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Will Amazon's Fire TV Win Over the Masses?

By - Source: Tom's Guide US | B 14 comments
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The humble remote is what many people care most about.The humble remote is what many people care most about.Amazon has jumped into the increasingly crowded world of set-top boxes with the launch of Fire TV, a slim, flat $99 box that brings videos, music and games to TVs.  

In introducing the product, Amazon VP Peter Larsen listed all of the unpopular qualities of rival products, such as the Roku, Apple TV and Chromecast. He hammered home his points by showing on screen select reviews in which customer griping about each device. 

Larsen said consumers' three biggest complaints were the inefficiency of content search, video-load lag and a lack of enough content.

MORE: Top 10 Online Streaming Video Services 

Fire TV solves all of those problems, Larsen said, with an accurate voice-activated search function, a powerful central processor, a large helping of RAM and lots of available apps.

Remote is key 

Prospective customers will appreciate all of the above features. But most will simply be happy that the Fire TV comes with a nice remote control.

That's if they think the way about set-top boxes that research firm NPD found in  a new survey of 3,870 U.S. adults who have, or want to buy, a device to access the Internet and apps from their TV. Research firm NPD asked respondents about 24 features a theoretically ideal device should have, and how important each one would be, in its upcoming "Connected TV User Experience" report for the first quarter of 2014. 

People may not want an endless supply of channels - just the key ones.People may not want an endless supply of channels - just the key ones.The No. 1 feature was a good remote control, with 66 percent of respondents saying that was important. The survey participants seemed less impressed with the ability to use a remote-control app on a smartphone (only 24 percent said that was important) or on a tablet (20 percent).  

Luckily for them, Fire TV comes with both a physical remote and a mobile app (first for Kindle Fire tablets, Android and iOS later). The Fire TV's remote may be the best among those offered by set-top box competitors — a compromise between the slim but sparse Apple TV remote and the full-featured but largish Roku remotes. The Fire TV remote is a slim, charcoal stick, with the industry-standard  four-way directional pad and center select buttons, as well as standard buttons such as Play/Pause, Back and Home. Its real distinguishing feature is the Siri-like microphone button that enables voice search.

How important is search?

Although the ability to find content ranked just seventh on the list of desired features, it still matters to shoppers. 

"Sixty percent of users are either completely or somewhat satisfied with the ability of their current device to allow them to find new apps and channels," said John Buffone, of NPD's Connected Intelligence division. "Still, that means there is room for improvement."

Indeed, the Fire TV's search function needs improvement. In our tests, voice search quickly picked up most popular titles of video and audio content (though foreign and nonsense titles such as "La Dolce Vita" and "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" were too much for it). 

Voice search could be Fire TV's killer feature, if it works with more content services.Voice search could be Fire TV's killer feature, if it works with more content services.But currently, the voice-search function works only for content provided by Amazon and music videos on Vevo. For anything else, you'll have to dig into the individual apps, such as Netflix, and use their own search menus. (Roku, in comparison, searches across about a dozen popular video services.)  

As for the speed of the device, Amazon and the NPD survey respondents overlap. The respondents' third-most-pressing concern was "No buffering when watching." Fire TV offers to address this issue in many ways, including its fast quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM. 

Fire TV also provides services to keep the content up-to-date. If you view Amazon content on a mobile device and then switch to Fire TV, you can pick up where you left off. Larsen also introduced a service called ASAP that promises to anticipate what you will watch next, such as the next installment of a series, and cue it up ahead of time.

How many channels do you need? 

Diversity of content, which Amazon touts with its "open ecosystem," wasn't part of the NPD survey. But NPD did find that people generally go to only a few sources for video.

More than 40 percent of respondents with connected TVs watched Netflix (though nearly 80 percent watched cable TV). YouTube, Amazon and Hulu Plus trailed considerably.

MORE: Best Shows on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and More: April 2014

iTunes video was one of the least-popular sources, behind Crackle and HBO Go. Its absence from the Fire TV shouldn't be a problem for Amazon.

The fourth-most-desired feature in the NPD survey was an easy-to-use home screen. In that respect, the Fire TV should do as well as its competitors. Its basic layout — with a column of menu items such as Movies, TV, Games and Apps — is pretty similar to Roku's. On either device, pressing the menu item populates the right-hand side of the screen — for example, by showing recent releases under Movies.

"At this point, all 10-foot UIs [user interfaces] have a general flow to them," said Jeremy Toeman, CEO of Dijit Media, which makes apps and services for helping people find online and broadcast content. 

