Here's the thing about Amazon: We can't figure the company out half the time. Few things embody that quite as well as the Fire TV. The company is adamant that the set-top box is not a gaming console, but it's invested heavily in original game development for it and even produced a shockingly good gamepad accessory. Still, video games are just a "bonus." One of the pillars of the streaming-media box is supposed to be openness, but there's no denying that other services like Netflix are treated like second-class citizens here. They're invited to the party; they just better not outshine the host.
The Fire TV may be the next step for Amazon as it tries to build its own ecosystem, but it's also yet another entry in the crowded streaming-media market. And the big question is: Do we need another? We've got TV set-tops for cable, satellite and fiber (at one time joined by a disc player for movies and maybe a game system or two). The next-gen game consoles do double duty as entertainment hubs, and there's no shortage of cheap boxes designed specifically to stream Netflix, HBO Go and Pandora. Add in smart TVs and the rise of pint-sized dongles, and the question of what to watch becomes how to watch. The Fire TV is trying to muscle out competitors with its $99 price and a strong focus on performance, search and openness. Now that we've spent a few days living with one, we can judge whether it's just another option among many, or truly a standout that finally fixes problems the others have so far ignored.
The Fire TV is the very definition of understated design. It's a simple matte black box with a small Amazon logo etched in the top and single white LED on the front to tell you when it's powered on. There are no purple cloth tags (like on the Roku) and the company didn't bother with embellishments like rounded corners. Even around back, there's a minimal selection of ports; just HDMI, Ethernet and optical audio jacks, plus a currently useless USB socket. The result is perhaps the most attractive and unobtrusive streaming set-top box we've seen yet. While its overall footprint is larger than the Apple TV's, it's still only 0.7 inches tall, which means it's nearly invisible from 10 feet away. Besides, the remote uses Bluetooth instead of IR, so you can hide it anywhere you want.
Not that you're going to be picking it up terribly often, but Amazon's box is actually quite heavy -- a dense block made from plastic, aluminum and silicon. Most of the internal space is taken up by a giant heatsink, an essential concession given the rather high-powered internals. The 1.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon processor, along with the Adreno 320 GPU, is far more powerful than anything found in other streaming devices and it shows. Searches and even browsing the UI are noticeably faster on the Fire TV than on a Roku or Apple TV. And we haven't even mentioned what it's capable of on the gaming front, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Amazon also more or less nailed the remote's design. It's just the right size with a shallow, but comfortable groove for your finger underside. The buttons have little travel, but do produce a satisfying click when pressed. The remote does still bear the marks of Fire TV's Android roots. Below the thin ring that serves as a directional pad are six buttons aligned in rows of three -- the top row features your old-school Android back, home and menu keys. There are two minor, but irksome, issues here. For one, the menu key is largely useless except from within certain apps (more on that later) and it would feel more natural if the media controls were directly below the directional pad and select button. This not only led to occasionally hitting the menu button when I was looking for fast-forward, but it also sends a subtle message to the user about the priority of the controls. If Amazon was indeed building a media-first device, then the media controls should have taken precedence -- and thus had better placement -- on the remote.
The most important key on the remote, though, is the search button. Amazon wants this to be the primary way you interact with the UI and indeed, the voice search here is both easy to use and insanely fast. Simply press and hold the microphone key, which is separated from the rest of the buttons, and speak into the mic built into the Bluetooth controller. More often than not within a second or two you've got your results, and there's no need to breakout a special remote app on your phone.
The Fire TV is, as you'd expect, running a heavily tweaked version of Fire OS, which is itself a heavily tweaked version of Android. It's not surprising then that there are some seams showing around the edges of this young platform. Still, Amazon does deserve credit for stitching together a UI that's smooth, polished and (mostly) intuitive. The layout should be immediately familiar to anyone who has used a Kindle Fire before -- the home screen is populated with movies, TV shows and apps arranged in the form of large, easy-to-read icons and there's a heavy dose of side-scrolling carousels. On the left are the various top-level distinctions (games, search, movies, et cetera), while the right is reserved for various sublists, such as "recently used" and "featured." It's not the cleanest or simplest design we've ever seen, (Apple or Roku definitely hold that title), but even your Luddite parents should be able to find their way around.
Once it's plugged in and connected, the Fire TV presents a short (and apparently unskippable) demo video to make sure you're familiar with its features. A number of other help videos are also located under the settings menus, and if there's still a problem, requesting a support phone call from an Amazon rep is just a button press away. It's not quite as easy as the Kindle Fire HDX's Mayday button, but it should mean you could gift one of these to a relative without worrying if they'd actually be able to use it. The focus here is on making sure anyone can get it running, and if they get addicted to Amazon's growing suite of services, then all the better.
