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Fire Watch with Me: Amazon Fire TV vs. Apple TV

As the author of “Take Control of Apple TV,” waking up to read about the Fire TV (see “Amazon Fire TV Turns Up the Heat on Apple TV,” 2 April 2014) jolted me out of bed in a panic. Amazon’s new set-top box had more power, voice search, an app store, and even video games — everything on my Apple TV wish list (see “The Future of Apple TV,” 21 February 2014).

After I had a chance to calm down and assess the situation, I was curious to see what Amazon’s box could do, so I asked the company for a review unit of both the $99 Fire TV and the $39.99 Fire Game Controller. I disconnected the Apple TV from our living room TV and replaced it with the Fire TV for two weeks.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note a few goodies Amazon provided. First, the game controller comes with 1,000 Amazon Coins (more on that later) — a $16.99 value — and a free copy of the Amazon-produced game Sev Zero. Both of these are included in the controller’s purchase price.

Second, Amazon gave me a generous $50 credit to order content for the device, though in theory I could use it on anything I wanted at Amazon. Presumably, other reviewers got this deal as well. Adam and I decided that the ethical thing to do was to use the money strictly for Fire TV movie rentals and app purchases, which led to a Brewster’s Millions-esque situation where I had to spend a lot of money without keeping anything. Here’s what I spent the money on (including sales tax):

  • The Wolverine: $6.56
  • The Wolf of Wall Street: $5.46
  • The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 and Part 2: $5.46
  • The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: $5.46
  • Dallas Buyers Club: $6.56
  • X-Men: First Class: $4.37
  • Plex: $5.45
  • The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: $5.46
  • The Royal Tenenbaums: $4.37
  • Her: $5.46

A total of $54.61 a smidgen over my allowance. Other than a few device-specific apps, I’m keeping nothing that Amazon has provided, including the Fire TV and controller, which I’m shipping back as soon as possible (though I’ve been unable to reach Amazon’s PR firm to arrange it). Also, as a reviewer, I was supposed to be given access to Prime Instant Video, but for whatever reason, it never went through.

With that out of the way, as the guy who wrote the book on the Apple TV, here are my impressions of the Fire TV, organized to parallel the chapters in my book.

Set Up Fire TV — Physically, the Apple TV and Fire TV have a lot in common. They’re both small, square black boxes. The Fire TV is 0.7 inches (1.8 cm) longer and wider than the Apple TV, but 0.2 inches (0.5 cm) thinner. Like the Apple TV, the Fire TV features HDMI, Ethernet, USB, and optical audio ports. As such, connecting it to your TV works the same as with the Apple TV: plug in the HDMI cable (my unit came with one), plug in the power, plug in the optical audio cable if required, and you’re off to the races.

Let me stop here to point out my first major annoyance with the Fire TV: the power adapter is huge and takes up two plugs’ worth of space on my surge protector. For that reason, I had to unplug not just my Apple TV, but my Playstation 3 as well. By comparison, the Apple TV’s svelte power connector plays nicely with everything else. In the picture below, I sat the Apple TV plug on top of the Fire TV’s to demonstrate the difference.

Setup was a nondescript process, but you notice right away just how much faster the Fire TV is than the Apple TV. Enter your Wi-Fi password (slowly, painfully, with the remote), if required. Your Fire TV will likely be associated with your account by default, much like Amazon’s Kindles are, but if it’s not, you must either log into your Amazon account or create one. Fortunately, the on-screen keyboard provides shortcuts for the most common email services, like Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook, and AOL.

The next annoyance is that you’re forced to sit through a long cartoon where a man describes the features of the Fire TV — something you were hopefully aware of before plunking down $99. You can’t skip the cartoon, and if you back out to the previous setup screen, you have to start the cartoon over. And if for some reason, you ever have to reset the device and start from scratch, you’re forced to sit through the video again. For me, it was a good time to make a cup of coffee. You can rewatch the video at any time, along with other help videos, in the Settings menu, so even if you could skip it accidentally, it wouldn’t be a huge loss.

