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Hands On: Amazon Fire TV media streamer

updated 04:59 pm EDT, Thu April 3, 2014

Amazon finally releases streamer for video, audio, gaming

An Amazon-branded set-top box like a Roku or Apple TV has really been inevitable for some time. Yesterday, Amazon formally introduced the Amazon Fire TV box, an HDMI peripheral for a so-equipped television. The media streaming market is very crowded. Solutions like Roku and Apple TV dominate the landscape, with the new Google Chromecast device coming in with a bit less independent functionality than its competitors. How does the Amazon Fire TV hold up to its competitors in the living room, rather than a media event floor?

Inside the Fire TV is a quad-core 1.7GHz Qualcomm processor with an Adreno 320 GPU, 2GB of RAM, and 8GB of storage, which is said to be three times as powerful as the Apple TV, Roku, and Chromecast. Capable of displaying 1080p video, it offers Dolby digital surround over HDMI and optical outputs, and includes Bluetooth connectivity and dual-band Wi-Fi with two antennas and MIMO to supplement the Ethernet connection.

Weighing 9.9 ounces, the Fire measures 4.5 inches square by 0.7 inches thick, making it slightly larger than an Apple TV in size. The oversized power plug prevents use of adjacent plugs on a normally-spaced power strip. We'd have liked some sort of concession to this, like a six-inch dongle allowing for the device to not occupy more real estate than it should on the power strip. Better yet, we'd like an internal power supply, like on the Apple TV and most Roku devices.

Our test environment has an Amazon Prime subscription, and like with the Kindle Fire HDX series, the device shines when streaming content. A 1080p video started nearly immediately on our FiOS high-speed connection, a hair faster than a similar video streaming from iTunes to a third-generation Apple TV at the same resolution. Amazon uses predictive loading -- if the user hesitates on a description of a video for some time, it starts downloading the file. So, with the predictive loading, users can very quickly delve into content.

When we stopped a video after an hour, and resumed, the same process saved us time in getting back to the movie right where we left off after the break. However, there's no UI convention to restart a already-viewed video! Users have to "rewind" the movie, then start from the beginning. Amazon notes that this will be fixed in a future version of the software.

Third party apps don't use Amazon's predictive loading. When using Hulu on both the Apple TV and the Amazon Fire TV, the Apple TV was faster, with the UI on Hulu being a bit sluggish on Amazon's offering. The delay wasn't a deal-breaker, but the device is clearly optimized for Amazon's content, as is to be expected from Amazon hardware.

We had middling results with the Amazon voice search function. In a perfectly quiet room, with no fan noise from ventilation sources and the television volume off, it functioned fine, with near 100 percent accuracy. Add mild child banter and a television at low volume, and errors crept in. With kid cacophony, voice search is impossible -- which isn't unexpected, though.

The announcement of the device emphasized that it wasn't a "closed ecosystem." We question this statement -- the Fire TV is nearly as much of a walled garden as Apple's family of devices is. While the Fire TV does support games, selection is severely limited. Without some sort of sideload that Amazon doesn't want you to do, the Fire TV can't load third-party software titles not supported, or provided, by Amazon.

At present, the $1 add-on Plex is the only way to play your own video stored on a computer. Plex is mature, so we're not that upset by it, but it suffers from the same UI sluggishness that Hulu does. We're hoping that an update to either the app or (more likely) a Fire TV software update will fix this.

Our Amazon Fire TV game controller hasn't arrived yet. We'll cover the gaming potential of the device in the upcoming review. We have seen the list of available games, and while not massive, it is a good start. Despite the announcement, the Fire TV isn't intended to be -- and shouldn't be considered as -- a substitute for a full console or gaming PC, if television-based gaming is important to you. We'd love to see some form of classic game emulation on the device, but are fairly certain that there will be no Amazon-sanctioned offering for such.

As with most market segments with gadgets, the field is crowded. Amazon is late -- very late -- to the party, and it remains to be seen how much traction beyond Amazon faithful the box will have. Generally, we do like the device, but don't yet see how it supplants other devices such as gaming console streaming video from Sony or Microsoft, Apple's offerings, or the Roku family, depending on what ecosystem, or systems, you have bought into. As with the Kindle Fire HDX series, we feel that Amazon Prime is essentially a necessity for the set-top box, at least for now. Look for a more in-depth review in the coming weeks.

by MacNN Staff



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