With the introduction of the $99 Fire TV streaming media player, Amazon is no longer just a provider of streaming media content through its Instant Video and MP3 stores; the company now joins the ranks of Apple and Google as hardware providers within the space. There's no shortage of competitors in this very crowded genre, but Amazon hopes to distinguish its product offering with one key feature: voice search. You've probably seen the commercial with Gary Busey talking into the Fire TV's remote, searching for himself. We are promised that this little device will listen to us and find exactly what we say. Does the Fire TV deliver on that promise? How does the rest of the experience compare with competitors like the AppleTV and Roku 3? Let's jump right in and find out.
It seems that the designers of streaming media players take the phrase "little black box" quite literally, and the Fire TV is no different. A 4.5-inch square, the Fire TV has a slightly larger form than either the Apple TV or the Roku 3 (see photo to the right), but it's also shorter, at just 0.7 inches tall. The black-on-black color palette looks very similar to the AppleTV: a matte black finish with a glossy black logo on the top and glossy side panels. Back-panel connections are also the same, including one HDMI output, one optical digital audio output, a USB 2.0 port, and an RJ-45 jack for a wired (10/100) network connection. Dual-band/dual-antenna 802.11n WiFi is also built in. In comparison, the Roku 3 lacks the optical digital output that allows you to connect the box to non-HDMI-equipped AV receivers and soundbars. None of these three boxes contains an analog video output for connection to a legacy TV.
The supplied remote, which communicates with the player via Bluetooth and doesn't require line of sight, shares the same color palette as the box, a matte black shell with raised, glossy black buttons. The remote's petite form factor should allow it to sit comfortably in just about anyone's hand, with the ability to easily reach all buttons with your thumb -- and it has that nice rubbery texture that makes it feel more secure in your hand. The button layout is simple and intuitive, with just nine buttons: home, return, info, play/pause, forward, reverse, a directional ring surrounding the enter/select button, and the all-important microphone button for voice search. The Amazon remote doesn't have the Wii-like motion sensing or headphone output of the Roku 3 remote. It also lacks a full keyboard. Unlike Roku and Apple, Amazon does not currently offer a free iOS or Android control app with a virtual keyboard to control the Fire TV, but a company rep says that this app is coming soon. The box does support second-screen control with the Kindle Fire HDX.
Basic setup of the Amazon Fire TV could not be any easier. I began by connecting the player directly to my Panasonic TC-P55ST60 TV via HDMI; later, I routed it through one of the Harman/Kardon AVR 3700 receiver's HDMI inputs. The onscreen interface walks you through a series of setup steps: pairing the remote, making a network connection (I used WiFi), checking for and performing any needed firmware updates, and then playing a short video tutorial that clearly covers the basics. Lastly, you can choose to sign in to (or create) an Amazon account and/or sign up for a free 30-day trial of Amazon Prime. Interestingly, since I ordered the box directly through Amazon, my Fire TV was already linked to my account when it arrived; when I opted to begin a free trial of Prime, it instantly signed me up with no need to input any account info.
Let's talk about Amazon Instant Video, for those who may never have used the service. It consists of two elements. The pay-per-use Instant Video Store is much like iTunes; you can buy or rent movies and TV shows, and you pay for each title that you watch. The price depends on the title and whether you get the SD or HD version. The Prime Instant Video service is Amazon's subscription offering, a competitor to Netflix that allows unlimited access to any content in the Prime library. Newer, big-name film releases and TV shows are available through the Instant Video Store far sooner than they are through the Prime catalog. While Netflix allows you to pay monthly and cancel at any time, Amazon Prime requires that you pay for a full year up front (after the 30-day free trial). Prime costs $99 per year, which averages out to $8.25 per month. Netflix currently costs $7.99 per month, but the company has announced plans to raise the monthly price by $1 or $2 for new customers. When that happens, Amazon Prime will be the slightly better deal, but again you have to commit more money upfront. Other perks of an Amazon Prime membership include free two-day shipping for anything you order through Amazon.com and one free book rental per month from the Kindle Store.
