Amazon is extending its Fire brand to the living room with Fire TV — a $US99 streaming set-top box that claims to do a little bit of everything.
Like the Apple TV and Roku, Amazon’s home entertainment console is capable of streaming movies and TV shows via Netflix, Hulu, Flickster and a host of other applications.
With established competitors like Roku and Apple already dominating the home entertainment space, Amazon hopes to stand out in a few ways.
First, the online retail giant claims it has revolutionised the way you search for content on your TV. Rather than having to meticulously type each letter to find a movie or television show, the Fire TV’s remote control comes with an embedded microphone for voice searches.
Second, Amazon is attempting to win over video game lovers with its gaming platform available on the Fire TV. It’s the first set-top streaming box that’s trying to take gaming seriously. In addition to releasing its own titles through its own development studio, Fire TV can run popular Android mobile games such as “The Walking Dead,” “Dead Trigger” and “Despicable Me: Minion Rush.”
While gaming is one of the key aspects that makes the Fire TV different from its rivals, Amazon is also taking a risk by betting that consumers will actually want to play Android games on their television. These types of products haven’t amassed much interest in the past, as gadgets like the Ouya Android gaming console and Nvidia’s Shield handheld Android gaming system have shown.
There’s certainly potential for the Fire TV to establish a presence in the set-top box space, but the current experience doesn’t make it seem too much more compelling that Roku.
Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through his personal investment company Bezos Expeditions.
Setting up the Fire TV is extremely easy. After plugging it into my TV's HDMI port and signing in with my Amazon email address, a short tutorial provides a brief overview of the Fire TV and its features.
The Fire TV's user interface is simple and straightforward. Along the right-hand side of the screen you'll find a list of options including Home, Movies, TV Shows and Apps among other choices. Flipping through these options reveals submenus for each item, including Genres, Recent, New to Prime and more.
With its quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM, the Fire TV is more than capable of delivering a superquick browsing experience. When scrolling through TV shows in Hulu (pictured below) or through the main user interface, I never noticed any lag.
Here's a look at the Settings menu. This is where you can log out of your Amazon account, manage apps, set parental controls and connect other remotes, such as Amazon's $US40 game pad.
Amazon's remote for the Fire TV comes with a microphone inside so you can search for TV shows and movies by speaking into the remote. This worked accurately, but there's a catch: The search engine only retrieves content from Amazon. So if you're trying to quickly access content in Netflix, Hulu or any other app, you have to type in your query letter by letter.
Here's what search results look like. When I searched for the Fox TV show 'New Girl,' it displayed the correct TV show first followed by other similar titles.
When you select a movie, the Fire TV pulls up a star rating and additional information such as a synopsis and information about the cast from IMDb. If you don't have a Prime account or if a movie isn't available through Prime, you can choose to buy or rent the film in standard or HD.
Amazon could do a better job of distinguishing Amazon Prime content from non-Prime movies and TV shows. The only way to tell the difference is by looking for the tiny label in the upper corner of a TV show or movie poster, as shown in the photo below. I would much prefer a separate category for TV shows and movies that are included for free with Amazon Prime.
The Fire TV offers a bunch of channels including Neflix, Hulu, YouTube, Bloomberg TV and Showtime among others. There's no HBO Go app, however, which could be a deal breaker for those deciding between a Fire TV and a Roku.
Using Amazon's Cloud Drive app, you can beam photos directly from your smartphone to your TV. Here's what the Camera Roll looks like in Amazon's Fire TV interface.
The Fire TV is capable of running mobile games as well as Amazon original titles. 'Sev Zero,' Amazon's flagship gaming title, is a shooter/tower defence hybrid. Gameplay was smooth, and the graphics looked decent but weren't up to the standards of full-fledged gaming consoles. It's at a medium between more-complex console games and casual, addicting mobile titles.
'The Walking Dead' game translated very well to my television screen through the Fire TV. All of the crucial gameplay elements were there, and it worked well in conjunction with Amazon's gaming controller.
You navigate your character by following the four-pronged guide on the screen. Each tab stands for a specific action. For example, pointing the right stick upward tells you to press the Y button to look at a particular character or object.
Many mobile games translated well, but some were more troublesome than others. 'Dead Trigger 2,' for example, presents onscreen instructions as if you were playing on a smartphone.
You need to manually configure each control for Amazon's game pad when playing 'Dead Trigger 2,' which takes forever.
Amazon offers a bunch of gaming categories, including, Action, Adventure, Arcade, Board, Strategy and even Role Playing. The gaming experience was enjoyable overall, but Amazon seems to be targeting a narrow audience. Gaming on the Fire TV is a bit too casual for hard-core players who will probably opt for a console or prefer to play games on their PC. Conversely, casual gamers typically play mobile games when they're killing time on the go. There isn't the same urge to pick up a controller and dedicate your full attention to a mobile game like there is with a console title.
That's not to say the Fire TV gaming experience isn't fun. And with popular games like 'Minecraft' and 'Riptide G2,' there's a real opportunity to appeal to the gaming crowd. Amazon just may need to beef it up a bit to make it a compelling enough feature to steer buyers away from the Roku or Apple TV. This could very well happen once we see more titles coming out of Amazon's own video game studio. Pictured below is Amazon's Gamepad controller, which looks a lot like the Xbox One controller.
The Fire TV has some perks for current Kindle Fire users and Prime members. You can mirror content from your tablet to your TV screen if you have one of Amazon's slates. As a Prime member, you get access to a selection of movies and TV shows for free. I used Fire TV with two separate accounts at different times, one Prime and one basic. The only difference when using a non-Prime account is that you don't have access to Amazon's library of free content. It doesn't alter the experience in any other way.
Overall, Amazon's Fire TV has potential to appeal to those in the market for a media-streaming device. But with cheaper options available such as Google's Chromecast ($35) and the previous generation Roku ($69.99) it could be a tough sell for some. Especially if you're not already invested in Amazon's ecosystem of services.
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