Amazon has just released a highway to its video and music services with a TV box the Amazon Fire TV, a relatively powerful device that can stream HD video, run (some) Android apps and even rnu high-end Android games.
Amazon’s arrival into this scene will without a doubt change the dynamic of this sector since pretty much everyone else is selling old hardware at the $99 price range. Amazon comes with a much more powerful box, which addresses the typical sluggishness of competitors, introduces voice search and brings a fresh and crisp user interface to our HDTVs.
This sounds great, but isn’t content king? What’s available and how it compares with others. In the end, is it worth your attention and money?
The Amazon Fire TV is a simple rectangular box that is 4.5 x 4.5 x 0.7 inch. You can compare it to others and it is a little flatter than the Apple TV, and it has more internal volume than the Roku box. But who cares? If you have a 42”+ TV, a game console, a cable DVR or a sound bar, the tiny volume of an Internet TV box won’t dent your setup. "WHO CARES ABOUT THE FIRE TV SIZE WHEN YOU HAVE A 50-INCH TV?"
What I do care about is that the Amazon Fire requires a power adapter. It’s not uncommon, but I would have preferred it if the power converter was inside the box, like the Apple TV. It’s a small detail, but it’s cleaner and a bit less of a a mess with the power outlet.
The remote control is quite simple and features the usual commands. But if you pay attention, you will see a microphone button and microphone at the top (there’s another one in the back for noise-cancellation purposes). The back of the remote houses the two AAA batteries (they come in the box). Since the backside is not flat, you can’t leave the remote on the tablet and press buttons. It’s too bad because doing so would be quite handy when hands are a little greasy from that tasty food you’re eating.
Setting up the Amazon Fire TV is quite simple. Upon connection to the TV, the Fire TV will play an introduction video. Beyond that a few menus will guide you through the network settings. If you connect the box with Ethernet, then there’s setup, but WiFi will require a network selection and password entry.
All in all, this is easy and anyone who can setup WiFi on a computer will be able to set this up.
When the Internet connection is up and running, you can start playing content, or you can install apps to access a larger library. I have installed Netflix and Hulu first since they are among the top video apps that I use, in addition to Amazon’s video services.
Remote Control Usability
The remote is pretty nice. It is very light and feels plastic, but not completely “cheap” either. Since it has a big circle in the middle, you may wonder if you can rotate it, iPod-style. Well, no, you cannot. Instead, you can use it as the classic up/down/left/right keys, but I have to say that the circle does look better.
The voice search is intuitive to use : just press the microphone button and talk, and release the button when you’re done. The Fire TV will send the voice command to the cloud for interpretation and come back with a text equivalent. It works very well, and most of the time, it does understand what I’m saying, even though I go have a foreign accent. Sometime, it will be an epic fail, even if you are a native speaker. I’m not sure if Amazon uses Google’s voice recognition or if they have their own, but I’m fairly happy with it.
"THERE’S A CAVEAT WITH THE VOICE SEARCH" Now, there’s a caveat to this feature: at the moment, it does search in the Amazon content library, but it won’t help you search with apps like Netflix or Hulu. I was expecting the Fire TV to at least convert voice to text so that I don’t have to type with the virtual keyboard (a chore), but it does not. Every search will look into the Amazon library.
Some apps like Hulu get a slightly better treatment and will be featured in the search results as an optional content source. At this stage however, it’s too little to truly exploit the voice command potential. Don’t get me wrong, I like voice commands, but I still have to type too often for my taste. Over time, I’m assuming that 3rd party services will be better integrated, – maybe.
User Interface (fast, clean)
The user interface layout is pretty classic with the services and types of content on the left, and content lists on the right. It’s fine: I’m not looking for any graphic design breakthrough here, but something efficien that is well understood by users. I personally don’t like eye-candy for the sake of it, and my main metric for success is how little I use the interface, and therefore how fast I start watching my content.
