Amazon Fire TV Review: An Awkward User Experience

By Michael Comeau  APR 07, 2014 10:28 AM

Amazon's new streaming box has some usability issues.

 


Editor's Note: Read Michael Comeau's updated views on Amazon's Fire TV here.

As I've grown older, I've embracd the benefits of never being an early adopter. But on Thursday, for the first time in years, I bought something the day after it came out -- the Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) Fire TV set-top streaming box.

I stream Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) content all the time using an Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) TV, but I really wanted a box that could also access Amazon's Prime Instant Video service, to which I am a subscriber.

Background

Virtually every sizeable tech company with a consumer-hardware presence wants control of the living room. Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and Sony (NYSE:SNE) have their media-friendly gaming consoles, and TV makers are adding Internet-connected apps to their sets.

Apple and Amazon are staking their claims with these inexpensive little boxes, which can stream video and audio media, access photos from the cloud, use apps like YouTube (NASDAQ:GOOG), and most importantly, connect to their respective content ecoystems.

On Saturday, my Fire TV arrived in the mail, and I immediately put it through its paces.

Please note, I have no interest in gaming on my TV, so I will not touch on the Fire TV's gaming capabilities.

So let's get to this review, which is squarely focused on what really matters -- usability.

The Hardware

Fire TV is a simple square box. It's 4.5 inches on each side and 0.7 inches thick, so it has a wider diameter than the Apple TV. But it's also thinner.



Included in the box is an AC adapter, a short manual, and a remote control with batteries. On the back of the Fire TV, you'll find the power jack, a USB port, and connections for HDMI, optical audio, and ethernet.

As is normal for devices like this, the Fire TV does not include an HDMI cable. I suggest buying the cheapest one you can find that has the length you need.

I've been using this $2.80 one since April 11, 2007 without any problems. (I actually confirmed the date through my Amazon account.)

The Fire TV's black remote is pretty small and simple, though bigger than Apple's wafer-thin remote. Its most interesting feature is Voice Search, which you activate by holding down the button with the microphone icon.




Setup

It's easy to get started with Fire TV: Just plug in the power and HDMI cables, enter your WiFi password, and you're ready to go.

You can even order Fire TV with your Amazon log-in information already programmed in.

My Fire TV downloaded a rather large software update when I launched it -- I actually timed it at about 6:45 minutes.

But overall, from unboxing to watching a movie took less than 15 minutes.

Amazon was also smart enough to build in a short introductory video to help you get acclimated to the Fire TV.

Interface

Here's what the Fire TV's basic interface looks like:


Source:Amazon.com

As you can see, categories like Movies and TV are on the left, with content choices on the right. Amazon's video content is integrated into the home page, while third-party sources like Netflix and Hulu Plus launch from the Apps category with their own interfaces.

The Video Library stores Amazon-purchased videos, while under Photos, you can see photos synced from Amazon's cloud.

Built for Speed

Immediately, I noticed how fast Fire TV is.

Scrolling around Apple TV can be a pain because there's a perceptible delay between pressing a button on the remote and seeing the action on-screen.

When it comes to navigating menus, Fire TV is light years ahead. It just goes and goes and goes.

And at times it felt like videos loaded faster than what I experienced with Apple TV, but sometimes it felt slower. I really can't make a judgment either way. The video quality seems the same.

Amazon has been touting a feature called ASAP, where the Fire TV will learn your preferences and sort of "pre-stream" content you're likely to watch (probably things like the next episode in a TV show you've been watching) to ensure a smooth experience. I don't have enough history with Amazon content to expect it to work, so I have no opinion on it yet.

Voice Search

I gave up on Apple's Siri a long time ago.

But I was astounded at the accuracy of Fire TV's Voice Search. I searched for a wide variety of phrases ranging from "action movies" to "movies about Spain" to "cop shows" to "films made in 1984" and Fire TV was at least 95% accurate for me. It even worked when I had talk radio playing loudly in the background.

However, the results were a bit kooky at times.

For example, when I searched "Tom Cruise," one of the search results was a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

Unfortunately, it can't yet search non-Amazon services like Netflix, which would be a huge selling point.

The Amazon Prime Instant Video Experience

As I stated above, what I really wanted out of Fire TV was the ability to access both Amazon's Prime Instant Video service and Netflix.

And here's where things get clunky.

Before we go further, I want to make two points:

1. When I say Prime, I'm referring to Amazon's free video content. Amazon also has a huge library of paid content.

2. Please excuse my cheesy iPhone screenshots -- it was just the fastest way to get through this. The Fire TV menus look just fine in real life on my TV screen.

So, if you go to movies on the Fire TV home screen, the top category is "Recently Added to Prime" while the fourth one down is "Top Movies on Prime." There are also Prime movies integrated into "Recommended Movies."



But beyond that, there's no obvious way to screen specifically for Prime movies -- they're all mixed in with paid content. TV basically works the same way.

Browsing through genres didn't help much, either.

In the Action & Adventure genre, as of Sunday morning, there were just four free Prime films out of 144 in total.

In comedy, there are 141 movies shown, and zero were free.

And in Drama, there were 145 movies to choose from. Just three were free, and one of them, Flyboys, is also one of four free options from Action & Adventure.

In fact, The Wolf of Wall Street is the category symbol for both Comedy and Drama.



But that's nothing. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire heads up three categories -- Action & Adventure, Mystery & Thriller, and Sci-Fi & Fantasy.





