Amazon’s Fire TV set-top box arrived to shake up an increasingly crowded home entertainment segment, but does it have what it takes to set the living room alight? The squared-off streamer has been hooked up to my TV for two months now, piping Prime on-demand video among other things, but has the new gadget honeymoon ended?
I watch a lot of television. Actually, to be entirely accurate, I watch a lot of on-demand content. I can’t recall the last time I watched a live show, but I’m a heavy user of streaming media. In many ways, that makes me the ideal audience for the Fire TV.
As I found in my original review, Amazon made a strong first impression with Fire TV. Some of those have held up to longer use; others less so.
The tile-based UI, for instance, still feels a little visually cluttered, and the fact that third-party services like Netflix only show up with their app icon – not the shows you’ve watched within them – in the “Recently Played” bar undermines some of its usefulness. More frustrating, it’s still tricky at times to tell the difference between paid content and Amazon Prime content; a filter to show only one or the other would be a real boon.
In fact, content navigation and discovery remains a mixed bag. Amazon categorizes things into sections like “Action”, “Staff Picks”, and “Based on Books”, but there’s no way to simply browse every “Drama” or “Comedy” available. Categories and search results are limited to 150 items maximum, which means there are plenty of titles which never surface.
I’ve often found myself wishing there was a way to tell Fire TV that I’m not interested in a frequent search result, so leaving space among the 150 spots for something else.
It’s a shame, because the voice search system is still one of Fire TV’s best features, just as long as you only really want to search Amazon’s own catalog. That ought to change over the coming months, with Netflix and others adding voice search support, though. Text search – still a necessary evil, especially if you’re trying to hunt down movies with foreign or odd titles – is conversely a time-consuming hassle, scrolling left and right through an alphabetical list of letters, numbers, and punctuation.
I’d also love to see voice search used for more than just hunting for movies. Perhaps a full browser might be too ambitious, but paging through Wikipedia by voice would make a lot of sense. On the other hand, I’ve not picked up the (optional) game controller once since my review; true, I’m not much of a gamer, but the limited number of Android titles suited to Fire TV doesn’t really hold up against a regular console.
I can’t say the Fire TV has dominated my HDMI ports entirely, either. There’s still an Apple TV hooked up as well, since of course you can’t get iTunes content on any other set-top box. I also rely on it for Netflix most of the time, since the UI of the Apple TV version is far preferable to the generic Android tablet app version Amazon is stuck with. Again, Netflix is promising a proper Fire TV app later in the year, which may help cut my reliance on Apple TV.
Otherwise, the speed at which Amazon’s streaming kicks in still impresses – it’s practically instantaneous after you hit play – and being able to quickly skip 10s forward or backward is useful. On the other hand, the overly “clicky” buttons on the remote are annoying; it may sound like I’m nitpicking, but you end up doing a lot of scrolling and the loud click-click-click sounds cheap and distracting.
It’s a shame, because the Bluetooth remote Amazon uses is otherwise great, particularly given it doesn’t demand line-of-sight in order to operate.
Would I still recommend the Fire TV? If you’re a Prime subscriber, then yes: I hardly took advantage of the bundled TV shows and movies before Fire TV arrived, and now I’m probably equally splitting the majority of my viewing between that and Netflix. If you’re not, though, then it’s a tougher prospect; you miss out on the key advantages of voice-search and streaming speed, and there are cheaper ways – like Roku or Chromecast – to get Netflix on your big-screen.
Of course, Amazon’s story doesn’t end there. The company is readying a new device – all but certain to be a smartphone – to be revealed on June 18th. Like the Kindle Fire tablets, it’ll probably have some degree of integration with the Fire TV.
We won’t know for sure until later in the month, when Jeff Bezos reveals his next gadget. Until then, let me know in the comments if you picked up a Fire TV, and how you’re getting on with it.