That's not necessarily a bad thing, as Amazon boasts one of the best streaming movie and TV services, and Prime subscribers can stream thousands of movies and TV shows for free. The Fire TV's impressive ASAP feature loads Amazon Instant content, well, instantly, and the much-touted voice-search feature actually works pretty well, using a mic built into the remote. Amazon's kid-friendly Free Time subscription service is on its way, too -- albeit for an extra $3 per month. Amazon has even managed to leapfrop Apple and Roku by offering the most extensive gaming experience on a streaming box yet, with quality Android games like Minecraft: Pocket Edition (though you'll want to purchase the optional $40 Fire Game Controller to play most of them).
But the primacy of Amazon's content on the Fire TV works less well for avid streamers that mix and match content from a variety of sources. The initial apps selection is good, but not great; Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, Pandora, Watch ESPN, and Showtime are included, but HBO Go, Spotify, Vudu, PBS, and Rdio are not. The cool voice-search feature mostly shows only results from Amazon Instant, which limits its usefulness. And the onscreen interface is constantly pushing you toward Amazon's content, which can get in the way if you're typically more interested in Netflix streaming. It all adds up to the Fire TV feeling even more like a "walled garden" than Apple TV, and certainly moreso than the mostly platform-agnostic Roku boxes.
The biggest surprise from the Fire TV is the price, especially from the usually value-conscious Amazon. Ninety-nine dollars puts it in the same league as more polished boxes, like the Roku 3, and the cost only rises when you consider that you really need a $99-per-year Prime subscription and the $40 Fire Game Controller to fully take advantage of the Fire TV's best characteristics. That's a lot to ask, especially when budget streamers like the $35 Chromecast and $50 Roku Streaming Stick offer much of the functionality people want for far less.
Still, the Fire TV is a daring entry into a crowded market of products and the best showcase yet of Amazon's movie and TV content. The Fire TV has lots of room to improve, but it's an impressive first attempt.
Design: A slim, flat black box
While many thought Amazon would release a Chromecast-like stick, it turns out that the Fire TV has a traditional, albeit thinner, streaming box form factor. It looks an awful lot like a slimmer Apple TV with sharp corners; the Fire TV even mimics the finish on Apple's box, with a matte finish on top and glossy black around the side. It's a sleek-looking device that will easily go unnoticed in a typical TV cabinet. Unlike the Apple TV, the Fire TV does have sizable "wall wart"-style power adapter that takes up quite a bit of space on a power strip.
Around back is an above-average collection of ports, including HDMI, optical audio output, Ethernet, and USB. Amazon's online FAQ says only that the USB port "currently does not support any accessories," so it seems like Amazon has future plans for the port. Inside, the Fire TV supports dual-band Wi-Fi and an impressive processing hardware: a quad-core Qualcomm Krait 300 processor and 2GB of RAM.
Just a quick word on the initial setup: Amazon nailed it. As with its Kindles and Kindle Fire tablets, the box comes preconfigured with your Amazon account, and the remote is automatically paired with the box (unless you choose the "I'm buying this as a gift option," that is). When you fire it up for the first time, there's a helpful animation that goes step-by-step through how to use the box and new features like voice search. It may be the easiest product I've ever set up, the only slight hitch being that the Fire TV required a lengthy firmware update right away.
The remote and voice search: Accurate, but Amazon-centric
If you were to cross the remotes from the Apple TV and Roku's boxes, you'd end up with the Fire TV remote. It's a great clicker, with a simple layout of buttons and an excellent shape that fits nicely in your hand. The remote works via Bluetooth, so you don't need to point it at the box for it to work. (The downside is that Fire TV probably won't work with an IR-based universal remote.) The buttons are all straightforward, including the prominently placed microphone icon at the top, which is used for the Fire TV's voice search.
Voice search is one of the marquee features on the Fire TV, letting you simply speak your search term into the mic on the remote, instead of tediously typing letters via an onscreen keyboard. Amazon gets a lot right with its implementation; having the mic in the remote allows you to say your search term relatively quietly, rather than the half-yell that works best with Microsoft's Kinect on the Xbox One and Xbox 360. Even better, voice search worked for me the vast majority of the time, although no amount of enunciating would bring up the movie "Coraline." The fact that it works and it's so prominent on the remote means it's a feature you may actually use, rather than just a cool tech demo.
On the other hand, the Fire TV's voice search largely only works with Amazon Instant content, and that limits its usefulness by quite a bit. If you search for "House of Cards" on the Fire TV, it shows you only the option to purchase episodes from Amazon, even though Netflix subscribers can watch the series for free. Occasionally search would show results from Hulu Plus, even though I'm not a subscriber, but even then I had search out alternatives -- Amazon really pushes its own content front-and-center.
The emphasis on Amazon content made the Fire TV's search feel less useful to me than the cross-platform search offered on Roku's boxes, even though you need to manually type in your search terms with Roku.
User interface: Responsive, pretty, but uncustomizable
The Fire TV's interface takes a lot of design cues from Roku, with a menu running down the left side, and cover art and icons filling the screen to the right. Zipping around the menus feels incredibly responsive, with cover art populating very quickly as you jump from section to section. There's even some limited multitasking ability. You can exit Netflix, browse around the home menu, then jump right back into Netflix without having to reboot the app. It feels more like a smartphone or tablet experience than a traditional set-top box.
Once you start poking around the various menu options, you'll notice a trend: the Fire TV puts Amazon Instant content front and center all the time. In fact, many of the menu options (movies, TV, watchlist, video library) show only Amazon content, and even the home screen is primarily Amazon-centric, with a large section promoting shows recently added to Amazon Prime Instant.
The emphasis on Amazon content would be more tolerable if you could customize your home screen, but it doesn't appear that you can. That means you can't pin your favorite apps, such as Netflix, to the home screen, and sometimes you'll have to hunt them down in the apps menu instead. The home screen does have a "recent" section showing the last apps you've used, but if you've played a few games recently, you might not see your streaming video and music favorites.