Review

Amazon Fire TV Review

The term “cutting the cord” has become synonymous with online streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Instant Video and others. In the wake of the rising cost of living, many have chosen to “trim the fat” by minimizing additional expenses. For most, the first things to go are luxury items like bloated TV services, gym memberships, and dining out.
 
Over the years, television package prices from cable and satellite providers have ballooned, with programming costing anywhere from $30 to over a $100 USD a month. Unlike the majority of “cord cutters” that ditch their TV services to lower their monthly bill, I chose to cut the cord several years ago because I rarely watch TV.
 
It probably won’t surprise you, but my first streaming box was a Roku XDS. This was a couple years after Netflix introduced their streaming service and started offering a robust line-up of titles. During that time, there were only a few options when it came to streaming devices and to my knowledge, Roku was the only one that offered a plug and play experience.
 
Interestingly, I managed to keep the Roku XDS for a couple of years (skipping over new releases), but finally decided to take the plunge and upgrade to the Roku 3 in 2013. While its only been a little over a year, other companies have aggressively introduced their own competing streaming devices. While most have failed to reach the success of Roku, some, like the Google Chromecast, have taken a different approach, creating their own niche genre and becoming highly successful. 
 
While I was content and satisfied with my Roku 3, the promise by Amazon of a faster experience made me curious. Uncertain about whether Roku would introduce a new flagship box, I decided to take the plunge and purchase the Amazon Fire TV.
 
Full Specifications

  Amazon Fire TV
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 Quad-core
1.7GHz
Graphics Qualcomm Adreno 320
RAM 2GB DDR2 at 533MHz
Storage 8GB
Connectivity

Dual-band / Dual-Antenna supports 802.11a/b/g/n
Bluetooth 4.0 support for HID, HFP 1.6, and SPP
Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR with support for HID, HFP 1.6, and SPP (remote)

Ports 5.5 mm DC Jack
Type A HDMI 1.4b output, with HDCP
Optical Audio (TOSLINK)
10/100 Ethernet
USB 2.0 Type A
Battery Two AAA for remote 
Launch OS Fire OS 3.0 (Mojito) | Android 4.2.2
Launch Date April 2014
Size & Weight 4.5" x 4.5" x 0.7" (115 mm x 115 mm x 17.5 mm)
9.9 oz (281 grams)
Price $99 USD

Design

When it comes to designing something that will plug into your TV or monitor, there are only so many design options available. Unlike other devices that offer a chance to be creative, a streaming box has certain restrictions that narrow the design possibilities. Up until this point, we have only witnessed a couple of creative deviations (Boxxee Box, Google Nexus Q and Google Chromecast), but for the most part, manufacturers have stuck with a traditional and accessible design.

The Amazon Fire TV is a fairly simple looking device. It’s a square, but there are little design hints that try to make it look different. While Roku attempts to look more playful with its round chubby design, the Fire TV is completely the opposite. The hard lines and slim profile let the consumer know that this is something that is meant to look elegant and subtle in your living room. This device can be placed next to your existing boxes without looking out of place.

The top is made from a matte soft touch plastic that feels smooth in hand, but is accompanied by a glossy black Amazon logo that is stamped in the center. The sides are made of plastic as well, but Amazon accented the side panels with a glossy black plastic. The bottom is made from a dense rubbery material that provides a natural cushion for the device when placed on a hard surface. On the rear the unit has ports for power, HDMI, an optical jack, Ethernet port, and a USB slot.

The box is reasonably heavy measuring in at 281 grams, but this measurement is negligible considering you won’t be carrying this device with you and it will most likely be resting on some type of entertainment stand. The only indicator on the device is the sole white LED on the front left-hand side. When the unit is powered up (which occurs automatically when plugged in), the power LED will illuminate and stay on indefinitely.

The Amazon Fire TV remote follows the same type of design language as the streaming box, using a black matte soft touch plastic for the majority of the exterior with glossy black plastic used to highlight the buttons. The remote is slim, light, and feels good in the hand. The design is fairly straight forward having a directional pad, back, home, options, rewind, play/pause, and fast forward button.

Perhaps, the only element of the remote that is unique, is the mic button that sits at the very top of the device. This button is perhaps the most unique feature to arrive to this streaming box, allowing you to perform searches by speaking commands into the remote. For the most part it works fairly well. But, the voice search is restricted to Amazon content. Although this doesn't replace having a QWERTY keyboard on a remote, it definitely beats inputting text via the directional pad.

Overall, the design, size and shape of the unit is excellent. I have a wall-mounted TV so I tend to prop it on the top, resting on the TV. Although looks are subjective, I think that the Fire TV is a classy addition, with a subtle, yet sophisticated look. 

Software / Performance

The Amazon Fire TV runs Fire OS 3.0, which is based on Android 4.2.2. Fire OS has been featured on Amazon’s Kindle tablets and most recently, the Amazon Fire phone. When you first boot up the Fire TV, it takes anywhere from 20 to 30 seconds for it to start up. This is not uncommon for such a device on first boot.

One of the irksome moments of the setup process is when you are greeted with a screen that requires you to either create or sign-in to an Amazon account.  I partially understand why this would be necessary, but it’s still a bit unnerving considering that the Fire TV does support a plethora of other streaming options. While I understand it, I don’t agree with it.  

