By Ben Bowers
on 4.23.14
Photo by Henry Philips

Amazon’s Fire TV ($99) provides the best experience of any streaming device for consumers who’ve spent more than a few paychecks on the company’s media ecosystem. No question about it: if you live and die by Amazon Prime Instant Video, buy the Fire TV and rejoice.

But what if you aren’t a card-carrying member of the Bezos fan club? Do notable features like voice search, advanced gaming functionality and the promise of effective parental controls make the Fire TV a better product than the Apple TV and Roku 3? Not at the moment — but we don’t expect things to stay that way for long.

MEET THE COMPETITION: Media Streamer Shoot-Out | Tested: Qvivo | Testing the Xbox One

Say Goodbye to Buffering

Setting up the Fire TV is easy, granted you can stay awake through the prolonged animated introduction video that auto plays at launch. As with their line of Kindle Fire tablets, Amazon can preload your account data on the Fire TV before it ships so that you’re greeted with your existing Amazon library right out of the box.

A quad-core CPU, dedicated GPU, 8GB of internal storage and 2GB of RAM are packed inside the thin black square, which is understandable weighty for its size. The beefy hardware, combined with the company’s legendary cloud computing capabilities, offers the most responsive browsing experience we’ve encountered with a set-top box to date. So-called Advanced Streaming and Prediction, or ASAP, is one of the ways Amazon has branded the Fire TV’s speedy performance: the more you watch, the more the system learns about your video preferences and love interests. ASAP then leverages this data to queue up videos on Amazon’s backend servers, so content buffers almost instantaneously after pressing play. It isn’t a make-or-break enhancement in the grand scheme, but — like upgrading to a new computer or phone — the Fire TV’s trivial buffering times spoil you, making other competing devices seem unbearably sluggish.

Freedom of Speech

Voice search, initiated by holding down a dedicated search button and speaking into the microphone built into the Fire TV’s remote, is just as impressive as ASAP in terms of accuracy and speed. It’s also hobbled at the moment. Saying the name of a show, director or actor returns relevant results very quickly across Amazon’s own content libraries as well as a growing list of services like Hulu Plus, Crackle, SHOWTIME ANYTIME and VEVO; however, the absence of Netflix searching stands out like a sore thumb. It’s unclear whether the lack of Netflix support for voice search is simply the result of development lag or a reflection of the companies’ rivalry. Whatever the reason, the Fire TV makes voice search so compelling to use that its limited scope is extremely frustrating, particularly in the light of Roku’s excellent universal search capabilities.

It should also be said that third party apps on the Fire TV lack the refinement found on other platforms. Many are probably ports from the old Google TV platform. We experienced a few crashes and noticed odd behaviors in apps like YouTube, which included prompts for keyboard commands despite the Fire TV’s lack of a keyboard. Nothing was dramatically bad or unusable. Still, there’s a clear distinction between the experience within Amazon’s ecosystem and using exterior services.

Gaming as a “Bonus”

Gaming is another area of focus for the Fire TV — but you won’t hear Amazon execs trumping it up. As Amazon’s Kindle VP Pete Larsen made clear, “This is absolutely not a game console.” This is strange to hear, considering the company’s created its own Amazon Game Studios, hired the designers behind Portal and Splinter Cell and acquired the entire development studio behind Killer Instinct. They’ve also released a separate Bluetooth Fire Game Controller ($40), which does a pretty good impression of its Xbox counterpart.

The early compatible game library is small, but appears to be growing fast with notable titles like Dues Ex: The Fall, NBA 2K14, Minecraft: Pocket Edition, Sonic CD, Asphalt 8 and Amazon Game Studios’ own Halo-like FPS, Sev Zero (free to anyone who buys a gaming controller) already available for prices ranging between $1 and $10. The titles we tried worked well and felt natural from the comfort of the couch. Up to five players can play select games, but the Fire TV currently lacks the social element of split screen support, meaning only one player can use the TV screen at a time (some games offer support for other players via the Kindle Fire tablet).

As Amazon admits, the Fire TV clearly lacks the chops of today’s major consoles like the Xbox One, but it also shows just how much mobile gaming has caught up to the big boys. For players outside of the hardcore set, the experience offered by devices like the Amazon Fire TV might soon be the only fix needed in the living room. Gaming may still be a bonus reason to buy the Kindle Fire TV today, but it could become the main draw for certain households over time.

Final Conclusions

If there’s one quality that makes the Amazon Fire TV stand out from the rest of the pack, it’s potential. Elements like ASAP, voice search and advanced gaming functionality (for a dedicated media streamer) are all excellent features — and all are currently limited in some way or another from delivering a truly stellar experience. Amazon deserves plenty of credit for providing more than the status quo, but the new flashes of greatness also shine a light on the darker, bottom-line-focused side of the business.

The Fire TV is an amazing solution for current Kindle Fire owners and Amazon devotees. We certainly can’t blame a company for developing their own content services instead of enlisting competitors. Apple is just as guilty of this, while Roku simply lacks the conflict of interest at the moment. We just hope that some of the quirks with the Fire TV are related to ramp-up time and development, rather than a heavy handed attempt to steer users away from a wider range of options.