Review: Amazon Fire TV 2015 Edition

Amazon did a good job on its first Amazon Fire TV, and the recently released second generation shares many of its attributes while adding 4K streaming. While it is one of the best media streamers available, it needs refinement to improve ease of use and to fulfill its promise of global voice search.

Speaking of promises, Amazon’s product description of the new Fire TV is filled with claims of features that aren’t actually available on the model yet. Yes, this generation has added Alexa, the popular voice control that’s at the heart of the Amazon Echo, but Alexa doesn’t have all the listed capabilities. While I’m thrilled that the new Fire TV can stream 4K, has X-ray movie data and other cool features available in the previous model, it could be better.

As with the first model, the guided setup is easy and is followed by an animated Welcome video. The video takes users through each of the features and how to use them. For those who still need help, Amazon has added its Mayday support that was previously only available on Fire tablets. With Mayday a troubled user not only gets help over the phone, the rep will take control of the Fire TV to demonstrate how to use a feature or fix what’s wrong.

Alexa Light
”Alexa” has been added to the new Fire TV. While it sounds like a person’s name, Alexa is simply the wakeup word for the Amazon Echo connected device that is said before a command (like “Okay Google” or “Hey Siri”). Because the Echo responds to conversational language commands to control lights, play music, time your hard-boiled eggs, tell you the news headlines, report on traffic and weather and much more, many Echo owners (including myself) have anthropomorphized the female voice, referring to our Echo with the pronoun “she.” Alexa has been a hands-free hero that sends info, shopping lists and all commands to an Alexa Amazon app for phones and tablet.

Although Alexa is available on the Fire TV, it doesn’t work in the same way nor does it have all of the same capabilities. Where the Amazon Echo is always on and waiting for a command, Alexa on the Fire TV is activated by pressing a microphone key and saying a command. It is not necessary to address Alexa when using the Fire TV remote; in fact, it could confuse a nearby Echo.

At launch, the Fire TV’s Alexa has only a few of the Echo’s benefits. The TV’s Alexa can speak the weather and show you a forecast screen. It can show you the definition of a word or place. I asked who built the Eiffel Tower. Alexa displayed the information from Wikipedia along with a few pictures of the Parisian landmark. Alexa can also show and lets you add items to your shopping list. The shopping list appears on the Alexa phone app so it is available when you are at the store. The Fire TV Alexa can tell you what events are on your Google calendar. It also has the ability to control music playback like it can on the Echo. Simply ask for a song, artist or a prime playlist, and Alexa instantly plays your musical request from Prime music, Pandora, iHeart Radio, and TuneIn. (Unfortunately, music only plays when the app is open, which means it doesn’t accompany a slideshow.)

Although the welcome video (and product descriptions on Amazon) states that Alexa can read news headlines and sports scores, those features are not yet available. They will likely come with the complete Fire TV Alexa update expected before the end of the year. The update should also fulfill Amazon’s product description claim that a user can instantly play a movie title on request, similar to the instant music feature and will be able to launch apps and control playback through a voice command.

For now, the Fire TV is controlled by voice remote, an optional game controller, or the Fire TV app for mobile phones. Where the voice control comes with the basic Fire TV, the Fire TV Gaming Edition includes the game controller (and lists the remote control as optional). I wasn’t able to test the game controller but the remote and remote app work well and don’t require line-of-site. The remotes have a simple layout and are easy to use. The same can’t be said about the Fire TV menus.

Navigating Fire TV
The Fire TV menus haven’t changed from that of the first generation. Still, it was only while testing this Fire TV that I noticed how the home screen was clumsy and made it hard to find the apps and videos I wanted. It starts with the home screen.

Unlike many other media streamers that display a grid of your downloaded apps, the Fire TV uses the home screen as the place to help users discover new apps and videos. Displayed in horizontal rows, the home menu includes recently used apps and videos you've watched, followed by a row of Featured Apps and Games, then a row of Prime Originals and Exclusive videos that Amazon wants to promote. If you like seeing what’s new, you might like this layout. I prefer my home screen to be single-click access to the apps I want to use. The horizontal carousel was also a bother as it only displayed five titles or apps at a time, plus once you scrolled to the end, it didn’t loop back to the first option in the row (which is typically the case with other streamers that use carousels).

A full list of apps is available, though I had to navigate through the submenu categories to get to it. The apps category is listed in a sidebar along with Movies, Prime Video, TV, Photos, Your Video Library, and your Watchlist. Those menu pages also use the carousel navigation that hides many choices from the initial screen. It was cumbersome to find the titles and apps I wanted through this menu layout, but then, the Fire TV does have voice search.

