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.
by Matt Haughey April 5, 2014 in Product Reviews