Amazon Fire TV Review

Amazon Fire TVAmazon’s $99 Fire TV is the latest entry in the set top box market…so how does it stack up against AppleTV?  Read on for my Amazon Fire TV review.

My out of the box experience was actually pretty horrible, but I attribute this to immature software and expect it’ll improve over time.  The problem I had was getting it to work with the 720p LCD TV in our family room.  When powering up, it’d display the Amazon Fire TV logo, then the screen would go dark.  It would work just fine with my 1080p projector though, so using that, I manually set the Fire TV to 720p resolution, and was then able to get it to work with my TV.  However, streaming videos from Amazon Instant Video do not play, it’s just a black screen (they work fine on the 1080p projector).  Videos from third party apps play just fine…it’s the Amazon content that won’t play.  I expect this will be fixed by future software updates, just be forewarned if you buy a Fire TV and experience this blank screen on startup.

The Fire TV is very app-focused, like the AppleTV.  What I mean is, if you click on movies or TV, that’s searching Amazon’s content…if you want to search Netflix, or even your own content, you need to go to the app for that.  To play movies or TV shows you’ve ripped to your computer, you’d need to install an app like Plex to access those.  So in this respect it’s not a lot different than AppleTVAppleTV also tucks your ‘created’ content into its own section (‘computers’) and requires you to install software (iTunes) on the computer that houses the content you want to access.

There are some nice games available for free on the Fire TV, and we found them really enjoyable, even with using just the included remote (yes, the optional game controller would be wise, but it was nice to see good levels of functionality with just the remote!).

I don’t like how the Fire TV organizes content in my Instant Video watchlist…the interface for the PS3 is still better for that IMO (but then, maybe I  just need to adapt…).  Just doesn’t work well scrolling through the list one item at a time instead of having categories or genres like AppleTV.  There’s also no way to search for movies and TV shows that are free for Prime subscription members – yes it tells you which qualify, but you can’t limit your search to just that.  The font size used for some on screen information is incredibly tiny (guess I need a bigger TV? 😉 ).  The voice search works pretty well.  These are just relatively minor software gripes…and looking at the effort they’ve obviously put into the user interface so far, I expect it’ll improve quickly from here.  Menu navigation was smooth and quick, the software seemed pretty solid where it really counted (well, except for being unable to play Amazon Instant Video selections on my TV!).

So what’s the verdict?  Well when it comes to functionality, the Fire TV has a couple advantages over the AppleTV – voice search, and games.  However, Apple is rumored to be releasing a new AppleTV soon that includes both of those options…so that advantage may be short-lived.  With either of these products though, to really take advantage of them, you need to buy in to the whole ecosystem the manufacturers’ promote.  That means buying or renting movies and TV shows from one or the other, installing computer-based software to organize your home movie library, using a compatible tablet to stream video to your TV, buying either an iPhone or a Amazon Fire Phone (those should appear later this year), etc.  You’re not looking at a $99 purchase…that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how this product will impact your life.  So, be prepared for that.  My personal preference is still the AppleTV, mostly because I’ve already invested in that Apple ecosystem and am very happy with it.  For people still transitioning to this connected lifestyle…Amazon is managing to bring to market a pretty solid lineup of products to compete with Apple (I’d probably rank Microsoft a distant 3rd).  No matter which one you opt for…you’ll be happiest if you buy in to the whole ecosystem.  Oh, but if you’re thinking about buying a new Apple TV right now…wait for the new one to be released later this year with voice search and games.

Disclaimer – I own stock in both Amazon AND Apple…hedging my bets you might say…but the truth is they’re both doing a really good job in this personal electronics space.

Internet-based TV on the way?

Good news for those wishing for the death of traditional TV...deals are currently being struck between various companies that allow for internet-based distribution of TV content.  The latest is between Dish Network and Disney, with Verizon and DirecTV also rumored to be pursuing similar content deals.  This means a potential end to the near-monopoly of cable companies and increased competition in the marketplace.  It also opens the door for Apple to move their AppleTV past the ‘hobby’ stage into a disruptive force in that market (or so I hope).  Read more over at Engadget.

TV: a dying business model

TV, as we have known it, is dead…the industry just isn’t willing to give up and is doing its best to keep it on life support.  The best example of this is commercial-skipping technology.  ReplayTV was sued and ultimately put out of business largely due to this feature, and the latest lawsuit targets Dish Networks for similar technology, that automatically skips over commercials in recorded shows.

Does this technology impact studios’ bottom line?  Probably.  But the invention of the horseless carriage affected horsewhip makers everywhere…and this alone is not a reason to hold back progress. The technology is here to give the viewers a better viewing experience, but studios are doing everything they can to block change.  Apple has been rumored to be working on a TV, though building the hardware is the relatively easy part…it’s the software and user experience that is the most challenging to fix….here’s hoping they can pull it off in 2013.

As for me…I cut the cord over a year ago, tired of paying so much for so many channels I just didn’t want.  I replaced our DirecTV subscription with a combination of purchasing shows via iTunes, and recording free over-the-air broadcasts from the major TV networks.  My iMac records those broadcasts using an EyeTV tuner, with the free software plugin comskipper automatically going through and marking commercials for deletion (I still like to review that manually as it often leaves some in there).  A simple click then exports it directly into my iTunes library for viewing on any of our AppleTVs.  It’s really not that hard…just imagine how awesome the user experience could be if the studios embraced technology instead of fighting it every step of the way.

TV’s business model is obsolete…it’s time to reinvent it.  If anyone can do it, it’s Apple.  My AppleTV prediction – voice and gesture control.  Face recognition tied in with parental controls to limit what kids can watch without an adult present.  An aluminum enclosure, very similar to the latest iMacs.  Sales in the billions.