What if your Kindle Fire was your TV's best buddy? That's the idea behind Fire TV, which runs the Android-based Amazon Fire OS from the Kindle Fire HDX on the same sort of quad core CPU you'd find in an Android tablet or smartphone. Fire TV isn't for reading books of course--that would be truly weird on your HD TV. Instead it embodies everything Amazon envisioned when it started making Kindle Fire color LCD tablets, a line that's very distinct from the Kindle Paperwhite line of E-Ink ebook readers. Fire products, both Kindle and TV, are designed for streaming movies and TV and for playing games.
The $99 Fire TV is a small black box that's not quite as big as two decks of cards placed side by side. It's priced the same as Apple TV and the Roku 3, and it competes directly with them. In part, deciding between them has more to do with your ecosystem allegiance: iTunes customers gravitate to Apple TV and Amazon Prime customers will likely want Fire TV. Roku is for the platform agnostics who are more into getting as many streaming channels as possible (Roku 3 has over 100 channels). They all offer Netflix, because let's face it; Netflix owns the paid streaming market right now (they're in second place behind YouTube for streaming volume). These inexpensive little boxes all face competition from smart TVs and Blu-Ray players as well as game consoles like the XBOX and PlayStation.
Think of the Fire TV as an HTC One smartphone (first gen) in a small black box. It runs on the same 1.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 quad core CPU with Adreno 320 graphics. Amazon stretches things by calling that dedicated graphics--it's nothing like dedicated graphics in a laptop or desktop PC. Rather the Adreno is part and parcel of the Snapdragon 600 chipset. The Fire TV has 2 gigs of DDR2 RAM and 8 gigs of internal storage. That's enough to store 3-6 hefty 3D games, and that's what you need internal storage for since videos stream from the cloud.
The Fire TV has a full size HDMI port, optical audio out, Ethernet, robust dual band WiFi 802.11n with MIMO and a full size USB host port.
Channels and Apps
Channels are actually apps that you load on Fire TV. For example, if you want Watch ESPN, iHeart Radio, Hulu Plus, Vevo, Vimeo, Crackle and Netflix, you'll download the app, which is very easy to do. For a full list of channels, visit Amazon's Fire TV webpage. The selection of channels is decent and comparable to competing streamers and smart TVs except Roku whose selection dwarfs the competition. One popular channel we'd like to see is HBO Go. Because each channel is an Android app made by different developers, the presentation varies, making for a slightly inconsistent experience, though none were ugly or confusing in the least.
So how does Amazon stand out in a sea of smart home theater gear and competing streaming boxes? It's their usual combo of great customer service, ease of purchasing content and Amazon Prime free streaming content. In reality, Prime streaming isn't free; rather it's included with Amazon's $99/year service that nets you a good deal of free streaming content, free second day shipping of goods sold by Amazon on their website, Amazon's lending library for Kindle and a free ebook each month. Beyond that, the Amazon Video apps on smart TVs and some other devices are truly lacking in terms of eye candy and ease of use, while Fire TV's presentation is friendly and attractive.
But wait, there's more! Android has voice control as do other smartphone operating systems. Amazon is the first to introduce voice control into a little streaming box, and it works well. That is, it works well where it works. You can use it to search Amazon's video and games selection but it's not supported in all third party apps. These apps, like Netflix, are really Android apps, and their developers can update or create Fire TV apps that look and work even better than those available at launch. The YouTube app was created by Amazon as far as we can tell, and it's the one weak link with an attractive presentation but jerky performance, low quality streaming and no support for USB keyboards (Amazon could of course update the app and likely will). But back to voice commands: you'll actually speak to the included remote control (press and hold the voice command button while speaking). That makes sense since one usually keeps the remote close at hand while the TV and streamer are farther away. So no shouting at the TV, but you might feel a tad weird talking to a remote. You'll get over it the first time you say "The Bridge on the River Kwai" rather than spending an eternity using the d-pad on the remote and an on-screen keyboard to enter that title search.
