It might not arrive by drone but this set-top box gives a glimpse of an aerial- and cable-free future. Tune in to our Amazon Fire TV review
The Amazon Fire TV is late to the streaming party. Google Chromecast, Sky’s Now TV, Apple TV and Roku already offer dozens of video and audio on demand services, including market-leader Netflix, Hulu, Showtime, Disney, Spotify and many more.
What should prevent the Fire TV from fizzling rather than sizzling are a bunch of headline-grabbing features: voice search, quad-core grunt, serious Android gaming and accelerated streaming over even average broadband. Could this be the TV box you’ve been waiting for? With no UK release date in sight, we've taken a look at the US version.
Amazon Fire TV: Size and build
Like its rivals, the diminutive Amazon Fire TV won’t clog up your home theatre. Its 115m-square, 17.5mm deep matt-black plastic design is minimal to the point of invisibility, with just a tiny white LED to let you know it’s alive.
The pleasantly smooth Bluetooth remote is equally nondescript, apart from a iPod-alike circular four-way nav pad that might have excited Apple’s lawyers if not for a missing click-wheel. There are bog-standard HDMI, optical audio and Ethernet ports (no cables supplied), and a mysterious USB socket. A separate games controller with dual joysticks, proper nav pad and buttons galore costs $40.
Amazon Fire TV: Features
The Amazon Fire TV is less a TV streamer and more of a magic wand to convert your living room telly into a 40+-inch tablet. As well as a choice of video services (Amazon Instant Video - recently rebranded from Lovefilm Instant - naturally getting pride of place), there are audio streaming apps, internet radio and a lovely photo viewer that can grab images from your Facebook account.
Above all, though, there are games. Real games that you might want to actually play (although bear in mind this is Android we’re talking about). These include the serviceable Halo-esque FPS Sev Zero, racers, platformers and adventures, presided over by a social gaming hub called Game Circle with global leaderboards. Better yet, a 1.7GHz quad-core chip and Qualcomm GPU keep even fast 3D games flying.
Amazon Fire TV: Interface
If you’ve used any of the Kindle Fire tablets, the Fire TV’s simple category-based home screen will be familiar. Even if you haven’t, the box comes preloaded with your Amazon account, so you should be streaming in seconds. Or even faster if you choose the right video: the box pre-loads popular items and your favourite streams for near-instant buffer-free starts.
Annoyingly, the video interface is the weakest of all media types. The ‘Your Video Library’ tab, for example, shows just a single strip of icons, three at a time, with no way to sort by title, view or purchase date.
Even with a modest library of 50 titles and lightning-fast scrolling, we found it time-consuming to zip back and forth in search of the right title. Luckily, there’s a way around this that is also the Amazon Fire TV’s best feature.
Press and hold the voice search on the remote and simply speak a title, actor, director or genre. In a flash, the Fire TV comes back with rock-solid results – although only for Amazon Instant Video, Vevo and Hulu Plus. T3's British accent couldn’t fox it, and only searching for less popular foreign titles or actors drew blanks. (There’s always the option of a hunt-and-peck on-screen keyboard as a backup).
Amazon Fire TV: Content
There’s not much on the video side here to woo seasoned streamers. Yes, Amazon does have a few exclusives (including political comedy Alpha House, but overall you’ll find the same old services, showing the same old programs. The key services (Netflix, Hulu Plus, Showtime, YouTube, ESPN) are present and correct, although HBO Go is AWOL.
Obviously this is all US content at present - if the box makes it to the UK, the lineup is bound to vary slightly.
Streaming quality is fine but no better than that – sit well back from your 1080p screen if you don’t enjoy wincing at smeary colours and pixelly detail.
The selection of new release movies for rental is excellent, and Prime is also getting better all the time. But just like its rivals, there’s no good way to watch the best of live TV, such as breaking news, the Oscars or one-off sporting events.
A ring-fenced selection of around 100 games is available now, with ‘thousands more’ promised ‘soon’. Some are free while others cost Amazon coins (100=$1) and you get 500 coins free with Fire TV. On the audio side, Amazon has wooed Pandora but not Spotify. Amazon’s Cloud Player is arriving in May, as is a FreeTime service that provides all-you-can-brainwash access to kids’ TV, films and games in a family-friendly walled garden for a couple of bucks a month.
Amazon Fire TV: Verdict
The Amazon Fire TV is not just another video streaming gadget. With its effortless voice search, blistering speed and decent gaming, it simply roasts many of its rivals alive (with the possible exception of the ultra-bargain basement Now TV in the UK).
Even so, for most people already streaming via another box, Blu-ray player or console, it won’t be different enough to be worth switching over. Where the Amazon Fire TV should really spark an interest is with the majority who haven’t settled on a streaming service yet – or anyone saddled with a high-end ‘smart’ TV or Android gaming console like Ouya.
Why splash out on a wallet-thumping telly that becomes obsolete almost instantly or a single-function gamer when you can bolt on a cheap, brainy box like the Fire TV in seconds? The slightly average streaming quality and comparatively weak interface mean that Fire TV isn't perfect, but it's a very strong contender. We'll take another look when (or if) the Amazon Fire TV arrives in the UK...
Amazon Fire TV release date: Out now US, no UK release date yet
Amazon Fire TV price: $99