After the cartoon is finished mansplaining the Fire TV, you’re prompted to sign up for Amazon Prime, and then to set up parental controls.

Amazon and Apple clearly have different priorities. From the Apple TV’s first setup screen, you’re given the option to enable VoiceOver for the visually impaired, but there isn’t an equivalent option on the Fire TV. And while the Apple TV has similar parental controls, you have to find them yourself in Settings.

Amazon’s parental controls, like Apple’s, are based around a PIN, and you can set that PIN to be required for purchases, Amazon Instant Video, and blocking certain content types.

Control Fire TV — The Apple TV offers four control methods: the included Apple Remote, a third-party infrared remote, a Bluetooth keyboard, or the iOS Remote app. Amazon offers only one: the Amazon Fire TV Remote, which is included. A replacement can be purchased for $27.99.

The layout of the Fire TV Remote is similar to the Apple Remote. Both have a circular ring for navigation with a Select button in the center, a Play/Pause Button, and a Menu button.

But the Fire TV Remote offers a few more capabilities. It offers dedicated Rewind and Fast Forward buttons, a Back button to return to the previous menu, and a Home button to return to the home screen. And of course, the crown jewel: a Voice Search button.

Press and hold that button, tell your remote what you would like to watch, and a list of shows and movies matching what the Fire TV thinks you said will appear on the screen. Select the one you want, and the Fire TV will search Amazon’s store for that content.

The Fire TV’s Voice Search can also search for Vevo music videos. Unfortunately, it can’t yet search other services like Netflix and Hulu. However, Voice Search support for both of those services, as well as Crackle and Showtime Anytime, should appear this year.

Some other early reviews gave mixed opinions about this feature, but in my experience, it worked like a charm just about every time. If it could search across all apps, it would be a killer feature.

Back to the remote itself, it’s three times as thick as the Apple Remote, but it’s not the huge wedge of cheese that it looks like in Amazon’s product pictures. The remote has a good hand feel, with a rubberized surface for a nice grip.

Unlike the nearly flush Apple Remote buttons, the Fire TV Remote’s buttons protrude from the remote’s surface. This makes them easier to click, but at the same time, it’s also easy to click buttons accidentally.

Another key feature of Amazon’s remote is that it uses Bluetooth instead of infrared, so you don’t have to point it at the Fire TV. I like this feature better than I thought I would, but it can be a problem if the remote slips between your couch cushions. When I lose my Apple Remote in the couch, it just doesn’t work, and I have to switch to the Remote app until I take the time to root out the remote. When the Fire TV Remote works its way into the couch, my living room turns into a scene from a Chevy Chase movie, with things happening on the screen every time I shift the cushion.

While the Apple Remote takes a CR2032 button battery, the Fire TV Remote accepts two standard AAA batteries. However, due to Bluetooth, I’ll hazard a guess that the Fire TV Remote won’t have nearly as long of a battery life as the Apple Remote. It took two years before I exhausted my first Apple Remote battery.

What’s on Offer — The Fire TV has a drastically different main menu than the Apple TV. While the Apple TV’s main menu is arranged in an iOS-style grid of icons, the Fire TV’s interface is split into sections, listed in a left-hand sidebar, with each section’s options on the right.

While Movies, TV Shows, and Music are fixed icons that you can’t ignore on the Apple TV, Amazon takes the Fire TV’s interface to a whole new level of “Buy from me!” You literally cannot get to Netflix, Hulu, or any games without crossing the Amazon river of content, though there is a Recent section under Home that shows recently opened apps and videos. The Fire TV makes no bones about being a vehicle to push Amazon’s digital content.

Despite making Amazon content front and center, there isn’t a category for Prime Instant Video content. There’s a “Recently Added to Prime” category under the Movies and TV sections, but if you want to browse everything you can watch as part of your $99 Prime subscription, you’re out of luck. Amazon has said that it will include this in a future update.

