The apps: Good start, but there are gaps
Amazon gives its own content priority, but it also supports several third-party apps at launch, including Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, Showtime Anytime, Watch ESPN, Pandora, Vevo, iHeartRadio, Crackle, and Bloomberg TV. The Plex media server is also supported, which means it should be relatively easy to get your personal media streaming to the Fire TV from a computer running Plex's software.
It's a good start for Amazon, but there are some notable omissions, such as HBO Go, Vudu, Spotify, PBS, Rdio, and Fox Now. And it's nothing compared to the sprawling 1,200 app library of Roku, which includes plenty of filler but some standout content as well. Most surprising is that Amazon's own Cloud Player music service isn't yet supported, so you can't actually listen to your Amazon-purchased-and-stored tunes on the the Fire TV without using a media server like Plex. (Amazon says Cloud Player support is coming in about a month.)
Gaming: Off to a good start, and lots of potential
What the Fire TV is missing in entertainment apps, it makes up in gaming. Amazon's streamer has far more gaming functionality than any of its media streaming competitors, leaning on Android's ecosystem to offer games like Riptide GP2, Minecraft Pocket Edition, and Badland. The experience can be impressive, with the colorful, high-def graphics that belie the Fire TV's $99 price.
But that $99 is more like $139, since you'll need to pony up for the $40 Fire Game Controller if you really want to take advantage of the gaming functionality. The controller itself is pretty good; it doesn't quite match the quality you get from the Xbox One or PS4 controllers, but it's not a cheap knockoff either. It runs on two AA batteries, adding to the controller's weight, which is already pretty heavy. Overall, $40 feels a little steep, but it's cool that the same controller can also pair with Amazon's Fire HD and HDX tablets for a mobile gaming experience.
Gaming feels responsive and fun, yet also a little unpolished. The games are clearly ported over from their mobile Android versions, which means the interfaces are optimized for touch and are often confusing to navigate with a controller. (Some games, like Crazy Taxi, just don't look great after being ported from mobile.) There's also the issue of button-mapping. Sometimes the controls are mapped to the controller in a way that feels natural, while at others it feels like the developer didn't put much effort into the decision.
The best part of the whole experience may be the pricing, as many games are available for free or just a couple of bucks, making it easy to download a bunch of games without spending too much. (But only to a point, as my colleague Scott Stein filled up his Amazon Fire TV's paltry 5.5GB of free storage after installing only 12 games.) Some of the better games are closer to $10, and many of them adopt the mobile gaming paradigm of nickel-and-diming you for in-app purchases, but your dollars still go a long way on Amazon's streamer.
As someone who owns a couple of game consoles, I'm not sure I'd personally use the gaming functionality that much -- but admittedly, that doesn't apply to everyone. If Amazon lives up to its promise of offering thousands of games, the Fire TV could be a neat microconsole, especially if you don't have the budget for a traditional gaming console.
Flexible parental controls, plus Amazon Free Time coming soon
The Fire TV also excels when it comes to parental controls. You can set up different profiles for as many as four kids, and in each you can put restrictions on types of content, as well as setting a daily "screen time" limit.
Amazon is also bringing its Free Time subscription service to the Fire TV, offering up unlimited streaming of kid-friendly content for a $3-per-month subscription fee. Amazon says Free Time is coming next month, so I haven't had a chance to check it out, but my colleague David Carnoy is a fan (and subscriber) of the service on Amazon's Kindle Fire tablets.
Performance: Superfast, sometimes
Amazon put a lot of focus on the superior performance of the Fire TV during its press event, touting a quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM. Those specs undeniably top what's offered by the Roku 3 and the Apple TV, but the situation isn't as clear cut when it comes to real-world performance. While scrolling through menus is lightning-fast on the Fire TV, the same can be said for the Roku 3, and I didn't feel like there was much of a difference in browsing. Of course, the beefy processing power is what enables the Fire TV's considerable gaming talents, and all the games ran smoothly during my testing.
The Fire TV's speed really shines when it comes to streaming Amazon Instant content. Movies and TV shows often started playing almost instantly after selecting them, feeling far faster than any other streaming box I've used. The same goes for fast-forwarding and rewinding videos, which can often be clunky on streaming devices.
But the superfast streaming doesn't apply to third-party services, as Netflix and Showtime loaded videos at the same speed that's typical of other boxes. And even the split-second streaming of Amazon Instant content wasn't always consistent; it almost always worked when I tested it at CNET's offices, but it didn't seem to stream as quickly on my home connection. Amazon calls the superfast streaming technology "ASAP," and apparently it improves as it learns your viewing habits, so perhaps the experience would improve on my home connection with more use.
While the Fire TV was mostly stable, it did get very laggy to the point of being unusable once during my brief review period. (It was fine after I rebooted the box.) Once isn't enough to say much regarding the Fire TV's overall stability, but it's something I'll keep an eye on as I continue to use the device.
Conclusion: Amazon's Apple TV, for better and worse
The more I used the Fire TV, the more it reminded me of the Apple TV. They're the same price, with a strikingly similar look, and both boxes make their own digital content much more prominent than third-party offerings. If you're an iTunes and Apple ecosystem fanatic, the Apple TV is pretty great; if you're all-in with Amazon's ecosystem including Prime video streaming, the Fire TV is pretty great, too. And Amazon is already promising near-term improvements, with Amazon Cloud Player music and Free Time kids content slated to be added in just a few weeks.
But the Roku 3 still looms large at the $99 price point. It does a fine job of accessing Amazon's movie and TV content, while offering many more apps, cross-platform search, and the neat remote with a headphone jack for private listening. Since Roku doesn't have its own digital media empire to push, it feels geared more toward making it easy to get the content you want to watch, rather than the content the box wants you to watch. (Roku has taken some steps in the wrong direction lately by elevating M-Go services above others, but it's still remarkably platform-agnostic overall.)
The Fire TV is most interesting when it comes to gaming, and that remains the biggest unknown at this early stage. If Amazon continues to expand its offerings and convinces developers to focus on the platform, it could grow to become a tempting microconsole, especially for those turned off by the more-expensive options from Sony and Microsoft.
And that's the dividing line for now: if you're committed to the Amazon content ecosystem -- or you're interested in the gaming functionality -- the Fire TV should be at the top of your list. For everyone else, the Roku 3 -- which has nearly all of the Fire TV's nongaming content offerings -- remains the go-to choice. At least for now.