The problems start, though, once you start to dig a little deeper into the interface. Fire TV sticks with the carousel layout found on Amazon's tablets. That's fine for perusing short lists, like the top 10 movies on Prime, but when you're looking at broader categories it can become quite cumbersome. Scrolling through the entire list of available action movies on Amazon can take a couple of minutes, even if you're just holding down the right button and not bothering to read. To make matters worse, there appears to be no rhyme or reason to the order of these lists. And when you reach the end, it doesn't automatically cycle back to the beginning.
The best way to track down the content you want is search. First the good: Amazon has created a voice search that's both fast and accurate. Now for the bad: You can't use your voice to search other content sources besides Amazon. It does offer "quick" links to videos on Hulu, but by default, it tries to push you to purchase or rent titles through Instant Video. To find out if you can watch it for free through your Hulu Plus subscription, you'll have to click through the "more ways to watch" option. If you try to press the voice search button from within the Netflix app, you're kicked back out to the home screen, where can only search through Amazon's library.
Things get even worse if you decide not to use voice search. For instance, if you navigate to the search tab on the left, you'll still have to click up to access text search since it defaults to voice. And, while Amazon was quick to mock others for their archaic text-entry methods, the Fire TV's keyboard is even more offensive. You're offered a string of letters from A to Z in that all-too-familiar carousel view, which you'll have to scroll through and punch letters in one at a time. And, again, you can't scroll past the end to return to "A." That means when searching for something like La Dolce Vita or La Jetée, you have to scroll from the first letter of the alphabet to the last option on the keyboard, which is a space. And you'll have to do that since voice search has a tendency to trip over foreign language titles, and especially the word "la."
The killer feature, though, is supposed to be ASAP, short for Advanced Stream And Prediction. The idea is that it's designed to predict what you're going to watch and start preloading it in the background (so long as the source is Amazon itself). If you hover over a title while browsing for a period of time or click through to the information page for a movie, ASAP is supposed to start downloading the content in the background. In demos, that meant when you pressed play, your video started playing instantly -- no buffering or loading screen. It's even supposed to preload the next episode of TV shows you're working through. In real use, however, the feature never quite lived up to its promise. It should get better with time, but we still saw loading screens more often than not. And the wait was noticeably longer over WiFi than it was using a wired Ethernet connection.
Apps and content
Right out of the gate, Amazon is offering support for most of the major video streaming services. We're talking Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Showtime Anytime, Watch ESPN and Crackle -- all the biggies are there. And when it comes to music, you've got access to Pandora and iHeartRadio. Of course, while Fire TV is technically an open platform, Amazon really wants you to use its library. And, so long as you're comfortable paying Amazon's prices, that's not a big deal. There are countless movies and TV shows available through Instant Videos. Stumping Amazon isn't impossible, but it's definitely tougher than finding holes in the Netflix, Hulu or Google Play collections. Of course, not all of the movies and TV shows on Amazon are available for free through a Prime subscription. In fact, the vast majority aren't, and there's no way to filter out the things you need to pay for. While Amazon is preloading the Fire TV with content you've purchased and photos you've uploaded to Cloud Drive, there is one glaring omission -- there's currently no support for music or Cloud Player.
It's definitely a good thing for Amazon and its customers that players like Hulu and Netflix are on board, but there are certainly some issues on the app front. For one, most of the offerings are badly done ports of Google TV apps. They're not well-maintained and still retain elements of their respective UIs that were designed for devices with keyboards. YouTube in particular still displays prompts for keyboard shortcuts on the screen. Pandora has a nice feature in that it pops up notifications, but it has a strange tendency to start playing even after being stopped. For instance, after listening to a Black Sabbath station during a session of the game Sev Zero, we decided to back out and watch an episode of Invader Zim. When the show was over, we spent a few minutes poking around the menus and then walked away. The Fire TV eventually went to sleep. But when we woke it up the next morning, it instantly picked back up in the middle of "The Wind Cries Mary." This weird behavior extends beyond the questionably built apps. More than once, the Fire TV froze up, displaying a blank screen before eventually crashing and kicking us back out to the home screen after backing out of a movie.
Fire TV's major one-up over the competition isn't power, voice search or the platform's openness: It's games. Apple TV, Roku and Chromecast don't offer much in the way of gaming functionality. Meanwhile, the Fire TV even has its own (separately sold, $40) gamepad. No, this isn't an Amazon game console, but it's damn close.
