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.