Sunday, November 30, 2014

Tech Review: Amazon Fire TV by Staff Writer Kevin Wolfe

I have been a member of Amazon Prime for a few years now, but it has only been a little over a year now that I have been able to really take advantage of the video streaming library that is offered as part of the subscription. I have to admit that, while somewhat extensive, the total selection of movies and television shows that Amazon offers, of which a smaller chunk are offered for free through Prime, pales in comparison to Netflix, while the price for a yearly subscription is about the same. However, I consider the ability to get free two-day shipping on just about anything I order, any time I want, without a minimum purchase, as well as the newly offered ad-free music streaming library, to at least somewhat make up for any shortcoming. Enough of that though.

Earlier this year, Amazon introduced fireTV, a small, simple, media receiver that allows the user to stream anything from the Amazon video library, in high definition when available. It also provides access to your music library, watchlist and library of purchased video content, as well as photos stored on your Amazon Cloud Drive. In addition, the device has the ability to load select apps and games. Many of the apps allow access to additional music and video streaming (e.g. Netflix, YouTube, Pandora), as well as productivity, health, and information. Some games though, require the use of a separate game controller, sold separately.

Provided you have a high definition enabled TV, setup is a breeze, especially if you are already a member of Amazon Prime. The packaging includes just three items: the receiver, AC adapter, and fireTV remote with batteries. All you need is an HDMI cable to connect the unit to your TV. You then have the option of connecting to the internet via Wi-Fi or, if necessary, Ethernet cable. I was easily able to find my Wi-Fi network and get connected. I was also happily surprised to find that, as a Prime Member, my Amazon account was already pre-loaded on the device. As with its console counterparts, the user interface of fireTV is quite self-intuitive and easy to navigate, allowing you to effortlessly browse top selections from various genres for both TV and movies. However, this simplicity and user-friendly display comes again at the small cost of only seeing a fraction of available titles displayed without using the search tool. Thanks to a recent update, Prime users will find an additional category that allows them to browse only titles that are included with their membership, including those recently added and Prime exclusives. Also included with the update, parents have the option to utilize “FreeTime,” which allows them to control not only how much time kids have to watch, but also what they are watching (For those without kids, this option can be hidden from the main menu via settings).

There are many things I especially like about using fireTV as well as a couple ideas I have for improvement. One of the things I enjoy most about fireTV apart from other mediums is the ability to instantly access the Amazon service without having to navigate through several menus or point a browser. Second, a feature which currently makes Fire TV unique from other streaming consoles is the ability to do a voice search for any type of media offered through the device. It seems to work very well at recognizing any search term I give it, with little error. One thing that I would like to see in an update though is the ability to limit searches to Prime titles as well as access to Prime Music, a new feature of the Prime service. Another great feature, which appears to currently be unique to access via internet browsers, would be the ability to see expiration alerts for Prime titles in my watchlist. That being said, while it is not perfect, fireTV is poised to be a power player against other streaming modules, such as Roku and AppleTV. It is small, easy to use, and quickly becoming quite versatile. What I think would help it most though is that Amazon continue to greatly expand its video streaming library, especially with respect to titles offered to Prime subscribers.  

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