Fire TV review: Amazon's set-top box is cooking with gas
At a Glance
Amazon won’t be flying packages to your door with drones anytime soon, and its fancy new Amazon Dash gizmo for scanning barcodes all over your house (to more quickly reorder them on Amazon, naturally) is invite-only for now. But Amazon still wants to worm deeper into your life however it can, and the company’s new set-top box, the Fire TV, is its way of planting a flag in your living room—along with as much Amazon-provided streaming content as possible.
Media streaming is a crowded space these days—you’ve got set-top boxes like the Apple TV and Roku competing with streaming sticks like the Chromecast and Plair, not to mention game consoles, networked DVRs, and smart TVs. At first the Fire TV might seem like a me-too product, but Amazon added enough horsepower and features to send it to the top of the pile.
Easy peasy lemon squeezy
Compared to my problems setting up the Roku Streaming Stick, the Fire TV was a snap. It doesn’t include an HDMI cable (though AmazonBasics has them starting at just $5), but once that’s taken care of, you just connect the box to your TV’s HDMI port, plug it into AC power, and follow the prompts on the TV to complete the setup. It connected to my Wi-Fi network without a hitch, and there’s also an Ethernet port if you prefer a wired connection. The optical audio port is a nice touch too, if you prefer to route the Fire TV’s audio through a receiver that doesn’t have HDMI or wireless surround headphones that accept optical input.
And since Amazon is the only company that sells the Fire TV, it arrives preloaded with your Amazon account, which streamlines the setup. All the content I’ve bought on Amazon, along with my Watchlist, were waiting for me on the Home screen as soon as I was up and running. Then it was just a matter of adding extra apps like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Crackle, YouTube, and Vevo, and logging into my accounts on each of those.
The need for speed
One of the biggest things Fire TV has going for it is its incredible speed. Amazon included a quad-core processor and 2GB of memory, where the Apple TV, Roku 3, and Chromecast each have 512MB. This gives it enough horsepower to handle games, but even if you never play a single one, just ripping through the menus and popping in and out of videos with virtually no loading times is impressive.
Fire TV plays videos over Wi-Fi much faster than my Apple TV does using a wired Ethernet connection, and they’re in HD from the very beginning. If you choose a movie or TV show from your Amazon Watchlist, or something that’s been recommended for you on the Home screen, it loads even faster (as in, you might not see the little circle icon that means “loading” at all). You’re just watching. It’s awesome. Leaving the movie to head back to the main screen or launch a voice search is instantaneous, and so is resuming a video you’ve recently started. Anyone new to the set-top box scene will be instantly spoiled by the Fire TV’s performance, and if you already have another box, it will suddenly seem slow as molasses.
The remote whisperer
The Fire TV’s remote is quite the performer too. It’s slightly larger than the tiny Apple TV remote, and a little thicker, which makes it easier to hold and harder to lose between the couch cushions. The remote pairs to your Fire TV with Bluetooth, which means you don’t need a line of sight to the box, in case you want to hide it behind your TV or in a cabinet.
The remote’s best feature, though, is the built-in microphone and voice-search button. Press and hold this, and at the prompt, just say what you’re looking for: a movie or TV show title, the name of an actor or director, or even a genre. Your query is processed in the cloud, and when it comes up on the screen you just confirm it with a button-press to get results. Once you choose a video, the first page of results is always Amazon’s offerings (rent and buy, as well as “watch now” if it’s available on Prime), and you have to click to a separate screen for “more ways to watch,” which will include Hulu Plus results if applicable. If your search turned up any music videos on Vevo, those are presented in a separate tab.
Voice search is crazy convenient, but it’s got some fairly major limitations. It doesn’t search all the services, just Amazon, Vevo, and Hulu Plus. If you want to search Netflix, you can do that from inside the Netflix app, pecking it out with the remote on an on-screen keyboard. Same with YouTube, Showtime, and all the rest. If you invoke the voice search while you’re in one of those apps, it still just searches Amazon, Vevo, and Hulu Plus. And if you’re looking for something that isn’t on Amazon, you just won’t find it with voice search. I couldn’t find a Hulu original like Behind the Mask that isn’t available anywhere else, and when I searched for House of Cards, I found out I could buy season 1 on Amazon, but it didn’t tell me I could watch both seasons free on Netflix.
Amazon says its “vision” is to make voice search cover all the channels, so hopefully it’ll improve with future updates. Right now it works well, if you’re trying to search for Amazon content, although it could really use a way to filter those results to just videos you can watch free with an Amazon Prime subscription. The accuracy is generally very good, although it stumbled at times—no matter how I pronounced “Steve Buscemi,” it never got that one right.
