What is the Amazon Fire TV?
The Amazon Fire TV is the latest bit of kit from Amazon, but this time the online retail giant is trying its hand at a media streaming box. It comes in the form of a small black box that aims to take on the likes of Apple TV, Chromecast, Roku and even the forthcoming Google Nexus Player.
Fire TV is out now in the UK and costs just £79, which is cheaper than some of the alternatives. Plus, it has some additional features like Android gaming on the big screen and a dedicated game pad to play with. It’s trying to do something a little different to the current pack (aside from the upcoming Nexus Player), with a focus on voice search and gaming. But, because it’s an Amazon product there are some downsides to the UI that are sometimes equivalent to a closed garden system.
Amazon Fire TV: Design and Hardware
Amazon has really focused on ensuring the Fire TV design is minimalistic and won’t detract from your TV set up one bit. And the company has done well. The Fire TV is a slimline black box that isn’t much bigger than a CD case and is only 17.5mm thick.
The top is made from matte black plastic, with a gloss plastic Amazon logo, with the box finished off by a gloss black plastic trim around the squared edges. It’s very sleek and practically disappears on a dark wooden TV stand.
You won’t see it all lit up like a Christmas tree with LED lights, either. It only has a single blue LED on the front panel to show you that it is turned on and is receiving data from the remote or the optional game controller.
You could make it disappear even further, as Bluetooth connectivity for both remote and controller mean you could tuck the Fire TV away in a drawer or behind the TV – although it’s so small you won’t mind keeping it on display.
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Around the back of the Fire TV, you have an HDMI, optical audio, Ethernet and A/C power ports. Optical audio is a great addition, as you may want to connect it to your speaker system, and it’s something missing from some other streaming set-top boxes, including the Now TV and Nexus Player.
There’s also a USB port. Now you’d think that would allow you to play or store content on an external hard drive, but apparently there is no current support for any accessories via USB. Therefore this port is currently redundant, although we’d hazard a guess that there will be a software update at some point to give it a use. The Fire TV’s 8GB of internal storage won’t last that long if you’re an avid gamer.
There is one problem with a lack of buttons, and that for the Fire TV is an ability to actually turn it off entirely. It’ll go into standby mode after a rather impressive picture-based screensaver, but the Fire TV will come back to life again and load any previously running content at the push of a remote or controller button. That may not be an issue for some, but for those who like to know a device isn’t on standby will have to switch it off at the plug.
Under the hood, Amazon has kitted out the Fire TV with a quad-core 1.7GHz Qualcomm Krait 300 CPU with 2GB of RAM and an Adreno 320 GPU.
That power certainly shows, as you’ll be whizzing through the interface, watching video content and running games in full 1080p HD on a big screen with no lag or framerate issues for any content.
In the box, you get the remote, Fire TV box, a pair of AA batteries and the power cable, just to highlight how simple it is to set up. If you want to turn the Fire TV into a mini Android games console, you’ll need to buy the additional Fire TV controller, which will only set you back an extra £34.99 — considerably cheaper than some of the alternative Bluetooth controllers.
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Amazon Fire TV: Set-up
To start the set-up process all you’ll need to do is plug in the power cable and connect an HDMI between your TV and your new Fire TV box. You could connect an Ethernet cable too if you want, but the Fire TV is also equipped with dual-band, dual-antenna MIMO Wi-Fi – the same as found in the Amazon Fire HDX tablet range.
The Fire TV then guides you through a few quick steps to set up your Fire TV. When you order your Fire TV, Amazon will pre-link your account with your set-top box, but you’ll still have to watch a rather cheesy and inescapable tutorial video before you can scour through your content.
If you’ve bought any music or video content from Amazon, it’ll be immediately available to play using your Fire TV thanks to the Amazon Cloud. Of course, if you are an Amazon Prime Instant Video member, you’ll have tonnes of video content at your fingertips anyway.
Amazon Fire TV: Remote
With the Amazon Fire TV you’ll get a special remote pre-packaged with the box. Like the Roku boxes or Sky’s Now TV box, the remote is dinky and very light, even with the batteries inserted.
It’s as sleek as the Fire TV box itself and is made from a soft touch black plastic, making it feel extremely nice to hold. However, it does show up fingerprints and dirty marks very clearly, which could be problematic for families with children, or those who like to watch content with meals.
The Fire TV remote has an array of seven buttons: three media control buttons, back, home and options buttons, and its unique microphone button. There’s also a select button surrounded by a glossy plastic ring that functions as the directional pad.
It’s the microphone button that is really the star attraction of the Fire TV remote. Hold down the button and speak into the top of the remote and you can use voice commands to find any content on the Fire TV.
You can search for individual apps, games, TV shows or videos, or search for your favourite actor to bring up everything they’ve been in that can be viewed on Amazon Instant Prime Video.
That’s where the walled garden issue comes in, though. Unlike the Roku’s search functionality, you can’t search for content across both Amazon Prime Instant Video and third-party services like Netflix, Hulu or even Plex.
The voice search does work really well though, with the Fire TV very receptive to any searches, even if you do something more specific like “free games” or “movies with Jennifer Lawrence”. Although it can’t cope with commands like “games under £1.99″ for example.
Amazon Fire TV: Software
Voice commands aside, the software is the most important part of the Amazon Fire TV. On the home screen, you will find a selection of categories down the left hand side, including Search, Home, Prime Video, Movies, TV, Watchlist, Video Library, Games, Apps and so on.
On the right hand side, there’s a selection of content tiles that highlight the recently added titles, or most popular content in each section. In the Home section, you’ll find plenty of curated content, with sections for recently accessed content, recommended apps and games, content recently added to Prime Instant Video, featured apps and games, featured movies and TV and other useful categories.
But it’s the way that Amazon has laid out its image-led UI that makes it really unique. If you tap into any of the categories further you’re presented with a single row of content with large images. With TV and movie content, there’s an option to add each to your watchlist, its Amazon and IMDB rating and a quick synopsis of that content. Its very clearly presented and makes it easy to make a decision as to whether you’d want to watch or play.
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For any content you’ve previously been watching, you don’t have to navigate to the specific episode or series. Hitting the content’s icon will take you straight to the last episode you were watching so you can pick up where you left off – something not found on any other version of Amazon Prime Instant Video we’ve seen.
It’s great to have that instant access to all the Amazon content and it loads much faster than content on other streaming boxes. That’s partly down to Amazon’s ASAP feature, which pre-caches video content based on your watching habits. It means you can start watching the next episode or your favourite series with zero load time.
However, the same can’t be said for third-party apps, which don’t perform as well comparatively and you won’t see speeds much faster than that of the Apple TV or your Xbox One or PS4 for example.
What we don’t like about the Fire TV interface is Amazon’s decision not to include pricing as part of individual category lists. Instead, you have to navigate to an individual item to be presented with the pricing details. It’s not a problem for Prime Instant Video content, which is clearly marked, but is an issue when browsing through game libraries or movie rentals.
When the Fire TV was launched it had a handful of helpful apps, but in the days since its launch those app figures have tripled. You’ll find the old favourites like Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Demand5, but you’ll get some great added bonuses like Plex and Spotify, which will appeal to the music fans who don’t buy their music from Amazon’s own stores.
Of course, there’s no access to iOS apps (obviously) or Google Play, just like with other Amazon Fire devices, meaning you may have to wait for other big name apps to make the transition over to Amazon Fire TV.