Before addressing Fire TV's limitations when it comes to gaming -- of which there are many -- allow us to be up-front here: It's a net positive that Amazon's jumping into gaming. Not only is the company's latest major hardware launch capable of playing games, but also Amazon's got its own game-development department. Hell, Amazon even outright bought the studio that made the new Killer Instinct game. The first game from Amazon Game Studios, Sev Zero, was available at Fire TV's launch last week. It's fun, pretty and embodies "leading by example." Sev Zero is a medium-sized game that's enjoyed as both a casual dalliance and a serious affair. It's the kind of title that Fire TV's game store should be filled with. What we've found thus far is something else entirely.
That Fire TV runs a fork of Android is most apparent while browsing the selection of games currently available. Regardless of Amazon's categorical breakdown, the selection is easily described as, "an abridged version of Android gaming's greatest hits." A smattering of Sonic the Hedgehog titles, Minecraft: Pocket Edition and -- of course -- Canabalt are all there, as well as newer hits like Dead Trigger 2 and Asphalt 8: Airborne. Of course, it's not just the selection that reeks of Android.
The other unifying theme is, ironically, inconsistency. Some games look great and fit on TV without a hitch, while others cut off some UI elements (and, ultimately, pieces of the game being played). It's clear that many titles are rushed conversions from other platforms, something that's evident whether it's the gamepad not doing anything beyond standing in for a touchscreen or the game not displaying correctly.
There are only so many games to choose from at launch, but Amazon Game Studios lead Mike Frazzini told us that "thousands" are expected by next month. With just 8GB of storage, though, don't expect to amass a huge library of digital games on Fire TV. With a handful of streaming apps installed (Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, etc.), we hit a limit of eight to 15 of Amazon's smallest and simplest games at any one time on our box. Stuff like Asphalt 8 and Dead Trigger 2 come with prettier graphics, but they also come with hefty storage requirements (over 1GB for the former). Installing Deus Ex: The Fall, Sev Zero and The Cave was easily enough to eat up the available 5.5GB for apps and games.
Smaller, fixable issues are also in ready supply. Browsing for games to buy is a mess (and only stands to get messier as the library grows); it's easy to accidentally quit out of a game with voice search; and there's no way to leave a game running should you take a break and watch a few episodes of Inside Amy Schumer.
Structure and ecosystem aside, the good news is that playing games on Fire TV can be pretty fantastic. Not every game has a demo, but many are free (at least for a limited trial). And, of course, there's always the standard paid option. If you're looking for exclusives, there's only one so far (Sev Zero), but many more are slated to arrive in the coming months.
So, which games should you buy? We suggest the following, and in this order:
Sev Zero: Part third-person shooter, part tower-defense game (yes, seriously), Sev Zero is a terrible sell on paper. Give this one a chance: It's a great demonstration of Amazon Game Studios' talent and is a refreshing, Iron Brigade-esque hybrid of two totally different genres. And hey, it's really fun! You can switch between tower defense and third-person mode on the fly, which makes Sev Zero a delightful balancing act as the difficulty ramps up.
Asphalt 8: Airborne: This is the closest you'll get to Ridge Racer/Need for Speed on Fire TV, and it comes shockingly close. Asphalt 8's first few levels cost nothing, and we doubt you'll blink an eye when asked to pay $1 for more races. It's not our favorite way of buying a game, but Asphalt 8 is too good to skip just on principle.
Outland: There's no reason not to at least try Outland, as it's another one that starts free and asks for money only when you've already been hooked. This is one of the many one-button games, and it's a gorgeously drawn version of the ubiquitous mobile genre that is endless runners. It controls beautifully, which is important because Outland requires reactionary puzzle solving (often under strict time constraints). This one is perfect for both casual and hardcore alike, as well as everyone in between.
Rayman Fiesta Run: If you've never encountered Ubisoft's surreal platforming standard before, Rayman Fiesta Run is an endless-runner take on Rayman's long-running formula. This game is another no-brainer, as it's quirky, smart, hilarious and a joy to play. The level art is consistently beautiful, and the music is always a pleasure.
Minecraft: Pocket Edition: What can we say about Minecraft that hasn't already been said? There's nothing quite like it (at least on Fire TV, outside of maybe Terraria). The only real downside is its price (just under $10), but we'll forgive that -- just for being an excellent game.
There are lots of other great games available on Fire TV, but we've only played so many thus far. Beware: There are also tons of not-so-great games available. Should you be unsure, we'd suggest sites like Pocket Gamer and Touch Arcade, as many of Fire TV's titles were previously mobile games.
Have you used an Xbox 360 gamepad? Good news: Fire TV's gamepad is very, very similar. With the exception of a trio of Android-specific controls and media-playback buttons (as well as a GameCircle button), its composition is identical: offset analog sticks, two triggers, two shoulder pads, a d-pad and four face buttons. The fit and feel aren't quite as nice as Microsoft's forebear; Fire TV's gamepad feels like a good third-party Xbox 360 controller, in so many words.
