When Andy Ihnatko asks for “Bob’s Burgers,” Fire TV listens. He likes that.
There are so many streaming media players on the market already. Almost too many, right? Between Apple TV and the Roku, it seems as though there’s already an ideal (-ish) device for anyone out there with an empty HDMI port on their TVs, $99 in their fists, and dreams in their hearts of a “Caroline in the City” viewing marathon.
But a streaming box designed and supported by Amazon is instantly interesting and important, thanks to the depth and breadth of Amazon’s digital catalog. That’s why I recommend Amazon’s Kindle HDX tablets so highly. If you’re buying a tablet primarily for books, movies, and TV shows, no other model makes that content so easy to find, buy, and enjoy.
On that basis, the Fire TV ($99 from you-know-where) doesn’t even need to be particularly great to be a valuable addition to a crowded market. And although its true greatness has been deferred until Amazon delivers a few missing features (which they assure me are coming soon), over the course of the last week, it’s never shown itself to be less than very, very good.
Fire TV’s physical design follows Apple and Roku’s leads. It’s a black box about the size of two CD cases and it disappears nicely on a table. Yet it has enough connectors to satisfy the ambitions of a wide range of consumers. Optical audio-out lets you be snooty about sound quality, while the 10-100 ethernet jack grants you the same entitlements regarding download speeds.
Dual-antenna MIMO Wi-Fi means that the box should have little trouble finding your router, despite the fact that you stuck it somewhere out of sight. And you can do that thanks to a Wi-Fi remote that requires no aiming. It’s much larger than the Apple TV’s aluminum stick of gum (which I lost again on Sunday, a half-hour after using it), but it’s not as chunky and comfortable to hold as the Roku’s, nor are the buttons as thick and tactile. I also wish it has some color flair. As-is, it’s a black bar that can easily “go ninja” when you hunt for it in a darkened room.
Amazon has done an excellent job with the interface. The key to a TV interface is to know when to stop being clever. Fire TV looks clean and easy to read, even when I moved it from the big-ass HDTV in my living room to the dorm-size screen in my office.
You move through grids of apps, menus and content through a familiar up-down-left-right-OK pad of clickybuttons, and your moves are communicated back to you through fluid animations. I never lost my sense of where I was in the interface, or felt unsure about how to make Fire TV do what I wanted.
The interface has plenty of nice little touches too. When you fast-forward or reverse through a video, a floaty window appears above the progress bar to show you where you’re scrubbing to. It’s updated at such a high frame rate that it looks like video, not a slideshow. The video itself continues to play in the background like normal until you’ve scrubbed to the right spot and taken your thumb off the remote. It’s the best implementation of this basic feature I’ve ever seen.
My one complaint is the Fire HDX’s design influence on the launcher. The top (easiest to reach) line of launch tiles represent the most recent things you’ve used, whether they’re apps, movies, or games. Most users spend so much time in Netflix or Hulu that it makes more sense to let the user pin those apps where they never get buried.
But I’m glad that Fire TV has inherited the HDX’s X-Ray feature. Where the Roku and Apple TV only provide you with the usual “back of the DVD case” info about a movie, X-Ray can surface song titles, complete cast lists and location info, live on the Kindle HDX screen while the movie plays. The data are always relevant to what’s on your TV; you can see actor information appear and disappear as characters enter and leave the scene.
It sounds like a silly distraction until you see it in action. And it works beautifully. If your tablet is on the same network as Fire TV, it simply knows that video is playing. Just tap the item in the notifications tray to start streaming X-Ray data, and to use the tablet as a video controller. Later this year, the X-Ray feature will arrive for iPads. No word on other Android tablets.
Yes, this is the feature that someone with no kids in the house to distract him would value. Those of you who went for the “offspring” option will enjoy the most robust parental control features found on any streaming device. FreeTime goes beyond simple content restrictions. It also lets parents lock out content by time of day and assign “allowances” of viewing time.
Video quality is superb; 1080 HD video played with crisp detail and no stuttering.
There are a couple of serious gaps in Fire TV’s launch-day feature set. I was unwilling to believe that Fire TV lacked the ability to stream music from my Amazon MP3 locker; it was far easier to believe that I’m just an idiot who can’t locate a basic feature. But nope, that feature’s Coming Real Soon. As is HBO Go, the only major video streaming service I immediately miss.
Them’s forgivable (if embarrassing) omissions, so long as they show up in the next few months, as promised.
Fire TV feels damn fast. There’s so little waiting. Partly, this is due to Fire TV’s quad-core mobile processor, but I think it’s mainly the residue of plain old good design. My Amazon Instant library of movies and TV shows was just there. When I chose a title, it just played, without any noticeable delay. Fire TV tries to anticipate what you’re about to do and pre-load the stream before you execute the command, using its ample 8 gigs of internal storage and 2 gigs of application memory.
I flipped over to HDMI 1 and spent some time comparing that experience with my Apple TV. It was like switching back to my first iPhone. The Apple TV interface wasn’t nearly so responsive to the remote, the motion of the interface and the transitions from one content area to another were choppier and slow. I launched a movie that I’d purchased through the iTunes store and — gorblimey — I found myself looking at a spinning progress ball and the curt message “Authenticating … ” for several seconds. Clearly, Apple has some work to do.
