I recently purchased the Amazon Fire ($99) to see for myself if we need yet another set-top box to compete with Roku, Apple TV, and Chromecast. After playing with it for a while, I’m impressed!
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What You Get
The Amazon Fire TV comes in the now-standard Apple-esque elegant packaging, complete with plastic films that you peel off to reveal virgin surfaces untouched by human hands. The unit is slightly bigger than an Apple TV and has sharp corners, rather than rounded, reminding me of the monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey”.
Included in the package is a remote control, batteries, and quick start guide. As with the other mainstream set-top boxes, you need to supply the HDMI cable.
To set up, load the batteries into the remote, then plug in the power adapter to the main unit. Connect the HDMI cable to your TV (there is no provision for composite video, so if you have an older TV without HDMI, you can’t use Amazon Fire; you have to get a Roku). If you don’t have Wi-Fi, you can attach an Ethernet cable for Internet access.
When I turned on my TV and selected the proper HDMI input, I saw the Fire was up and running. Using the direction keys, I selected my Wi-Fi network and entered my Wi-Fi password. This part is a little cumbersome, but common to all set-top boxes when using Wi-Fi and is unavoidable. Now for the amazing part: Amazon had pre-programmed the unit with my Amazon account information, so at this point, my existing Amazon content magically appeared! No need to log into Amazon! With my other boxes, I had to enter usernames and passwords, or run back and forth between my computer and TV to enter codes. All of that hassle is GONE with Amazon Fire!
One slight downside of this is security. If your Amazon Fire accidentally gets delivered to the wrong address, they will have free reign of your account and can watch as many movies as they want on your dime, so watch the tracking information carefully after it is delivered.
But, it is totally worth it. My elderly parents, for example, are not tech-savvy, and I guarantee would not make it through the password process of other boxes. While this little convenience might seem like a minor detail to many of us, for others it’s the difference between getting the unit to work and having an expensive paperweight on their hands.
Also, beware giving Amazon Fire as a gift. The recipient might not get the unit pre-programmed for them (obviously, if you have it shipped to you and give it to them in person, it won’t be pre-programmed with their account info; it will have yours). There is a way to change the account of course, but they’ll have to go through the password entry process.
After starting up, there is a short introductory video which might be helpful to some folks: So, by far, the Amazon Fire has the easiest setup of any set top box I’ve tried!!! Score one for Amazon Fire!
Navigation is easy, and pretty similar to navigation on Apple TV and Roku. You simply use the remote to move around and select options. The response is really snappy. The remote is well-designed and feels good. I immediately found all of the Amazon content that I had previously purchased, ready to view. It only takes a few seconds to start viewing, once you click an icon. The only slightly confusing part was that TV shows that I purchased were somewhat “mixed in” with other episodes from that season that I hadn’t purchased yet. Clearly, this is intended to make it easy (perhaps too easy) to purchase more shows. A little clearer delineation between purchased and non-purchased shows would be nice. But, this is a small complaint. This unit is as close to “plug-and-play” as I’ve seen. Of all of the set-top boxes, this unit got me watching content the quickest.
There are all of the standard pay channels that you would expect, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, and so forth. However, there is no iTunes of course. You need Apple TV for that.
I like free stuff, so I was thrilled to see a YouTube app. You can use it without logging in, but you’ll get a much better experience if you do log in. If you want to do so, the app will give you a code, then you have to run to your computer and enter it into YouTube, then return to your TV (this running around is the very thing that Amazon avoids with their service). But, it’s worth it. You’ll have access to your viewing history, favorites, YouTube channels, and so forth.
Other free channels include Crackle (for old movies), VEVO for videos, and Pandora for music. There is a Watch ESPN app, but it requires a cable TV or other subscription membership, which sort of defeats the purpose. I deleted it.
