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Amazon Fire TV Recast hands-on: a very smart and elegant DVR for cord cutters

Amazon Fire TV Recast hands-on: a very smart and elegant DVR for cord cutters


A TV box that’s nowhere near your TV

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I just got a quick demo of the Amazon Fire TV Recast. It’s a shoebox-sized thing you can put in your home to have a DVR that works with over-the-air channels that it receives via antenna and displays on your Fire TV (or Fire tablet). Like the Slingbox back in the day, the idea behind the Recast is to allow you to watch both live TV and stuff that you’ve recorded from anywhere.

There have been a million different weird takes on how to get TV content to act more like streaming content, so I should probably slow down a bit and explain exactly what the Recast is and how it works.

Fundamentally, you should think of it as a screenless hard drive attached to a TV antenna. (You’re going to need to buy a separate Fire TV to really make it work.) You find a spot in your house that gets a good over-the-air broadcast TV signal (Amazon’s setup app will help), plug in the antenna, and leave the box right there.

The box itself is a little bigger than I’d like, but it doesn’t weigh very much. You’ll probably want to stick it in a corner somewhere. The only ports on it are power, Ethernet, and USB (for TV antennas that need power). The base model with two tuners can record two shows at a time on the 500GB hard drive, which can fit up to 150 hours or so of HD content.

Note that you’re not plugging this box into your TV. Instead, the Recast figures out what channels it sees and then communicates all that to the Fire TV, which then integrates it into a new “DVR” section of its menu. Then, when you want to watch a show, the Recast sends it wirelessly to your Fire TV, tablet, or phone.

It’s not a cable box, it’s a local media streamer — complicated and simple at the same time

You should also note that this is only for over-the-air TV. It’s not a cable box and won’t work with cable if you plug it in. (It does support PlayStation Vue streaming, though.) Whether you think that’s good news or bad news probably depends on your feelings about the CableCard standard.

Amazon tells me that the streaming happens via whatever method has the most bandwidth. If it’s to one of Amazon’s own devices — like a Fire TV or an Echo Show — it can use Wi-Fi Direct. Otherwise, it’ll fall back to Wi-Fi. They didn’t have details on what the encoding would be, but it won’t work inside a browser, only inside Amazon’s devices or apps. The video looked sharp enough and there weren’t artifacts, but then again this was a controlled demo. Amazon says it streams video at 1440 x 720 at 60 fps.

As for the interface, I mostly saw it run on the Fire TV. When you switch over to the DVR tab, that’s where you’ll see your content. The channel guide is buried in this tab as well, which is silly, but on the other hand, Live TV can show up in one of the content rows on your Fire TV’s main home screen — and presumably will more often if you watch a lot of live TV. If you are a PlayStation Vue subscriber, its channels will be integrated into the channel list (and, Amazon says, de-duplicated).

It’s a clever solution to making OTA TV feel like a cloud service

I asked why Amazon is bothering with big silly spinning disks in your house when it literally own AWS, one of the largest and best-performing cloud services providers in the industry. Answers varied a little, but in short, using a local antenna and storage means that there’s no subscription fees, no need to worry about content restrictions, and, I suspect, some concerns about bandwidth are alleviated, since you’d have to upload all that video to the cloud.

We’ll obviously need to spend more time with the Recast to see if it holds up as well in use as it has in this demo. But at a conceptual level, I really kind of like what Amazon has come up with. It means you don’t have to struggle to run a coax cable from your entertainment center to a window where your antenna needs to go.

Fire TV Recast with two tuners and a 500GB DVR will cost $229.99. (It does not come with an antenna, so you’ll have to buy one of those, too.) A four-tuner and 1TB DVR version is also coming on November 14th, that would let you record up to four shows at a time and will cost $279.99. Preorders are available today, and it will ship in November.

Photo: Dieter Bohn / The Verge