Yesterday my Amazon Fire TV and game controller arrived via UPS, and after spending a few hours with it, I wanted to write up my first impressions of the device.
First off the packaging is nicely minimal and unboxing went smoothly and was quite easy. Then I realized they could pull that off because Amazon designed the device, the service it runs, the site I bought it from, and finally the packing and shipping of the item. The people at UPS were the only only non-Amazon hands that ever touched my device (and Amazon drones could have prevented it :). That kind of complete end-to-end control from soup-to-nuts on devices is something very few companies on earth can do, so it's worth mentioning that Amazon capitalized on it by making some nice simple packaging that was easy to get into and get rid of.
Setup was a cinch, with just a plugged in cable from an existing HDMI port on my A/V unit. The first thing it needed to do was connect to my WiFi network, and then we were off. It was a bit of a downer to see even though the device was less than 48 hours past the announcement/launch, it required a lengthy software update as soon as I powered it up. It took about 15 minutes on my very fast fiber line to download a patch and then install it. Following the install, a nice little animated how-to video played to teach you how the controller worked and how Voice Search operated. Voice search works a lot like Siri on an iPhone and tested well.
Convenience, at a price?
The most surprising aspect to me during setup was I didn't have to tell the device who I was by logging into Amazon (which is a pain since I use a password manager and would have to look up and enter a 20-digit mis-mash of characters). All my recent Prime Video plays were shown, and I checked the Settings screen to see that in fact the Fire TV knew I was Matt Haughey and I was already logged into my account and it knew I already had Amazon Prime. I'm flat-out impressed that the device shipped to me with me logged in already.
During setup, I was asked about "Parental Controls" on purchasing (it would require a PIN) and I skipped it, not thinking much about it, until later when testing out purchasing, I noticed buying a show/game is the most painless true one-click experience. It just says something may cost "$4.99" and you click it, and it is downloading. No confirmation, no "are you sure?" just one click and sold. Now I understand why Parental Controls were presented earlier. It's easy to imagine my young daughter accidentally clicking any show she wants without realizing she is racking up a bill for me, as my AppleTV requires a confirmation even if you store your password permanently on it.
As you can guess, the content that is offered for free Amazon Prime streaming is a hodge-podge of various shows and movies that are mostly older and reminds me of the first time I logged into a new Netflix account and couldn't find any recent movies I wanted to see. Despite trying out nearly every set-top and streaming device, I've never owned a recent Roku device so this is the first easy way I have on my TV to watch Amazon Video, which is why I purchased this device. I usually only search for things on Amazon Prime Video when I'm sure they can't be streamed on Netflix or Hulu Plus.
The biggest failing is that end users (that's us!) don't get a truly Universal Search. If you search for "Bob's Burgers" (arguably the best network animated comedy show today) on Amazon's Fire TV, you get results that you can buy any single episode from their 4 season run for $1.99 each or a full season for $29.99. I'm a member of Hulu Plus and Netflix as well, and installed the apps on the Fire TV, but there's no mention of them in the search results or even after clicking the "more ways to watch" button. On Netflix, you can stream the first couple seasons of Bob's Burgers for free. On Hulu, you can watch the latest episodes from the current fourth season for free as well.
Now, I know Amazon is in the business of making money and would of course want you to buy the episodes from them, but Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos got famous for putting a customer's needs first (The Bezos Doctrine) before profits. Of course, Apple doesn't offer this kind of search on AppleTV either, but if anyone would have been crazy enough to give free streaming options before paid downloads, I would have hoped that Amazon Fire TV could be the first, but sadly it's not.
I was curious enough to see what Amazon Fire TV's gaming was going to be like that I sprang for the extra $40 controller to find out. Overall after having played just a handful of games I'd say it's a pretty nice port of an Android game store to a TV. It's fast and fun and reminds me of the Ouya gaming device, but much more slick and faster to buy, download, and play. You can use the default remote on simple games and it worked fine for turn-based board games that only require a button and direction input. I played a few rounds of the racing game Asphalt 8 and was impressed with the speed, graphics, and playback. There was no stuttering and the graphics look and feel as good as maybe a Playstation 2 game from several years ago. The controller is pretty close to a Xbox360 controller, with plenty of buttons (almost too many) and there's no lag on the controller or the screen.
Does it Blend?