The Roku held its own. It wasn’t pre-loading content, and purchasing stuff forced me to go through additional steps. In its favor, though, I found that Roku’s third-party apps were zippier overall. Hulu and YouTube looked exactly the same as they did on the Fire TV, but on the Roku, they performed like native apps. On the Fire, they were a bit sluggish, as though they weren’t taking advantage of the Fire’s graphics processor.
“Yes. This,” I thought, after my first minute of using Fire TV’s voice search feature. “More like this way, less like the other way, please.”
Wanna watch “Bob’s Burgers”? Hold down the microphone button on the remote and say “Bob’s Burgers.” Half a second later, Fire TV confirms that you said what it thinks you said, and after a single button-press, it shows you a screen of “Bob’s Burgers” options. Buy episodes, buy seasons, watch for free if it’s part of the Amazon Prime free video library. Search for titles, names of actors or directors, apps … you’ll get what you were looking for without having to Tetris your way through an onscreen keypad.
This is clearly the way to go and every other streaming box should use this. My sole disappointment with voice search is that it isn’t universal speech-to-text. It only works with Amazon’s own apps. When you skip over to Netflix, you’re stuck keypadding search terms one letter at a time again.
Across the Amazon
This is a good moment to point out a limitation of Fire TV: The gravy of the Fire TV experience is limited to Amazon’s own content and apps. It’s too bad that I can’t speak my searches into Hulu or Netflix. The larger shame is that content search doesn’t seem to penetrate into third-party apps. I start every day by watching last night’s “Colbert Report.” I can hold down the microphone button and find past seasons for sale on the Amazon store. Swell, but I’d rather be able to fire up the most recent show via Hulu just by speaking.
Speed improvements (like pre-caching content) don’t translate across third-party apps, either. Amazon tells me that their intent is to extend Fire TV’s core features across the whole experience. That’s an important step. If you’re a user who doesn’t buy or rent content and spends most of their time in a third-party streaming app, you just won’t notice any attractive difference between Fire TV in its current form and a Roku. That would end immediately if Amazon could get Netflix, Hulu and the rest to optimize their apps for Fire TV.
Android and games
Fire TV runs Fire OS, which is Amazon’s proprietary fork of Android. Android is almost as great a force multiplier as the Amazon store is; having a for-real mobile operating system allows the Fire TV to be much, much more than just another streaming video client. Apple TV is no more ambitious than the set of speaker cables that connect the source of a piece of content to the means of experiencing it. Roku has some games, but the selection is thin and overall, you’re just grateful to be doing anything with this device other than being passively entertained.
Wouldn’t it be great if Fire TV could run all of the Android apps from the Google Play store? Wow, indeed it would. But Fire OS is a fork, so it relies on the Amazon App Store instead. Oh, and Fire TV can’t run apps from there, either.
The Win of Android is simply that the process of bringing a popular existing app to Fire HD won’t be like reversing plate tectonics. Makers of successful apps and services will be able to justify the development expense … particularly those who’ve been looking for an affordable way to expand their business into the living room. A $99 box sold by one of the biggest retailers that runs a familiar set of developer APIs will do the trick nicely.
For now, the greatest expression of Fire TV’s app potential is in its game library. The platform seems to be limited to mobile-style games, true … but have you played a mobile game recently? Those of us for whom $99 is exactly the right amount of money to spend on a game system — whether it can stream video or not — will love it. The experience is about as good as what I’m accustomed to on my quad-processor Android phone … high-speed racing games included.
To really scratch the gaming itch, you’ll need Fire TV’s optional $39 Bluetooth game controller. It feels good in my hands (admittedly, hands which don’t do much ambitious gaming). If Fire TV’s game library expands far beyond its launch-day library, it’ll seem like cheap money.
Good today, great tomorrow?
No other streaming box has as much potential as the Fire TV. The search feature, the gaming, the second-screen features, the deep and direct connection to your Amazon video purchases, and the ready-for-anything Android OS, the price … there’s nothing quite like Fire TV.
However: Today, the search feature is limited to just the Amazon part of the content experience. Fire TV’s lineup of content-streaming apps at product launch is small, compared with the Roku’s. And though Android enables Fire TV to shatter the limitations of a streaming video box and one day become a card-carrying member of The Legion of Things You Own That Run All Sorts of Apps, that’s in the future. Today, that potential expresses itself in the form of a small library of decent games.
If you’re heavily invested in Amazon’s digital content, Fire TV is an easy favorite. If not, it’s simply an attractive option.
I should also note that more options will almost certainly be arriving in the coming months. Google is rumored to be releasing its own affordable Android-powered streaming box this summer. It won’t have the might of the Amazon digital content store behind it, but it’ll almost certainly have Google Now, as well as a search feature that can bloodhound the content or information you want no matter where it’s lurking. Apple TV is looking so frumpy at this point that I have to figure Apple is planning a major hardware, software and services update soon.
So April is a bad time to buy a streaming media box, unless you have an immediate need. My advice is to wait a few more months. By the summer, Fire’s “missing” features will have arrived, its app library and feature set will have matured, and you’ll have given Google and Apple an opportunity to make a claim for your $99.
None of this should serve as a bucket of cold water for Fire TV. Right out of the gate, Amazon has produced a box that can compete with the best streaming device on the market. Instead of getting in the game too late with the wrong product, they’ve upped the stakes for all of the other players.