That said, the Amazon Fire TV interface does look nice and clean, and Roku should take some cues from that. It also looks more modern than the Apple TV interface which is getting old.
The other thing that I liked a lot was how responsive the interface was in general. It’s not “smartphone fast”, but it is faster than any TV box that I have played with. That this a direct result of using modern hardware instead of going for a platform that seems “good enough” to stream TV. This one can play real Android games.
Video Services Supported
Content is king they say, and that’s mostly true, so let’s take a look at what Amazon Fire TV has to offer. In terms of video services, we have:
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, Plex, Showtime Anytime, Watch ESPN, NBA Game Time, Bloomberg TV, Vimeo, Frequency, Flixter, RedBull TV, Redux TV and HuffPost Live – that’s it. I miss Vudu, which I used on other platforms, and I’m sure that you can think of a few yourself.
Obviously, Amazon Video looks great and the video streaming from there gets the highest quality from what I can tell. It feels like watching Cable TV. Renting movies and TV shows works well and is very fast, thanks to a smart data prefetching from Amazon. If you have a Prime subscriptions there are many shows can be watched at no additional cost. Sci-Fi fans will appreciate that this is currently the only place where you can get an unlimited streaming of Stargate SG1/Atlantis just to cite a famous one."QUANTITY OF CONTENT IS THE MAIN ADVANTAGE OF INCUMBENT COMPETITORS"
Both Netflix and Hulu don’t look nearly as good, and Netflix looks lower quality than on Apple TV (I’ve tested this on a 80/50 Mbps Internet Connection). Netflix quality is important to me since I use it quite a bit, and it looks more like a fancy DVD than HD for now. As for Hulu, it’s pretty much a “meh” on all platforms in terms of image quality, so there’s no real surprise there.
Hulu does get a better integration to Fire TV and sometime shows up as an alternative source in the Amazon voice search results. Eventually, I hope that the Amazon voice search will return results from all the services, but for now Netflix shows don’t appear.
For example, if i search for the Discovery show Weapons Masters which is available on both Netflix and Amazon video, the Fire TV search will return the Amazon result, which is a paid program ($1.99 / episode), while I could watch it at no extra cost with my Netflix subscription.
Competitors Apple and Roku have much more channels/services available. For example, take a look at Apple’s offering here, and you can see some high-profile things like NBA, NHL, SkyNews, Disney and PBS, among others. Roku has even more channels, but many of them will only interest a relatively small number of users.
In the case of Apple TV, I personally mainly use iTunes, Netflix, Hulu and the Smithsonian channel (a little bit), so it shows that despite the larger number of channels available, what really matters is whether or not the channels that you want to watch are there.
Also, don’t be fooled by the name “channel” when used in the context of online video streaming. For example, seeing a well-known brand channel on one of these device usually does not mean that you’ll get the same programming as cable TV or over the air TV. Instead, you can get some full-episodes, or “clips” and that is why none of those solutions are true “cable cutters” in a strict sense.
Finally, keep in mind that Amazon has its own exclusive shows and that even more will come. this is not really a purchase consideration because you may as well wait and see what will actually come out.
Kids get the Freetime Unlimited feature ($2.99/mo)
Kid programming and parental control is a feature in itself, and Amazon has made sure that it offers something for families for one simple reason: parents are willing to pay if they can safely entertain the kids (and be left alone) for a short while.
Technically, this is very close to what parents can already do with the Kindle tablets, and thanks to the Amazon Fire TV and its tight coupling to Amazon Video, parents are able to set specific times at which kids can watch TV. It’s a one-time setup.
Parents can create profile “per kid”, in case the age difference is large enough and pick what Amazon content the children can watch on a show-by-show basis, instead of “per channel”. Finally, the voice search can be very useful for young children.
Music Services Supported
The number of music services supported is even smaller, but other than Amazon, you may connect to Pandora, iHeart Radio, Tunein and Vevo. This may be interesting if you have a great audio system connected to your TV, or if you otherwise like using 250W of power to play music. In any case, Some big names like Spotify are not present.
