Amazon FireTV Review

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Introduction


There is no shortage of streaming media players competing for space below your TV these days. Just a few short years ago these devices were the domain of tech-savvy users and often weren’t the most user friendly offerings. Roku arguably offered the first painless solution that your mom could use, and since then major players such as Google and Apple have released popular offerings. Amazon has decided to jump into this increasingly crowded market with the newly launched FireTV. The FireTV uses industry leading hardware to deliver Prime streaming service coupled with digital downloads and rentals from Amazon, but also includes essential providers like Netflix, Hulu Plus, ESPN, Pandora, iHeartRadio and others. The FireTV further sets itself apart by offering casual gaming and a bit more with the optional game controller. Read on to find out if FireTV can follow-through on Amazon’s plan to take over your TV.

Hardware


The FireTV is a simple black box, measuring 4.5”x4.5” and standing only 0.7” tall. It is not meant to stand out visually, but what’s inside is rather impressive. The FireTV uses a quad-core Snapdragon 600 processor clocked at 1.7GHz paired with an Adreno 320 GPU and 2GB of RAM; basically the same configuration as last year’s flagship devices like the HTC One or Galaxy S4. Around back is HDMI and optical audio outs, an ethernet jack, USB 2.0 port and power in. It has dual-band, dual-antenna (MIMO) Wi-Fi built in with support for a/b/g/n networks in case you don’t have a wired connection handy. It supports Dolby Digital Plus, the only streaming box to do so.

The FireTV pairs with a simple remote via Bluetooth 4.0. It has a 5 way d-pad and a handful of buttons for navigation and media control, the most notable being the voice input button. The curved bottom half nestles comfortably in your palm making the remote very natural and comfortable to use.



Interface and Experience


Amazon has stuck with a simple interface that is intuitive to use. On the left is a vertical menu of categories, with a visual grid of content on the right. You can use the d-pad to scroll through your content, or voice search can be used to find content by title, actor, director or genre. Amazon advertises it as “voice search that actually works” and in our time with the FireTV we have to say it is pretty darn good. It often asks if we said “A” or “B”, but one of the options has always been right and its usually choice “A”. The drawback here is that voice search can only find content offered by Amazon or Hulu for now.

The impressive hardware specs make for an incredibly fluid experience whether you are navigating with the remote or searching for something by voice. Lag is virtually non-existent. The FireTV is running Mojito, the latest version of Amazon’s Android-based Fire OS. HTML has been integrated into the framework which makes it easy for both web and Android developers to port and create content. Amazon’s ASAP service also helps with speed. There is no doubt Amazon is collecting data on what you’re watching, and they use that to pre-load what they think you’ll watch next. This allows for almost instant load times on videos. Of course this only works with Amazon content, they won’t be queuing the next episode of House of Cards up for you on Netflix.



Media Content


As you might expect Amazon’s services are front and center. Their catalogue of videos tops 200,000, many of which are available to stream for free for Prime members. Any movie, TV show or song you’ve purchased with your account in the past will be available, and of course Amazon has made it easy to rent or buy content directly from the FireTV. The downloadable apps are all from Amazon’s AppStore as well, which means any content purchased on Google Play must be purchased again (if available.)

As with their Fire tablets, Amazon has a FreeTime option on the FireTV designed for kids. This lets parents set up to 4 profiles for their kids and allows them to restrict inappropriate content. There will also be a FreeTime Unlimited subscription service giving access to content from Nickelodeon, PBS Kids and more. Prices start at $2.99 monthly, but as the FreeTime feature is not available just yet we weren’t able to try it out.

It’s not just Amazon content you’ll find though, some of the biggest names have apps available for the FireTV including Netflix, Hulu Plus, WatchESPN, Pandora and many more. Showtime Anywhere is on board, but at this time HBO Go is conspicuously absent. Amazon is not issuing design guidelines, so while apps may be similar to, say, their Apple TV counterparts, they are far from as polished as the Xbox versions.

