Amazon recently offered Prime members a 30-day in-home trial of their Amazon Fire TV. When the Fire TV was announced it looked like Amazon had one-upped Apple in the set-top box department, but after a month of having both boxes hooked up to my TV it became clear that there were some shortcomings. So how does the Fire TV really hold up?
In this review I’m going to be comparing the Amazon Fire TV to the Apple TV, for a few reasons. The big one being that I already have an Apple TV, so it’s an easy comparison to make. As a consumer I am Amazon’s perfect target for this device. The other reason is that I believe any folks considering buying a Fire TV are (or should be) considering an Apple TV. I know Roku exists as well, but I’ve never used one, so short of pulling up a list of specs I can’t really speak to how it compares to the Fire TV. If Roku wants to offer a similar trial, I’d be happy to follow up.
The Fire TV is similar to the Apple TV in size and setup. Both are small, unassuming boxes with ports for HDMI, a power cable, and ethernet (though both also have Wi-Fi). Once you hook up and turn on the Fire TV, you’re greeted with an animation explaining its features and basic use. Apple TV lets you figure it out for yourself, though it isn’t a hard task on either box.
Amazon’s big focus at launch was on their voice search feature. They even made a Gary Busey commercial about it:
It’s not a bad strategy, since trying to type anything out with the minimalist Apple TV remote is a nightmare — one that can be remedied with a bluetooth keyboard, sure, but a nightmare nonetheless. The search feature works, and it works well. I’ve attempted to use the voice feature on my Android phone quite a bit, and have been frustrated by the results, but the Fire TV did a good job of understanding what I was searching for. The problem is that the voice search feature only searches Amazon Prime Instant Video.
The biggest drawback to the Apple TV is just how rooted it is in the Apple ecosystem. The Fire TV is more open with its app selections, but its best feature is shackled to its own proprietary (and disappointing) video service. Since its deal with HBO, Amazon Prime Instant Video has gotten a lot more content, but it’s still a mess to navigate, and much of what it has available is already on Netflix or Hulu. You can certainly use the Fire TV for Netflix, Hulu, and even more video services than are available on the Apple TV, but if you want to search for anything on them you can’t use your voice.
It feels like a bait-and-switch. I’d even be fine with the Fire TV returning Prime Instant Video results first, or with more weight in search, but to outright restrict it to only Prime options is a real disappointment. Particularly when the promo video on Amazon’s listing for the Fire TV promises that the voice search helps you find “Everything you love with just your voice.” Prime Instant Video doesn’t have everything I love, Amazon.
The Fire TV also serves as a gaming platform — so long as you drop an extra $40 on the separate gaming controller. I didn’t, so I don’t have any firsthand account of the gameplay, but it’s not something I would likely spend money on anyway, considering the games being offered are mostly older console titles or indie games I can play on my PS3 or computer.
Game controller aside, the included remote is about as minimal as the Apple TV one, but with a few more physical buttons. There’s the same navigational D-pad-type round button for moving through menus and selecting things, a dedicated button for the woeful voice search, pause/play, fast forward and rewind buttons, a home button, a menu button, and a back button. Only after becoming used to the minimalist Apple TV remote with its three button design would the Fire TV remote feel crowded.
The biggest difference besides the buttons is that the Apple TV remote communicates through IR, meaning the remote needs to be pointed directly at the Apple TV. The biggest advantage to this setup is that it means you can program the Wand Company’s Sonic Screwdriver remote to control it, but it’s really more of a nuisance. The Fire TV remote doesn’t need to have a line-of-sight to the box to work, and it’s a subtle but appreciated feature. Especially if you have a dog who insists on sitting right in front of the Apple TV box whenever you try to start another episode of something, ELVIS.
Of course that also means I can’t control the Fire TV with my sonic screwdriver, so compromises must be made with either choice.
Just in terms of video quality I did notice that things looked a little better on the Fire TV than on the Apple TV. They’re the same resolution, 1920×1080, but even watching the same episode of the same show through the same service, it looked like Fire TV was just a little bitter. The difference wasn’t so noticeable to me that it would be a deciding factor between the two, but it was noticeable enough to mention. The difference particularly stood out when watching Hulu’s Doozers. Possibly because it’s animated? The Doozers seemed to have more texture than when watching on the Apple TV.
Ultimately, the Amazon Fire TV is a fine device for streaming video even if its best feature, the voice search, is wasted on one service. That limitation is also the primary reason I don’t think the Fire TV is necessarily a replacement for another streaming device like the Apple TV, game console, or whatever other device you may already own that can stream video to your television.
If I were shopping for a streaming box, I’d certainly consider the Fire TV, but unless you’re already deep into the Amazon ecosystem there’s not much about it to make it really stand out against the competition.
If you’re considering it and you’re on the fence, absolutely take Amazon up on its offer for an in-home trial.
(Image via Amazon)
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