Fire TV is possibly the best single set-top box available, but it still can’t be everything to everyone
In what has been colloquially called the "battle for the living room" (or as I like to call it, the battle for your HDMI inputs), competition is heating up but hasn't exactly hit a flash point. Modern products in the small set top box space like the WD TV Live, Boxee Box and Google TV never really caught on, and even the "big" successful players like Roku and Apple TV have relatively small sales numbers in the grand scheme of television watchers today. Whether it's out of complication from yet another box, the inherent redundancy of having several boxes that all do most of the same things or the price of more hardware and subscription services, these little set top boxes have yet to break though.
But if there's one thing Amazon knows how to do, it's create products that can find mass appeal with the general consumer. With the announcement of its new set-top box, Fire TV, Amazon is betting that it can get a good number of people to buy this $99 thing, and pay another $99 per year to deliver more Amazon content to it. And then pay still more for premium movies and TV shows and apps that aren't free as part of Prime. Building on the experience of launching the relatively successful Kindle Fire line of tablets, there's indication that Amazon can do just that. The real question is: has Amazon figured out something that Roku and Apple have not?
In this ever-hyped fight for a foothold in the living room, is Amazon's Fire TV offering a sure-fire hit? Read along with us and see what this little box can do.
Category-busting hardware, both inside and out
The impending success of the Fire TV isn't really tied to the internal specifications of the box in particular, but it is interesting to note the amount of power available in this little guy that you just don't find in its competition. The internals of Fire TV land right in between what you'd find on Amazon's last-generation Kindle Fire HD and the current-gen Fire HDX — a Snapdragon 600 processor, Adreno 320 GPU, 2GB of RAM, 8GB of storage, Bluetooth 4.0 (for controllers and remotes) and dual-band MIMO a/b/g/n Wifi. That means this little box that's roughly the size of a Kindle Fire HD 7 folded in half is capable of outputting 1080p video at 60fps, with Dolby 7.1 surround sound, while also downloading a few games in the background and pulling in information from IMDb for X-Ray without breaking a sweat. See if your Apple TV can do that.
It's faster than any other set-top box, and it looks good doing it
But that's just an example. What Fire TV's internal hardware can really offer is an insanely fast and responsive interface that is unlike anything you'd normally expect to show up on your TV. It's faster than other cheap set-top boxes, it's faster than my Xbox 360, it's faster than a cable box — and it actually looks good doing it. Whether you're playing back video, navigating the interface, switching between apps or playing graphically-intense games, the Fire TV never once skipped a beat in my time with it.
Cable companies, take note: Fire TV is how it should be done.
The design of the Fire TV is extremely simple, with a single white light on the front indicating that it is turned on, and a handful of ports on the back for getting it integrated into your entertainment center. You have a power plug, HDMI, optical audio (a rarity in this class of box), ethernet and a USB port (which doesn't seem to be of much use unless you're trying to hack into the thing), though most probably won't touch any but the HDMI and power. A simple "Amazon" logo adorns the top of the box recessed into a matte black finish, while the other edges have a glossy black finish. It's a classy, and most importantly unassuming, box that could slip into any entertainment center out there.
The remote is comfortable, easy to use and connects flawlessly over Bluetooth 4.0
The remote — which is incredibly important because Amazon does not yet have remote apps for Android devices — is basic but well-appointed to do anything you'd want to with the Fire TV. It's rounded in the back, which is slightly odd when you toss it on a table and it wobbles but makes it considerably more comfortable in the hand than your average TV remote. It has standard back, home and menu buttons — lest you forget you're running Android on here — along with a nice D-pad toggle, dedicated media playback controls and a single-function voice control button at the very top.
Amazon even includes the required AAA batteries for the remote (and AA for the controller if you buy it), and packs everything up in a "frustration-free" type of box. The one thing not included is an HDMI cable, but Amazon would be happy to sell you a 6.5-foot long Amazon Basics one for just $5.99.
A Kindle Fire, but for your TV
When Amazon announced the availability of its very own Android Appstore, everyone was mildly confused. When the company then announced the Kindle Fire running a completely customized version of Android, dubbed Fire OS, it all made a bit more sense. With the announcement of the Fire TV running the same Android-based Fire OS and apps from the Amazon Appstore, it has now become blatantly clear that this Android initiative inside of Amazon was not a lost cause — it's all part of a play that is much bigger than just mobile devices and basic mobile apps.
Fire TV is to set-top boxes what the Kindle Fire HDX is to multimedia tablets
The simplest and most effective way to describe Fire TV is to explain that it is to set top boxes what the Kindle Fire is to multimedia tablets — but not just because of the shared specs and industrial design. Sure the Fire TV is technically a streaming media box that serves up content from the Internet and plays games, but the main aim of this box is to get you to spend more money at Amazon. Whether it's through "free" movies and TV shows via a paid subscription to Amazon Prime or on a pay-per-view basis buying individual movies or TV episodes, the best thing that the Fire TV can do is serve up Amazon media. Just like when you're shopping for shampoo or bird cages on Amazon.com, the Fire TV interface makes sure you're about one click fewer away from buying something than you think you should be. Two quick clicks on the remote, and you just bought a season of Game of Thrones.