Overall, it's a pretty slick, simple device that I'll use to stream stuff when I can't find it anywhere but Amazon Prime streaming video, but I wish it were a little cheaper and I'm frankly a bit surprised it wasn't priced way below AppleTV or similar Roku devices. I'll probably try out the games a bit more, but I can't see it becoming a huge platform I'd play for hours at a time.
Google Fiber, which is Google's insanely fast gigabit network recently announced they're potentially expanding to a few more markets. I have a friend in Kansas City that got connected to it last Summer and he says the speed is really incredible, with no delays on streaming HD video instantly from almost any site.
This being PVRblog, and me being near Portland, Oregon, I was happy to hear it might be expanding to my area soon. In addition to the blistering network speeds, I'm happy to see a cheap HD TV alternative to cable being offering for just $50 more. I pay more to Frontier for a slower fiber connection with fewer channels.
The Verge published a hands-on with the hardware early during the development of Google Fiber TV, but the system sounds pretty powerful. It's all network based, with storage for 500 hours of HD, 8 tuners that can record simultaneously, along with a free Nexus 7 tablet that can be used as a remote.
My first question was whether or not Google Fiber TV supports the CableCARD standard, so I can continue using my Roamio if I were to ever get this system at home, but unfortunately, due to the FCC rules around cable, it sounds like Google Fiber TV technically doesn't have to follow digital cable rules (being delivered over the network pipes instead), so that means no, you can't use a TiVo and you'll have to stick with Google's Fiber TV DVR hardware.
I just picked up a new Roamio 6-tuner TiVo in order to test out and post a review of soon. It is my 7th or 8th TiVo I've ever owned, but this one has proven problematic on setup due to a bug with Verizon FiOS, CableCARDs, and pay channels.
The problem looks like this on any channel that isn't a major TV network:
I went through a couple back and forths with Verizon tech support (who insisted this was a bad coax or HDMI cable issue) and eventually @brennokbob on Twitter pointed me to a thread on the TiVo Community forum where a user reported similar issues with HBO not working on their new Roamio TiVo on FiOS. Design VP of TiVo Margret Schmidt pointed out the issue is with CableCARDs that aren't the latest and greatest version.
My own multistream CableCARD is two years old (shown below), and carries one of the "bad" serial numbers listed in those posts, so I'm getting scrambled cable on my new TiVo until a technician can help me replace it.
Hopefully anyone else with a similar problem stumbles onto this post and can get it remedied.
The above image is reportedly what the lower end models will look like, and the specs on new models have been bumped up impressively, with two different 4 tuner models and one 6 tuner top end recorder. The hard drive sizes look like they will go from 1Tb to 3Tb in size, both of which are ample recording capacity for HD. Rumored release looks to be in the Fall of this year.
It sounds like updated chipsets will offer a lot more processing power for better software functionality, streaming possibilities, and (finally) built-in WiFi. Personally, this might be the first TiVo box I don't pre-order on day one (as I have with previous versions going all the way back to the series 2 box) since my 4-tuner, 1Tb TiVo XL Premiere is pretty rock solid and working fine for my needs. But if the added computing power makes for more interesting applications and uses for the box, I could be convinced to try the upcoming iterations out.
Pretty interesting little thread at Quora I stumbled upon asking Why Did TiVo Fail? The best answer so far is from a former TiVo employee that makes it clear TiVo didn't completely fail (heck, it's going on 15 years old now) but did miss a ton of opportunites and he describes that he describes one by one.
Google released the Chromecast today for just $35, a small item that connects via HDMI and runs a virtual AirPlay-like service, allowing you to send video from apps and Chrome browsers to your TV. Getting video from the Internet to your TV isn't the easiest problem to solve (I can do it in one of three somewhat clunky ways), but a simple plug 'n play option for $35 seems like a great solution. The video above shows a few common uses.
I've ordered one myself and I'm curious how useful it will be, and I expect to post a review in a few weeks after I get it up and running. Last year's kickstarter PocketTV was also a HDMI smart tv adapter that I haven't heard much about ever since it got funded, so it might be an uphill battle for Google Chromecast.
Boxee is one of my favorite video apps in my home theater and I'm actually glad to hear they've been acquired by Samsung. The software Boxee created looks and works great, and is simple to use (here's my old review of the Boxee box). Samsung's own connected TV apps are another story entirely.