Would you like to play a game?
Amazon hopes gaming will be a big selling point for the Fire TV. The roster of Fire TV-optimized games currently includes big names like Asphalt 8, Minecraft Pocket Edition, NBA 2K14, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Crazy Taxi. Amazon is working with developers like Gameloft, Sega, Telltale, and EA, Ubisoft, and Rockstar to bring more games to the platform, and the company even launched an in-house Amazon Game Studio to produce its own titles.
The first original game from that effort is Sev Zero, which is a tower defense game with some third-person shooter aspects. It’s even got a second-screen companion app: while one person defends the home base in Sev Zero on the Fire TV, a second person can use Sev Zero: Air Support to collect resources, level up the weapons, and call in air strikes.
Sev Zero comes with the $40 Amazon Fire Game Controller, which feels like a slightly cheaper Xbox 360 controller, connecting to the Fire TV with Bluetooth and running on two AA batteries. You can play some simpler games with just the buttons on the remote control, but most gamers will want to pick up the controller, which is required for some games. Media-playback buttons also let the controller double as a second remote for controlling the Fire TV.
We’ll have a separate review of the Fire TV as a game machine coming soon, but it’s not a direct competitor to the Xbox One or PlayStation 4. Instead, it’ll feature the kinds of games you’d play on a nice tablet.
Speaking of tablets, if you have a Kindle Fire HDX tablet, you can mirror its screen to the Fire TV from the Settings menu, under Display & Sounds—the effect is just like mirroring an iPad or iPhone’s screen to an Apple TV. And Fire TV has a little Chromecast-like feature too: When you install the YouTube app on your Fire TV, you have the option to pair a laptop, smartphone, or tablet. Then, using that paired device, you’re able to tap the same Cast button in YouTube as you’d use to send a video to a Chromecast, select YouTube TV as the destination, and watch that YouTube video on your television. While it’s playing, you can keep browsing YouTube on the other device, and even go to another site or app. You can also pause the YouTube video with the Fire TV’s remote.
Amazon added a Second Screen feature, too. You can fling Amazon videos playing on your Kindle Fire HDX to the Fire TV, and use the tablet to control playback, or do whatever else you do with your tablet. The X-Ray feature, coming soon, will also display IMDb-powered info about the video you’re watching, including cast and crew, the name of any song that’s playing, trivia, and character backstories. Amazon says the Second Screen feature will come to iOS devices later this year.
The FreeTime feature, also coming next month according to Amazon, lets parents set tight restrictions on what their children can watch and play on the Fire TV. Parents will be able to set time limits for different kinds of content, restrict usage to certain times of day, and even have the Fire TV boot into FreeTime mode, so Junior can’t circumvent the rules by just unplugging and replugging the box.
FreeTime already works on the Kindle Fire tablets, so it’s smart of Amazon to bring it to the Fire TV, along with the subscription-based FreeTime Unlimited service, which provides tons of content tailored to kids. It’s a little odd that Fire TV didn’t support this feature from Day 1, since it could be a big selling point for families. Apple TV allows parents to require a passcode for accessing certain channels, making purchases, or to watch videos with mature ratings, but nothing on the time-limit side. Roku’s parental controls are even more limited—all parents can do is add a PIN for the Roku Channel Store, so kids can’t order up more channels on their own.
Besides promised features like FreeTime, and beefier voice-search capabilities, the Fire TV would benefit from some more apps. HBO Go is a big omission, but Amazon says it’s working on adding that one ASAP. Fire TV doesn’t need 1000-plus content sources like Roku has, but a few more, like MLB.TV and PBS, would go a long way.
Music channels include Pandora and iHeartRadio, but other services like Rdio and Spotify would be most welcome—and it’s a shame that you can’t even access your Amazon MP3 purchases via Amazon Cloud Player at the moment, another feature that’s coming “next month,” Amazon says. You can look at photos stored in your Amazon Cloud Drive, but other services like Flickr (which is on Apple TV and Roku) would be good to add, too.
Naturally, Amazon’s Fire TV puts Amazon’s content front and center. If you are already invested in Amazon’s ecosystem—or you have a Prime subscription but don’t find yourself using the Prime Instant Video library much—the Fire TV is a no-brainer. If you buy your entertainment from Apple’s iTunes Store or Google Play, obviously you won’t find as much utility in this box. But if you’ve remained ecosystem-agnostic up until now, Amazon’s box is speedier than the Apple TV and Roku 3 (which are also $99), and the extra value offered in the games and voice search give it an extra edge. Once Amazon adds more apps and delivers the promised extra features, the Fire TV is gonna be hot.