I'm no businessman, but I still think Amazon should just give its Fire TV devices away for free with a Prime membership. Maybe the retailer should throw in a for a one-year renewal, and the new Fire TV box, reviewed here, if you commit to two years of Prime.
The Fire TV is designed, first and foremost, not to give you the streaming TV shows and movies you want from various providers like Netflix, Hulu and others, but to entice you to watch Amazon's own streaming content. As I trudged through Amazon's underbrush using the device's menu system, I half expected a video of a zombie to pop up and tell me about a half-price offer on The Walking Dead, Season 6, available now on Amazon Instant Video.
This hard sell is embodied in the menus and search results, and it's one big reason reason I like other devices better, especially Roku. These days all streamers have mostly the same apps, but no other device pushes you harder than Amazon to use their respective video stores. Compared to Amazon, has a relatively light touch promoting the iTunes store, and Google's and basically soft-pedal Google Play Movies and TV.
I did say "mostly" the same apps. Apple and Google streamers lack a native Amazon app, which is why, according to Amazon,from the retailer's virtual shelves. If you own a lot of Amazon content or want to take full advantage of Prime streaming, Roku (which does have a native Amazon app) and Fire TV are your best bets among mainstream streamers.
Fire TV does have some cool advantages over Roku and competing devices, including excellent parental controls, great support and the ability to work with(although Roku recently added that last feature). The new Fire TV box also delivers next-generation for less than any other 4K-compatible streamer, although most 4K TVs have built-in apps that can do the same thing. And its new Alexa voice assistant feature offers cool tricks like replying to your queries about the weather and adding stuff to a to-do list.
None of those extras overcome the Fire TV's pushiness. The box is an excellent choice for heavy Amazon users, but the less expensiveis even better since it does most of the same things for half the price. Meanwhile, for people whose streaming tastes include other services, Roku is a better all-around option.
Version and pricing information: This review applies to both the 2015 Amazon Fire TV and the 2015 Amazon Fire TV Gaming Edition. The main differences between the two are that the Gaming Edition includes a game controller, 32GB SD card and two free games, but doesn't include the voice remote. See below for more details.
The Amazon Fire TV sells for $100 in the US and £80 in the UK. Amazon doesn't yet sell the hardware in Australia, but if you were to import one the US price works out to about AU$140. Meanwhile the Fire TV Gaming Edition sells for $140 in the US. It's not yet available in the UK or Australia, but that price works out to roughly £90 and AU$190, respectively.
I reviewed the US version. App support and content access in general varies widely in different territories, so if you live outside the States, your mileage (kilometer-age?) will vary.
The hardware: Slick, simple and square
The Fire TV box gets off on the right foot with a slim, sharp design. It's typically tiny for the breed, a perfect square that's shorter than any Roku and either the old Apple TV or the new one, and substantial enough to not get pulled around by connected cords. There's not much else to it: glossy black sides, matte black top with the Amazon logo, a tiny LED on the front and the ports on the back.
Those include one HDMI, one Ethernet, one microSD slot, a USB port and a power connector. The previous version included an optical digital audio jack, which helps with connections to older AV receivers and other audio gear that lacks HDMI, but the new one drops it. In exchange, Amazon added the microSD slot, which can take cards up to 128GB.
While it seems like a great option to allow memory expansion via inexpensive cards -- as opposed, say, to-- most people will be fine with the internal storage of 8GB. That's because most apps are relatively small, with games being the exception. If you plan to do a lot of gaming on Fire TV, the expandable memory could be a boon.
The USB port allows Fire TV to play back media files from attached USB thumbdrives and other devices. I tested it briefly with the VLC player app and it worked well, although unlike theand , it wouldn't play back 4K files at 4K resolution, only 1080p. The same went for 4K files I had loaded on a microSD card: they only played back at 1080p on Fire TV. Amazon says 4K support of rolling out to more apps soon, however.
