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.
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.
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).
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.
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.