Last week Amazon introduced their long-awaited Fire TV set-top box. Designed to stream content from Amazon Instant Video and a seemingly endless array of third parties, such as Netflix, Hulu Plus and Showtime Anywhere, Fire TV offers some unique features. Ultimately, the few areas where it differentiates itself – voice control, ASAP and gaming – aren’t enough to make a compelling impact on the market, but it does raise the bar. And at $99, the cost ends up being higher when you throw in the services needed to maximize the device.
The war for the living room is on and nobody has been able upset the cable TV industry. There are plenty of great products on the market, but none of them make it easy to cut the cord. Amazon’s Fire TV falls in same category as Apple TV and the Roku 3. Running on Android, the biggest standout features are the quadcore processor, voice control, ASAP and gaming.
I bought the Fire TV and have used it over the weekend. I’ll be returning it this weekend, but more on that later. Fire TV is a speed demon. Press any button on the remote and it turns on instantaneously. ASAP, Amazon’s feature that starts a show as soon as you press play, does a fantastic job of almost eliminating any buffering. In my experience, I turned on a few episodes of The Men Who Built America and the second I pressed play, it started streaming. It was fantastic. And as you use Amazon’s Instant Video more and more, ASAP will be better able to predict what you plan on watching, making sure it’s ready to go when you press play.
The voice search was great, but it’s limited to Amazon’s Instant Video and Hulu Plus, for now. Other developers need to add this into their apps to be included. It’s still voice search and no, Amazon, it doesn’t “just work” all of the time. Sometimes it was flawless. But, for example, I tried using it for Amazon’s own show The After and it failed three times on me. Regardless, this is certainly the step towards the future. Voice search is always going to face issues, though.
I didn’t get a chance to test the gaming. The controller, which is now on backorder, costs an additional $40. And I’m not as much a gamer as I am a viewer. Again, though, this is a step in the right direction. Amazon is taking gaming seriously, as they even purchased a gaming company not too long ago. Touch-based games, which are mostly every Android game, don’t port over to the Fire TV seamlessly – there needs to be some love involved. From other reviews I’ve read, some games just need to be rethought for when played with a controller, not on a touchscreen.
When it comes to hardware, Amazon’s strategy is to sell it at the cheapest possible cost, sometimes at a slight loss. They make that up through their services. The Fire TV surprised many people with its $99 price point. I was shocked because the real lure of the device is for people that have an Amazon Prime membership, a now $99 a year cost, giving them access to many TV shows and movies. But when you compare Amazon Instant Video to Neflix, a cheaper slightly alternative, it has more options for TV shows. To maximize the Fire TV, it’s going to cost around $240, way more than the competition. It just isn’t worth it at that point.
Already owning an Apple TV, Fire TV simply doesn’t make sense, especially if you have a Netflix and HBO Go account, the latter being not available on Fire TV at the moment. Also, if you have Amazon Prime, through their iOS Instant Video app, you can stream those shows to Apple TV using AirPlay. Apple TV gives you access to tons of content. Yes, you have to purchase it through iTunes, but you can use Netflix to stream tons of content, letting you avoid the $99 Amazon Prime annual cost. Since Fire TV is built on Amazon’s forked version of Android, the device is more open, giving developers tools to build apps and games for it. However, for example, Netflix and Pandora are simply Android apps that they put on the Fire TV. They’re not optimized and were pretty terrible in my experience.
I applaud Amazon for entering the market – it needs more and better competition. However, outside of the gaming potential, there is nothing vastly superior about Fire TV when compared to Apple TV or even Google’s Chromecast. I can deal with about 5-10 seconds of buffering or waiting a few seconds for the device to boot. What’s more, these differentiators aren’t hard to replicate. If you’re in the Android ecosystem, especially an owner of a Kindle Fire HDX tablet, this is the way you’ll want to go. But there’s always the cheaper Chromecast path, costing only $35.
I fully expect Apple and Google to release products within the next six months that are superior to Fire TV. After all, Amazon is playing catchup to a market that’s about three years ahead of it.