Amazon has been building the Fire brand over the past few years, starting with tablets, moving to media players and streaming sticks, before most recently producing a smartphone. The Fire TV media player has been on-sale in the US for some time, but only came to the UK back in October. I’ve been playing with Fire…..TV for the past couple of weeks. Let’s take a look.
The Fire TV unit is an exercise in minimalism, not straying far from the sharp black box look, apart from the Amazon logo on the top and a white LED on the front fascia. Round the back there are five ports for power, HDMI, optical audio, ethernet and USB. Only the PSU is supplied in the box with the Fire TV and an HDMI cable will need to be bought if needed. Although not needing a port, the Fire TV has built-in 802.11n wireless to connect up when ethernet isn’t available.
To control the Fire TV there is a stick-style remote control in the box along with batteries. The minimalist aesthetic continues with an Apple-esque control wheel and a small number of buttons, all in black with white labels. The picture makes the remote look longer than it is, which is only 5″ or 12.5 cm. The remote uses Bluetooth to connect to the FireTV and comes pre-paired.
Getting going is straightforward – connect the Fire TV to the HDTV via (not supplied) HDMI, insert power, turn on and follow the prompts. To make it as easy as possible, the Fire TV is preprogrammed with the Amazon account of the purchaser but if connected wirelessly, the main setup step is to choose the wifi SSID and enter the password. There’s a short introductory slideshow which introduces the features of the Fire TV include the voice search, which will be covered later.
There’s no easy way of taking screenshots on the Fire TV, so I’m afraid that the pictures below are taken from the TV itself. Sorry.
The overall view is of key areas listed down the left with content on the right. Home, Prime Video, Movies, TV, Watchlist, Music Library, Games, Apps, Photos and so on. On the whole it’s easy to navigate; select the main content area from the left and then move down through subsections on the right until the desired content or app is visible. The interface is lovely and smooth, especially when scrolling and I never saw any stuttering or glitches. I guess that’s the quad-core processor earning its keep.
Not entirely unexpectedly, the content is heavily Amazon-media centric focussing on Amazon Prime and Instant Video, though it’s not a closed shop, with Netflix and Spotify available for other subscription services, and catch up TV is provided by UK-centric apps for iPlayer and Demand 5, though 4oD and ITV Player are noticeable in their absence. Strangely, STV Player is available which caters for the Scottish part of ITV, so with a Scottish post code much of ITV’s most popular programming can be viewed. There’s a Flixster app for those with UltraViolet DVDs and Blurays.
Video playback was good and clear, especially in HD, whether from Amazon or other apps, such as Netflix or iPlayer. However, the Fire TV does have a trick up its sleeve where it starts to download the video stream in anticipation of playback so the programme starts much faster with far less initial buffering. It only works with Amazon Prime and Instant Video but it’s a neat feature and makes the Fire TV experience more like switching channels on a TV.
Music-wise, the Fire TV offers all the albums and tracks purchased via Amazon, sorted by artist, album, genre etc. The album art is visually attractive and the optical audio out can be used to keep the sound quality as high as possible when connecting to an audio amplifier.
Disappointingly, the Spotify app only offers Spotify Connect functionality which means that a tablet or smartphone is needed to choose what music is to be played. Opinions may differ but I think that’s a bit rubbish and I’d rather see a proper Spotify player which works with the Fire TV on its own.
I tried plugging in a USB stick with some MP3s but I couldn’t figure out how play them so I’ve no idea if it’s possible to play from physical media. There is a Plex client available for those wanting to stream from a PC or NAS, though I didn’t try it out as I don’t have a Plex server.
For folk who upload pictures and photos to Amazon’s Cloud Drive service, naturally the Fire TV can show the snaps on the HDTV and it can also handle personal videos. There’s a nice screensaver that kicks in when the FireTV isn’t in busy and it’s easy to set the screensaver to show photos from the collection.
So far the Fire TV ticks all the boxes for a streaming media player. Movies – check, music – check, photos – check. Where the Fire TV goes to the next level is with apps and games, especially games. The Fire TV can download apps as if it was a smartphone or tablet, but the apps have to be specially prepared by the author for the Fire TV as the user interface is different without a touchscreen. At time of writing, there are over 850 apps for the Fire TV and these can be reviewed on Amazon. There’s approx 8 GB of storage available for apps, though some is already used up by the Fire OS.
For games, the Fire TV has its own Fire Game Controller for serious gaming action which is purchased separately for a penny under £35. It’s comparably priced to wireless controllers for the PS4 or Xbox but it feels a little overpriced: something closer to £25 would be more in-line with expectations. Purchasers do get a free game, Sev Zero, which is worth £4.99 to sweeten the deal.
The Fire Game Controller has the expected collection of analogue sticks, D-pads and shoulder buttons in the standard configuration, with a few extra Fire TV specific buttons. The controller needs to be paired with the Fire TV on first use but after that the game controller can be used alongside the normal remote to control the Fire TV user interface as well as games.
The games selection includes thinking games such as Quell and Machinarium, arcade games like Asphalt 8: Airborne and Sonic the Hedgehog and first person action games like GTA and flagship title Sev Zero, which is given free to purchasers of the game controller. Here’s a long-term favourite, Quell, and this can be played with the standard FireTV remote.
For arcade racers, there’s Asphalt 8: Airborne. It’s fun but the Fire Game Controller is required.
Finally, the Fire TV has one innovation that isn’t usually seen on on media players and that’s Voice Search. Simply press the microphone button on the remote, say what you are looking for, confirm the recognition and the Fire TV will look for content. Here I look for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. Kids, ask your parents.
It’s both brilliant yet flawed. It’s brilliant because the voice recognition works surprisingly well but it’s flawed because the search only indexes Amazon’s content. Press the Voice Search button and say, “Despicable Me” and it’ll show me all the variants of the film – the original, the sequel, theatrical shorts – all available on Amazon Prime and Instant Video. But what it won’t show me is the Ultraviolet copy I have in Flixster. It would be truly brilliant if all loaded apps could contribute into the search, even the catchup TV services like iPlayer and Demand 5.
That’s it. Overall the Amazon Fire TV compares well with the competition and if you are into Amazon’s ecosystem, then the Fire TV is a no-brainer buy at the current price of £64 giving easy access to familiar photos, music, movies and games. Even if you aren’t a fully paid-up member of the Amazon fan club, there’s still plenty to recommend with the current selection of apps and games which will undoubtedly grow over time as more broadcasters and app developers get on-board.
Thanks to Amazon for the review Fire TV and Game Controller.