If you’re like me, your main TV not only has a cable or satellite box attached to it, but at least one smaller appendage, like an Apple TV or Roku box, so you can watch all the Internet-streamed shows and content, like Netflix, that the cable box omits. Now there’s yet another, similar small box, at a similar price, with similar content.
This new entry is called Fire TV and it comes from Amazon. It offers a lot of the same popular services as established competitors — not just Netflix, but Hulu Plus and YouTube, plus, of course, Amazon’s own Instant Video service and more. But it’s missing some key third-party apps present on its more established rivals.
It doesn’t tuck away behind the TV like Google’s competing Chromecast or Roku’s new Streaming Stick. It doesn’t match or beat the Chromecast’s bargain price point of $35, instead selling for the same $99 that Apple TV and the top-of-the-line Roku cost. It doesn’t integrate cable TV and streaming video like the much costlier TiVo does.
So, why should you care about Fire TV? Why consider it as your streaming box? Because you can talk to it. The Amazon Fire TV has a microphone-equipped remote control that allows you to search through the vast array of video content by simply speaking instead of pecking out words, one letter at a time, on an onscreen keyboard.
And that’s a big deal, solving a major pain point with set-top boxes.
I’ve been testing Fire TV, and found that this voice-control feature works remarkably well. As a regular user of the competing boxes, I felt liberated using it. If I were buying a new streaming box, it would be a huge plus in Amazon’s favor.
For instance, I held down the microphone button at the top of the remote and said “Keri Russell.” Fire TV gave me a choice between two spellings (“Keri” and “Carrie”), and when I picked the former, it showed me the actress’s work, including the excellent movie “Waitress” and the terrific TV show “The Americans.”
I tried saying “Barry Sonnenfeld,” and got movies such as “Men in Black” and “Get Shorty,” which he directed.
When I said “Netflix,” Fire TV took me to the Netflix app. When I said “science fiction,” Fire TV brought up a large selection, from both TV and film, ranging from “Battlestar Galactica” and “Star Trek” to a 1954 cult film called “Devil Girl From Mars.”
I did stump it when I asked for “Benicio Del Toro.” And it was spotty at recognizing character names, something Amazon doesn’t guarantee will work. For instance, the Fire TV got Don Draper from “Mad Men” right away, but was baffled by most of the character names in “Game of Thrones” (though it figured out Jon Snow very quickly).
Right now, Voice Search only works with Amazon’s own content, and with that of one app vendor on the device, the music-video service Vevo. But the company is working with other content providers to make voice search work within their libraries.
This isn’t the first attempt to use voice commands from the remote to control TV. For instance, Samsung uses it on its Smart TVs, but when I reviewed the feature in 2012, I concluded that, “In many cases, my commands were ignored, interpreted inaccurately, or had to be repeated several times.”
By contrast, Amazon has nailed Voice Search.
Fire TV has some other nice features, as well. Setup is easy. The unit comes preregistered with your Amazon account, so your previously purchased videos are already available. So are your photos and home videos, if you’ve chosen to store them on Amazon’s Cloud Drive service.
And if you are a member of the company’s $99-a-year Prime program, you get free access to a library of TV shows and movies available for streaming.
Fire TV also tries to anticipate and cache movies and TV shows that it thinks you might watch based on your viewing habits, so they start almost instantly. The device synchronizes with your Amazon tablets and Amazon apps on other tablets and phones, so it remembers where you left off in a video. All of this worked in my tests.
In general, I found Fire TV to be fast, though skipping through songs in Pandora was much slower than on my Roku box.
Like Apple TV and Chromecast, Fire TV lets you beam (or “fling,” in Amazon parlance) video from a mobile device to the TV. Right now, this only works with the Fire HDX tablet, and I wasn’t able to test it. But the company says it will be available later this year from Apple’s iPhones and iPads.
Amazon is also hoping to set Fire TV apart with gaming — the kind best done with a real gaming controller. It offers a companion $40 game controller, and claims to have more than 100 games available.
Still, as with every new tech product, there are some downsides.
The new box still has limited major third-party apps. Netflix and Hulu Plus are there, along with Showtime, Pandora, Bloomberg and others. But HBO Go is missing, as is ABC’s app, Vimeo, Flickr, and many more. For sports fans, there’s the NBA app and Watch ESPN, but little else of note. Amazon promises many more apps in coming months.
If you’re an iTunes user, you can only get that on Apple TV. The same goes for Photo Stream, the service that automatically uploads pictures taken on your iPhone to other Apple devices. And Apple TV — which leads the streaming-box category in sales — also has more sports channels — including MLB, the NHL and WWE — in addition to several Disney channels.
If you are a Roku lover, you already have Amazon Instant Video, and Amazon says it intends to leave it there, despite the launch of Fire TV. And neither Fire TV (nor Apple TV nor Chromecast) can match Roku’s 1,000+ channels, though many of those are niche, long-tail offerings.
Several important Amazon features are missing from Fire TV at launch, though the company promises they’ll be added via a free software update this spring. These include access to Amazon’s online Music Library service and its FreeTime parental-control system.
In addition, Amazon is promising a new main interface that, unlike today’s, makes it clearer which movies and TV shows are free to stream for Prime members. Currently, it’s difficult to find just Prime content.
Bottom line: The Fire TV is still immature, and needs some more apps and features. But its Voice Search feature is a breakthrough that sets it apart.