Difficult thought it may be to imagine today, TV sets were not always ubiquitous. Whilst TV technology was first developed close to a century ago, it was not commercially viable until a whiz bang introduction in 1939 at the New York World’s Fair. However, before manufacturers could roll them out, America got pulled into World War II. By 1946, a year after war’s end, there were fewer than 20,000 TVs in the entire country.
Nevertheless, the TV quickly caught on during the post war boom, and by 1954, despite most US cities having only a handful of channels, over 55% of US households had a single black and white model in the living room, and most people were insisting on no less than a 16″ screen! It was only that same year that 24″ sets were first introduced. There were no game consoles for another 20 years, when in 1974, the first console, hard wired to only play one game, the very simple, black and white Pong tennis game appeared.
It was another 25 years before the first time shifting DVR, TiVo was introduced in 1999, and that first model could only record one channel at a time, and store a maximum of about 15 hours. Whilst Netflix existed in 1999, at that time, they were still only sending DVDs to subscriber’s homes. It would well over half a decade before their streaming service would appear.
Spin on to 2014 and more than half of all US households has three sets featuring a bundle of about 180 channels of, albeit mostly pure crap, delivered by a “cable” company. Over 70% have high speed broadband internet.
But, more telling, more people today, over 31 million, have Netflix than HBO. Over 5 million have HuluPlus. Over 93% of homes have at least one PC. 13% have at least one Mac. 38% have a Nintendo Wii. 26% an Xbox 360, 20% a PS2, 18% a PS3. Some
13 20 million have an Apple TV and about 8 million have a Roku. Google says that “millions” have a Google Chromecast, but no one but a few masochists has the truly awful Google TV.
Anyhow, into these very crowded home entertainment centres, Amazon has (predictably) thrown in their hat with the introduction of the Fire TV.
So, what makes Amazon’s Fire TV special?
Well, honestly, at first glance, the Fire TV isn’t anything special – It’s outward resemblance to the Apple TV and Roku boxes make it decidedly blend in and simply get lost in the pack. Indeed, Amazon’s current marketing is really focused on the Fire TV being little more than a streaming media box with some extras thrown in, which is actually quite surprising, given the fact that when compared strictly on this criteria to the Apple TV, Roku, and even the Chromecast, the Fire TV actually looks quite weak.
Oh sure, it has some cool features, but upon closer inspection, they are largely just marketing hype and all but one suffers from some major limitations, at least currently.
However, since Amazon insists on focusing their marketing the Fire TV as a media consumption device, let’s look past the decidely one-sided comparison they have on their website, and see what Apple TV, Roku and Chromecase actually offer that FireTV currently does not…
|Amazon Fire TV||Roku 3||Apple TV||Google Chromecast|
|Amazon Instant Video||✓||✓|
|HBO GO||Late 2014?||✓||✓||✓|
|NHL Game Center||✓||✓|
|ACC (College Sports)||✓||✓|
|iTunes Music & Radio||✓|
|Google Play Music||✓|
|The Weather Channel||✓|
|Itunes Movies & TV||✓|
|Google Play Movies & TV||✓|
As you can plainly see, as a media consumption device, Fire TV falls far behind the other players, especially Roku, which is only lacking on two counts, RedBull TV and Bloomberg TV. I suppose someone would want one of those enough to spend $99, but unless you are one of those people, then in my most honest assessment, Fire TV is not exactly shining, and if you happen to want HBO Go, NBA, NHL, ACC COllege Sports, WSJ Live, Post TV, Rdio, or any of the literally dozens, if not hundreds of other services that Roku offers, the Fire TV really seems like quite a hard sell on this one criteria alone. Even the segment leader, Apple TV, has a far better lineup of channels, and Apple remains in absolute total control over what services it features.
But wait, there’s more.
Fire TV does have a few unique features up it’s sleeves, though as I mentioned earlier, they are largely just marketing hype right now. These limitations make the Fire TV a really wonderful device, if, and only if, you are primarily an Amazon Video junky.
However, if you are one of the 31 million plus Netflix subscribers, or one of the 5 million HuluPlus subscribers, Fire TV’s unique features currently do not apply to you, at all. I get that Amazon wants to make their service look better than the other guys’ offerings, but when those other guys are the established core of streaming media consumers, when they realise (and they will on the very first use, I might add), they will very likely feel like they got gypped.
Let’s take a look at perhaps the key feature that Amazon is hyping on the Fire TV: voice search. Amazon makes a big deal about how it actually works. I am not sure why they focus on whether it works or not, considering none of the other players have this feature at all, let alone have such a feature, that does not work, but regardless, it has a serious functional limitation, at least in the current incarnation, that pretty much makes it annoying to most users, and worse, entirely useless for many.
