This Amazon Fire TV review refers to the full-sized Fire TV device, as opposed to the cheaper Fire Stick (there’s a separate Amazon Fire Stick review coming soon).
Amazon Fire TV: First Impressions
When my new Amazon Fire TV device arrived, the first thing I noticed was the weight of its little box. While the Fire isn’t heavy, as such, it’s solid and weighty enough to give an instant impression of quality.
The unboxing didn’t deliver any surprises. The small box contained the Amazon Fire itself, a power lead, the voice-activated remote, and two AAA batteries to power the latter.
A (required) HDMI cable was conspicuous by its absence, but with Apple not supplying them either, I can’t criticise. Hopefully, HDMI is now sufficiently ubiquitous that you have a couple of spares lying around – if not Amazon will try their best to cross-sell one to you at the point of purchase!
The Amazon Fire TV is a rather understated black box, with a logo on the top. It’s unobtrusive but at the same time nothing to get too excited about. However, the techie in me quickly noticed the USB port and MicroSD slot, to complement the expected Ethernet and HDMI. This instantly makes this device more appealing than an Apple TV regarding expandability. One thing not present is an Optical Audio Out, which the Apple device does have. That said, pushing audio out via HDMI is rarely a problem nowadays.
Amazon Fire TV: Setup
One important thing to know about the Amazon Fire TV is that it arrives pre-registered to your Amazon account, to simplify purchasing and renting content. If you choose to gift an Amazon Fire, you can send out an unregistered one, and it’s also possible to change the linked account in the device settings.
The setup is simplicity itself: connect the power and HDMI, then run through a very simple setup process, which involves connecting to your Wi-Fi network, waiting a short time for a firmware update, and deciding whether or not to activate parental controls. (I decided against doing the latter, which resulted in my 18-month-old son, who loves playing with remote controls, inadvertently renting San Andreas on my Amazon account!)
The setup only takes a few minutes, and you’re ready to start using the Amazon Fire TV.
Using the New Amazon Fire
The unboxing and setup process left me with high hopes for the Amazon Fire TV, and I wasn’t disappointed once I arrived at the main menu screen.
While the voice-activated remote is fairly light and plasticky, it’s super-responsive, and I already felt very comfortable with it after merely entering my WiFi password. The Fire’s menu system is fast and slick and immediately made me feel as if I had plenty of apps and content to choose from.
I tested my Amazon Fire in the UK, so my primary choices included BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, YouTube and Netflix, along with the inevitable deep integration with Amazon Prime. However, there are over 4000 apps in the Fire TV store, including the kind of things enthusiasts want like Plex and VLC.
In the USA, apps like Hulu, HBO Now, Showtime and Sling are front and centre in the lineup instead.
I personally think the Amazon Fire TV strikes a perfect balance for those who just want something that works, and the enthusiasts out there who want to get “under the hood” and customise the device. It should please those individuals somewhere in the middle too. People who have their own libraries of content should find the apps they need to stream it, and the real techies can take advantage of the fact that the Fire TV is, beneath the polish, essentially an Android device that can be hacked around and played with – something demonstrated by the dozens of YouTube videos dedicated to customization projects.
For the purposes of this review, I’m concentrating on the core apps everyone will use. So let’s begin with Amazon Prime:
Amazon Streaming on the Fire TV
I am an existing Amazon Prime subscriber, and I’d encourage anyone buying a Fire TV to subscribe too, especially given that Amazon is starting to offer some great exclusive content (such as Mr Robot in the UK).
Amazon Prime content is very prominent in the menus, and I was instantly drawn to things I fancied watching, mostly “free of charge” courtesy of my Prime membership. It’s also possible to use the voice-control remote to find Amazon content. This was quite reliable, but a bit of a short-lived novelty, especially as years of Apple TV use has me quickly negotiating the on-screen keyboard for searches anyway.
My main problem with the voice control is that it only works for Amazon content. If it also searched Netflix and my other apps, it would be truly useful, but right now it falls short of what Apple are doing with Siri on the new generation Apple TV.
In fairness, you can access Alexa features via voice control as well, such as requesting weather reports and Wikipedia entries, but – and it bears repeating – this is no Siri substitute.
A further criticism, which does bug me a little, is how Amazon mixes content included in the Prime subscription with content that needs to be purchased or rented. Yes, you can go to the “Prime Video” sub-menu and only see content included with your subscription, but if you browse “Movies” or “TV,” or use the voice search facility, you’ll often find something good, only to realise you need to pay extra. It’s probably not in Amazon’s interest to provide it, but a clearer signal of what’s “free” and what’s chargeable would be useful.