In addition to streaming services, there are a few ways to push local content to your Amazon FireTV. The first, and probably easiest, is to use Amazon’s Cloud Drive service. Each user gets 5GB free, and upgrades are available for a monthly fee. User-generated photos and videos backed up to the cloud sync nearly instantly to your FireTV.

Kindle Fire HDX owners enjoy some exclusive options. First, the display can be mirrored on your FireTV, allowing you to share pictures, videos and whatever else is on your tablet. The second feature is the ability to “fling” content to your FireTV from your Fire HDX, allowing you to continue to use your tablet while the content plays on the big screen. This, of course, is what Google does with Chromecast. Another feature for HDX owners is X-Ray, which will let you get information on your tablet from IMDb based on the content you’re watching. Again, this is similar to what Google does with their movie and TV Info Cards.

You don’t need to be tied into Amazon’s ecosystem to get local content onto your FireTV, however. Launch partners like Plex allow you to pull media from all of your devices and access them on your FireTV. If you’re technologically inclined you can enable ADB debugging and sideload apps to the FireTV, allowing you to get something like XBMC up and running. This opens up a world of possibilities, but that’s largely beyond the scope of this review so we’ll move on.


Gaming


All that hardware makes for a very smooth media experience, but really wouldn’t be needed if Amazon didn’t offer gaming on the FireTV. Amazon doesn’t pretend these are console-quality games, but the experience more than just a bullet point on the FireTV’s spec sheet. Gameplay is smooth even on graphically intensive games thanks to the dedicated GPU and plenty of RAM. Games like Asphalt 8 and Amazon’s in-house Sev Zero go beyond what we would call casual gaming, but there are plenty of casual titles for kids and the family as well.

The optional Game Controller looks like it could be a third-party Xbox controller thanks to the similar button layout and nearly identical design. The controller is not quite as comfortable as its Microsoft counterpart, but it still fits in the hand nicely. In addition to the gaming controls it offers all the buttons of the regular remote with the exception of voice search. It adds a button for direct access to Amazon’s GameCircle where you can track your game achievements.

While the experience goes well beyond what anyone else offers, there are two big issues we’ve found. First, there is only 8GB of onboard storage, and only around 5.5GB of that is available to the user. After installing Sev Zero, Asphalt 8, Sonic CD and Netflix we were already down to under 2.5GB free. Currently the USB port can’t be used for any external storage, but Amazon’s VP hinted that may change in the future. The second issue is that Amazon’s promised “cheap” games follow the freemium model. This is not a unique issue to FireTV, but be aware that that low price Amazon touts really doesn’t tell the whole story.


Conclusion


Amazon has put together an impressive package with FireTV, offering specs to rival last year’s hero phones and positively dwarfing the competition in the streaming market. The voice search is unique and works well and the FireTV’s gaming capabilities further set it apart from the competition. Amazon has lined up most of the content partners you could want, and of course they offer a rather impressive catalog themselves. At $99 the FireTV is priced to compete with the Roku 3 and Apple TV, but is twice the price of Roku’s Streaming Stick and nearly three times the price of Google’s Chromecast.

We have no issues recommending the FireTV, but the question really is does the FireTV make sense for you? For those who already have a streaming box we just can’t think of a compelling reason to add a FireTV to your lineup unless you really want the gaming capabilities, and remember you’re paying a $40 extra for the gaming pad. For those looking to purchase their first streaming box Amazon makes a compelling argument, especially if you’re a Prime member, but the Roku Streaming Stick offers Prime video access and all the other content for half the price. What it comes down to is that neither the FireTV nor any of its competitors offer a killer feature right now to truly set them apart. Amazon hopes that impressive hardware, some neat software tricks and gaming capabilities will make the FireTV your choice, but at the end of the day we can’t say the argument is compelling enough to make it a clear cut winner.

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Pros

  • Impressive hardware specs lead to a lag-free experience
  • Voice search works as advertised
  • Gaming with the FireTV goes beyond what anyone else can offer

Cons

  • Limited internal storage
  • Gaming controller is an extra $40 on a device is already at the top of the price range
  • No killer feature to make it a must have

PhoneArena Rating:

8.0

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