Review: Amazon’s Fire TV sets a new bar for streaming boxes

AmazonFireTV-FireStandingDoes the world really need another streaming box? The answer is a resounding YES!

Having just purchased the Amazon Fire TV and having tried many other streaming devices — including the Roku, Wii, XBOX, Apple TV, Chromecast, TiVo, Slingbox, Belkin TV, and smart TVs — I can say that the Fire TV is a must have for any value-oriented TV watcher.

To understand why, it’s first important to remember what the Fire TV and other streaming devices are competing against.

The simplicity of watching TV is has helped to make it a habit in most homes — turn on the TV and video begins playing right away. No need to change inputs, no need to wait for the TV to load (usually) and generally no network latency issues. Occasionally, you have to suffer through a grid to find something to watch, or channel surf using your remote control, but it has been brain-dead simple for many years.

DVR usage has also become more prevalent, and when there is nothing to watch on TV, it’ll just take a few more taps on your remote to start watching your DVR. If there is nothing to watch there, you’ll spend a few more taps yet again to tap into Video on Demand offered by your cable provider. Therein lies the opportunity and challenge — while it’s easy to just turn on something to watch on live TV, it takes a few more brain cells to and some patience to find something to watch on DVR and VOD.

amazon fire tv screen shotEach second (or partial second) waiting for streams to load significantly reduces the consumer’s desire to stream content to their TVs, even if it’s free.

We’re creatures of habit. We’re at home at 8 p.m. wanting to watch a compelling TV show and the extra time it takes to change inputs, wait for the box to turn on, find the show, and then wait for the video stream to see it on TV is frankly too much work for most TV watchers.

This is one of the ways that Amazon’s foray into the streaming box market has nailed it for the consumer. Amazon has made streaming significantly easier with an ultrafast box, plus voice search on your remote control.

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.

IMG_8053Using 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.

For Amazon Instant Prime subscribers, this was far and away the best way to stream Amazon content to the TV. Unfortunately, the other streaming boxes that stream Amazon Prime require just a few more steps than I’d like to see. I have to find the app, launch it, then wait for the app to load and then select my content and then wait again to start playing.

Fire TV is “instant on” to the Amazon Prime Instant Video catalog and with a short voice search, you’re watching content immediately.

There are quite a few things that are lacking, but given Amazon’s reputation and business model, I expect that the box will be future-proof for a while with additional software updates. One of the biggest areas where I believe Amazon will innovate is Universal Search. The current search mechanism only searches across Amazon’s library. So, if you search for “Orange is the New Black” you’ll get a bunch of non-sensical titles.

IMG_8038I believe that Amazon will extend this to be a truly universal video search, similar to how their e-commerce website treats third-party sellers. If you want to purchase an item on the internet, Amazon’s goal is to get you to always start with Amazon first. If you choose to purchase from a third party, that’s fine as long as you started with them first. This also happens with product reviews: Users may search Amazon first and then choose to buy elsewhere.

By ensuring universal search across all video sources, Amazon will create more utility for users and build the trust necessary to always start with Amazon first. I expect that they will do this soon.

The second area for improvement is in apps. Most people don’t know what they want to watch when they sit down to watch TV — the challenge then is that consumers will have to navigate Amazon’s menu using up/down/left/right on the remote to find something to watch or find another video app to open and attempt to find something then.

Amazon has launched a companion application on the Kindle Fire, but there is no support for iOS, Android, or Windows yet. The smartphone or tablet is one of the best ways to find content because you can use gestures and navigate quickly while the TV may be tuned to another program. I expect that Amazon will expose their catalog and all the 3rd party catalogs in a companion experience on multiple platforms to make it easier for people to find, discover, and launch programs on the Fire TV.

Amazon will turn smartphones and tablets into a software based remote that will allow for voice search, driving users to consume content on the Fire TV. It wouldn’t surprise me if later users could use the soft remote to launch pay TV programming as well. This would deliver a “wow “experience for consumers.

