Amazon started its hardware adventure with the popular Kindle tablets, but the Fire TV is the first push into television. It is a small streamer box that connects to any TV, offering apps such as Netflix, YouTube, Hulu and Amazon’s own Prime Instant Video service, as well as games such as The Walking Dead. It is a direct competitor to the Apple TV and with a similar $99 price tag competition could heat up.
But is Amazon’s first TV box a home-run? Can it beat the Apple TV that has been available for years? And are the voice search and game features that Amazon is heavily promoting worth anything? We will find out in this in-depth review.
Amazon’s Fire TV box resembles Apple TV in almost every way. It is a small, black plastic box with connectors on the back. It is slightly bigger than the Apple TV, measuring 115cm x 115cm x 17.5cm, but at the same time flatter, making it easier to hide behind a wall-mounted TV.
The bundled remote is also made from matte, black plastic and feels a bit like rubber. The feel is not great. It is generally to light and the buttons feel very cheap and a bit wobbly. It only offers a few buttons, making it appear inviting - unlike many TV remotes provided by TV makers nowadays.
Fire TV has a small external power connector and unfortunately you cannot use a standard power cable. The power cable is not very long either, so you have to place the box relatively close to a power outlet. Additionally, it offers a HDMI port for your TV and optical audio port for your sound system.
A great detail about the remote is that you do not have to point at the box, since it uses Bluetooth instead of infrared. Point in any direction and the Fire TV will obey you. You might also notice that there is no power on/off button. That is because the Fire TV is always on. Notice the voice button at the top, too. We will get back to this one later.
Setup is very easy. If you used your Amazon account to order the box, it is already connected to this account (and your credit card on file). After having connected it to the TV via a HDMI cable (not included) you are taking through a video guide on-screen. Really easy and painless.
And let us just get the hardware specs out of the way before we begin. Amazon Fire TV uses a quad-core 1.7 Ghz CPU, 2GB RAM, and has 8GB of internal storage for apps and games. It is based on a forked version of Google’s Android, but cannot run Android apps – only apps developed/approved specifically for the Fire TV platform.
All these numbers sound great, but we know that even a quad-core Android smartphone can be painfully laggy in some cases, so we will get back to performance during practical use in a moment.
For audio it supports Dolby Digital 5.1 Plus, but also offers DD 7.1 passthrough. It naturally supports WiFi, but also has an Ethernet plug. Additionally it supports bluetooth 4.0 and has a USB port on the back, which is currently inactive. It has no function right now.
The WiFi inside supports what Amazon calls WiFi MIMO (multiple-in, multiple-out), which should offer faster streaming speeds. It connects to WiFi via the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequency. If you live in a crowded city area, you know how bad 2.4 GHz WiFi connections tend to be, so support for 5 GHz is great. Well done, Amazon.
The Fire TV has very modest energy consumption, as it consumes only around 3-4W for HD video streaming and 4-6W for gaming, depending on how graphically-intense the game is. It consumes 2.0W in stand-by.
Despite the modest energy consumption, it is still 4-5 times higher than the latest version of the Apple TV, which just goes on to show that you can stream in HD video without impacting the environment much. Compare that to your game console.
TV apps & voice search
Let me start by saying that I currently own, and use, an Apple TV, a Google Chromecast, and a PlayStation 4, so I will keep the experience of these devices in mind throughout the review - and compare when necessary.
You might have heard or even tried Microsoft’s live TV integration on Xbox. The Fire TV is quite different from the Xbox One’s TV integration. Amazon is not trying to give you access to all your live / “old-school” TV channels, but instead places its trust in the internet. Amazon wants you to stream video and music, and play games. Fire TV is all about the future of TV distribution; not about building a bridge to the past.
Fire TV is not about streaming files from your local network NAS drive or PC DLNA server either. Fire TV has a Plex app, but streaming of local files is not Amazon’s primary focus. So let us instead explore what the Fire TV is; an internet streamer box based on the concept of apps.
Fire TV has a Plex app, but streaming of local files is not Amazon’s primary focus
The first thing you will meet is the Fire TV home screen, and if you own Amazon’s Kindle tablet it will look very familiar to you. But it is also clear that Amazon is pushing its own Instant Video service over other video services. Other video services also show up, but Amazon’s are heavily promoted.
The user interface consists of sections to the left. After you navigate to one of the section you are taking into to a new home screen with categories.
Click right into one of these categories and the movie/TV show preview images are enlarged with some further information below such as IMDB rating (Amazon owns IMDB by the way). Navigation is very smooth and fast, and fast-forward and rewind during streaming playback is fast and seamlessly. Great!
The Netflix experience on PS4 and Apple TV is lengths better
With the purchase of Fire TV you get a 30-day trial for Amazon Prime Instant. One of the features that Amazon has repeated is what can best be described as "predictive pre-loading". Based on what you have seen in the past, Fire TV will pre-load the beginning of new TV shows or movies before you watch them, which means that once you click play the stream starts instantly.
