In the age of dwindling cable TV subscriptions companies are clamoring for control of your living room, and Amazon is no exception. Today we take a look at their entry into the media center circus with a review of the compact and powerful Amazon Fire TV.
What Is The Amazon Fire TV?
The Amazon Fire TV ($99) is, as the name certainly belies, Amazon’s foray into the streaming media center market intended to compete with the likes of the Apple TV, Roku 3, and Google’s Chromecast (as well as their recently announced Nexus Player).
The unit has a very slim profile (it’s roughly the size of two CD jewel cases stacked up) but packs some pretty robust hardware inside its tiny case including 2GB of RAM, a 1.7Ghz quad-core mobile processor, a dual MIMO 802.11bgn antenna, an optical audio out, and even an Ethernet jack for those of you that prefer wired connections over wireless.
Strong on processing it’s a bit anemic on storage with only 8GB of non-expandable onboard storage. It ships with a simple Bluetooth remote and supports Amazon gaming controllers (as well as other Bluetooth controllers).
The Fire TV, as you can imagine, is purpose built for and centered around the Amazon media ecosystem but, thanks to its Android-roots, can also run the apps for popular streaming services like YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu.
How Do I Set It Up?
A smooth user experience is definitely an area the Fire TV excels in and setup is no exception. Plug the device into your HDTV, plug the power cable in, and grab the remote.
The Fire will perform some basic checks, download updates if available, and then (if you’re using Wi-Fi instead of Ethernet) prompt you to connect to your local Wi-Fi node.
If you happen to have a USB-based keyboard handy, now would be a great time to take advantage of the USB port on the back of the Fire and plug it in.
The on-screen keyboard is actually fairly remote friendly (and they made excellent use of the remote buttons as shortcuts for tasks like backspacing, shifting, and moving onto the next step) but it’s still clicking around a keyboard with a remote control and not much fun. Using the USB keyboard to avoid the tedium of typing in your lengthy Wi-Fi SSID and password is totally worth it.
Once you finish connecting the device to the network and logging into your Amazon account, a tutorial video tutorial starts up.
One of the things we noted in our review of the Kindle Fire last year was how user friendly the Kindle Fire was (especially with the Mayday feature to help guide you through problems). The Fire TV continues with the trend of user friendliness as the brief tutorial video pretty much covers everything you need to immediately start using the device.
Beyond plugging in your Wi-Fi information and plugging in your Amazon login and password, there’s very little to the setup process. The time from unboxing to enjoying the device is a few minutes (mostly consumed with unwrapping the thing and getting it plugged in).
The user interface on the Amazon Fire is basic but effective (when it comes to streaming boxes basic and easy to navigate is just fine with us). Once you’ve finished the setup and watched the tutorial video you’re kicked over to the home screen.
The home screen serves as a dashboard with your recently accessed media displayed, media recommendations, featured apps, and other recommendations/advertisements for media in the Amazon ecosystem.
You can navigate down the sidebar to see Prime Video, Movies, TV, your saved media in the Watch List, the Video Library that houses all your Amazon purchases, FreeTime (Amazon’s kid-friendly walled garden), your Games, Apps, Music, Photos and, of course, the settings.
As veteran media center users we had few complaints about the user interface. Overall the user interface is very snappy and navigating the main categories is painless. The games menu did leave a bit to be desired though as it was difficult to easily browse the greater games database beyond the curated suggestion lists first presented to to the user.
The user interface for selecting media from Amazon and browsing it was trouble free, however, and the in-media settings (as seen above) were easy to navigate and use. Playback for third party streaming apps like Netflix and Hulu were, likewise, trouble fee.
Hardware and Performance
The Fire TV’s hardware is clearly up to the task (and then some) when it comes to video playback. In fact the processor and RAM is overkill for 1080p playback (the humble Raspberry Pi does just fine playing back HD video with a fraction of the hardware power packed into the Fire TV).
The menus are silky smooth with no delay, video play starts almost immediately (thanks in part to Amazon’s aggressive precaching ASAP system that preemptively downloads the starting portion of media it expects you’ll watch), and in-video menus are just as responsive.
In fact the Fire TV has more than enough power for even hardware-intensive mobile games. We had no problem playing Asphalt 8, Grand Theft Auto, or other games that would tax weaker Android devices.
The Fire TV sports a few features that either don’t exist on other streaming media center solutions or are poorly implemented. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
We thought the voice search was sure to be a stupid gimmick but were pleasantly surprised to see that it actually works quite well. The application is simple: you press the voice command button on the remote and tell it what you want like “Alpha House” or “Minecraft” and if that item is anywhere in the Amazon ecosystem (whether you own it or not) it will dig it up for you.
