Thoughts on the Amazon Fire TV

Amazon has announced and released the Fire TV. Many of the gadget websites have spent some time with it and I’m hopeful that the device will shake up the streaming media market. I don’t expect I will ever have one in my living room, though. I’m currently entrenched in iTunes video content and I’m not terribly interested in switching to a new media ecosystem.

Beyond the Fire TV’s inability to playback iTunes content, the biggest problem I have with the device is its remote. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure its a fine remote. But I own a Logitech Harmony One for my living room and a Logitech Harmony 880 for my bedroom, both of which are unable to control the Fire TV because of its reliance on Bluetooth. I understand that in order to have the voice search functionality they backed themselves into a corner and were forced to avoid IR, but this is probably the biggest deal breaker for me. I love my Logitech remotes and have been using them for over five years, I’m not ready to switch so that I can have access to voice search and Amazon Instant Video content.

It is interesting that most of the features that the Fire TV has that the Apple TV doesn’t can be added by pairing the Apple TV with an iOS device. Not only can you simply AirPlay Amazon Instant Video content, but you can also use your voice to conduct searches with Apple’s Remote app (simply tap the microphone key on the iOS device’s keyboard when performing a search). I don’t want to understate how important AirPlay is to Apple when it comes to competing with other streaming media boxes. The Fire TV does have similar functionality when paired with the Kindle Fire HDX but it isn’t as ubiquitously available in all applications. But, what AirPlay does for Apple is always give them a feature to point to when a competing set-top box has access to more streaming media services than the Apple TV. AirPlay gives Apple a leg-up on the competition when it comes to the number playback options available.

One thing that’s very interesting about this announcement is Amazon’s decision to compete with the Apple TV and others based on specs. Amazon is listing the box’s specs pretty high on the card, right underneath its integration with Prime Instant Video and voice search. Amazon seems to think that users are going to buy this box because it has 2GB of memory and a quad-core processor. I hate to be the bearer of bad news but real consumers never bought a DVD player because it loaded discs faster than other DVD players. People like us did, but we don’t take up the lion’s share of the market. Consumers that aren’t tech enthusiasts care about being able to watch the content they care about, features, and price. Luckily Amazon is doing fairly well in all three of those fronts, which is why I’m confused as to why they’re trying to compete based on specs. I understand that having higher-end hardware allows the Fire TV to have neat features like ASAP, which preloads content it thinks your going to watch, but the Fire TV have far more impressive features that separate you from the rest of the market. Why would you spend time talking about something that most users don’t understand when you could talk about landmark features that separate you from the competition?

According to Amazon’s comparison chart (I can’t believe they made a comparison chart) the Fire TV is blowing away the competition with its gaming features. The only other dedicated streaming media box that has access to games is the Roku 3 which according to Amazon’s comparison chart (never mind this thing might come in handy) has less than one hundred titles available while the Fire TV has over a hundred titles and an optional gaming controller. The Fire TV is built on Android so I don’t expect it will take developers too much work to make their games available for the new streaming box. If I was a developer I would be very interested to see how the Fire TV does and I’d be prepared to start porting my games to it. The Fire TV has the potential to sell very well if Amazon pushes it properly and I wouldn’t want to leave money on the table by ignoring potential customers.

Amazon’s game controller is available separately for $39.99. And, it is the same incredibly ugly controller that surfaced a few weeks ago. Kotaku’s Jason Schreier spent some time with the controller saying “It’s a lot like an Xbox 360 controller, with some extra media buttons and a significantly worse d-pad.” That’s not exactly a raving endorsement, but it’s much better than I was expecting. Hearing that it’s a lot like an Xbox 360 controller doesn’t excite me at all — I’m more of a Playstation controller guy, more specifically the Playstation 2 controller before they ruined the L2 and R2 buttons. But, the Xbox 360 sold incredibly well and I don’t blame them for trying to make their controller feel like a 360 controller. A lot of gamers feel very at home on an Xbox 360 controller.

One of the most understated features of the Amazon Fire TV is FreeTime Unlimited, likely because it isn’t coming out until next month. But, according to Amazon’s Fire TV product page:

FreeTime Unlimited is an all-you-can-eat content subscription designed for kids ages 3 to 8 that brings together movies, TV shows, apps, and games that kids and parents love. Subscribers enjoy unlimited access to content from Nickelodeon, Sesame Street, PBS Kids, and more from just $2.99 per month.

This is a huge deal. Netflix has their Just for Kids section and now Amazon Instant Video has a competing feature. And, it’s cheaper to boot. My sister and brother-in-law have two young children and I can imagine them purchasing a Fire TV for the kid’s play room specifically for this service. Especially if they lock the rest of the box down and dedicate exclusively to FreeTime Unlimited. I haven’t been able to find a lot of details regarding the service other than what Amazon mentioned on their product page, but I’m interested to see how the service actually works and get more concrete details on pricing other than “from just $2.99 a month.”

The Amazon Fire TV is a neat little box that has some really interesting features. But, I can’t help but wonder what Apple has in store for the Apple TV in the future. I think the writing’s been on the wall for a while, eventually the Apple TV will get an App Store with games and more robust media applications. I’m a little surprised that it hasn’t happened yet — every year I sort of expect an Apple TV SDK to be announced at WWDC and we still haven’t seen anything yet. Maybe Amazon will put enough pressure on Apple to force them to make a move. I don’t play a lot of video games anymore, but I’m sure I’d find myself playing a game or two if the option was available on my living room’s primary source of content.