Fortunately, the interface is much snappier than the Apple TV’s, thanks to its quad-core processor and 2 GB of RAM (the Apple TV has 512 MB). It makes the Apple TV feel downright sluggish by comparison.

One thing the Fire TV has that the Apple TV desperately lacks is an app store, from which you can install mainstays like Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, and ESPN, as well as channels unavailable on the Apple TV, like Huffington Post Live, Pandora, TWiT, and iHeart Radio. I counted over 50 available channels, not counting games, and that number promises to grow over time. Meanwhile, the Apple TV has about 40 channels now.

Of course, the big thing Fire TV lacks is HBO GO, and my wife and I missed it dearly during our test drive. But Amazon promises that it’s coming, and on top of that, Prime Instant Video is getting exclusive streaming rights to older HBO shows like “The Sopranos” and “The Wire,” which is an enormous coup over Netflix.

Speaking of Netflix, its Fire TV app is terrible. Despite the Fire TV’s overall better performance, the Netflix app is painfully slow, slower even than the Apple TV’s. The browsing interface doesn’t help — content descriptions and the wasteful top bar take up a significant chunk of screen real estate, cramping the navigation. Also, content doesn’t load nearly as smoothly as it does on the Apple TV, due to Netflix having a special arrangement that provides a separate stream just for Apple TV devices. However, one feature that every other Netflix app has that the Apple TV does not is auto-playing of TV episodes. It’s a nice
feature on the Fire TV, and I wish Apple would add it already.

The Apple TV uses templates for all of its apps, so they all look and work the same. That’s stultifying if you’re staring at it 8 hours a day while writing a book about the Apple TV, but as a user, the consistency is fantastic. As with the Roku, the Fire TV’s apps do not use a single template, so it’s a mishmash of different interfaces and even keyboards. It didn’t hamper my usage, but I can see how it could be irritating for normal viewers.

One capability the Apple TV has that the Fire TV does not is a built-in way to access media over a local network. However, there is a paid option to do so that I’ll get to later.

Fire TV at the Movies — When it comes to watching movies and TV shows, the Fire TV is entirely pleasant. Amazon’s content loads quickly, and the picture and audio quality are both excellent.

One feature I absolutely adore is that you can press left and right on the Navigation ring to skip back or forward by 10 seconds. So when Matthew McConaughey mumbles something in a thick Southern drawl, I can go back with a click of a button to hear what he said. Doing that on the Apple TV with the Apple Remote or Remote app is tricky, and I often miss my mark. (The Apple TV actually has this feature, but you have to program a third-party remote to use it.)

As on the Apple TV, you can press up or down on the Navigation ring while watching video to view the timeline. But, unlike the Apple TV, the Fire TV doesn’t offer a chapter skip or a quick way to view information about a program while viewing it. Also, you can’t quickly dismiss the timeline display by pressing the opposite direction; you have to wait for it to disappear on its own, which is irritating.

Pressing the Menu button while viewing an Amazon video brings up subtitle options. They’re not as detailed as the Apple TV’s, but they’re sufficient. There are four presets: white text on a black background, white text on a clear background, yellow text on a black background, and black text on a clear background. There are also five font size choices. While the Fire TV doesn’t offer as many options as the Apple TV, how you enable subtitles is easier to discover, and it takes fewer clicks to do so.

Well, on Amazon videos, that is. It’s different for every app. While watching a Netflix video, the Menu button does nothing — you have to turn on subtitles before playing the video. Pressing Menu while watching a Crackle video brings up subtitle options, but they’re completely different from those Amazon’s videos present.

One thing I vastly prefer about Amazon’s store over iTunes is that many rentals last for 48 hours instead of just 24. I would rent many more movies from iTunes if I had the option to finish a movie over a weekend.

Rock Out (or Not) with Fire TV — There is one huge, gaping hole in the Fire TV’s content lineup: Amazon MP3. That’s right, a box designed to feed you a constant stream of Amazon-provided content does not support Amazon’s own cloud-based music service. The mind boggles.

