Amazon has been stepping up its VOD game for some time now. First came the acquisition of LOVEFiLM, then the launch of Amazon Prime Instant Video (its rebranded subscription service) and the introduction of Amazon Instant Video (a pay-per-view service).
Now, it’s created Amazon Fire TV, a streaming media device that takes its video platform directly into your living room – and puts the company in direct competition with Roku, Chromecast and Apple TV.
But can Amazon compete with the big set top box boys? We put the gizmo through its paces. Here’s our Amazon Fire TV review:
At £79.99, Amazon Fire TV is as expensive as Apple TV – aka. the highest price you can pay for a standalone streaming device. Compared to the Roku Streaming Stick and Google Chromecast (£50 and £30 respectively), it’s not an attractive sum, but a peak under the hood reveals that there’s a big bang for your buck. Why? Because Amazon also wants you to use this as a gaming device, which has the potential to set it apart from the competition.
Amazon Fire TV is wider than its rivals – most of which are now bringing out thumb-sized sticks (that now includes Amazon too) – but its slim height and shiny black casing make for a barely noticeable addition to your home entertainment set-up.
The remote is equally pleasing on the eye and the hand, with an iPod-like wheel to provide your four directional arrows and buttons, all of which click smoothly. You also don’t need to point the remote at the box, making it extremely easy to operate. The voice search button, located at the top, is quick to access without being accidentally pressed. (More on the voice search itself later.)
The game controller (see below) is like an Xbox knock-off, but it’s not unpleasant to hold and includes an array of play/pause buttons to control video playback and navigate menus without having to reach for your other remote.
Inside the slim case is a Qualcomm Krait 300 quad-core processor (1.7 GHz), 2 GB of RAM and a dedicated GPU. The gaming function we mentioned? That’s what powers it.
Installation is as easy as the best streaming media boxes. You’ll need an HDMI cable – it’s a shame that’s not included – but once that’s in and your plug’s turned on, it’s already registered on the device ready for you to use (using the Amazon account you bought it with). There may be an update or two, but you’re pretty much good to go from the off. Unless, of course, you don’t have an Amazon account. In which case you’ll need to sign up – which is precisely the point of Amazon Fire TV.
Content / Channels / Apps
Amazon Fire TV is, like of Amazon’s devices, based on Android OS, which means that you theoretically get most of the same apps and channels as other Android devices. That means you have YouTube, Vimeo, Spotify, BBC iPlayer and Demand 5. Crucially, you also have Netflix, which gives Fire TV an automatic leg up over many of its rivals: where a NOW TV Box and Apple TV both restrict you to their branded services, Amazon is more open, which makes this is a genuinely useful gizmo.
The major apps work in the way you’d expect – i.e. very smoothly, with excellent picture quality – with a nice big screen skin for YouTube and a typically easy-to-browse iPlayer and Demand 5. While even Plex makes a welcome appearance, though, the emphasis is inevitably on Amazon’s platform.
Prime Instant Video is front and centre, with its ever-expanding catalogue of TV and movies, but the interface is designed to lead you towards Amazon Instant Video, its pay-per-view shop. iTunes, Sky Store and blinkbox are not present – although the lack of iTunes is an Apple-dictated absence, so it’s not out of the realms of possibility that the others could arrive one day. Amazon Instant Video, though, does its job well and has the same pay-per-view as both rivals.
This is where Amazon Fire TV suffers. As well as no blinkbox, iTunes or Sky Store (the functions of which are easily replaced by Amazon Instant Video), there are several significant omissions. There is no NOW TV, which – for those who choose to consume Sky without a contract – is a major blow, but even worse is the lack of ITV Player and 4oD, which limits the amount of free, terrestrial television viewers can catch up with. There is no doubt that these two will be added in the future, but it is a question of how soon: if you are buying this for Christmas, a guaranteed way to access Channel 4 and ITV could be a deal-breaker.
This is where Amazon Fire TV hopes to make its biggest mark. There is a moderate range of games that have been clearly ported from Android devices and scaled up for the platform – which, in itself, is no bad thing, depending on the title itself. For things such as Solitaire and Sonic the Hedgehog, it’s a nice fit, although there are bound to buggy ports out there, so be careful.