Toeman said Amazon probably couldn't do much to improve upon the set-top box interface, which, for better or worse, is becoming pretty standard.

If the NPD survey is to be believed, Fire TV does satisfy most people's desires for a set-top box, but it remains to be seen if Amazon’s mix of features will win over the masses.  

Follow Sean Captain @seancaptain and on Google+. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.


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  • -1 Hide
    metalman420 , April 2, 2014 3:53 PM
    Why does no one mention in ANY of these articles that Amazon's video streaming SUCKS. EVERY tv show or movies always freezes up EVERY time. This is why I cancelled my prime AND it has gone up 20 dollars a year.
  • 0 Hide
    coolitic , April 2, 2014 4:46 PM
    This will not win over the masses.
  • 0 Hide
    lpedraja2002 , April 2, 2014 7:02 PM
    metalman420. I have prime and though I do not use it much the last movies I saw which was Amelie and some Spongebob episodes all streamed fine. I have a Roku 2 (1080p) and sometimes I can make the apps crash but I think its Roku's fault.
  • Display all 14 comments.
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    sykozis , April 2, 2014 7:26 PM
    I have no issues streaming movies or TV shows from Amazon. Most of the movies I watch are streamed from Amazon to a Roku HD, a Samsung smart media player (GX-SM530CF) or on the rare occassion, a Sony blu-ray player. The Samsung smart media player has issues from time to time, but that's the fault of the cable box itself and not Amazon. Last time I talked to Samsung's tech support, they refused to acknowledge any of the issues with their cable box. I was told on 3 separate occasions that an engineer would contact me to discuss the issues but so far nothing.Quite honestly, I find it hard to consider a Roku, AppleTV or Chromecast to be a "set-top box". They're streaming media players, sure....but they lack the primary feature of a true "set-top box". That primary feature being support for cable. I'd spend the $140 for another Samsung smart media player GX-SM530CF before I'd pay for another Roku...or even the $35 for a Chromecast (which is actually a good deal when you consider what the Chromecast is really capable of). At $99, the Amazon Fire TV is overpriced for what it offers. For an additional $40 I can get a "set-top box" that also supports cable.....
  • 0 Hide
    spdragoo , April 3, 2014 3:52 AM
    We watch both Netflix & Amazon Prime at the house through a Wii (living room) & a Roku 2 (bedroom).In terms of ease of search & navigation, Netflix has a slight edge over Prime, although Amazon compensates for it with the "Customers Also Watched" option. The "Watch Trailer" feature is also nice...provided that it actually shows a "trailer" (note to Amazon: showing me a random 2-minute excerpt from within the movie itself, especially in the middle of the opening credits, is NOT showing me a trailer that gives me the basic plot of the movie & helps me decide to watch it or not).There are 2 major areas, though, where Amazon's video streaming is truly lacking compared to Netflix:1. *Rating the movie/TV show*. Netflix shows the average rating that other users have given a movie, but then lets you give it your own rating. Not only does it give their recommendation algorithm extra data to work with, it helps remind you if you've seen a movie before (especially if it hasn't been in your queue for months, or if it's one of those movie selections that was available for a while, was withdrawn from their library for a time, & is now back in). Amazon, however, doesn't let you rate a movie after you watch it. Not sure if they only allow those customers that actually buy the movie to rate it or not, but it would be a really nice feature to have.2. *Load & streaming times*. Yes, occasionally Netflix will have a "buffering" issue... but it's extremely few & far between. Amazon, however, has been very glitchy for the past month -- on both my Wii & my Roku, & at different times of the day -- where it will say it "can't connect"... even though it just did to show me the description of the movie itself (!!!) &/or the list of all the available episodes for that show. And even when it's not being "glitchy", it takes significantly longer to queue up a show than Netflix (usually about twice as long), on both devices.
  • 1 Hide
    velocityg4 , April 3, 2014 6:24 AM
    The only feature that would get me to switch from my Roku would be high quality Plex support. I'd like something that can run high bitrate, 20+mbps 1080p, content stored on my server. Without my server having to transcode content and lower the bitrate. Also support of all video and audio codecs supported by Plex.All the speed and RAM mean nothing. If my Roku 2 XS can already handle all the content provided by Amazon Prime and Netflix at the highest bitrates they offer.Right now I have my server connected directly to my TV for my video library.
