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Fire TV REVIEW: TV Streaming Gets a Speed Boost

by Sean P. Aune | April 10, 2014April 10, 2014 12:00 pm PST

Fire TV marks Amazon’s entrance into the increasingly competitive TV streaming set-top box market. Roku, Apple TV and Chromecast have all been enjoying their time at the top of the market despite a seemingly relentless onslaught of smaller companies releasing lesser known devices. With the Amazon brand name attached to the Fire TV, and the growing popularity of Amazon Prime Instant Video, there is an immediate brand recognition that is sure to have those other companies a little bit nervous.

A brand name doesn’t always make a device, however. You still have to look under the hood at all aspects of it before you decide whether or not it’s worth your time and money. There are obvious questions one must ask when making purchases.  Will it solve an issue you have with your current set up? Could it possibly enhance your enjoyment of a TV streaming service you are already paying for?

Is the Fire TV a worthy TV streaming device to take up one of your valuable HDMI slots on your television? Does it deserve a spot in your entertainment center? We’re going to dig in and find out.

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Fire TV User Interface – Smooth as Silk

After a quick and painless set-up process, you’ll find a user interface that is surprisingly smooth, fast and responsive. This is surely in no small part thanks to the quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 and 2GB of RAM this device sports under its svelte hood. There is seemingly no delay as you navigate the clean interface, and never do you feel like you don’t know where you are as you’re navigating.

The Home button on the remote also gives you a sense of security as it will take you back to the main page no matter where you are in the system. The Back button – which all should be familiar to Android users as the operating system is hidden deep under the skin of this device – is also quite handy and will take you back up one level in the menu system.

Navigating through Amazon’s many television offerings, however, is still clunky. I have yet to attempt browsing its TV offerings on any device without experiencing at least some frustration. When, for instance, you’re in the drama genre, why does each season of a show receive a separate listing? Why do I have to browse past Breaking Bad Season 5, Walking Dead Season 2, Justified Season 1… wouldn’t it make more sense, and be less frustrating, to have just one title card for each and find all of the seasons within? Instead of browsing past a show I have little to no interest in just once, I am forced to browse past it for every season, and that just doesn’t make for a pleasant consumer experience.

While the overall user interface is a pleasure to use, there are definitely some tweaks that still need to be made.

Fire TV Hardware – The Achilles Heel

While the user interface is a pleasure to use, the remotes didn’t always offer so much joy. The basic remote that comes with the Fire TV is responsive, but it never felt overly ergonomic in my usage of it. The sloped bottom leaves you with two fairly pointy, although rounded, corners that tend to dig into the palm of your hand. While not outrageous as it’s doubtful you will ever be holding it for a prolonged period of time, it definitely could have done with some more conturing.

The optional game controller is where the hardware really has some issues. While this is most assuredly an add-on purchase, don’t let its similarities to the Xbox 360 and Xbox One controllers deceive you. After approximately 15 minutes of usage while playing the free Sev Zero game included with its purchase, I could distinctly feel some cramping in my hands that I have never experienced with the Microsoft controllers. From what I could deduce, it was the length of the two handles that are the cause of the issue, but if you don’t ever plan to play any games, you won’t even have to interact with this device, nor purchase it.

The Fire TV unit itself is amazingly thin. While it isn’t as thick as the Roku or Apple TV, it is definitely wider and longer, suggesting that Amazon merely squashed one of its competitors in to a flatter pancake and ended up with the same results. As I said during the UI portion of this review, there is definitely a difference. Where the competitors come with 512MB of RAM, the Fire TV is sporting a full 2GB. The processors in the rest of the market vary, but none of them have a quad-core like the Fire TV, and while it may be a placebo effect, you definitely feel like things are moving faster.

Where the remotes offer some obvious quibbles, the box itself is a true pleasure, and its tiny form factor will definitely feel unobtrusive in any entertainment setup.

Fire TV Apps – Only Time Will Tell

Lets not make any bones about this: The Fire TV is all about Amazon. The fact that the company allowed any other services onto the box is a bit surprising to be honest, but it feels like it knew if it didn’t at least give you the illusion of openness you wouldn’t buy it.

