Last week, Amazon announced the launch of its newest device. The Fire TV hopes to compete in the living room with the likes of set-top boxes like Roku, Boxee, and most importantly, Apple TV. I am a sucker for new gadgets and had already purchased one before I had even finished writing the news announcement. I spent some time with Fire TV over the weekend and have a few comments on what is good and bad about it, and whether you should get one yourself.
Amazon Fire TV looks quite similar to Apple TV in that it is a small black box. It is about half as thick and a bit longer. It is rectangular in shape instead of square. The device comes with a power cord, a remote control, and two AA batteries. The remote is only about a half inch longer than the Apple TV remote, but much thicker. While it can still get lost in the couch cushions, it is easier to find thanks to its girth.
The setup is painless. Plug the power cord into the box and then into the wall. Then, connect an HDMI cable into the box and then into your television set. Fire TV does not come with an HDMI cable, but you can purchase one from Amazon for only $5.99.
The device will automatically turn on and begin searching for your remote. Once you’ve put in the batteries, Fire TV will register your remote so you can use it without needing a line-of-sight. This feature is particularly useful for me because my cat has a bad habit of walking across the coffee table while I’m trying to find something to watch.
The voice search feature on the Fire TV remote that Amazon brags about is very cool. It works almost perfectly practically every time. However, it only searches Amazon titles. So, if you are looking for a movie on Netflix, you can’t search for it using voice search on the remote.
While the exterior of Fire TV is not much different than Apple TV, it’s what is on the inside that everyone is wondering about.
The home page of Fire TV looks great. On the far left, you can scroll through a list of movies and T.V. shows from Amazon’s library. You can also check out your watch list, view available games and apps, and see your Cloud Drive photos.
On the Home screen, you will see a list of apps you’ve recently opened, featured Amazon movies and T.V. shows, and recommended apps and games.
The first thing I did was download the Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu Plus apps, since those are the two things I’ll be using the device for the most.
The Hulu Plus app looks fantastic. The top of the screen displays featured movies and shows with lists of titles below. It reminds me of the website. Even the show page looks great. I prefer Fire TV’s design for the Hulu Plus interface to Apple TV’s.
Netflix has a similar feel. The interface is nicely designed. The title’s synopsis is on the right side of the screen so you don’t have to select a movie to read what it is about. When you do select a movie, you have the option to play it, add it to your list, rate it, and access available audio and subtitle features. The only thing I didn’t like about the Netflix app on Fire TV is that you have to side-scroll through each list instead of viewing it as a grid the way it is displayed on Apple TV. While I really like the title synopsis view, I think the grid view on Apple TV is much more convenient.
The YouTube app on Fire TV is hands-down better looking than Apple TV. It looks better than the YouTube website. It is pretty awesome. Videos are accessible from the right side of the screen and the background features that blur effect we see all the time on iOS 7.
The set-top box also includes many of the same channels available on Apple TV, but includes a few that are not yet on Apple’s device. Since I already own Apple TV, one of the main reasons I purchased Fire TV was for Amazon Prime Instant Video. Fire TV also connects with Plex, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and a few more additions you may like.
As I noted, one of the main reasons I decided to add Fire TV to my family of gadgets was for Prime Instant Video. I have to say, I was disappointed with this portion of the device. Amazon does not make it easy for you to discover Prime titles. Much of the movies and T.V. shows are mixed together with non-Prime content. There are a couple of recommendation and featured lists, but you can’t browse through categories, like “Comedy” or “Action” that are exclusive to the service. The best way to ensure you have a list of Prime movies and T.V. shows to watch at your disposal is to visit the website and add titles to your watch list. They will appear immediately on Fire TV.
The other major feature that is a selling point for Fire TV is the gaming section. Amazon offers a specially designed Fire Game Controller for an additional $39.99. I did not purchase the game controller yet, but I’m sure I will eventually.
Fire TV includes some games that are compatible with both the remote and the Game Controller. Other titles are only available with the Game Controller. For example, you can download and play Badland with just the Fire TV remote. However, The Walking Dead: The Game is only accessible when you’ve linked a Game Controller to your Fire TV.
I found the selection of games to be poor. There are 49 titles in the Action category, 19 in the Adventure category, 20 in Arcade, four in Board Games, two in Casino, six in Casual, six in Kids, 13 in Puzzles and Trivia, nine in Racing, five in Role Playing, seven in Sports, and 10 in Strategy. Many of the titles overlap in categories, too, so the selection is even more limited.
I didn’t expect the games to be console quality, but I was hoping for something a little more impressive. None of the titles that I played looked any better than if I were mirroring them from my iPad. I didn’t play any games that require a controller, so I don’t know how good the performance speed is. Although I would have to assume it is better than mirroring with AirPlay simply because of the nature of AirPlay. A few of the games that I played had a terrible time fitting properly onto my screen. The images stretched past my screen edge so I couldn’t even see what was beyond. I had to delete one hidden objects game because some of the items were hidden off screen.
When it comes to performance, Fire TV wins, hands down. It has a quad-core processor and 2 GB of memory as compared to Apple TV’s single-core processor and 512 MB of memory. When I open Netflix or Hulu Plus on Apple TV, I get that spinning wheel that lasts at least 20 seconds. Plus, images take even longer to load. With Fire TV, both apps load almost immediately. The device also features an instant playback feature called “ASAP” that preloads movies and television episodes that may be of interest to you. It buffers content for playback before you even select the title. I never had to wait for content to load.
If you already own Apple TV, this isn’t much of an upgrade other than its super fast performance. I would hold out in hopes for the rumored Apple TV update that is supposed to happen this year. The other features that Fire TV has are just not a big enough deal to have two set-top boxes in the house.
If you don’t own a set-top box and are in the market for one, Fire TV is a very good buy. It works great, has lots of cool features, and is reasonably priced. Currently, it has better performance than Apple TV.
If you like being connected with your iPhone, iPad, and Mac computer, Apple TV is still your best bet. Fire TV does have a few options for syncing media, but you can’t even listen to your Cloud Player music on it yet.
My overall impression of Amazon Fire TV is that it runs great, has a clean user interface, and is easy to use. However, the features that make it stand out in the set-top box market; games, Prime Instant Video, and the voice search feature on the remote, are pretty much the worst aspects of the device, making it somewhat disappointing. Even with the lackluster features, this is still a great buy for someone who has not yet entered the set-top box market.