While I was dismissive of the need for yet another living room set-top box, the Amazon Fire TV will appeal to many. And it does for this market what the Kindle Fire did for tablets: It provides a credible entry that is tied to Amazon's exhaustive digital media ecosystems but also open to third party apps and services. That said, it also has the same issue as the Kindle Fire tablets: It's more than a bit too Amazon-centric.
The big picture view here is simple enough: Amazon needed to get into the market for low-cost living room set-top boxes, and provide an Amazon-centric solution to compete with Apple TV and Roku. Its key differentiators are simplicity—it's even easier to set up than a Roku or Apple TV—and partial Android app and game compatibility, the latter of which could prove to be a big deal given the expense of today's video game consoles ($400 and up).
But today, Fire TV game playing is sort of hit or miss. And as I noted up front, I'm getting a bit tired of Amazon's heavy-handedness in its Android devices. (I wrote about this in my review of the Kindle Fire HDX as well.) And while many were hoping for a much less expensive device, the Fire TV sits right at the top, pricewise, in this market alongside the Apple TV and the top-end Roku. That was a mistake.
Note: This is an overview, not a full review. I just got the Fire TV the other day and will not be providing a full review.
Set up and configuration
Like Amazon's Kindle e-book readers and Kindle Fire tablets, the Fire TV comes in a plain black box with a retail wrap-around cover. It's both inexpensive looking and cheap, if that makes sense, and the polar opposite of Apple packaging. I don't find this endearing anymore.
Also cheap, though common at this price range: The Fire TV does not ship with an HDMI cable, so there's a missing piece. This isn't a big deal for the tech-savvy who understand this need. But it could be an issue for the typical consumers Amazon attracts.
Once you get past the cut-rate packaging, we get to the Fire TV's first big strength. When you order the device directly from Amazon, it comes pre-configured with your Amazon account, so it's all set up, no passwords required, right out of the box. This is the type of thing Apple will get to sometime down the road, and they'll be given a standing ovation. Amazon has been doing it for years.
I couldn't get the bundled remote—which is excellent—to connect to the device during Setup, and I ended up having to use the separate $40 video game controller to get through it. Most people won't have this controller, so here's some advice: I discovered later that remote pairing can be problematic with this device (it wasn't the batteries or the remote itself, both of which I suspected and tested for), so if you experience this issue, try pointing the remote at the back of the Fire TV while holding down the remote's Home button. Once you do get the remote working, it seems to work fine. Again, I've only had it for a few days.
The Fire TV is an attractive little box that can be hidden nicely among your stereo equipment or under the TV. The box itself is shorter than an Apple TV or Roku 3, but is wider and deeper.
Roku 3 (top), Apple TV (middle), Fire TV (bottom)
Like its competitors, the Fire TV has both HDMI out and Ethernet ports (plus Wi-Fi, of course). But it also has a USB port (like the Roku 3; the Apple TV has a mini-USB port that cannot be used for connecting a media drive) and optical audio out (like the Apple TV).
I'm particularly happy with the bundled remote. Unlike the Apple TV, it's large enough to hold comfortably and has a more useful range of buttons. And the material on the back is nice and grippy.
If you've used any living room set-top box—Apple TV, Roku 3, whatever—the Fire TV interface will be immediately familiar, though it is of course Amazon-centric. There are top level menu items like Movies, TV, Games, and Photos, but these only point to Amazon services. If you want to access Netflix, say, you go through Apps (or Recent), not Movies or TV. And you can't "pin" items.
If you are a big Amazon user—you pay for Prime, have an extensive video library, and so on—the Fire TV is exactly what you're looking for. (Though to be fair, Roku works fine for such people as well.) Video streaming is fast and of immediate high quality, and of course you get closed captioning where possible, plus other niceties such as extras and additional video vignettes with certain purchased content.
The Fire TV also supports second screen experiences, but only with a Kindle Fire HDX tablet. I didn't test this, and won't.
