Competition in the world of streaming media devices is really heating up, and this means that new features and faster devices have become the norm. The newly released second version of the Amazon Fire TV is no exception.
As you can see from this side-by-side comparison, the new Fire TV looks almost exactly like last year’s model. It is a small black square 4 3/8” x 4 3/8” x ½”. The ports on the back of the new Fire include the same HDMI, power, USB, and Ethernet ports that were in last year’s model. A micro-SD card slot replaces the optical-out port that was in last year’s model. For most, this is a welcome substitution. Also welcome is the small green front power light which remains intact in the new version even though it is being removed from many Blu-ray players.
This year’s Amazon Fire TV has 75% more processing power and twice the GPU performance. It supports 4K video and Dolby audio. Although there is not yet a lot of 4K content, this may be a future-proof device for those of us who know we will be moving to a 4K TV in the next few years or for some, it may be an excuse to purchase a 4K TV.
When the first edition of the Amazon Fire TV shipped, the USB port was inoperable. Amazon added the functionality later. The USB port in this new Fire TV comes already activated. You can use a USB drive to save and open games and apps. With a third-party app you can also play music, videos, and photos from the USB drive.
The new microSD card slot that supports cards up to 128GB cards, supplements the new Fire TV’s 8GB of built-in memory. This additional memory bolsters the Fire TVs capabilities as a gaming device.
For the first time, Amazon has released two versions of the Fire TV. One is the standard version with remote control for $99.99. The other is the Gaming Edition, for $139.99, that I am reviewing here. It includes the new Amazon Fire TV, a new game controller, a 32GB micro SD card, and two games: Shovel Knight and Disney’s Ducktales.
Setting Up the Amazon Fire TV
The setup of the Amazon Fire TV is extremely easy. If you purchase it through Amazon and are a Prime member, it will come already linked to your account. All you have to do is let it find your network and type in your password. Amazon does provide the batteries for the remote, but you will have to supply your own HDMI cable. Inserting the batteries can be a bit baffling because it seems that the battery cover will slide down, but instead you need to pull it up.
Amazon boasts over 250,000 TV episodes and movies. Like other streaming devices you need to pay for subscriptions to many of the streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Go. The new Fire comes with a free 30-day trial of Netflix and Amazon Prime for new subscribers. Although you don’t need a subscription to Amazon Prime for the Fire TV to work, I would highly suggest it. Even if you don’t want to subscribe to the other services, there are enough free TV shows and movies available to Amazon Prime members to keep you occupied for quite awhile.
The interface of this new device is similar to last year’s model — a simple grid of colorful tiles and topic headings. You can use the remote control to navigate. To access the voice search, just press and hold the microphone button on the remote. The other buttons on the remote are pretty intuitive.
Amazon content is presented front and center, not a problem if you are an Amazon Prime member, but a bit of an aggravation if you are not. Menu choices include Search, Prime Videos, Movies, TV, Watchlist, Video Library, Free Time (parental controls), Games, Apps, Music, Photos, and Settings. You can easily play any music, photos, or videos that you have stored at or purchased from Amazon.
Alexa’s Voice Comes to Amazon Fire TV
Amazon introduced voice search in last year’s version of the Fire TV. This year they have enhanced that voice search in several ways. The processing power of this year’s device makes the search speedier. Also, Amazon has added Alexa, the voice of their Amazon Echo to the Fire TV. So now you can not only ask the Fire TV to find movies, apps, games, directors, and actors, but you can ask Alexa other questions about weather, sports, news, etc. She can even play music by voice command.
The addition of Alexa has also made the Fire’s voice search smarter as it can now search multiple areas to help you find the information. Just ask and Alexa will find all of Sean Connery’s movies whether they are on Amazon Prime, HBO GO, or Hulu. The Fire TV also supports Netflix, Showtime Anytime, Twitch, Crackle, NBA Gametime, and Sling TV, which includes ESPN, CNN, HDTV, AMC, A&E, Cartoon Network, and more. Currently the voice search supports only eight of these services and the popular Netflix is not one of them. Hopefully Amazon will correct that quickly or Roku or the upcoming Apple TV may become better choices.
Alexa’s Added Capabilities
With a $99-a-year Amazon Prime subscription, Alexa can play the entire collection of Amazon Music at no additional cost. It’s a great option if you have a good audio system attached to your TV.
If you have an Echo, you will find that Alexa on the Fire TV is the same Alexa that you have on your Echo. She cannot yet do things like directly controlling your lights from the Fire TV, but she can do things like adding items to your shopping list and telling you what appointments you have scheduled. You can actually play with this to get Alexa to perform a few extra feats. For instance I have my Hue lights set to go on when I ask Alexa to play music on my Echo, so when I tell Alexa on the TV to play music, she will play the music on my TV but will still turn on my Hue lights. I expect Amazon to add functionality to Alexa on the Fire TV just as they have added it to Alexa on the Echo.
The new Fire TV is compatible with Bluetooth headphones for private listening. There are easy-to-set-up parental controls. You can plug the Fire into any HDTV when you travel. It even works with Wi-Fi that requires web authentication. Also the new Fire TV supports X-Ray, a cool feature powered by IMDb that lets you get bios on actors and directors, backstories on characters, and related trivia. It also allows you to jump to any scene or skip opening credits.
The Gaming Edition
The Gaming Edition comes with a game controller that also acts as a remote control. It only took me a few minutes to determine that this was not a good idea. It is one thing to use a chunky controller that you hold with two hands when playing a game. The gaming controller, however, quickly becomes cumbersome and awkward when you are trying to access the remote control buttons in the middle. The Gaming Edition should have come with a separate remote control along with the game controller.
You can purchase the Standard Edition of the Amazon Fire TV which comes with a standard remote for $99 and purchase a new gaming controller for $39 more. The only extras that you get with the $139 Gaming Edition are the 32GB SD card and two games. While the two included games are good, they are not so fantastic that I would purchase this edition to get them. If you want the game controller, in my humble opinion, you are best to purchase the Standard Edition and the game controller separately.
The game controller itself is sleek and smooth, yet the slightly rubberized handles make it comfortable in the hand and easy to hold. For game playing it is much more responsive than the first version. It has all your typical gaming buttons, triggers and pads. It also has a useful headphone jack.
When the first Amazon Fire TV came out, there were about one hundred games available. Now, just 18 months later, Amazon boasts more games of any other streaming media player with over 800 games available. There are games for the serious gamer as well as games for the entire family. Many are free or under $1.
While the standard remote can be used for most games, the new gaming remote makes the games much smoother and easier to navigate. The quality of the games seems to vary, but many have excellent visuals and fast-motion following.
The new Amazon Fire TV is a very well-made piece of equipment. It is especially useful if you have already bought into the Amazon echo system by subscribing to Amazon Prime and/or storing photos and music on Amazon’s servers. This new Fire TV is incrementally better including better voice search and faster processing. It is also a good choice if you are a casual gamer.
Amazon has promised to add Alexa to older Fire TVs in the near future. So if you own last year’s model, there is little reason to upgrade to this version unless you have a 4K TV, really crave a faster response, or want to experiment with Alexa.
The new Roku and the TIVO Bolt will both give the new Fire TV stiff competition. However, the upcoming Apple TV with Siri which is due sometime in November 2015, may really give it a run for its money. While the Apple TV will be a little more expensive, if you are in the market for a streaming device, you may want to wait for it before you may your decision. This year if you are shopping for a streaming media device, comparison shopping will be vital. This, however, is all good for the consumer.