With the arrival of the Amazon Fire TV, the heat is turning up in the market for video-streaming devices.
The Fire TV is jumping into a crowd that already includes the Apple TV, the Google Chromecast and Roku’s numerous streaming gadgets. These devices are all designed to let users stream content from the Internet -- like Netflix and YouTube -- and watch it on their TVs.
Amazon’s $99 black box isn’t the cheapest, it isn't the smallest, and it doesn’t have the most content. In fact, Amazon lacks in all of these categories compared with most of its rivals. And its video-streaming quality is like the other devices -- none of them stand out.
But the Fire TV does have enough extra features its competitors don't have to make it enticing to some customers.
Most notable is the Fire TV’s gaming capabilities.
Amazon’s device isn’t the first video-streaming box to feature gaming -- Roku has lightly toyed with it on some of its gadgets -- but the Fire TV is the first to make gaming a major focus. Amazon even took the liberty of creating the Fire Game Controller, a remote for the Fire TV that is sold separately for $39.99 and is shaped just like a controller for a video-game console.
While browsing through the Fire TV’s main menu, users will find video games dispersed throughout along with many movies and TV shows. Some of these games are free, some cost 99 cents and some -- like the ever popular “Minecraft - Pocket Edition” -- are expensive. ($6.99 in the case of Minecraft).
I tested the Fire TV’s gaming capabilities after downloading several games, which can take anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. Besides Minecraft, I tried out “Sev Zero,” a shooter game by Amazon that is set in a futuristic alien world, and “Asphalt 8: Airborne,” a racing game.
The graphics of the games were unimpressive. They’re basically games built for smartphones and tablets that are blown up to fit on the big screen. The video quality was fine, but the graphics were on par with games for the PlayStation 2 and the original Xbox. If you’re looking for the finest quality in gaming, you better stick to the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One.
But despite the graphics, the games were good enough to keep me entertained. Asphalt 8, in particular, was engaging when played with the Fire Game Controller, which felt very responsive to all my commands. This is only the first wave of games for the Fire TV, and as the case with most gaming platforms, games should improve as time goes on. Presumably, the best is yet to come.
No one should buy the Fire TV solely for its gaming abilities, but it serves as a solid complement to the device’s ability to stream video and audio from the Internet. One could spend a night around the Fire TV watching TV shows, listening to music videos and playing a few games on the device.
That said, users who want the Fire TV for gaming will likely have to buy the separate controller. Some games, like Amazon’s Sev Zero, won’t work without the controller, and others, are not as enjoyable without it. In total, that’s $138.99 for the Fire TV and the controller. Users can wirelessly connect up to four controllers to the Fire TV at the same time.
The remote that comes included with the Fire TV -- a standard black stick -- adds to the device's alluring features. The small and sleek control includes a microphone that can be used to quickly search for content available for the Fire TV.
Users simply hold the mike button down and say what they want to find, such as an artist’s name, the name of a movie or a TV show. The Fire TV then quickly pulls up the available results. From my experience, the Fire TV found almost all my voice queries correctly -- the only time it messed up was when I searched for the band "Chvrches," but that’s because of the group's funky spelling.
Voice search makes finding content a lot easier and quicker than it is on other streaming devices.
Additionally, customers may be tempted to buy the Fire TV for its upcoming parental control feature. In Amazon FreeTime, parents can determine what content and at what time their children can watch.
But FreeTime is not yet available on the Fire TV and won’t be until next month. And that’s part of the problem with the device: Many of its features are not yet here.
The Fire TV is also still lacking the ability to play songs from users’ Amazon MP3 library, and it won’t be able to until next month. Users can fling content to the Fire TV from some Kindle Fire tablets, but they won’t be able to do the same with the iPhone and iPad until later this year.
And HBO GO, one of the most popular, Internet video providers, is not yet available on Amazon Fire TV. The Seattle retailer said it is working with HBO to get GO on the device, but there’s no word on when that may happen.
Fortunately, users can stream most of the other popular channels, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube and Pandora. Both the video and audio quality are crisp and live up to what users get from other devices.
Overall, Fire TV is a solid product that gets the job done when it comes to streaming online content, and it should be a solid competitor to its rivals.
I would recommend the Amazon Fire TV to users who are embedded in Amazon's ecosystem, meaning they own a Kindle tablet or are Amazon Prime subscribers, as well as those who are interested in playing games on their Internet set-top box.
But for users who simply want a low-cost device that allows them to stream Netflix and YouTube on their TVs, the $35 Chromecast is still the best choice.