When you click on “Movies” or “TV” in the homescreens you are only accessing the ones offered up with your Amazon Prime membership or the ones you can purchase and rent. You are not accessing any of the content you have access to through competing services such as Netflix or Hulu Plus despite them being installed on the device. Maybe one day, but it isn’t something I’m truly expecting.

As for the app selection itself, it’s a good initial effort, but there is at least one glaring omission in the form of HBO Go, one of the most popular TV streaming apps currently on the market. It seems inevitable that it will come to the Fire TV, but there has been no indication as to when, if ever, that will happen. It could possibly have something to do with the fact Amazon sells all of the various HBO episodes through its on-demand service, but that seems somewhat unlikely as the app is offered on Apple TV as well. And Showtime Anytime, which is not available on the Apple TV, did make its way here from launch day.

The Fire TV is in its infancy, so it’s understandable that the app market will need to grow, and with the system being based solely on Android and HTML that should make it that much easier for developers. For now, however, it feels a bit sparse in comparison to some of its competitors.

Fire TV Voice Search – A Great Start

When Amazon announced Voice Search it was something streaming TV users could easily get behind. Using on-screen keyboards to type out one letter at a time is a pain to say the least. The issue here is that while Voice Search exactly as advertised – and very quickly – is restricted to only what is offered by Amazon Prime Instant Video and the app store, and none of the apps you may have installed.

The idea that you would have a unified search such as what Roku offers that could be done with the ease of your voice quickly disappears when you try it out.

A quick look at the developers portal for the Fire TV shows that if anyone is building an app for the Fire TV that requires search, they will need to build their own interface and system. Meaning, in short, that for the time being this will continue to work only with Amazon’s products.

This is still a fantastic feature, but it is handicapped by being restricted to the Amazon offerings. As with all of the shortfalls of the Fire TV, it makes sense as this is an Amazon branded product and should focus on what the company offers and not its competitors.

Fire TV Streaming – The True Star

Seeing as the Fire TV is a streaming device focused on , it make perfect sense that this feature should be the star of the show, and it is. In Aces.

I tested the Fire TV in multiple locations. At my office, without many devices connected, it was a speed demon. If I selected a TV show or movie from Amazon’s growing collection, I had to be prepared to watch it that very second because it was on my screen in no time. Having used many TV streaming solutions currently on the market, I can say without hesitation that I have never seen any content pull up this quickly. Not once did I see any sign of buffering from anything that came from Amazon’s system, and it was a wonder to behold.

That being said, testing it in my house, with two laptops running off the same router during the time of testing, I did see some buffering, but not anything that was outrageous to be sure.

This speed does not, however, carry over to the third-party apps such as Netflix and Hulu Plus, but their speed is definitely in line with what you experience on other devices and Smart TVs, so that should not be a deterrent in your purchasing decision.

If you are a heavy user of Amazon Prime Instant Video, and have a good connection, prepare to have your hair blown back by just how quickly the videos load. It is impressive to say the least.

BUY

Fire TV is Amazon’s first move in the increasingly crowded TV streaming market, and while there is a lot here to like, you had better be really sure you’re a fan of Amazon’s streaming service.

Fire TV is Amazon’s first move in the increasingly crowded TV streaming market, and while there is a lot here to like, you had better be really sure you’re a fan of Amazon’s streaming service.

For what the Fire TV is, it’s a fantastic choice, but if you’re looking for a more robust streaming experience, we’re going to have to suggest looking elsewhere. If you are an Amazon Prime member, and you have not yet chosen a TV streaming solution, than this should be at the top of your list of potential purchases.

The gaming, while fun, should be viewed as an add-on service and not as a device seller. This is not going to replace the game console under your television any time soon, but if you’re a casual gamer it could scratch your occasional gaming itch.

With the number of established competitors on the market – Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast – the Fire TV has an uphill battle ahead of it. But, seeing as Amazon Prime Instant Video is gaining in popularity, it should do just fine.

We purchased multiple Fire TV units with company funds and used them for three days before starting this review.

PROS

  • Quick and responsive
  • Small form factor

CONS

  • Focused heavily on Amazon’s eco-system
  • Lack of apps at launch

Sean P. Aune

Sean P. Aune has been a professional technology blogger since July 2007, but his love of tech dates back to at least 1976 when his parents bought...

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