Updated: August 11, 2015
My quest for the ultimate home media streaming center continues. I've had a whole bunch of semi-successes, lukewarm and short-lasting, and a bunch of failures, some of which you have yet to read about. All in all, I have not found THE one appliance that would wow my socks and make me feel like I've nailed it. Or replace my smart TV.
Next in line is Amazon Fire TV, a USD99.99 appliance. On its own, it might not be that great, but if you couple it with Amazon Prime, which you can get for one month free trial pretty much anywhere in the world, with the caveat of not being able to ship most of Prime's prime [sic] products, well, it just might be worth testing. Indeed, the combined offering of means lots of cheap or even free streaming, and this little gadget might just be the right thing for me. We shall see. Follow me.
Amazon Fire TV is designed to compete with the likes of Roku, Apple TV and Chromecast, the last two which we have already tested. It is more expensive than the rest of them, and that's why there's also Fire TV stick, a USD39.00 appliance designed to undermine the rivals through simple price attrition. Review coming soon, too.
Amazon Fire TV is a lovely, squared-edged, somewhat pleasingly heavy box, which you can conveniently place pretty much anywhere, without ruining the ambiance. It's simple and elegant, and just as appealing as Apple TV.
Inside, it comes with a quad-core Qualcomm Krait 300 processor rated at 1.7GHz, 2 GB of DDR3 533MHz RAM, dual-band WiFi (802.11a/b/g/n), Bluetooth 4.0, voice control, and about two dozen built-in applications. Internal storage weighs at 8GB, and you get Adreno 320 graphics, naturally good for a smooth 1080p 60FPS playback, which seems to be the key selling point with any media center.
There are a lot of ports available on the back of the device, including HDMI, 100Mb Ethernet, a single USB 2.0 socket, and optical audio. Amazon Fire TV supports a wide range of media codecs, both video and audio, plus photos, and all of this runs on Amazon Fire OS, a forked version of Android. Basically, Linux.
Setting things up
I connected the device quickly and easily and then powered it up. The Fire TV logo popped up, and within about five seconds, I was presented with a very short setup screen. It comes down to language and network. Then, you need to sign in with your Amazon account, and this will register your Amazon Fire TV with Amazon cloud services.
This is where my problems started
For some reason, I had significant difficulty getting things to work. The network connection was stable, I was able to install new applications, but I couldn't load any videos. They would just show up as loading, indefinitely spinning without any progress.
At this point, I phoned the support and spent about an hour debugging, feeling rather stupid. I did not have this kind of issue with Apple TV. Or Chromecast. The only system that put a similar amount of resistance was RaspBMC on my Pi set, but then, its brotherly distro openELEC was a lot better and far less buggy. Yes, I did totally fail with Cubie Board and Odroid, but we should best forget those two experiences.
As it turns out, my Kindle - and you'd say WTF is Kindle relevant here, but it is - was registered with the "wrong" Amazon domain, and I had to transfer it to the local one, which also effectively transfered my registration for Fire TV, too. Go figure. Then, for another 30 minutes or so while Amazon furiously synced my permissions across the globe, I was still unable to play content. I did make some progress, but then all sorts of popups ruined my mood, telling me about licensing errors and geo IP crap.
After some 90 minutes, Amazon Fire TV was working instantly. It was that kind of plug and play experience. Wait, I forgot to tell you that I also installed the available updates, cleared all my video data and cache, force-stopped the app, as well as deregistered and registered the device. All of these gentle steps finally got me to the point where I could start watching things. And actually evaluate this little gadget.
Let's talk about Amazon Prime. It's true, it does give you access to about 15,000 items of media, without any additional cost, beyond the annual subscription. If you are using Amazon extensively and buying lots of stuff, that sort of evens out somehow.
From the purely qualitative respective, the value you get out of Amazon Prime also depends on your region. In the US, the content tends to be cheaper, but there's more of it that requires payment, especially the so-called foreign stuff. In the UK, most of the BBC shows are free, but not all. Newer or highly popular content still comes with a very respectable price tag, and it gets worse if you want HD instead of SD.
Now, the variety is pretty good, especially on the UK side of things. There are tons of old programs and movies, and if you're not necessarily into the latest and greatest hypes and crap, you will enjoy the offering. Plus, you will not really need to pay much money for the content you like. But paying, well, it's unavoidable. Now and then, you will come across movies or series that cannot be watched for free, and you'll have to shell out some quiche.
Indeed, after a while, you realize that Amazon Instant Video is good, but it is not any sort of miracle. And definitely not free, even for Prime users. The worst part is, the digital content is too damn expensive.
