In 1994, Amazon started as an online bookstore. Since then, the company has grown into one of the most important sites on the internet, and the largest online retailer in the world. In 2007, it released the Kindle, its first ebook reader. From there the Kindle line grew to include the Fire and Fire HDX, full blown tablets running Amazon's Android-based Fire OS.
Over the past 20 years, Amazon has broadened its horizons more than most other companies can even dream of. From small bookstore to retail giant, hardware manufacturer, and streaming content provider, this company continues to grow and expand in meaningful, useful ways. The launch of Fire TV is yet another extension of Amazon's already long-reaching arm.
Essentially, Fire TV is Amazon's answer to the problem of online media consumption. Sure, there are competitors – like Roku and Apple TV – but none of them do what Fire TV can do. It's a streaming media box with a twist, and a online giant backing it up.
Amazon wants to change the way we all think of set-top boxes, which, up to this point have been pretty niche. It wants Fire TV to be the box that fits in every home and into any lifestyle.
And I think it succeeded.
This section of the review is posted after-the-fact, when updates to the device show up post-review. The changes highlighted here may not be reflected in the text body (i.e. price drops, Android version updates, etc.). All updates will be linked to the appropriate coverage outside of this review.
- Processor: 1.7Ghz Quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600
- RAM: 2GB
- Storage: 8GB
- Ports: HDMI, ethernet, USB
- Wireless: dual-band, dual-antenna, 802.11 a/b/g/n; Bluetooth 4.0
- OS: Proprietary Fire TV OS, based on Android 4.2.2
- Price: $99
- Buy: Amazon
- Very intuitive, simplified interface. It's familiar and easy to navigate; exactly what a set top box should be.
- Vast streaming catalog. Netflix. Hulu. WatchESPN. NBA GameTime. Crackle. YouTube. Showtime Anytime. It's got almost all of the big names right out of the box. HBO GO is on its way, which should round out all the major players.
- Voice search.It works pretty well for the most part, and it's damn sure better than having to key searches in manually. The only downside (for now) is that it only shows results from Amazon's content library. Additional support is in the works though.
- Game support. Other Android consoles have put gaming first and content second. I think Amazon is doing it right by reversing that. Gaming is a perk, not a priority.
- Very minimal design.It basically disappears on the TV stand, which is a good thing.
- Good price. It's $99. That's pretty damn cheap for everything Fire TV is capable of.
- Sometimes overly-simplified UI. There aren't options to manage storage or kill running applications should something go wrong. I understand the desire to keep things simple, but sometimes a little more accessibility would be nice.
- Pretty limited storage with no option for expansion.This is Amazon's streaming and gaming box. 8GB of internal storage just isn't enough.
- No way to add more than one account. Have multiple Amazon users in your house? Tough cookies.
On the hardware level, Amazon has built one of the most powerful set top boxes available today. While not everything under the Fire TV's hood is cutting edge, it's more than enough to stream all the content available to it, and handles most games without breaking a sweat, too. It's probably the most future-proof box in its class, as it should be able to continue accommodating what customers want as its catalog and use-cases expand.
Build Quality and Design
Aesthetically, Fire TV is a very, very basic black box that's designed to just get out of the way, which it does extraordinarily well. The flat black color should look good with basically any décor, all while alleviating the unit of that "cheap" look that most glossy plastic products have. I personally love how it looks; its clean, minimal, and understated design is sophisticated and simple. It also matches the Kindle Fire HDX series very well. Almost like they were made for each other. Wink, wink.
From a build quality standpoint, it's solid. It feels really well put together and premium – not that it makes a huge difference, as the odds are it'll just end up beside the TV from the time it's taken out of the box. Still good to see that Amazon took the time of actually crafting something worth owning.