- More: Buy Amazon Fire TV on Amazon ($99.99)
The best example of Amazon's intentions with Fire TV is the excellent and much-advertised Voice Search feature. Controlled with a dedicated button on the remote, Amazon's Voice Search works across apps, games, movies and TV, and is nearly 100 percent perfect for recognizing my voice — so perfect that it often didn't even give additional suggestions of what it thought I said, it just knew exactly.
Using voice control is simple: Press and hold the button on the remote control. Speak. Let go when you're done.
Here's the rub, though: Voice Search primarily works for Amazon's own content, and although Amazon claims it works for Vudu and Hulu Plus as well I never received a search result for either one in any of my Voice Search requests. When it comes down to it, that makes sense — Amazon can search its own catalog a lot better than someone else’s.
If you want to watch a movie that is likely on Netflix, you'll need to Voice Search for "Netflix," or open the app manually, then search from there with the old school text type-in method. That is a pain, I agree, but once you're in these third-party content apps, the experience is actually quite good. Each of the partner apps available at launch works pretty well (although Watch ESPN is a tad sluggish), and it's clear Amazon did some work with the developers to make sure they were ready to have a TV-scaled interface rather than a mobile one. These are all just Android apps that you can already find in the Amazon Appstore on your Kindle Fire, simply adapted for the Fire TV, but there's nothing wrong with that. They work, and they're huge content draws for potential customers.
Dozens of great content apps are available, but this will never be a complete list to everyone
While many of the big names — Netflix, Hulu, Showtime, ESPN, Pandora, TuneIn Radio, BloombergTV, Plex, RealPlayer Cloud, (the list goes on) — are included and even printed on the Fire TV box, there are some glaring omissions. HBO Go isn't here, nor is a single piece of content from Google Play (as you would expect), apps from major cable companies or even Amazon's own music service. Presumably any media app that's currently available for Android could be brought over to the Fire TV, but Amazon and the app developers have to work together first to make it Fire TV-ready and get it on the box. It’s impressive to see how many content sources Amazon has available right from the start, but it’s never going to be a complete list for every person out there.
A stealthy entrant in the micro console gaming space
Android games look great on Fire TV, and have all been optimized for the big screen and $39 controller
With the purchase of a $39 Amazon Fire Game Controller, Fire TV transforms into a formidable competitor in the micro console gaming space. The same clout that the Amazon Appstore brings to the media side of the Fire TV is also responsible for bringing great Android games to the platform. Popular titles we all know and love like Riptide GP2, Polar Bowler, Deus Ex, Asphalt 8, Badland and Virtua Tennis are all here, as well as some first-party titles from Amazon's own game studios like Sev Zero — a fantastic first-person shooter combined with tower defense — that really show off what this console can do. Amazon says there are over 100 games available at launch, many of which are optimized to work perfectly with the Fire Game Controller, averaging under $2 each to buy.
It's worth noting that some games can be played with the remote control, but a proper gaming controller makes it much more fun.
- More: Buy the Amazon Fire Game Controller on Amazon ($39.99)
Considering the size of the game library available in the Amazon Appstore today, it could only be a matter of months before we see thousands of titles available in the Fire TV game store, and that's a pretty enticing proposition. Even just looking at what's available on the Fire TV today has us excited, though. Games look great and provide performance on par with what you'd expect from a modern phone or tablet hooked up to a TV. They play in 1080p, work while also listening to music from another app in the background (Pandora even shows track listings when new songs play) and launch or close with ease.
If you don't have a desire for AAA titles, the Fire TV could be the casual game console you're looking for
The Fire Game Controller itself is nothing to write home about, and the only thing that keeps it ahead of another Bluetooth controller — which pair to the Fire TV just fine — are the dedicated video playback and navigation controls, which mean you can move through the entire Fire TV interface without also having the standard remote out. All of the buttons and joysticks work well for gameplay (although the D-pad is a bit soft), and the most important part is that the games are coded properly to take precise input from the controller.
If you're not worried about having your game content locked up in the Amazon Appstore, and don't have the need (or space (or money)) for a dedicated game console to play AAA titles like a PS4 or Xbox One, the Fire TV could be the casual game console you're looking for. Make sure you have your expectations set for the quality of games that will be available, and you won't have any problem spending a few hours relaxing with a casual game or two on this box.
It's hard to say 'no' to this $99 set top box
Amazon has done a lot correctly here, and has clearly made a convincing case for the Fire TV to be the set top box of choice for a good number of people. For someone who wants to buy just a single set top box and cover as many bases (aka media sources) as possible, the Fire TV can definitely be that go-to choice — so long as you're part of, or willing to be part of, the Amazon ecosystem for nearly everything you do. Even though third-party content sources are available, nothing that Amazon doesn't directly control should be taken as a given on the Fire TV.
No single set top box can be all things to all people though, and the Fire TV does have its faults. The universal Voice Search isn’t all that universal, the app offerings are full but not complete and the games show promise but aren't going to steal playing time from your dedicated game console if you're anything but a casual gamer. That being said, the Fire TV is a whole lot closer to being that “perfect” set top box than any other in the past or present, and for that reason it’s going to be well worth the $99 purchase that so many will make throughout 2014.