There are others that require a bit more processing power. The Walking Dead game, the “first episode” of which is available for free, is superb, the stylised visuals from Telltale as at home on a big screen as they are on a little. The gameplay is tense, the point and click nature makes it easy to control and, if you want to continue, you pay in-app for the next instalment. (There’s more than enough on-board memory to download it.)
Asphalt 8, though, highlights one other problem: the racing itself is fun, while the Wii-like graphics are solid, but its reliance upon in-app purchases throughout is an obstacle to full enjoyment – a reminder of what happens when you take a game designed for mobile device play and bring it into a console-like environment. Sometimes, it just doesn’t fit.
Which is presumably why Amazon has bought up its own gaming studio to develop original Fire TV titles.
Step in Sev Zero, an alien shooter/tower defence game, where you strategically place turrets around a power core and then beam down to the ground to shoot critters in the head. The graphics are, once again, of average Wii quality – not enough to challenge a PS4, but for a cheap games console equivalent, perfectly fine. One tip: Turn up the difficulty. What starts out as easy and pedestrian soon evolves into a surprisingly exciting and challenging sci-fi title, which has just enough variation in its strategy to keep your hand on the trigger. It’s not the “innovative” ground-breaker Amazon promised and it’s far from game of the year, but for £4.99, it’s decent value.
Sev Zero, though, requires a “compatible” game controller to operate. If you have a Bluetooth gaming controller, this should (according to Amazon – we haven’t tested it) work without problems. If you want a Fire TV Game Controller, that costs another £34.99, although you get Sev Zero for free.
Here’s where Fire TV really stands out. While Roku’s basic tile menu works and Apple TV looks dark and sleek, Fire TV’s interface is superb. The menus (a sidebar that offers a rotating carousel of scrollable items) flow quickly with no stutters, while the responsive buttons on the remote are painless to use. It feels natural and fast – exactly the way it should.
The voice search is Fire TV’s USP and it does not disappoint. For years, “voice search” has been a scary harbinger of doom, but, miracle of miracles, Amazon Fire TV’s voice search actually works. Mostly. There are occasional mistakes, especially when you whisper, but no matter what silly voice you put on, it hits the mark 90% of the time – and, most importantly, when it isn’t sure, it presents several options on-screen to choose between, just in case.
As well as search by title, you can search by actor and even, it seems, plot elements: we searched for “Martin Sheen President”, for example, and were immediately presented with The West Wing. If Voice Search Bingo is more fun than some of the games on this gaming device, it’s nothing to be ashamed of: the sheer novelty of a working voice search is a joy.
There is, of course, a catch: the results are only catered to Amazon’s own content. Games, apps, yes. Titles to rent or watch on Prime, yes. Voice search something for Netflix, though, and you won’t get it. “House of Cards” brings up the pay-per-view option from Amazon Instant Video. In time, we hope that will change, as developers open up APIs to Amazon’s team, but Amazon will likely always present its options first: the device is designed to encourage the purchasing of its content. It is, above all, a retailer.
Search results can be blurred, as a result, too, with Prime Instant Video and Instant Video titles displayed next to each other. It’s sneaky, especially with Amazon’s one-click purchase system automatically set up – although there is a way around it.
Tip: To avoid paying for something accidentally, go to settings and add a four-digit pin to protect purchases: even if you click on an Amazon Instant Video title to rent it, you will be forced to enter the number before being charged. (Parental pins are available to stop children watching certain content too.)
Because it plugs into an HDMI port, you will need an HD TV. Otherwise, Fire TV is compatible with all TV models – and supports up to 1080p displays.
A voice search that works! For that alone, Fire TV is a fantastic addition to your living room – especially given that it also includes Netflix and BBC iPlayer. For a way to rent things, play things and stream things from rivals too, this justifies its higher price tag, especially when compared to the highly restrictive Apple TV, which comes at the same cost.
Amazon Prime Instant Video’s content is also becoming increasingly impressive and, with it absent from some other streaming devices, this is a handy way to get titles such as Under the Skin and the new Constantine series.
The cons? 4oD, ITV Player and NOW TV are sad omissions, but expect them to be added in the near future – ITV Player was recently added to Amazon Fire tablets.
Otherwise, it depends on how comfortable you are with Amazon encouraging you to buy things from it.
Fire TV is a smooth, fast streaming media device. It is also a highly efficient storefront. But as far as storefronts go, it’s sexy stuff.