Remote and Game Controller
Aside from the unit itself, the Fire TV ships with one small Bluetooth remote control. It's a thin, short, flat black controller with minimal buttons and an understated design – much like the Fire TV itself. The configuration of the remote makes a lot of sense: the voice search button is at the top just below the microphone, with the directional pad, OS navigation controls (back, home, menu), and media player controls (reverse, play/pause, forward) just below that. The unit has a very nice, rounded back, which makes it feel really pleasant to hold. The soft-touch plastic also adds to that.
Aside from the remote, Amazon offers an optional game controller for $40. It shares the same design as the Fire TV and remote: flat black, understated, yadda yadda yadda. It fits in with the rest of the Fire TV family perfectly. It basically uses the Xbox controller layout, which seems to be the most common across the board for game controllers as it were. Of course, it has its share of Fire TV-specific controls, as well; back, home, and menu buttons are in the middle of the unit, with a pause button directly below. Just beneath the directional pad and right joystick, there are also media controls. All the buttons feel pretty good; the ABXY pack is clicky and responsive, the joysticks are comfortable and have just the right amount of resistance, and the shoulder buttons/triggers are responsive and not "squishy." Overall, it's a really nice controller...and a must-have if you plan on playing games on Fire TV. There are some games that work with the remote, as well, but obviously those are the simplest ones of the bunch. All the "serious" games require a controller.
The one downside of the controller is that it's lacking a voice search button, which means it's unable to completely replace the remote control. This one addition would've allowed users to do everything Fire TV is capable of without having to keep up with both the remote and game controller. Alas, that's not the case.
Lastly, it's worth noting that both the controller and remote require AA batteries, which is either a good or bad thing depending on which side of the "I want everything on earth to be rechargeable" line you stand on.
So, hardware only plays a small part of what makes the Fire TV something to consider buying. This is very much a software-driven unit, as it's all about the content and experience provided. Fortunately, the interface is incredibly intuitive and streamlined. It just makes sense.
OS and Interface
The Fire TV's interface is about as simple as it gets: the left side of the screen displays the various options: search, home, movies, TV, watchlist, video library, games, apps, photos, and settings; while the right, much larger, pane displays the content from the selected category. There are then subsections that highlight recently-watched movies or played games, along with newly-available content and recommendations of things to watch or play, all of which are category-specific. It's pretty similar to the way that Netflix breaks down recently-viewed content, along with quick access to your list and recommendations for what to watch (or, in this case, play) next. In that way, it feels very familiar and just makes a lot of sense. Of course, since the Fire TV's coverage is much broader than Netflix, the interface is more methodically laid out for easier content discovery.
Speaking of searching, let's talk about Fire TV's voice search option. This is easily one of the best parts of Fire TV...but it's also one of the weakest for the time being. Let's say you're looking for a specific movie, app, game, or films starring a certain actor. Simply hit the voice search button and speak, and you'll be given a list of results relevant to your search. The thing is, at least for right now, it only shows Amazon content. So if you're looking for something to watch on Netflix, Hulu, or any other third-party application, you're out of luck. With that said, Amazon has already announced that it will begin integrating Hulu Plus, Crackle, and Showtime Anytime results into voice search "starting this summer," which is a good start. In an ideal world, voice search will be able to show results from every app installed on the Fire TV. Hopefully this a goal that Amazon is working towards.
So what happens if you want to search directly within an app like Netflix? You're doing it the old fashioned way: clicking through an on-screen keyboard. It's tedious, but there really isn't a better solution available right now. So, not only would I like to see Amazon include all apps in the voice search results, but it would also be nice to have the ability to show only results from specific apps or use voice search from directly within one application without having to search the entire system.
While the Fire TV's interface is intuitive and easy to use, there are things it could do better, particularly with the "recent" feed. Since the Fire TV is mostly centered around Amazon content, the things found within the recent feed are played games, watched movies/TV from Instant Video, and launched applications. But that's it – if you were watching a flick on Netflix, Hulu, Crackle...or any of the other services available to the Fire TV, it simply shows that app's icon. It would be really fantastic if these types of apps had deeper integration – much like Amazon's own content – where it would show exactly what was being watched on each particular service. For example, instead of showing a Netflix icon, I'd like to see it display the most recent movie or show that was being streamed. Of course, all that sort of information is still just a click away, but that type of integration would be some real next-level stuff. But I'm sure it would also raise privacy concerns among the tinfoil hat crowd, so that wish may live and die right here in this post.