Just to give you a quick example, you can buy a complete boxed DVD set of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister for just GBP15 on Amazon Prime (UK), with free shipping. That's physical media that you can rip and create your own digital archives. In comparison, individual episodes in the series cost GBP1.69. With 38 episodes, this translates into a bloody ripoff. Likewise, Star Trek TNG, each season costs GBP44.99 in HD. On the other hand, the entire seven-season collection, in Blue-ray, region free, costs GBP150.15, roughly the price of three digital seasons. DVD is about 33% cheaper still. This is bullshit.
Seriously? Why the fuck would anyone want to buy digital stuff then? And why is it so expensive? It's just files stored in S3 storage, which is as cheap as camel piss.
At this point, I also decided to try Netflix, which is available as an application, along many other media services. This service is supposed to give me unlimited access to content for a small monthly fee. Fair game. Now, this is not a Netflix review, but it's worth mentioning this alternative. Well, it's not an alternative. It's pointless. Most of the stuff I wanted isn't there. Top Gear returns just two episodes. And Star Trek just gives you the last three movies, which aren't any good. But they are popular with idiots, and this is how this service works. 10 minutes later, my subscription was canceled.
Back to Amazon Fire TV, the novelty was wearing off rather fast. Now, don't get me wrong, this appliance has given me more content access than other solutions so far, and I've not invested any money as we speak, but, but, but, if I want to enjoy myself, then it will cost me a fortune. All things considered, Amazon Fire TV requires a hefty monetary investment. Like all other services, it's designed for people with deep pockets. That's the unfortunate reality.
Now, I don't mind paying if I can get a PERFECT service, and that means all and any movie or TV series that I can possibly think off will show up in the search. It's almost the case here. But then, the prices are stupid. Again, I can have DVD or Blue-ray stuff for about 50-70% less, and this makes me feel like an idiot every time I see a buy button inside Amazon Fire TV. It should be the other way around. If a boxed DVD set costs twenty something, then the digital one should be ten something. Going back to my earlier example, Star Trek TNG Season 1, GBP12.99 for DVD. This means I'd expect the price to be something like GBP6.99 for digital, and with 26 episodes in the season, this comes down to about 30 pennies per episode, in HD. Rather than GBP2.49. In other words, realistically, the digital content is about 800% more expensive than it should be, and it makes me feel as if someone is probing my sphincter with a spaceship. That's the reality, and it's not any better with any one content provider out there. And if someone somewhere wonders why people download content via torrents, they can do the math and figure out the answer.
When it comes to how Amazon Fire TV looks & feels & behaves, it's not bad. Voice search is pretty good, but LG TV has got it sharper. If the Internet connection goes down, the system is useless, and that's another disadvantage compared to DVD. The interface is clean and simple and pretty responsive. The search can be finicky. For example, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes returns Star Trek TNG as one of the candidates, because Picard and Data would often immerse themselves in the holodeck as Doyle's characters.
Not bad for what it offers, but again, it's not like you're buying the essence of angels and lavender. All things considered, Fire TV is quite decent, and it works well, so if you ignore the perineum violations, you will enjoy the application side of things. Mostly.
Do remember I've got Apple and Amazon shares, a small fraction thereof, which I feel is necessary pointing out, to avoid any fanboyish claims or criticism. As much as I like Amazon's portfolio, Fire TV isn't exactly a killer gadget. Much like Apple TV, it's designed with a different kind of people in mind. More mainstream kind of people. Not me, for sure. BTW, regardless, the next time anyone mentions Netflix, Hulu or any similar nonsense to me, I'm gonna roundhouse kick them in the face.
The physical design is great, the interface is simple and fast, there were some teething initial setup problems, the variety of content is pretty good, and Prime does give you some access to free grub, but at the end of the day, it's way too expensive, and the prices just aren't justified in any sense. I might use this, but I have not been charmed, and certainly not convinced that cloud and digital media is the future. For the rich yes, but not for the vast majority of people on this planet. Prices need to go down, and then we can discuss all the rest.
As far as media centers go, this one probably comes closest to being a sensible offering, if we ignore the first 90 minutes. The video store is pretty solid. In that regard, Fire TV does deserve a bit of praise. But then, just a bit. In other words, as long as the prices remain sky high, I don't see any real reason to use media streaming by any one company offering me the sweet illusion of the cloud. Functionality wise, a smart TV is just good enough. Overall, like Apple TV, it deserves about 7.5/10. We're done.