Amazon calls the feature "ASAP", but unfortunately it only works for Amazon’s service. Other services such as Netflix do not benefit.
Next, we tried to load up Netflix, but it had to be installed first. Apps are not pre-installed, but it is very easy to do. However, once installed app loading time for Netflix is painfully long.
The powerful hardware inside Fire TV is clearly not the culprit here; instead the app is just a port from Smart TVs / game consoles. It is not in any way optimized for the Fire TV.
And just wait until you have to log in with your Netflix profile. You have to use the on-screen keyboard. You cannot use your Kindle tablet as a keyboard, as the Netflix app does not use the Fire TV’s API for the keyboard. This would never have happened on for example an Apple TV - tight integration is a win for use cases such as these.
So, we finally got inside only to realize that the Netflix app is based on the old Netflix interface (you probably remember it from your Wii or the old one PS3), even though it was updated by Netflix more than 6 months ago. The Netflix app on Fire TV does support profiles, but looks and feels antiquated. The Netflix experience on PS4 and Apple TV is lengths better.
You cannot use voice search in Netflix either, and you get either yellow subtitles or cartoonish large white letters in some videos.
The best thing to say about the Netflix app on Fire TV is probably that after opening it the first time you can quickly jump into it later. It does not have to load again.
Speaking of voice search, this is a much more pleasant experience. In fact, it works pretty well. At any time you can hold down the voice button on the remote and say "Frozen", "House of Cards" or something else. It instantly shows up on your screen and you can click play.
However, we noticed that it still does not recognize some of the problematic titles that the community pointed out after launch, for example "Coraline".
You can also search for actors and directors, as well as apps and games. If you do a voice search for Zodiac (which is available on Netflix) you will only see the option to rent or buy the movie through Amazon’s own service - even though you can watch it “free of charge” as a Netflix subscriber. Voice search only implements Amazon Prime Video and Hulu results right now.
All in all, voice search is not perfect, but it is very useful. That in itself is an achievement if you consider the state of voice search on every Smart TV out there.
The next step is to integrate content from other services such as Netflix and possibly provide a way to speak without holding the remote, initiating voice search with a command similar to "OK Google" or "Hey Siri".
Let us get back to apps for a second. Other available apps include: Hulu Plus, YouTube, Crackle, Vevo, Vimeo, twitch, WatchESPN, and Pandora.
It is clear that many apps are just ports from Android, and on the big screen it shows. The Vevo app is not nearly as appealing as it could be. The YouTube and Pandora apps are ugly and limited. Load times are also bad for many apps.
With such powerful hardware, Amazon needs to work more closely with app makers to ensure optimal performance. This is paramount on the big living room TV.
Notable missing apps currently include HBO GO, Vudu, and Spotify. Many sports services are also missing. Amazon says that more apps are coming, but as there are no open app stores similar to what you know from your smartphone and tablet, content providers need to partner with Amazon to get inside.
Fire TV does have some tricks up its sleeve. If you own a Kindle Fire tablet you can use it as a second screen to load up IMDB information on movies you are watching via the X-ray feature. You can also push some videos from the Kindle to the TV. You can even mirror your entire screen onto the TV via Miracast, and Amazon says this is coming to other Android / Windows devices later.
If you open your YouTube app on an iPhone/iPad or an Android device you will also see the "cast" button that lets you play the YouTube video you are watching on your TV. It is a very neat and handy feature. This is possible because Fire TV supports DIAL (Google’s Chromecast is based on DIAL).
Netflix’s iOS/Android apps also support DIAL, but unfortunately Netflix’s cast button does not currently work with Fire TV. The YouTube cast feature was also a bit hit-and-miss for us, as some videos failed to start on the TV. On the other hand, it supports playlist so you can queue up YouTube videos on your smartphone and play them one after one on the TV. Amazon says more apps will support DIAL in the future.
Amazon simply does not have a system to compete with Airplay yet
The Kindle’s ability to mirror the picture to the Fire TV is almost similar to Airplay Mirroring, but Fire TV is missing the full Airplay functionality that lets you cast anything to the TV, which is one of the most praised features of Apple TV. Fire TV fails to provide the same OS-wide integration. Airplay lets you send photos, music and video from any iPhone/iPad app or streaming service - even mirror select iPhone/iPad games - to the TV. Amazon simply does not have a system to compete with Airplay yet.
Other notable features in Fire TV include the option to show your vacation photos on the TV screen if you have stored them in Amazon’s Cloud Drive service. The multi-tasking features of Fire TV are also great.
Despite a bad Pandora app user interface, you can start playing music and jump to the home screen to do other things while continuing listening, and use the next stop button on the remote.