As of this writing, these are your music choices: Pandora streaming radio, iHeartRadio, Vevo music videos, and Qello concert videos. That’s it.

I can only guess that Amazon MP3 was pushed to the side in the rush to market, but whenever the Fire TV finally gets it (and we should see it soon), it will make for a powerful little music box, especially since it features an optical audio port that makes it easy to connect to just about any audio receiver.

Meanwhile, here’s another disappointment: there’s no option to connect to wireless speakers. No Bluetooth headphones, no AirPlay (obviously) speakers. The Apple TV supports AirPlay output and some Roku models feature a headphone jack in the remote, so this is one place where the Fire TV misfires.

If you’re a music fan, skip the Fire TV for now.

View Photos & Home Movies — While the Fire TV stinks at music, it rocks for photos and home movies. It integrates with Amazon Cloud Drive, which lets you upload photos and videos from a Mac or iOS device.

I love Amazon Cloud Drive. On the Mac, it works much like Dropbox, keeping your files in a traditional folder structure. The free Amazon Cloud Drive Photos app can automatically upload photos and videos, placing them in a sub-folder. You get 5 GB of storage for free, with 20 GB for $10 a year, 50 GB for $25 a year, 100 GB for $50 a year, on up to a full 1,000 GB for $500 a year. The prices are more reasonable than Dropbox’s, and Amazon doesn’t try to lock your photos up in some proprietary scheme. I could see myself adopting it for my cloud photo needs, but that’s another article.

The interface for viewing your photos on the Fire TV might look familiar, and that’s because it’s almost identical to the iCloud Photos app on the Apple TV. Just as in Apple TV photos, there are rectangular buttons available in each album to view the photos as a slideshow, and you can set a photo album as a screen saver.

To change screen saver settings, navigate to Settings > System > Screen Saver. From there, you can change the source pictures, how long until the screen saver starts, and other settings. There aren’t nearly as many screen saver styles as on the Apple TV, only three: Pan & Zoom, Dissolve, and Mosaic.

The default screen saver is called the Amazon Collection, and features over 100 outdoor shots. It’s not as nice as the National Geographic pictures on the Apple TV, but is still pretty.

Playing with Fire — Gaming is one area where the Fire TV puts the Apple TV to shame. While “playing” games on the Apple TV consists of AirPlaying iOS games to your Apple TV, the Fire TV has an app store with honest-to-goodness games that you can play on your TV with a controller.

So what can you play on the Fire TV? Surprisingly, quite a bit. Like the Kindle Fire tablets, the Fire TV runs Android underneath, making porting existing games easy for developers. In fact, most Fire TV games are cross-platform, so if I buy a game on the Fire TV, there’s a good chance I could download it from Amazon and play it on my Nexus 7.

Perhaps most noteworthy of the Fire TV’s launch titles is Minecraft: Pocket Edition, which is a port of the incredibly popular sandbox game. But frankly, I’d skip it. It’s an impressive port… of the Pocket Edition. While the full game is eight times larger than the Earth itself, you can walk across the pocket Minecraft world in under two minutes, and that’s with rough terrain.

Fortunately, there are better things to spend your money on. Sega has a large presence on the Fire TV, offering classics like Sonic, Virtua Tennis, and Crazy Taxi. Also available is former FunBITS pick Badland (see “FunBITS: Badland for iOS,” 21 June 2013), and it’s even more beautiful on the big screen than it was on the iPhone. Developer Gameloft is on board as well, offering the free-to-play Asphalt 8: Airborne, which is quite a bit of fun. You also have
other great stuff like Telltale’s The Walking Dead, Ski Safari, Deus Ex: The Fall, Terraria, Prince of Persia: The Shadow and the Flame, Double Dragon Trilogy, and Cannabalt. In other words, many of your favorite mobile games on your TV.