Past the primary interface, there are a handful of additional, less prominent features found under the Settings menu. Things like second-screen, which provides additional information on a Kindle Fire HDX that's on the same network (more on that below); parental controls, and minor system tweaks (like Quiet Time, app usage data collection, developer options, and the like) are all nested under this one menu. You won't find things like the Kindle Fire's Mayday feature anywhere on the Fire TV, which leaves users stuck with Amazon's online support system should something go awry.
Let's think about what sort of things people use to stream videos, movies, and music on the web: Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, HBO GO, Showtime Anytime, Amazon/Prime Instant Video, Crackle, Pandora, Spotify, Google Play Music/Movies, Rdio, Iheartradio, Vevo, TuneIn, Vimeo...that should cover at least most of the bases. And you know what? About 90 percent of those are already on Fire TV, save for Spotify, Google Play Movies/Music, Rdio, and HBO GO (at least for the time being).
There are also more niche options that may cater to certain users – like Twit.TV, Revision3, Plex, Red Bull TV, Classic TV, Tubi, Redux TV, Hasbro Studios (for kids!), All Fitness TV, and quite a few more. In other words, there really is a lot of streaming content already available on Fire TV, and it's safe to assume that it's going to keep getting better from here. Amazon has the kind of pull needed to really make a box like Fire TV appealing to most content creation companies, I think. You don't have to take my word for it though, the fact that HBO inked a deal to exclusively bring some of its older shows to Prime Instant Video speaks volumes. That's the first deal of its kind for HBO.
It's about more than just streaming videos, movies, and music from outside services too. While Kindle Fire HDX owners can send some locally-stored media to Fire TV, Koush's Allcast is now available in the Amazon Appstore, which enables locally- and cloud-stored media (from Dropbox and Drive) to be sent to Fire TV in the same way one sends content to Chromecast. It works brilliantly.
But again, there's more to it than things you can watch. Let's talk about games.
This is, in my opinion, the most interesting choice made with Fire TV. Instead of just building a streaming box, Amazon built a streaming box that also plays games. Of course, it's not going to appease the hardcore console gamer – it's not meant to replace a PS3/4 or Xbox 360/One. But for casual gaming on the big screen, it works really well.
At this point, the gaming catalog isn't what I'd call massive, but there are definitely some note-worthy games already available. Riptide 2, Dead Trigger 2, Into the Dead, Sonic CD, Asphalt 8 Airborne, Reaper, Badland, and Minecraft are just a few of the titles that many people should immediately recognize, most of which translate really well to the larger screen.
While most of the titles require a Bluetooth controller, there are a few of the more simplistic titles – like Into The Dead and Badlands – that can actually be played by using the remote. That's actually a really nice touch, as it opens up the unit to really be more of a time killer or something to just kick back with. Very cool.
Outside of the titles that everyone is likely already familiar with, Amazon is going to be producing its own game content for the Fire TV through its in-house Game Studio. The first result of this is Sev Zero, an exclusive launch title for the Fire TV. Sev Zero is unlike any other "mobile" game I've played before, as it's honestly more of a console-level game than many of the "console-quality" titles that are already available on Android, especially where original content is concerned. It's essentially a combination tower defense and third person action shooter, which may sound a bit odd, but it works incredibly well. I've had a blast playing Sev Zero on my Fire TV review unit – it's a game that is easy to sit down with for 10-15 minutes and play through one "level," or kick back and easily burn away a couple of hours. The storyline is simplistic, yet captivating (for lack of a better word) enough to keep you moving towards the goal of saving the planet.
Note: These screenshots were taken with adb over Wi-Fi, so there's likely some compression as a result; the game looks much better on the actual screen.