Amazon Fire HD Streaming
When it comes to actually watching content, performance, for me at least, was flawless. Amazon Fire HD content appeared instantly with no buffering on my 30MB fibre connection. The Amazon Fire predictively caches content it thinks you are likely to watch (a feature called ASAP), and while I cannot say if this has any real impact (as nobody knows exactly what this function is up to at any given time), I certainly experienced no buffering delays, with any app I tried.
NB. If you are on a capped broadband connection, you will want to be mindful of this feature, which could consume your data allowance – if sensationalist reports elsewhere online are correct.
You’ll definitely not want a capped connection if you plan to take advantage of 4K UltraHD streaming, one of the new generation Fire’s most notable features. However, it’s wise to note that 4k content is only available from Amazon and Netflix, and only relevant to some shows and movies filmed with this picture quality in mind. Still, the feature’s ready and waiting for the early-adopters.
One simple thing, which I particularly liked, is the small picture-in-picture effect when rewinding, which helps you to see where you have got to in the show or movie you’re watching. This makes far more sense than taking an educated guess at how many minutes you want to go back by.
Also notable is the “X-Ray” feature, where a push of the “up” button on the remote provides actor names and other trivia, something surprisingly useful and involving if you’re one of those people who always tries to remember “what else have I seen her in?”
Other TV Apps on the Amazon Fire TV
During my time with the Amazon Fire TV, I’ve also spent considerable time using other apps including Netflix, BBC iPlayer and ITV Player.
Netflix works well but offers no real surprises – but this isn’t a criticism, as the consistency of the Netflix experience from device to device is something to commend.
Likewise, iPlayer and ITV Player worked as expected, delivering a slick performance throughout. I would expect their American equivalents to prove similarly pleasing to use.
One glaring omission for the UK market at present is a lack of an All4 (4oD) app. This is a great shame, as it’s a source of plenty of top-notch content. However, rumors that it’s on the way are strong. Now TV is also missing from the Amazon Fire in the UK, which may be a deal-breaker for some.
While the Amazon Fire has one of the best TV app lineups out there, I’d still suggest checking it has what you specifically need before purchase to avoid disappointment.
Extra Apps and Games on the Amazon Fire TV
As I previously mentioned, there are over 4000 apps and games for the Fire TV, and more Android options available if you want to hack your way through the device’s custom Android installation.
When I reviewed the Google Chromecast, I was very unimpressed by the gaming possibilities. It’s fair to say the Chromecast is a very different device, but by contrast the Amazon Fire is a really rather capable vehicle for casual gaming and even a possible substitute for a low-end games console.
Game support is good, with big names like Minecraft, GTA and Sonic the Hedgehog all on the roster.
While nobody’s trying to pretend that the Amazon Fire is a cutting edge console, it does deliver for those who just want to indulge in some lightweight gaming. Those who want to take things a bit further will want to buy a memory card to increase system memory, and possibly the optional gaming controller pictured above too.
Personally, I was quite content with playing Crossy Road and Tetris using the supplied remote – a rather relaxing one-handed gaming experience. Game downloads were quick and easy, and aside for a long wait to open one game, during which time I wondered if the system had crashed, everything worked perfectly.
Amazon Fire TV Review: Conclusion
Before I started to review the new Amazon Fire TV, I had a look around online to see what other people made of the device. I was quite surprised to find rather mixed reviews, suggesting the device has divided opinion.
Other reviewers have alluded to a flaky user experience and problems with the remote losing connectivity. This has happened to me just once in over two weeks of testing, and resolved itself when I reseated the batteries. I experienced no issues at all navigating menus and consuming content.
I’m therefore willing to stick my neck out and give the new Amazon Fire TV a confident seal of approval, but with a couple of caveats; The first is that the device is really designed to go hand-in-hand with an Amazon Prime subscription. If you’re not willing to pay out for this, the Fire TV loses some of its appeal. I’d also reiterate the fact that despite the extensive app selection there are some notable services missing.
Despite all that, I’ve become very attached to my Amazon Fire TV. Since it arrived, my previous-generation Apple TV has sat ignored below it. Perhaps when I review the latest Apple TV I will change my stance, but for now the Fire TV has taken pride of place – and for a self-confessed Apple fanboy that means rather a lot.
- Well-built hardware
- Very slick menus
- Great choice of apps
- Stable user experience
- Some customization possible for enthusiasts
I wasn’t so sure about:
- Lacks a few significant TV apps
- Voice control rather limited, and restricted to Amazon content
- Amazon Prime inclusive content and chargeable content needs more separation