Samsung's software design is mostly poor, buggy, and hard to use, while Boxee's team comes from the world of nice looking easy-to-use websites and I have high hopes that they can make a bunch of user interface improvements on Samsung apps/devices as a result. In my perfect world, Samsung would scrap their SmartTV apps and instead let you run an instance of Boxee on every new Samsung TV. Boxee is really great for managing downloaded video, running various web video apps to watch stuff on your TV, and for browsing the web on your TV.
Boxee Software for the Mac
In early 2012, Boxee stopped developing their Mac/PC app when the Boxee box by D-Link took off. They also quietly removed it from their site, which annoyed me because I found the D-Link Boxee box eventually stopped working reliably for me and I replaced it with an old Mac mini. I tracked down the last release version of the Mac OS X software when I set up my Mac mini, and have been running it ever since. Now that Boxee has been acquired, I'm providing a link here in case anyone else needs a copy of this old software to run on home theater connected Macs:
Boxee 126.96.36.19996 (87 Mb .dmg)
(Google Code has this version and others for Linux and Windows here)
I've noticed that bloggers descending on CES this year is a bigger thing than ever, but most of them are going for quantity over quality. Right now I'm checking The Verge's CES coverage once a day for highlights (they are posting about 100 items a day during CES so it is best to scan), and I'm also enjoying the Wired Gadget Blog's take on CES since it's half joking, and I'm most enjoying Dave Zatz blogging just the few things that interest him each day instead of trying to go all Engadget and just blog every single thing there.
Overall, most of the home theater news seems to be 4K resolution TVs coming from every manufacturer (ignoring of course there is currently no real sources of 4K content to watch on them), every company releasing some sort of iPad app functionality for their existing product, and general home automation products coming out. At the end of this week, I'll make a post of my favorite things I've seen on these and other CES coverage blogs.
Unfortunate news tonight that Micahel Cronan, a designer from the Bay Area has died at age 61. The New York Times has more about Michael, including a story of him coming up with the name "Kindle" for Amazon as well.
Thanks to a friend being at one of his parties, I was lucky enough to interview him a few years ago on this very blog, asking him what the early prototypes of TiVo were like and how he came up with the name and mascot. Michael definitely made an impact on the technology industry and will be missed.
Two great articles on TVs just showed up on Wired's site, both by my friend Mat Honan. In the first, Mat nails the problem with new TVs, and why you don't really need one since video technology is outpacing the user interfaces of finding anything worth watching. Sure 4K video sounds impressive but there's no content out there for it, and even more important, no good content. The kind of interface Mat envisions sounds like a nice evolution of a Harmony-style remote. Give me an app tied to my TV that lets me say "Play the last episode of Mad Men" and have the app not only figure out what components in my cabinet to power on, but also where to search/download/rent/buy the program.
I was thinking about interfaces the other day at a Christmas party when I spent a bit of time trying to get Spotify songs to play on my home theater system (which features GoogleTV, Boxee, a Mac mini, TiVo Premiere, and an AppleTV). It took some fussing and finagling to get it right and I wondered how on earth a normal non-geek could venture through these waters. I would guess half my friends (mostly technology geeks themselves) don't regularly send internet video to their TV screen due to the interface difficulties.
That brings us to the second article at Wired, concering Smart TVs. Their user interfaces are mostly terrible and are such a chore to use that most people don't use them. The article is based on this recent study of Smart TV owners, showing that very few of them regularly use any of the internet features.
Last Spring I bought the newest latest, greatest Samsung Plasma for my home theater and it featured tons of SmartTV features. What I quickly found was that setup was difficult (I had to change the plug the main HDMI cable when into, to return sound to my A/V unit) and the experience was much like buying a Windows PC in the late 90s. My "desktop" home screen on the samsung featured half a dozen apps I don't use or need and couldn't delete, presumably put there by advertising partner deals that ensured their visibility. The apps were also slow to load, buggy to use, and added several minutes to the time you put down a computer and say "boy, I want to watch this on the couch instead, let me just go bring it up there."
Marc Andreesen has famously said a TV from Apple is coming possibly next year or the year after that should re-invent interfaces and how we interact with shows, but given the complexities of movie studios and cable company deals, I'm not entirely optimistic that they can solve it.