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).
Other streaming media players that we've reviewed include the $100 Vizio Co-Star, the Netgear NeoTV Max, and D-Link MovieNite Plus. Check out our Media Servers category for more reviews.
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.