Third-party streaming video boxes have one primary purpose: to allow users to access and buy video content. From there, it’s all about delivery, and value-added features.
The recently introduced Amazon Fire TV
is a snappy little device that offers tools not yet available on other video boxes. This doesn’t mean it is a great device, or even a game changer. There is just enough there, however, to cause some worry at Apple and Roku, as our review shows.
The Amazon Fire TV is the fastest third-party streaming video box on the market today, with a boot time that is equally impressive. In particular, the device does a fantastic job at waking up from sleep. I was also impressed with how quickly movies and television shows loaded from Amazon’s own video service.
Unfortunately, that speed falls dramatically when you leave Amazon’s ecosystem. It's not that the Hulu Plus and Netflix apps, for example, are slow. Rather, they are noticeably slower when compared to accessing content on Amazon Instant Video.
The highly touted Voice Search feature on the Amazon Fire TV makes finding new content quick and easy. And yes, unlike Apple’s Siri, it actually does a great job of understanding different voices.
Regrettably, Voice Search (again) only works within Amazon’s ecosystem.
For example, I pressed the microphone button on my Amazon Fire TV remote and said “Mad Men.” Within seconds, the AMC series popped up as the top result.
Unfortunately, the device only provided ways to watch the series through Amazon. Episodes and seasons of "Mad Men" cost money through Amazon, even though they are free through Netflix streaming. You wouldn’t know this by only using Amazon’s Voice Search feature.
The interface on the Amazon Fire TV takes a number of design cues from Roku, with a menu on the left side, and cover art and icons on the right. The device’s snappy Qualcomm Krait 300 1.7 Ghz quad-core CPU makes moving around the interface a breeze.
I was also impressed with the device’s limited multitasking ability, which allows users to move between apps without restarting.
Notice a pattern here? The menu only works with Amazon content.
Roku does offer a limited number of games on its set top boxes. This is a secondary feature, at best. On the Amazon Fire TV, gaming is front-and-center, although you’ll never confuse it for an Xbox One or PlayStation 4, which even Amazon would admit.
Gaming on the Amazon box is supported by the Fire TV remote or dedicated Amazon Fire Game Controller
. Both are simple to use. While $39.99 isn’t a lot to pay for a game controller, I would suggest holding off on making the extra purchase until you decide whether gaming on the device is for you. For most users, the included remote is all you may need.
The Amazon Fire TV can support multiplayer gaming for up to five players. Unfortunately, only one player can play on the screen at a time because Amazon hasn’t yet provided split-screen support.
If you’re a parent and own a Kindle Fire tablet, you already probably know about FreeTime, which gives the device’s interface a kid-friendly design. FreeTime also supports user profiles, meaning you don’t have to worry about your child seeing more mature content. It also lets you set daily limits and restrict categories of content.
FreeTime is not yet available on the Amazon Fire TV, although Amazon promises it will come with a software update next month.
Most of the big name content providers have already signed on for the Amazon Fire TV, including iHeartRadio, YouTube, Crackle, and Vimeo. It also offers Showtime Anywhere, which isn't on the Apple TV. It is still missing HBO Go (sorry, “Game of Thrones” fans) although that omission appears to be temporary.
Put together, Time
says the Amazon Fire TV has 24+ channels, compared to the 30+ on the Apple TV. Neither of these compares to the 1,200+ channels on Roku. Still, how many of these are actually used by folks on a regular basis?
What this means for Apple
Soon after the Amazon Fire TV was announced last week, I suggested its introduction would put the Apple TV behind the eight ball
. I stand by this statement, although now that I have used the device, it’s best to clarify.
The Amazon Fire TV could one day put Apple’s “hobby” device at a disadvantage. Right now, however, there are too many holes in Amazon’s device for this to happen.
Nonetheless, the Amazon Fire TV does offer a few nice tricks, which if better implemented, could present Apple with some challenges. It also shows areas where Apple could do something better and blow Amazon out of the water.
For one, all Cupertino has to do to become the king of set top box gaming is to port its App Store games to the Apple TV. In doing so, Amazon’s small library of games would immediately be dwarfed by comparison.
For another, while the current Apple TV is noticeably slower than the Amazon Fire TV, that shouldn’t be the case for much longer. The fourth-generation Apple TV should at least match the speed of Amazon’s device whenever it is released.
Finally, the limits to Amazon’s Voice Search feature should give Cupertino a clear roadmap on how to make Siri on the Apple TV a better experience. In other words, if Apple lets Siri find “Mad Men” everywhere it’s available, it will make Voice Search look amateurish.
The Amazon Fire TV isn't a game changer, nor will it convince Apple TV users to switch. Nonetheless, the device is a step in the right direction and could pose a challenge to competitors in the future.
If you are currently an Amazon Prime subscriber and get most of your digital content through them, buying an Amazon Fire TV is really a no brainer -- especially if you don't already have a TV streaming device. If most of your content is purchased through Apple's iTunes, however, there isn't much of a reason to buy Amazon's device at this time. This is especially true given that the next Apple TV could be released as early as June.
The $99 Amazon Fire TV is available through Amazon