You don't have to sign up for Prime to enjoy the Fire TV player, but it'll be a whole lot cooler if you do. Yes, the Fire TV includes big-name apps like Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, and Pandora, but the voice search currently only finds content within Amazon's Instant Video service. So, if you don't sign up for Prime, you're limiting the catalog of searchable content. Amazon recently announced that it will add other services to the voice search very soon, including Hulu Plus, Crackle, and Showtime Anytime. I've also seen some reports that Netflix will be added before year's end, So, this feature will only grow more robust as time goes on.
A few other setup notes: Video resolution is set to Auto by default; other options are 720p and 1080p at 50Hz or 60Hz. The player supports Dolby Digital Plus soundtracks, but the box is set by default to stereo output for immediate use directly with a TV; you'll want to change that setting if mating the box with an AV receiver. You can also enable a quiet mode for late-night listening, as well as a screen saver that uses preloaded photos or your own library stored on the Amazon Cloud Drive. Parental controls let you dictate whether or not to require a pin when purchasing content, to keep little ones from running up the bill.
Click on over to Page 2 for the Performance, the Downside, Comparison and Competition, and the Conclusion . . .
The first thing to strike me about the Fire TV's home menu is that it focuses less on apps and more on content - mostly Amazon content, of course. In most streaming players, your search begins by choosing an app like Netflix or at least a category like TV or Movies, then browsing content. With the Fire TV, on the other hand, you're greeted with a bunch of content choices right from the get-go. Menu options for things like Movies, TV, Games, Apps, Photos, and Settings run down a single column on the left side of the screen, while the remainder of real estate is dedicated to bright, colorful icons divided into content sub-categories that mimic the "recommendations" style of the Amazon website. If you've ever browsed Amazon's music or video store, you know what I mean: list after list of recommended content - "top" this or "best-selling" that or "free" something or other. In this case, you'll find categories like "Recommended Movies & TV," "Top Movies on Prime," "Top TV on Prime," "Recommended Apps and Games, "Top Free Games," etc. Within each major category (say, Movies or TV), the recommendation lists get more specific. Within TV, for instance, you'll find options like "Your TV Shows," "Recently Added to Prime," "Recommended Drama," and "For the Kids." Again, all of these recommendations lead you to Amazon content. Small banners run across the cover art to flag content that's available through Prime, as well as content available in HD.
Because the Fire TV home menu is so content-centric, its layout is a bit busier than that of the Roku or AppleTV, but I still found it to be attractive, intuitive, and easy to maneuver. It's a similar browsing experience as the one employed in the Amazon Instant Video app found on other streaming players, but the design is more colorful and engaging. The "Recent" section at the top makes it easy to quickly jump to a show or app that you've recently accessed, and Watchlist lets you designate favorites. You can do a text search for an item, but in most cases the voice search is definitely the way to go. Just press the remote's microphone button, and say the name of a movie, TV show, actor, director, or genre like "romantic comedy" or "football." Within a second or two, the search results pop up on the screen. Not only will you get the title you searched for, but others like it. When I searched for "Raising Arizona," my favorite comedy was listed first, alongside a host of other Coen Brothers films like The Big Lebowski, Miller's Crossing, and Hudsucker Proxy. Saying "Steven Spielberg" gave me his directorial resume, with Schindler's List, Empire of the Sun, and Minority Report as the first three films.
The Fire TV had no trouble understanding me. It batted 1000 in my search requests, until I actively tried to trip it up with more difficult, usually foreign titles like "La Vie En Rose" or "Amour." I furthered the experiment by handing the microphone over to my five-year-old daughter and then my 70-year-old mother, who both seemed to develop stage fright when asked to speak into the microphone. They would either whisper or mumble, and that's when the voice search stumbled. You do need to speak clearly, but you don't have to yell or over-enunciate. Sometimes, my daughter would try to have a conversation with the thing and get nowhere. I had to explain that you can't use words like "I want to watch" or "take me to." Just say the title name. If the voice search can't figure out what you want, that's when the text search comes in handy.