A number of reviewers have bashed gaming on the Fire TV, and all I can think is, “Why?” I mean, really, what did you expect? It’s a $99 box that happens to play Android games, and unlike the Ouya, which is positioned primarily as a gaming device, the game controller doesn’t fall apart in your hands. I like these little casual games, and I’m willing to bet that they’ll be popular with Fire TV users. As a bonus, you don’t have to mess with discs.

Ah, but how do you control them? A surprising number of titles can be played with the included Fire TV Remote, if you’re a masochist. The Navigation ring and Select button are way too stiff to control even simple games like Badland properly, and you’d likely give yourself a nasty repetitive stress injury in the process.

To make up for that, Amazon offers the $39.99 Amazon Fire Game Controller. And you know what? It’s not bad, and better than I thought it would be. It’s solidly constructed, responsive, and comfortable. It’s based heavily on the Xbox’s controller design, and while it’s not as refined as Microsoft’s, it’s fine for casual gaming.

Given that Microsoft’s Xbox One controller costs around $50, Amazon’s controller seems a bit pricey, but to sweeten the deal, they give you 1,000 Amazon Coins and a copy of the Amazon-produced Sev Zero, a $6.99 value.

Sev Zero is a lot of fun. It’s a cross between a tower defense game and a third-person shooter. Each level is set out like a maze, with an objective you have to defend in the center. You have fixed positions where you can buy and install turrets, which automatically shoot at enemies. Once the game starts, enemies stream in from the sides, traversing your maze on the way to destroy your macguffin in the middle.

That’s a typical tower defense game. But where things get interesting is that you can teleport onto the field (crushing a baddie if you land right on top of him) and engage with the enemy directly.

Some reviewers have compared Sev Zero to Halo, rather unfavorably. But that misses the point. The Halo games cost $60, take several hours to beat, and include involved multiplayer elements. Sev Zero is the sort of game you play for 10–15 minutes at a time, and in that context, it’s a lot of fun.

But what about the Amazon Coins you get with the controller, what do you do with those? They’re used to buy apps and games, but not movies or TV shows. Basically, they’re Amazon credits, but as an incentive to use them, Amazon gives you a variable number of coins back on select purchases. Of course, you can still use real money, but you’ll pay more. When buying games from Amazon, Coins are the way to go, and the 1,000 you get with the controller can go pretty far. You can buy more at an exchange rate of about $1 per 100 coins, though Amazon sells them at a slight discount.

Overall, I enjoy gaming on the Fire TV. It’s clearly a side attraction, but that’s fine. It’s perfect for a quick session after my wife falls asleep during a movie, and it’s exactly what I’ve been wishing Apple would bring to the Apple TV.

Do More with Fire TV — In the final chapter of “Take Control of Apple TV,” I covered three neat “hacks” you can do with the Apple TV:

  1. Use Plex to gain access to more content options.
  2. Bypass regional restrictions with Unblockus.
  3. Record video with the Elgato Eye TV HD to play on the Apple TV.

As for the first “hack”, it’s not a hack on the Fire TV. Plex is available for $4.99 (or 499 Amazon Coins) in the app store. I could write an entire book on Plex by itself, but it adds a number of capabilities to the Fire TV, most notably access to videos, music, and photos from a local computer.

To use Plex, you first have to install and set up Plex Media Server on your Mac. As for the Fire TV’s Plex interface, it works just fine, though it might choke on HD movies if the server is still scanning your library.

While it’s cool that Plex is available on the Fire TV without any weird hacks, I also feel like Amazon’s leaning on it for features that should be built in, like music playback and playing local videos. Users shouldn’t have to pay $4.99 and run a server to do those things.

As for the second hack, Unblockus requires you to change your DNS servers, which you cannot do on the Fire TV. Instead, you need to change the DNS server on your router itself, which affects every device on your network, and may be undesirable.