Andy Liu

Andy Liu

The video ecosystem is very confusing for consumers — programming windows, TV Everywhere, On Demand, Streaming, DIAL, Smart TVs, etc. Fire TV is reducing a lot of complexity by making one catalog very user friendly and fast. It’s worth buying just for that reason.

However, the future is even brighter for Fire TV as the hardware is designed for next-generation TV experiences (and perhaps to a greater extent, gaming experiences) that will change the way we interact with and consume TV in the future, for the better.

Andy Liu is a Seattle angel investor, entrepreneur and the CEO of BuddyTV.  Read his blog, Inspired Startup, here and follow him on Twitter @aceliu

  • http://www.extendedresults.com/ Patrick Husting

    I bought it right away and found it excellent. Fast and super easy to use. I’m a happy customer of Amazon. Excellent job!

  • Bill Baxter

    Fire TV is cool. I wish it had a way to search across sources other than Amazon Instant. Every once in a while Netflix has something good and I’m already ponying up the $8/month.

  • Andrew

    It appears Amazon has done a good job addressing the hardware issues of connected TV. This is definitely the way of the future for me.

    But what I think will be more interesting is whether they can solve the content discovery problem. Fire TV and similar platforms like Apple TV are always going to be driven by self-interest somehow, balancing content that supports their business against desirable content from competitors.

  • Mike

    I might need to get this for my parents for Christmas. Dad loves Amazon to no end. He praises them every year around Christmas since he does not have to deal with people while shopping. “I can sit in my leather chair and buy everything and I don’t have to drive anywhere or talk to anyone”. I’m sure the Fire TV will be more impressive than the Roku box I got them a few years ago. They love that, but it sounds like this is even easier to use.

    I might need to get myself one…and my sister, an in-laws. I guess my Christmas gift list is going to be a bunch of Fire TV’s.

    • Andrew

      Mike, right now all you’re doing by getting a Fire TV is a way to buy more stuff from Amazon. Same goes for Apple TV and Chromecast users. While these platforms are getting better hardware-wise, they all have a key weakness which is self-interest.

      The winner of this streaming box game is going to be the company that decides to make seamless discovery across any video source.

  • Nick Davies

    Say it! Watch it! With your Amazon Fire TV! Get it here now! http://amzn.to/PluT0R

  • Robert Jackson

    Andy, this was a great review and you summed it up well. I own Chromecast, Apple TV, and Roku boxes. I own them all because they all do things well differently and I am an admitted “black box” addict who loves new tech toys. I just got the Fire TV on Monday and love it. For the first time I see wanting to use just one box for all things versus the different ones depending on the experience I want. Once they get universal search, which would be awesome to also include YouTube results along with Netflix, this will be the ultimate streaming box for me hands down. A few more apps would be nice as well like HBO GO and Vudu but I am sure they are coming.

    I did notice this morning that the “casting” icon on my YouTube Galaxy S4 app now includes the Fire TV as a device that can be cast to. This is one of the big benefits of Chromecast with the best YouTube experience of all my boxes. I am sure there will be more casting options coming on other apps but cool to see this feature after just one week from the release. I have not tested it out yet but looks like another big plus toward making this box an all inclusive experience.

  • Jeff

    Impressive product and voice recognition. I too will be interested to see how they tackle universal search and creating a more seamless experience for finding content.

  • Landon

    Fire TV has always been great. Hopefully those changes happen soon to make users’ experiences even better.

  • BH

    “I believe that Amazon will extend this to be a truly universal video search, similar to how their e-commerce website treats third-party sellers”

    Their website’s Instant Video catalog still doesn’t tell you when something is available through Netflix or Hulu. A slick cross-catalog search will really set Fire TV above other streaming boxes, if Amazon decides to implement it. For now it just seems like Other Apple TV.

  • http://www.thestreamingadvisor.com/ The Streaming Advisor

    I don’t think Amazon is going to extend their voice search to include Netflix.

