The Fire TV Buyer’s Guide: September 2015 edition
On September 17th, Amazon announced a new hardware line-up (I do think there may be more yet to come this year).
The question for most people right away is, “Should I buy one?”
In this post, I’m going to give you some guidance on that for the Fire TV family. I’ll follow up with a post on the new Fire tablets. Now, realize that I haven’t had hands on with these yet (they haven’t been released at the time of writing). However, I’ll be able to make a pretty good assessment about how it will compare to what you might already have, or to a smaller extent, what you may be considering.
If you have additional questions, I’d love to hear them!
The Fire TV Family
This is the second generation of Amazon’s TV content device.
There are essentially two items here. One is a small device, about the size of two fingers side by side, which plugs into the HDMI (High Definition Media Interface) port on most modern TVs.
Fire TV Stick with Voice Remote (at AmazonSmile*) $49.99 with voice remote, $39.99 with standard remote
The second one is larger, more like the size of your hand with your fingers laid flat (these are very approximate). You can get the same device with and without gaming accessories.
“Why do I want one of these things?” (for people who haven’t had a TV content device)
We have one TV where a Fire TV Stick is the only source of what we see on it. It’s how we get TV shows and movies. Another TV runs off both a Fire TV and cable (running through an old Tivo).
Basically, it takes what you have available to you and displays it on the TV…it’s not purchasing videos or subscribing to a service.
It’s going to work best if you already subscribe to something. We are
members ($99 a year…about $8.25 a month), so we have Prime Video available to us (Prime has other benefits…see my post from What can you do with Amazon Prime? for some basics).
We use this…you can go through whole TV series (including older HBO shows), watch movies, and see original content. You can download some of the videos, although that doesn’t really matter here…that’s for phones and tablets.
We also have Hulu Plus…there’s a lot on Hulu, but it’s big attraction for us is current shows. We have the current season of Master Chef on as I write this. 😉 I’ve also watched older shows, like The Time Tunnel. You can pay $7.99 a month, or do what we do: $11.99 a month for no ads. For me, that’s glorious: current TV shows without having to think about skipping through commercials! I never watch TV without doing something else at the same time (exercising, writing, reading), so being able to let it just stream is so much nicer.
Finally, we have Netflix. We pay $8.99 a month…you can pay $7.99 without HD, $11.99 for Ultra HD (and the ability to watch on four screens at once…it’s one for the cheapest plan, two for the middle one). The movie selection here is strong, but original content is also a big attraction…I’ve watched the Daredevil series, for example.
So, we pay about $30 a month for those three services, and I really feel like we have a lot of options.
That’s not all the Fire TVs do, though.
They also have apps and games…a lot of them. Amazon Underground makes many popular games free.
I use some apps pretty heavily: YouTube, Watch Up, Sky News, NBC News…those are common.
You can play games on any of the devices…the remote can be use as a basic game controller. Fancier games need the game controller, which is sold separately (or you can get it in the new gaming bundle). Are these like Playstation/Nintendo/Xbox games? No, they are more like the games for your phone, for the most part.
For the casual gamer, this is great! So many free games, and the fun of watching them on TV.
You also get music…both Prime music, and music you’ve uploaded to Amazon.
Another feature we use? Seeing our pictures. I have a Fire Phone (now apparently discontinued), and when I take pictures with my phone, we can see them right away on the TV through the Fire TV.
Will this let you be a “cable cutter” and drop cable? It certainly could…the biggest concern you might have is your local TV channels.
One option on that is using an antenna. No, not old-fashioned “rabbit ears”. 😉
Amazon suggests this one:
HDTV Antenna (at AmazonSmile*) $23.99 for a 35 mile range
Summing up: this is a way to get entertainment on your TV.
Amazon has just added what I think will be a big attraction: Alexa.
Alexa is the voice service that comes on the
Amazon Echo (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)
You talk to it…it listens and talks back. 🙂
I use my Echo every day. I ask it for the weather, I set timers, I have a lot of fun with its pop culture knowledge.
For more on the Echo, see the
category in my The Measured Circle blog.
Now, for those of you with the Echo, you might be wondering…should I have bought a $40 device (the Fire TV Stick) rather than a $179 device (or $99 if you bought it early)?
They are quite different.
The “parse-onality”, as I like to call it, will likely be the same. It will understand you and talk to you the same way. We don’t know yet if the Fire TV version will do home automation (I can just ask my Echo to turn on and off some lights in my home and it happens), do the timers (I’ve heard it won’t). or if it will have the third party “Skills”, which are like apps you would get for a SmartPhone. The last on is the future of the Echo, in my opinion, just as third-party apps are a major attraction of SmartPhones.
I don’t see why it wouldn’t do the Skills, though.
What makes the Echo worth it over the Fire TV?
It’s always-on, incredible microphone array, and the Bluetooth speaker.
To talk to your Fire TV, you’ll need to pick up your voice-activated remote.
With the Echo, I can speak in a normal voice from across the room.