Deals and Shopping:
Amazon Fire TV Video Review
USB but no Web Browser or File Manager
You can plug in a USB keyboard if you're shy when it comes to talking to remotes. This worked fine in all apps except the YouTube app that ignored all but the delete and enter keys. We plugged in a USB flash drive and Fire TV ignored it, so there's no way to play media from a removable USB drive right now. Sadly there's no network browser to access home media servers either, something that Apple TV offers. If you could get a file manager on the Fire TV, there might be hope for USB and network drives, but there's no easy way to sideload apps. In fact, for development purposes you can connect your computer to Fire TV using Ethernet or WiFi only since there's no USB client port like that on Kindle Fire tablets. Amazon has instructions on how to side load apps using Eclipse or ADB here: developer.amazon.com/sdk/asb/app-install.html. There's also no web browsing included and that hurts since smart TVs offer one. Could Amazon add one? Sure. Could you sideload one if you have a PC with the afore-mentioned developer environments installed? Probably.
Is it Easy to Use?
Amazon is good at simple and intuitive, and the Fire TV is really easy to setup and use. When you plug it into power and your TV, it plays an introductory video that explains how to set it up. It will also update itself via network connection (out of the box, ours updated as soon as we entered our WiFi password to get it online). Amazon ships the Fire TV already set up with your account info already filled in, just as they do with Kindle products. If you buy one from an electronics retailer rather than direct from Amazon, you'll have to enter account info during setup. You can plug Fire TV into your TV or AV receiver via HDMI, and if you plug it into a TV but want audio sent out to your AV receiver via optical connection you could do so. Fire TV supports Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 via optical and HDMI as well as 7.1 audio over HDMI.
The grid of activities is also straightforward with a list on the left that includes Home, Movies, TV, Video Library (videos you've purchased from Amazon), Photos (images stored on your Amazon Cloud drive), Apps and Settings. The presentation is attractive and easy to navigate with the d-pad on the remote. Things you've recently watched or looked at will show up as first choices in each section and on your home screen. This is definitely a product anyone could use--no geek cred needed.
Remote and Game Controllers
The 5.5" remote has a curved soft touch back and it feels nice in the hand. Amazon keeps it simple with a d-pad that has a center action button, the voice command button up top, and buttons for FFD, RWD, play/pause, back and menu. It's powered by two AAA batteries that are included. This is a Bluetooth remote rather than IR, so it doesn't require line of sight. The $40 Bluetooth Amazon Fire Game Controller works with Android games on Amazon's app store that support a controller like Asphalt 8 and Riptide GP. Android games are hit and miss for controller support and those designed with touch screens in mind can be downright awkward. Should you not wish to purchase Amazon's game controller, you can use third party Bluetooth game controllers like the GameStop controller, Nyko and MOGA. When playing Asphalt 8, a featured game under the controller-friendly section, we noted that our GameStop Bluetooth controller's direction controls worked but we couldn't get nitro boost, OK and cancel working, so we had to switch back to the remote for those.
No, this isn't going to send the XBOX One, PS4 or Wii to an early grave. Those consoles offer seriously immersive games with high production values. With Fire TV you get Android games from Amazon's app store--they're fun but not on the same level. Games you've previously purchased for your Kindle Fire, Fire HDX or Android tablet/smartphone are in your account, so you won't have to purchase them again. Riptide 2 and Asphalt 8 looked surprisingly good on our 47" HD TV and the experience was certainly enjoyable. The Snapdragon 600 is good enough to play today's 3D titles, but in two years it will likely lag behind. After all, it is currently last year's top CPU, surpassed by the Snapdragon 800 and 801, but then at $99, you'll probably just buy a new Fire TV.
As we've come to expect from Amazon, Fire TV is a well thought out, easy to use and pleasant product. It's backed by a name that many folks trust, and their customer support and purchasing systems are top notch. Amazon's video library is decent, and since you can augment it with Netflix and Hulu Plus, you'll likely never run out of content. If you're not an Amazon Prime customer, the case for Fire TV is obviously less compelling. If you're thinking of signing up for Prime, check out the available free streaming Prime titles before you pony up the dollars (you get a 30 day free trial with Fire TV or you can peruse Amazon's website to check their selection). Amazon claims they've moved up to third place for streaming volume, behind #1 YouTube and #2 Netflix and surpassing iTunes and Hulu Plus. Obviously they're serious about the streaming business, and have even created a few original series of their own like Alpha House and Betas, though those aren't quite as captivating as Netflix's House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. We'd love to see some important additions like support for networked hard drives, media servers and USB flash drives as well as a web browser. And we dearly hope the YouTube app improves quickly.