So in order to really get a handle on what free Prime content is available, get ready to head back to your computer to build your Watch List, or start searching, which is what I did.

And things got really weird.

Using Fire TV's Voice Search option, I spoke the phrase "Amazon Prime Movies" to see if I could find more free Prime movies.

Let's see what I found:



Not only was this list full of non-Prime movies, but the fourth option is Advance Oral Sex.

I also tried searching for "Prime action movies" and had no luck -- the list included both Prime and non-Prime movies.

Netflix

Fire TV runs on an app system.

So with Netflix, you're actually downloading and running a Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android app.

Accessing Netflix is annoying.

You can always find it in apps, but not in movies or TV.

That's understandable because Amazon smartly wants to promote its own content sales, but it's bound to be confusing to some users.

My 72-year-old dad, who's never used a computer and has never checked the voicemail on his cell phone, can use Netflix fine on Apple TV. But I could imagine him asking me, "Where is Netflix?"

On the Fire TV home screen, you can see Netflix is in the "Recent" category because I used it last, but it could easily be pushed out if I used a few other apps.



Netflix is also in "Featured Apps & Games."

But there's a difference. If you click on it in "Recent," the Netflix app launches.

And if you click on it in "Featured Apps & Games," it doesn't.

You are brought to the download screen, where you can open it. If you've already downloaded Netflix, why doesn't it just open automatically?



And once you open Netflix, this is what you see:



For comparison, here's what it looks like on Apple TV:



On Apple TV, everything's laid out so you can easily navigate all the options and categories.

This just doesn't exist on Fire TV. You have to simply scroll up and down to find everything -- it's an endless sea of rows.

Whether this is Amazon's or Netflix's fault doesn't matter; it's a bad experience for the user.

The Fast-Forward Button

On the Fire TV remote, the fast-forward button doesn't actually mean fast-forward if you're watching an Amazon video (note: the functionality is different in other apps).

Pressing it simply makes the video skip ahead by 10 seconds. This is frustrating because it can often take three seconds to proceed forward.

So what's the point?

To actually start fast-forwarding, you must hold the button down. It should be activated by pressing the button since the "skip 10 seconds" function is useless.

YouTube

YouTube is a little odd.

The home screen contains a bewildering selection of icons, and it defaults to "YouTube Trends" rather than search:



By the way, let's take an extreme close-up of the top left-hand area of the screen.



The magnifying glass, which serves as the search icon, is cut off at the top of the screen! I went through the trouble of calibrating the screen size through the Fire TV's menu, so this just looks like a design goof.

And here's the search screen, where Fire TV's voice search would really come in handy. Searching letter by letter with a remote is annoying in a grid, but it's even worse with one row.



But I tried pairing it with my iPhone and it worked flawlessly. You simply search on your phone, select a video, and up pops your video on the TV.

I also found YouTube to have other quirks. When I hit the fast-forward button on the Fire TV to skip 10 seconds, the videos often simply froze.

The videos also default to a playlist mode. If you execute a search and play a video, YouTube will simply play every video in the results back to back. And that's how I spent two hours on Saturday afternoon watching people fall off skateboards.

Other Apps

Pandora (NYSE:P) worked well for me. One nice touch is the fact that, if you launch a radio station and go back to the Fire TV home screen, the music continues playing until you launch another app like Netflix. It should be noted, however, that since Amazon's video library is integrated into the main interface, the music will keep going until you actually start up a movie or TV show.

Hulu Plus and Crackle are pretty easy to use. Their layouts are far superior to the confusing Netflix app.

However, in Hulu Plus, the scrolling function was not at all smooth. I'd chock that up to a coding snafu that will be updated soon.

And when I was watching Donnie Brasco on Crackle, I hit the play/pause button on the remote to pause the movie. It paused. But when I hit the button again to un-pause, the movie restarted. And so did The Hollies' "Long Cool Woman"! The Fire TV actually un-paused Pandora at the same time it un-paused Crackle.

Fortunately, this didn't happen with Amazon or Netflix videos, but it's yet another bug that detracts from the experience and makes me wonder how extensively the Fire TV was tested before launch.

Bloomberg TV, while lacking a search function, is great. Upon loading, you can quickly access the Live TV feed.

Conclusion

The Amazon Fire TV is a great piece of hardware for just $99, but its software interface and apps have a lot of room for improvement (there are other issues beyond what I brought up in this review).

I suspect it will get better as Amazon works out the kinks, but in all likelihood, I'll be returning my Fire TV.

As I illustrated above with my functionality breakdowns, things just feel "off" in too many places.

I can only recommend it for people who subscribe to Prime and who also don't mind paying for movies and TV shows through Amazon's content ecosystem.

Amazon should eventually allow shopping directly from the Fire TV, so that's something to consider. And while HBO Go is not a current offering, The Verge is reporting that it's on the way.

Fire TV can also serve as a solid Android gaming system if you pick up the $39.99 controller.

But if you're into Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) and/or you need HBO Go right now, Apple TV seems like a better choice because of its ease of use, even with its more sluggish performance. There are regular rumors about an upgraded model due to be released, but there's just no telling when.

Please note, I don't have personal experience with the Roku 3 or Google Chromecast, which are the two other main streaming box options.

So if you're a newbie with this device category, take a look at those as well.

I was hoping the Fire TV would give me the ultimate streaming experience. But ultimately, it's a letdown.

Editor's Note: Read Michael Comeau's updated views on Amazon's Fire TV here.

Twitter: @MichaelComeau

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