When the first Fire TV was released, there was much excitement about the global voice search feature that was touted as being able to find titles on any app. The original voice search was a disappointment as it displayed results from Amazon and Amazon Prime, but did not list other services from which titles could be streamed. Amazon has stated that this second generation Fire TV would be better; in the new model’s product description, Amazon has listed a number of apps that are searchable. However, my repeated tests showed that the second generation of voice search wasn’t any better than the first and most of the compatible apps did not appear in search results.

In my tests, search results for titles available on Hulu or Netflix were not displayed. Orange is the New Black was found on Amazon Instant video but not on Netflix. Once Upon a Time is available on Hulu but was also only listed as available on Amazon. The one exception I found was a search for Homeland, which offered the option to watch on Showtime Anytime and included the caveat that a subscription to Showtime was required.

Beyond its spotty results, there was another issue with voice search. I had expected to be able to press the microphone and search from any screen with the search dialog appearing above the present content or menu. This is how it worked on Boxee and Android TV. The Fire TV will display the words you spoke into the microphone but it doesn’t fade out the background so it’s hard to see what you said. Plus the words are not clickable and the search can’t be completed. This is probably a bug that will be fixed later. For now, voice search worked when clicking on the Search subcategory at the top of the sidebar.

Unlimited Content
Content is truly unlimited on a Fire TV. Amazon lists almost 2,000 streaming entertainment apps that can be found on the Amazon website. Apps can be downloaded to the Fire TV in the Amazon checkout screen in much in the same way that Amazon delivers an e-book to a Kindle. It is much easier to find apps this way than to browse directly from the Fire TV. HBO Go, HBO Now, Slingplayer, Sling TV, Hulu, Crackle, Showtime, ABC, YouTube, and a long list of other popular apps are available to stream online videos. The Plex plays music, movies, and photos downloaded to media libraries on your home network. Flixster streams the movies in an UltraViolet library.

Along with all of the content available from apps, the Fire TV has Miracast to mirror Fire tablets and Android devices. Almost any video, game or other app displayed on an Android phone or tablet can be played on the Fire TV. Apple devices—iPhones, iPads, and recent Mac computer models—can also use AirPlay to stream or mirror to the Fire TV by using one of a number of AirPlay apps for the Fire TV. The app that worked best in my tests was AirReceiver ($8 in the Fire TV app store). Mirroring to Fire TV doesn’t yield high-quality video as the video jutters during fast action or panning. Still, AirPlay is a great way to view photos from an iPhone or use a Mac’s web browser on the Fire TV.

If all of the entertainment content isn’t enough, the Fire TV has more than 1,000 game apps in its app store, including Minecraft, Lego Star Wars, and Crossy Road. Because gaming apps require a lot of memory, the Fire TV has a micro SD card slot to add an additional 128 GBs of storage.

The Fire TV can stream 4K content that is available on Amazon, Netflix, and YouTube. It is a stunning picture but content is limited and expensive. UHD movie and TV titles are included in a Netflix subscription (the 4K subscription is $11.99 per month). Amazon has a few movie titles to go with its original series that are available in 4K. UHD movies can also be purchased from Amazon for $26.

To accommodate the data-heavy streaming of 4K video, Amazon beefed up the Fire TV’s hardware. The processor has been updated and the wireless card is 802.11 AC Mimo, which insures smooth streaming when paired with an AC router like my candy-apple red D-Link DIR-890L. While a buffering circle displayed onscreen a couple times when streaming a UHD movie, there was never a delay or hiccup in the actual playback. Amazon has included its ASAP technology that “preloads” movie and TV titles that you are likely to watch. HBO Go, Hulu, and Netflix will also benefit from the faster loads.

If you want to stream the 4K video, be sure your TV supports HDCP 2.2 digital rights management. Some of the first UHD TVs do not have ports that can play HDCP 2.2 so be sure to check your TV’s specifications.

Final Thoughts
The new Amazon Fire TV may have its flaws, but it is still one of the best players available. Hopefully, the upcoming updates will address its current issues. The picture is stunning whether playing 1080p or 4K, and it can stream or play anything you could possibly want to see on your TV. A few more contenders (the Roku 4) will be released in the coming weeks, but for now the Amazon Fire TV is the best streaming media player available on the market and it is priced reasonably at $99.

gunhed's picture

Barb, great review. The specs however state it can play 4K at 24fps and 30fps. How much 4K content is produced at these speeds vs 60fps ?