Amazon was the center of a storm of rumors from the time they patented a design for a game controller up until recently, when they unveiled the Amazon Fire TV. The device, a competitor for Apple TV, Chromecast and the Roku line, claims to stream TV through Amazon's video on demand service, as well as offers game streaming functionality. So what can the Fire TV really do and is it worth it?
What is the Fire and what can it do?
The Amazon Fire TV is a simple black box with a remote control and an optional gaming controller. It sits cleanly near your TV, just like other TV streaming boxes such as the Apple TV. The device grants you automatic access to every video you've bought through the Amazon Video service, everything you've put on their Cloud Drive and everything you upload to the Cloud Player music manager. The Fire TV merges all of this functionality with an interface much like the Kindle Fire, which stands to reason. Beyond Amazon services, the Fire offers Netflix, Hulu, ESPN and a host of other video services.
Additionally -- and this is what makes the Fire TV special -- it has a streaming game service that allows the device to run actual real games, as opposed to the preloaded software found on the Roku. One of the big selling points is MineCraft, though how many MineCraft gamers actually need another platform for the game, is yet to be seen.
At the moment, the Fire TV is lacking a few key streaming services, most notably Aereo and HBO. Of course, as a direct competitor, Amazon is unlikely to gain licenses to stream Apple or Google content as well.
What are some unique selling points?
By far the biggest selling point of the Amazon Fire TV is the instant, immediate, total integration with Amazon services. The interface is snappy and responsive, due to the refinement of the Fire OS from the tablets. The machine is constantly trying to predict what you want do watch and is preloading segments in the background, leading to an immense and attractive responsiveness not seen in other streaming boxes. The Fire TV syncs with your tablet, if you have one, so you can seamlessly transition from your home TV to your tablet. Everything you have purchased through Amazon is right there for you to view, quickly and easily.
Amazon Fire TV also includes the new X-Ray service, which links with IMDB to provide detailed information about a video you're watching. A similar upcoming service will do the same for music, including song lyrics.
The Fire TV also includes a voice search option that is, quite frankly, top of the line. It's one of the most accurate to parse a voice and search for what you wanted to find, be it an actor, a TV show, a director or anything else. Amazon's vast database of media provides search results for just about anything. You might not be able to ask it to find you movies predominantly featuring the color blue, but that might not be far off.
The games, though.
Yes, the games. The Fire TV is part streaming box, part videogame console. The controller is an optional accessory, costing an additional $40 on top of the $100 price tag for the box itself, but it opens up a whole new world for home media. It can play tablet games and MineCraft, which is a huge selling point for a few people. Amazon has also developed a number of in-house titles which, while not the most innovative, are still good games. As a console, it isn't a rival for the next-gen systems, but it's more than a match for the Ouya.
The existing game library isn't necessarily the selling point, either. Amazon has the capacity to get into gaming in a big way, and it could make the Fire TV a force to be reckoned with in the gaming industry. Whether they take that step or not remains to be seen, however.
What's the down side?
There's one major flaw in the Amazon Fire TV. It is, at the core, an Amazon machine. It's designed by Amazon to integrate with Amazon features. The responsive predictions for buffering media, the universal search with voice, the X-Ray information database access -- it's all there, but only for the Amazon media services. Your universal search might not bring up content on Netflix or Hulu, and the search itself doesn't work within those apps. If you primarily use Amazon Instant Video over the other media services, you're going to be very happy with the Fire TV. If you're a fan of Netflix or Hulu, you may be a little more disappointed.
All in all, the Fire TV is a fantastic step towards the future of the in-home streaming television box, but it has a few notable flaws. If you can look past those flaws -- and if Amazon builds on the foundation properly -- it will be a fabulous and game-changing device.