Amazon is no newcomer to Android-based devices that promote their ecosystem. In March 2011 Amazon launched the Amazon Appstore, enticing Android users with a free app every day. It was little surprise when in November they launched their own Android-powered tablet, the Kindle Fire, powered by Fire OS. Amazon says their devices are powered by Fire OS and not Android because they lack the Google services that many consumers expect when they buy an Android powered device. When it comes to TV boxes, though, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We’ve reviewed other Google TV powered devices, and found Google’s entries into the TV box space to be somewhat clunky. With Fire TV, Amazon wants to make an Android-powered TV box that people will actually want to use.
Amazon doesn’t waste any time on the packaging. It’s simple and compact. The remote includes batteries which are, unsurprisingly, Amazon brand. One thing that I found somewhat amusing is that Amazon doesn’t shy away from promoting their competitors when they know that they provide something that their users will want. Netflix and their exclusive content like House of Cards is featured prominently on the packaging.
You’ll have to forgive the Fire for not being particularly photogenic. I thought the Asus Cube was a little funny to take pictures of, but then, the Fire TV hadn’t been released yet. It is a matte black small box, albeit with an “Amazon” logo on top in a slightly different texture. Quite simply, you don’t buy a Fire TV to look at it. It’s so understated you could put it on the coffee table and someone would mistakenly use it as a coaster without a second thought. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if you aren’t wanting to clutter your media center.
While the Fire isn’t much to look at, the remote is very well designed. The buttons are well-placed and tactile. The remote is a similar matte plastic that keeps it from being a fingerprint magnet as much as say, the Roku remote. It has buttons that should be familiar to most Android users, along with a button to trigger voice commands.
My one complaint with either piece is, oddly enough, the HDMI port on the Fire TV itself. Though some HDMI cables work fine, others don’t fit quite right and are prone to wiggle and disconnect. Though the box itself is unlikely to move much, It’s a bit of a sticking point on build quality for what is probably the most important connection on the box itself other than power. In terms of build quality and design, Amazon gets high marks for the remote, but loses one for the HDMI port.
If you decide to get a Fire TV for a friend and order it from your Amazon Prime account, beware. It will come automatically signed in, and it’s not obvious.
The first time the Fire TV starts, it runs through a setup process to get everything going. Once it’s gotten connected to the Internet, it’ll do some updates. These aren’t particularly quick, but you’ll want to skip grabbing a snack, because as soon as the updates finish, it’ll reboot and immediately begin playing a video to introduce you to your device. It’s about five minutes long, repeats everything three times, and makes you feel like you’re either five years old or 85 years old. Did I mention there is no way to skip it? I made the mistake of pressing every button I could think of to try to bypass it, finally hitting “back”. It brought me back to the connect to network screen, where I entered my wireless information again, and then it started playing the video again.
The video finally finished and brought me to the home screen. I hadn’t signed in to Amazon Prime yet, so I immediately began to look for how to do so. After some poking around, I finally found that the the Fire TV was already signed in to the Prime account that it had been ordered from. While this may be convenient some or even most of the time, the fact that it’s hidden in settings can make it hard to discover. Quite a few people who order these as gifts may find someone else unwittingly using their Prime account for a while. There’s also no option to switch accounts. You can reset the device, and in case you were wondering, yes, you have to watch that video. Again.
Once you manage to get past the video, the software actually isn’t bad. Amazon’s UI is simple to navigate, and is generally very responsive. It isn’t particularly efficient at navigating long lists of items though which may be a problem if the device proves as popular as I suspect it will, but for now, it’s not much of a problem.
There’s one thing I have to give to Amazon, and that is if they say they do something, they do it well. First and foremost, Amazon sells things and, more importantly, they make things easy to buy. The Fire TV does this very well. In my mind, almost too well. Amazon effortlessly mixes the Prime content with they paid content, and they don’t make it easy to restrict the search to one or the other. Searching “Star Trek” for example, turns up a variety of results in no particularly obvious order with paid and Prime content completely mixed. Additionally, the search only searches Amazon content. For example, even if Netflix has an item available for viewing, the search will only turn up the option to buy it on Amazon. If you want to know if you can watch it on Netflix, you’ll have to bring up the Netflix app. Though I understand this to an extent, Amazon pushing their own services, it’s still something that other set top boxes such as Roku do particularly well.
One of the things that Amazon also pushes is the ability to use the voice search. They spend a good half of the introduction video reminding you how to press the microphone button, say a word, and get results. So how does it do? In a word, excellent. In terms of how quickly and accurately the voice search works, Amazon deserves a lot of credit. Google has always done well with speech recognition, Apple less so, but Amazon seems to have no trouble at all even with more obscure items you may want to search.
In terms of the apps themselves, Amazon’s selection is a mixed bag. All your major services are there, but the quality of the apps are hit-or-miss. One time I tried to open the Netflix app, and found myself looking at a 404 page. I ended up having to use an alternate method for watching Netflix that night. While that’s probably not 100% Amazon’s fault, it still doesn’t look good, especially considering that Netflix worked just fine from computers, other Android devices, TiVo, and Sharp’s Smart TV software.
When Netflix was working, though, I can’t complain about the performance. The Fire TV has plenty of hardware to back whatever you throw at it. Video buffered quickly and played smoothly. Playing video through Amazon Prime worked equally well. At no time did I feel like the UI was lagging or that the processor couldn’t keep up. I grabbed a game I was familiar with that had a free demo and worked with the remote to test that as well. The game I chose was Badland, which is widely available and is a lot of fun if you haven’t played it yet. The game itself is a sort of “Flappy Bird” meets beautiful atmosphere meets physics puzzle. Playing it on an HDTV proved to be a wonderful and immersive experience, the play was smooth, and the graphics were sharp and colorful. Unfortunately, you’ll need a Bluetooth game controller for much of the game content, but worry not, Amazon will sell you a Fire Wireless controller for about $40 or (thankfully) work with most Bluetooth controllers you may already own.
The Fire TV also comes with several other smaller features designed to work within the Amazon ecosystem. It supports pushing some content from a Kindle onto the Fire TV much like Chromecast for example, but again, it only works from your Kindle tablet or presumably, the Fire Phone, just announced as of the writing of this article. You can also use said Amazon devices as an extension to the games somewhat like Nintendo’s Wii U. Testing these features in depth requires more Amazon equipment than I personally have, so I’m not going to dwell on it much. This review focuses on the Fire TV as a set top TV box, not as an extension for Amazon’s devices. While reviewing the Google Chromecast, I made special note that the variety of devices the Chromecast works with was vast; it was more than happy to work with Chromium on Linux or Chrome on Mac OSX, or YouTube on an iPad. Here, Amazon wants these features linked to other Amazon products; fair enough, but not enough to get any extra points.
Despite my complaints, I do really like the Fire TV. I have an Amazon prime account which goes a long way with this device, unfortunately for Amazon, not everyone does. When I rate a device, I try to rate it for anyone, not just a select group. In the case of the Fire TV, I’m going to rate it slightly differently than I would otherwise to account for that. It get’s a rating with conditions, because although it is not a bad device it is undeniably more limited without a lot of investment in Amazon’s ecosystem.
As a standalone TV box, the Fire TV gets 6 out of 10.
If you have have Amazon Prime, a Bluetooth game controller, or an Amazon Tablet or Phone, add a point for each. If you have all of them, it gets a 9 out of 10.