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.
There are some other rough edges as well. While shows are clearly marked with a banner if they're Prime, many of them also feature a price right below the watch button. I eventually figured out that the price was only there if you wanted to outright purchase the episode -- rather than stream it for free via Amazon Prime -- but seeing the price always made me hesitant that I was going to get charged to my Amazon account.
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.