Games and apps
Amazon is heavily marketing its gaming capabilities and on one hand, they are right: the Fire TV is a much better gaming solution than competitors like Roku.
"FUN, BUT THIS IS NO PS4/XB1" On the other hand, there are very few games and to be honest, Android games aren’t so hot on a TV. That said they are very cheap compared to console games, so while I may not want to sit down and play an Android game on my big screen, maybe kids wouldn’t mind.
At some point, we may see some nice casual games as well, but right now, I consider “gaming” to be a promising thing for TV boxes, but it is most definitely unproven. For sure, people will use it, but I doubt that this will be a selling feature for now. Most games are designed for a touch interface, and while companies like NVIDIA have done a lot of work to make them controller-friendly, there is still more work to be done.
Amazon is taking gaming seriously (after all it generates 75% of app store revenues for smartphones), and even has its own game studio. In fact they have included a game with the Fire TV called SevZero, which is “OK”. If Apple had done anything to improve its Apple TV hardware, then it could eventually be a good gaming contender, however, we have yet to see this happen.
Amazon Game Controller
some games actually require a BT game controller, so you can use a number of android-friendly gamepads, or the Amazon Game Controller. I’ve tested one, and from the outside, the controller looks… hum… pretty ugly. However, once you get past the initial appearance, it is OK and performs fine. It’s probably not the one that I would choose for a Street Fighter II competition, but it’s plenty to play Dead Trigger 2 and other action games on Android.
If you take a closer look at the specifications of the Kindle Fire, you can see that it is using a Snapdragon S4 processor (Snapdragon 8064), which is about as fast as an iPad 2. Believe it or not, it is quite an upgrade when you consider that other streaming boxes have much more wimpy hardware.
At this point in time, faster hardware tends to translate directly into a more responsive interface and makes the whole thing more “snappy”. This is one of the more attractive feature to me because I really dislike when TV things feel sluggish each time I touch a button.
From that perspective, my Cable Box arguably remains the worst device ever built (“like” if you agree), but it’s fair to say that Roku and Apple TV could work to improve the responsiveness of their own boxes. I’m just about sure that if Amazon has raised the bar for all here, so even if this does not become a commercial success, it would have contributed to the ecosystem.
"AMAZON PRIME SUBSCRIBERS ARE THE PERFECT CUSTOMERS" Your level of interest for the Amazon Fire will vary greatly depending where you are coming from. I hope that the information above has helped you get a sense of how it is to use the Amazon Fire TV in the real world. The most important thing is to check if the content you want is available. Here are a few broad use cases:
1/If you don’t own anything like this, and if you already consume videos from Amazon, Netflix, Hulu and have an Amazon Prime account, then you are most likely the perfect customer. Most likely, you should be happy with this device.
2/If you already own one of the other boxes, I doubt that the extra features and speed would be enough to sway you to switch and jump ship at this point. Keep an eye on this, and check if there’s a clear advantage at some point. For now, wait.
3/If you already own devices that can access many of the services offered by the Amazon Fire TV, it’s not obvious why you would spend $100 on this. I own a PS4 as well, and Amazon Video, Hulu and Netflix are available there, plus I can play better (and more expensive) games.
That said, I have to recognize that the remote experience is more TV-like, and that the rest of the family is less likely to be confused by the controller than they would be by the game controller. if you have $100 burning your pocket, why not? That’s like 1.6 PS4 games.
4/ If you are heavily invested in iTunes content, there’s no point. Wait for the next Apple TV.
5/ If you really want to listen to a ton of music, come back later.
I’m giving it a rating of 6.5 because if lack content when compared to the others. And since the whole TV box category still needs a lot of work, I don’t think that any competitor would get more than 8 today. If you have more questions, or would like to discuss this, please drop a comment below, and I’ll be happy to answer.