It's mostly the unadvertised features that sets Amazon's Fire TV apart. And the games!
What is the Fire TV?This is the online behemoth’s latest consumer electronics product, following on from the success of the Kindle eReaders and Fire tablets. In essence, it’s a media streaming Smart TV box which connects to the internet to access video and music services and then allows you to enjoy them on your HD TV and/or sound system. As of the date of publishing (November 2014), the Fire TV is available for £79.99; we don’t need to tell you where from, although other retailers also stock it.
Is it only for Prime Customers?
No, you don’t have to be part of Amazon’s annual subscription service to use a Fire TV but you do need at least a standard Amazon account as they come pre-registered to it when shipped. We will say, that if you’re not a Prime Video customer and you aren’t planning on becoming one, then you probably aren’t going to enjoy the experience as much as those that are. More on that later.
DesignThere’s a really nice weight and feel to the unit, despite the fact it’s essentially just a plastic box. The surfaces are smoothed and a mixture of shiny black, around the edges, and a deep matte charcoal on the top, on which is situated an embossed Amazon logo; just in case you forget where it comes from. It has a slightly larger footprint to rivals such as the Roku 3 but then it is a bit flatter and hardly large.
Quite attractive. For a box.
Fire TV Specs & ConnectionsThe unit in fact takes the tape at just 115x115x17.5mm (HxWxD) and weighs in at 281 grammes, so you won’t need to make any special provisions for its arrival, in terms of having to make space. At the back is a connections panel with HDMI and Optical Audio (Toslink) outputs; the Fire TV is certified for Dolby Digital Plus up to 5.1 channels and Dolby Digital pass-through up to 7.1. There’s a LAN port for a wired internet connection but there is also dual-band, and dual-antenna Wi-Fi capability built-in.
There’s also a USB 2.0 port which Amazon informed us, ‘they may choose to enable in future for accessories,’ which we found slightly curious given the fact there are numerous USB peripherals – including keyboards, mice and games controllers - that will already work with it now.
What we would really like, is for Amazon to enable it for the use of USB storage devices, as the inbuilt 8GB (around 5.9Gb usable) capacity will soon get eaten up, when you consider some games can take over 1GB. It would probably have been preferable for Amazon to have gone with USB 3.0, given its far quicker data transfer rates, but hopefully Amazon can find a way of making it work. Any Amazon bought content is stored in the ‘cloud’ for free, so if you do need to start making space, at least you have the assurance you can re-download content.
The Fire TV is powered by a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor supplemented by 2GB of RAM. There’s also a dedicated graphics processor, the Qualcomm Adreno 320, as seen in some high-end smartphones and mid-range tablets, which is promising from the gaming perspective. Additionally, there’s Bluetooth Version 4 compatibility, which is for communication with the remote and games controllers and not audio devices, such as headphones, as it doesn’t have the appropriate profile.
Remote ControlThe sleek handset mirrors the aesthetics of the Fire TV box and bares a very simple set of command buttons. There’s a circular control dial towards the top, consisting of an ‘OK’ button, in the centre, and clickable directional controls surrounding. In our estimation, the noise the directional keys make is just that bit too clicky – if you catch our drift – but they may loosen in time. Beneath that are two rows of buttons; the top row has Back, Home and Menu, while the bottom is home to the playback controls.
Voice search is undeniably cool
By far the most interesting aspect of the remote, however, comes with the in-built microphone, which is utilised for voice commands. Specifically, it’s a search mechanism that you can use to summon up apps or, more interestingly, to find movies and TV shows. That can be done on a specific title or even by actor or director and it works extremely well in practise. The tool is only able to search Amazon’s own content, however, so don’t expect it to be able to scour Netflix for you.
SetUpThere’s very little for you to have to worry about here. As said above, it comes pre-registered and loaded with any Amazon content you own, so it’s simply a case of establishing a connection to your home network and away you go. There are some video and audio settings you can adjust later on, if necessary, but you’re safest running on the default settings whilst you’re getting started
Home ScreenThe Fire TV interface is, understandably, quite heavily slanted toward presenting Amazon video content but it’s easy enough to get to other stuff. A row of recently accessed apps, games and video right at the top sees to that; so if you’re a frequent Netflix user, for example, then you’ll be presented with that app tile in a very easily accessible position on start up.
On the left of the screen is the downward scrolling Menu system, where you can access specific items including Apps, Games and Music etc. It’s very easy to get to grips with and if you’re having any problems, there’s a tutorial video in the Settings Menu. If you can find it, that is. Scrolling through the screens is zippy and fluid and there’s little to no discernible lag, even when quickly moving between tiles and icons.
