Amazon Fire TV falls behind the competition

April 4, 2014

Amazon's vice president of Kindle, Peter Larsen displays the Amazon Fire TV during a news conference in New York this week. (Reuters/Eduardo Munoz)

Amazon's promise with its new set-top box, the Fire TV, is that it will make watching video from a variety of online sources easier. When it introduced the product earlier this week, Amazon made it clear in the presentation that it understands the frustrations and problems that consumers face when trying to choose a video to watch on their televisions.

But, with Fire  TV, Amazon still hasn't quite managed to solve those problems.

One of Amazon's biggest boasts about Fire TV is that it allows people to use their voices to search through content. You can search for a movie, genre or actor by hitting a microphone button on the Fire TV's remote and holding it down as you speak. The voice recognition isn't perfect, but it works as well or better than Apple's Siri or the voice-control capabilities on Microsoft's Xbox  One -- about 12 of 15 queries offered up the right answer in one round of searching.

But voice search doesn't work in third-party apps such as YouTube or Netflix. That's not Amazon's fault, it's worth knowing before you imagine that Fire TV will eliminate the need to use the remote to hunt-and-peck your way through finding your favorite program.

Another drawback: The search feature doesn't dig deeply into the offerings outside Amazon's own catalog. So even if something is free to watch on Netflix, it probably won't show up as such in a Fire TV search. Instead, you'd be directed to buy the title on Amazon or become an Amazon  Prime member for $99 a year. Amazon touted its open ecosystem heavily in its presentation, but it's still difficult for users to take advantage of all those apps if they don't show up prominently in search. Like other Amazon hardware, the Fire TV is best used for consuming content in Amazon's own ecosystem, rather than outside of it.

Amazon also has some work to do to build out its video catalog. These efforts take time and energy, of course, but Amazon's rookie status is clear when compared to others already in this space, such as Apple or market-leading set-top box firm Roku. Notable gaps, such as HBO Go, will fill in over time, but consumers may want to wait to see how the partnerships play out before spending the $99 on the Fire TV.

Finally, gaming was described as a "bonus" feature for the Fire TV, signaling that Amazon isn't looking to take on Microsoft's Xbox One or Sony's PlayStation 4 any time soon. So, while the gaming features on the Fire TV are a nice distinguishing factor for the box, so far they can't compete with true, dedicated consoles.

Amazon's most impressive game so far is "Sev Zero," a fun, engaging title made by the firm's in-house Amazon Game Studio. It's well-designed for a tweener market of gamers who are ready to graduate from the smartphone but aren't quite ready for a full console. But while the games on the Fire TV are solid, including some big titles, such as Mojang's Minecraft: Pocket Edition, they aren't a selling point on their own quite yet.

What Amazon has in the Fire TV is a lot of potential. The intuitive search tool may eventually be a killer feature. The games could become a real draw over time, especially as Amazon Game Studios continues to evolve. And Amazon says it's planning to invest more heavily in content partnerships to expand its offerings.

But if you want a solution that comes out of the box, today, to solve all your set-top box problems, the Fire TV falls short.

(Disclaimer: Amazon.com chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The Post's Hayley Tsukayama tests out Amazon's new video streaming device to see how some of its main functions stack up against Roku and Apple TV. (The Washington Post is owned by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos and Fire TV offers a PostTV app.) (Jhaan Elker and Kate M. Tobey/The Washington Post)
Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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