Outside of the Amazon ecosystem however? The search function is absolutely useless. It doesn’t matter if the TV show or movie you want to watch is free on Netflix, for example, the voice search will always default to the entry in the Amazon ecosystem. While that’s to be expected given that the Fire TV is designed to essentially promote Amazon-based sales it doesn’t make it less disappointing. We want our primary media center solution to serve us, not a company.
Anything we have bad to say about gaming on the Fire TV isn’t so much a dig against the Fire TV or Amazon as much as it is a dig against the whole mobile-gaming-on-your-TV genre as a whole. There’s nothing wrong with the Amazon game marketplace. There are hundreds of titles (and more than a few good ones at that). The Amazon Fire game controller is serviceable (if certainly not a contender to dethrone beloved controllers like the Xbox 360 or PS DualShock controllers). The idea of using the remote itself as a tool for anything but the most simple of games, however, is pretty laughable and we weren’t particularly thrilled with our attempts to play anything using it.
The real problem with gaming on the Fire TV though isn’t any real shortcoming of the Fire TV itself though. There’s just this large and still present gap between the ease and fun of true mobile gaming (on your phone or tablet) and the depth and experience of sit-down gaming with a console or PC that this whole mobile-gaming-on-your-TV genre has failed to bridge properly. Even games that would be fun to play on your phone while waiting for the train or what not feel cheap and hollow when you’ve actually taken the time to sit down on your couch and invest some time in a game. Fingers crossed the mobile-to-TV crossover movement strengthens and some solid titles can take advantage of the Fire’s beefy processor.
One thing worth noting in the gaming section: although Amazon makes no effort to highlight this selling point you don’t have to use their game controllers. Instead of shelling out $40 a controller you can use most Bluetooth controllers on the market.
FreeTime and Parental Controls
When we reviewed the Kindle Fire tablets we were blown away by how great the parental controls and the FreeTime system were. Amazon absolutely nailed the whole kid-friendly angle with FreeTime on the Fire tablets and the application and delivery of it on the Fire TV is just as spot on.
It’s incredibly easy to restrict access to the device, set screen time limits, set bedtime shut off, restrict content, and otherwise lock the device down and make it kid-friendly. Combine the Fire TV with FreeTime Unlimited ($2.99 a month for Prime subscribers) and you have yourself a media rich and kid-safe media box.
The Good, The Bad, and The Verdict
After playing around with the FireTV for the last week and putting it through the paces, what do we have to say about it? Let’s run through some bullet points in The Good and The Bad, and then issue a Verdict.
- The unit is port rich an includes an optical audio out, Ethernet port, and USB port.
- Hardware is blazing fast; the quad-core processor coupled with 2GB of RAM ensures a silky smooth menu and video playback experience.
- The Bluetooth remote doesn’t need line of sight (so you can hide the actual Fire box itself out of sight).
- Voice support isn’t a gimmick and actually works surprisingly well.
- Search function, within the context of Amazon’s media, is great.
- Can add third-party Bluetooth controllers (instead of buying lots of Amazon’s game controllers).
- FreeTime and the accompanying parental controls make the Fire TV the best kid-friendly solution around.
- Lacks any sort of mechanism (without 3rd party apps) for playing local content like home movies stored on a network share.
- Gaming is still pretty limited and lackluster across the entire media center market, and the Fire TV is no exception.
- Difficult to easily browse free-for-Prime members library.
- User interface and search features prioritize Amazon results; search function only searches Amazon media.
- No support for local streaming or content.
- Can’t mount external media via USB drive.
- Internal memory is, at present, not expandable.
As of this review the Amazon Fire TV is the fastest streaming box on the market and definitely runs circles around units like the Apple TV and Roku 3. If you’re firmly entrenched in the Amazon ecosystem and you’re looking for a way to easily get your Amazon content to your television (as well as continue to use services like Netflix and Hulu) the Fire TV is a perfect fit. If you have kids, it’s an even better fit as you get all your Amazon content plus the best kid-friendly platform around.
If you’re a DIY-type geek, however, and the majority of your media is ripped and stored locally on a portable HDD or a storage server, there’s no native support for any kind of local or attached-storage streaming. Although you can install third-party applications to attempt a work around there’s no good way (as it’s presently impossible to jailbreak your Fire TV and override the default home screen) to prioritize that local content.
So if you’re willing to buy into Amazon’s ecosystem and you’re somebody who just wants a snappy working solution that fits both their needs and the needs of their kids, snatch one up. If you’re somebody who wants to get their hands dirty and roll their own media center system, we’d encourage you to check out some of our great tutorials on the matter like How to Build a $35 Media Center with Rasbmc and Raspberry Pi.