AppsWe shouldn’t really need to explain to you what Amazon Prime Video and Netflix are, and they are the two biggest paid-for streaming services available on the Fire TV platform. That’s a decent start but it’s not as comprehensive as some of the competition. Other headliners are the BBC iPlayer, YouTube and Spotify Connect, with everything we tested very well implemented. The Netflix app supports profiles and is one of the latest builds, although Android's inability to handle 1080p24 properly means playback on some material can look a little jerky. The iPlayer is the new HTML5 version, with 30 day catch-up and a much improved interface, and is amongst the fastest to load we've used.
Amazon definitely needs to work on getting 40D and the ITV Player on board, as soon as they can, given their importance in the UK market. You can kind of make up for the lack of the ITV Player with the S(Scottish)TV app but it’s not really the same. There is a means of viewing a selection of live UK TV broadcasts through IP streams, via the TV Catchup app, which runs at surprisingly good quality. We also like the fact that you can stream Spotify Connect when we were gaming on the Fire TV – essentially the ultimate custom soundtrack feature ever
The bottom line, however, is that when it comes to streaming media boxes, content is truly king so Amazon needs to strike some partnership deals, pronto!
More native apps are needed
Sideload AppsSince the Fire TV is a box essentially running Android, albeit a modified version, the ability to ‘sideload’ apps intended for that operating system exists. It’s not something your everyday user is going to do but we know many of our members and readers will be interested. Amazon provides ‘Developer Options’ in the Settings Menu which need to be enabled to allow it and then it’s a relatively simple process to transfer Android .apk files from your PC to the Fire TV. Numerous guides are available on the Internet and there are also several dedicated Fire TV utilities you can download, to make it even easier. Whilst it’s very nice to be able to expand the app library of the Fire TV in this way, you won’t always find that apps will run properly and, if they do, they might come with only touchscreen controls available to them.
You can mimic touchscreen control using a mouse attached to the USB port (wireless will work) and that’s precisely what we did with the sideloaded EE TV and Now TV apps we installed. Both worked great but it was easy to see the resolution downgrade on NOW TV; the app not yet designed to support HD streaming on mobile devices.
Fire TV Kodi (XBMC)
This is, or the many variants of it, probably the most popular sideloaded Android app on the Fire TV. What is it? This is not the place for a full rundown of what the Kodi project is but it's what used to be known as Xbox Media Center. It’s basically an all-in-one media solution for both local and internet content. If you can think of something you want to do, it will probably be able to do it.
While sideloading the app is as easy as any other, some might find its configuration daunting; there is something of a steep initial learning curve, although you can find custom builds that do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. Most (probably all) of those are geared toward the acquisition of content via nefarious means, however, so not to be discussed here.
To be clear, we’re not saying that everyone who uses it, is doing so for questionable reasons but an undeniably large slice will be. That said, as a legitimate front end to your media playback, it is probably unrivalled in its customisability options and there is constant development going on. Depending on how many plug-ins and extras you add, it can take up a lot of the Fire TVs available storage, however.
GamesWe weren’t expecting Amazon to send us a games controller as part of the review package, so its presence in the box came as something of a welcome surprise. Personally speaking, it’s a bit of a mixed blessing as it puts me in to the unfamiliar territory of being a videogames reviewer; albeit only temporarily. I am, perhaps, a perfect target for Amazon’s game offering, being something of a lapsed gamer, who will now only pick up a controller occasionally. Lots of the games are free with, of course, many of those allowing in-app purchases but you can switch off the ability to do that, in case you’re worried your little ones get hold of the remote.
There are a number of games only playable with a games controller but some more simple offerings are functional with the remote. I had a trundle through free versions of Beach Buggy Racing, Dead Trigger 2 and Badland and I have to say I came away pretty impressed. Graphically, they are about on a par with some early Xbox 360/PS3 games, although the textures in Dead Trigger aren’t especially impressive. I also shelled out £2.99 of my own cash to play GTA: Vice City and that looked pretty polished too, although it is not properly optimised for the Amazon games controller, so you’ll need a mouse to access the Map, for instance.
The controller itself will cost you about £35 (with two free games) and it’s not a bad example, although it does feel perhaps a little cheap when compared to one of Sony or Microsoft’s console pads. I found the sticks a little floaty and the triggers (R2/L2) somewhat lacking, ergonomically speaking, with fingers sometimes slipping off. The button and stick layout are good, however, and there a selection of controls replicating those on the standard remote, so it’s also great for streaming duties.
