In some ways, Amazon is a lot like Apple. It doesn't invent new ways to do things, but it takes already established ideas and polishes them to a shine. It did this with e-readers when it made the Kindle , it did this with Android tablets when it made the Kindle Fire, and now it's doing this with media hubs by making the Fire TV.
Amazon’s first foray into a field well-trodden by Roku and Apple is a success, with a highly curated, feature-rich Amazon experience built on a solid Android foundation. At $100 (£60), it offers Amazon’s extensive library of movies and TV shows, a solid selection of online apps and services, an admirable graphical backbone for gaming with an optional gamepad, and (at least potentially) plenty of Android flexibility for power users willing to dig around under the device's hood.
Of course, this review is of the US version of Fire TV, as that’s the only territory where you can get this box of streaming tricks right now – but it will hopefully make its way over to the UK before too long. If it’s pitched at £100, which is likely – being the same price as the Roku 3 and Apple TV – then it’ll edge out those devices, and for us it will become the one to pick if you’re after the best hundred pound streamer.
The Fire TV is the most understated media hub we've seen, save for USB-style sticks that simply disappear behind an HDTV when connected. The Fire TV is a black square 115mm long on the sides and just 18mm tall, about the size of a double-album CD case. It weighs a solid-feeling 270 grams, with no moving parts or buttons anywhere on its monolithic body. The top face of the Fire TV has a glossy black Amazon logo embossed into the matte black plastic, and the front bears a single LED to display its status.
The back of the Fire TV is home to power, HDMI, optical audio, Ethernet, and USB ports. Of those ports, you only need the HDMI and power connected. The optical audio port adds a nice bit of flexibility to your sound options, and the Ethernet port offers a wired Internet connection if you don't want to use the Fire TV's internal Wi-Fi. The Ethernet and USB ports present a great deal of potential for tinkering with the Fire TV's developer-open but user-closed interface, which I'll discuss later.
The included remote is a small matte black wand with a glossy black ring for a direction pad and Home, Back, Menu, Play/Pause, Rewind, Forward, and Voice Search buttons. A microphone hole sits just above the Voice Search button for using the Voice Search feature with the Fire TV. The remote looks attractive, but its matte finish and glossy buttons are fingerprint magnets, and will pick up the slightest bit of moisture from your fingertips. The Fire TV also supports smartphone and tablet control with iOS and Android apps, as well as Amazon's optional ($39.99 or £24) Bluetooth Fire Game Controller gamepad.
The heart of an Android device beats in the square chest of the Fire TV. Like the Kindle Fire tablets, the Fire TV uses a heavily modified version of Android built around Amazon's content and services. It all runs on a quad-core 1.7GHz Qualcomm Krait 300 CPU (on a Snapdragon 8024 SOC), with a Qualcomm Adreno 320 GPU and 2GB of RAM. It has 8GB of built-in storage, of which about 5.5GB is available for users to download their favourite apps; the Fire TV is primarily a media streaming device, so on-board storage isn't as significant a factor as on a smartphone or tablet. Its Wi-Fi radio is dual-band and dual-antenna (MIMO) and supports 802.11b/a/g/n. It only outputs video through HDMI, but it supports both 720p and 1080p streaming at 60 fps, and can pump out 5.1-channel Dolby surround audio separately over its optical port.
The Fire TV's interface looks like a cross between the Kindle Fire Android shell and Roku's menu system. The home screen holds a list of content and mostly self-explanatory options: Search, Movies, TV, Watchlist (your viewing queue for both TV and movies), Video Library (all video purchased through Amazon Instant Video), Games, Apps, Photos, and Settings. Movies, TV shows, apps, and services all sit organised in neat, friendly tiles under each category.
There's an obvious emphasis on Amazon's own streaming media library through Amazon Instant Video, and most movie and TV suggestions on the Fire TV will reflect that. In the US, Amazon plans to incorporate content from Hulu Plus and other services in the future, but at the time of testing only Amazon's on-demand content appeared when searching.