Specifically, the voice search only searches Amazon’s own video catalogue, regardless of the current app – i.e. Netflix, HuluPlus, etc., that is currently active on the device. In other words, let’s say you launched Netflix, and want to see if Batman Forever is available. You press the voice search button, and say “Batman Forever” – The results appear and you will find that they are strictly Amazon Video, including the Prime videos, and they are mixed together, so if you did a search for something that could provide several results, some will be rentals, some purchases, and some may be Prime Videos.
Overall, a bit of a sloppy implementation, but worse, if you want to search Netflix, HuluPlus, etc., you need to navigate using the traditional hunt and peck process using the d-pad on the remote, though at least reportedly, some Logitech Harmony wireless keyboards will work with it using the USB dongle, but I cannot confirm this myself.
Now, it is possible that this is just a temporary limitation, but as far as I can tell, Amazon has made available no voice search API and whilst it is within the realm of possibility that maybe they will enhance the software down the road to process a voice search on their back-end servers, converting it to a text string and then sending that to the active app on the Fire TV, but for the time being, no such luck.
The next cool feature of the Fire TV that is only cool for Amazon Videos is the Instant Streaming. This feature works by predicting several movies and TV programmes that you are likely to want to watch, and downloads enough of the beginning of them to make it so that playback starts immediately upon pressing play. This function works because Amazon knows you by your search habits, previous purchases, etc. It seems to me that Netflix, HuluPlus, etc. could potentially take advantage of the fairly large amount of RAM in the FireTV to perform the same functionality if they wanted to, or if Amazon let’s them anyhow. I have a feeling Amazon does not and will not though.
There is one potentially bright spot. Maybe.
The Fire TV does have one more major feature, Gaming, which whilst Amazon wants us to think of it as an “extra,” I have a serious feeling they have much more in mind. Follow along as I explain.
The Fire TV is the only streaming media set top box with a full fledged console style controller, albeit available as an optional purchase for an extra $39. Up to four people can play simultaneously (depending on game support, of course) and there are some serious 3D games available.
Furthermore, this is the one area where the relatively high end quad-core CPU and dedicated GPU really seem appropriate. One quick note about the 2GBs of RAM in the Fire TV. There are several technical reasons why this is likely immaterial and thus does not like give the Fire TV any real advantage, but as they are very technical and only speculative at this point in time, I will not address them.
Regardless, I actually think that Amazon has something else in mind regarding gaming anyhow.
A few years ago, a startup in the online gaming space, called OnLive, was launched. About two years ago, the company all but imploded, and eventually the company was sold and relaunched under the same name,and survives to this day. However, that aside, what makes OnLive truly unique and special, is that it is a cloud based gaming company which works with PCs, Macs and through a small set-top box called a “microconsole” which is about the same size as the Apple TV and smaller than the Fire TV, using PS3 style controllers, on any HDTV.
From a practical perspective, OnLive makes use of a high quality consumer broadband connection, where the games actually play on remote servers and the screen is converted to a video stream, which is shot across the internet to the players OnLive app on their computer or the microconsole. Obviously it is the microconsole that I am referring to here in comparison to the Fire TV, and as Amazon is also one of the world’s largest cloud service providers, I see a strong correlation of probability that Amazon potentially has the intent of making the Fire TV a serious contender as a game console, especially if they can work out a means to improve upon OnLive’s already impressively low latency, considering the fact that the games are actually running across the internet.
Well, anyhow, that is what I see as the potential killer feature of Amazon’s Fire TV, and if it comes to fruition, it would indeed be a hot product.
Conclusions. Is it hot or not?
Short answer. Not hot. Just luke warm, but has serious potential to live up to it’s name.
Speaking for myself, however, with my heavy reliance on Netflix, and lesser so on HuluPlus, but in particular due to a significant augmentation from Apple’s iTunes store, iTunes Radio, and most of all, streaming from the iTunes library on my Mac, the Fire TV completely fails for my needs, and as a result, will not likely ever match the Apple TV. Case in point, I also have a prior generation Roku 2, yet I also never use it for that very reason.
However, if you do not care about iTunes videos, iTunes Radio or iTunes libraries on your Mac or PC, and also are a heavy user of Amazon video and/or Prime video, then the Fire TV is certainly worth considering, but the Roku 3 might be a better option as it does offer those things and much more.
If my thoughts about Amazon and cloud gaming come to fruition however, Fire TV MIGHT take a more important position in my home entertainment centre, but after thinking about it, I doubt highly it will ever take the centre stage.
UPDATED 22 April 2013: Added A&E, History and Lifetime to list of services newly added to Apple TV.
UPDATED 23 April 2013: Revised my conclusions to be more clear about my feelings and the benefits for those who do not have the same interests/needs as I do. Added HBO Go coming “late 2014?” to services list for Fire TV. Updated number of Apple TVs to 20 million from 13. Added links to sources for Apple TV, Roku and Chromecast number sources.
If anyone has any info to add, PLEASE comment or contact me using the contact form, I will happily update the article with any corrections and cite specifics and whoever provided the info if requested. I really want to make this useful. I think Fire TV is a great product, but not for me (yet).