Picture quality in general is pretty good, but it obviously depends on the streaming service. Fire TV supports 1080p output and supports 1080P (Super HD) on Netflix. Amazon Instant also streams in 1080p, while Hulu Plus streams in 720p. Picture quality for most services is similar to what we see on our Apple TV and PlayStation 4.
Additionally, Fire TV supports Parental controls with a PIN code that you can setup in the settings menu.
Another focus area for Amazon is gaming. They have even established their own gaming studio to develop games for Fire TV and the Kindle tablets.
But Amazon is not looking to compete with Sony PlayStation and Microsoft Xbox. Those two have a firm grip on the high-end gaming market.
Amazon is instead positioning Fire TV as a game console for the average dude; for casual gaming. Before you say ‘never mind’, remember that there is a huge potential and untapped market for the TV screen here. Just see how popular casual mobile games have become. The same could happen on TVs. This is what OUYA tried to do, but they have failed to execute so far. Maybe Amazon can.
Some of the cooler titles include The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Badland, Minecraft (Pocket Edition), Grand Theft Auto 3, and Amazon’s own Halo-like-game Sev Zero.
Prices vary. Some games, such as Badland, are free, but other can cost you up to over $10 dollars - or even more for in-game titles such as The Walking Dead.
Some of these games have enjoyed huge success on other platforms, and even though they are not eye candy masterpieces they are quite solid and fun games. I can personally warmly recommend The Walking Dead.
But to really take advantage of the gaming aspect you need a game controller. Amazon is selling you one for $40, but you can also use other Bluetooth game controllers, such as those from Moga.
The official Fire TV game controller resembles the Xbox controller in some ways, but is - unsurprisingly - not of the same quality. It is good enough to enable gaming and we experienced no noticeable input lag, but it is not a great game controller either.
The good thing you can use other controllers, too. And you can connect up to four at the same time, by the way.
The biggest problem for gaming is the limited storage space of Fire TV. It only has 5-6GB of free space and for example The Walking Dead takes up over 1.1GB. You quickly run out of space, which means you have to delete a game every time you want to play a new one.
Even though this is a trivial observation, this is actually a significant drawback for Fire TV as a casual gaming box.
Amazon is promising "thousands more games coming soon". This could turn out great for them. From what we see it is a good start to casual gaming. We just need more storage space; potentially via an USB device, but that means Amazon will have to add that possibility as the USB port is currently inactive.
Glitches? Yeah, we experienced a few things. For example, after each completed level in Badland, the Fire TV jumped to the home screen. We also experienced a few bugs in other games and in the video menus, but nothing major.
The most stunning fact about the Amazon Fire TV is probably how much better it is compared to the built-in platforms in most Smart TVs that can cost you several thousand dollars. But the same is true for others media streamers such as Apple TV and the Roku devices.
Unfortunately, some of the most heavily advertised features of the Fire TV only works with Amazon’s own Prime Instant service. Voice search is actually useful - which is the first time we can say that about voice integration on a TV platform - but it only searches Amazon’s library and Hulu. If you want to look for the same movie in Netflix, you will have to open the app.
Speaking of Netflix, Fire TV uses the old Netflix design, which is not nearly as fast and visually pleasing as on game consoles and Apple TV. Several other streaming services are available, too, but Amazon is missing big players such as HBO and the sports services. There are no live TV options either.
The game section of Fire TV is small right now, but the presence of games such as The Walking Dead and Badland means that at least developers are paying attention. Remember that you need to buy the game controller, too. The Fire TV will never replace your PlayStation or Xbox, but it has the potential to be your companion for casual gaming on the TV screen. Amazon just needs to attract more game studios.
All in all, Amazon Fire TV is an interesting new TV platform and we can see Amazon competing with Apple and Google for a place in your living room in the near future. However, the lack of "Airplay" functionality in Fire TV means that Apple TV is still a much better choice for Apple owners. Fire TV has DIAL, which is the protocol that Chromecast is built on, but so far it is limited to YouTube. Fire TV still needs some love from Amazon and app developers before it becomes truly great, but it is a promising start and you should definitely consider it as your living room streamer box.
Apps is an evaluation of the app catalogue and the quality / user friendliness of the apps Features is an evaluation of the built-in functionality and how useful it is, as well as build quality User experience is an evaluation of user friendliness and the general use of the box, including the remote control Total score weighted as: 40% Apps, 30% Features, 30% User experience. All scores are calculated based on a moving maximum target, defined by what we currently consider the best on market. It is then presented as a percentage. This means that a score will fall over time as new and better media boxes set new standards. This allows you to compare scores across years. A score of 100% in a given category means that it is consider the best available media box in this category to date.
Nice hardware Voice search that actually works Supports games Small and easy to hide Multitasking, sort of
No Airplay-like feature Old Netflix interface Missing key apps such as HBO No deep search yet