Amazon Fire TV first impressions: Gadget Watch

Increasingly, the living room and the humble TV has become an increasingly competitive market for consumer electronics firms.

Streaming video on demand from the internet through a set top box is a market that was long ago pioneered by the likes of TiVo, Roku and Fetch TV. They’ve been joined in recent years by devices like Apple TV and Google’s ChromeCast.

Video game consoles, such as Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One, are increasingly being positioned as home entertainment and streaming media devices as much as gaming devices.

Then there’s the emerging smart TV market, with companies such as LG, Samsung and the Panasonic/Mozilla partnership hoping consumers will do away with a set top box altogether and just rely on their TVs.

That’s without even mentioning open source systems, such as MythTV.

Last week, online retail giant and Kindle-maker Amazon announced it will be the next competitor in this increasingly crowded marketplace with its new Fire TV set top box. It has a recommended retail price in the US of $US99 ($A107).

So can the new device stand out? Did it make a good first impression? It’s time to find out.

What is it?

Aside from being able to download content from Amazon’s marketplace and its Prime streaming video service, the Fire TV set top box will support a range of third party video services. In the US, these include the likes of Netflix and Hulu.

The company also announced a $US39.99 controller for video games will also be released for the device, along with a range of low-cost games, pitting it against Microsoft and Sony’s games machines.

The new device contains a quad-core processor with more than three times of competing devices, which the online retail and electronics giant says is more than three times the amount offered by Apple TV, Chromecast, or Roku 3.

For image and video processing, the device includes an Adreno 320 graphics engine that processes 57 billion floating point instructions per second.

Another key feature of the Fire TV is a microphone built into the remote control, which allows for voice control of the system.

Amazon is pitching the device as being an easier to use, more user friendly alternative to its rivals.

What’s the consensus?

GeekWire was impressed with the FireTV’s search features, and how quick it was to set up:

In my tests, the voice search worked really well — even with ambient noise in the background. For On Demand viewing, this is much faster than any current set-up that I have, including my cable set top box, smart TVs and other streaming devices, including Chromecast. Amazon preloads content so that it immediately begins streaming instead of having to wait several seconds to start playing the content. The responsiveness of the box, the voice search, and the no-wait streaming are the best you’ll find out there.

Using the Fire TV immediately after opening the box is impressive. I was up and running in less than 5 minutes. No logins required. They already shipped with my Amazon Prime and no setup was required other than wifi. (Yes, I was a little surprised there wasn’t an HDMI cable.) I know cold starts on many of the other boxes were either overwhelmingly long or way too technical for the mass market. Amazon set the bar very high with their cold start.

However, as Gizmodo points out, the search feature only works with Amazon’s own content, rather than with other installed apps:

Two big caveats here, though. One is that voice search is the default option when you hit the search button, so you’ll find yourself pressured to use it even when you don’t feel like it. The other, bigger catch? All search — voice or otherwise — only brings back Amazon results. A search for Scandal, for instance, will show you how to buy episodes on Amazon, but not that you can stream them as part of your Netflix subscription. It’s an unfortunate restriction, especially in light of Roku’s excellent universal search, which will show you everybody’s everything.

While the new device is being positioned against established video game platforms, according to PadGeek, the FireTV has some way to go before it’s a competitor in this regard:

I found the selection of games to be poor. There are 49 titles in the Action category, 19 in the Adventure category, 20 in Arcade, four in Board Games, two in Casino, six in Casual, six in Kids, 13 in Puzzles and Trivia, nine in Racing, five in Role Playing, seven in Sports, and 10 in Strategy. Many of the titles overlap in categories, too, so the selection is even more limited.

I didn’t expect the games to be console quality, but I was hoping for something a little more impressive. None of the titles that I played looked any better than if I were mirroring them from my iPad. I didn’t play any games that require a controller, so I don’t know how good the performance speed is. Although I would have to assume it is better than mirroring with AirPlay simply because of the nature of AirPlay. A few of the games that I played had a terrible time fitting properly onto my screen. The images stretched past my screen edge so I couldn’t even see what was beyond. I had to delete one hidden objects game because some of the items were hidden off screen.

In terms of its core competency – playing movies – Slashgear found that while it does a good job with handling video, the interface itself can be a different matter:

Amazon is particularly proud of how fast its new box is, and sure enough we have no complaints on performance. Boot-up is a matter of seconds, and content starts playing from Amazon Instant Video within a scant moment of hitting the play button. Similarly, shuttling through Amazon videos is smooth too.

Playing content might be fast, but sometimes finding it can be time-consuming. Fire TV’s launcher is organized chronologically: the app or game you used most recently is first in the menu. While on the face of it that’s convenient, in practice it means there can be a fair amount of hunting involved to pin down what you’re looking for, since there’s no single predictable place it’ll be.

Should I get one?

It’s important to remember that Fire TV is very much a first generation product, and by most accounts, it shows. Many of the missing features, such as the lack of system-wide search, will most likely be fixed in future software releases and versions of the hardware.

Likewise, the game selection will likely also improve with time, although anyone looking for a video game system most likely already has a PlayStation or Xbox.

Certainly, Amazon has the resources to invest in making this one of the best streaming video devices in the market over time. However, until some of the bigger issues are fixed, this will be a device that should primarily be of interest to the early adopters.

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