Aesthetically, the Fire TV is pretty damn slick.
Although most of our focus over the years has been on software, we do occasionally dip into the hardware market. That’s what we’re doing here as we take a look at Amazon’s new Fire TV, a hybrid streaming device and gaming console. Let’s see what this product, which retailed for US$99, has to offer and how it stacks up against comparable devices like Roku and Apple TV.
Both the physical unit and remote control look sleek and have just enough weight to feel like they’re solidly constructed — unlike the Roku, which has always had kind of a cheap plastic appearance. We placed the Fire TV on top of our Xbox One, and it basically disappeared as it’s less than three-quarters of an inch wide. Our review unit included an HDMI cable, though according to the specifications listed on the site it is not part of the retail version.
The remote control has a pair of great features: (a) it doesn’t require line of sight to work; and (b) it has a built-in microphone for voice search. The former is a godsend for people that swivel their televisions, allowing you to control the Fire TV without twisting your wrist and trying to aim at the unit itself. The latter works extremely well and certainly beats selecting characters individually.
On the downside, however, voice doesn’t function within the apps so, for instance, you cannot search Netflix using it. Instead you’re left to fumble with the on-screen keyboards, which seem even more archaic when you’ve been flying around the Amazon section using your voice. We don’t love the central navigation wheel, either, but it’s not bad enough to be a drawback.
Outputting at 1080p, the Fire TV offers a consistently excellent picture, and only once in all the hours spent watching programming did it hiccup and lose the signal. At no point did we need to reset the unit to reestablish a connection, which is something we’ve been forced to do from time to time with Roku (and both units work off the same wireless service).
Where things get a little dicey is with the number of available apps. Yes, it has most of the basics covered with Amazon Instant Video (of course), Netflix and Hulu Plus all on offer, but it’s missing some pretty significant ones. While the most notable omission is HBO Go (though you can view select HBO programs through Amazon Prime and the app itself should be appearing later in 2014), there are plenty of others (WWE Network, Vudu, MLB.TV, IGN, etc.) that we have downloaded on Roku and gaming consoles that aren’t available here.
To be fair, it’s still very early in the Fire TV’s life cycle, and I’m sure most (if not all) of these will make their way onto the service eventually. Still, it’s easily the biggest drawback at this point, one that gives more established streaming devices an advantage.
By default you’ll find yourself on the Amazon Instant Video service with a series of subcategories along the left-hand side and a tile setup for movies, apps, games and more grouped together. It’s pretty slick and looks light years more advanced than the quaint Roku home screen. What’s unusual is that there appears to be no dedicated Prime section — something found in the Amazon app on every other console or streaming player we can think of. You can check out “top” and “new” Prime titles, but they’re limited in scope (usually 99 or 150) and don’t let you see everything.
By far the biggest difference between Fire TV and its immediate competitors is the unit’s ability to play an expanding library of games. Most are ports of games you’ve seen plenty of other places — Minecraft, Terraria, The Walking Dead, etc. — but Amazon is taking this aspect very seriously, creating its own game studio and offering exclusive titles (like Sev Zero).
However, nearly all of the titles require a Fire Game Controller, which sells separately for US$40, and we’re still waiting for Amazon to get more review units in place to delve further into this critical aspect of the Fire TV. One thing that can be ascertained even without playing is that with only 8 GB of storage space, there’s not a ton of room to download and maintain a sizeable collection of games.
[Note: This section will be updated upon receiving the Fire Game Controller.]
Although it’s impossible to render a full verdict without testing out the Fire TV’s gaming lineup and controller, we’re very encouraged by what we’ve seen so far. Granted, it still needs to flesh out its offering of apps and clean up some clunky parts in the interface (and we’d love to see an update that allows in-app use of the audio search), but the early signs are all very encouraging.
Now it’s your turn. Let us know what you think of the Amazon Fire TV in the comments below.