As I mentioned above, the voice search currently only works for Amazon content, although more services are coming soon. If I wanted to access a show that's exclusive to a different app - say, House of Cards on Netflix - I had to navigate directly to that app. The Fire TV has a well-rounded assortment of apps, including Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, Crackle, Pandora, TuneIn Radio, I Heart Radio, Showtime Anytime, Watch ESPN, NBA TV, Vevo, and Vimeo. You can check out the complete app lineup here. The inclusion of PLEX is great for those who want to stream personal media files from a computer or external server, but the PLEX app does cost $4.99. A free app called ViMu Player can do the same thing but isn't nearly as sleek and easy to use as PLEX. Some notable big-name omissions in the app department are Vudu, Spotify, HBO Go, and major sports apps like MLB and MLS. Amazon recently inked a deal with HBO to add the HBO Go app later this year. About a week ago, Amazon added an assortment of HBO shows - like The Wire, The Sopranos, Rome, True Blood, and Boardwalk Empire - to the Prime service.
Amazon is also targeting the Fire TV at more serious gamers, offering a lot of free and inexpensive games. Some of the more basic games, like the Despicable Me: Minion Rush game I auditioned, will work with the supplied remote. Others -- like Deus Ex: The Fall, The Walking Dead, Sonic The Hedgehog 2, and Modern Combat 4 -- require the optional Fire Game Controller ($39.99), which communicates over Bluetooth but lacks the motion sensing that you get with a Wii controller or the supplied Roku 3 remote. The menu clearly indicates which remote a certain game requires, which is a wise choice. Since I'm not a gamer in any sense (and this is a home theater site), I did not dig deeply into the gaming capabilities for this review. The Fire TV has 8GB of onboard storage for game/app downloads, and free Cloud storage is available to save other local content.
Regarding general performance, I found the Fire TV (which uses a quad-core Qualcomm Krait 300 processor and has 2GB of memory) to be very fast, both in navigation and loading of apps. Thanks to the Advanced Streaming and Prediction (ASAP) technology, Amazon's own content loads immediately with virtually no buffering, and the box's load times with Netflix and Hulu Plus were right on par with Roku and AppleTV. One nice perk is that you can navigate between apps quickly during a particular viewing session. With Roku and AppleTV, whenever you exit the app and re-enter it, you have to wait for it to load again. With the Fire TV, if you leave an app and come back ten minutes later, it opens quickly to right where you left off. The box never crashed or froze up on me, and I was very happy with the overall user experience.
The Fire TV user interface is not customizable. You can't set favorite apps to a primary location, although the "Recent" category essentially accomplishes the same thing. While the Fire TV service does include many big-ticket apps, it doesn't (yet) compete with AppleTV and especially Roku in the volume of marquee apps. As I mentioned, Amazon has already announced plans to add HBO Go. Also coming soon is Amazon's FreeTime, which for $2.99 per month gives you unlimited access to children's programming from sources like Nickelodeon and PBS Kids and lets you create customized profiles for up to four kids. I suspect we'll be seeing even more apps added in short order.
Given that the supplied remote lacks a keyboard and there's not yet an iOS/Android control app with a virtual keyboard, there was no quick and easy way to input text. Voice search is great to search for content, but it doesn't work to input user names and passwords during initial setup, so be prepared to use the onscreen alphanumeric keypad for those steps.
Comparison and Competition
Throughout this review, I've primarily compared the Fire TV with the Roku 3 and the AppleTV, both of which carry the same $99 MSRP, although you may find them on sale for a little less. Roku is still the reigning champ in the sheer number of apps it delivers, and the remote's headphone output is an awfully nice perk. In terms of speed, reliability, and intuitiveness, all three products are in class above other players I've tested.
The newest version of the Roku Stick ($50) delivers most of what the Roku 3 offers in a convenient form factor that plugs directly into your TV's HDMI port. And then there's the $35 Google Chromecast, which is not a standalone media player in the same way that the above players are. The Chromecast is more of a bridge that requires a smartphone, tablet, or computer from which to stream content, but it can deliver access to many of the big-name content services (although Amazon Instant Video isn't currently one of them).
The $99 Fire TV is an impressive debut for Amazon; in a crowded market of streaming media players, its voice search, speed, content-centered interface, and gaming features help distinguish it from the pack. Just as the AppleTV has a strong iTunes bent, the Fire TV is best suited for someone who has embraced the Amazon ecosystem, especially those who have a Prime membership and want a truly fast, intuitive way to browse and watch content. The voice search is a really compelling feature that makes the overall experience so much more enjoyable. As voice search extends to include services beyond just Amazon Instant Video, the Fire TV will only grow more enticing to a larger audience.