Speaking of searching, the Fire TV's Voice Search feature is surprisingly accurate and responsive. It's limited to searching media based on certain categories, like titles, actor names, genres, and broad subjects. Broad subjects get much more iffy results than firm titles, but the voice recognition for search terms worked well across the board.
I quickly looked up movies starring Gary Busey and Jake Busey separately, checked the availability of Hudson Hawk and Hackers, and searched for "conspiracy movies" and "conspiracy shows." The search for conspiracy movies turned up several films with the word "conspiracy" in the title, but the search for conspiracy shows displayed the cartoon Garfield and Friends as the first suggestion. No voice command or voice search feature seen in home entertainment has been perfect so far, but the Fire TV's Voice Search function is useful enough for bringing up movies, shows, and actors on a lark without any hassle.
Loading movies feels very snappy through the US Amazon Instant Video service. It took me just ten seconds to search for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Fringe with voice search, and while the latter wasn't available on Amazon Prime (but it was available for purchase as on-demand video), I jumped to a DS9 episode and an episode of the US version of Being Human incredibly quickly, in both cases waiting just four seconds between selecting an episode and watching it play over our lab Wi-Fi. That's very impressive performance.
Like all streaming media hubs, video quality on the Fire TV is dependent on your network connection. Test videos looked crisp, but network congestion and slow speeds can make any movie or show appear fuzzy or artifact-filled as the device adjusts to suit the available bandwidth.
Since it's fundamentally an Android device, the Fire TV has a lot of potential underneath the surface. However, all of it is buried deep inside Amazon's menu system, so don't expect to load your own apps without some legwork first. Out of the box, the Fire TV is limited to curated lists of apps and services through Amazon, which in the US includes Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Crackle, Pandora, and dozens of others. It's not nearly as comprehensive a list as the hundreds of content channels on Roku, but it's certainly more selection than you get with Apple TV.
Gaming and hacking
The Fire TV can play Android games, available through a similarly curated selection as its apps and streaming media services. It's a much more robust selection than the games you can play on the Roku 3 with motion controls, and while Angry Birds isn't anywhere to be found, games like Minecraft, Asphalt 8, and Crazy Taxi help fill in the fowl projectile void. Many games can be played on the Fire TV remote, but for the best experience the optional Fire Game Controller is your best bet. It's a Bluetooth gamepad configured like the Xbox 360 controller, and adds dual analogue controls to Fire TV games.
The hackable side of the Fire TV is well-hidden, but a single option under Developer Options in the Settings menu offers a ray of hope. You can enable ADB debugging on the Fire TV, which combined with the Ethernet and USB ports opens the device up to sideloading apps not offered through Amazon's store. It's a potentially dangerous process that could damage the unit, and only experienced Android users should poke around the Fire TV this way, but the option is there.
Because loading any software on the Fire TV outside of Amazon's auspices is such an esoteric procedure, we have decided not to benchmark its performance as an Android device; while it can play games, it is much more comparable to the Roku 3 and Apple TV than a tablet or smartphone. Informally, the Fire TV performed admirably in Gameloft's Riptide GP2 and Amazon Games Studios' own Sev Zero. Asphalt 8 looked slightly choppy, but the other games seemed smooth and crisp on an HDTV. You obviously won't get the same level of graphics you'll find on a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, but for a $100 (£60) media hub the Fire TV offers a surprisingly solid gaming experience. It certainly stands favourably against the Ouya, especially if you purchase the optional gamepad.
Amazon's approach to Android is overly curated, and a lot of its power will remain untapped for most users, but for a $100 (£60) media hub the Fire TV stands out. It has more features than the Apple TV and more raw power and potential than the Roku 3, making it the best new media streaming device in our eyes.
If you just want a simple online service solution for your HDTV, the Roku Streaming Stick is a much more affordable choice at £50 (Fire TV is likely to retail at £100 or so in the UK, as we've previously mentioned). But if you want streaming media, apps, games, and the possibility of Android tinkering and modding, the Fire TV is definitely the way to go – if you can wait for it to land in the UK, that is.
Manufacturer and Model
Amazon Fire TV