At this point Amazon’s FireTV needs no introduction. It’s a small black box that connects to your TV by way of HDMI, and much like Apple’s TV, perhaps the device’s biggest competitor, it allows you to access a variety of streaming content that includes the likes of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon’s suites of streaming services. So, the question remains, is it any good? In short yes, but that isn’t to say perfect.
Out of the box, the Amazon FireTV isn’t any more or less remarkable than any other set top box of the same ilk on the market. At a glance you might be none the wiser that’s it Amazon’s FireTV, where as Apple’s TV has, at least in my opinion, a more distinct look. But allow me to be candid and say that it’s a moot issue.
On the back of the device is a 5.5mm DC jack, a dedicated 10/100 Ethernet port, a 1.4b HDMI out that supports up to full HD, a TOSLINK optical audio output, and a USB 2.0 port. Amazon included one of their HDMI cables in my box, though I’m not sure if that’s specific to reviewers or not. Either way it’s a nice touch.
Also included is a a remote control. Unlike the Apple TV remote, line of site to the box isn’t needed (thank you Bluetooth), which is huge in my book, since I tend to hide most if not all of my components from sight. Also huge is the FireTV Remote’s voice search. Hold the mic button, speak, and the box will search whatever you tell it to, much like Siri or some other equivalent voice search. It works very, very well – more on this later. The remote’s physical layout is relatively simple which in turn makes it very intuitive to use out of the box. The circle you see isn’t a jog wheel, but more a touchpad allowing you to move up, down, left or right. The center of it is effectively an enter button. All the other buttons are relatively self explanatory, save for the one with three lines which is a menu button.
Performance and Software
Powering the FireTV is Fire OS 3.0, or Mojito. It’s effectively a very heavily skinned version of Android. To the average consumer it will be a none issue, and what they’ll see is merely a set of menus and interfaces. Of note, this is the same OS powering Amazon’s Tablets and
soon to be released Fire Phone.
Nevertheless, the UI is relatively intuitive, and I have no doubt that the average consumer will be able to pick up the remote and use the device in an instant. Content choices are delivered in relatively large images and scrolling from menu to menu or screen to screen happens with little to no hesitation.
But, that isn’t to say it isn’t without its shortcomings. It’s difficult to refine results in each respective menu. So for instance you want to see films released in just 2013? You can’t do that, at least not while in a menu. Moreover, the text search function, which is designed to play a very second option to the voice search, is merely an alphabet displayed on a single line. So yes, you have to scroll through each letter to reach the next. Hardly what I’d call intuitive. It’s also very easy to lose your place in a menu by hitting the wrong key, which means you’ll need to once again scroll through the entire list of movies or shows once again – there isn’t a sort of “undo” button.
YouTube compatibility, unlike Chromecast, is relegated to pairing your phone via WiFi; you enter a code at YouTube.com/Pair. It’s a process that isn’t all that cumbersome, but since it never seems to remember devices you’ll need to do it for each session, if not in twice in the same session. It then becomes a pain in the a**.
Netflix is available on the box, but unlike YouTube you won’t be able to push the content from you handset to the box. HBO Go you ask? Forget about it. It doesn’t exist, at least not yet, though Amazon has acquired some of their content, albeit for purchase.
Amazon’s Prime is readily available and uses something Amazon calls ASAP (Advanced Streaming and Prediction). ASAP predicts which movies and tv shows you’re likely to play or purchase (based on what you click and your Amazon history) and buffers them to the box in the hopes of preventing loading time. With research I haven’t been able to determine if ASAP works only on Amazon content. But so far so good: most if not all videos have loaded, regardless of the source, almost in an instant on my Fire TV (note: I get on average 15-20mb down).
There is little to dislike about Amazon’s Fire TV. It’s frustrating that it can’t be complemented by a smartphone, which is the growing trend with setup top boxes (e.g. Chromecast, Apple TV, Roku, etc). So it’s most certainly something to note if you’re used to dialing in content on your phone and then pushing it to the box. And what is compatible (YouTube), is poorly implemented, at least by comparison to that of Chromecast, which is as simple as hitting a button.
The hardware seems to be, at least for the foreseeable future, all things relative in the tech world of course, scalable. I didn’t test out the Fire TV’s games simply because I wasn’t provided a gaming control. But that in mind I can’t imagine it will be a massive draw for most consumers. Though one does have to wonder if simple and cheap Android games could take off on the box.
I truly do applaud Amazon for the Fire TV’s voice search capabilities, even though it’s limited to their content (and VEVO videos); it won’t work within apps such as Netflix. In all of my testing it worked almost flawlessly. Granted my testing was limited to just shy of three weeks, but I was impressed with its speed and accuracy. That said, the remote, while not tiny, is small enough to lose. And lose that and the Fire TV is just about useless.
So in short, add smartphone compatibility for Android and iOS, and there is no reason, other than a few missing apps (why no HBO Go but Showtime support is beyond me) that the Amazon Fire TV can’t “light your fire”.