Consumers wanting to watch Internet videos on the big screen in their living room now have one more intriguing option: Amazon.com's new Fire TV digital media player.
Fire TV looks and works much like rivals, including Apple TV and Roku's boxes. It's a small square device that allows users to watch movies they've purchased, rented or streamed from subscription services such as Netflix and Hulu Plus. Like the competition, it's fairly easy to set up and use.
But Fire TV stands out in two ways: It includes a voice search feature, and it plays games.
Users activate the voice search by pressing and holding down a microphone button on the Fire TV's remote. You then simply speak the name of the movie or TV show, the name of an actor or director, or the genre of video you want to watch. In response, the Fire TV will display what it thinks you requested; if you click on that term, it will then display the videos that correspond with it.
The Fire TV typically responded to voice searches within a second or two and, unlike many voice search systems I've used - hello, Siri - it always understood what I was saying. It was much faster and easier to use than typing in search terms either using a remote and an on-screen keyboard or a virtual keyboard in a smartphone application.
The Kinect-enabled Xboxes have offered voice search capabilities for several years now. And Apple TV and Roku owners could essentially do a voice search on those devices by using their related iPhone apps and the voice dictation capability built into that smartphone. But this marks the first time such a feature has been built directly into a low-cost digital media player and is available through its own standard remote control.
The voice search helps to compensate for Fire TV's mess of an interface. The device lists videos and apps in long rows of images that often reflect no sense of organization. You also have no easy of way of going through them except by simply scrolling one by one, which can be a tedious process if you have dozens or hundreds of items in the row.
Buried within the interface, you can find videos organized by genre, but even within them, there's little obvious organization and no way to jump ahead to those starting with a particular letter.
Unfortunately, the search feature primarily combs through just Amazon's own videos. If you are trying to find out what's available on Netflix or Showtime Anytime or most other video apps available on Fire TV, you'll have to open those apps and type your search into their own built-in search boxes using the Fire TV remote.
It's supposed to find listings on Hulu Plus, but I found that to be hit or miss. It was generally good at finding movies on that service, but not so great at finding TV shows. While it told me that I could watch "Super Size Me" on the service, it didn't let me know that I could also watch "The Simpsons."
The other way Fire TV stands out is games. Amazon offers more than 135 games that you can play on the device, including versions of popular mobile games, including "Asphalt 8," "Minion Rush" and "The Walking Dead." Many of these require you to use a game controller that looks like those that come with Microsoft and Sony's game consoles. Amazon sells it as a $40 add-on.
While you can play games on some of Roku's boxes and on Apple TV, the selection for Fire TV is already much better than for Roku and the games are much smoother than those on Apple TV, which requires users to beam games to it from the iPhones or iPads.
The Fire TV isn't going to replace an Xbox One or PlayStation 4; you're not going to find a "Halo" or "Titanfall" on it. And the selection of games so far is only a small fraction of what you'll find for your smartphone or tablet. But it makes for a good, casual, living-room game machine. The games it offers are fun, inexpensive and require less of a commitment of time and effort than console games. My kids and I had fun playing "Minecraft: Pocket Edition" and "Minion Rush."
Unfortunately, the Fire TV overall feels like a device that has more potential than polish. Unless you have a Kindle Fire HDX tablet, you won't be able to control the Fire TV or beam movies to it with a smartphone or tablet. And the selection of apps outside of games is spotty. You can listen to music from Pandora, for example, but not from Spotify or even Amazon's own Cloud Player service. You can watch movies from Showtime Anytime, but not from HBO Go. And you can watch games from the NBA, but not from the NHL or MLB.
Amazon already has plans to address some of these shortcomings and likely will fix the others in the near future. But unless you're looking for a casual game device, I'd hold off on the Fire TV until it does. For now, Apple and Roku's devices offer a more satisfying experience.
AMAZON FIRE TV DIGITAL MEDIA PLAYER:
-Troy's rating: 6.5 (out of 10)
-Likes: Accurate, easy-to-use voice search; native game playing ability; good selection of applications and games; moderate price; within Amazon's store, great selection of movies and TV shows.
-Dislikes: Confusing, messy interface; game controller sold as pricey add-on; missing key applications, including HBO Go, MLB.TV and Amazon's own Cloud Player; no smartphone or tablet apps other than for Amazon's own Kindle Fire HDX tablet.
-Price: $99; game controller is $40 extra
Explore further: Amazon steps up TV push with streaming video device (Update 2)