    • William Talbert

      Wrong on that they have already confirmed voice search will be made available to Netflix soon and I’m pretty sure hulu+ will be added also.

      • http://www.thestreamingadvisor.com/ The Streaming Advisor

        William are you really jumping on me bc of an opinion from over a month ago. Did it occur to you Sir, that maybe Amazon had not made an announcement yet when I stated the opinion? But since you are obviously more informed than I am please let me know something. Why has the company yet to expand the search? Do you think this foot dragging is an attempt to coerce people into just signing up for Prime? Do you think Amazon wants people to use third-party Apps instead of their own? Oh, is Amazon in competition with Netflix? Be careful how you answer because somebody might show up in August to prove you “wrong”.

        Lets have disusion Sir, not disrespect.

        • William Talbert

          Seriously lol perhaps you should learn to control your emotions better my comment was a simple reply to yours show me where I’m being disrespectful anywhere in my comment Sir, you obviously need to grow up some and actually read what I wrote, if you can’t handle that then perhaps you shouldn’t post on sites like this.

          • http://www.thestreamingadvisor.com/ The Streaming Advisor

            William. It is not a matter of handling things . I only commented on what you said because now and then I get tired of what passes for discussion on the Internet. You think you were not being disrespectful. I believe you believe that. But the thing is that these discussion threads can be useful and educational but they often break down into eyerollingingly (not a real word) stupid bickering contests that waste the time of everyone trying to learn anything useful. This ironically may well be such an instance. I accept that you were not trying to be insulting but you could have actually advanced the discussion by pointing out that since my comment the facts had changed without saying “Wrong”. The Internet is a communication medium that can change the fate of whole countries but it usually ends up being used to see who can out insult the other. It sounds ridiculously trite but I think if someone can not say something helpful they should not bother to say it. Sorry about that Sermon done :)

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  • Peter

    Amazon Fire TV has more apps available than Roku and Apple
    TV, but still very limited. They will release more soon, but still can’t
    compare with Google Play Store which has much bigger selection of apps. Sungale
    Smart TV Box is the one running latest android OS and allows users to download
    almost any apps from Google Play Store on your TV. Smart TV Box offers much
    more features and benefits to users than a simple streaming box. Here is the
    link to see how Smart TV Box compare with Roku, Apple TV , Google Chromcast and
    Amazon’s Fire TV Box: http://cloudtvbox.com/en/index.php

  • steve

    People complain because it doesnt do every single thing they want it to do– perhaps they are overlooking that it is a 1st gen advanced streaming AND videogame powerhouse. It has a lot of potential, it just needs to take the time to tap into it… I just picked one up, searched around and found the best deal here: http://www.freshlineup.com/forhim/amazon-fire-tv

  • jamesdurum

    https://unlocator.com already has the Amazon Fire TV unblocked. All the streaming services like Netlfix, Hulu and Amazon Instant work from outside the US.

  • Scott

    What benefits does this have over Samsung’s integrated Smart TV interface? Does it offer anything extra for $99?

  • Nick Davies

    Say it! Watch it! With your Amazon Fire TV! Get it here now!!! http://amzn.to/PluT0R

  • http://www.kinhluan.com Nguyen kinh luan

    I really like the Fire TV box so far. The voice search thing is pretty good, but I just wish it had the ability to surf the internet. First is Apple TV which is easy to use (interface) but Apple limits the content you can get greatly (including no Prime Streaming built in) and it lacks a lot in features as well and is slow.

  • William Talbert

    Just got mine today and I love it, its a little beast of a streaming box worth every penny.

  • Brad Bailey

    Have you tried the WD TV Live? If you have a lot of local content (family movies for example, or older DVD’s you’ve moved to your computer hard drive so you can toss the boxes) the WD TV series is the only series I’ve seen that does local network content well. I noted that line’s absence in your comparisons in the opening article. Does the Fire do local content? Even off of a USB drive?