The new Fire TV has 75 percent more processing power than the old one, according to Amazon, with a 64-bit quad-core processor, a dedicated GPU (graphics processor) and 2GB of memory. In my experience these kinds of claims matter little in daily use; most streaming boxes released in the last couple years are very snappy to respond. The exception, again, is for gaming, where the Fire TV's beefier silicon could prove useful.
One advantage over streaming sticks is the presence of an Ethernet port, and in many locations Ethernet will provide a more reliable, higher-bandwidth stream than Wi-Fi (something that's especially important for 4K streaming, which generally needs a hefty 15Mbps connection). Of course, Fire TV supports the latest 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard, too, and it worked flawlessly in our test lab.
The remote: Voice tops a top-notch clicker
I've always liked the Fire TV remote, and the new version is an improvement: a bit longer with a better-integrated battery cover and better feel on the clicks, particularly the central circle button used to select items. The matte, slightly rubbery exterior feels nice and natural, an impression augmented by the rounded back with its index-finger-friendly indentation.
Button placement prioritizes voice, with the mic button and actual microphone topmost on the clicker. Voice is well done from an interface perspective. Click and hold the button from anywhere in the menu system and an onscreen prompt appears with the word "listening" and a blue waveform graphic. Speak, and stuff happens (see below). If the system recognizes what you say there's a reassuring speech-to-text rendition of your words onscreen. If not, which happens much more rarely than you might think, you'll get a "sorry, could you repeat that? It wasn't quite clear."
I appreciate the inclusion of actual fast-forward and rewind keys in addition to the standard play-pause. In addition to Home and Back, there's a key with three horizontal lines, reminiscent of the Android hamburger, that does the same thing: open up menus in some apps for additional functions. More often than not, however, pressing it does nothing.
Like most other streaming device clickers, the Fire TV doesn't require line of sight to the box, so you can point it anywhere, or bury the box deep in the recesses of your entertainment system, and still maintain control. It lacks the nifty headphone jack of theand Roku 4 remotes, but, much like the new Apple TV, you can pair a pair of Bluetooth headphones with the Fire TV for wireless private listening.
Alexa: Satisfying recognition, but how useful?
Alexa is the name of the voice assistant Amazon first debuted on the Echo speaker. If you preface anything you say into the Fire TV remote's mic with "Alexa," and often when you ask a question without using her name, her dulcet robotic voice replies via your speakers, and results appear onscreen. In comparison, unlike the iPhone version of Apple's voice assistant Siri, the Apple TV version of Siri doesn't actually talk back (yet).
Talking to and receiving responses from Alexa worked surprisingly well, and my queries were generally recognized and replied to with excellent results. The things Alexa did well in my tests included reciting the weather (it defaults to your current location, but you can specify others by simply asking) playing music (from my Amazon library only), fetching sports scores (I asked "Alexa, did the Jets win?" and was presented with the most recent score and the upcoming game time) and making lists.
The latter includes shopping and to-do lists that appear onscreen. Having never used Alexa before, I was a bit surprised that the shopping list didn't immediately add the item to my Amazon shopping cart and prompt me to buy it via one-click, but I'm sure than functionality is coming soon. In the meantime the lists are pleasingly, refreshingly static.
A lot of the extra functionality for Alexa takes place via the dedicated Alexa app. There you can access and modify those lists, set up your commute for traffic reports, arrange sports updates of your favorite teams, and check out a list of our past queries.
And of course, Alexa can be "funny" if you say the right thing. On a whim I told her to "Show me the money," and the reply was "Jerry, you got to yell!" I did, quite loudly, but nothing changed. I asked her to tell me a joke and the result was cleverly topical in late October, if not exactly hilarity incarnate.