One of the big selling points of the Fire TV is that it supports voice search, much like the much more expensive Xbox One. Of course, this is Amazon, so that voice search is slower and less sophisticated than what you see on the Xbox One, and it's not integrated with third party services like Netflix. But it also works in a way that will likely be more familiar for people: You hold down a button on the remote and speak into it like it's a microphone.
When you do, search results appear on screen. But even if there's only one result, the Fire TV will ask you to confirm the selection before moving on. And you can't say "Yes" or whatever to confirm. You need to use the buttons on the remote to select the correct response.
Search results work as expected though they apply only to—wait for it—Amazon's services. So if you want to watch "The Walking Dead," you can do so. On Amazon Prime Video, where you will pay to so. It's free to Netflix subscribers, which you'll only find out if you manually navigate into that app and search from there (manually, with the remote). With Roku 3 (and Xbox One for that matter), you can search across services. This is where Amazon's lock-in approach starts to get troublesome.
And to be clear, this is voice search only. You can't control the Fire TV with voice beyond searching.
Third-party entertainment services
They'll be hidden in Apps (and then in Recent as you use them), but Fire TV does provide access to about 175 apps, which sounds good until you realize that Roku features over 10 times that many. But the bigger and more important services are generally available on Fire TV, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vimeo, YouTube, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and the like.
Curiously, Amazon MP3 is missing—it's available on Roku—but is coming soon.
The game situation is surprisingly good, though you'll need a game controller (a $40 extra) to really take advantage of an expanding catalog of Android titles that are being ported to accommodate both the Fire TV and, optionally, its optional ($40) controller.
The controller compares pretty favorably to the Xbox One and PS4 controllers and is clearly modeled after (i.e. copies the layout of) the Microsoft unit.
Big budget games like "Asphalt 8," "Minecraft" and "The Walking Dead" are available via Amazon AppStore for Android and have already been ported to the Fire TV and made to work with the controller. And they work pretty well: This box succeeds where Roku 3 does not by providing a compelling games experience. Again, assuming you get the controller.
I'm curious to see whether Amazon will be successful here. If so, this tiny and inexpensive box could prove a credible challenger to the $400 Sony PlayStation 4 and the $450 Xbox One. No, the games aren't quite as impressive. But the market for casual games is exponentially larger than that for either high-end console, so this is a real possibility.
Where it falls short
There are a few immediate disappointments.
First, at $99, the Fire TV is no bargain compared to its competitors, and is in fact the same price as an Apple TV or Roku 3. Given its Amazon Prime membership requirements, I'd expected Amazon to price this box closer to $50.
Second, it's incomplete. You can't even access Amazon's own Amazon MP3 service from this box, yet, though it's "coming soon." Also not ready is the Free Time parental controls, which will be made available later this year.
At least those are coming. The much touted Mayday button from the Kindle Fire HDX tablets isn't just missing in action, there's no indication that it's ever coming. That seems like the kind of feature real consumers—the audience for this device—might really need.
From a services perspective, the Fire TV actually comes pretty close to Roku out of the box, supporting important third party video services like Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video. But there's no HBO GO, and Roku supports many more services than does Amazon. And in some cases, like Netflix, the Roku experience is more attractive and useable. That voice search doesn't work across services as it does elsewhere is disappointing as well.
And while there's a USB port, I didn't find any use for it (yet). You can't attach a USB hard drive, for example, and access the content on it as you can with Roku. (Yes, there could be an app. And there is a Plex app for streaming media from your PCs.)
Basically, the Fire TV is only suitable for those who are heavily invested in the Amazon content ecosystems and have little or no interest in third party services. In this way, it is to Amazon what Apple TV is to Apple and what Chromecast is to Google. But then that's why I prefer the Roku 3 so much: It is platform agnostic. And it has capabilities, like search, that work across services.
As a heavy user of Microsoft services, it's hard not to look at this solution and wonder about a similar $99 Xbox set-top box that would provide access to Xbox Music and Video, plus podcasts and a ton of third party services. There's a need. But once again, Microsoft is left behind.
Overall, the Amazon Fire TV is capable and credible right out of the box, but it's hard to recommend generally. Most would be better off with a Roku.