However, if Amazon can extend its voice search to cover the Internet and find all sorts of streamable content -- especially free TV shows -- then, wow.
04/08/14 7:13 AM PT
The Amazon Fire TV, available for US$99 from Amazon, hasn't yet made any jaw-dropping leaps forward, but it is an excellent set-top box that, in some ways, breaks ahead of the Apple TV, Google Chromecast and Roku competition.
There's a lot to explain here.
First, the Amazon Fire TV isn't just another box that lets you stream movies and video to your living room HDTV. It's solid, svelte, sexy, fast, and it competes well with the competition. It boasts 1080p HD delivered through a Qualcomm Snapdragon 8064 Krait 300 quad-core 1.7GHz processor, Adreno 320 graphics, 2 GB of memory, and 8 GB of storage. Did I say it was fast? As you navigate and launch content, the Amazon Fire TV interface feels delightfully snappy.
The box does what you expect it to do -- like stream Amazon Prime Content alongside streamed content from other services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, WatchESPN, Showtime Anytime, Vevo, RedBull TV, NBA Game Time or Pandora.
There's more, though. The Amazon Fire TV ships with two key claims to fame: voice search and games.
Amazon claims that its Voice Search just works, and in my first weekend with the Amazon Fire TV it does -- with caveats. To use voice search, there's a handy dedicated microphone button at the top of the remote. Simply say a TV show or movie title, or even an actor's name, and voice search will quickly give you a list of interpreted options. In case you mumble or don't get a title quite correct, you can usually select the right option. The whole process is fast and intuitive -- so much so that I quickly realized that voice search is far easier and more effective then navigating to my own watchlist.
As for the results, this is where the promise doesn't yet live up to the reality: Nearly all of the results are focused entirely on Amazon's ecosystem of content. If you want to buy or rent a movie from Amazon, this is fantastic. If you don't want to buy a movie from Amazon and you want to stream it from your Netflix account, you won't see it in the search results.
As near as I can tell so far, this could be updated in the future, and presumably it would require some participation from Netflix to enable the Amazon Fire TV to search across its database of content. Some early testers, it should be noted, have found search results in Hulu Plus (but I'm not a Hulu subscriber and did not test this).
The bottom line? In my experience, voice search worked great and was a pleasure to use -- not as pleasurable as it appears to be for Gary Busey -- but excellent for access to Amazon content.
That's the key to remember here: If you're an Amazon Prime Customer and Amazon content consumer, the Kindle Fire TV is a fast and easy device. In fact, like Kindle Fire tablets, it comes preconfigured and ready to launch with your personal account information (when you buy directly from Amazon.com).
There is a lot of promise inside the Amazon Fire TV and Kindle Fire tablet ecosystem -- apps and games. Most importantly, games. The rise of casual gaming on mobile devices has changed the look of the living room. While console game systems still attract core gamers, new generations of kids and adults are spending time with their smartphones and tablets instead. Amazon clearly gets this, and even created an Amazon Fire Game Controller accessory to let you play more games with a controller design more suited to serious gaming.
What Amazon delivers is something in between tablet games and console games. As more game developers create Android-based games for Amazon's Fire TV -- the company is actively soliciting developers -- the game options will increase and become better. For example, the best game so far appears to be Sev Zero, a fast-action alien shooter developed by Amazon's own game development studio. Sev Zero lets multiple players defend a tower if the other players connect and play through a Kindle Fire HD tablet. Sort of cool, no doubt, but more complicated than simply letting four kids play a game with the same type of controller on the same HDTV screen like they can with many Xbox or PlayStation console games.
In addition, many of the Android-based freemium games rely on in-app purchases. So while you can play a game for free, it's only a matter of time before a child makes in app purchases -- or pesters a parent to enter in a PIN to buy something through the game. This isn't exactly Amazon's fault, but the experience won't be as pleasing as an adult might hope.
Fantastic for Amazon Fans
While the Amazon Fire TV is a solid set-top box entry, it won't displace many Apple TV, Roku or Chromecast sticks in the living room. Many of the apps and services are available elsewhere already, and Amazon's take isn't yet appreciably better. If Amazon can extend its voice search to cover the Internet and find all sorts of streamable content -- especially free TV shows -- then, wow, that would be an achievement. For instance, if you could use voice search for something like the TV show NCIS and find the streamable version of the latest episode direct from CBS, that would be huge.
For Amazon Prime customers, though, Amazon Fire TV lets you find and stream its library of content with speed and ease, whether you stream the Prime shows at will or buy or rent videos.
There are other handy little features, like the ability to use Amazon Cloud Drive to upload your personal photos and video and have them ready for slide shows or sharing. You can stream music from streaming services like Pandora, and -- coming soon, Amazon says -- you'll be able to listen to your Amazon MP3 library.
If you have a Kindle Fire HDX, you can mirror your tablet content on your HDTV -- or "fling" it to your Amazon Fire TV and use your tablet for other tasks, like email or Web browsing.
Coming next month, Amazon will introduce Amazon FreeTime, which is a kid-friendly service that lets them safely watch sandboxed content with simpler controls, screen limits, and personalized profiles. Amazon FreeTime is a forward-thinking service, and when you pair it with a $2.99 per month subscription, you can get unlimited access to content from Nickelodeon, Sesame Street, PBS Kids and more.
Potential, Potential, Potential
All-in-all, it's easy to recommend the Amazon Fire TV to Amazon Prime customers and Kindle Fire tablet owners. The integration with your Amazon account is sweet and easy from the moment you unpack and connect it, and the overall build quality and processor specs -- not to mention a decent remote with voice search -- make it a pleasure to use.
If Amazon can breach the Internet walls between services and content providers through voice search, the Amazon Fire TV will turn into a raging fire of awesomeness. Failing that, if you could browse Amazon's warehouse world of products -- like you can on a browser -- and buy physical objects through your Amazon Fire TV and shopping cart, wow, that would be another great leap forward.