Tech & Science

Gadget Lust: Amazon Fire is TV on Amazon's Terms Only

6.20_DT0425_GadgetFire_01
06/27/14
In the Magazine
Jin Lee/Bloomberg/Getty

I’m in a relationship, and I’m feeling let down.

Late night is our special time, when we idle away the hours. We’ve been together for all the holidays. But I’m beginning to feel it’s a one-sided relationship. I feel everything always has to be a certain way, their way—and it’s getting to me.

I am talking about Amazon. Oh, we’ve had many wonderful years together. My Prime membership is more prized by me than my master’s degree (and certainly more useful). So I was pleased to have the chance to spend the past month getting to know the Amazon Fire TV, the latest entrant into the set-top streaming media box category, to see how it compares with my Roku 3. Amazon Fire TV retails (on Amazon) for $99. You’ll need Prime membership to make best use of it, which also costs $99, annually. Nine must be Amazon’s lucky number.

The Fire came preregistered with my Amazon details, which made setup simple. Save for a small delay while the box uploaded an update, I was soon scrolling through my viewing options. I quickly got used to the horizontal alphabet input function and found the graphics clean and tempting. Thanks to preregistration, Fire TV automatically loaded our previous Amazon Prime video purchases, which consisted of two seasons of the British kids’ show Horrible Histories.

One of my first tasks was to set up parental controls, because parenting blogs tell me I am not supposed to trust my children. Again, setup was easy enough, but the controls quickly became annoying. A password was required every time the wee ones wanted to watch a show, even if they had just watched the previous episode. Nobody likes a baby sitter who calls every 15 minutes to find out what to do next, so after three days I turned off the parental controls. It’s the Disney Channel that should be kept away from children anyway. Talk about scarring experiences.

The Fire TV relationship is more closed than my free and flirty one with Roku. Roku helps me find the free Prime videos I get with my expensive Amazon membership by providing a “Prime Only” area. Yet Amazon’s Fire TV bundles free Prime content with for-pay content, as if they were trying to confuse me just to score cash off me.

The vaunted Voice Search that allows you to speak your requests into the remote works almost perfectly and would be wonderfully useful, if it could search all the channels and apps. As of this writing, it will search only…wait for it…the Amazon library. This not-so-subtle pushing of for-pay Amazon content, when I already pay 99 bucks a year for my Prime membership, made me cranky.

But change is afoot. Later this year, you will be able to browse only free Prime content, just like on the Roku. Voice search will also be available for Netflix, Hulu Plus, Crackle and Showtime Anytime, later this year. Game of Thrones fans who were cranky that HBO Go wasn’t included in Fire TV at launch can stand down, as that is promised later this year.

Those additions will turn this licorice-black box on my set into something useful, so why didn’t they just wait to release this thing later this year?

A more comprehensive voice search will be welcome, but Fire TV needs universal search to be truly useful. To find a particular show, you need to search each app. If you want to educate your children in the genre of 1980s disaster movie parodies, a search from the home page would turn up Airplane! for $2.99. Yet search the Netflix app on the Fire and you’ll discover Airplane! for free. Fire TV picked the wrong day to give up universal search.

The Amazon Fire does offer gaming with an almost Xbox-looking controller ($39.99). With over 1,000 Android-based games coming to Fire TV, it’s a significant differentiator. For my kids, the ability to play Minecraft on the TV was enough. Yes, you can play games on the Roku or Apple, but only through the remote, a wand or your smartphone. I don’t think serious gamers anywhere will dump their Xbox in favor of the Fire TV, but this feature made it a winner in my children’s pixilated brains.

For all my early-adopter complaints, Fire TV will eventually (later this year?) be a good option for Amazon Prime lovers. The remote control is the smartest and easiest to use of the 634 I seem to have in my house. It’s well balanced and intuitive, and because it uses Bluetooth, I can loll on my back and don’t need to point the thing at the box to get it to work.

The system is beautifully responsive thanks to its Advanced Streaming and Prediction (OK, OK! ASAP) technology, which predicts what you want to download. (Are you hovering over something for a long time? Have you downloaded an episode of the show previously?). It then downloads it in the background so it’s ready to play without the tedious buffering of other set-top boxes. The interface is also elegant and intuitive.

Its strength exists in a place you can’t see: its hardware. It’s the only streaming media box with a speedy quad-core processor, and it has more storage than Roku and Apple, plus a dedicated GPU to bring the gaming to life. So when all those promised improvements arrive (later this year), I will take another look at Amazon Fire and compare it, side by side, with the Roku set-top and USB stick, Chromecast and Apple TV.

I’m gonna need a bigger table.

Join the Discussion