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

Amazon's Fire TV set-top box offers a killer feature—Voice Search—but only for Amazon content, which may kill its chances against Roku.

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.