Amazon has just unveiled Fire TV, its first attempt at a set-top box for streaming movies, television shows, photos, games, and more straight to your TV. The Fire TV is all black and consists of a small, square box that connects to your televisions along with an even tinier remote. When turned on, the FireTV immediately displays a selection of new movies and TV shows in addition to various apps and games that you may want to dive in to. Options to browse through specific categories appear on the left-hand side of the screen, but if you know what you're looking for, you can easily begin a search from any screen just by speaking into a microphone on the remote. It won't just search through Prime Instant Video either: Netflix, Hulu, and a large number of other popular services are also supported.
Amazon says the Fire TV should be fast, and it actually is. On the inside, it has a quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM, and a dedicated GPU — specs that Amazon says should make the Fire TV three times more powerful than a Roku, Chromecast, or Apple TV. While that's going to be helpful for browsing and video playback, it'll be critical for gaming, which Amazon is positioning as a key part of this new platform, promising to have thousands of games by next month.
Probably the most impressive feature — at least compared to other products in this $99 category — is the voice search. The Fire TV was able to recognize a few of our voice searches pretty easily, even in a fairly loud and echo-filled demo area (though, later on as the room got noisier, saying "Ender's Game" didn't work so well). To use it, you speak directly into the Bluetooth remote. It's a comfortable remote in the hand, by the way, with a funny triangle shape that helps it nestle in your palm. There's a Home, Back, and Menu button on the remote, which about the only signal you'll find anywhere that this is an Android device underneath it all.
ASAP lives up to its name
Another feature that Amazon is touting is called "ASAP," it's basically a way for the Fire TV to pre-cache the video it thinks you're most likely to watch. Assuming that Amazon can guess right, it could be a big deal — video queued up starts immediately with no waiting.
Games can be played with the Fire TV's remote or with a companion app, but Amazon is also selling a game controller for those who want to get a bit more serious. The Fire game controller, which will sell for $39.99, has a layout similar to an Xbox controller (or, more specifically, the OnLive controller, if you're familiar with it). At the end of the day, though, you're playing Android games — and in fact, you'll only be playing the subset of Android games which have been ported to the Fire TV. Android games on TV haven't fared very well before, but perhaps Amazon has the market clout to attract more developers — the Fire TV itself certainly seems like a more capable gaming machine than the Ouya at first blush.
We gave Amazon Studios' Sev Zero a quick go-round and it felt very much like a high-end Android shooter. That's another way of saying that it was impressive as long as you keep your expectations set at the right level.
Around the back of the device, we see the basic ports you'd expect: HDMI, optical audio, Ethernet, power and USB. A sneak peek at the settings screen didn't confirm much when it comes to the software — we're obviously assuming it's Android underneath, but Amazon said nary a word about it. It does look like a FireTV will have somewhere between five and six gigabytes of storage out of the box, assuming of course that the demo units are indicative of what will be sold to customers.
Amazon is saying that the Fire TV is "open," and indeed, Netflix and Hulu Plus are all here. Ratings come from IMDB, as do many of the X-Ray features that let you look at related info on your tablet. It's a nice idea for an ecosystem and, should Amazon pull it off across its entire library as well as it has in the stuff we've seen today, it should be a let up on the competition.
As for that competition, the Fire TV seems to be a really solid option — at least in the $99-and-less category. It feels faster and more intuitive than a Roku, it's easier for the average human to understand than a Chromecast, and the voice search on the remote is definitely nicer than pecking things out on the Apple TV. Each of those competitors has its own distinct advantages, too, so this is far from a blowout — and we'll have much more to say when we fully review it.
Additional reporting by Jake Kastrenakes and Dan Seifert