  • 0 Hide
    FlyTexas , April 3, 2014 7:17 AM
    I don't see FreeTime mentioned...The single feature missing in our pair of Roku 3 boxes that we own are proper parent controls.I have 3 kids, I already own a pair of PS3s, a pair of Roku 3s (they are much faster for streaming video than the PS3s), and I just purchased an Amazon Fire TV yesterday.Why? Because of access to FreeTime, Amazon's Kid safe parent control system that lets me sandbox the kids and keep all the crap away from them.They'll sell millions of these if they can focus on that point. Everything else is more or less the same than the other boxes (other than the gaming and CPU power, but that won't be enough to sell them, I don't think).Parent and kid friendly FreeTime? Totally... that is the one feature that I'm happy to spend money on.
  • 1 Hide
    gggplaya , April 3, 2014 9:19 AM
    I would buy it in a heartbeat if it could watch Movies on my NAS through SMB share directly. ANd i could connect a usb bluetooth keyboard.
  • 0 Hide
    catswold , April 3, 2014 9:23 AM
    The best thing about this is that it will put pressure on the others to improve their products. None of them are truly "ready for prime-time."Mass appeal will only occur once the content providers allow people to stream their live streams, including advertising, over their internet service. Technology is such today that it should be simple to target such advertising more specifically than local broadcasts. Google does it all the time when you surf.Until people can watch their FNC, CNN, CNBC, etc through their boxes, this will continue to be a niche market.The gold standard would be to have all of it available through one simple to use service.
  • 0 Hide
    ctann , April 3, 2014 2:38 PM
    Yup, SMB (or NFS) support and DVD .ISO playback are a must as far as I am concerned - although of course I probably don't qualify for "the masses" category... :) 
  • 0 Hide
    kittle , April 3, 2014 2:48 PM
    I have both amazon and netflix to watch on my PC. I too see the amazon glitchyness when trying to watch stuff where netflix has been smooth. From a usability point of view..the amazon prime web player seems to be targeted towards a smartphone user.. and not a PC or set top. Where the netflix player looks identical on my PC or laptop or android tablet.Other things I run into.. "amazon search sucks" when im looking for something specific. but for general browsing its pretty good. netflix search works good overall.The only thing I like more about Amazon is the instant rental feature. With netflix, you can stream or have the dvd sent. And if the movie you want to watch is ONLY available on dvd... well there goes your plans for the evening.
  • 0 Hide
    seancaptain , April 5, 2014 2:37 PM
    Hi. I haven't had trouble streaming Amazon either. I wonder if the app for your particular device is buggy. - Sean
    Quote:
    Why does no one mention in ANY of these articles that Amazon's video streaming SUCKS. EVERY tv show or movies always freezes up EVERY time. This is why I cancelled my prime AND it has gone up 20 dollars a year.
    Quote:
    Why does no one mention in ANY of these articles that Amazon's video streaming SUCKS. EVERY tv show or movies always freezes up EVERY time. This is why I cancelled my prime AND it has gone up 20 dollars a year.
    Quote:
    Why does no one mention in ANY of these articles that Amazon's video streaming SUCKS. EVERY tv show or movies always freezes up EVERY time. This is why I cancelled my prime AND it has gone up 20 dollars a year.
    Quote:
    Why does no one mention in ANY of these articles that Amazon's video streaming SUCKS. EVERY tv show or movies always freezes up EVERY time. This is why I cancelled my prime AND it has gone up 20 dollars a year.
  • 0 Hide
    seancaptain , April 5, 2014 2:39 PM
    Quote:
    I don't see FreeTime mentioned...The single feature missing in our pair of Roku 3 boxes that we own are proper parent controls.I have 3 kids, I already own a pair of PS3s, a pair of Roku 3s (they are much faster for streaming video than the PS3s), and I just purchased an Amazon Fire TV yesterday.Why? Because of access to FreeTime, Amazon's Kid safe parent control system that lets me sandbox the kids and keep all the crap away from them.They'll sell millions of these if they can focus on that point. Everything else is more or less the same than the other boxes (other than the gaming and CPU power, but that won't be enough to sell them, I don't think).Parent and kid friendly FreeTime? Totally... that is the one feature that I'm happy to spend money on.
  • 0 Hide
    seancaptain , April 5, 2014 2:41 PM
    Hi FlyTexas. I did look at FreeTIme in my review the next day. http://www.tomsguide.com/us/amazon-fire-tv,review-2103.htmlI couldn't say too much, though, because Amazon hasn't launched it yet and I just got a quick demo at their press event. Seems a good idea, though. - Sean
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