Review: Amazon’s Fire TV Falls Short, Voice Search Function Overhyped

It’s been two weeks since Amazon released their $99 streaming box Fire TV and after spending a good deal of time using it, I’m not impressed. Many reviewers have raved about the voice search functionality, but that only works across Amazon’s content service and Vevo. You can’t use it to find content on Netflix or Hulu Plus and the voice search results push you to Amazon to rent content, like House Of Cards, even though it’s free on Netflix. If content is available to stream free via another service, Amazon’s voice search won’t let you know that. The voice search also gets tricked up by words like Pokemon, instead returning results for “poop”. When the voice search works, it works well, but when it doesn’t, it’s useless.

Some might suggest that I should not be surprised that Amazon’s search results push users to content on Amazon’s streaming service, considering this is a box made by Amazon, but since the voice search works across Vevo, clearly the capability exists to bring it to more third party services. [Updated April 18th: Amazon has announced that support for voice search is coming to Hulu Plus, Crackle & Showtime services this summer.] I also don’t like how Amazon is marketing the box on their website with the phrase “say it. watch it” located above an image of all the content services on the box. Many consumers are going to think that Amazon is implying you can use the voice search function across all the content services listed, which you can’t.

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Another issue I have with the box is that Amazon made a point during their presentation to say how poor the search function is on a Roku, having to use their on-screen keyboard, but the non-voice search function on Amazon’s box is far worse. It’s as if no one at Amazon has actually used a Roku before. It takes far longer to use Amazon’s text based search function, having to first change the search default from voice to text. Then you have to do three steps just to get into the text search area and scroll through letters from A-Z, punching in each one manually. For ease of use, speed and simplicity, Roku’s text based search beats Amazon’s Fire TV hands down. So I find it odd for Amazon to try and tarnish Roku’s brand when in fact, Amazon’s box is the one that doesn’t do text search as well.

Amazon also demonstrated how quickly content starts up on their box, but that only happens for Amazon’s content service and even then, not all the time. Netflix and Hulu Plus don’t start up any faster on Amazon’s box than the Roku or Apple TV. Test results for me were nearly identical in startup times for Netflix content across Amazon, Roku and Apple’s streaming boxes. Amazon spent a lot of time during the unveiling of their box to focus on how quickly content starts up, but it’s really hit or miss. Amazon is guessing at what content most people may click on next and is pre-caching some of that content, but many times when I selected even popular movies from the menu, like Skyfall, it took 5-7 second to load.

In many instances, it feels like Amazon’s box was rushed out before it was really ready. The $40 game controller that goes with the box was available for purchase when the box was released, but it didn’t get delivered until a week after the box showed up. If you want one now, be prepared to wait a month. New orders for the game controller are now estimated to ship May 11th. Casual gaming is one of the biggest differentiators of this box compared to the other $99 streamers, but if you can’t get the game controller when you get the box, it defeats the purpose.

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When it comes to any box, content is king and right now, Amazon’s box sorely lacks content. The only content on the box, that matters, is from Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon, ESPN, Showtime and YouTube. Missing is HBO Go, MLB.TV, NHL GameCenter, NBA League Pass, Epix, Vudu, SlingPlayer, Major League Soccer, Redbox, WWE Network – all content services that Roku’s boxes currently have. Amazon did say that MLB.TV and the WWE Network are coming to the box, but didn’t say when. No doubt Amazon’s box will get much more content over time, but right out of the gate, the box lacks major content offerings. Also, some of the content apps, like YouTube, are simply ported from Google TV and it shows. The YouTube app has shortcuts for a keyboard, something you can’t use with Amazon’s Fire TV. So some apps aren’t specifically built just for Amazon’s box and have an old and outdated user interface.

We all know that Amazon has tremendous marketing power and the ability to sell a lot of these boxes very quickly simply due to all the eyeballs they have to their website. But Amazon is still going to have to convince consumers to buy their box when so many already have streaming capabilities on their TV, game console, Blu-ray player, Apple TV and/or other dedicated streaming media boxes. While Amazon’s box will improve over time, right now, it has no real selling point and advantage over the Roku.

I’m not sure why the media has gotten so excited over a voice search feature that only partially works, over only one major content service. If the Amazon Fire TV box didn’t have voice search functionality, there would be nothing about the box that isn’t already being done by Roku, at a much better level. Right now the Amazon Fire TV is clunky, un-polished and missing tons of content. If all you have is a subscription to Amazon Prime, then this box might suit you just fine. But if you want to do more than just stream content from Amazon and want a box that doesn’t feel like it’s in beta, don’t pick the Amazon Fire TV, get a Roku 3 instead.

  • I was really skeptical when I saw the emphasis on the voice search, given how poorly Siri on my iPhone does with made-up and foreign language words. You might not think that matters, but you’ll discover otherwise as soon as you want to watch “Amilé” or “Suburgatory”… or “Pokémon”, as the author mentions.

