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Hands on with Amazon’s Set-Top Killer, the Fire TV

Alyssa Bereznak
National Correspondent, Technology
April 2, 2014

On Wednesday morning, Amazon unveiled Fire TV, a set-top box for streaming movies, television shows, photos, games, and music straight to your TV. The box itself is a svelte little black device that is, as Amazon bragged at its press conference, the height of a mere dime. It’s light, portable, and easy to tuck away out of sight. 

The Fire TV, its included remote, and the optional gaming remote. (Getty Images)

Once you’ve set up Fire TV, it immediately brings you to a main menu plastered with new movie and television releases, games, and music-streaming apps. One nice difference from other popular set-top boxes, like the Roku: Rather than base this home screen on separate channels (of which this device supports 36), Amazon has chosen to make the content itself front and center. So instead of first choosing the Netflix app to open, say, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, you can go straight to the title and then pick the service from which you’d like to stream the movie. 

After you’ve selected a title, it’ll automatically display the provider options for streaming. If you subscribe to Netflix but not Amazon Prime, Fire TV will automatically populate the option to stream a movie or a TV show for the lowest possible price under the title in question. Considering that there are entire websites dedicated to determining this sort of thing for people, it’s refreshing to see Amazon actually acknowledge that its competitors exist.

This is Amazon’s box, though. During setup, you’re given a free month of Amazon Prime. Once those 30 days are up, you can choose to keep the service for $99 a year or discontinue it and rely on other subscriptions. You know what the people at Amazon hope you’ll do. And there are still a few key channels missing, most notably HBO GO.

Some of the main apps that Fire TV supports. Note the absence of HBO and Spotify.

Find it fast
Searching for content in Fire TV is a breeze, thanks to the light little remote that comes with the box. You can even talk to it: The Fire TV’s most exciting feature is its voice-enabled search, which is surprisingly responsive. I was able to hold down the microphone button, say “House of Cards,” and have the title pop up within seconds (for which we can also thank the Fire TV’s quad-core processor and 2 GB of RAM). I even asked a few of my co-workers to yell in the background — because whose living room is ever completely silent? — and it was still able to recognize what I was asking for through the noise.

That being said, the act of typing in letters, via a four-directional remote, is not eliminated with Fire TV. When I downloaded the Netflix app so I could sync my account, it still required me to type in my username and password with the same annoying format. Yes, it’s not something I’ll have to do every day, but why make a voice-controlled remote if you can’t use it for everything?

The box has a feature called ASAP that looks at your past streaming activity and whatever you have on your “Watchlist” so it can pre-populate your device with content that it thinks you’ll want to watch. It’s the device’s way to reduce annoying waits for content to start. I didn’t have enough time with the device to see if ASAP actually reduced or eliminated waiting, but if ASAP is as smart as they say, it will be useful.

Gaming on your set-top
The Fire TV is also a workable game box. It runs Android, so developers of mobile games for smartphones and tablets can pretty easily make them available on this device. Amazon is also selling a game console-like Bluetooth-enabled Fire controller for $40 starting next month. Its layout is similar to an Xbox controller, and it’s designed to be compatible with the thousands of games Amazon says it will make available next month.

I used the controller to try Amazon Studios’ new game Sev Zero, a first-person shooter game where you kill aliens to save the Earth (original, right?). It seems a solid start in what’s sure to be an extensive list of original and existing games. Though you can technically play with your Fire TV remote, it’s hard to imagine navigating something like Sev Zero with anything less sophisticated than the controller. 

Protecting the kids, music, and more
For parents who hate actually paying attention to their kids to police their watching habits, it’s simple to set up PIN-controlled limits on the Fire TV. Rather than focus on what you’re not OK with them watching, you can “whitelist” certain providers (like Nickelodeon) in a feature called FreeTime. 

As far as music-streaming services go, Fire TV’s selection is a bit scarce at the moment. You can currently sync your Pandora account, but anyone who pays for a monthly subscription to Spotify, Rdio, or Beats Music is out of luck. 

Overall, Fire TV succeeds in the areas Amazon set out to improve in media-streaming devices: It’s easier to search for the content you love, it’s notably faster than your average streaming service, and it’s compatible with Amazon competitors. For $99, that’s a lot. 

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