You can add one more to crowded field of media streaming set-top boxes, with online retailer Amazon jumping into the fray with the new Amazon Fire TV. The battle for the living room continues to heat up with incredibly capable sub-$100 boxes that combine support for a large number of content channels, promising an easy-to-use device coupled with simple remotes and in some cases, gaming. Beyond the boxes, all of the major players have either their own stores or partner with providers, hoping you’ll spend money renting or purchasing movies or TV shows. In the case of purchases, it’s a lock-in to their platform, since content cannot be transferred between platforms. Amazon being one of the largest online retail stores, it’s hardly surprising that they’ve decided to sell their own box. Have they created a media streaming device worth displacing the Apple TV, ROKU or Chromecast? Read on for our full Amazon Fire TV review.
Out of the box, the Amazon Fire TV looks similar to the Apple TV. It’s as if the Apple TV was flattened, squared off and rebranded. It’s small enough that you could easily mount it behind your HDTV and it will be barely noticeable in most any entertainment center. Amazon uses Bluetooth for their remote, so you do not need line of sight IR when using the Fire TV. For $99, you get the Amazon Fire TV, power supply and 2 (AA) batteries which power the remote.
When it comes to content, most of the major players are available, offering little differentiation from what you’d find on an Apple TV, ROKU or Chromecast. Netflix, Hulu, Vevo and Crackle are among them. When compared the Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV has Showtime Anytime, but lacks HBO GO and the Disney channels. The company is reportedly working with HBO, but there are not guarantees as to when this might be available. In most cases, premium channel content requires a subscription. Netflix and Hulu are montly stand-alone subscriptions, while channels like Showtime Anytime require a clumsy one-time activation process through your cable company. If channel selection is your criteria, ROKU boasts the largest selection.
When it comes to movie or TV rentals or purchases, the box is tied directly to Amazon Instant Video. Your content can be accessed through the Fire TV or in the case of iPhones or iPads, using Amazon’s free iOS app. Google’s Chromecast lets you buy or rent through the Play Store, while Roku has the relatively new M-GO store. In my experience, I’ve found no difference in pricing. If you are heavily invested in purchased movies or TV through iTunes, the Apple TV instantly becomes a more attractive device, playing nicely within the iTunes ecosystem. If you primarily rent or purchase to watch at home on your HDTV, you could give a slight edge to Amazon, Apple and Google for a larger selection. If you are shopping mainstream movies and TV shows, those too are available through M-Go on the Roku. I have found that some lesser known movies and documentaries were not available on M-Go, but was on the big three.
Amazon Fixes, Breaks Search
During the press briefing, Amazon executives correctly called out search as delivering a poor experience on competitors boxes. Using hunt and peck with an on-screen keyboard is painful. Amazon’s approach was to include a microphone in the Fire TV remote. Using it is easy. You press and hold the microphone and say the title, “Good Wife”, let go and boom, you have an option to select Good Wife. During my testing, this worked incredibly well. If you use a universal remote, you lose any benefit of the voice search. It’s a Bluetooth remote, so does not require line of sight. In fact, the range was impressive. My audio visual gear resides in my basement and the remote worked well, despite being one floor up.
For all of its utility, Amazon has managed to fix and break search in a single release. While the voice activated search feature works phenomenally well, it’s limited to Amazon Instant and Amazon Prime content. The Fire TV has tons of content channels, but voice search does not work with them. Touted as one of the differentiating features, it’s a bit misleading. Search for House of Cards and you’ll find one option – purchase through Amazon. Even the Other Content Options does little to help me find my way to House of Cards on Netflix. Compare this with Roku, which neatly searches all of the available channels and content providers. Voice search on the Amazon Fire TV manages to pull of the feat of being both magical and disappointing.
The Fire TV is Fast
Amazon has packed a quad-core processor with 2GB of RAM, which they claim is 3x the processing power of the current generation Apple TV and 4X the memory of the ATV, Roku or Chromecast. The result is an experience is that is fast and fluid, with zero lag. The remote is very ‘clicky’ and the UI incredibly responsive. The two-column layout reminded me of Plex. It’s extremely visual with its display of channels, movie and tv cover art, but in no way cluttered.
On both Apple TV and Roku, apps are the focal point. When your boot up the Fire TV, it immediately gets populated with available movies and TV shows from Prime and Instant, in addition to channel apps. On competing devices, channels as apps are the main focus, whereas in a sense, they become secondary on this box. This is Amazon’s product, so quite naturally, it’s set up to make it easy to access their programming. That in mind, a recently used list is up top, so channels or content you watched last is readily accessible.
The trouble with any of these boxes is the mish-mash of interfaces and Amazon’s Fire TV is no different. Take the Netflix channel, which is presumably the most popular of the bunch. It resembles Netflix on TiVo, arguably the worst of all the Netflix UIs. Late last year, Netflix made bit of splash with the unveiling of the new Netflix experience. Think of it as moving from iOS 6 to iOS 7. It’s a vastly improved interface. It’s available on the Roku 3 (but not on older Rokus yet), but not the Apple TV or this new Amazon Fire TV. If you spend most of your time watching Netflix, the Roku 3 gives you the best looking experience. Over time, you can expect updates to channels, but this is a poor start.