  • twptwp

    You don’t need to buy a game controller if you have a wired 360 controller. Also you can plug a keyboard into the back of it and use a real keyboard. And I just said pokemon to it and it worked the first time best voice search I’ve ever seen. I can say nonsensical things like “the walking on the road is new york” and it will return the entire phrase perfectly. I happily tossed one of my chromecasts for this. I don’t know what the authors problem is but no one is going to have a perfectly full app lineup at the start. It already has more services than my chrome cast. Roku should be looking over its shoulder with this and the new Apple tv coming up it has some real competition.

    • danrayburn

      Most of the people Amazon is targeting with this device don’t have a wired Xbox 360 controller around. And you should not have to plug in a keyboard, to be able to use the YouTube app properly.

      Chromecast is not a dedicated stand-alone streaming media box, so comparing that to Amazon’s Fire TV is not apples-to-apples.

      • Joe

        Actually, I have a hacked-up Xbox S pad to work on USB and it works flawlessly.

        Also, a simple 5 minute Google search would tell you a wired 360 controller works and some trial and error can tell you that hacked Xbox pads will go too.

        • Brady

          But if you’re a hardcore-enough gamer to hack your 360 pads, what do you expect to get out of the Amazon Fire’s gaming rig beyond what you already own?

  • Jily

    I would wait until I get a AppleTV for my birthday. Been wanting one for a few months ^_^ I only have a iTunes account. So this is perfect

    • Jilly

      Sorry I mis-spelled my name. It is Jilly not Jily

  • Most people who review this stuff don’t have the depth or breadth we do… Roku 3 is anything but slow and their search is very well done, with smartphone support coming soon. Versus the tedium of having to use the physical Fire TV remote to click letter by letter to enroll in apps or search things outside of voice. It’s a good start, but there are quite a few areas in need of improvement.

  • Can’t please all the people all the time.

    Amazon needs to spend more time/money on their UI. this is their first iteration of a set-top-box the first Rolu and AppleTVs were worthless, but now everything is straight streaming- these issues can be fixed with software updates. there’s not really anything a gen2 AmazonFireTV could offer, other than 4k support. and

    but between AppleTV and Amazon Fire you’ve got access to everything and when they develop an iOS remote app for Fire, that will help prevent desktop clutter…

  • Brad Scotts

    This is the first review of the Amazon Fire TV that I actually agree with what the Author had to say! Yeah, the hardware specs on the Amazon Fire TV are pretty impressive compared to the other products in the same category, but like the author said, “CONTENT IS KING” when looking at devices like these. There are definitely better options out there like the Roku.

    In my case, I am more interested in an Android based streamer, and that’s why I was excited at first with Amazon, but they really limit what is available. It doesn’t bother me too much if an app isn’t designed especially for the device as long as the content and access is there and can be navigated. A product I have recently discovered has been Smart TV Box. It gives users access to the Google Play store along with multiple streaming service providers, communication, games, social apps and a web browser. The fact that it isn’t limited is what I like… it’s kind of like connecting a computer to the TV, but in a much smaller and convenient package. They even did a comparison against some of the other market leaders, and the product seems to hold its own against them. You can view it here if interested: http://www.cloudtvbox.com

  • I only got the amazon fire tv for mlb.tv. Still waiting for that.

  • Jon Willie

    I’d like to start by saying I use a Roku 3 for almost all of my streaming, some PS4 as well. Having said that, the article seems a bit over the top on the Fire TV hate. You act like the Roku 3 is flawless; when in fact it is kind of loaded with problems. The UI is sporadically and all to often quite slow, it hitches up, freezes, apps crash(this happens about once a week); I wouldn’t know if I were hitting a button if it weren’t for the LED on the puck blinking. the remote is garbage outside of the headphone jack, which I love; it just feels and looks like it was designed by someone who works for PlaySkool.

    And as for the apps, which are quite plentiful, are very underwhelming; some of this is due to Roku but mostly due to other factors (developers, content providers). There doesn’t seem to be any suggested design language for apps to follow, so they run the gamut from pretty good (netflix) to downright awful (spotify, MLS, NBA). And then the other problem lies with content providers blocking the use of an app (no HBO GO for comcast subscribers).

    Buying a media streamer is a very subjective process, don’t just be a shill for Roku, surely the Fire TV has more positives than just doing some things slightly worse than Roku. Things like sideloading (HBO GO works, XBMC), screen mirroring, speedy UI. This “review” read like an ad for a smear campaign.

    • danrayburn

      Why is it “over the top”? I don’t see you disagreeing with anything I said in my review. You can’t blame the Roku for things you acknowledge are problems with “content providers” and “due to other factors”. That’s not Roku’s fault.

