Amazon Fire TV Is Smart, Quick but Doesn't Play Nice

By Michelle Maisto  |  Posted 2014-04-14

Amazon Fire TV Is Smart, Quick but Doesn't Play Nice

There are several instantly likable features about Fire TV, Amazon's entry into the set-top box market, where it now competes with Apple TV, Roku and Google Chromecast.

But there's also one serious drawback that does much to cancel out the good feelings a user initially has pulling out the Fire TV and setting it up.

The device is wonderfully small—4.5 inches square, or roughly the size of a double-CD case—and both the set-top box and its slim remote are covered in a matte black plastic that looks great and feels smooth and cool in the hand. They have a sparse, modern look and take up hardly any space. And because the remote uses Bluetooth and not infrared technology, the box can even be tucked into a drawer in a media console.

In my house, the Fire TV replaced a Microsoft Xbox 360 being used solely for television-viewing purposes, and it was a thrill to clear away a unit the size of a shoebox, plus its charger, which in itself was larger than the Fire TV. (The Xbox, however, has a DVD player, which the Fire TV doesn't.)

Also immediately likable is Fire TV's Voice Search feature—its real differentiator—which is a tremendous upgrade to the TV-watching experience. Instead of using annoying letter-by-letter menus to hunt-and-peck out a title, a user can push a button on the remote and (speaking to the remote) say, for example, "The Transporter." It's also possible to search by genre or actor.

Voice Search worked beautifully for me, though it could never understand my rather well-spoken 3-year-old. I didn't expect it to, but it did start me thinking about people with accents or speech impediments. They, I suppose, will have to suffer Amazon's hunt-and-peck search mechanism, which is a straight line that a user goes back and forth on—a style arguable worse than Netflix's grid-style search.

The search feature brings me to the terrible decision Amazon made with Fire TV. Even if the system could discern my daughter's commands for “Robin Hood. Robin Hood? Robin Hood!” it would have been moot—because Amazon pulls up Robin Hood (the 1973 cartoon) from its own site, offering that I can rent it for $3.99 or buy it for $19.99, which I would never do because, in addition to being an Amazon Prime subscriber, I'm a Netflix subscriber, and on the latter I can watch Robin Hood endlessly for free.

Amazon has a deal with Hulu, and so in some instances the search results will include a More Ways to Watch button—one more step for users—that will offer the option to watch via Hulu Plus. Users have to download the Hulu app, but this is simple to do.

When Hulu isn't involved, though, the More Ways to Watch button just offers more options for buying from Amazon (HD, not HD, etc.).

This approach—of Amazon putting Amazon content front and center and sending people back to the miserable hunting-and-pecking for everything else—creates an enormous distrust.

It also wastes all the time that Voice Search might save. On the Xbox, I would search for something once and know that I was looking at all my options. With Fire TV, one has to search Amazon, but then—and certainly in cases where the Amazon content isn't free—also search inside of individual apps. Every time I wasted time in this way, it soured me on Amazon.

Amazon Fire TV Is Smart, Quick but Doesn't Play Nice

Were Fire TV free, I might understand Amazon taking this approach. But priced at $99 (like the Roku 3 and Apple TV), it comes across like a self-involved host, inviting you over for something and, when you accept, only talking about itself.

If you watch or care about only Amazon content, Fire TV is a great option. But if you rely on a variety of services for the content you watch, Roku is a far more democratic option.

To spend a minute more on comparisons, Roku also has a remote control that users can plug headphones into, so they can watch TV without disturbing anyone—a feature that in itself can tip the purchasing decision toward Roku. As for Apple TV, the interface is a bit biased toward iTunes content—though not in as flat-out a way as Amazon's approach. Plus, Apple TV users can't access any Amazon content at all. Chromecast, at $35, is the least inexpensive option by far, but it doesn't have an interface—users control it via a smartphone or tablet, which means firing up that device to pause a movie or perform similar actions. For some users, that inconvenience is worth saving $65 over.

Also on the Pros List

The Fire TV box has 2GB of RAM; 8GB of internal storage; dual-band, dual-antenna WiFi; and a quad-core 1.7GHz processor, all of which help to make it incredibly quick and robust. This power also helps with games, which Fire TV launched with 100 of and the promise of more on the way.

There are games that can be played with the remote control and (many more) that can be played with a gaming controller that's sold separately (for $40). The few I tried out worked fine enough—I can't claim any expertise on this front, though I did expect them to load more quickly. They did offer a quick lesson, though, in how users might easily rack up a bill, even when playing a "free" game.

Another nice Fire TV feature lets users download an iOS or Android app to easily share photos from their devices, as well as Amazon's Cloud Drive, on a TV. (The app surprised me by pulling up not only photos from my iPhone, but photos I took with a Kindle Fire HDX I reviewed and wiped clean before returning. I'd assumed the photos had been deleted, but apparently Amazon was keeping them safe for me.)

Fire TV also lets users listen to music via apps including Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn and others. They're simple to access and offer a better audio experience than using a smartphone without headphones, which I sometimes default to, racing around while making dinner.

In summary, Amazon created an odd offering. It made attractive hardware and smart software but tied them to frustrating policies that don't put users first. On the upside, it's a good start. If with the next version of Fire TV, Amazon can use its powers for good—letting Voice Search find all that really is available—Amazon will surely gain heart share, which analysts like to say leads to market share.

Throw in a Roku-style remote, and Amazon's competitors will be in real trouble.


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