Amazon hasn’t done a great job of selling Prime as a video service, instead pitching it as a throw-in to their free 2-day shipping. That’s likely to change now as they have a platform and have started developing original programming. They’ve also scored exclusives like Justified , The Good Wife and corralled Nickelodeon whose programming had been available on Netflix. If you have young children, this is where you’ll find Dora The Explorer, Yo Gabba Gabba and more. With the Amazon Fire TV, they’ve created a fantastic platform for their subscribers. Beyond the magic of voice search, the interface is really well done. If you are scrolling through a TV season, you’ll see plot information and a photo from the episode. For those who are binge watching series, this makes it easy to recognize where you left off, which can be even more important in households with multiple people who are at different points in a season.
Amazon also promises a faster start-up of shows and they deliver on this promise. Based on your previous usage, they pre-cache content, resulting in faster load times. Start times were almost instantaneous. Again, this was specific to Amazon Prime. Load times for shows on Netflix and other content channels did not feel much different.
Functionality aside, it feels fresh, new and what I want from a TV product. This is not only the best you can get for streaming Prime content, it’s one of the best interfaces across the board.
Hey, Look It Can Play Games
Roku was the first to lay stake to games on a streaming media box, but it was half-hearted at best, requiring you use their remote for game play. Amazon seems serious, offering an Xbox-like controller (sold separately for $39.99). Given the incredible demand, the controller we ordered for testing was back-ordered, but you can expect this review to be updated once it ships. There are a handful of compatible games, with more promised. As they’ve done with TV shows, Amazon has a dedicated studio whose sole purpose is to develop games.
The first release is Sev Zero, a shooter that requires the game controller. These games aren’t meant to replace console quality gaming, instead offering a nice add-on for casual gamers. I played a few games, RipTide being one, and wasn’t wowed by the graphics or gameplay. If you’re seeking quick, pick and play gaming, that’s about what you can expect from the Fire TV. I suspect the quality and breadth of compatible games will improve, should Android developers get on board. If they sell a fair amount of these boxes, and I suspect they will, there is a good opportunity for developers and game studios.
Amazon Cloud Drive Works Like Photo Stream
Using the free Amazon Cloud Drive Photos app, you can set it to automatically upload photos and videos from iOS device directly to Amazon’s Cloud Drive. The app comes with 5GB of free storage, the same amount offered by iCloud. Amazon’s storage plans is more affordable than iCloud, by a large margin. For example, Apple charges $20/year for 10GB additional storage. Amazon charges just $10/year. Apple’s 50GB plan (which ends up being 55GB total) is $100 a year compared to just $25/year for 50GB on Amazon’s service.
With the Cloud Drive Photos app, you can set it to upload everything or pick and choose which photos or videos you’d like on the Cloud. Once uploaded, they were easy to access on the Fire.
Third Party Apps
Based on Android, it means that some apps were already available, provided they were compatible with Fire TV. Having a Mac mini HTPC running Plex, I was curious how this performed. The UI was familiar to the desktop app, fast and the Fire TV had no trouble handling large MKV files encoded with 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound. Roku offers a Plex app, which is similarly capable. If you’ve gone through the trouble of setting up Plex (easily worth it), the Amazon Fire TV is the best and most affordable way to extend access throughout your home. If you are looking for cheap, that would be Google’s Chromecast, combined with either an iOS and Android Plex app that can offer playback.
Apple TV vs Amazon Fire TV
Apple has distinct advantages for people who own an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch. Support for AirPlay makes it dead simple to push photos, videos and other content to your TV in a matter of seconds. iCloud integration means that the last 1,000 photos can be made available and family members can view shared Photo Streams. Additional perks include support for iTunes Match and Home Sharing. Apple also has HBO Go and various Disney channels. You can watch Amazon Instant video using AirPlay.
On the Amazon Fire TV side of the ledger, it brings a super-fast experience with voice search that shines with Amazon content. It doesn’t have HBO Go yet, but does have Showtime Anytime. It supports gaming and thanks to the Xbox-like controller (sold separately), it makes for a solid, inexpensive gaming experience. Supporting third party apps allows apps like Plex.
Roku vs Amazon Fire TV
Roku is open to all content providers. They offer everything, including HBO Go. They partner with M-Go for rentals, but they don’t have a dog in the fight. Apple and Amazon want you to buy/rent content from their stores. Despite advances made by Amazon with voice search, Roku’s universal search is still the best way to seek out content. For iOS users, the Play on Roku option offers AirPlay-like features, but it does not offer the cloud-based storage options offered by Fire TV.
Roku has a larger selection of content, the new Netflix experience and better search. Amazon is better for Prime customers, who won’t miss HBO Go. They also offer better gaming with a dedicated controller and iCloud-like storage options for photos and videos.
- Fast, intuitive interface
- Voice search works great with Amazon Prime, Amazon Instant
- Nice array of connectivity options including ethernet, optical audio, USB, HDMI.
- Inexpensive way to enjoy casual gaming
- No HBO Go
- Showtime Anytime audio sync issues
- Voice search does not work outside of Amazon
- Movies and TV shows in Amazon Prime don’t list other viewing options (Netflix, Hulu, etc.)
To declare any of these boxes a clear winner is near impossible without knowing your viewing habits and ecosystem lock-in. If you’ve purchased a ton of iTunes movies, make heavy use of AirPlay, it’s hard to argue against the Apple TV. The content and search winner is Roku. The Amazon Fire TV is fast, filled with content and the absolute best option for Amazon Prime subscribers, but it’s far from perfect. Voice search is by far its most impressive feature, so limiting it to content from Amazon is disappointing, as is the lack of the ‘new’ Netflix experience and the omission of HBO Go. Adding support for games adds appeal, but you should not expect console-quality games. In the end, this is an extremely capable set-top box, but one that does not provide for a consistently great end-to-end user experience.