The list of things Alexa can't do yet includes reading news headlines (she told me "Flash briefing is not currently available on Fire TV"), finding movies and TV shows via search, navigating the device or launching apps. Apple TV's Siri can do many of those things at launch, but Amazon lists them as available soon or "next year" for Alexa on Fire TV. It's also worth noting that for now, Roku and Google's streaming device voice commands are limited to search, not conversational recognition.
Alexa is also coming soon to all other Fire TV devices, namely the 2015 Fire TV stick as well as the 2014 Fire TV box and Fire TV stick. Amazon says that'll happen by the end of the year.
In the end, Alexa on Fire TV is cool and works relatively well, but she's less useful than you'd think. The main issue is that, unlike Echo, she's not "always on" and listening. You'll have to actually be using the device -- TV on, turned to the Fire TV input, remote in hand -- to talk to her. That's a bit of a hassle to find out the weather, and in most cases I'd rather ask (or look at) my phone.
Search results and interface: The hard sell
The good news is that, just like the previous version, the Fire TV really easy to use. It recognizes search terms well, both from voice and text. Its interface is lightning-fast to respond and its menu system is simple to understand, with the familiar left-hand menu that opens up big, friendly icons and thumbnails on the rest of the screen.
The bad news is that, just like the previous version, the search results themselves, as well as the whole interface at large, shunts you into buying stuff from Amazon. It puts Amazon content front-and-center in numerous ways and denigrates other content -- from Netflix, HBO, ESPN, Sling TV, Hulu or wherever -- in comparison.
The majority of the main menu is devoted to Amazon stuff. Below Search and Home, almost all of the the rest of the items on the left navigation column -- Prime Video, Movies, TV, Watchlist, Video Library, FreeTime, Music and Photos -- lead to Amazon's own services. There are no TV shows from Hulu Plus or Netflix under "TV," and no movies from HBO or Showtime under "Movies," unless they're the ones you get from Amazon. At the top of the menu screen is a persistent ad for, you guessed it, stuff from Amazon.
Search is particularly pushy. I searched "Game of Thrones" and the first result was the HBO show, but when I clicked on it the most prominent option was to purchase it from Amazon -- at $4 per episode or $39 for a season. Only by navigating to the little "More Ways to Watch" button was I shown HBO Go (which allows me to watch it for "free" as part of a subscription). Meanwhile, even though I had installed the HBO Now app, it wasn't listed there at all.
The same experience applies to pretty much every other TV show and movie I searched for. The Amazon version was listed first, and if the other options were listed at all, they were further down a list of choices or hidden completely. Even when I was inside the Netflix app, voice search would pull me out and present me with the Amazon choices. Amazon's system-wide voice and text search still omit Netflix results completely.
That's fine for people who only subscribe to Amazon Prime, but for those who also subscribe to Netflix, HBO Now, Showtime or Hulu Plus, it could mean paying extra for something you can get for "free" as part of that subscription.
Search results on Roku are much more agnostic and customer-friendly. It shows a list of which services carry which TV show or movie, and for how much, allowing you to shop on price or select the free version if you have access. The new Chromecast search offers similar customer-friendly results, albeit less broad. I'm definitely interested to see how Apple presents its search results on the new Apple TV.
If you want to arrange the Fire TV interface to your liking, you're out of luck. Unlike with Roku or Apple TV, there's no way to move or customize which apps appear where. The closest you'll get is the "Recent" tab under Home, which shows a list of recently used apps, games and other stuff. It too favors Amazon content, because it surfaces individual shows and movies from Amazon (and only Amazon). The most recent episode of "Narcos," a Netflix series, won't appear there, but if you watch "Hand of God" (an Amazon show), it will. So will "House of Cards"...as long as you watch it via Amazon and not Netflix.
Likewise, the Music tab leads only to Amazon's Music service, not to apps like Pandora, Rdio or iHeart Radio. And the Photos tab leads to Amazon Cloud Drive photos, not to another photo app. To find those apps you'll have to delve into the categories under the Apps tab, or add them via the Amazon website. You get the idea.