After months of rumors, Amazon has finally released its own streaming media player, the $99 Fire TV, the company’s answer to Apple TV, Roku, and Chromecast. Is it all we expected and more, or just another black box?
The short answer: It’s nothing too exciting or groundbreaking, but it’s likely to give its competitors a run for their money. Frankly, we were expecting Amazon’s first streaming media player to be markedly different from what’s already out there, which it isn’t. But Fire TV does have a few unique features that we like.
Many assumed that Fire TV would be a stick-styled player, like Chromecast or the new Roku Streaming Stick. Instead, the unit is one of the smallest conventional streaming-media boxes we’ve tested: 4.5 inches square and only 0.7 inches high. Fire TV comes with a small Bluetooth remote control, so you don’t need line-of-sight to control it. Given that, plus its small size, you can hide it behind your TV or other gear. The player has dual-band Wi-Fi and an Ethernet port, an HDMI output, an optical audio output, support for Dolby Digital Plus, and up to 7.1 surround sound as well as 1080p video. The player has a USB port but it’s not active.
Setting up Fire TV is easy. You attach the player to your TV’s HDMI input, then connect it to the Internet. To access your wireless network, you have to type in your password using the navigation buttons on the remote to select the characters, much as you do on other players. You'll also have to enter your e-mail and password to sign in to online video services, as well—except for Amazon. One advantage of the Fire TV is that your Amazon account information is preloaded.
The user interface is basic and intuitive, making it relatively easy to use. The bare-bones remote’s built-in microphone lets you use voice commands for search, which worked very well during our preliminary tests. To perform searches, you simply hold down the remote’s dedicated search button and say what you are looking for. You can search by title, actor, director, and even genre. When you find something to watch, there’s an option to see which other content providers have that title, and if it's cheaper—or even free. Right now this feature is only available with the Amazon services and Hulu Plus, but Amazon says it will roll out to other providers in the future.
One of Amazon’s biggest claims is that Fire TV has the most processing power of any media player on the market, thanks to a quad-core main processor and a dedicated graphics processor. The impressive nature of the fluid control was most notable when typing in account information and passwords, and the nearly instantaneous loading of videos and movies from Amazon Prime and Instant Video. The quick load time is in part due to a feature called ASAP, which monitors your viewing habits to predict and cache shows and movies you’re likely to watch so they’re ready to play (buffered) immediately when you hit the play button. So the more you watch, the better its predictions will be. But other services such as Netflix and Hulu Plus don’t use the ASAP feature, so they are a bit slower to load. Even then, the performance is competitive with the Roku 3 and other better-performing players.
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The Fire TV also allows for screen mirroring and second-screen capability if you own a Kindle Fire HDX. These features are expected to be expanded to other devices, including the iPhone and iPad, and to Android-based phones and tablets. Screen mirroring (Miracast) will display whatever is shown on your device’s screen on your TV, and thanks to the fast processing, we found that to be nice and smooth, even when playing videos. When not mirroring, you can use your phone or tablet to search for a title you want to watch within Amazon’s streaming services and then “fling” it to your TV with a push of a button.
Once something is playing, you can use a feature called “X-ray” to display additional information from the IMDb database—character names, actor information, and other trivia—on your mobile device. So, for instance, as a character enters a scene, the actor’s picture will appear on the device’s screen, along with the character’s and actor’s names. Tapping on the actor’s picture will bring up his or her bio.
You can also access your personal content on the Fire TV. You can look at photos and videos using Amazon’s Cloud Drive app, which lets you upload content from Apple- and Android-based phones and tablets, and from your PC or laptop. While it does require you to upload the content to the cloud, it’s pretty fast and easy to use. Unfortunately, music playback is unavailable at this time, but you can expect support for Amazon’s Cloud Player app soon. Also, Fire TV lacks DLNA compatibility and the ability to view files from the USB port, which may be a more direct and easier way for some than the cloud. One shortcoming of using only cloud-based media is that you will be able to see only content from the single registered Amazon account, so your friends or family won’t be able to show their photos on your TV.
If you’re into gaming, there’s good news: Fire TV’s gaming platform is more advanced than what we’ve seen on other players. For example, our press sample included a preinstalled game, “Sev Zero” which was a lot closer to the graphics and playability of console games then the basic puzzle games you get on most media players. You can play games using the provided remote, but most dedicated gamers will want to purchase the optional Fire Game Controller (about $40), which is similar to an Xbox controller. While you can play the basic games now available in the Amazon market, you can expect more advanced games later in the year that will most likely require the Fire Game Controller or possibly other compatible controllers.
While it’s not available yet, another unique feature will be of interest to parents: a dedicated area called Free Time, for kids ages 3 to 8. This section has fairly extensive parental controls that let you choose what your kids can see, and set time limits for viewing for weekdays and weekends. To exit the Free Time area, kids need a password.
Based on our relatively brief First Look, we found the Fire TV to be a fast, easy-to-use media player with some nice features, though it is not a complete game changer with revolutionary breakthroughs in either price or features. In the same way that the Apple TV is a good choice for anyone living in the iTunes and Apple world, this box will appeal to anyone who uses Amazon Prime, Amazon Instant Video, and the company’s cloud services. And since there are still some features and services that haven’t yet been released, we’re withholding final judgment on the player until we complete our full evaluation, which will be coming soon. Keep checking back for updates on Fire TV and other players—including the new Roku Streaming Stick—and visit our streaming media player buying guide.
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