Do you have any HDMI slots left on your TV? Didn’t think so – but you can’t blame Amazon for entering the streaming device market given its existing arsenal of entertainment and readily available data on competitors’ devices.
Indeed, this makes sense. Amazon is the world’s largest online retailer, and receives thousands of users reviews for the Apple TV, Google Chromecast, Roku, and smart TVs. Why wouldn’t it use this data to its own benefit, even if it is slightly late to the table?
We managed to grab a hands-on with the new $99 Fire TV device earlier today, and here’s our initial thoughts.
The Amazon Fire TV box is all-black, square, and topped with a matte overlay – it looks almost like your average external hard drive. The back of the box includes all the usual suspects: HDMI, optical audio, Ethernet, power port, and USB.
The Fire TV’s accompanying remote control is similar to Apple TV’s and comes complete with a directional wheel, fast forward, play, and rewind buttons, though there is also a microphone button top and center.
Touting a quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM, and a dedicated GPU, this thing is meant to run fast – and indeed it does. During our demo session, the Fire TV was able to load movies in a few seconds, and plays video games smoothly with high quality graphics that make Roku’s Angry Birds look like child’s play.
The startup interface is clean, simple, and intuitive: Click right to browse through your options under a certain category, hit Return or Home on the remote control to start over. Unlike browsing through an Apple TV or Roku’s library, there’s minimal lag time.
Admittedly, things always seem to go way better during demos at the press event itself, but this may also be due to Fire TV’s ASAP feature which pre-caches movies and TV shows it believes you’ll want to watch, eliminating loading time for recommended media. We’ll have to test this further to see if the recommendation algorithm works as well as Amazon claims, and establish exactly how quickly the pre-cache loads in a typical home Internet setup.
One of the biggest game changers for the Fire TV compared to its competitors is the voice search functionality. It doesn’t take a techie to know that typing without a full keyboard sucks, but while the Xbox One Kinect allows voice commands, you might find that your speech never reaches the unit itself.
With the microphone built into the Fire TV’s remote, you can speak directly into the remote, allowing the search query to reach its intended destination without interference from the white noise emanating from the TV. During the demo, we were in a large loft space with hundreds of reporters clamoring about. The voice search worked smoothly, and felt pretty natural if you’re used to Siri or Google Now. Just ensure you speak after the beep, or it won’t register the first portion of your search.
You wouldn’t ordinarily think of Amazon as the go-to gaming center, but the Fire TV comes with an impressive library of partners. On stage, Amazon demoed Minecraft – which you can play with a Kindle Fire or the additional wireless Fire TV game controller – with crisp, clean graphics.
We went straight for the TellTale Games demo of The Walking Dead (TWD), which was synced up with the Bluetooth game pad. The controller is reminiscent of the Xbox 360’s, just slightly more square and less colorful. TWD isn’t exactly a game that needs multiple buttons, but the controller does come with dual analog sticks and shoulder buttons for more complex games like Amazon Game Studios’ Halo-esque Sev Zero.
Unlike the Xbox’s, or even Playstation’s, controller, the Fire TV game pad has Android buttons at the center for Return, Home and Menu. It’s a great shortcut for those who want to stick with the game controller, and don’t feel like switching back to the regular remote control.
Do you really need another streaming device?
In a world of $35 Chromecasts and $50 Rokus, the Fire TV is admittedly not as competitively-priced as we’d hoped. But at $140 (if you factor in the $40 game controller), it does offer a lot more than its competitors’ devices combined – and does so underpinned by impressive processing power.
Still, if we look at the Fire TV as yet another media streaming device on the market, it’s going to have to truly draw us in with more than original Amazon Studios shows and X-Ray IMDB search. While the Fire TV’s got the usual video apps such as YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu on board, it’s sorely missing HBO Go. We’re told more apps will come soon – but we were not given a definitive date on the ETA.
So no, you may not need another media streaming device, but if you don’t already have one, the Fire TV is a great alternative for those not wanting to be limited to Apple’s iTunes world or Chromecast’s limited capacity.
Published April 2, 2014 — 19:17 UTC