For decades, the arrogance and greed of cable companies have driven prices skyward and customers away. Thanks to video streaming devices like Apple TV, Roku, Chromecast, WD Live, G-Box and more, the process for "Cord Cutting" has been even easier. As technology is still evolving and the industry is still looking for a solution to licensing issues, making the switch to streaming media as a primary entertainment source has been challenging for many.
Rest assured, the process gets easier every day. With the launch of Amazon's FireTV on Wednesday, Amazon is working hard to make the process even easier than it has ever been. This tiny little powerhouse is yet another sign that cable's reign is swiftly coming to an end.
The $99 FireTV box provides access to streaming video from Netflix, Showtime, Hulu Plus, Watch ESPN, MLB, Disney, YouTube, and, obviously, Amazon Instant Video. Amazon also offers an optional gamepad accessory for an extra $40 and a number shockingly good, absolutely gorgeous and very cheap games – averaging $1.85 each.
When I first watched the Amazon unveil, I was skeptical, though mildly excited to see what this box could bring to the table. I have used all of the majors up to date, and honestly, none of them truly impress me. Small, low power boxes with laggy menus and simplistic remotes that make it a pain in the tush to search for content. Amazon however, takes it to the next level with FireTV.
I loved the styling of FireTV from the moment I opened it. It is slim, sleek and clean, and just feels really good. The finish is wonderful, and begs to be touched, though you will regret handling it too much, once your fingerprints start sticking to the unit all over. But it feels very solid and well built. Only the Apple TV comes close in terms of build quality, and the FireTV's mild heft and quality build still wins out. Hookups are all what you would expect, Power, HDMI, 10/100 Ethernet Port. You also get optical audio out and a USB port that Amazon's Site says "currently does not support any accessories" so future uses will remain to be seen.
Setup was a breeze and actually a bit fun. After configuration, I was treated to a very informative and entertaining demo of the features and offerings. The "How-to-Use FireTV" tutorial provided just enough information to educate and inform me, without being too drawn out and losing my attention.
The quad core processor and 2GB of RAM in the unit truly makes the experience incredibly smooth. One thing you will notice quickly if you have ever used a streaming media player before is that the FireTV is INSANELY fast with Amazon Prime content when loading, fast forwarding and resuming. I mean Astonishingly fast. On most streamers, there is significant lag and jitter with fast forwarding, and loading videos as well. Typically, when watching full HD movies, after pausing or fast forwarding, there is a 5-30 second period where videos will play in SD or WORSE while the system buffers up the video before snapping back into HD. On FireTV it is Flawless. Simply amazingly crisp and fast. Now it should be noted, that this is specifically with Amazon based content, while it is still relatively fast playing Netflix and 3rd party content, it is not as dazzling and fast as Amazon content. Another hitch here is that, unsurprisingly, the unit is very Amazon-centic. Pushing all of the Amazon based content up front at all times. Search results will always push the Amazon versions of content to the front. This can be a bit aggravating, in the case of shows like Netflix's exceptional House of Cards series. Wwhen you search for House of Cards, you get the Amazon Prime offering listed upfront, which is $2.99 an episode on Prime, while it is flat out FREE on Netflix. This is not a unique trend though, as Apple TV very clearly pushes iTunes based content to the front of 3rd party content as well.
The area where the FireTV truly shines though, is search. And it is spectacular. The voice based search on FireTV puts the laborious clicking around on other streamers to shame. Anyone who has used a Roku or Apple TV is all too familiar with the tedious process of search: "B"..Right, Down, "I", Left, Left, Left, "G", Right, Right, Right, Right, Select From List.. Ugh. This process reminded me of T9 texting on cell phones from the 90's, and is the farthest thing from intuitive, which is sort of counter productive to the "Easy to use" marketing of most of these Media Streamers. With FireTV, you simply hold down the Voice Search button and states the name of the actor/actress, series or movie and it pops right up. And it is remarkably accurate. I attempted 50 searches in a row, and only once did it not pop up exactly what I said in a heartbeat. The voice search feature make the unit a pleasure to use, and I am still impressed each time I use it.
Another tent pole feature worthy of praise is Gaming. The quad core processor and 2GB of ram certainly pay off here. The offerings in the gaming category certainly blow the competition away in every aspect, from graphical quality & speed to method of control and selection. Amazon offers a slightly overpriced bluetooth gamepad for $39, and it is solid, and works amazingly well. Some games require a gamepad to play. FireTV also supports a number of other bluetooth controllers as well, though don't get your hopes up on using your PS4 or XBox One controllers. The games are beautiful, plentiful, and run incredibly well.
Overall, the FireTV is an excellent streamer. As expected, it definitely puts the emphasis and focus on presenting Amazon based content front and center, just as the Apple TV does for iTunes content. The Roku is the most platform agnostic of the group, but with the significant speed difference in navigation on the FireTV and it's beefy hardware, it more than makes up for it. In the end, as usual, it comes down to the economy you are invested in. If you are a heavy iTunes user, the Apple TV is a stellar system you will probably prefer. If you are a Prime Subscriber, the FireTV is a no brainer. It's far from perfect, but it certainly has raised the bar for streaming media set top boxes more than any other player ever has. Gauntlet thrown. Well played Amazon. Well played.