      You say that “surely the Fire TV has more positives than just doing some things slightly worse than Roku”. What are they? I didn’t see you highlight what the positives are with the Fire TV.

      “Sideloading” content is not a positive, the only reason you even have to do that is because there is no dedicated app for the box. Screen mirroring only works if you have a Kindle device, does not work with any other device.

      • Jon Willie

        Some good points, my point by saying “over the top,” was merely that you seem to paint the Roku as a perfect device and the Fire TV doesn’t deserve to be compared to it; like it’s a forgone conclusion that Roku is better. And you perhaps could blame Roku for problems with content providers, Google got every TV Provider to allow HBO Go on the Chromecast; I don’t know how they managed to convince them of this but nonetheless, it is apparently possible for a device maker to strong arm certain features.

        The positives I meant are features that you spun to be negative. Such as tight integration with Amazon services, while you may not use Prime or Instant Video very much, they are great services; It’s nice to beable to stream “free” movies and shows, and then see an ad for the latest movie that came out; and then rent that seemlessly. Of course this requires you to be fine with Amazon options. When I had an iPhone and an Apple TV they were great together, fantastic companions; but when I switched to an android phone, yeah the Apple TV wasn’t as good. More options are great, but it isn’t always better than tight, curated integration. And the Amazon app on Roku is a bit dated, and poorly designed.

        As for sideloading apps, I guess it is a bit more controversial than I made it seem. Most people won’t care to put in the effort, albeit small, to sideload apps. But I would definitely place it as a positive considering we live in this day where so many companies are completely locking down there products and making as difficult as possible to tweak product. It’s nice that it’s as simple as going into settings and clicking a check box to enable it. Thanks for the response.

  • Hawk

    HTPC is yet to be beat.

  • BillB

    I bought Fire TV for one reason….. the buffering for NBA league pass on Apple TV was horrible. On Apple TV it would buffer for 2 minutes and play 20 seconds… buffer for 2 minutes and play for 20 seconds…..and repeat…… I believe this mostly is an NBA issue because I did not have buffering issues with Netlfix… though some buffering with Hulu+ and Youtube. So reading the cache specs for Fire TV compared to Apple TV I figured the larger 4X cache just might mitigate the NBA buffering issue.

    To some extent my hunch was right. I still have buffering issues with NBA League Pass with Fire TV but the delay is more like 20 seconds buffering and 1-2 minutes of play. Also, if I pause and let Fire TV load I can get 8 minutes of continuous play without buffering. With Apple TV it did not matter how long I let it load…. it never made a difference on buffering.

    I am also hoping that Amazon will exert more influence on NBA. Apparently Apple TV never could or did not think it was important to us NBA LP holders. So now I only use Apple TV for some News items and switching to Fire TV for Nettflix, Hulu+, NBA, Youtube. If Fire TV adds major news Podcasts I will leave Apple TV forever.

  • Erik Herz

    Content is king but selling stuff is why TV exists.

    The big news with Amazon Fire is the potential for the Amazon Prime $99 annual subscription “bundle” to replace the cable tv content bundle.

    Amazon’s to shift from “Say it. Watch it” to “See it. Buy it” (with one click and free shipping) has monstrous disruptive potential.

    Vendors will use Amazon to for their “Not Sold In Stores” TV promotions on a platform that has credit cards on file and a one-click buy+ship system in place. … then, of course, Amazon will see who is buying what and who is watching what where and have a huge advantage in selling national and region ad spots.

    So, while the technology is still clunky, I look past it to see what is coming once they get a foothold in the living room. I expect them to start giving away a lot of content to Amazon Prime subscribers in the near future to promote it … so I see this as a great way to pick up some great content at a reasonable cost.

    Meanwhile, I’ll just keep using my clunky old Comcast TV box. It is good enough for now but as soon as a $99 per year subscription gives me most of what I am paying $99+ per month for now … I’ll cut the cord.

  • A good review that jives with my experiences. I really wanted to like this device. While the voice search feature is nice, there are too many negatives associated with this device. It intermittently lost audio and bluetooth connectivity, the video quality was poor, and the video often froze during playback.

    The problems are not related to my Internet service speed (50 Mbps) or my wi-fi network. I have multiple other devices (e.g. Roku players, Apple TV, Xbox One, and PS3) that have none of these problems.

    I was excited to see Flixster as it offers access to the Vudu content I have purchased — via UltraViolet. All of my content was there; however, playback via Fire TV is limited to SD. Really!?

    I’m sure Amazon will improve the device over time. As is however, this device is not worth $99 and is not ready for prime time. I returned mine after a few days.

  • S.K.

    …aaaand Amazon Fire still does not come equip with NHL Gamecenter. Because absolutely NOBODY in the States cares about hockey