Update: We've updated our Amazon Fire TV review to include our thoughts on the company's newly added Music and FreeTime features.
With the introduction of Fire TV, behemoth online retailer Amazon has entered the streaming set-top box battle that may ultimately determine the future of how we get content into our TVs. The device is competitive on both price and performance with Roku 3, Apple TV and Google Chromecast and seems squarely aimed at challenging those established players. The good news is that the product, like Amazon itself, is friendly, powerful, and innovative and tackles some of the critical consumer pain points associated with the current streaming boxes. The less good news is that it doesn't entirely live up to some of the promises Amazon is making.
Amazon has explicitly stated that it wanted to address three problem areas about the consumer streaming experience: poor performance, closed ecosystems and cumbersome search. In terms of performance they have a clear winner on their hands. Fire TV is consistently snappy and responsive, thanks to some relatively beefy silicon inside.
Fire TV is a fairly open platform, but its interface consistently tilts toward Amazon's offerings. It can't access content from iTunes or Google Play (no surprise), but does support a wide array of third party services and will presumably be adding more as time goes on. Third-party services, however, are relegated to second-class status within Fire TV's user interface. They sit in the system's "Apps" tab, while the system's prominent Movies, TV, Watchlist and My Library tabs all feed directly to Amazon's offerings. The system's first party offerings are always in plain view and accessible directly from the home screen. Third-party offerings tend to take some clicking and scrolling to get to.
While Amazon may overemphasize their own offerings, it's worth noting that the company has been putting serious work into beefing up its Amazon Prime Unlimited Streaming library. Along with a slate of well-produced original content, the company recently announced a deal that will fold HBO's original programming (for shows more than 3 years old) into Prime Unlimited Streaming. They may not have Netflix's numbers yet, but Amazon is clearly becoming a serious player in the ongoing streaming services war. In addition, Amazon recently launched its Prime Music service that gives Amazon Prime users streaming access to an extensive library of top-tier music across a panoply of genres, though it is not yet available through FireTV (music stored in your Cloud Drive is accessible, however).
Search has been addressed with a slick voice recognition feature that uses a microphone on the remote to allow consumers to speak their searches instead of hunting and pecking across an on-screen letter grid. With access to cloud processing to handle the heavy lifting of voice recognition, the system does an excellent job of understanding what you're trying to tell it. However, voice searches only scan for Amazon and Vevo content, an unfortunate decision that significantly undercuts the utility of this breakthrough feature. Amazon has announced that it will be adding support for searching the catalogs of Hulu Plus, Crackle and Showtime Anytime. However, even with these additions, the device's tantalizing voice search function remains deeply underpowered.
Amazon has included some compelling extras, including the ability to view photos users have stored on Amazon Cloud Drive, and playback for Music purchased through its MP3 store (though Prime Music is not yet available through the device). Amazon has also put special focus on games with this system and thanks to a more powerful processor and Amazon's optional dedicated game controller ($40) Kindle Fire's gaming options surpass the Angry Birds-level options offered on similar devices. Still, most games are ports of existing Android titles that already run on the Kindle HDX, so while the games look and play well on the system, it doesn't have a patch on dedicated gaming consoles (which, to be fair, are typically far more expensive).
One potential differentiator for families is Amazon's integration of its FreeTime area, which allows parents to precisely proscribe the content kids access and their time on the system. It's an interesting offering that's not available on most other streaming boxes, however, it has its own set of drawbacks as well (see FreeTime section for further details).