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Thursday
Apr032014

Amazon’s FireTV yet another set top box with compromises

By Simon Cohen

Amazon takes the proprietary route with its Fire TV set top box and gives consumers one more choice that won’t serve all of their needs.

I’ve always admired Amazon for their customer-centric view of the world. Their online shopping experience is second to none. Their customer service is superb. Their dedication to creating devices and services to meet the needs of their customers has always impressed me – especially given that the hardware space is so competitive (and littered with failures).

So I was really keen to find out what Amazon’s latest toy, the $99 Fire TV set-top box had to offer. Even though it isn't available to Canadians currently, the U.S. version is likely a very strong indicator of what we’ll get when it arrives.

Sadly, what we’ll get is a series of compromises.

Let’s quickly re-cap our current set-top box environment. We have game consoles that are wicked for games, not bad for streamed content, and hit-and-miss when it comes to viewing local videos/photos/music. Plus if you aren’t a hardcore gamer, they’re very expensive.

We have a whole slew of media-adapter boxes e.g. WD-TV, NetGear’s NeoTV etc., which are well-priced and can handle local files and streaming services but which don’t offer any gaming capability.

We have so-called “smart TV” boxes e.g. Sony Internet Player with Google TV, which do a great job embedding the web experience but fall flat on gaming (not to mention offering one of the most complicated remotes on the planet).

We have the current champions of the living room – Apple TV and Roku.  Apple TV is a streaming powerhouse plus it lets you mirror content from iDevices and Macs, not to mention its ability to play music from your iTunes library and photos from iPhoto, but it lacks any local file capability beyond what iTunes supports over your network, and even though it supports Bluetooth accessories, we haven’t seen a single sign of games in Apple TV’s future.

Roku’s boxes are easily the most versatile on the market, offering streaming, local, gaming, expandable storage and an innovative remote that doubles as a wireless receiver for your headphones – perfect for private listening. And the $109 price point seems to be the sweet-spot for these devices.

Then we have the upstart: Google’s Chromecast. A completely different beast, it makes comparisons difficult. At $39 it’s the cheapest of the bunch. But with no “brains” per se, it’s capabilities are tied to the ecosystem of apps that support it. But given that this ecosystem is already competitive (with Plex, Netflix, Songza and more) and growing, it’s safe to say Chromecast is a real contender.

So what would a new entrant in this space such as Amazon need to do to woo consumers? A super cheap price point? A better assortment of features and services? A killer app that none of the others have? Yes, those would make it compelling. But only one of these actually showed up on launch day.

What Amazon has given us in the Fire TV is a $99 (U.S.) set-top box with some fairly generic specs: HDMI and Optical out, USB, Wi-Fi and Ethernet. From the back, (heck, even from the front and sides) the Fire TV looks identical to the Apple TV.

Things don’t change much when you look at what the Fire TV can do: Streaming video from the usual U.S. culprits (Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora, Crackle, Vevo, YouTube, WatchESPN etc.) plus the one streaming service that Amazon owns outright: Amazon Instant Video.  If you're wondering when Fire TV will come to Canada, my guess is: Not until they sort out the licensing for this service (think Pandora, Spotify etc.)

You can stream music, but only from Amazon’s MP3 music service – not iTunes and not any music on your network.

You can play games – quite a lot of games actually. So many that Amazon has already created an optional $39 add-on controller that looks a lot like the ones you’d find on a PlayStation or Xbox. But Amazon has been quick to point out that despite the Fire TV’s quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM, these games will be casual in nature and more akin to the Angry Birds and Asphalts of this world, and not like Call Of Duty or Forza. Amazon claims the average price of these games will be less than $2 each.

You get a remote that looks like it’s the product of an illicit love affair between an Apple remote and a Roku remote. It’s shaped like the Roku, yet sports a button layout that will remind many of the Apple TV remote. But look a little closer and you’ll see the (potentially) killer app I mentioned.

At the top of the remote’s layout is a solitary microphone button and a small opening behind which is presumably a mic. That’s because you can speak to your Fire TV via the remote—Amazon calls it, predictably, Voice Search—something that Amazon says will spare you a lot of unnecessary shouting and misheard commands, which apparently plagues other implementations of TV-based voice recognition.

This is a great idea if it works as well as they say. Using a conventional remote to work your way through an alpha-numeric on-screen display is one of the worst user experiences we have to deal with these days. Even when you pair your iPhone to your Apple TV so you can type using the iPhone’s keyboard, it’s not ideal. Voice Search promises to do away with all of that and I say good riddance.

Oh, the remote uses Bluetooth so there’s no need for line-of-sight unlike Apple TV – handy if you really can’t stand the sight of that little black box and want to hide it away somewhere (don’t worry, Fire TV can still understand infrared for those who like their Harmonys).

But is a fancy, voice-recognizing remote and the ability to play a few casual games on your TV reason enough to buy a Fire TV over the other guys? At $99, I’m hard-pressed to see why.

Are you simply a Netflix junkie who needs to add this service to your existing TV for the least amount of cash? Get Chromecast – that is, assuming you own a smartphone or tablet.

Are you a media maven with a massive movie menagerie (why yes, I am rather fond of alliteration) and want a solid way to stream those titles to the big screen? You’d be better off with Roku or Chromecast. Both support Plex, which is one of the best media servers you can get. Roku will even play those movies if they’re sitting on an external hard drive.

Are you a dedicated Apple fan with an iTunes collection that spans hundreds of gigs and you already own several iDevices? Apple TV costs nearly the same and has better compatibility with the devices and services you already use.

In short, unless you’re jazzed by the idea of playing casual games on your TV (and to be fair, if you’re a Minecraft freak, FireTV is the first device that lets you play a native version on the big screen) or you’re determined to show that on-screen keyboard who’s the boss using Voice Search, there are already plenty of better—and in some cases cheaper—set-top box options.

Naturally I’ll reserve final judgment on FireTV until I get to try one in the flesh, but at the moment it’s looking like just another black box in an already crowded beside-the-TV area (I mean who actually puts these things on top of their TVs?).

-------

Simon Cohen is one of Canada’s most experienced consumer technology bloggers. He has regularly appeared on national TV and radio as a tech expert. You can find more of his work at Excitable.ca.

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