The battery life, courtesy of two AAs, has so far been good. After several days of regular use, our first controller is still running its first pair of batteries. At $40, though... maybe you have a spare Bluetooth gamepad sitting around? We're told that "most" work, and you could always plug in a wired Xbox 360 gamepad if you're sitting nearby.
Curiously, though it's one of the Fire TV's most direct competitors, Google TV is missing from Amazon's official comparison list (scroll a little past the halfway mark). While there are some good reasons for that (there's no single product line or spec, and the Google TV branding has been mostly abolished), Fire TV's Android underpinnings are nonetheless quite obvious. One of the easiest comparisons is to the Hisense Pulse/Pulse Pro family of devices. The Pulse Pro unveiled at CES has similar, if slightly lesser specs than Fire TV, with 1GB of RAM and 8GB of ROM storage tied to a dual-core CPU. Like other Android-based TV products we've seen, it also has voice search and a number of the same apps. The existing Google TV environment has tried to toss in so many options and integration with live TV that it's more complicated than the Fire TV, and so far, it doesn't have a similar focus on performance. According to rumors, though, Google TV's next iteration could feature similarly streamlined menus and a focus on gaming -- plus a box from big G itself, so watch out.
The Apple TV also costs $99, but comes tied to an entirely different ecosystem. Infuriatingly, too, it doesn't come with an HDMI cable in the box. The difference here mostly depends on which platform you prefer. Recent software updates have made frustrations like setting up a WiFi connection as simple as touching an iPhone or iPad to the box -- no cheesy onscreen menus needed. You can also stream over AirPlay, but you'll of course need an iDevice to make that happen. Amazon's set-top box also lets users "fling" content from a phone or tablet to the TV, but right now, its ambitions go a bit further. As with Google, rumor has it that Apple will focus more on gaming with its next hardware or software update, so for now, the choice between these boxes is more a decision between iTunes and Amazon Prime than anything else.
Meanwhile, one of our favorite media streamers, the $99 Roku 3, is facing a heartier challenge than ever thanks to the Fire TV. In its favor, the Roku is still dead-simple to use, and offers a content selection that its rivals can't match. Even so, being caught on the outside without its own content store and mobile hardware ecosystem for support, it loses some of the media-sync features that Amazon, Google and Apple can provide. It also doesn't have a gaming experience to match the Fire TV, although how much that means depends on your personal taste. Today, the improved performance of its latest generation and generous suite of available services mean it's still generally the best option, but there are caveats, and with another six to 12 months on shelves, it will be interesting to see if the competition catches up. Plus, if you don't want to spend $99, then the cheaper Roku options provide an experience comparable to the others listed here and let you leave a few Jacksons in your pocket.
Finally, Google's wonderful $35 Chromecast dongle is by far the most accessible of the bunch. It's cheap, and the list of media services it ties into -- Netflix, YouTube, Pandora and Plex -- is growing longer by the day. Aside from that, an often overlooked, feature is the Chromecast's inclusion of HDMI-CEC, which means it can change the TV to its own input as soon as it's activated, something Apple, Roku and Amazon don't do. Of course, being cheap does have its downsides: there's no remote control, which could be a dealbreaker for people who aren't already used to navigating their media on a phone or tablet. It also doesn't have as many services available right away, and the only gaming experiences we've seen so far have been quite casual indeed. For $35, it does a ton, and doesn't need your cable provider's permission to stream HBO Go. And for some people, that will be more than enough.
The Fire TV is a compelling proposition, so long as you're already locked into the Amazon ecosystem. It's fast, powerful and priced in line with its higher-end competition. The addition of a single game controller for $40 gives access to gaming that doesn't take the place of a console, but suits the need of generation raised on tablets and smartphones. The relatively high controller price (compared to the box itself) makes multiplayer a bit dodgy, so if you're looking for couch co-op, that's something to think about. The preferential inclusion of Amazon services is a bit of a hurdle too, but if you already have a Kindle Fire and Prime subscription, it makes more sense.
As a general-purpose photo, video and music streamer, though, even features like ASAP and its high-powered processor aren't quite enough to separate Fire TV from the pack. It's a worthy option, but far from the best, and we'll need some time to see how well it's supported by games, apps and services to see if Amazon can become a serious hardware player in the living room. Version 2.0 will probably be where all our questions are answered.
Ben Gilbert and Richard Lawler contributed to this review; Edgar Alvarez and Daniel Orren produced the video review.