You might have seen the ads demonstrating Amazon Fire’s voice search feature. This is really handy because it’s so cumbersome to enter anything using on-screen keyboards (i.e., that matrix of letters that you scroll around entering one letter at a time). The voice search feature works great, but only gives you Amazon search results. It would have been awesome if it worked in all apps – YouTube voice search would have been amazing! But, if you have Amazon Prime, or like to rent and buy from Amazon, this is a nice feature which works well.
The only thing that tripped me up initially was that I pressed and released the button before talking. You have to press and hold the button while you talk. No big deal once I learned how to use it.
I am not an avid gamer but for the purposes of this review, I purchased the optional game controller for $39.99. It looks klunky but is surprisingly comfortable.
I tried out three games: a casino game pack, Tetris, and a first-person shooter.
The graphics and sound were pretty impressive for such an inexpensive box. However, for me, each of the games required way too much setup, i.e., making characters, reading instructions, etc. I wish it was like an old-school arcade where you just drop in a coin and start playing. Maybe that’s just me.
Overall, I don’t think the games will be a very compelling feature for most users. If you’re a gamer, you’re going to have a Playstation or Xbox. If you’re just a casual gamer like me, the games don’t give instant gratification and require too much setup and learning, even for simple games like Tetris or Blackjack! For what it’s worth, the controller seemed fine, but I hardly used it because I lacked the patience to get very far in most of the games I tried.
Streaming From Other Devices
To my great surprise, I discovered that I was able to “cast” from my iPad running the YouTube app to my Amazon Fire TV (i.e., I could mirror the YouTube video on my TV). I suspect that apps that are compatible with Chromecast will be able to cast on Amazon Fire TV. To be clear, though, you can only mirror certain apps. I was not able to find a way to mirror the contents of my iPad’s browser onto the Amazon Fire TV.
Also, I was not able to cast from my Chrome browser on my laptop to my Amazon Fire TV, unfortunately.
For streaming content from your computer to your TV, there is the Plex app for $4.99. For streaming from your Android or iOS phone, there is the free Air Buddy app. I’ll review these services in a future article.
The games notwithstanding, I think this is an outstanding box for viewing your Amazon library and content from other services. For ease of setup and ease of use, this beats Roku, Apple TV and Chromecast due to the pre-setup of Amazon services, and the voice search.
Amazon Fire TV Stick
Amazon has a low-cost version of the Fire TV called the Amazon Fire TV Stick. Like the Google Chromecast, it’s a small unit that plugs directly into your TV’s HDMI input. List is $39 but there are deals.
The two main things you lose with the Stick are voice control (although there is an iPhone/Android app that accomplishes that on your phone), and some processing power, resulting in slightly slower navigation and so forth. You also can’t run some of the higher-end games.
The Stick great if you plan to use it in a hotel or while traveling. Otherwise, go with the regular Fire TV so you get the remote with voice control.
Should You Buy It?
If you already have an Apple TV, Roku, or Chromecast, and you’re happy with it, no need to get an Amazon Fire TV. If you don’t, here’s a quick rundown of the four major set-top boxes:
- If you have an older TV without HDMI, then get a Roku. It is the only one of the bunch that has composite video output.
- If you are an Apple fan, and have a lot of Apple devices and iTunes content, go for Apple TV. Integration with Apple devices is very good: for example, mirroring from your iPad to your TV.
- If you are tech-savvy, and have a laptop that is fairly powerful, and want to watch almost anything that you can get in your browser on your TV screen, then Chromecast is for you. The cool thing is that you don’t need “apps”. Your browser window gets “cast” onto your TV screen. Note that Chromecast can require some tinkering, so it’s not for technophobes.
- For everyone else, I would recommend Amazon Fire TV or Roku. Amazon Fire is slightly easier to set up if you have Amazon, but Roku has far more channels and content.
Where to Get It
Click the link below to get Amazon Fire TV or Amazon Fire TV Stick on Amazon.com:
What was your experience with Amazon Fire like? Please leave a comment below. – Brian