Finally, as for recording content with the EyeTV HD, it works just fine, thanks to Plex. Instead of exporting recordings to iTunes, export them to the relevant Plex folder. In my experience, videos transcoded to work on the third-generation Apple TV play just fine on the Fire TV.

AirPlay or Lack Thereof — In the book, I covered how to use AirPlay — Apple’s technology that lets you beam content from your iOS device to an Apple TV. The Fire TV doesn’t have that, but if you own a Fire HDX tablet, then you can mirror the display from there.

While I wasn’t able to test this feature, I presume it would allow you to do all the things you would typically do with AirPlay, such as display presentations on your TV via an Android app. Unfortunately, if you’re an iOS user, you’ll never know.

How Apple TV Stands Next to the Fire — After this exhaustive comparison, I still have the same opinion of the Fire TV as I did in my original overview. If you’re heavily tied to iTunes Store content and AirPlay, there’s no replacing the Apple TV. But if you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber, the Fire TV is a device worth checking out.

Sadly, in today’s tech landscape, buying choices are shaped less by specs or features than by ecosystems — more to the point, which ecosystem you’re locked into. Apple, Google, and Amazon all want to own you, to get you to sell your soul to the company store. It’s not enough to just encourage you to buy a single product, they want you to buy all their products, buy from their content systems, and never stray to a competing ecosystem.

When I told my wife that our Fire TV experiment was over, she exclaimed, “Thank God.” While the Fire TV was a perfectly fine living room device, we had both missed the ubiquity of AirPlay, though she noted that she’ll miss having Pandora built into the TV.

AirPlay, HBO GO, iTunes, and Netflix are enough to make us happy to return to the Apple TV, but my time with the Fire TV has been a revelation. As Tim Cook has noted, the Apple TV has become a billion-dollar business, and if Apple wants to keep and grow that market, the Apple TV would benefit from:

  • A faster processor. The third-generation’s single-core A5 is starting to show its age.

  • A Bluetooth remote. However, it’d be nice if a fourth-generation Apple TV also had an infrared receiver to maintain compatibility with universal remotes.

  • An App Store. It’s long overdue.

  • Gaming. The potential market is too large for Apple to ignore.

  • Siri search. Voice Search may be the Fire TV feature I miss the most, and I think Apple could take it to a whole new level.

  • Quick skip buttons. I shouldn’t have to program another remote to be able to easily skip back a few seconds in a video.

  • Lengthier iTunes rentals.

While the Fire TV has a few annoyances, most could be fixed with software updates. I think for Apple to remain competitive, it will need a new piece of hardware and soon.

But at the same time, I think Apple has a real opportunity here. Amazon made the classic mistake of skating to where the puck is. Sure, the Fire TV has a few advantages over the current Apple TV, but now Apple has a clear opening to take TV to the next level.

That said, Amazon won’t rest on its laurels. It’s clearly competing for the living room. For instance, Amazon is currently offering a financing deal on the Fire TV; pay 20 percent at checkout, and the rest over the course of four months. The company clearly wants to get a Fire TV into every living room in America.

I often hear from “Take Control of Apple TV” readers who haven’t yet bought an Apple TV, asking if they should go ahead and buy the current model or wait. My typical response has been to go for it if the current model suits their needs.

But I now recommend waiting. I can’t know if the Fire TV is right for you, but the current Apple TV feels dated, and I have to think Apple will be releasing an update soon — in time for the Christmas buying season at the latest.

If you already have an Apple TV, I see no reason to rush out and buy a Fire TV, unless you want easier access to Amazon content. Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from having both a Fire TV and an Apple TV, if they’re within your budget and you have enough TV/receiver inputs.

In the end, I think the most important thing to realize about the Fire TV, and something that most reviews have missed, is that the Fire TV is merely Amazon’s opening salvo. It’s going to evolve, and quickly. I expect Amazon to fine tune the software and add more content channels in the near future, and use Fire TV as a way of making it ever easier to shop on Amazon — perhaps for physical items as well as digital media. That, after all, is Amazon’s overriding goal.

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