Fire TV video review: a set-top box for gamers?

Amazon Fire TV is just another drop in an ocean of media streaming set-top boxes. It runs Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and Pandora, and sells for $99. In many ways, it's no different than other devices, like Roku and Apple TV. Three factors distinguish the Fire TV from the competition: it's designed specifically to integrate with Amazon's streaming media services; its voice search functionality, and it can play Android-based video games on your television. Of these, its gaming capability is the most unique, and Amazon Game Studios is already releasing exclusive content for the system. But is that enough to justify picking one up? Fire TV is small, with a sleek, minimalistic, black finish that practically vanishes on the entertainment center. It has all the ports you'd expect from a media device: HDMI, optical audio, wi-fi, ethernet, and USB. One key feature that's missing: the ability to turn it off. Fire TV automatically goes to sleep when left idle for too long. The remote control is equally small and discreet, with a voice command microphone button, a circular navigation pad, and six media keys. You can activate the voice search by holding down the microphone button and saying terms like an actor's name or genre into the top of the remote. The Fire TV processes your voice in the cloud and searches through Amazon's media library. The voice recognition is pretty accurate and responsive right out of the box, and it's a very convenient way to find movies, shows, music and apps. After doing a search for "Angelina Jolie," we did a separate one for "Action Movies," and Salt came up as the first result. This could be an indication of how Fire TV is learning our taste preferences and trying to predict what we might enjoy. However, it's a little disappointing that the voice function only works to run searches. It can't be used to issue commands to the Fire TV as you would with Xbox One or Siri. Kindle owners should be familiar with Amazon's UI, with rows of covers stacked atop each other like bookshelves. You have easy access to Amazon content organized into different categories. Unfortunately, there's no way to organize your watchlist and apps into custom collections or lists. It's certainly not a deal breaker, but it would be nice if you didn't have to do as much scrolling to get to what you want to watch. Fire TV gives users access to expected video features. Oddly, it happens to be one of the few boxes to support Showtime Anytime, but there's no HBO Go app yet. You can also view photos on the big screen, but only if they've been uploaded to Amazon Cloud Drive. It's easy to setup the Cloud Drive app for your phone, tablet, or computer, but you're out of luck if you want to just use the USB port; Fire TV doesn't recognize flash drives. It's not a particularly strong music player, either. While it's great to listen to music on big speakers, a wireless option would have been nice, like pairing a bluetooth headset or including a headphone jack on the remote control like the Roku does. With these shortcomings, Fire TV isn't the best at media streaming. However, Amazon's focus on gaming is a key differentiator. For an additional $39.99, Fire TV owners can by the official game controller. If you have any intention of playing games, you're going to need a Bluetooth gamepad. While games can be played with the remote control, it's generally uncomfortable. The Amazon controller is clearly modeled after the Xbox 360 gamepad, with similar size, weight, and button and thumbstick placement. The top face of the controller is flat and has four console buttons on it, including one that brings up GameCircle for achievement tracking. This controller also acts as a secondary remote control, so you can access all the Fire TV's content but without the voice search. Media control line the bottom of the controller, so there's no need to reach for the remote when you're done gaming. One design oversight is that, like the Fire TV itself, there is no way to manually turn it on and off. And although the controller is comfortable, its grips don't fill out our hands the same way an Xbox controller does. However, the gamepad is very responsive and solidly built. If you already have a Bluetooth controller, you may be able to use it with Fire TV instead.

Like Wii U, Fire TV offers second screen support via Kindle Fire

Fire TV also offers second screen features when paired with a Kindle Fire. You can start a movie on the tablet, mirror it on the TV, and use the tablet for other tasks--like using X-Ray to look up information through IMDB. Sev Zero is currently the only game that supports Dual Mode Gameplay. With it, a friend can use the Sev Zero: Air Support app to provide additional firepower. They can help you defeat invaders by launching missiles, freezing enemies and deploying explosive decoys. While it's not entirely copying Nintendo's approach with Wii U, it shows that Amazon's capable of offering similar experiences. Unfortunately for Fire TV, it simply doesn't change peoples' lifestyles the way Kindle did when it first launched. Amazon doesn't undercut the competition by offering a superior media experience or a lower price. In fact, games truly are the biggest draw of Fire TV. The device is a much more fully featured media device compared to Ouya, a dedicated gaming console which retails for roughly the same price.

Sev Zero is the first big exclusive from Amazon Games

But is playing Android-based games enough to warrant a $140 purchase, when factoring in the cost of the controller? At launch, the Amazon Appstore already offers a broad collection of quality, inexpensive, games. Sev Zero is a fun game, and a great start for Amazon Game Studios, but we're not convinced that it's a system seller. If you don't own any kind of media steaming or gaming device (which seems unlikely), Fire TV manages to fill the niche for an inexpensive all-in-one system. Otherwise, with Roku offering more channels, and the consoles offering increasingly comprehensive media solutions, Amazon will need to offer some more incentives to make the purchase worthwhile.
This review is based on a hardware unit purchased by Shacknews.