Without getting into too lengthy of a discussion about Sev Zero, the gist of the gameplay is this: like a tower defense title, you place various guns in strategic locations throughout a path in an attempt to eliminate the onslaught of aliens that are trying to take over the core. Pretty much par for the course for a TD title, no? Here's where things change: from there, you can beam your character into the map, armed with one of three types of gun (shotgun, machinegun, or rifle) and three secondary weapons like a grenade launcher or rail gun. In third-person view, you actually aid the cannons in the defense of the core. It's really neat. Beaming from one side of the map is super fast and easy, as is jumping out to modify, replace, or repair towers. If you like both TD and third-person games, you'll love Sev Zero.
Finally, let's talk about game controllers. Amazon is being really unstingy with the Fire TV's game controller support, as it actually allows multiple Android-compatible controllers to be paired with the system. Initially I assumed that this would be exclusive to Amazon's own controller, but I was actually able to pair the Moga Pro Power and the Nyko Playpad without issue, so if you have one of those you're good to go out of the box. If you plan on picking something up outside of Amazon's controller, though, I'd recommend the Playpad Pro, simply because it has a home button, so you don't have to hit back 60 times to get to the start screen.
Naturally, Amazon included some integration with its Kindle Fire HDX line with the "second screen" option. Basically, this integrates with Amazon-owned movie database IMDb when watching something on Instant Video, and shows information about the film and actors on the tablet. Flicks can also be started from the Fire HDX and sent to the Fire TV, a la Chromecast.
Aside from that, the aforementioned game Sev Zero also includes second screen support, effectively making it a two-player game. While the first player is responsible for creating and maintaining towers (and kicking alien ass in third-person mode), the second player is effectively a support unit. The app, which is dubbed Sev Zero: Air Support, launches in an aerial view of the entire map, allowing the second player to not only see where aliens are attacking, but provide exclusive support to the first player with a number of different weapons, including missiles, explosive barrels, a buff-like "supercharge" feature, the ability to spawn a decoy of P1, and a handful of others. It's a really neat, innovative way to incorporate the small screen alongside the primary game, and it really enhances the gameplay. I have a feeling that this is just the start for Amazon, and most titles coming out of its game studio will add support for second screen gameplay.
Thank you fish, for being here.
In case it's not entirely clear, I really like Fire TV. I think Amazon has done a really good job in bringing Android – however skinned it may be – to the large screen. The content is there, and it's only going to get better. That's why Fire TV will ultimately be successful, too; regardless of whether or not you're already invested in Amazon's ecosystem, there's basically something for everyone. Add in a Prime membership for Prime Instant Video, and it's even better. In my opinion, it took a major player like Amazon to do what other, smaller companies have been trying to do for the last few years: make a good streaming set-top box with a vast catalog of content that will continuously grow.
Of course, it's not perfect. Voice search could be better and more encompassing. The way it handles previously watched content on services outside of its own services could be better. The gaming catalog could be bigger. It needs more storage. But hell, it's a gen one product. Right out of the box it's very useable, and Amazon has already starting promising meaningful improvements to the way the system works, just a few short weeks after the product launch. It's clear that the company has a goal to strive towards and what it wants from Fire TV. It also seems as if it's listening to early adopters and responding appropriately.
I see a bright future for Fire TV. As more units are sold and it garners more attention, more content will become available because creators will want their stuff in more homes. Will it eventually be the box for cord cutters? Probably. The fact that big names like HBO are already jumping on board and giving Amazon exclusive access to some its older shows speaks volumes.
Moving forward, Amazon's Fire TV could be the set-top box to beat. Its content library is vast (and already growing rapidly), and its use-case is broader than any of the competition. All for roughly same price. However, it's got stiff competition in the streaming department from the likes of Roku, which is going to take some time to overcome. Still, I think Amazon is onto something great with the FireTV, and the experience is going to continue to get better as more content becomes available.