If you are buying a Fire TV Stick, paying $10 extra for the voice remote will likely be worth it…although, you can use voice interaction with the Fire TV family with a free app on your SmartPhone. I do that, too. 🙂
My guess is that many people will buy the Fire TV Stick partly to get Alexa…and then will become deeply part of the Amazon universe to take advantage of Prime Video and other Amazon elements on the Fire TV.
Alexa is the software…the Echo is the hardware.
By the way, the Alexa Voice Service is also going to start appearing on other devices soon…Amazon has said pretty much anything with a microphone and a speaker. That’s likely to include other brand SmartPhones and tablets, as well as cars (and perhaps, things like toasters and refrigerators, eventually).
Why pay the $50 more for the Fire TV versus the Fire TV Stick?
Quad-core versus dual-core processor, more memory, a USB port, an SD card slot, better wi-fi…
The Fire TV Stick is great…the Fire TV is greater. 😉
Oh, I’ve left off a major feature for both…you can mirror devices to them! I can show anything on my SmartPhone or tablet on my TV, through my Fire TV device. Anything…apps, a PowerPoint presentation (with an app that shows it, of course), e-mail, websites…all wirelessly.
“Do I need to upgrade?” (for people who already have the Fire TV)
Amazon has said that Alexa is coming to generation 1 devices (those you already have) this fall.
What you will get is better quality video: 4K Ultra HD, more powerful streaming, better processing.
I wouldn’t say you need to leap up and buy the new one…but if you want to get another one, this is well worth it. We only have two TVs, but I bought one…I’m planning to replace the Fire TV Stick. If the quality is better, that one will become our main TV…we do sometimes get a tiny bit of buffering, and I’d like to see that go away.
One final point:
Alexa (at this point) is not going to control your Fire TV device, but that may come in the future anyway. However, you are going to be doing the existing Voice Search and Alexa in the same place, holding the same device (a remote or your phone), so it won’t feel much different to you.
I do want to be able to say, “Alexa, showed me the latest episode of Gotham” and have it jumped right to it, but that’s not coming with what they have told us so far.
People do things like “Alexa, open Netflix” by controlling a
Logitech Harmony Home Control – 8 Devices (White) (at AmazonSmile*)
with the Echo.
That isn’t a cheap solution (that device is over $100), and it’s not super simple. Since the apps on the Fire TV move around, it’s confusing the for device…you have to use search. I know someone who has basically a Jetsons home (this person has some physical challenges that make that a more optimal situation) who gave me this link:
However, the voice search can at least find the programs for you (not in all apps), and then you would use your remote or phone to open it.
I suspect we may get the ability to start the programs by voice by the end of the year, but we’ll see.
What about the competitors?
Google has a Fire TV Stick-like device, the Chromecast, which has been very popular. It’s not as full featured as the Fire TV Stick in terms of types of content. It’s a bit cheaper, at $34.99.
Apple just announced a new version of the Apple TV, which will be controllable by voice. It’s a lot more money ($149 to $199), and the tech writers seem to be giving this round to Amazon…here are just two:
Update: Amy Devitt, one of my regular readers, made the correct observation that I left Roku out of the competitors for streaming TV content boxes. I’ve written about my own use of the Roku, more than once, but this was my first comparison of the Fire TV and the Roku:
Amazon Fire TV: first impressions
They have a stick and a box…you can see options here:
Roku search in the USA Amazon electronics section (at AmazonSmile*)
They range from about $47 for the stick up $89.99 for the latest box…well, that’s the price at Amazon: it lists for the same as the Fire TV.
That 4230R Roku 3 does have a great content line-up (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime…and Vudu, which neither Fire TV or Apple TV have, I believe). They claim 150+ news channels, compared to FTV’s 30+.
It also has one of my favorite features: earphones can plug into the remote.I used that a lot when I used the Roku.
You can see Roku’s comparison table (Roku, Fire TV, Apple ((looks like the current generation, not the one that was just announced), Chromecast) here:
Roku comparison table
Oh, looking at it, it looks like the comparison is also the current gen FTV, not the Amazon Fire TV 2 (they say it doesn’t have a memory expansion slot).
Obvious question: why did I stop using the Roku in favor of the Fire TV?
Two main reasons.
Performance is one. The Fire TV loaded things much more quickly…several seconds faster for YouTube, for instance.
The other one is…well, I write about this stuff. 🙂 I wanted to know the Fire TV for that reason.
Oh, and there’s another important reason…it’s connection to photos and videos I take on my Fire Phone is really nice, for example.
Alexa on the FTV will be a new reason. 🙂
The Bottom Line
If you don’t have a streaming device these are great! The Fire TV ito s more powerful and twice as expensive as the Fire TV Stick. If you already have a Fire TV, you don’t need to upgrade to get Alexa…but if you haven’t been satisfied with the performance, or you’ve wanted more memory, or you plan to expand your ownership to more devices, getting one of the new ones makes sense. Amazon has a thirty-day return policy (you’d pay return shipping if it is working as advertised), so you won’t be stuck.
A lot of people will get these as gifts this year…and many will get them for themselves.
What questions do you have? What do you think? Feel free to let me and my readers know by commenting on this post.
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* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. Shop ’til you help!
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