Amazon Fire TV Review
The Fire TV is part streaming device and part gaming console, if you fork over an extra $40 for the controller. The box is the fastest and most powerful of any on this list, supports popular services, and offers innovative features for use with Amazon Instant Video, but a budget offering it is not.
With the Fire TV (starting at $99, Amazon), Amazon has introduced its bid for control over the living room. Fire TV reviews indicate that this set-top box -- part streaming media player and part game console -- is a potentially worthwhile addition to a home media setup but not a bargain.
One aspect of Amazon Fire TV that reviewers unfailingly highlight is the internal components. The quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM, and "dedicated" graphics processing unit (GPU) translate to less time spent waiting for menus or content to load. A top-rated Fire TV review from a consumer on Amazon says the box starts up and negotiates menus quickly and doesn't struggle with 1080p HD content like other streaming media players occasionally do. The dual-band, dual-antenna Wi-Fi improves connection speeds and an Ethernet port is available for a wired connection. Amazon Fire TV also comes with an optical audio port, allowing for 5.1 surround sound, as well as an HDMI port for connecting to the TV, but an HDMI cable must be purchased separately.
Where to buy
Fire TV launched with support for many of the biggest content players, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora, YouTube, and WatchESPN in addition to Amazon Instant Video (which is being beefed up with original content from Amazon Studios). Amazon Prime members have the added advantage of being able to stream some content as part of their $99 annual membership. Like other set-top boxes, Amazon Fire TV allows users to "fling" or mirror content from a mobile device to the TV. At release this feature was limited to the Kindle Fire HDX tablet, but support for Android and iOS devices is in development. In the meantime, Fire TV lacks support for some popular apps, including Vudu and HBO Go, although Prime members can now stream older HBO shows on Amazon Instant. Without the computer-screen-mirroring capability of a Chromecast or Apple TV, most viewers are simply stuck without access to unsupported content.
A voice-search feature built into the remote is one thing that sets this box apart from others already on the market. A Fire TV review on CNET labels the function innovative, quick, and accurate. However, voice search yields results only from Amazon Instant Video (and occasionally Vevo or Hulu Plus). The lack of voice search for Netflix and other third-party content is disappointing, especially when Amazon offers up content for purchase that's free with a subscription elsewhere. Similarly, the Advanced Streaming and Prediction (ASAP) feature preloads media when you hover over it, or if the recommendation engine thinks you will enjoy it, which does away with buffering -- but only for Amazon Instant Video. Many reviewers bristle at this sort of favoritism.
In addition to streaming media, Amazon Fire TV doubles as a casual gaming console. It's not meant to contend with an Xbox One or PlayStation 4, but it offers popular titles including Minecraft Pocket Edition, Deus Ex: The Fall, and The Walking Dead: The Complete First Season. Amazon has also started its own Amazon Game Studios and staffed it with some of the best talent available. Consumers must purchase a remote ($40) to take full advantage of this side of the Fire TV and an 8GB hard drive limits the number of games the device can store at one time.
Amazon Fire TV reviews portray this as a strong but not especially novel addition to the market. It's a nice middle ground for consumers looking for a streaming media player and casual gaming console for the living room. The comparatively high-end hardware creates less lag, but many of the most innovative features are limited to content under Amazon's umbrella. The Fire TV does well against other boxes at the same price point, namely Apple TV and Roku 3. But if you're looking for the best budget option, the lower-priced Roku offerings are the way to go.