Amazon has a history of using hardware platforms to make people buy stuff. The Kindle and the Echo are both useful on their own, but Amazon’s long-term plan for both is all about selling things. Amazon’s Fire TV line is no different.
The user interface on these streaming media devices heavily favor Amazon’s own services. YouTube, Netflix, and the other streaming services you love were all available, but to find them you had to scroll past a lot of Amazon content. It’s the price you paid for cheap hardware, and it was a price worth paying for many—especially since other boxes, like the Apple TV and Chromecast, didn’t have Amazon Prime Video channels.
This week, two things changed the game: Amazon Prime Video launched on Apple TV and YouTube announced it will stop working on Amazon Fire TV. Now we’re unsure if the Fire TV is worth it.
Apple TV Is Better on the High End
As of this week, Amazon Prime Video works on the Apple TV. This means Amazon Prime users can watch The Tick, The Man In The High Castle, and other Amazon Original Series, alongside shows Amazon has exclusive streaming rights to, like Doctor Who, all at not extra cost.
Apple TV also works with YouTube.
It goes without saying that Apple TV is a better high-end streaming box for anyone invested in Apple’s platform. The interface is top notch, it’s easy to mirror your iPhone or Mac display, and all your purchases from iTunes are quick to find.
Until this week, the lack of Amazon Prime Video access was the biggest major downside to the Apple TV, other than the price. Price isn’t something Apple users worry much about, and the Prime downside is gone now. If you’re an Apple user looking for a streaming box, there’s no longer any reason to even consider the Fire TV.
Roku Is Better on the Low and Middle Ends
Apple TV too pricey for you? Roku offers a wide range of devices, and the very good $30 Streaming Stick costs less than Amazon’s cheapest Fire TV. This means you can get a streaming device for less money without having Amazon constantly forced down your throat, but you can still access that Amazon content if you want to.
Even better: Roku devices have full access to YouTube.
You could argue that YouTube not working on the Fire TV isn’t Amazon’s fault: it’s a tactic Google is using to force Amazon to sell Google devices in their store. But such intrigue simply isn’t relevant for users, who just want their devices to work. Buy a Roku, and both YouTube and Amazon Prime Video will work beautifully—among Roku’s many, many other channels.
YouTube is a must for any streaming device, and it doesn’t matter why Amazon doesn’t offer it. What matters is the user experience, and right now we can’t recommend it.
The Exception: Sideloading and Kodi
We’d like to add one huge caveat to all of this: Amazon’s Fire TV platform is very hackable, and experienced users can put it to good use with some effort. You can easily sideload Android applications onto these cheap devices, which gives you access to all kinds of goodies.
Perhaps the biggest upside here is you can install media center software like Kodi on your Amazon Fire TV or Fire TV Stick. With Kodi you can install all sorts of add-ons, including one for YouTube. This works around Amazon and Google’s fight completely. Kodi also lets you watch live local TV over the your network assuming you’ve got a computer with a TV card in another room somewhere, and watch movies and shows from your local network in a beautiful, library-focused interface.
If you’re a heavy tweaker who likes Kodi, this is still a pretty compelling reason to buy a Fire TV, and it’s something Apple TV and Roku don’t offer (though they do both offer Plex). It is not, however, relevant to most users: normal people aren’t going to bother with all that.
It Doesn’t Matter Whose Fault This Is
When we outlined which streaming box you should use, simple access to Amazon Prime content was a major advantage for the Fire TV platform. We also assumed YouTube worked equally well on all platforms.
As of this writing, Amazon Prime Video is available basically everywhere but Chromecast, meaning what was a huge advantage for Fire TV is basically gone now. This combined with the absence of YouTube makes it hard to recommend Amazon’s platform, which can be annoying to say the least if you’re not a 100 percent sold on Amazon’s ecosystem. Maybe this will change, but right now we can’t recommend anyone spend money on a Fire TV (unless you want a really cheap Kodi box).