Yes, I’m a gadget freak so I preordered one of the new players from Amazon to give it a spin.
The Fire TV is Amazon’s stab at competing with the likes of Apple TV, Roku, and Google Chrome. It’s a pretty slick looking package. They saved some internal real estate by offloading the power supply to a wall wart (which has its pros and cons – yet another odd shaped thing to plug in).
The back panel has power, Ethernet, optical out, HDMI out, and a USB connector. Set up was very quick. However, you are forced to watch a 3 minute video on all the great features. Then you’ll sit through some software updates.
Navigation is pretty simple using what sort of looks like a Windows 8 screen with boxes to navigate through. One big deal Amazon is making about Fire TV is the voice controlled remote. It would have been great if this also worked for entering in all your user names and passwords for the various services, but it does not. The remote does function smoothly but it has a drawback for many systems. It’s not IR, but bluetooth. This means it is impossible to control the Fire HD with a Universal remote and if you have it far away from your TVs, the bluetooth will run out of range. It seems they are aiming this at a pretty simple installation. I suspect there will be someone who figures out how to hack this through a USB port, but I would guess their widget will be more than Amazon Fire sells for.
Once I’d played around with things for a while, it’s very clear what the Fire HD is about: Amazon Prime! The Netflix app is of the old, sort of clunky variety which is not nearly as good as found on an Apple TV or Sony TV app. The voice search does work pretty well, but even if you are in Netflix and voice search for a movie on Netflix, it will take you right to the Prime rental section.
It’s also clear that Amazon thinks you should know what movie you want to shout out to the remote. I guess this is okay if you have something specific in mind. However, I like the fun of hunting for things I’ve not heard about. The Fire TV is very similar to the Apple TV in the browsing section. You get genres, recommended titles, etc. Once you click on a movie, you’ll see similar selections. You can go through the cast and find other movies they were in, which is pretty cool. Neither Apple TV nor Fire HD come close to the VUDU browsing experience. It’s deeper, plus it gives you Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer and viewer ratings on all their movies.
Amazon Prime appears to have a similar selection of what is free on Netflix, but it’s still a bit tricky for Prime members. When you pull up a movie or show that is free for Prime members, you still see buttons offering to rent it for a few dollars. I found this confusing and it seems like those choices should go away if you are a Prime member.
When you do choose a movie, it loads and plays very fast on Prime, much faster than on their Netflix app. Geez, I wonder why?
So, how does it compare to Apple TV? They both have about the same number of apps. Apple has their movie store, Amazon has theirs with Prime. The Netflix interface is more fun and easier to use on the Apple TV. I really enjoy the “trailers” app on Apple to find new movies. This is not present on the Fire TV. You can watch a trailer of some of the movies once you find them, but there is not a separate trailers app like on the Apple. The big difference is Airplay on Apple TV. It’s so cool to pull up a video or even webpage on an Apple device and fling it to an Apple TV for display on the big screen. The Fire HD will do this, but only from a Fire tablet and from what I can tell, only with a movie you were playing on Prime on the tablet.
Neither the Apple TV or Fire HD have VUDU, my favorite movie rental streaming service (which has the best picture and sound by far). I use my Oppo bluray for VUDU and will continue to do so.
I did a quick comparison of Apple, VUDU, and Prime. I picked two recent popular movies, Frozen, and The Desolation of Smaug- the latest Hobbit. Interestingly, both Apple and VUDU have both available for rental, but Prime only offers you the option of buying it for $19.99.
I guess if already did not own an Apple TV, were a paying Prime member who had not joined Netflix, and someone willing to wait a bit to rent current movies (I wonder if anyone like that exists who is reading this), the Fire TV would be a decent choice. If not, I’d suggest you spend your $99 on a better power cable for your Apple TV!
It is fun to see all these widgets coming out competing for what the services hope is a $3.99 rental per night times the whole world. Five years ago the Fire HD would have been super cool, today, it’s just another black box going into a drawer in my closet of A/V cast offs!
****Update 4/22/14- So two days after I write this, Amazon announces HBO Classics will be part of the free Prime viewing offering. I’ve never been a big fan of the monthly cost of HBO, but this might make me pull the Fire TV out of the closet to see some of those great HBO series from years past. I still hate the fact I can not control it with my universal remote though!
***Update 6/30/14- After finally having some time to check out the HBO deal, it turns out, its not that great a deal. Yes, there is stuff there, but for the most part, only the first season is free, so once you get hooked, you have to pay up…back to the closet it goes!