You’re not forced in to using Amazon’s, however, as you can get the Fire TV working with a number of other controllers, including a wired Xbox 360 and PS4 one by Bluetooth. You’ll need to check the web for any button configuration issues but it’s nice to have the choice. The OUYA console controller is also reported as working.
A very familiar looking controller
For an old timer like me, the ability to sideload Android game emulators is a nice bonus. I should point out that I only tried a Nintendo 64 emulator with ROMS of games I do actually own (somewhere in the loft), but the ability to reminisce with the likes of Super Mario 64, Starfox and Diddy king Racing was excellent, and they all ran superbly after some configuration in the emulator’s
MusicAny music you’ve bought through your Amazon account will show up here which in some cases includes digital versions of any CDs you might have purchased. A quick look here, indicated I have bought the grand total of 4 CDs since opening my account, so this is not an area of great interest to me. The inclusion of Spotify Connect is enough for this reviewer but the kids like the Vevo app and there’s Tune-In internet radio, too, with literally bazillions of stations available. We should point out that the non-Amazon services aren’t accessible from the Music menu but from Apps or Recent.
Photos & VideoWe’ll not dwell on this, you know what a photograph and a video is and what it means to look at them on a big screen. That’s what the Photo app provides but it does come with the bonus, for Prime subscribers, of being able to utilise the unlimited storage afforded by Amazon Cloud Drive. Cloud drive lets you sync content from your phone, tablet, PC or Mac for you to view on the app whenever you like. As a Prime user, I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know this was part of the deal so I’ve now taken full advantage!
- Incredibly easy to set up
- A cinch to use
- Superb Prime Video Integration
- Slick Netflix and iPlayer Apps
- Great for casual gaming
- Lacking on video apps
- No expandable storage option
- No 1080p24 Support
Amazon Fire TV Review
Should I Buy a Fire TV?
As ever with these devices it depends on what you want/need in terms of content. Speaking as a holder of both an Amazon Prime and Netflix account, it makes a great deal of sense and at only £79, it offers great value. The major omissions, as far as we are concerned, are 40D, ITV Player and NOW TV and we hope that we see progress on at least two of those in the very near future. There is not really any such thing as a media streaming player with access to all the major services so you need to weigh up what you use.
The home screen is also very Prime-centric which means that accessibility to non-Amazon services isn’t as easy as it is with some competing devices. We certainly don’t blame Amazon for this approach but it might put some people off. Where it certainly scores over the rest of the pack, however, is in its ability to play ‘proper’ games, with a real controller. Quite a lot are free, with others very reasonable priced, so it’s a nice option for those in to a spot of casual gaming and the graphics can be (at least to me) surprisingly competent.
The lack of internal memory may be an issue as your game collection grows, however, and there’s no current means to expand it, on the UK version, so we’ll need to wait and see if Amazon unlocks the USB port for storage, going forwards. The Fire TV is a great little box for tinkerers and the ability to sideload Android apps will definitely add another dimension for some.
There are so many variables at play here, that simply it’s down to you to weigh up what it is that you will get from the Fire TV. As an Amazon Prime customer, with a penchant for plenty of video streaming, a spot of gaming and the enjoyment of the opportunity to explore the unadvertised features, I really love it. Others might well find their needs are better catered for elsewhere…
Fire TV vs Roku Vs Apple TV
Ignoring the streaming sticks, the Roku family of devices and Apple TV are the closest rivals to the Fire TV. In terms of video services, the Roku platform is undoubtedly the best serviced and if you want a simple out of the box solution, the Roku 3 (the 1 and 2 aren’t as well supported by Roku) would be our recommendation. In addition to all the major UK catch-up services, it has an ultra-slick Netflix experience, Sky’s Now TV and Sky Store, as well as Google Play. The only thing it’s really lacking is Amazon Instant Video.
The Apple TV continues to be best suited to those heavily invested in the iTunes universe and it’s not really very well maintained in the UK, giving it a US centric feel. Still, if you can’t get enough of your Apple products, it’s another one to get. There has been expectation that Apple would announce a new ATV this year but it’s looking like 2015 now. If the Apple TV 4 does materialise, then it’s sure to shake up this market, as will the Google Nexus player when it lands on these shores.
You can buy the Fire TV direct from Amazon here, and you can buy the game controller here.
Networking, Internet, Streaming quality9
Set up, Menus, Remote8
Value for Money9
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.