There had been a lot of speculation on what Amazon might do in terms of pricing and content deals for its new Fire $99 TV set-top box. But Amazon's focus turned out to be largely on the hardware, with a powerful processor, a dedicated graphics system for handling games and a remote that does voice-recognition for content search.
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However, Amazon could have gone further to make Fire TV a no-brainer choice for consumers — especially in terms of services and the interface. Fortunately for Amazon, the company has the time and ability to fix those and other issues. There are also some hardware improvements or missing features that might be good for a Fire TV 2 model. Here’s what Amazon should do to make Fire TV more appealing.
1. A deal for Amazon Prime subscribers
On March 13, Amazon hiked the price of its Amazon Prime subscription service from $79 to $99 per year, without adding any benefits to the staple of free two-day shipping from Amazon, short-term "borrowing" of Kindle e-book files, and access to Amazon Prime Instant Video. (Amazon's video service is popular, ranking third — though a distant third — behind Netflix and YouTube in a recent NPD study.)
Pricing the Fire TV more aggressively for Prime members might have made consumers more inclined to sign up for the service or renew. With the price of Prime going up (and the very competent Roku Streaming Stick costing half as much as Fire TV), Amazon might have sweetened the deal by offering the device at a discount or even free with a one-year or multiyear Prime signup.
2. Better content selection
Along with responsiveness and interface, Amazon has highlighted the Fire TV's "open ecosystem" as one of the three pillars of its offering. That's really a dig at Apple TV, which has only about three dozen apps — most notably lacking Amazon Prime Instant Video.
However, Amazon glosses over the fact that Roku is even more open — with about 1,200 apps (which it calls channels). That compares to about 180 apps for Fire TV, but most of them are games.
Beyond a comparison of raw numbers, Fire TV is missing some really important apps. It has the no-brainer ones — Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, Crackle and Pandora, for example. But Fire TV is missing some very popular sources, including the popular HBO Go, Spotify and Rdio.
When we asked Amazon about the content selection, a representative told us, "We’ve got a ton more in the pipeline." So this may just be the symptom of a new product that needs to catch up.
3. Equal time for content sources
Another weakness of the Fire TV is that sources other than Amazon on the device are hard to discover and feel a bit slighted. Of the 10 main menu items on the Fire TV main screen, four of them refer only to Amazon content: Movies, TV, Watchlist and Video Library. And in some ways Search is also for Amazon items (more on that in a bit).
Every other content source — including those that are much bigger than Amazon — are squeezed into a single menu item, "Apps," where they elbow for space with Amazon's game apps (even though the interface has a separate menu just for games).
By keeping the Fire TV open to other sources, Amazon is acknowledging that people don't want to spend $99 on a box that just delivers Amazon videos and music. But to look at the interface, you might at first think that this is an Amazon-only box.
4. A more-coherent Amazon Video service
With rival Netflix, you can watch anything you see. Amazon Prime Video, in comparison, is an unfathomable mishmash of its 40,000 unlimited streaming titles and larger library of a la carte purchases. Spread out over 12 months, Amazon Prime and Netflix cost about the same. But it's not immediately clear which shows and movies are included with a Prime subscription and which ones you have to rent or buy.
It's true that the pay-as-you-go option often allows Amazon to offer newer content, and Amazon is a different kind of service than Netflix. But consumers will inevitably compare the two. Amazon's site and apps need to better display those new offerings as nice extras on top of a good streaming service rather than as disappointments to people who do a search and then face a bill.
5. Universal search
One of the hallmark features of the Fire TV is the ability to search for content by voice using its mic-equipped wireless remote control. Trying the service ourselves, we found it pretty useful, as long as we asked about videos that are on Amazon.
That's because so far Fire TV can search only Amazon's catalog and video site Vevo (the latter for music videos). If, for example, you want to search for content only on Netflix (including its originals like "Orange is the New Black") or Hulu originals (such as "The Booth at the End"), you'll have to dig into the Netflix or Hulu Plus apps. This requires the same process of clicking through an onscreen keyboard with a 4-way directional pad that Amazon in lampooning in a new a new commercial with Gary Busey.
Roku does have the inconvenient four-button, click-click process on its physical remote. But it also offers Android and iOS apps that provide handy virtual keyboards, where there is never a danger of the app misunderstanding what you mean (as there can happen with voice). Roku will then check TV or movie titles, actors or directors across more than 10 major video services, including Amazon.
Until Amazon's voice search covers the most important content services, it's just a neat trick.
6. Far better gaming
Video games aren't necessarily what people are looking for in a set-top box — they are virtually nonexistent on Apple TV, Roku and Chromecast. But Amazon has invested considerable resources in Fire TV as a game console, dedicated graphics, a growing game library and an optional Xbox-style controller that sells for $40.
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But Fire TV comes up short in most aspects of its game capabilities. It's not bad for mild diversionary games for a few minutes between episodes of a "Breaking Bad" marathon. The average price of a game is about $2, says Amazon, and many are free. We had fun with the $3 Jet Ski game "Riptide GP2" (on special for free) that plays just fine with the Fire TV remote.
But the game selection is anemic so far, and Amazon Studios' exclusive launch title, "Sev Zero," is derivative at best. The game selection should expand quickly, however, especially since it's pretty easy to port Android games to the Fire TV. The Kindle Fire tablet supports more than 50,000 games.
Lastly, the $40 controller isn't terribly good. It closely emulates the excellent Xbox controller, but falls short of it in all respects, with an uncomfortably bulky design, buttons that stick, and analog sticks that are too anxious to slip back to neutral position.
7. HDMI pass-though — aka broadcast TV integration
In introducing Fire TV, Amazon has been criticizing the user interface of fairly popular rivals such as Roku, but what about the less-popular and often-despised cable and satellite boxes? Amazon could remake the TV experience without making an actual TV, simply by adding HDMI pass-through — running all video inputs through the Fire TV. The HDMI wire from, say, a cable-TV box would plug into the Fire TV, which would integrate cable content and control of the cable box into the Amazon interface, eventually including even voice search.
The Xbox One already does this, making cable TV one of several entertainment options — along with games, video apps and even Skype calls — and allowing you to multitask. But the Xbox One costs $499 and isn't for people who really just want to get videos and music. If Amazon could suddenly make any TV a full-on smart TV for just $99 (or even a bit more), Fire TV would really seem like a deal.
What's missing from the Xbox One is DVR integration. Perhaps Amazon could offer that, as well, with Fire TV.
While the Fire TV has some clear weaknesses, none of them are irredeemable. Most can be addressed by software and design updates that could download in a few minutes. So Fire TV could still pull it off if Amazon works hard at it in the coming weeks and months. If not, the Fire TV will have a challenge competing with polished rivals such as Apple TV and Roku.