Once your device has been successfully registered it will automatically launch into an animated tutorial. It gives you the basics of how to use the device, which is kind of nice. If you need more help, you can always browse to the help section. This will contain in-depth instructions and also allow you to re-watch the animated tutorial.  

The menu system on the Fire TV is divided into two sections: the main menu and subcategories. The main menu is located on the left-hand side of the screen and gives you different ways to access your content. There is a long list of menu options, but just to name a few, this includes: Search, Home, Movies, TV, and more. By navigating these menus, it gives you access to the corresponding genres without having to perform a search. 

One thing that I have to make clear, the Amazon Fire TV caters to Amazon content (surprise, surprise). It does not search, organize, or advertise content from other streaming service providers. In order to access this content you will have to download the corresponding application for that particular service. After you have selected your desired category in the main menu, you will be shifted to the right-hand side of the screen to make your selection from the subcategory. This will generally be in the form of movies, music, or gaming titles.

For the most part, navigating through these menus and subcategories is lightning-quick. It’s definitely a leap forward compared to the Roku 3. Although the Roku 3 is still relatively quick, there is a slight (2-4 secs) pause when opening menus, categories, and content. This can result in images for a movie or TV title to be absent. Although this does sometimes occur on the Amazon Fire TV, it’s very rare, and often only lasts a second or two. 

While it does seem to outperform the Roku, I think that the design of the UI aids in the illusion of speed. Often, when navigating, I would test the speed of the device by scrolling to the titles at the end of the list. Usually, diving straight to the end of the list, it would result in the images for those titles not being loaded.

Furthermore, when I would go to play the titles, I would experience a delay in playback similar to the Roku 3. This is not an uncommon scenario though, as I can also emulate this type of behavior on my Roku 3. Amazon has stated that the Fire TV will attempt to predict what you will watch next and try and cache those items for instant viewing if selected. This seems to also be the case for items that are loaded in a list during selection. While this is an extreme case, for the majority of the normal browsing I did, the Fire TV worked very well, providing a smooth and instant experience. 

Despite this, I did experience a few issues with playback concerning Amazon Prime Instant Video and Netflix. During Prime playback, although most content would load up instantly, if I tried to skip forward, it would consistently hang up. I'm not talking about jumping forward 30 minutes, I'm talking a small jump of 10 seconds. While I'm not sure how much Prime streaming pre-loads, it's clear that it doesn't load anything beyond the first few seconds of the video being watched.

Netflix also encountered some issues during playback, stuttering at times.   I'm not sure what caused this, but I did have to reboot the unit in order to fix the issue. Overall though, the viewing experience was pretty good, with only a few minor hiccups. 

While I wish I could close this area on a positive note, I do have to add my experience while using third-party applications like Netflix and Hulu Plus. Unfortunately, while the navigation was exceptionally smooth when browsing and watching Amazon content, the third-party content suffers from an inconsistency in experience and streaming speed.

For example, when using Netflix, the interface looks archaic  and the performance is similar to what you would experience on a Roku 3. Hulu Plus functions are a little bit better, the interface is smooth and modern, but the streaming experience is a hit or miss. Again, I understand that Amazon is trying to sell its own services, but if you are going to make a streaming box that can work with other streaming services, make sure that those services are equally as enjoyable.

While I’m sure the UI is something that the developer can fix, Amazon should impose a standard when it comes to those apps and services. You cannot have a beautiful and modern interface like Amazon Streaming Video or Hulu Plus, and at the same time showcase something archaic like Netflix. Also, if you are going to have an instant experience for one channel, make it available to all the content providers streaming on Amazon's Fire TV. 

As I mentioned earlier, the majority of the menu options cater to Amazon content. If you are a user of anything other than Amazon Prime streaming, you will need to download the corresponding app to access that particular content. Perhaps, what is more baffling is the lack of integration with the downloaded apps and the search feature.

So far, out of the applications I have tested, Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Crackle, none of them seem to integrate with any of the menu options. It's a huge disappointment considering that there is a search function listed at the very top of the menu list. This is in stark contrast to the universal search that is offered on the Roku 3. This is the single most useful feature of the Roku and Amazon not having it, it almost makes the search feature seem worthless on the Fire TV. 

But, this is just another case of Amazon trying to control content and steering users to purchase or use Amazon services. Again, I understand that Amazon is trying to sell its services, but if you are going to have a search option, make it universal. It makes for a better overall experience.

Conclusion

I’ve been using the Amazon Fire TV for nearly a month now and I can say it’s a pretty good device. For the most part the device performs well, utilizing its speed and pre-loading techniques to give users the best experience available.

But, the limitation of these benefits being restricted to Amazon content is what truly holds back the device. When you are marketing a device that is touted as being able to support other streaming services you must make sure the experience is seamless across all providers. I know that Amazon wants to give its content a leg up for obvious reasons, but diminishing the experience is a double-edged sword. While I appreciate the innovations that Amazon is trying to introduce, if it doesn’t apply to all of my content, what good is it? 

While I would recommend the Amazon Fire TV, it wouldn’t be my first recommended purchase. If you are a die-hard Amazon user, I’d say purchase it over any other box. But, if you are invested in multiple services like myself, you might have a better experience looking elsewhere.

The Amazon Fire TV can be purchased online via Amazon for $99.99 USD. Occasionally, it has been dropped to a promotional price of $84.99 USD. 

Disclaimer: I did not have a gaming controller to fully test out the gaming apps for Fire TV. While you can use the remote, it is fairly limited when it comes to what you can play. 

 

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