Review: Amazon’s Fire TV is a contender

Will Oremus (c) 2014, Slate. NEW YORK — At a press conference in New York this week, the online-retail-and-media-and-cloud-services giant announced the Amazon Fire TV, the newest entrant in the big tech-company brawl to take over your television. Say this for Amazon: It does not pull punches.

Amazon vice president Peter Larsen kicked off the event, not by introducing the Fire TV, but by bashing its biggest rivals — using negative Amazon customer reviews of their products. He pointed to customers blasting Roku for its clunky search function, deriding Chromecast for slow performance and carping about Apple TV’s “closed ecosystem.” Another customer review took a shot at Microsoft’s Xbox One for requiring a $60-a-year subscription for streaming services on top of the console’s retail cost.

The Fire TV, Amazon claims, solves all three of the major problems afflicting today’s set-top boxes: search, performance and closed ecosystems. For $99 — the same price as an Apple TV or a top-of-the-line Roku — it delivers TV shows, movies and music via services like Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora and WatchESPN. It’s also built for gaming, with Minecraft among the first titles and more on the way, including some that Amazon will produce itself. In addition to the remote control that comes with the box, you can buy a special, Xbox-like game controller for $40.

The most interesting thing about the Fire TV is that Amazon, for once, is not trying to beat its rivals on price. (The Kindle Fire line of tablets, for instance, has always been a cheaper alternative to an iPad, not a superior alternative.) Instead, it’s trying to beat them on the quality of the experience.

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In demonstrations, the device looks fast and smooth. The box itself packs a powerful processor and 2 gigabytes of RAM, much more than its competitors. And when you’re using Amazon Instant Video, shows and movies start instantly when you press play, thanks to a pre-caching feature it calls “ASAP.” No more “dreaded spinner” while you wait for your program to load.

As for search, Amazon promises a potentially huge improvement over the hunt-and-peck typing experience offered by its rivals: voice search that “actually works,” in Larsen’s words. Say “John Malkovich,” and your TV instantly pulls up a menu full of Malkovich movies. That’s thanks to a microphone built into the device’s remote control. The voice search isn’t flawless — voice searches almost never are. But it wouldn’t take much for it to be a whole lot better than trying to type on your TV without the aid of a keyboard, as other boxes force you to do.

It’s Amazon’s third big claim — that of an “open ecosystem” — that pales a bit on close inspection. The jabs at rival boxes, like the one at Apple TV for not supporting Amazon Instant Video, might have led people to expect that the Fire TV would work with all of the major streaming services. Unfortunately, “open ecosystem” doesn’t necessarily mean “all-in-one solution.” What Amazon means is that the Fire TV will run on a modified version of Google’s Android operating system and will allow outside developers to build apps for it. That’s great, but the selection will be far more limited than what you’d find on the Google Play store or Apple’s App Store.

More importantly, while the Fire TV will work with Netflix and Hulu Plus at launch, it doesn’t support Vudu or HBO Go (or iTunes, for that matter). So if you want to watch “House of Cards” or “Alpha House,” you’re all set. But if you’re into “Girls” or “Game of Thrones,” you’re out of luck. Fire TV also does not appear to support as many sports-streaming options as Roku. And unlike the Chromecast, you can’t use it to simply sling shows to your TV from your laptop browser. Screen-mirroring is only available if you happen to have a Kindle Fire HDX tablet.

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The Fire TV may yet be the best option in an increasingly crowded field, especially if you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber. It will also likely appeal to gamers. And its secret weapon may be its FreeTime parental controls, which are some of the most advanced you’ll find. Combine those with Amazon’s massive library of popular children’s programming, and the Fire TV might be a major hit with parents.

In short, the Fire TV looks like a serious product, and if Amazon puts its marketing muscle behind it — something Apple has been reluctant to do for Apple TV — it just might take the market lead, currently held by Roku. Still, it’s not so good as to entice mainstream TV-watchers to drop their cable subscriptions. And more importantly, it’s not so good that Amazon can afford to stop looking warily over its shoulder at the folks in Cupertino.

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Oremus is a Slate staff writer, reporting on technology and digital culture.