Recently Amazon entered its candidate, Fire TV into the streaming media player fray. This little box with a voice command feature has jumped into a crowded arena.
Along with the Smart TVs and Blu-ray players that stream content from the ever burgeoning number of providers like Netflix, Pandora and YouTube, standalone streaming media players from the big boys like Apple (Apple TV) and Google (Chromecast) and spunky independents like Roku (Roku 3) provide an opportunity for owners of a non-Smart TV to surf the wave of streaming media.
At $99, Amazon's Fire TV is best compared to the similarly priced and featured Apple TV and the Roku 3. Being the newcomer, Amazon touts Fire TV's faster and more powerful 1.7 Ghz quad core processor (Roku 3 - dual core and Apple TV - currently a single core A5) and its optional dedicated game controller (pictured on right and sold separately for $40.)
As for content, the biggest difference between the three is Apple TV is not compatible with Amazon Instant Video and Fire TV does not play iTunes video. Roku 3 is neutral in this turf war and shows both content sources.
Then, there's the voice recognition feature that is exclusive, at this time, to Fire TV. I would say that being able to speak your search titles would be a big ease-of-use plus for Amazon's box. Indeed, I found Fire TV's voice recognition - let's call it Busey - to be consistently accurate in understanding my search queries, which is so much more convenient than hunting and pecking with a small remote on a virtual keyboard.
Alas, and this is significant, the voice search only yields results that are available from Amazon. For example, if I speak "House of Cards," Fire TV shows me the Netflix version starring Kevin Spacey, but my only choice from that screen is for me to buy an episode for $1.99. Nowhere does it indicate that it is available on my Netflix subscription for free.
Even when I am logged into my Netflix account and try a voice search for House of Cards, the result is the same. Basically, you cannot search on Netflix with voice commands. That's truly an annoying flaw in the service.
Of course, if you are an Amazon Prime member, Fire TV gives you the most direct access to all of the free content available to Amazon Prime members.
Out of the Box
The Fire TV box is a brushed black compact unit with an equally tidy little remote control.
On the back of the box are one HDMI Out, an Optical Audio Out, an Ethernet port (for a wired Internet connection) and a USB port, which the manual states "currently does not support any accessories."
If you decide to connect to your network wirelessly, Amazon has integrated a dual-band, dual-antenna Wi-Fi (MIMO - multiple-input and multiple-output) adapter that supports 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi networks.
The palm-sized, non-backlit remote contains the essential buttons and the all-important microphone. If you press the Fast Forward or Rewind buttons more than once you cycle through the available speed options.
Once you are connected to the Internet, Amazon supplies a dizzying list of streaming content providers (video, music, game and photo), more than you will ever sample fully. Below is a selection of some of the more popular sources.
Fire TV's main menu is organized into sections, like Home, Movies, TV, Games and Apps. Each section contains its own sub-categories. If you are an Amazon Prime member, you should look for the Amazon Prime tag in the upper left corner of the title. It indicates that these selections are free with your Amazon Prime membership.
Amazon has listened to customer feedback and has made it easier to find Prime selections with categories like Top Movies on Prime, Top TV on Prime and Recently Added to Prime. Of course, since Amazon states that members have "unlimited, commercial-free streaming of tens of thousands of popular movies and TV shows," you will have to do some digging to find the hidden Prime gems.
A Prime membership costs an additional $99, but it does include other benefits like free shipping on products bought on Amazon.
As a reminder, if you are investing in a streaming media player, you should obtain the highest bandwidth from your Internet provider that you can afford, ideally over 15Mbps. Nowadays, even more essential is that your Internet provider is not throttling the delivery speeds of content sources like Netflix.
Another feature that Amazon is heralding is ASAP (Advanced Streaming and Prediction). They claim that ASAP "learns what movies and shows you like and gets them ready for you to watch. The more you use Fire TV, the more accurate ASAP becomes, dynamically adapting to your viewing habits."
I didn't spend that much time using Fire TV to notice any dynamic adapting, but the whole concept of an algorithm analyzing my viewing habits is still more than a little invasively creepy to me. I'd rather wait for a little buffering and not be watched.
Fire TV also offers other services like Amazon Free Time (a children's programming subscription) and displaying content from your tablet on to your TV.
Setup of Fire TV is plum easy. Connect an HDMI cable from the box to your TV. If you go wired, then attach an Ethernet cable from your router to the Fire TV unit. Plug in the power supply and press the Home button on the Remote.
If you opted for the wired Internet solution, the connection to your network should be automatic. If you chose wireless, you will have to enter a password.
The unit comes from Amazon pre-registered to your Amazon account, therefore you could begin watching content immediately.
If you have accounts with providers like Netflix or Hulu Plus, you will need to register your Fire TV or login to your account before you can stream from those sources.
After those few steps, you should be ready to swim in an endless stream of programs.
If you feel that you need some additional support, Amazon offers a few simple-to-follow, informative interactive tutorials that you can play on your TV.
The performance of the Fire TV was nimble and the audio and video was excellent. The unit outputs either 720p or 1080p video depending on your TV. It also supports Dolby Digital Plus audio and can pass through up to 7.1 channels.
Netflix played back flawlessly and without buffering. The interface could be more up to date, but it works well. I wish I could say the same about Hulu Plus, but from my experience with other streaming devices, the stuttering problems seem to originate from Hulu.
Navigation around the Fire TV menus was quick, which is fortunate since there are a multitude of choices to explore.
I didn't review the game controller, therefore I can't comment on the game component of the Fire TV.
Overall, the experience was quite satisfactory.
Amazon definitely had its main competitors in their sights when they priced their Fire TV at $99. Considering it specifications and wide array of content choices, I think it stacks up quite well with Apple TV and Roku 3.
The blogosphere has been drumming over the last year about the imminent appearance of an updated Apple TV. If and when it arrives, I imagine it will upgrade its processor and will supply some sort of Siri voice command component.
I'm sure Team Roku also has a new and improved Roku 4 on the drawing board.
The question becomes, is the Fire TV worth switching from Roku 3 or Apple TV?
Part of the answer comes from Amazon when they say, "Fire TV is the best way to experience Prime Instant Video." Especially if you are a Prime member and you are a fan of the content available in the Prime Instant Video catalog, the pendulum definitely swings towards switching.
Otherwise, I would suggest that you wait for the next incarnation of a streaming player from Roku or Apple.