Fire TV has limitations but is appealing overall
Overall Amazon.com’s $99 Fire TV is not that different from numerous other streaming adapters that do essentially the same thing, including some that cost half as much.
Seattle Times technology columnist
The new streaming media device that Amazon.com began selling this month is an impressive debut in a new category for the Seattle company.
Called the Amazon Fire TV, it’s a small box that easily brings online video to a TV set and does a few nifty tricks. It’s easy to use and a snap to set up if your TV has an HDMI port.
The 4.5-inch square box reminds me of a pack of European cigarettes. Inside it has the type of quad-core processor the latest phones use, as well as 8 gigabytes of storage.
But overall, the $99 Fire TV is not that different from numerous other streaming adapters that do essentially the same thing, including some that cost half as much.
In addition, most game consoles and some Blu-ray players run the same kind of apps.
Increasingly these capabilities are built directly into TV sets, so they can connect wirelessly to a home network, stream video and run apps like a smartphone. It may come to be a standard TV feature, similar to the way Wi-Fi is now built into PCs.
These systems are mostly used to stream video from Netflix, which is used by 46 percent of the U.S. homes with broadband, according to a survey by research firm Parks Associates.
Amazon entered the fray in 2011 when it began offering a Netflix-like batch of second-run movies and TV shows to its Prime subscribers.
Usage has more than tripled over the past three years, with 18 percent of broadband homes now streaming Prime video, according to Parks.
Consumers have embraced these services partly because they offer the convenience of a large, on-demand library.
Streaming video also appeals to people frustrated by rising cable TV costs, although most decide they still need cable to watch broadcast and premium channels such as ESPN.
So instead of replacing cable TV, streaming video has mostly taken the place of the neighborhood video store. People just make do with what’s on Netflix or Prime.
But eventually they’ll want a newer movie or something that’s not being streamed, especially if Netflix cuts back its library because it’s getting more expensive to deliver content online. Then people will rent or buy more from online-video stores operated by Amazon, Apple and others.
These online rentals and sales grew to a $1.5 billion business last year, according to Rentrak, a Portland firm that tracks the market.
No wonder Amazon is offering a nifty device that makes it easier to get its video store onto your TV set.
Apple showed Amazon the way here. Its $99 AppleTV adapter includes the standard streaming suite — Netflix, Hulu and YouTube — but users must buy or rent shows from Apple’s iTunes.
Similarly, Fire TV offers multiple streaming services but Amazon is the only place to buy or rent content. A $99 per year Prime subscription isn’t required, but without one the device may feel hobbled since Prime content is prominently displayed.
Amazon is clever about how Prime and paid content are shown on the Fire TV menu.
On the “shelf” of suggested action-adventure movies, the first 80 titles are only available for rent or purchase. It takes a lot of scrolling on this shelf, which displays seven titles at a time, to reach one that’s free on Prime. Last week, I found only four of 148 movies on this shelf were free.
When perusing video “box art,” Prime options are indicated by a small white line in the upper left corner.
The Fire TV’s best trick is voice search built into its Apple-esque remote control. You press and hold a button and say the name of a movie or actor, and the system usually figures out what you want. Except when I searched for “Serpico,” it always thought I was looking for “cervical.”
What I’d really like is the ability to focus a search on Prime versus paid rentals. As it stands, the system showcases a small portion of the Prime library and doesn’t make it easy to find the rest.
I prefer the search capability provided by Roku, which leads the category with palm-sized streaming media devices ranging from $50 to $100.
Roku’s search results tell you if a movie is free on Netflix or another app. It also shows the cost to buy or rent from multiple outlets, including online stores run by Amazon, Blockbuster, Wal-Mart, Redbox, Target and others.
Amazon has said it’s working on expanding its search results.
The Fire TV should also have a built-in way to access photos and videos stored on a home network. Apple TV does this by connecting to computers running iTunes on a home network, or pairing with iPads or iPhones.
To view photos on Fire TV, you have to load them onto Amazon’s Cloud Drive storage service. This works well if you use that service — it automatically pulled up photos and videos I’d loaded onto a Kindle Fire a while ago. But a 2-minute video of my daughter stopped to buffer three times during playback from Cloud Drive.
Not everyone uses Cloud Drive, and it isn’t cheap. You get only 5 gigabytes of free storage, after which it costs $10 to $500 per year, depending on how much you store.
Amazon is also pitching the Fire TV as a game machine and selling a $40 game controller as an accessory. In this area the Fire TV is a work in progress, with a meager selection of casual games originally built for phones.
The Xbox-like controller comes with an Amazon-developed sci-fi game called “Sev Zero.” It has an earnest storyline but lacks the depth, complexity and addictive quality of a first-tier console game.
If you want a device for playing games and streaming media, consider an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. They cost $170 to $220, vs. the $140 cost of a Fire TV with a controller.
Even so, the Fire TV is appealing. It’s worth a look if you’re still trying to get online video onto your current TV set, especially if you’re also a Prime subscriber.
Keep in mind, though, that Amazon’s Kindle devices are a means to an end. They draw you into Amazon’s online realm where you’ll end up spending much more than $99.
Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
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